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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Marriott Offers a Budget Brand

Marriott Hotels,the American chain known for its medium-priced and upscale hotels, has opened its first budget property in Europe, the Moxy Milan at Malpensa Airport. The hotel provides modern design, sound-reducing walls, free wi-fi and large screen TVs in every room. Best of all, until the end of October a room costs just about $75 per night.

This is the first of several planned Moxy budget hotels in Europe, in Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, London and Oslo. For more information, check their Website at www.moxy-hotels.marriott.com.

The story of this hotel chain is interesting. It was begun by a Mormon businessman, J.Willard Marriott, who opened several cafes called Hot Shoppes in the Washington D.C. area. They served wholesome, tasty food but of course no booze. When I lived in D.C. there were still one or two of these cafes around. Later he moved into hotels, and today Marriott is known worldwide for quality.

If this tradition of quality continues with the budget brand, the Moxy Hotels could be worth a try.

While my general opinion of Marriott Hotels is favourable, I recently saw a story reporting that in some properties they have decided to leave envelopes with a specific request for guests to tip the housekeeper. While I do tip for stays of more than one night, I resent being asked to cough up money by the hotel itself. Why, if they are so concerned about the housekeepers, don't they just pay them more?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Share Rides to Save

We;ve all seen big cars on the road, usually with just a driver and no passengers. Think about how much money and fuel emissions could be saved if cars carried one or more passengers in addition to the driver. That is the idea behind a Website that offers to link up cars and passengers, https://www,erideshare.com/#.

The site includes bringing people together for regular local trips such as commuting to work or school, as well as long distance travel. I'm very familiar with carpooling, since that was how I got to high school --at first our parents had to drive us, then when we were 16 we all got licences and began driving ourselves. Mine was a one-car family, so on days when I had to drive my dad got a ride to his office with a colleague.

Most of the ads on the site are for local carpooling, but there are also several hundred for long-distance travel. Many of the destinations seem to be in California or Western Canada, but there are also a number in other locations, mainly in Eastern North America. There are a few international listings, such between Florida and Costa Rica, Budapest and Prague, or Brescia and Lausanne.

You can join the site either as a driver seeking passengers, or a passenger seeking a ride to a particular place.

On another subject, if you have free time in October Cunard Line (www.cunard.com) is offering an amazing deal on its cruise to New England and Canada. This 12-day trip from New York can cost as little as $799 per person for the best available cabin. I've sailed these waters several times, and always enjoyed the voyage. You need to book by the end of September to get the reduced price.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Seattle on a Budget

You might think that a city that recently passed a law raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would be expensive, and in the case of Seattle generally you would be right. The new wage rate doesn't come into effect right away, but it is bound to add upward pressure to prices in an already fairly costly destination.

Still, there are ways to visit this beautifully-situated city that retains a gritty feel of the Old West without breaking the bank. There are many cheap alternatives to more expensive tourist experiences--for instance, you can take a harbour tour with West Seattle Water Taxi for $4.75 instead of the price of $23.75 with regular tour companies. Check out Goldstar.com for discounted theatre and concert tickets.

Seattle is known for its Happy Hour offerings. Even the elegant Four Seasons is affordable if you wait for the cheese and antipasto buffet offered in the bar starting at 9 p.m., since it costs just $8 then. There is also a free walking tour of downtown, provided by www.seattlefreewalkingtours.org/ where you pay what you want but must reserve at least an hour in advance.

The renowned Seattle Art Museum is one of many in the U.S. where you can pay what you want, but the suggested donation is $19.50. This museum has a great collection of Russian art, with particular emphasis on the early Soviet period.

It is easy to reach Seattle from Portland by train or bus--www.boltbus.com is the cheapest option, with fares as low as $10 one way. From Victoria B.C. you can enjoy a scenic cruise to Seattle for as little as $128 return in summer with www.clippervacations.com. I have taken this latter trip, and really enjoyed it.

The biggest cost in Seattle is lodging. You can resort to a hostel, or use sites like www.hotwire.com or www.priceline.com to bid for travel. Also, there are a few budget inns such as the College Inn near Seattle Unviersity or the Sixth Avenue Inn downtown.

For some more ideas on saving money in Seattle, consult www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/travel/budget-friendly-seattle-from-meals-to-messages.html for Seth Kugel's take on the city. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wilder Shores of Travel

Tired of Tahiti and bored with Barcelona? If you are one of those people who has travelled extensively and you are looking for something unusual, check out a tour company called Wild Frontiers Travel (www.wildfrontierstravel.com.)

This British-based company has some unusual offerings that sound very appealing for the adventurous with relatively deep pockets. For instance, you can ride horses through Wadi Rum in Jordan, the place where some of the old film about Lawrence of Arabia was made. Or you can visit several little-travelled countries on one tour to Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. If walking appeals, consider a walking tour in the mountains of Oman.

These are just a few of the many tours that are likely to spark your imagination. These trips are not cheap, generally between $200 and $400 per day, and the price does not include air fare. It does include pretty much everything else, though, and there is no mandatory single supplement. Unfortunately, travelling far off the beaten track is often costly if you want to do it safely.

I am partial to British tour companies, particularly for exploring fairly remote parts of the world. The Brits have long experience in many of these places because of their empire, and it is not unusual to find Brits who speak more than one difficult language.

I do find the Website of this tour company is a little ethnocentric, aty least when it comes to travel to Iran. They give information on obtaining visas for Brits, but not for others. Did you know that if you are female and want to apply for a visa, your passport photo must show you in a headscarf? That could make it a bit awkward--do you need to get a new passport if you aren't wearing a headscarf in your current photo? Anyway, aside from visa hassles Iran sounds like a fascinating place to visit.

Closer to home, Porter Airlines (www.flyporter.com) has a big sale on. You can save up to 60 per cent if you book by midnight on Friday. Sample fares include Montreal to Chicago for $191 Canadian one-way, or $180 Canadian to St. John's, Newfoundland. Prices include tax.

Monday, September 08, 2014

September Bargains

September is the month when temperatures start to cool in much of the northern hemisphere, and inevitably some people start dreaming of a way to prolong the summer. It is also the beginning of shoulder season, when summer's high prices begin to drop.

Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com) has some unusually attractive fares this month between some of its northern gateways and the Tampa-St. Petersburg airport in Florida. For example, the one way cost of travelling between Plattsburgh, NY and Tampa is as low as $102, while a flight from Roanoke VA to Tampa begins at just $50. Even the flight from distant Fargo ND is affordable, as low as $117, while a trip from Niagara Falls NY can cost as little as $106.

I have never spent the fall in Ireland, but I did spend one winter there and found it very cold (no central heat) and damp. A tour company called Budget Travel (www.budgettravel.ie) is offering some interesting deals on package tours to sun destinations in September. For instance, seven nights and flight from Dublin to the Algarve in Portugal starts at just 239 euros per person for bed and breakfast. Similar deals to Gran Canaria start at 359 euros per person, or you can visit Corfu, Greece for a week for as little as 399 euros each.

Whenever I am in Europe I become envious of the low-cost travel opportunities Europeans tend to enjoy. So if you happen to live in Europe, you lucky dog, check out  local travel agencies for inexpensive packages to interesting places.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Nostalgic Travel to India

In yesterday's Budapest Times, (http://budapesttimes.hu/2014/09/05/the-travelling-times/) there is a fascinating story on returning to India after a long absence, and an accompanying story on what the country is like now.

Writer Christopher Maddock is an Englishman who joined the hippie trail as a young man in the 1970s, travelling overland to India and beyond. That was at a time when it was relatively easy to travel through Iran and Afghanistan, which is no longer true.

He writes of his shock on seeing his first dead body in Varanasi, and of subsisting on a very low budget with all the accompanying hardships. Today he finds much has changed, but that eternal India persists.

One difference he notes is the absence of snake charmers now. They were outlawed after a campaign by animal rights activists. I never associated India with animal rights, but then I guess in the land of the sacred cow it makes sense.

It would be valuable to read an account someone had written of a trip many years ago that was actually written at that time, compared to the account of a return visit. However, few of us keep such meticulous records--I certainly don't. I know someone, Montreal poet Stephen Morrissey, who claims to have recorded every day of his life since he was a child, but most of us are not that organised.

In any case, Maddock's stories are well worth reading. For some shorter posts I wrote about returning to Moscow after 37 years, you can refer back to posts for July 2013. I have since written a longer version of that story, which perhaps I will post here someday. That's the great thing about writing, you can keep changing and hopefully improving it.