Saturday, November 21, 2015

Couch Surfer Extraordinaire

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with a young American woman, Chris Kullstroem, about her extensive travels staying with hosts around the world through I've long been intrigued by this site, but she is the first person I've met who has actually used it.

And has she used it. She has stayed on couches or other accommodation in private homes in 20 countries over the past six years. In addition to four places in the U.S., she has surfed in Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Scotland, Sweden and Switzerland.

Chris recently completed a round the world trip to research a book she is writing on haunted attractions, and did it mainly by using couchsurfing for accommodation. What are haunted attractions, you may ask. In addition to the usual haunted houses which can be found in many locations, they include places known for their grisly history such as the Tower of London, Dracula's Castle, etc. as well as festivals celebrating death (the Day of the Dead in Mexico, for example) or devilry (Krampus festival in Salzburg.)

Haunted attractions are a branch of dark tourism, which I had associated mainly with visiting places like Auschwitz or the gulag camps, war zones or extreme dictatorships like North Korea.

Chris said the majority of the hosts she has had live alone, and they are often people with similar interests to hers. Her best couchsurfing experience was meeting a host in England who has become one of her best friends. Her worst was being told to leave summarily by a host in Germany who seemed to be mentally unbalanced. She has also encountered her share of grubby places. But on balance her experience with couchsurfing has been very positive, because she tries to get to know her portential hosts quite well through email before she arrives.

I asked whether she would continue to couchsurf if it were not for the monetary advantage, and she said now she would, because she enjoys having a local guide wherever she goes. Couchsurfers generally stay only three nights, but she has been able to stay much longer in some places. Hosts all speak English at a beginner level at least, and Chris said that practicing English is often one of the reasons they welcome guests.

To learn more about Chris Kullstroem and her adventures, you can contact her through her Website

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Trusting Your Instincts

Regardless of how carefully you research travel in advance, sometimes things go awry and you are forced to fall back on your instincts. I can recall a couple of times when I have arrived late in a city and been required to rely on non-professional taxi drivers. Today with Uber and phone aps this is less likely to happen, but it still can, especially in non-Western countries.

The first time was in Washington, DC. I arrived by bus from Montreal after a long day's journey only to find that there were no cabs waiting outside the bus station, which lies northeast of the U.S. Capitol in an area I do not know well. I was headed to a friend's home in Georgetown in the northwestern part of town. A large group of African-American men were hanging around the station, offering rides to arriving passengers. One of them was especially persistent, and finally I agreed to let him take me to my destination.

We rode in a large older car and I could see that the fuel gauge was close to empty. The driver claimed to know where Georgetown was, but when he began to cross the bridge on Connecticut Avenue near the mosque, I knew he did not. So I told him to turn around, and at last we reached my destination. He was a chatty fellow, and I tipped him well, hoping he would use some of the money to buy gas.

A few years later I had a similar encounter in St. Petersburg, Russia. I had travelled by train from Helsinki because I wanted to arrive, as V.I. Lenin had in 1917, at the Finland Station. The trip was uneventful until its end, when we arrived at a newer station farther from the city centre. My guidebook said the trains from Helsinki still went to the Finland Station, but clearly it was out of date. Again I did not see any official taxis, and finally agreed to ride with one of the most persistent of the many unemployed men who hang out at the station. He was tall and brawny, spoke reasonable English and wore the black leather jacket and the heavy gold cross favoured by Russian men of the
thuggish type.

His car was a gleaming black Mercedes, and I settled back into its leather seat to gaze out the widnow at gaudy neon lights proclaiming the presence of a casino, a hotel, and various restaurants and shops. I was hoping  my driver was not planning to kidnap me and hold me for ransom somewhere. Again I was in luck, and I arrived at my destination unharmed  if somewhat overcharged for the fare.

I'm not sure what I learned from these encounters, other than to try to schedule travel not to arrive late at night when I will be tired and transportation options may be few. And, of course, the lesson that most people in most situations are trustworthy, even if they look and behave differently from us.  Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and hope that things will work out.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Extreme Budget Travel

If you are adventurous and not averse to roughing it, it is possible to travel long-term on a budget of about $330 per month. That is the view of Dan Norris, a young British man, who explains how he does it on his Website (

He does it by camping, couchsurfing and hitchhiking whenever possible, or staying in cheap hostels when necessary. He also settles down sometimes and rents an apartment or works on a farm in exchange for labour through an organisation called Willing Workers on Organic Farms. (

He tends to avoid expensive cities and countries, though he has visited places such as Venice, Japan and Argentina. In Venice he found a couchsurfing host who lived in the suburbs, hitchhiked into town and got around mainly by walking rather than taking the costly vaporetto, a type of water bus. In Japan he worked on farms and eventually settled down in Tokyo for several years. Iguazu Falls in Argentina was one of his favourite stops, even though park admission costs nearly $20. He managed to find a hostel in Puerto Iguazu that charged only $3 for a bed.

Norris tries to avoid flying as much as possible, and when he does he is very flexible about dates in order to secure the cheapest fare. Despite the unconventional way he travels, he claims to have had few problems with either hitchhiking or couchsurfing.

I recently met someone who has couchsurfed extensively around the world, and hope to bring you an interview with her soon. I'd like to hear from anyone else who hed this service about their experiences with it, since I've never had the nerve to try it myself.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Bargains in Europe

My friend Paul,who has been travelling in Eastern and Southern Europe has not been reporting much, but did recently post some information from a lunch he enjoyed somewhere in Crete. It showed a large toasted sandwich with a glass of wine. The price list that accompanied the lunch indicated that a sandwich cost two euros, while a glass of wine was one euro for a total of 3 euros, or about $3.50.

I couldn't help comparing this with the cost of a similar lunch I had recently at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in New York at a restaurant called Crust. The cheapest toasted sandwich on the menu was $11, and a glass of wine cost $9 for a total of $20.

This isn't a totally fair comparison--airports almost always charge higher than normal prices, and New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world. But it does underline the fact that if you have any interest in visiting Europe, this is a good time to do it. Provided, that is, you avoid expensive cities such as London, Paris and Zurich, and costly regions such as Scandinavia.

Stick to places in Southern and Eastern Europe, and you can explore to your heart's content at moderate cost. Even Russia is a bargain destination at the moment. Europe may cost more in air fare if you are travelling from North America, but once on the ground you can make up for it in lower prices for lodging and meals.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Lufthansa Cancels Flights

If you plan to fly into or out of Frankfurt, Munich or Dusseldorf today on Lufthansa (,) check your flight. The airline has cancelled nearly one-third of its scheduled flights into or out of these cities because of a strike by cabin crew.

I learned this on the site, which seems to be a good source of industry news. I wil definitely use it the next time I plan to fly. I am disappointed to see that Lufthansa, one of my favourite airlines, is experiencing the labout unrest that we used to expect only with some other European airlines.

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Tretyakov Gallery ( on the south side of the Moscow River is a good place to see some of the greatest masterpieces of Russian art, from the earliest icons to modern times. The majolica fireplace above is by Mikhail Vrubel, one of the best known Russian painters of the Art Nouveau period. The gallery has several rooms devoted to his work, and you can see another example of it on the facade of the Metropol Hotel near Red Square.

The collection was originally a bequest from Pavel Tretyakov to the city of Moscow in 1892, but has expanded greatly over the years. It exhibits Russian paintings from many different periods, including the very popular Wanderers School of the 19th century. My favourite rooms, in addition to the Vrubel ones, are those devoted to early icons and beautifully carved and bejewelled early Psalters and Bible covers. A visit to the gallery is a good way to gather an idea of the grand sweep of Russian history, since many paintings portray often gruesome historical events.

Admission to the Tretyakov only costs about $6, and is free for those under 18. There is a cafe on site. If you want to prefer to enjoy art without the crowds, try to avoid weekends.

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Airline Seat Squeeze

 I recently experienced one of the most uncomfortable flight I can remember aboard a Boeing 717 operated by Delta Airlines ( The flight was smooth and ahead of schedule, luckily, but I was wedged in a small middle seat and just could not find a way to sit where my body didn't ache. Fortunately, the flight was relatively short.

I am a fairly small person with body mass index of about 20, so I cannot imagine how difficult flying in economy must be now for larger people, of whom there are many. As people are getting bigger, airplane seats are getting smaller. And no, it's not just your imagination.

According to an article in Conde Nast Traveler (,) coach airline passengers in the United States are the most unhappy travellers in the world. Major airlines are trying to do more with less by jamming more seats into planes and removing the padding from seats. For example, United ( operates Boeing 737-800s which were designed to carry 152 passengers and crams as many as 166 on board.

Air France ( and American (www, are among the companies using Boeing 777s for long haul flights, and they have managed to cut the seat size down from  an original 18.5 inches to 17 inches. I flew Air France recently, an Airbus, and also found its seats small and lacking in comfort.

Apparently things are only likely to get worse. I read somewhere that Airbus has patented a design for airplane seats that resemble a bicycle saddle, so soon flying the friendly skies could resemble taking the subway at rush hour.

If you want to check out the seats on your chosen flights beforehand, consult the information on sites such as Perhaps taking a knockout pill before boarding would help?

While we shuffle around tyring to get comfortable in ever-smaller seats, we need to remember that the price of flying has, in inflation-adjusted terms, come way down ovet the past few decades. The first time I flew to Europe to attend graduate school, I remember paying something like $500 or $600 for a return ticket. That was about half the cost of a year's tuition then at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center. Today the tuition at many private colleges is in the range of $50,000 per year, while the cost of cost of flying to Europe has barely risen.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Unusual Hotels near Moscow

I have already mentioned that the cost for hotel rooms in Moscow is way down because of the recent devaluation of the ruble. However, if you stay in the suburbs of the city you can get even better deals. For example, in Korolev north of Moscow the Hotel Korolev, owned by the Institute for Advanced Studies, is charging just $29 for a double room with bath and breakfast in mid-November.

Some of my tour group stayed at this three-star hotel recently and reported it was clean but basic. Most of the other guests are graduate students, but online reviews suggest that despite that fact they are generally quiet. The hotel is conveniently located near the city centre and just across from a large park for walking and breathing in  fresh air.  Korolev is a pleasant suburb, but like the rest of the burgeoning Moscow region it endures heavy traffic.

If you need to overnight at Sheremeteyvo Airport, consider the capsule hotel in Terminal E operated by The Website appears to be in Russian only. I saw this place just as I was about to get a boarding call and did not have time to check it out personally. Online reports vary, but agree that it is clean and preferable to trying to sleep in a fairly user-unfriendly airport.

Rates are by the hour, with a four hour minimum. Apparently an overnight comes to about $60 or $70 for eight hours. Reviews suggest asking a room far from the lobby, which can be noisy. While it calls itself a capsule hotel, rooms are small but have normal ceiling heights. They are not the coffin-like arrangements found in Japanese capsule hotels, but many lack windows.

Below is a picture of a major street in Korolev, with rush hour traffic and a pretty church in the background..