Thursday, December 08, 2016

Travel Agent or Do It Yourself?

In recent years many people, including me, have started booking most of their own travel online. For a while, there was a theory that travel agents would become extinct, like the dodo of Madagascar.

Now, though, a lot of people are getting tired of the hassle of deciding on flights or hotels themselves, using multiple prices on various Websites, and reverting to the old-fashioned travel agent. For major vacations, this can be an especially good idea since tours and cruises include the agent's fee in their prices.

Airlines no longer pay agent commissions, so if you book an air ticket only you may have to pay a small fee. But, as I discovered recently, a well-informed agent can save you money because they have access to fares you are not likely to know about. For instance, I found that I could save about 10 per cent on an already low air fare if I didn't mind where I sat on the plane. It's a short flight, so I didn't.

I also booked an airport hotel, and again was able to get a lower price by making the booking non-refundable. I doubt I would have discovered either of these possibilities on my own.

Best of all, if anything goes wrong on a trip booked through a travel agent, you have someone to call and someone who can explain your options, if any, for redress.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

$99 to Europe with Wow Air

An Icelandic budget airline called Wow Air http://www.wowair.com is offering one-way flights to Europe from its various North American hubs for as low as $99 one way, from now through June 2017. Europe in this case means Iceland, but for another $30 you can travel via Iceland to larger places including Paris, London, Frankfurt and Stockholm.

For example, on Jan. 16 you can fly from New York to Reykjavik for just $99, and on Jan. 14 a flight from New York to Amsterdam via Iceland costs as little as $129. Remember this is a budget airline, so you are likely to pay a number of additional costs. But with such a low base price, it's probably worth it.

If you don't live at one of the major gateways for European travel, consider taking a bus rather than a plane to your gateway. And for even more savings, make it an overnight bus. I have a flight into JFK from Europe soon that arrives in the evening, and if the weather isn't too bad I may opt for an overnight bus return to Montreal instead of springing for a night at a costly airport hotel and another flight. I did this once a few years ago on arrival in Boston from Moscow, and it worked out all right. Of course, you can expect to be pretty tired when you finally get back home.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Post-Thanksgiving Travel Deals

This is a good weekend to get savings on some travel. In the U.S., a number of companies are offering significant reductions for travel booked from now through Monday.

For instance, Singapore Airlines http://www.singaporeair.com has a return fare of only $671 for return flights from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston to Singapore booked during this period. The flights must take place on certain dates from January 10 through September 30 next year.

Luxury tour operator Abercrombie&Kent http://abercrombiekent.com is slashing prices by up to 50 per cent on some of its premium private trips. For example, a trip to Bologna and Florence that normally costs $4995 per person is as little as $2995.

American Express Travel http://www.amextravel.com offers reduced prices on certain resort and city hotels booked through their Website, with some prices half the usual amount.

For more information on this type of bargain, check out the travel section of the U.S. version of the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com. Their article will be updated all weekend.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Report from Berati

My friend who visited Albania over the past summer sent an interesting account of her visit to Berati, a UNESCO World Heritage site south of Tirana. Below is an edited version of her story.

"The roads we drove from Tirana were smooth, with four lanes near cities, but we occasionally came across donkey carts sharing the highway. Once we nearly ran over one as we curved down from an overpass. Donkey carts have little choice but to travel along the verge of the highway, and people dart across when they detect a break in traffic."

Her party got lost near Durres, but eventually reached Berati "located in the steep-sided valley of the Osumi River, which retreats to a sedate trickle along a rocky bed in the dry summer. The city rises up along both sides of the valley, houses stacked upwards to the top of the cliffs. The commercial centre lies in the flat area along the river...All the houses are white with wood-framed windows and doors, and tiled roofs. The effect is extremely pleasing to the eye, as the houses mount up the hillside, surrounded by greenery and gardens. Berati is known as "The Town of a Thousand Windows" and it might also be the city of a thousand steps, as the minute you leave the area around the river, the climb is straight up...

"We fetched up at a tiny inn, the Onufri. The hotel door opened into a courtyard surrounded by stone walls draped in grapevines. Our rooms were up a set of wooden stairs that wound up to a large balcony overlooking the courtyard, and were equipped with modern bathrooms and comfortable beds. The walls were white plaster while the woodwork around the doors and windows was dark. It was a lovely place to stay."

She writes a lot more about the things to see in Berati, and about the other places she visited. I'll be posting additional notes from her travels in future.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Budget Travel with a Russian

I recently discovered a budget travel blog maintained by a young Russian woman named Liza that contains, in addition to the requisite beautiful pictures, a lot of useful, specific information gleaned from her frequent travels. Check it out at http://www.tripsget.com.

She travels with a boyfriend, Pepe, she met while both were students in the UK. Now they live in different countries, but meet often on trips. She lives in one of my favourite cities, St. Petersburg, and one of the posts is about low cost places to eat in her home town. They were almost all new to me, and sound worth exploring.

Another blog post gives specifics on travelling from Athens to Serbia in a week, with costs of transport, sightseeing and food. She went via Albania, and had quite a different take on Tirana from that of my friend who was there this past summer. She also cautions that parts of Athens have virtually been taken over by refugees.

Other posts give specifics on costs in places as diverse as Rome, Cambodia and Iceland. The writer and her friend usually stay in hostels to keep costs low. If you are looking for ideas on new places to visit with up-to-date information, you could do a lot worse.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Another Long Walk

Walking can be one of the least costly ways to travel, especially if you combine it with camping in the wilderness. But can you imagine walking for three years through Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, part of Siberia and Australia? That is the journey adventurer Sarah Marquis writes about in her new book, "Wild by Nature."

Marquis walked alone and carried an impressive array of equipment with her on a cart, which makes her accomplishment all the more admirable. Her trip does not sound like fun--she encountered many obstacles. She was harassed by locals on many occasions, had to be evacuated from a remote part of Mongolia for medical reasons, was deported from China because she strayed into a panda reserve.

She writes very well of her many trials, including exhaustion and near-starvation. But she also is able to convey the joy she felt when she was able to immerse herself in nature, far from civilisation and its discontents. As a woman, she found herself hounded by men frequently, but also helped on other occasions by both men and women. She disguised herself as a man for reasons of safety. I looked her up on Youtube http://www.youtube.com where she has a couple of videos, and she looked to be quite tall.

One thing I found a little disappointing given the subtitle of the book --From Siberia to Australia Three Years Alone in the Wilderness--was how little attention she devoted to Siberia. She was near the end of her journey when she travelled to the southern end of Lake Baikal, and she disliked the region because of an unfortunate experience in one of the small towns on the lake.

In any case, her accomplishments are enormous, and she is now officially one of National Geographic's adventurers. She dedicates the book to her late dog D'Joe, and "to all the women throughout the world who are still fighting for their freedom."

I was under the impression when I started reading the book that Marquis was British, but she actually is from and lives in the French part of Switzerland.


Saturday, November 05, 2016

Adventures in Albania

Last July a close friend of mine visited Albania for a family wedding. She is a former writer for Michelin guidebooks, and drafted a marvelous account of her travels there with her family and its new Albanian members --her nephew married a girl from Tirana. This is the first installment of a very long and interesting story about travelling in a little-known country.

Getting to Albania from North America took quite a while, but on arrival in the mountainous country's only airport at Tirana, she was pleased to find the airport was very' modern and managed by Lufthansa. After exchanging money, she and her party "entered Tirana along a four-lane boulevard lined with palm trees and endless shops and office buildings, but with distant views of rugged mountains lit by rays of late afternoon sun. No rain, no fog, no sense of impending Kadare-esque doom. The city itself is on a vast plateau..." Ismail Kadare is one of Albania's best-known writers, and apparently his books paint a grim picture of the country.

The group stayed at a family-owned hotel on a narrow, tree-lined street called the City Hotel. My friend found it "small, modern and comfortable, with air-conditioning but no elevator. The front desk was occupied at all hours by friendly young women speaking excellent English. Although set in a bustling area, the hotel is in a small alley so was surprisingly quiet. It cost about $40 U.S. a night, plus $7 for breakfast."

This is a very good price for a nice hotel in Europe during the summer. Unfortunately it is the only price she noted, but I assume costs outside the capital were probably mostly even lower. To make it more convenient, the Albanian lek traded at about 1,000 to the U.S. dollar.

The day after they arrived her group attended a wedding that included feasting and dancing till dawn. It sounded a lot like the nuptials featured in the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and indeed Albania has a lot of Greek influence, especially in the southern part of the country.

I'll be relaying more of her adventures later on. Until I read this account, I never had much interest in the country, but now I am fascinated by it.