Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Ordinary Life in Crimea

Today is the first day of school for many people here in North America, so it is perhaps appropriate to write about an interesting blog by an English teacher who lives in Sebastopol, Crimea. Crimea, you will recall, used to belong to Ukraine but was annexed by Russia following a referendum this spring.  I have seen very little coverage in the mainstream media since then of how things are going there.

The blog, at http://sandymillin.wordpress.com/tag/crimea, tells about  subjects such as the impact of changes in currency from hryvnia to ruble on ordinary people, and includes many photos. It gives the impression that, at least in Sebastopol, the change in government was quite welcome and the economic impact minimal.

This is not completely surprising--even when in visited in 2010 it was obvious that Sebastopol was very much a Russian town, since it is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and Russian naval officers and sailors were in evidence everywhere. According to a guidebook, it is also one of the cleanest-appearing towns in Crimea, very shipshape compared with more casual places.

The currency change in Crimea is somewhat similar to what happened in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I remember being told by a guide in Dresden in 1991 that there had not been much problem for most people. Ostmarks were converted into Deutschmarks at a ratio of one-to-one up to a certain limit. I forget exactly what the limit was--certainly no more than 10,000. This didn't bother most people, since few had large amounts of savings in Ostmarks, and the one-to-one ratio was very generous compared with the actual value of the Ostmark.

In any case, it is encouraging to discover from Millin's blog that life in Sebastopol seems to be proceeding normally, with people going about their ordinary business and with tourists still arriving, at least from Eastern Europe. She says she has heard of some people leaving because they do not want to live in Russia, but others who are planning to leave eventually are in no hurry to do so. Apparently no one anticipates the imposition of a new Iron Curtain to keep Russians from leaving the country.

Unfortunately Millin does not update her information on life in Crimea very often, since she also writes about other topics such as learning English and her own efforts to learn Russian. She is missing a good chance to provide citizen journalism from an interesting part of the world.

Sorry about the fact that part of this post is in italics. My computer is acting up and I'm not sure how to get back to plain type while using this application. Below, the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, Russia. It was Catherine the Great who originally added Crimea to the Russian Empire.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Luxury Hostels in Europe

If the term "luxury hostel" sounds like an oxymoron to you, you may be behind the times, or just a plain moron. At least that would probably be the opinion of the creator of a useful Website called www.budgettraveller.org.

Trendy hostels with modern design and unusual facilities and perks are spring up across Europe to cater to a new type of traveller termed a flashpacker, or a backpacker who has grown up. These new-style hostels offer private rooms, sometimes restaurants or swimming pools, or even 24-hour breakfasst on demand. For example, at the Ostello Bello conveniently situated near the Duomo in Milan, each room comes with a private bath.

At the Gallery Hostel in Porto, Portugal, the friendly staff will take you on free guided walking tours of the city, while at the Circus in Berlin you can enjoy cocktails in the snack bar. In Tampere, Finland, the Dream Hostel is located in the heart of the active nightclub district. This last could of course be a two-edged sword, if you were hoping for a good night's sleep. I recall staying at a nice hotel in downtown Helsinki which lacked air-conditioning. It was summer, so my window was wide open to hear the inebriated bar patrons leaving when the bars closed at 5 a.m.

You can download a free guide to Europe's luxury hostels if you subscribe to the newsletter offered at the budgettraveller.org Website, which also provides other useful information to keep your travel costs down.

Friday, August 29, 2014

New Budget Airline in Russia

This fall, a budget subsidiary of Aeroflot (www.areoflot.ru) is supposed to resume operations in Russia. The line, called Dobrolyot, was operating briefly this spring but had to shut down because of Western sanctions. At that time it was flying to newly-annexed Crimea.

Anything that makes the cost of travel in Russia cheaper is to be applauded. The vast country can be quite expensive, although I was surprised to discover that a flight from Moscow to Irkutsk on Aeroflot cost just about $600 return in 2011, provided you booked several months ahead. The flight took nearly six hours one way, and would probalby have been a lot more expensive in North America.

You will probably recognise the image above, of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. I am hoping and praying for a quick and peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine hostilities, since both these countries have a lot to offer the traveller.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Low or No Single Supplements

One of the problems of setting out to travel alone is the nearly ubiquitous single supplement charged by tour companies and hotels. You may pay nearly as much or even exactly as much for a hotel room, tour or cruise as two people travelling together would pay.

This practice seems unfair, but the companies do it because they can get away with it.

According to Affordable Tours (www.affordabletours.com,) there are a number of companies that charge little or nothing to lone travellers in terms of a premium for voyaging alone. Azamara River Cruises has a single supplement of just 125 per cent of the per person double occupancy charge, while Tauck Tours offers up to $600 off the usual single room surcharge. Regent Cruises has reduced single supplements on some cruises, as does Avalon River Cruises.

If you sail with Ama Waterways, the single supplement is waived on some cruises in Europe this November.

Unfortunately, all the above companies seem to have pretty steep tariffs to start with. For instance, with Ama Waterwyas an eight-day cruise between Luxembourg and Nuremberg starts at $2899, or about $362 per day.

If you want to take a tour or cruise and are travelling alone, it cn't hurt to ask whether the company will set you up with a roommate of the same gender so you can both save money.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Budget Safaris

A safari in East Africa is one of the great travel adventures, but it is seldom cheap. In addition to the cost of air fare to get there, there is the cost of transportation to game parks, admission to the parks, lodging,food and guides

A company called www.adventuredragonsafaris.com offers a number of tours, including some that are quite reasonably priced. For example, a three day, two-night tour from Nairobi to the Maasi Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya costs as little as $330 per person. This includes adventure camping, hotel or airport pickup in Nairobi, transportation, park admission and meals. If you are a fan of the British television show "Big Cat Diary," it is filmed on this reserve.

The organization also lists volunteer projects, baloon safairs, longer and more luxurious safaris and one program that combines visiting several children's homes with wildlife viewing. It is good to see that some tour operators are making an effort to cater to travellers who can't afford to stay at the traditional lodges.

This company's Website is a little frustrating because it does not seem to list prices for its safaris--you have to ask.

I took a traditional safari a long time ago, and while it was expensive I still consider it money very well spent. Seeing wildlife wandering freely in great numbers is truly an amazing experience.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Travel Health Insurance

The prospect of getting sick or being injured while travelling is one of the things that, unfortunately, keeps many people at home. It is a risk, no question, but you can mitigate some of the risk by purchasing travel health insurance. As mentioned in the previous post, check with your credit card company to see if health insurance is included, and if so for how long.

There is a post on http://thyblackman.com/2014/08/22/how-to-find-travel-insurance-in-a-budget/ has some interesting suggestions about checking into specific types of insurance aimed at students, seniors, or practicioners of certain high-risk sports. It also recommends speaking with a travel agent who specializes in this kind of coverage and looking into insurance that may be provided by the volunteer project you are joining, if you travel to volunteer.

The thing to remember about travel health insurance is that it is in the company's interest to interpret your coverage very narrowly. I recently purchased health insurance from a company I will not name, and was surprised to find that it would not cover me for a potentially life-threatening reaction to a prescription drug, because the drug was to treat a pre-existing condition. And remember, the companies have full access to your medical records.

Another time I was travelling to an area considered a war zone, and was told my insurance coverage would not be operative. "Even if I just fell at the hotel and broke my ankle?" I asked. I was told it would be decided on a case-by-case basis, probably another way of saying no, I would not be insured.

The country where it is most important to have medical insurance is the United States. The medical care in the U.S. is world class, but so are the prices. However, if you are visiting the U.S. and do not have insurance, remember that hospitals are required by federal law to treat you for life-threatening conditions regardless of your insurance coverage or ability to pay.

 Of course, the hospital will try to collect for the cost of your care afterwards, most likely at highly inflated prices (don't ask,) but if you are a foreign resident with no assets in the U.S. they may have trouble doing so. I am not advocating avoiding paying your debts, but the U.S. system is so complex and so expensive that you may not be able to do so.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Credit Cards and Travel

This is a huge topic, and this post will only scratch the surface of some considerations with regard to credit cards and travel. One of the most important things to remember is to notify your credit card company when you plan to travel. If you don't, you could encounter the unpleasantness of having your card denied when you need it most.

Also, if you are on an extended trip be sure to check credit card charges carefully. People I know and I myself have encountered fraudulent charges during a trip, so it is best to have online access to your credit card bills.

Another no brainer with regard to saving money on credit cards--pay off the balance in full every month. The easiest way to arrange this is to have the money deducted from a bank account.

On the subject of premium (fee charging) credit cards, the jury is still out. It depends on your individual situation. I found my Gold Visa card issued by the Royal Bank of Canada (www.rbc.com) was worth its price when I was taking a lot of short trips, because it provided out-of-country medical insurance for about a month, provided you charged the trip or the flight to that card. However, as you get older the amount of time you get medical insurance diminishes, and I'm not sure it is still worth the cost.

If you have a credit card of any kind but especially a premium card, check the insurance coverage you get with the card. It may extend to trip cancellation or interruption, or even lost luggage or trip delays caused by airlines.

Another thing to check before deciding on a credit card is the exchange rate they use when converting foreign currency. Some Canadian banks had to settle a class action suit some years ago because they were charging exorbitant rates for foreign transactions. If you use a particular foreign currency often in your travels, consider getting a credit card issued in that currency. Many Canadian banks offer U.S. dollar cards, for example.

A credit card is very handy when you travel, but if you have poor credit there are often ways around it. For instance, in the U.S. I have recently observed people renting cars at Enterprise by using a debit card and making a substantial deposit.

I'm not going to get into the intricacies of credit cards that are connected with airline rewards and frequent flier miles. For information on them, consult www.thepointsguy.com or www.flyertalk.com.