Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Budget Airlines in Europe Can Charge for Luggage

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that it is legal for budget airlines such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) to charge extra for checked luggage. These low-cost carriers are known for charging extra for a number of items that are usually free on other airlines, so look for total costs to increase if you fly in Europe on anything other than the legacy carriers.

Ryanair's charges for checked bags can run to more than $100 during holiday seasons. Some people may be able to travel with carry-on bags only, but I find it pretty near impossible given the security restrictions on what you can carry on.

Here in North America we are used to paying extra for checked luggage on most airlines, and while Air Canada and West Jet held out against the trend for a long time, they too have recently instituted extra fees for checked baggage. The bottom line is, I suppose, that you need to add some extra money to your travel budget to cover the fees, or plan to travel with just a carry-on.

In a post a while back I mentioned that Czarist Prime Minister Peter Stolypin was assassinated at the Opera House in Odessa, Ukraine, pictured below. I need to correct that, since I lately learned that the event took place at the Kiev Opera House. That information is contained in a new book on ``The Romanov Sisters`` by Helen Rappaport, a compelling if rather sad tale. It is about the four Romanov girls who were killed, along with the rest of their family, at Ekaterineburg in 1918.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Best Budget Travel Blogs

Flipkey, a subsidiary of Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) has published a list of what it considers to be the 25 best budget travel blogs this year. So if you are looking for inspiration or just some armchair travel, their list might be a good place to start.

I saw a lot of familiar names and checked into a few. One of the top is the Hobo Traveler, (www.hobotraveler.com) by Andy Lee Graham, a veteran of some 16 years of continuous travel covering 96 countries. A lot of the content on this site requires that you sign up, which I did not want to do, but I was able to watch a number of videos. I learned about a phenomenon in southeastern Europe, especially along the Adriatic, called sobe-girl rooms.

These are rooms in private homes or apartment buildings where you can stay in low season for as little as 10 euros per night, and that is for room with a private bath. They rent for about 150 euros per month. The drawback is that they are often located far from the sea or the city centre. In another video, Andy lets us ride along with him as he tried to take an overnight bus between Pristina, Kosovo and Montenegro, only to be dumped short of his destination at a small bus station where he had to wait for a bus that would leave at 6 a.m. He certainly lets you in on the nitty-gritty of budget travel, which sometimes includes hassles like this.

The blog A Little Adrift (www.alittleadrift.com) is written by a young woman who has been touring the world for about six years and writing about it. She does return to the U.S. from time to time. At the moment she has just returned from travelling in South Africa and Kenya. Her site contains a lot of useful practical information, particularly for long-term travellers.

To see the complete list, go to www.flipkey.com/blog/2014/09/25/top-25-budget-travel-bloggers-to-follow-in-2014/.

Friday, September 26, 2014

When to Splurge

We all like to save money on travel, but there are times when it may be worthwhile to splurge a little. That is the theme of a column in the Seattle Times by well-known budget travel expert Rick Steves. If you live in North America you have probably seen Steves on public television, or you may have read one of his guidebooks.

Steves is the kind of travel writer most of the rest of us envy. He has a pleasant personality (or at least seems to on TV,) good ideas and has become a one-man corporation with books, tours, radio and television shows among his other endeavours. He also seems to have unlimited energy.

However, like the rest of us he is getting older and realising that just as money is a limited resource, so it time. Therefore, it is possible to justify the occasional indulgence such as a gondola ride in Venice or a private walking tour with an experienced guide in any city.

 I agree, and I have splurged from time to time myself when on the road. Once in Cairo I hired a taxi to take me to the step pyramids at Sakkhara, where I was able to walk around on my own early one morning. There didn't seem to be any organised tours, and I really wanted to see these monuments.

Another time, also in Cairo, I dined with some fellow travellers at a wonderful Indian restaurant at the Mena House Hotel. I can still remember the taste of the sea bass. When I was in Prague I joined a Norwegian woman I met on a tour for dinner in an elegant hotel dining room.  Even in that grey Communist city the room looked as if it had changed little since 1910.

More recently, when I was returning from Moscow on United Airlines (www.united.com) I paid extra for an economy seat with more leg room and ended up meeting an interesting young woman whose father lives in Moscow and who attended my graduate school. That was a wonderful flight, with a great view of the almost endless mountains of Greenland.

Of course, the best kind of splurge is the one that doesn't cost much. An offer on transAtlantic sailings of the Queen Mary 2 from Cunard (www.cunard.com) falls into that category. If you book by Oct. 10 for sailings in November, the per person rate for the best available cabin is as low as $599.

I tried to add the link for the story by Rick Steves, but it doesn't seem to work. On another topic, if you are interested in the future of blogging (and who isn't?) check out a story in the New York Times and my comment on it at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/25/garden/when-blogging-becomes-a-slog.html?comment#permid=12894470.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Uncomfortable Future for Budget Air Travellers

The future will be uncomfortable for airline passengers who want to save money, and who refuse to pay the exorbitant amounts charged for business or first class seats. So says an article in India Today (www.indiatoday.in) which details changes such as seats where customers actually stand up, called vertical seats, and extra fees for overweight passengers.

The vertical seats are expected to be introduced within five years, and some airlines such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) are already charging for the use of toilets on some of its equipment. An Indian budget airline called GoAir (www.goair.in) is growing fast and plans to expand its employee numbers by some 2,000. However, only females need apply. I'm not sure whether this is because females on average weigh less than males, or because they are considered to be better pilots and flight attendants for some other reason.

Such blatant gender discrimination would, of course, be illegal today in most Western countries, but airlines could get around it to some extent by restricting the height and weight of employees. Every extra pound an airline carries causes it to need more fuel, and therefore to be more expensive.

If you needed an incentive to lose weight, the prospect of having to pay more for your airline ticket may be just what the doctor ordered. I don't know when the fee for being overweight is expected to go into effect, but already on small commuter planes there are sometimes weigh-ins for passengers and their luggage if there is reason to believe the plane may become too heavy to take off safely.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Goats on the Road

A Website called Goats on the Road (www.goatsontheroad.com) details the extensive travels of a youngish Canadian couple who have been travelling and making their living abroad for the past five years. (Why is it, I wonder, that so many long-term travellers tend to be Canadian?)

The site includes a lot of useful information on how to sustain the travelling lifestyle by such expedients as teaching English in China, house-sitting and blogging, as well as interesting reports on their travels through such places as Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and elsewhere. They seek out little-visited parts of the world, and enjoy it when they are among the few Westerners in a particular place.

I found their report on teaching in China very good. They speak of the friendliness of the locals, the tasty food offered at low prices, and the nitty-gritty of a busy day teaching English to local children. This should be prescribed reading for anyone who plans to teach English abroad. Teaching English is a tough job, even in Canada, but also a very rewarding one.

Their report on Central Asia interested me a lot, but I expereinced some difficulty in scrolling through this and other sections of their site. Perhaps it is just my old computer.

In any case, this is a good source for travel inspiration, especially if you want to be a long-term voyager.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Learn a Language for Free

It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of knowing foreign languages when you travel. True, many people around the world speak English today, especially many in the tourist business. But there is no substitute for being able to get around in a foreign country using a foreign language. It enables you to feel more at ease, to get off the beaten path, to get to know the locals.

The problem is that learning a foreign language, even to a "Schlafzimmer" level, requires considerable work and often even more expense. This is especially true the older you get, since young people often pick up other languages relatively easily. After all, we all learned English once, some of us when we were children.

There is a Website called Memrise (www.memrise.com) that provides resources for learning a number of languages for free, including English. The courses are online, so you can work at your own pace. I am just starting to explore the site, having done part of the Basic Russian course and the start of the advanced German vocabulary course.

Be warned, the basic Russian course starts with the alphabet, which I thought I knew but discovered I don't know perfectly. I did better on the small part of the German vocabulary course I attempted, with 100 per cent accuracy, but suspect if I were to work on it longer I would start making mistakes.

The difficulty for some of us is that studying new languages may cause us to forget the ones we already know. Getting into a cab last night I mangled my address in French so badly that the driver said "English, please." Once when I had spent several weeks in Italy speaking only Italian, I found I was beginning to have trouble understanding English. I'm not sure what the cure for this is.

Memrise has a social element, which I have yet to explore, and naturally you can have access to more courses if you pay a monthly fee. Still, even the free part of the site seems to have a lot to offer.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Prague at Low Cost

There is a post on www.apartmenttherapy.com about a weekend in Prague that cost the traveller less than $100. And no, she did not stay at a hostel, but shared a room at the Casa Marcello in the old Jewish quarter of the city that cost about $100 a night for two people.

Prague is one of Europe's most beautiful and least costly cities. It survived World War II unscathed by bombs, so much of its medieval heritage is preserved. In addition, it is known for excellent local beer and hearty food, so it is very popular among young travellers.

A short tour of Prague Castle which included the old royal palace and St. Vitus Cathedral cost $12.50 per person, and lunch with two beers at the Strahov Monastery not far away came to about $15 per person. The Old Town Square is one of the city's main attractions, with its fascinating astronomical clock, and you can walk around for free. Dinner from a street vendor cost $5.

Another favourite activity of tourists and locals alike is strolling across the Charles Bridge, lined with medieval statues. You can rent a paddleboat on the Vlatva (fornerly Moldau) River for $12 per hour, and enjoy great views of the city. A visit to the world famous Old Jewish Cemetery where tombstones are virtually piled on top of one another costs $15. Most of the sights in Prague are accessible on foot, but wear comfortable shoes to handle the cobblestone streets in the old section.

It's many years since I was in Prague--it was in Communist times in the 1980s when tourism was highly regulated. You received coupons you could use to buy meals in restaurants or at your hotel. Even then the city was appealing.