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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Indian Trains for the Adventurous

Although travel by train in India can be slow, it is also an excellent way to see the country at low cost. So says an article on www.dnaindia.com on the joys of travelling by rail in the subcontinent.

Indian trains carry some 20 million passengers a day, and that is just the fare-paying passengers. It does not include the occasional rat. Meals on trains are plentiful and inexpensive, since most are offered by vendors who travel through the cars.

Don't worry about being charged for bags on the train. You can carry as much luggage as you can manage, and so can everyone else, which can make for crowded cars. Gazing out an open train window is a great way to enjoy the sights and smells of the country. While the train may not run on time, it will give you a chance to experience the vagaries of Indian Standard Time.

As a traveller who has not been to India, I would be somewhat reluctant to venture so far into Indian culture myself. However, the article about train travel was written by a woman named Saanya Gulati, a graduate in international relations of Tufts University, a rival of my grad school, Johns Hopkins S.A.I.S., so I am inclined to give her account credence.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Berlin on a Budget

The German capital is one of the most interesting and affordable cities in Northern Europe. Prices for hotels seem to be rising, but there are still many bargains available. Check out the blog at www.eurocheapo.com for some good suggestions on how to eat cheaply at stands selling filling fare such as curry wurst or doner kebab.

These stands and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are also known as Schnell Imbiss, and they are great choices for the budget traveller. Curry wurst is usually just a sausage with curry sauce, but doner kebab can include a variety of vegetables added to grilled meat, all served on pita bread. Add a good German beer and you have a complete meal for less than $10 usually. Stands selling these items can be found all over town, but are especially numerous in the central districts such as Kreuzberg and Mitte, which also happen to be popular with tourists.

Another blog post by the same author, who specializes in really low-cost or no-cost travel, features a walking tour of Friedrichshain, an up and coming part of what used to be East Berlin. It and adjacent Lichtenberg are not espeically picturesque, being filled with modernist apartment buildings of the type found all across the former Soviet Bloc. However, they offer a glimpse of what life used to be like before the Wall came down and are now blossoming with art galleries and sidewalk cafes.

If you are interested in the former East Germany and especially if you have seen the film "The Lives of Others," a visit to the Stasi headquarters (www.stasimuseum.de) in Lichtenberg is a must. Admission costs just 5 euros or less, and you can marvel at the antiquated technology that formed
 the backbone of a feared police state.

I'm a big fan of Cold War hsitory and spy novels, and especially like those set in Berlin. I have an edition of three books by Len Deighton (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) that includes a map showing locations mentioned in the books, so you can plot out your own Berlin walking tour. One time I happened to pass the Anhalter Bahnhof ruins near a hotel where I was staying, and remembered it was the setting of an important scene in one of the Deighton books. To me, incidents like this are part of the fun of travelling.

Things change rapidly in Berlin, though, so soon it may not be possible to see much of the former East Berlin. Much of  the downtown area where the Wall used to be has been rebuilt as the new government centre, and while the new architecture is striking I kind of miss the way this area was when I first saw it in 1991, still bombed-out from World War II and desolate..

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Travelocity's Cancellation Policy

It is a long time since I have had to cancel a flight, so when that happened with a trip I had booked on Travelocity (www.travelocity.com,) I was concerned. However you book flights, you will notice that usually the cheapest fares are nonrefundable. I wasn't sure what that meant, but thought perhaps you lost the entire value of the trip.

Therefore I was pleased to learn that if you cancel a flight with a few days' notice, you don't get a refund, but you can apply the full cost of the ticket to another itinerary on the same airline booked through Travelocity. There may be change fees if you re-book the same itinerary, and there may be a change in the fare charged. However, there is nothing to keep you from applying the credit to another flight.

While it is not a good idea to cancel flights willy-nilly, it was a relief to learn that the cost of the ticket was not just gone money. Perhaps I should have purchased cancellation insurance, but I have found that the fine print in a lot of these insurance contracts makes it almost more trouble than it is worth.

If you have stories about problems or successes cancelling flights, I would be pleased to hear about them in the comments section.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Bolshoi in the Boonies

One of the joys of travel is the opportunity to see some great cultural performances. From plays in London's West End to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, these are the sorts of events you are likely to remember for a long time.

I have found that performances of the Bolshoi, the Kirov Opera (now known as the Mariinsky,) various operas and concerts in Berlin and New York, and plays on Broadway or in the West End are among my fondest travel souvenirs.

This summer you don't need to travel as far as Russia to see the Bolshoi--at the end of July the company will be dancing Don Quixote at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (www.spac.org) in upstate New York. Tickets start as low as $32, and lawn tickets as low as $15.

These outdoor music festivals are a great opportunity to see some wonderful performers at cut prices.
The experience of being outdoors usually adds to the pleasure. Tanglewood (www.bso.org) in western Massachusetts is another very famous summer music festival which features both classical and popular choices. Near Montreal, the Festival de Lanaudiere (www.lanaudiere.org) is held in a glade of trees that lends a special enchantment to songs such as "In Fernem Land" sung by Ben Heppner, which I heard some years ago.

Friends have recommended the summer opera festival called Glimmerglass (www.glimmerglass.org) in Cooperstown, NY, a town which is far better known for its Baseball Hall of Fame (www.baseballhall.org.) If you time your visit right, you can enjoy both these attractions.

Both the Saratoga and Lanaudiere festivals open tonight.