Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Blogs from War Zones

I like to read personal blogs from war zones to get a different take on what life is like there for ordinary people, and to escape the filtering of news practised by major news channels. However, in searching for personal blogs from Ukraine and Gaza, I am encountering something of a void now.

In Ukraine two bloggers I used to follow have relocated, one voluntarily and the other not. The author of www.8monthsinukraine.blogspot.com has recently moved from Kharkiv to New York. She wasn't covering the unrest specifically, but her accounts of daily life as an English teacher in a large city of eastern Ukraine were interesting, as were her photos.

Briton Graham W. Phillips (http://grahamwphillips.com,) was recently expelled from Ukraine to Poland after being held captive by members of the Ukrainian Army. Earlier he had been held by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. His reporting was good, and he did a lot of work for Russia Today, www.rt.com, and other news outlets. I guess the fact that he was unpopular with both sides in the conflict is testament to his impartiality. Unfortunately his computer and some online accounts were also hacked, and he lost an enormous amount of material.

The best independent (?) blog about Ukraine at the moment seems to be http://ukraine@war.blogspot.com,) although it is very anti-Russian. Another possibility is http://tryukraine.blogspot.com.

The situation is similar in Gaza, perhaps with more justification since Gaza is such a small area and Ukraine is enormous. It is hard to imagine that life in Gaza right now can be anything other than appalling. An interesting blog called www.gazamom.com by a young mother and cookbook author has not been updated since last year, while one written by two friends, one living in Gaza and one in Israel, was last updated in 2009 at http://gaza-siderot.blogspot.com. It is highly partisan, but the blog at http://electronicintifada.net/blog contains a lot of information about the conflict.

Of course, it is a lot to ask anyone living in a war zone to report on events there for the pure pleasure of it, and I am grateful to any bloggers who try to do so.  My one tentative effort at war reporting came to a quick end once I was actually in the region. It was in 2003 in Jordan, and I had gone over with the idea I might try to get to the front lines of U.S. troops invading Iraq (although I was never a supporter of that invasion.)

However, when I arrived in Jordan I realised it was a crazy idea, and opted to take a tour of Jordan instead. The most violent situation I had covered previously was a hostile corporate takeover in Toronto when I was a reporter for the Globe and Mail (www.globeandmail.com,) and I decided to stick to more peaceful pursuits.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Volunteer Forever

It doesn't take much time travelling in Third World countries to awaken the desire in many people to do something to help the humans or animals who live there. The extent of poverty and difficult conditions abroad is often a shock to those of us from the First World.

Lots of people consider volunteering abroad to help alleviate suffering there, to gain experience working in another culture, or for other reasons. However, there are always costs associated with working for free in a foreign country. Transportation is a major expense, and there are also usually program costs connected with organised volunteer programs. Some of these costs can be quite high.

To make it easier for people to accumulate the funds for their volunteer efforts abroad, the Website www.volunteerforever.com provides a platform whereby people can solicit funds for their project from their friends and family, social networks, and from strangers. It sounds a little like Kickstarter, which allows participants to raise funds for business ventures, but this one is for volunteer work.

Volunteer Forever includes articles on low-cost volunteering, reviews of participants' volunteer experiences, and other useful information. I was interested to see that one of the low-cost volunteer programs featured, called www.ubelong.org, was started by a professor from my grad school, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and one of his associates. It operates in Costa Rica where a two-week placement costs as little as $370, and in Quito, Ecuador where the same length placement starts at $270.

If for some reason it is not possible for you to volunteer abroad at this time, there are always plenty of volunteer options in most cities and towns around the world. It may take some looking and experimentation, but the time spent is worthwhile when you secure a volunteer placement that you enjoy. A good place to start looking is your local Volunteer Bureau, your place of worship or a local hospital.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lufthansa Deals to Europe, India

If you still haven't booked a late summer or early fall holiday, don't despair. Lufthansa is offering some very good fares from the U.S. to various destinations in Europe and India (www.lufthansa.com/us/en/top-offers.)

Sample fares include Chicago to Budapest return for just $789. Dallas to Istanbul for $979. Chicago to Krakow for $849, Los Angeles to Budapest for $929. amd New York to Milan for just $659.  If you prefer to visit India, Boston to Bangalore starts at only $939. and Los Angeles to Mumbai at $909. These fares require 14 day advance booking, and the New York to Milan one must be reserved by August 7, so it may be too late for that one.

There are quite a few other reasonable fares available, but I concentrated on ones under $1,000 return. While India has not been on my top list of desirable destinations, prices like this make it sound pretty appealing.

Lufthansa is one of my favourite airlines for its efficiency, friendly service and good safety record. At a time when air travel is starting to seem a little hazardous, you can't beat experience.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Travelling Lifestyle

An article in the current issue of Harper's magazine (Http://harpers.org,) alerted me to a new possibility for continuous travel. It is a rather disturbing story called "The End of Retirement" about older Americans, people in their late 50s, 60s or 70s, who have taken to the road in their recreational vehicles, vans or even automobiles to save money and be able to move around easily in search of work.

Most of them do this out of economic necessity, but some claim that it really is their preferred way of living. Without rent or mortgage and utility bills to pay, they are able to travel to parts of North America they want to visit, and often find work along the way. Many of them head to warehouses run by Amazon (www.amazon.com) during the pre-Christmas rush. There they do hard physical work for many hours a day, but receive free hook-ups and parking for their r.v.s.

Others seek out jobs in the national parks and forests, mainly during the summer. Mostly these are minimum wage gigs that entail camp maintenance and clean-up, but allow the worker to live in beautiful natural surroundings. For information about this type of work in the national forests, visit the Website www.workamper.com. The money these travellers earn usually helps to supplement pension, Social Security, or other regular income.

Another Website, www.cheaprvliving.com, offers plentiful information on ways to make this nomadic lifestyle work--what type of vehicle to choose, how to provide for necessities like Internet access and showers, the best places to park without being hassled (Walmart lots and hospital parking lots are favourites.)

This type of travel clearly is not for everyone, but it is an alternative that you could check out by renting an r.v. for a while just to see what it is like--it is another take on budget travel.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hotel Bargains in Moscow, Petersburg, Prasgue

Tired of the high costs of hotel rooms in mucxh of Western Europe? Head east, where this summer you can find some unusual bargains.

Using some dates in mid-August, I was able to find rooms in Moscow st the Izmailovo Complex for as little as $72 per night. This is just about three-quarters of the cost when I was there in the summer of 2011. These hotels areen't downtown, but they are conveniently located next to Partizanskaya Metro station and Izmailove Park. They were built for the 1980 Olympics and still feature decor elements from that era, along with a great breakfast buffet.

 If you need to be closer to downtown, the Mercure Arbat has rooms for the same dates for $94. These rates are considerably lower than they were prior to the financial crisis--in 2007 I paid about $160 to stay at a hotel much farther from the centre.

Hotels in St. Petersburg tend to be pricier in summer, perhaps because Peter is more of a tourist destination. There the Red Stars Hotel offers rooms for $115, while the Ligotel charges $104. In Prague, a stay at the Fusion Hotel Prague starts at $53 per night, while the Hotel Julian charges $89. I have not been to Prague since the 1980s, when it was a beautiful but very grey Communist capital. Now I understand it has been spiffed up considerably, and is a favourite destination for young travellers.

Rates above were all found on www.tripadvisor.com. In case you don't want to venture to Eastern Europe, you might consider visiting large Scandinavian cities, where hotels tend to empty out in summer with the departure of business travellers. Scandinavia is a pricey part of the world overall, but summer can still provide some relative bargains.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Reduced Costs on Viking

Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com) has announced some special reductions along with free air fare on certain of its European cruises for 2014. The fares are still high, but if you are travelling as a couple and want to splurge, this could be a relatively good deal.

 For the November departures of its 15-day Amsterdam to Budapest cruise the rate can go as low as around $320 per person per day. A number of shorter cruises are also included in this sale, and there the lowest cost is around $400 per person per day..

 The cost comes with free air fare from some North American gateways and for some classes of cabins
, all meals and enteratinment on board, free wine or beer with lunch or dinner, and a number of tours.

To get these deals you need to book by July 31, and the booking code is 20 Echo.

I have travelled with Viking in Ukraine and enjoyed the cruise very much. However, the line seems not to be catering to lone passengers any more, and in general to be going upscale, out of my price range. The same, unfortunately, seems to apply to most other river cruises as well. The image above is of the Mikhail Lomonosov, the Viking ship on which I sailed. This ship is no longer part of Viking's fleet.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

U.S. Air Travel Fees to Rise

On July 21 of this year, there will be a small increase in the Civil Aviation Security fee charged to airline passengers in the U.S. If you plan to fly soon, you can avoid the increase by booking your flight within the next four days.

While the fee is still relatively low, capped at $22.40 per round trip, it will affect budget flyers more than others in percentage terms. In addition, layovers of more than four hours on a domestic flight or more than 12 hours on an international flight will attract additional fees. Because many low-cost flights entail long layovers, this too will have an impact on flyers trying to save money.

Other airline fees in the U.S. for airports and for customs and border protection are also expected to increase in the near future, so once again the best policy is to book your flight now. Fees charged to U.S. travellers are still a lot lower than those in Canada, but of course if you fly between Canada and the U.S. you really get hit.

On another subject, I am happy to report that all-time page views for this blog have recently passed the 200,000 mark. Thanks especially to readers in the U.S., France, Taiwan, Russia and Canada, who have been the most numerous lately in that order. And a special welcome to readers in Indonesia, a country I have not seen represented before. Thanks for reading, and I hope you will continue to read my efforts to bring you interesting news that will make your travels easier.