Monday, June 29, 2015

Save on Cruises to South America, Asia, Russia

If you want to see a lot in comfort and in a short period of time, a cruise is the way to go. You unpack only once, are fed plenty of food and entertained while you sail between various exotic ports. And, if you are careful, you can travel for a base price of around $100 a day per person.

Cruise Ship Centers (www.cruiseshipcenters.com) is advertising some unusually low rates for cruises that frequently cost a lot more. For example, the cruise around Cape Horn in South America is normally costly, but by sailing on the Zaandam of the Holland America Line this December the 14-day cruise price can be less than $100 per day. This is a cruise for nature lovers, with stops at glaciers, fjords and the Falkland Islands and the passage around the often stormy Cape Horn.

If southeast Asia is more your style, a voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore with stops in Thailand and Vietnam has a similar minimum price for two weeks. The popular Baltic cruise from Copenhagen that visits a lot of northern capitals and the former Russian imperial capital is somewhat more expensive but still less than $125 per person.

Of course, you need to add air fare, tips, and excursions to the basic cost, but with careful planning a cruise can still be a budget vacation. If river cruises are more your style, Viking River Cruises (www.vcr.com) is offering free air fare on all its Russian cruises this summer.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Report on Life on a Greek Island

Check out a report by my friend Ann Diamond, a Montreal writer, on what it is like for ordinary people living on the Greek isle of Lemnos during Greece's economic crisis. It's at www.henrymakow.com.

This isn't one of those rosy reports encouraging people to retire abroad and take advantage of a lower cost of living, but a frontline account of actual conditions on an island Diamond knows well. It is devastating--shops closing, people committing suicide, others being paraded through the town for not paying their bills, many living mainly off the produce from their gardens if they are lucky enough to have gardens. Even nature, which used to bless Greece, is unreliable now--the seas are fished out, the sunshine not as abundant as it once was.

I was most affected by her report of the situation of an American friend who has lived in Greece for decades. The friend is now 76 with a small house but no pension, and survives by fasting for three days a week.

Greece does still benefit from beautiful beaches and cheap wine, but transportation can be unreliable. According to Diamond, the Greeks believe their situation will be reflected across the developed world in the near future. We can only hope they are wrong.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Trouble at Allegiant?

A report today in the Tampa Bay Times says that Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com) has cancelled six flights recently that were scheduled to leave from the airport at St. Petersburg-Clearwater, and has had two emergency landings at that same airport this month.

According to the newspaper, the budget airline has been experiencing a lot of difficulty during this summer season of heavy travel. It has one of the oldest fleets in the U.S., with an average age of 22 years, and it has been the subject of complaints by both pilots and mechanics.

I hope the airline gets its act together, since it offers some of the lowest air fares around, sometimes less than $50 for a one-way flight. It often costs more than that to get a cab to the airport. There were no problems with the one Allegiant Air flight I took several years ago, from St. Petersburg-Clearwater to Plattsburgh, NY. However, someone else I know flew from Plattsburgh to St. Petersburg, and reported that because of mechanical problems the plane had to fly a lot lower than its usual cruising speed.

I don't want to discourage anyone from travelling with Allegiant--the FAA wouldn't let them keep flying if there were serious problems-- but it is good to be aware that there could be some hassles this summer.

Guide to Eurailpass Travel

There is an interesting article about travelling with a Eurailpass on a site called www.maphappy.org.
It is written by a young woman who travelled the continent with a three-month pass, so she had a lot of experiences, mostly good ones.

A Eurailpass lets you travel throughout a number of different countries in Europe for one fixed price. It can be a good way to see a lot in a relatively short amount of time, and in my view train travel is far superior to flying as a way to experience Europe. It may also be more expensive, but use of train passes such as the Eurailpass can reduce the cost.

I've used Eurailpasses several times, but not in recent years. Now many long distance trains require seat reservations in addition to the pass, so that can be a hassle. You may not be kicked off the train without a reservation, but could find yourself standing in the corridor outside the washroom. One time when this happened to me I enjoyed talking with an older man in the same predicament, a German who had emigrated to Peru after World War II.

The article presumes that you are travelling with a smartphone and can use the Eurail app, which handles a lot of sitations. How one does this economically is another article in itself. Eurailpasses generally are sold only to residents of countries outside the European Union.

In any case, the article is worth a look if you are considering rail travel in Europe. Map Happy has a number of other useful stories on reducing the cost and wear of travel, including one on how to haggle for lower prices on www.airbnb.com.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

News from the Front in Ukraine

Ukraine has generally fallen out of the headlines in North America. However, the fighting continues there in the eastern part of the country known as the Donbass, which used to be the most prosperous area of Ukraine. For up to date information on what is happening there, check out the blog http://milakovsky.livejournal.com.

Written by a young American who is volunteering with an organisation that aids refugees from eastern Ukraine, he writes about the hardship being endured by ordinary people on both sides of the current line of demarcation. According to Milakovsky, the Kiev government is making it harder and harder for people in the region to get back and forth across the line. Many of them are elderly folks  with very limited means who must use public transit to collect their pensions in the other zone. He quotes church leaders who speak of actual starvation among civilians caught up in the conflict.

There is talk of tensions heating up in this region now that summer is nearly here. In all the geopolitical maneuvering, as usual it is the regular citizens who are forced to pay the price for their leaders' ambitions. Let us hope that Ukraine, which has experienced
so much tragedy in its history, will be spared further bloodshed.

The image above is from central Kiev, the Cathedral of St. Sofia.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Remote Russian Bargains

Most things in Russia are less expensive than when I was last there in 2011, but if you venture into the boonies there are some true bargains. The ruble is worth only about half as much in U.S. dollar terms as it was four years ago, and in places like the Kola Peninsula it still goes a long ways.

This peninsula juts into the White Sea a long ways north of St. Petersburg, and is the setting for the fascinating recent Russian film "Leviathan." If you are interested in this region, check the Website www.kandalaksha.su for information on local hotels and apartments as well as nearby attractions.
Hotels in the area average about $40 per night, while private accommodation goes for as little as $20 a night.

The man who maintains the site also offers services as a driver, guide and interpreter, as well as a room in his own apartment for $25 nightly. He used to run the very useful site called www.cheap-moscow.com site, and still rents out his Moscow flat. The cost now is $1100 a month, down from $2000 just a few years ago.

Another site worth a look is the Real Russia channel on www.youtube.com. It is maintained by a young man who lives in Ufa, a city in the Urals. There isn't a lot I have found of use to tourists, but it provides a very interesting glimpse of ordinary life far from the big cities everybody visits. I've never been to Ufa, but while travelling in Jordan in 2003 I met a very pleasant woman from there who was hitchhiking through the Middle East on her own.

If you venture outside the big cities, you are likely to have more adventures and meet friendlier people, while saving money. If nothing else, you can discover places your friends are unlikely to have visited.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Silence of the Huskies

I just returned from a very pleasant, mostly silent weekend retreat at the Abbaye de Rougemont (www.abbayederougemont.org,) a Cistercian monastery set among the apple orchards just south and east of Montreal.

These Cistercian monks, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict and still observe most of the canonical hours of the Church, raise apples in addition to running a modern, simple guest house. They also follow the rule of silence, and request that guests do the same except for certain approved activities such as meetings. Meals are generally silent, which seems a little weird at first. The huskies in the title above refers to a family of eight dogs who roam and guard the orchards.

Rooms are very clean and reasonably comfortable, and the price is definitely right. A single room with shared bath costs $50 Canadian (about $40 U.S.) per night, while a room with private bath goes for $60 Canadian a night, and the rate includes three meals a day served in a basement cafeteria. The food is homestyle and tasty, with a lot of emphasis on apple products including the delicious juice made on the premises.

In fall, guests are welcome to pick their own apples from among the many varieties found in the orchard. Hotel visitors have the run of the property except for those areas specifically reserved for monks. There is a spacious lounge-library with easy chairs. Most books are in French, but there are also some in English. Don't look for best-sellers, though, since the emphasis is on spiritual works.

The grounds are spacious with many different varieties of trees, walking paths through the woods and two frog ponds. I enjoyed wandering through the gardens and relaxing, and found to my surprise that I did not miss having a TV or radio in my room. Wifi is available in the cafeteria.

If you are looking for a real break from the rat race and happen to be near Montreal, I would highly recommend the Abbaye de Rougemont, which is open year-round. As with most monasteries that accept guests, people of any or no faith are welcome.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cheap Fares to South America, Caribbean

There are some unusually low air fares being offered this summer and fall for flights from Montreal and Toronto to South America and certain islands in the Caribbean. The best deals in terms of distance flown are those to Santiago, Chile and are available in the fall.

For example, round trip flights including tax on various airlines start at $727 Canadian from Montreal in the September to December period. Flights to Peru from Montreal begin as low as $667 Canadian, and similar prices are being offered to these places from Toronto. Check details on www.yuldeals.com for Montreal departures, www.yyzdeals if you are leaving from Toronto. Normally fares are almost twice this high.

Watch these sites for bargains on last minute deals to the Caribbean too. Recent round trip flights including tax have been as low as $265 Canadian from Toronto to Curacao, or $277 Canadian from Montreal to Grand Exuma, Bahamas.

It's a pleasant change to be able to report some deals for Canadian flyers, since in general air fares within and from Canada are very high.