Thursday, February 11, 2016

Beware the Bumps

If you have been following the news you have probably seen the story about the rough voyage experienced by passengers of the Royal Caribbean Line's (www.royalcaribbean.com) Anthem of the Seas. The megaship, which carried more than 6,000 people, hit a storm in the Atlantic while on a cruise from New Jersey to the Bahamas.

The line has offered passengers a full refund on the cost of their trip, plus 50 per cent off a future cruise. This strikes me as a pretty generous deal, but I suspect many litigious passengers will still sue. A few passengers were injured, and the ship sustained substantial damage.

Unfortunately, storms at sea are not unknown. Every form of transportation carries risk, and while cruises can be relaxing and inexpensive vacations, there are no guarantees. A bad storm can be both dangerous and unpleasant. I once encountered a major storm crossing the Atlantic in summer, and would definitely think twice before crossing that ocean in winter.

In these situations, the cruise line owes affected passengers little or nothing, so it is good to know this before you sail.

On a happier note, Air Canada (www.aircanada.com,) has a Valentine's Day sale in effect until Feb. 15. Some of the round trip fares are very reasonable--Montreal to Dublin for $666, Montreal to Copenhagen for $819, Montreal to Dubai for $825. Similar fares are available from other Canadian gateways, and they are in Canadian dollars, now worth just under 72 cents U.S.

For years Canadian air travellers have been flying from U.S. airports to save money with budget airlines, but perhaps now the trend will reverse with the low loonie. Americans may choose to fly from Canada to overseas destinations if they live near the border.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Savings for Skiers

There are not many advantages to getting older, but if you happen to be an older skier you can benefit from significant discounts. At close to 100 resorts in the United States and Canada, you can actually ski for free once you reach a certain age.

The minimum age varies from as low as 65 to as high as 90, and free skiing may not be offered on weekends or at other busy times. Still, free lift tickets are a perk well worth waiting for. The online magazine www.SeniorsSkiing.com provides a list of the resorts that offer these deals, as well as other articles of interest to the older winter sports enthusiast.

Among the resorts they mention as being particularly geared to older skiers are Lake Louise in Alberta, Megeve and Chamonix in France, Verbier and Zermatt in Switzerland, and Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, New Hampshire.

I once skied part way down the mountain in Megeve, before I realised that I was out of my league and would have to walk the remainder of the trail carrying my skis, a humbling experience. I have visited North Conway NH, but for outlet shopping rather than skiing. It's good to know it is possible to combine the two.

Reading and writing about skiing is tempting me to again take up a sport I abandoned long ago.


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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

50 Per Cent Discount in Kandalaksha

Times are tough in Russia now, and that means bargains for travellers. If you are willing to venture off the beaten track to places such as the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest of the country, travel costs can be very low.

For example, you can rent a large room in an old-fashioned but high-ceilinged apartment near the railway station in Kandalaksha for just $12 per night per person, probably with a short city tour given by the host. This is a 50 per cent reduction from the usual price, and is in effect until April or May. At that time the whole apartment may be available for rent.

If you want to explore the remote territory where the excellent film "Leviathan" was made, consult www.kandalaksha.su. The Website is run by a man who used to offer cheap rooms and tours in Moscow--he is a travel agent and can provide invitations and assistance for foreign visitors.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Guest Post on Australia

Dale S. Brown of Washington, DC is one of the nice people I met last year on a trip to Russia, and she kindly agreed to write a guest post about her recent trip to Australia, a country I have never visited. An edited version of her post follows.

"Australia, a Friendly and Safe Country

My trip to Australia the first two weeks of November, 2015 was wonderful. My friend and I got a deal which enabled us to take the trip within our budget.

We took the Free Walking Tours in both Sydney and Melbourne, Both tours had guides who were humourous, informative and great at keeping their groups together. At the end of the tour the guide asks tourists to pay what they think the tour was worth, so it actually isn't free, but you pay what you can afford. Their dependence on tips practically guarantees quality tour guides.

We visited almost all the top tour destinations including the Sydney Opera House, took harbour tours in both Sydney and Melbourne, visited the Eureka Tower in Melbourne and the Sydney Tower in Sydney. We also saw the Australian Museum, the Art Museum of New South Wales, and the Queen Victoria Art Museum, and visited both Bondi and Manley Beach.

The Australians we met were friendly and willing to help us. They cheerfully gave us directions and told us about the customs and people of Australia. Of course, it helped that they spoke English.

We felt safe in Australia. In Melbourne we were out after midnight on crowded streets where we felt very safe, perhaps because the country has strict gun laws.

Australia reminded me of life 20 or 30 years ago in the U.S. Small businesses and independently-owned restaurants outnumbered the chains and franchises. Meals at restaurants were relaxed, and servers didn't grab your plate as soon as it looked like you had finished your meal (as they often do in the U.S.)

All in all, the trip was definitely worth the long plane flight."

Dale got a package that included round trip air fare and six nights in a mid-range Sydney hotel for $1,884 U.S. per person. She added on trips to Melbourne and the Great Barrier Reef, as well as costs for meals and sight-seeing. She sent along a great photo to accompany this post, but unfortunately clumsy me could not find a way to post it.

If you have always wanted to visit Australia, this should be a good time. The Australian dollar, like the Canadian, has declined because of low prices for commodities and is trading in the 70 cent U.S. range.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The True North, Strong and Cheap

Unless you are Canadian, you may not have noticed that over the last few months the value of the Canadian dollar known as the loonie has been slip-sliding away. At the moment it is trading at around 70 cents U.S.

While this is bad news for Canadians planning to travel abroad, it is great for their neighbours in the U.S. who hanker to visit the great white north. Canada is still not a really low-cost destination, but it is definitely a bargain compared with a lot of places in the U.S.

By checking on www.tripadvisor.com for hotels for the last weekend of February, I was able to unearth some pretty good deals. In Vancouver, a room at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver goes for about $115 U.S. per night. The Hotel Vancouver is one of Canada's signature railway hotels built in Scottish baronial style, with vast and luxurious public rooms and a downtown location. Nearby in Gastown, the budget Victorian Hotel receives good reviews and charges only $42 U.S. for bed and breakfast.

In Montreal, the Omni Hotel on Sherbrooke Street is charging $80 U.S. per night for the same weekend, while the nearby Hilton Garden Inn offers rooms for $63 U.S. nightly on the same dates.

If you prefer to visit in summer (something I would recommend,) there are even better prices available at the residence halls of various educational institutions. For example, at McGill University's Royal Victoria College (which actually has a statue of Queen Victoria in front) at the corner of Sherbrooke and University, rooms go for about $32 U.S. single, $46 U.S. double except for Grand Prix weekend in June. The reference for this and other McGill dorms is www.mcgill.ca/accommodations/summer, and the prices are from 2015.

In Toronto, the University of Toronto boasts a downtown location, a leafy campus and a vast assortment of lodging for the public during the summer. Check out www.housing.utoronto.ca.
Many other educational institutions across Canada offer similar deals in the summer only--search for your preferred destination and you can probably find something. Unfortunately, there are no central booking places for these alternative accommodations.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Hospitality Clubs for Low-cost Travel

If you enjoy meeting locals and staying in their homes, two hospitality clubs based in Washington state may be of interest. Both are geared to somewhat older travellers, and have similar designs and membership and travel costs.

For international travel, the Affordable Travel Club (www.AffordableTravelClub.net) is the choice. It includes mainly American hosts, but also has members in countries as diverse as Australia, Israel and Kazakhstan. To join you must be over 40, and must be able to host guests yourself occasionally. This group boasts 2400 hosts, and membership costs $65 a year if you want an online directory of fellow members, $80 if you require a paper copy.

 The cost to stay with a member is $15 single and $20 double per night in North America. Overseas hosts may charge $10 per night more.

If you are over 50 and looking to travel only in North America, the Evergreen Club (www.evergreenclub.com) may be for you. It operates on similar principles, joining willing hosts and guests who pay a small fee for bed and breakfast in someone's home. The rate is $15 single, $20 double. Membership costs $75 a year, and members are expected to be both hosts and guests.
Evergreen has 2000 hosts in the United States and Canada.

For both clubs, members must arrange their own lodging by contacting fellow members-- the organisations do not match them up.

This sounds like a great way to meet people and save money on lodging at the same time. And I like the fact that, unlike competitor AirBnB (www.airbnb.com,) these groups are non-commercial, so there is no concern about local laws or tax regulations for hosts.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Air Canada Flash Sale to the Sun

Today only, save 20 per cent on Air Canada's low Tango fares to  the sun destinations of Florida, Hawaii and Las Vegas. Travel from now to the end of June or in September with the promotion code SUN24H.

You must book by midnight tonight Eastern time at www.aircanada.com. The sale does not apply to codeshare flights.

Appina Travel Offers Low-Cost Tours in Europe

A German tour company called Appina Travel (www.appina-travel.com) has an interesting assortment of tours in Europe, and some seem to be quite reasonable. I found a seven night tour from Berlin of sights connected with the life of the great reformer Martin Luther in Eastern Germany. It included middle class hotels, breakfast and dinner each day and a number of sightseeing tours. The cost for a single room was just $912, and for those sharing a room the price was even lower.

The Martin Luther tours were a feature of travel in East Germany in the days of the DDR, and although I'm not a Lutheran they always sounded appealing--for one thing, they get you out into smaller cities such as Eisleben and Wittenberg. And any tour that provides single rooms in decent hotels and most meals for not much more than $100 per day gets my vote.

The Appina Website is somewhat clunky, and I couldn't find prices for other tours, which mainly cover Central Europe and Italy. For example, one that sounded somewhat unusual was a 10-day voyage from Berlin to Vienna with stops at Warsaw, Krakow and Bratislava. It may be that these tours are aimed at travel agents rather than individuals, but if they are of interest, ask your travel agent about them.

The Website is bilingual, suggesting that the tours are offered in both German and English. Taking a tour in a language other than your native one can be a good way to practice a foreign tongue, provided you know at least the basics. I have taken both a Nile cruise and a day trip by bus in French, and another day trip in German. I didn't understand everything, but it was fun travelling with tourists who were not English-speaking, and it certainly forced me to use the language..