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August 3, 2015

When to splash out for luxury.

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Most of the time we’re happy without luxury travel. However there are some scenarios when it’s nice to make that little step up. Here are our ideas for when it makes sense to go lux.

1. When it’s only $20 more.

There are quite a few times when it’s only a small $20-30 to step up from a 1 star tiny room with no pool to a 4 star luxury hotel with a pool and a deluxe bed and view. Cities in Asia are often good candidates for this. The Daily Mail has some other suggestions here for places you can stay in luxury for under 100GBP/night. The Independent recommends Poland as their destination for cheap luxury within Europe.

2. When it’s super hot.

When it’s 30C/90F or more, a pool is a must (unless you’re at a beach location where you can swim in the ocean). In hot cities, you’ll need to cool off once you get back from walking around in the heat. Remember you’re likely to walk a lot more when you’re traveling rather than be getting around by air-conditioned car.

3. Honeymoons and Babymoons.

If you haven’t heard the term, a “babymoon” is when people take a trip while pregnant, usually before a couple’s first child. The assumption is that travel will be harder after baby (maybe not) and that the woman deserves a treat after enduring morningsickness and before going through labor and lots of sleepless nights.

Honeymoons and babymoons are times when you’re generally wanting to focus on each other and have a relaxing hotel break, rather than be trekking around through the jungle.

If you’re going to splash out, make sure you do very thorough research so that you get what you’re paying for. You can easily do this research online yourself rather than working with a travel agent.

4. When someone else is paying.

Conference travel and other types of work travel are a great opportunity to stay in nicer hotels. Since the cost can be expensed, their isn’t a lot of real difference in the cost of a cheap hotel vs. a slightly nicer one.

5. When it’s mid week in a weekend travel destination.

This brings us back to the point of scenarios when you can get luxury for cheap. Some destinations have super high prices at the weekend but 60-70% discounts during the week. Think places like Las Vegas or beach/sun/ski resort locations that fill up on weekends and empty out on weekdays.

6. When you’ve been roughing it.

If you’ve been roughing it, e.g., you’ve been doing a hike or been on a small island with few facilities then you definitely deserve some luxury. It’ll be something to look forward to after enduring discomfort in the name of adventure.

photo credit: Bert Kaufmann via photopin cc

July 7, 2015

O’Canada – An overview to making a trip up North

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Top Cities to Visit in Canada

Montreal

Visiting Montreal is like getting two vacations for the price of one. You get a Canadian stamp on your passport, but you also get to experience a city that feels very European. If you want to practice your French and a plane ticket to Paris is too pricey, Montreal is your go to option.

Ottawa

Although many people assume that Toronto or Montreal are Canada’s capital city, they’re not. It’s Ottawa. Ottawa is between Toronto and Montreal and worth a stop rather than just zooming through. One thing we’ve learnt about travelling is that you can’t always guess in advance which cities you’re going to like best (or dislike). Therefore if you’ve got an easy opportunity to visit a city on the way to/from somewhere else, then why not take it.

Quebec City

Quebec City is the oldest French speaking community in North America and the oldest walled section of town is very quaint with narrow, cobbled streets – reminiscent of Europe. Amongst many things it is famed for the Quebec Winter Festival which is celebrated each February.

Toronto

Toronto is Canada’s largest city. The greater Toronto area has a population of over 5 million and over half of it’s inhabitants hark from outside Canada. Because of this Toronto has vast cultural diversity so you’ll find tons of ethnic restaurants and neighborhoods to enjoy and explore. Toronto has great shopping and be sure to check out the cool, hipster neighbourhood of Kensington Market. A popular event held in the city each September is Toronto’s VegFest (as in vegetarian festival). Other popular things to do in Toronto are visiting the city’s landmark CN Tower (the tallest stand alone structure in the western hemisphere) and the Harbourfront Centre with it’s galleries, restaurants and promenade walk along the edge of Lake Ontario. For nature lovers amongst you the Toronto Zoo is world famous and currently has 2 Pandas on loan from China! And remember Niagara Falls is only approx.2 hours drive from Toronto, or 3 hours by train.

Vancouver

All of the above cities are most easily visited from the East or Midwest of the USA. Vancouver on the other hand, is all the way across the continent on the West Coast. Because of Canada’s vast size, you’re probably not likely to make it all the way across the continent. The population of Canada is much smaller than the US, so a road trip across Canada won’t have the density of famous sights, the way a road trip across the US does.

One of the reasons Vancouver is popular is because the famed Whistler ski area is just North of Vancouver.

Canada’s other Western city, Calgary, has a bigger population than Vancouver but doesn’t get as many tourists, thanks in part to how easily accessible Vancouver is from Seattle (Calgary isn’t on the coast and is a 10 hour drive from Vancouver).

Getting Around

Road tripping it.

West Coast: Seattle to Vancouver is under 3 hours driving. A northern West Coast road trip could start at San Francisco and take in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.

Mid West: There are lots of route options for road trips to Canada from either the Mid West USA or East Coast. For example, if you’re doing a cross country road trip, it’s easy to access Toronto from Detroit (4 hours). If you’re doing a road trip that takes you through the deep south, you can visit deep south locations like Nashville and Memphis and then make your way North. If you don’t want to go via Detroit then Chicago to Toronto is only 8 hours drive. From Detroit to Niagara Falls is 4 hours drive.

East Coast: It’s only 6 hours drive from New York to Montreal, and around around 7 hours to Niagara Falls. The train, will take a little longer. If you’re on a super tight budget, there are cheap bus options e.g., Megabus.

Training it

If you want to kick back and relax, without having to worry about traffic or possible flight delays, then traveling across Canada by train is a great option. The journey between Vancouver and Toronto on the world-famed “Canadian” takes 3 days and 4 nights and you’ll travel through 4 provinces on your approx. 4500 km journey, passing through the Rocky Mountains, prairie lands, and the great lakes along the way. Take a day trip to the Niagara Falls and then journey by VIA Rail to Montreal which will only take you half a day. From there you’ll travel via Quebec to Halifax on the North Atlantic coast, on Canada’s other great train, the Ocean.
If your time is limited to the west coast then a train excursion from Vancouver to Calgary via the the Rocky Mountains would be a highlight of your trip. The journey on the aptly named “Rocky Mountaineer” takes 2 days and one night. There are a number of different Rocky Mountain train route options available e.g Whistler and Jasper.

Flight secrets

From the USA:

If you’re making a trip to Hawaii, you may find it cheaper to book a flight home from Hawaii to Canada with a “stopover” in your home city. Don’t ask me why but flights from Hawaii to Canada are often cheaper than from Hawaii to the USA. You can try this trick with trips to Europe too. It’s a way to get at a free one way flight to Canada. This is likely to work best if you live somewhere like NYC, or another airline hub city, where a connection between Hawaii and Canada makes sense.

From further afield:

If you’re traveling to North America from Australia or New Zealand, then Air New Zealand’s flight from Auckland to Vancouver is often a bargain. One option would be to open-jaw and fly into Canada and out of San Francisco or Los Angeles, or vice versa.

If you’re wanting to reach Vancouver from Asia, check the prices for flights to Seattle too. It’s only a short distance between the two and if you’re interested in Seattle as well, it may make sense for you, especially if the flight prices are cheaper.

Weather

Canada gets extremely cold in Winter and often isn’t that warm in summer. If you’re traveling in North America in summer but don’t like hot weather, then you’ll probably like Canadian summer.

Image by Scott Taylor under Creative Commons license.

June 24, 2015

What Americans Need to Know To Save Money on European Travel

What Americans Need to Know To Save Money on European Travel

Let’s say you’ve got your dream job in London. You’re an official expat and all of Europe is at your doorstop. What might you need to know about how to save money on your travel planning? Here are some things that UK natives know that can trip up Americans.

1. That giant carryon bag ain’t going to fly.

America has very generous rules for what’s considered carry on luggage and size restrictions are rarely enforced as long as your bag isn’t too tall to slide into the overhead compartment. In America, if the overhead compartment door will close with your bag placed lengthwise, then you’re good.

In Europe and the rest of the world, the rules are much tighter. There will often be a weight restriction (sometimes only 10 lbs, but mostly likely 15 lb or 22lbs).

The bag sizes allowed are also often smaller.

If you’re planning on traveling carry on only in the UK and Europe (or Australia and New Zealand for that matter), plan on taking way less stuff. You might be able to fit a change of underwear and your laptop in your carry on, if you’re lucky!

Usually the carry on weight restriction only applies to your carry on bag and not your personal item (laptop bag, purse etc), but sometimes the combined weight of your carry on bag and personal item are considered.

Always check the rules of the airline you plan to fly before you book. There are a few airlines that don’t have weight restrictions but they tend to snag you by having smaller size restrictions. Argh!!

This chart will help you but restrictions change so always double check BEFORE you book. It’s sometimes better to take a full service airline and be able to travel with your carry on rather than have to check a bag (and pay for it) on a budget airline.

2. Charter airlines.

I don’t think I’ve ever looked into charter airlines in the US but charter airline flights are much more mainstream in the UK, especially to holiday resort destinations like Greece and Turkey. You can get some very cheap fun in the sun breaks with these airlines, and you’ll need them with how gloomy and depressing the weather in London is (but, hey, great weather isn’t why you’re moving to London).

The charter airline flights also tend to fly out of airports beyond just London, so you can combine a trip to say Glasgow by, for example, flying out of London but back into Glasgow. You’d then stay a couple of days in Glasgow and take the train back to London.

3. Plot out your bank holidays on your calendar.

What Americans would call Federal Holidays are called “Bank Holidays” in the UK, after the idea that the banks are closed on those days. Bank holidays will be a day off work for most people. For example, Easter Friday and Monday are bank holidays.

Since everyone and their mother will be trying to travel on bank holidays, you should book early if you want to travel these weekends. However, they are a great way to make the absolute most of your vacation days, which will typically be more generous than in the US. If you can swing it with your boss, arrange to start or finish your bank holiday weekend a day earlier/later to get the jump on everyone else trying to book flights for that weekend.

February 23, 2015

5 Surprising Ways to Save Money While Traveling

5 Surprising Ways to Save Money While Traveling

You too can have this on a budget… Playa-Paraiso-Beach

1. Book a MORE expensive flight.

Sometimes the cheapest flights are false economy. Key examples of this are:

– when the cheapest flight leaves to early or arrives too late for your airport transportation e.g., you have to pay after midnight surcharges for cabs or shuttles, or you’re not able to take public transportation to/from the airport when you usually would do so. Other examples might be when

– you miss the last boat to an offshore island,

– getting from an airport served by budget airlines is more expensive

– your bag fees, seat selection, and meal charges add up to more than a full service airline

– you end up spending a lot of money on wifi, food, and drinks in the airport because of a long layover

– the cheaper flight involves keeping your rental car one day longer (rental cars are charged in 24 hour periods)

However, the #1 reason to book a convenient flight is that when you’re tired you’ll usually make stupid decisions e.g., leave your purse in a cab, or get suckered into buying rental car insurance you’re already covered for.

2. Eat out rather than self-cater.

There are many places in the world where self catering is more expensive than eating out for meals.

Self catering is often more expensive than eating out because of:

– the typically higher cost for self catering accommodation (maybe due to a higher cost of the lodging, or maybe because it results in higher transport costs to less central locations)

– buying ingredients in the supermarket adds up to more than eating at restaurants.

3. Stay at a hotel rather than a hostel.

There are quite a few times in our traveling careers when staying at a hotel has been cheaper than booking two dorm beds or a private room at a hostel.

For example,

– in New York dorm beds can be $50! A hotel for two people can be found for less than $100.

– in San Francisco and other places I’ve paid less for a 4* hotel on Priceline than the cost of a private room at the HI Hostels.

Airport hotels are often great bets for your last night (or first night) at a destination. For example, you can get to the airport cheaper in the morning for your flight, and you’re more likely to be able to check in early after a long day of traveling than you are at a hostel. Being able to check in early, which most hotels will permit, sure beats trying to keep your eyes open till 4pm when you can check into your hostel. You won’t need to go spend $8 on coffees at Starbucks to stay awake.

4. Book a MORE expensive rental car.

– Very cheap rental car rates are often so cheap because they don’t include insurance or don’t include adequate insurance (the might include the legal minimum liability insurance, something like $25,000, which may not cover the costs of injuring someone). Make sure you don’t end up double or tripling your expected rate because you have to buy insurance at the rental counter.

– The cheapest rate might also have fine print like you’ll be charged for a tank of gas and need to return the car EMPTY (you might need a couple of extra bucks to get you the normal “pick up full, return full option”)

– For people who aren’t covered for liability through their existing insurance, you can get around some of the issues with liability insurance renting cars if yo buy a multi trip policy that covers rental car liability or buy a named non owner policy.

5. Book packages.

Sometimes packages come out cheaper than their constituent parts. When you’re searching on airfare sites click over and check out that package rate. Use the package rates as a ballpark figure for your trip costs and work down from there, perhaps based your own research time on $20 or $50 an hour in savings.

December 12, 2014

How to Save Cash on a North-American Roadtrip – 6 Tips

How to Save Cash on a North-American Roadtrip – 6 Tips

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1. If you’re driving an older car, get a USB car charger for your phone/ipad.

I have a charger with two USB slots that plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter slot. Being able to charge your devices in the car is a huge stress saver. It will also save both money and time because you won’t always be ducking into a coffee shop to try to find a place to charge your device during the day.

2. You don’t need to be driving a van to bring your kitchen with you.

If you’re going on a long road trip and aren’t bringing a ton of luggage, there is absolutely nothing stopping you bring along some small appliances, such as your coffee maker or a small, cheapie microwave.

Pair these with a small cooler and you’ll dramatically cut down your coffee and breakfast expenses. We don’t like to go anywhere without having had our oatmeal in the morning. Going out for breakfast everyday is fun for a few days and after that just feels like a huge time suck when you get on the road.

Don’t bring everything, but bring what’s going to save the most cash for you or add the most convenience. If you drink a huge amount of coffee, this is likely to be a coffee maker and a thermos. Make your coffee in the morning and keep it hot for later.

Call me crazy but I often pack the microwave for roadtrips. I have an old, small one that I’ve kept just for this purpose. It’s from when we combined households and ended up with two microwaves.

3. Make sure you’re getting free parking.

I guess that's a tree branch

Make sure you check that the hotel/motel you’re looking at offers free parking. Hotel parking, especially in cities, can be absolutely astronomical. For example, $40 a day.

When you first start your trip you’ll probably remember to check free parking is available and then over time start forgetting to check.

Street parking will sometimes be ok, especially if you’re two people together. One person can take your luggage into your accommodation and handle check-in. The other person can find the parking spot.

Hostels sometimes provide the lowest cost parking option in cities. For example, the HI hostel in Hawaii has parking for $5 a day.

Hassle saving tip: Have a small bag you need for overnight and leave the rest of your (non-valuable) stuff in your vehicle, unless you’re parking on the street. This might not be the safest but it’s much easier.

4. Shop around for your rental.

One of the best money saving tips for travel I ever learnt was to book car rentals through UK sites. This is because they typically offer collision damage and liability protection as part of the insurance, whereas you’ll probably get charged $30 a day if you book through US sites and need to purchase that coverage separately. Of course, check what you’re covered for before you hit that “confirm booking” button.

I used to think booking things direct with the provider would always be cheaper. The more I’ve traveled, the more exceptions to this I’ve found.

Booking on UK sites typically only works if you’re not a US resident. If you are a US resident, you probably have insurance that covers rentals anyway, unlike the rest of us.

When you rent in the US, when you get to the car rental location, they typically allow you to select which vehicle you want to take from any they’ve got available in the category you’ve booked. Ask the guys on the lot which of the available vehicles gets the best gas mileage or is the nicest to drive.

Consider doing multiple rentals and using flights in between if that’s cheaper. Gas Buddy is useful for estimating trip cost based on fuel prices.

5. Consider Park and Ride when you’re in cities.

Even though you’ve got your rental car, if you want to spend some time in a city, it might be easier to park in the burbs and take public transport for exploring downtown. Run the numbers. Especially watch out for if you could get hit for toll charges. This principle mostly applies to places like New York, DC, and San Francisco where street parking is a nightmare and parking lots are extremely expensive but the public transport is awesome.

November 3, 2014

First Time San Francisco – 6 Tips

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1. Tailor your trip to your interests.

Like NYC, San Francisco is a city with a lot going on in terms of events and nightlife. You could do a trip in which you did the tourist basics like taking a cable car ride and walking over the Golden Gate bridge. Alternatively, you could look up meetup groups that fit with your interests. This is especially the case if you’re a tech nerd and would like to hang out with some of your own kind.

There are lots of SF-based blogs where the bloggers mention nightspots, coffee shops and restaurants they like. Ask your favorite SF bloggers where they like to go.

If you like comedy and are visiting San Francisco over winter, SF Sketchfest is a popular annual comedy event that will be held January 23 – February 9, 2014.

If you like Broadway type shows, you can see touring productions at the Curran Theater. I’ve seen shows there a few times. The theater is conveniently located downtown.

2. Prepare for it to be cold – even in summer.

San Francisco has lots of great attributes. The weather is not one of them. Even in summer there can be fog and there is almost always a cold wind that makes it necessary to wear more than a t-shirt outside. Get your warmth fix elsewhere.

If you like warmer temperatures you can head elsewhere nearby. For example, wine country to the north or the tech towns to the south, such Mountain View, where Google HQ is located. These places don’t get the fog and bitter wind that affects San Francisco itself.

3. Visit a Farmers market.

The fresh produce in California is delicious, especially the strawberries. If you’re a foodie, make sure you include a visit to one of SF’s Farmers Markets during your trip. The most convenient large one is probably the one at the Ferry Building. It’s open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

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4. Get an unlimited metro card.

The metro in San Francisco is pretty good. A 7 day pass is $28 and allows you unlimited rides on the metro (called Muni) and busses. There’s metro service to both SFO and Oakland airports (flights in/out of Oakland may be cheaper than SFO). It’s easy peasy. You can buy your pass from a machine as you’re leaving the airport and you’re all set. There are also 1 day and 3 day passes available, and monthly passes. The unlimited metro card even includes riding the cable cars.

5. Prepare to indulge in great food.

San Francisco is one of those cities I’d prefer to eat and drink my way around rather than see any specific attractions. The shopping is not particularly awesome in San Francisco. If you’re going to other cities in the US (e.g., Vegas or NYC) save your shopping for those destinations and spend your San Francisco budget on leisurely meals and nightlife.

Burritos are one of the cheap eats options that SF is most famous for. They are so giant they’ll keep you going all day. The Mission District is where to go for the most choices.

6. Accommodation is expensive.

Hotels in San Francisco and super overpriced for what you get. For example, there are very few even 4-5* hotels in SF that have swimming pools. Save your cash and book at one of the good hostels. We always go private room, no more dorms for us. I generally prefer to stay at HI hostels in the US as they’re predicable quality and good for non-party-people such as us!

If you buy an H.I. membership there’s a coupon for stay 1 night, get 1 night free in the membership packet (inside the brochure so don’t biff it!). It’s only good for dorm stays and you can’t use it at the same location where you buy your membership. If you’re planning to stay at the NYC HI hostel it makes sense to use the coupon for that stay, since hostels beds are pretty much most-expensive there. The membership easily pays for itself. You automatically get it if you stay 6 nights (across any of their hostels). If you don’t plan to use the coupon, pass it on to a fellow hosteler! It’s also a nice gesture if you give away your metro card at the airport if you still have a few days left on it. It’s easy to forget to do these things while traveling and wonder later why you didn’t think of it.

photo credit: Thomas Hawk Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

October 24, 2014

Extra fees and Long Term Travel

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When you only travel a few weeks a year, it doesn’t matter so much if your budget gets blown. For example, I talked to some folks yesterday who had got stuck with a $90 cab ride because they’d accidentally booked the wrong hotel and it was a long way from where they needed to be.

When you travel for an extended period – whether that’s 3 months or a year, the extra fees and costs do start to matter, as people usually have a set daily budget.

Your challenge is to try to minimize these –

Here are some:

– Credit card booking fees e.g., charged by airlines for booking online
– ATM fees
– Currency conversion fees
– Resort fees (mandatory charges that aren’t included in your reservation rate and can turn a $50 a night hotel into a $80 a night hotel)
– Parking fees (These can be up to $35 a night in some cities)
– Rental car insurance that can turn a $10 a day reservation into a $50 a day reservation
– Ticket booking charges for plays and events
– Visa fees, for entering a country
– Airport or after midnight surcharges for cabs
– Baggage and seat selection charges
– Any food or drink consumed on a plane, in an airport or at a museum!
– Wifi charges

Image by Money Wallet under Creative Commons license.

September 30, 2014

Charming Crete: History, Hiking and Hammocks…

Greece’s largest island, Crete boasts a fascinating history, as well as diverse landscapes. It’s no wonder then that the destination is so popular among discerning tourists. While on the island, you can explore ancient ruins, trek over undulating terrain and soak up the sun on Crete’s beaches.

Although Crete attracts nearly a quarter of all Greece’s tourists, it’s still easy to escape the hustle and bustle of your fellow holidaymakers. Step off the tourist trail and you wander into charming traditional villages and quiet coves. Crete’s south coast, for instance, is less developed than the north, while the interior of the island contains the White Mountains, which are ideal for secluded drives and hikes.

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Step back in time

No vacation to Crete is complete without a trip to see some of the island’s Minoan ruins. The excavated town and palace complex of Knossos is a highlight. Located three miles from Iráklio, this is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on the island and is a real spectacle to witness. You should also check out the sites of Phaistos and Agía Triáda. Meanwhile, if you want to truly immerse yourself in local history, you should take a walk around the Archaeological Museum in Iráklio. This contains an array of exhibits, including jewellry, pottery and murals from an array of Minoan sites.

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Explore the island on foot

If you’re feeling energetic, there’s no better way to experience Crete than by setting off on hikes. Cretan mountains form a continuous chain that stretches from one side of the island to the other, and you’ll be spoiled for choice if you’re looking for good walking routes.Despite its ominous name, the ‘Gorge of the Dead’ at Káto Zákros makes for an amazing hike. Located in the north-east of the island, it packed with flora and fauna, and it’s also home to Minoan palace ruins.
The south-west boasts some superb walks too. There, you can tackle the precipitous White Mountains, wander through deep gorges and make your way along coastal trails that meander through peaceful beaches and fishing villages.

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Soak up the sun

When you fancy a spot of relaxation, simply make your way to one of Crete’s beaches. If you’re after a tropical experience, head to Vai on the east coast. Featuring Europe’s largest natural palm grove, this is a real peach of a spot. While you’re there you can also enjoy water sports, including jet skiing, scuba diving and windsurfing.
The suntrap of Mýrtos in the south of the island is another great coastal destination. A hippie mecca in the 1970s and 1980s, this fine-pebble beach is protected from the wind and has retained its laidback, bohemian atmosphere. When it comes to places to unwind, this is the ultimate spot.

Like a small country in its own right, Crete has lots to offer as a holiday destination. Whether you’re there for a week, a fortnight or longer, you’ll be able to find plenty of activities to keep you entertained.

Images by April Weeks, Dan Taylor and Matt Sims used under creative commons license.

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