Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A wee bit of shameless self-promotion

Just wanted to mention that Kim Mance, editor-in-chief of the online women's travel magazine Galivanting, linked to my advice on home swapping in an article for MarieClaire.com. Her story has lots of excellent advice for people looking to save money while travelling. And these days, isn't that all of us?

Thanks for the link, Kim!

TV advice on house swapping

Thinking about house swapping? The NYC TV station NY1 recently ran a good two-part report on the topic with lots of solid advice.

Part 1

Part 2

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Local TV stations give you the inside scoop

For people who want the inside scoop on a destination, the websites of local TV stations are an often untapped source of information.

For instance, my friend and fellow travel writer Katharine Fletcher was interviewed last month on "Living in Ottawa," a local CBC-TV show, about an ecological preserve called the Mer Bleue Bog. It's a great peek at a corner of the city known mainly to locals. The interview ran in two parts: on November 11 (skip forward to 6:30) and November 12 (skip forward to 11:08). You can find both episodes by going to the show's search page and entering "Fletcher" in the search box in the top right corner.

The tricky thing, of course, is finding the exact local TV content that suits your interest. (Even when you know what you're looking for, it's often not simple--see above!)

Searching for your destination on Google's video tab probably won't yield much more than a selection of offbeat YouTube clips of people and their cats. To find actual TV stations, try the logically named TV Station Web Page Directory.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Visit the Caribbean by blog


Around this time of year, many snowbound Canadians start dreaming about the sunny Caribbean. Here's are a few fun Caribbean blogs to get your imaginations going...

And for general info on the Caribbean, try...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What's greener: Planes, trains, automobiles...or buses?


Feeling virtuous because you drove from Ottawa to New York instead of flying? Patting yourself on the back for driving a hybrid car on vacation instead of taking the bus? 

Don't be so hasty.

According to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the greenest choice isn't always the most obvious one. It all depends on where you're going, what route you're taking and how many people are travelling with you.

For instance, if three or more people are travelling together, driving may be more eco-friendly than flying, depending on the type of car (think Prius, not Hummer). However, if you're travelling alone or with just one other person, a non-stop flight in economy class may be the greenest choice, particularly if you're travelling farther than 500 miles (800 kilometres). 

As for trains, those in the Northeast Corridor (which run on electricity) have lower carbon emissions than their diesel cousins in the rest of the Amtrak system. Both are greener choices for single travellers and couples than the average car.

But here's one of the most intriguing findings, from my point of view: intercity buses (or motor coaches, to use the more elegant term the UCS panellists preferred) are often the greenest options for people travelling alone or in pairs. They emit just 0.17 pounds per passenger mile (0.05 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre), compared to 0.37 pounds for electric trains, 0.45 pounds for electric trains, and 1.08 pounds for an average car with one passenger. (The figures for planes vary quite a bit, depending on route and plane type, so I won't get into them here. But they're higher than bus emissions.)

Yes, the lowly bus--maligned by many as the "loser cruiser"--suddenly has something going for it. 

Travel agent Bonnie Lee, one of the news conference panellists, pointed out that intercity buses have upgraded their offerings in recent years. These days, you may find anything from movies to wi-fi on board, at least in the U.S.

So what does all this have to do with travelling like a local? It highlights yet another benefit of bus travel--one of the best ways to immerse yourself in local life.

In 2006, my husband and I travelled by bus over the Andes from Santiago to Buenos Aires. As well as taking us through some spectacular scenery, the 22-hour trip (which included a couple of hours in Mendoza, while we waited to change buses) featured free food and wine served at our seat, along with a selection of movies on suspended TV screens. All for the princely sum of US$55 per person, one way. As a bonus, we spent the Santiago-to-Mendoza leg surrounded by a bunch of teenaged Argentinean water polo players. To a man, they were eager to practise their English and help us practise our Spanish. It was a blast. 

But will North Americans be queuing up in the months and years to come to board their local Greyhound bus? That remains to be seen. That South American bus by far surpassed any scheduled intercity bus I've seen on Ontario's roads. To be honest, I far prefer VIA Rail when travelling in Canada. But if Canadian buses came with wi-fi, iPod jacks and food service, I might reconsider. Hey, Greyhound...are you listening?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Top five perks of vacation rentals


I've been raving about the benefits of vacation rentals for years to anyone who will listen. So what's so great about staying in a house or apartment instead of a hotel room? Here are my top five reasons to go local.
  1. You can discover new neighbourhoods. In many cities, hotels are clustered downtown or in touristy areas. Not that there's anything wrong with either, but sometimes it's nice to see another side of things. In Paris we stayed in Montparnasse, on a street where we could watch chic young moms taking their equally chic children to the local primary school. (For more details, see the article about that trip on my freelance writing website.)
  2. You get more space. Hands up, all of you who have tiptoed around a hotel room trying not to wake your sleeping spouse, only to trip over a half-open suitcase and clatter against the dresser. OK, maybe it's just me. But our apartment in Buenos Aires (see photo above) was about three times the size of the hotel room our friends had booked downtown. That meant while one of us slept, the other could be reading a book in the living room, enjoying a snack at the dining table or soaking up the view from the balcony.
  3. The price is often right. That apartment in Buenos Aires cost less than our friends' hotel room. Especially if you're travelling with a family or a small group, rentals can be a great deal.
  4. No more trying to outwit the maids. I like getting my bed made as much as the next person, but I hate having to try to second guess where the cleaning staff is going to be at any given time. Forget to put the "do not disturb" sign on your door, and the next thing you know, the maid is at the door at 8am, brandishing a vacuum. In a rental, your tidiness is your own business (unless, of course, you choose one of those high-end rentals where maid service is included).
  5. Brekkie in your PJs. One of the most luxurious things about being on vacation, for me, is the chance to linger over breakfast in my 'jammies with a good book. But in a hotel, unless you feel like springing $15 for room service bacon and eggs, you have to get dressed and get yourself down to the restaurant before the breakfast hour ends. In a rental, you can have all the fixings for a fine breakfast waiting in your own kitchen, from fresh fruit to croissants. And you can have breakfast at 2 in the afternoon if you like (not that I've ever done that, oh no).
Interested in a vacation rental? Check out some rental tips on LaVidaLocal.com, my website for people who want to live like locals while travelling.

Of course, no vacation option is perfect; rentals have their drawbacks, too. But that's the topic of a future post.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Buy a ticket, help fight hunger

A group of travel bloggers has banded together to launch Passports with Purpose: an online raffle for some very cool prizes. Profits go to support Heifer International, a charity that fights hunger around the world. Tickets are $10 and prizes include a Flip video camera, three nights in a Hawaiian hotel, and a cooking class and dinner for four in New York City. The raffle ends December 29. Good cause, good prizes--what's not to like?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Couch surfing, cruising and safety

Couch surfing is getting a lot of attention these days--even here on this blog. The latest entry is a short report about the phenomenon by the CBS affiliate in Dallas.

KOLN-TV in Lincoln, Nebraska, also posted a news report on couch surfing, which included an interview with local police chief Tom Casady. Casady pointed out that couch surfers should take precautions while couch surfing--checking references, for instance. He noted that he did a quick check on some locals offering up their couches and uncovered a sex offender. Casady later went into more detail about the safety aspects of couch surfing in a post on his blog. (Wow, police chiefs have blogs. Who knew?)

Casady provided thoughtful, excellent safety tips that any couch surfer should follow. For instance, he suggested doing a free background check on your host with the local police department, bringing your own sleeping bag (who knows what's living in that couch?) and never travelling alone.

Interestingly for a police chief who is well aware of the dangers of meeting strangers online, he also had this to say:
No need to be paranoid, though. You can't live in a cocoon, and somehow the concept of people hosting travellers in their home is appealing to a guy who was on his own at an early age, and depended on the kindness of others to make his way for several years.
Contrast that with the comments about couch surfing back on the KOLN-TV site. One anonymous poster wrote:
This is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard of!!! Seriously??? These people are just asking for trouble! YIKES!! Rent a motel room - your safety is worth it!!!!!!!!
I found this aspect of the discussion fascinating. Yes, there are undoubtedly risks in couch surfing. And yes, they're a bit different than those that arise if you stay in a hotel. But as the police chief noted, risks can be managed, although never totally eliminated. And trouble can happen anywhere--my husband and I once had $300 stolen from our room in a posh hotel. (We foolishly didn't put the money in the safe.) 

The viewer's reaction--that couch surfing was a stupid idea because it's ripe for abuse by crazies--reminds me of a cruise my husband and I took years ago. One night, when the ship was in port in Puerto Rico until 11pm, we took advantage of the chance to have dinner on shore. We stumbled on a fabulous, well-priced restaurant and had one of the best meals of our lives.

When we reconnected with our assigned table mates at dinner onboard the next night, they were all appalled. How had we known what restaurant to go to? How did we know it was safe? Weren't we afraid to drink the water? Why didn't we just come back to the ship?

The conversation depressed me beyond measure. Everyone should take logical precautions when travelling. We didn't do anything remotely rash: there were two of us, we stayed in a tourist district with lots of people on the streets, we were back on the ship by 10pm. 

But cruise ships--and ours was no exception--are notorious for stoking a culture of fear among passengers. From the moment you step aboard, you're told everything on shore is expensive, dangerous and dirty--unless, of course, you take the cruise ship's organized shore excursions (on which they make much of their profit) and shop at the cruise ship's approved stores (from which they usually receive a healthy kickback). 

As a result, passengers truly believe that the ports they're visiting are scary places. And I hear something of that in the the viewer's response to the Nebraska story. 

People should travel safely, by all means. They should listen to their gut in any situation. If couch surfing is a bit too "out there" for someone, that's totally OK and understandable. But I hope most travellers aren't afraid to reach out and meet people outside that "safe" motel room--even if that reaching out is as simple as striking up a conversation on a bus or in a coffee shop, or eating in a restaurant outside the hotel. Otherwise, why leave home?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Insiders' tips on San Francisco and Philadelphia

Looking to escape the tourist trail in San Francisco or Philadelphia?

The Quirky San Francisco blog is currently offering a free 43-page biking itinerary of the Bay area. Aside from that, you'll find regular tips on offbeat restaurants, shops and more from long-time SF resident Randy Schroeder.

On the other side of the country, uwishunu.com (pronounced "You Wish You Knew") is a hip and trendy blog produced by a tourism bureau that really understands the web and social networking: the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. GPTMC staff and enthusiastic locals provide info on cool things to see and do, many of them way off the beaten path. 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Travel with your ears

Following up on my recent post about world news podcasts, I thought I'd post a list of cool online audio travel resources. Not all of them are podcasts; some of them are live streaming files. 

Indie Travel Podcast: Created by a New Zealand couple with a mad passion for travel, this podcast series is usually updated once a week. It's a great source of audio information on topics like couchsurfing and language study. There are also video podcasts and text articles, with an extensive archive. You can subscribe on iTunes, too.

Lonely Planet produces a huge range of podcasts covering most of, well, the planet. They're also available on iTunes.

Canadian travel journalist Bob Fisher offers streamed informal interviews on travel-related topics--everything from sports tourism to the relationship between travel and climate change--on his Travelosophy.ca site.

And finally, there's a good list of travel podcasts in this PCmag.com article from June 2008.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Why rent a car when you can borrow one?

Here's a trend I like: hotels offering shared cars to their guests. Not only does it save guests the hassle and expense of renting a car, it also introduces many of them to the concept of car sharing. And it encourages travellers to use a blend of car trips and public transit--a great way to see a city like the locals do.

One of the first properties to jump on this idea was Toronto's Pantages Suites Hotel and Spa. It is currently offering all guests a free, one-year Zipcar membership and giving them access to a Zipcar parked at the hotel. Rates start at C$9.50/hour. (See my article in the late, lamented Checkerspot Magazine and a blurb on the hotel's website for more information.)

In San Francisco, the new Good Hotel (which bills itself, a bit grandly, as "the first hotel with a conscience") has an on-property Prius Zipcar for existing Zipcar members.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Voluntourism and "aliens" in Peru

Courtesy of WorldNomads.com, an Aussie travel insurance and travel services company, comes this great 25-minute documentary about a volunteer project to build a bridge and a water faucet in the village of Qelqanqa in the Peruvian Andes, southeast of Lima.



A page on the WorldNomads site provides more details on the project. The trip was organized by World Expeditions, which runs Community Project Travel trips in a number of countries. (It's running a trip to a different Peruvian village in 2009.)

While Qelqanqa is far from the regions of Peru I visited earlier this month, many things seemed familiar. There's footage of villagers preparing a pachamanca feast, and shots of mountaintops wreathed in mist. And a comment from one of the volunteers rang true: she thought the travellers must look "like aliens" to the Quechua people. 

That reminded me of a scene I witnessed just outside Lima, the day before I left. An itinerant farm family had set up camp for the season at the base of a mountain. Their rough tent was covered with a couple of tarps. Our guide told us that they had likely hiked here for days from higher ground, to find grazing land for their animals. 

Overhead, paragliders dotted the skies. Their nylon chutes were almost as incongruous with the campsite as were the goggles and space-age clothes of the mountain bikers who zoomed regularly along a dirt track just beyond the tent. 

Aliens, indeed.

Eavesdropping on the world

When I was a child, my dad and I used to sit in our basement tinkering with an old radio that, for reasons still unexplained, had incredible powers of reception. Late at night, we could pick up stations far from our home in suburban Toronto--New York City, say, or Chicago. The idea that sounds had travelled over such a long distance fascinated me.

As a young adult, I discovered the world of short-wave radio, tuning into the BBC World Service and music stations with commentary in languages I didn't understand.

Then came the Internet. Hallelujah. Not only could I choose from countless radio stations around the world that streamed their content online, and tune into scores of Internet-only stations, I could also download podcasts. And here's a funny story: iTunes has led me to rediscover a show I can also get the old-fashioned way, over the air on trusty CBC Radio One.

It's not that I didn't already enjoy "Dispatches," a world affairs show hosted by the thoughtful Rick MacInnes-Rae. After all, the show uses a Mark Knopfler track ("What It Is") as its theme song. And reports cover the globe--this week, stories ranged from drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau to stand-up comedy in Jordan.

The problem was that I could never remember when the darned show was on.

The Internet has saved me from my own absentmindedness. Now each week's episode downloads automatically onto my computer, and from there to my trusty iTouch. (For those who don't want to bother with podcasts, you can also listen online at the site above.)

This got me wondering what other opportunities there are to eavesdrop on the world from my quiet Ottawa office. Here are a few choice discoveries.

Global News: A twice-daily news digest from the venerable BBC. (The BBC is actually a mother lode of world news--text, audio, and video--in several languages. Just go to the main BBC site and start digging. I can get lost there for hours.)

Audio News: The podcast service of the International Herald Tribune.

Pambazuka News: A weekly podcast on African issues by Fahamu, a social justice organization.

Radio Japan Online: News podcasts (in English and many other languages) from the Japan Broadcasting Corporation.

Radio France International also has an extensive English-language section where you can listen to world news online; podcasts are available in French.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Horror in Mumbai

I posted an item earlier today about homestays in India; I'd been captivated by a fascinating website describing opportunities to stay in private homes and meet local people throughout the country. That was about an hour before terrorists attacked Mumbai. I'm shocked and saddened, as so many are around the world, by the news coming from the city. And as so many are, I'm hoping that the chaos and devastation can be brought under control very soon, with no further loss of life. 

Homestays in India

Mahindra Homestays is a new venture from one of India's most powerful families (they're involved in all sorts of businesses, from auto making to finance). The website, aimed at European travellers, allows you to search by region, price, type of building or type of activity--you can specify that you'd like to stay somewhere where you can go bird watching, practise yoga or enjoy an Ayurvedic massage, for instance.

It's been getting lots of feedback from the U.K. media, including a funny, warts-and-all piece by Gerthin Chamberlain in The Guardian. 


Canadian family loses $4K in vacation home scam

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a huge fan of vacation home and apartment rentals. I've rented properties on three continents and, fortunately, have never been the victim of a scam. But fraudsters are out there, as shown by this recent CBC story about a Gatineau, Quebec, family who lost $4,000 while trying to rent a Florida vacation home.

What's particularly galling about this scam is that the would-be renters did so many things right. They used what appeared to be a legitimate site, Forgetaway.com, that's affiliated with The Weather Channel. They checked that the home existed and that the bank account they were asked to send money to actually belonged to the home's purported owner.  

The details are still emerging, but it appears that Forgetaway.com had no knowledge that the home listing was a fake. Like many other RBO (rent-by-owner) sites, the site is a compilation of listings from hundreds of individual property owners and managers.

There is always a slight risk in renting a vacation home online, but there are a number of ways to reduce it. They include sending the smallest deposit possible, with the rest payable on arrival at the house; using a company that vets each property owner; and relying on recommendations from friends who have previously stayed in a particular property. I have a longer article outlining tips for vacation home renters on my website, LaVidaLocal.com.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A student's perspective on foreign maids in Jordan

One way to get unique, unvarnished insights into foreign cultures is to read blogs and articles written by students participating in semester-abroad programs. Today I stumbled on a recent post by American student Laura Ashbaugh, who is currently living in Amman, Jordan. 

In her post, she reflects on her conflicted relationship with her host family's Sri Lankan maid, who is close to Ashbaugh's age. She also discusses a friend's research into abuse of foreign domestic workers in Jordan. 

Until I read Ashbaugh's post, I had no idea that Jordan was home to so many foreign domestic workers. A bit of digging revealed that more than 50,000 workers--mainly women from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka--are working in homes across the Middle Eastern country. 

So why do women go to Jordan to work? In a word: poverty. According to Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka's foreign workforce sent home over US$2.3 billion in remittances in 2006 alone, accounting for over 9 percent of Sri Lanka's GDP. Female Sri Lankans working abroad support an average of five family members each back home. Put starkly, these women work as maids because they have to. An article from Jordan Business magazine provides many other disturbing details, as does a piece in Sri Lanka's Daily News outlining Amnesty International's efforts to help foreign domestic workers in Jordan.

(Jordan is just one of many, many countries providing work to migrant workers, by the way. And few, if any, of those countries have a spotless human rights record when it comes to treatment of those workers. For instance, a recent article in the Toronto Star detailed the poor treatment of Mexican women hired to pick apples in Ontario.)

Kudos to Ashbaugh for bringing to light a sad subject of which I was woefully ignorant. If posts like hers aren't an argument for travelling off the tourist grid, I don't know what is.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Glimpsing village life in Peru


As the sun came up, I peeped through the window of our guest house onto a timeless vista: fields of potatoes and other crops, rimmed by hills and mountains. In the distance, a farmer was already at work behind a horse-drawn plow. In the village of Huamacchuco in the Peruvian Andes, many people wake and sleep with the sun; without night-time distractions such as television, the Internet or movie theatres, that makes perfect sense.


It's hard to get more than a glimpse into a country's way of life on a week-long trip. But if you're heading to the Ancash region of Peru, I can't think of a better way to try than to stay in the Comunidad Campesina Unidos Venceremos, a small community of Quechua families in Huamacchuco. Together, they maintain five purpose-built guest houses and offer hospitality ranging from pachamanca (a traditional feast cooked over heated stones buried in the ground) to impromptu dance sessions to local music.


video

We spent a little less than a day in the community, but it was a highlight of my visit to Peru earlier this month. When people ask, "How was your trip?" I inevitably start telling tales of Huamacchuco: of sampling chicha (a beverage made from corn, lemon juice and cinnamon), visiting the tiny school (where the kids eagerly sang a few Quechua songs for us) and trying to engage the reserved village women in conversation, despite some language barriers (most conversations involved hand signals or simultaneous translation from our guide, who spoke Spanish, Quechua and English).

While unfailingly friendly and welcoming, our hosts had some unspoken rules. Despite our curiosity to see the inside of one of their homes, they kindly but firmly limited conversations to doorways, courtyards and public spaces. Perhaps that was just a coincidence, but I suspect it was an effort to maintain a modicum of privacy. Fair enough. We were there as guests and their homes are not museums. I'm glad they felt free to set limits. Once the visitors start calling all the shots, any cultural tourism project can quickly degrade into a soulless theme park.

Overnight stays with the community, which include all meals, activities and accommodation, cost US$16 to US$27 per night, depending on the size of your group and the length of your stay. To book, contact the Yachaqui Wayi Responsible Tourism Centre in Huaraz, Peru. The centre also has a comprehensive webpage with further information on Huamacchuco. The Mountain Institute, a U.S.-based organization devoted to supporting traditional mountain cultures and environments around the world, is one of the project's sponsors.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New site promotes Scottish vacation rentals

The Association of Scotland's Self Caterers (ASSC) has launched a well-designed website, Embrace Scotland, to link travellers with more than 2,500 vacation rental properties. You can search by region, number of people, property type (apartment, lodge, cottage and so on) and star rating (currently assigned by VisitScotland). Check boxes allow you to specify that you're looking for a green, pet-friendly or handicapped-accessible property. There's also a handy search function that lets you track down properties available within the next four weeks.

ASSC members include a wide range of vacation rental owners, from people who occasionally rent out their second home to companies that own large self-catering complexes.
  
One minor quibble with the site: the main page mentions that you can stay in a castle, but there's no separate castle search category. Please throw a crust to all the aspiring Macbeths and Lady Macbeths out there, ASSC!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Proposed TV series to focus on vacation home rentals

The vacation home rental industry must be coming of age: it's poised to get its own reality show.

PineRidge Film and Television (producers of Samantha Brown's show "Passport to Europe," among other programs) and Discover Vacation Homes have created a promo video for a proposed new show, "Living Large on Vacation." 

According to Discover Vacation Homes consultant Rick Fisher, who is helping develop the show, each episode will match a group of travellers who have never stayed in a vacation home with a property that will knock their socks off.

The promo focuses strongly on two benefits of vacation home rentals over hotel rooms: spaciousness and cost savings. Fisher says the show will also highlight vacation homes as a good option for family reunions and other group holidays. 

The first episodes will all be shot at properties in the United States, which may explain why there doesn't seem to be much emphasis on the opportunity to meet locals while renting a self-catering property (many North American vacation rental homes are clustered in resorts rather than existing neighbourhoods).

The program will be promoted at Fisher's Vacation Home Expo, slated to return to Atlanta from January 23 to 25, 2009.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Check out NYC indie bands with a local

Amsterdam-based Like-a-Local has added an insider's tour of New York's indie music scene. It doesn't come at a typical indie price--42 euros per person, plus a 15-euro reservation fee--but Manhattan isn't cheap. Also, if the quality matches that of a design tour I took with Like-a-Local in Amsterdam this spring, it will be well worth the price. 

The tour promises to bring groups of between two and four people to "a New York underground party, club or music show" in a neighbourhood like Williamsburg or the East Village. It's all a bit vague, because it all depends who's in town and what's hot when the tour is booked. Makes sense; if a band plays every week at the same location, they're probably not very indie.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Guest post: Renting a car in Costa Rica

Here's something a bit new for Facing the Street: my first guest post. The tips below come from Marina Kuperman, co-founder and owner of travel information and booking site MuchaCostaRica.com. Thanks, Marina!

If you're reading this, that means you're the type of traveller who wants the freedom of detouring and stopping at incredible vistas without the hassles of overcrowded buses. Or, you want to take local public transportation to some locations and then rent a car for part of your trip. All of that is doable in Costa Rica. Almost all of the popular destinations--such as Arenal, San Jose and the beaches--have car rental shops. If you need to drop off the car in a different place than you rented it, make sure the car rental agency permits that.

Here are a few rules and insider tips for renting a car:
* You must have a valid international driver's licence.
* You must be at least 21 (or, in some cases, 25) years old. Check in advance with the car company.
* When you pay the rental fee with a credit card, your credit card company may insure you if anything happens to you and your rental. Inquire to make sure.

Insider information:
* The speed limit generally varies from 40 to 90 kph (25 to 55 mph), although it drops to 25 kph (15 mph) in designated school zones when children are present. There are plenty of transit police all over the roads, so keep an eye out or you can end up with a $150 speeding ticket. And in Costa Rica, bribes don't heal all wounds--they just make new ones.

Home swapping on the rise in Australia

Maybe it's the floundering economy. Perhaps it's Australians' famous gregariousness. Whatever the reason, it seems Aussies are getting more interested in house swapping. At least one Down Under swapping organization is seeing a spike in registrations. Homelink Australia, one of the country's oldest swapping networks, posted a 14-percent rise in registrations in September and is anticipating a record-breaking October. The Australian recently interviewed Homelink director Colin McKay about the ins and outs of trading your home for digs abroad.

Manhattan's multicultural desserts

Manhattan is much more than the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fun as those are. It's also home, as it has been for centuries, to a miniature United Nations of immigrants. 

If you have a sweet tooth and a curiosity about NYC off the tourist trail, check out the desserts at some of the Chinese, Indian, Puerto Rican, Senegalese and Greek eateries profiled in an article in yesterday's New York Times. One of the more intriguing recommendations: thiakry, a blend of sour cream, milk and millet served up at Dibiterie Cheik, a West African restaurant in Harlem.

U.K. cottages for large groups

If you've rented a self-catering holiday home before, you may realize that not all villas are right for all travelling parties. Some homes simply aren't large enough to accommodate groups of a dozen or more. In other cases, you want a bit more privacy than one home can provide. Perhaps you'd like to separate the night hawks from the morning people, or the families with lively small children from older adults who've happily put their diaper-changing days behind them.

For all these groups, there's a convenient alternative to checking into a hotel: spots where you can rent multiple self-catering cottages. The Times (U.K.) recently ran an article highlighting 12 of their favourite multiple-unit locations in the U.K., including everything from cottages clustered around a Tudor manor in the storybook Cotswolds to houses decorated like New York lofts in the Peak District.

To this list I would add my own fave, a set of cottages my extended family rented in Northern Ireland a few years ago. Lecale Cottages, near the village of Rostrevor in County Down's scenic Mourne Mountains, are reasonably priced and spotlessly clean. Smaller, more basic ones appeal mainly to Europeans, while two custom-built cottages with all the bells and whistles--washer and dryer, multiple loos, big kitchens--are aimed at the North American market. (We went for the bells-and-whistles properties and enjoyed them immensely.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An American in Ghana

I recently stumbled across a charming blog written by an American college student spending this semester studying at the University of Ghana. Designed mainly to keep her family and friends abreast of her adventures, it's an unvarnished glimpse of a country few North Americans have the chance to visit. She has a good eye for details, such as differences between North American and Ghanaian teaching styles. Definitely worth a look if you're headed that way.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vacation rentals are a $24.3-billion industry

Tourism market research company PhoCusWright has released some preliminary figures from its forthcoming report, Vacation Rental Marketplace: Poised for Change. According to the study, vacation rentals are a US$24.3-billion industry worldwide, with online rentals accounting for about 12 percent of those revenues. 

Given the plethora of online vacation rental sites, I'm surprised the figure for online rentals isn't higher. PhoCusWright predicts it will rise to 17 percent by 2010.

At the minute, about two-thirds of people who book vacation rentals do their research online, but most people use traditional methods (such as phone, fax and snail mail) to make the final reservation.

Other notable figures from the report: 20 percent of all people who researched travel online booked a vacation rental last year, and 89 percent of all people who booked a rental plan to book another one within the next three years.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

CNN also likes house swapping

Moments after posting my blurb about the Wall Street Journal's recent article on home swapping, I learned that Budget Travel and CNN had beaten the WSJ to the punch with a chatty article by Joanna Goddard on her experiences swapping her Manhattan apartment for digs in Paris, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The details of her swap with a neat-freak California couple are particularly funny.

Italian cooking school invites locals to dinner

In a recent posting, blogger Michele Morris lovingly describes--with yummy photos--her experience at a cooking school called The Awaiting Table in Lecce, Italy. The most intriguing aspect of the school, from my perspective, is that the students get to share their cooking efforts with the school's neighbours. The Awaiting Table even touts its "meet the locals" focus on its website.

WSJ investigates the joys of house swapping

It seems the recent turmoil in the markets has the readers--or at least the editors--of the Wall Street Journal pondering less expensive ways to travel. Case in point: a recent article in the WSJ discussing the pros and cons of house swapping.

The bulk of the story is a Q&A with Lois Sealey, who runs a U.K.-based company called Home Base Holidays. There's also a list of basic tips for home swappers, and links to four home swapping organizations.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bed down in a Korean temple

The Korea Tourism Organization is making it easier for visitors to find accommodation options beyond hotels.

An easy-to-search section of the KTO website includes lots of English-language details on unusual places to lay your head. For instance, there are links to over a dozen hanok--traditional Korean homes, usually featuring wide porches and sloping roofs--where you can book a B&B-style room with the resident family. The information on short-term rental apartments focuses mainly on apartment hotels and similar facilities for business travellers. The KTO site also provides a link to the Templestay program, which allows visitors to stay at one of four Buddhist temples and participate in the monks' daily life. 

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rent a place in the sun in Orlando

Not surprisingly, given that it's one of the America's top tourist destinations--it drew 48.7 million visitors last year, including almost 800,000 Canadians--Orlando has thousands of vacation homes for rent.

Vacation homes are a great option for two types of groups that flock to Orlando each year: families visiting the famous theme parks, and golfing buddies heading to some of the 176 courses within an hour's drive of the city. Families appreciate the breathing room--the kids can be downstairs playing video games while at least one parent grabs a few extra minutes of sleep. And groups of adults enjoy the full kitchens--no more making coffee in a hotel bathroom.

One drawback to renting in Orlando is that you can be overwhelmed by choice, with dozens of companies vying for your rental dollar.

Ottawan Steve Flemming, who takes a golfing holiday with friends to Orlando each year, has nothing but kind words for Pilgrim Holidays. The company manages Orlando properties for mainly British owners, and Flemming's group has rented from Pilgrim for several years. "We normally rent a massive four-bedroom, fully furnished and equipped home with a pool for less than $1000 Canadian a week; some are a bit smaller and are available for $700 to $800 and are terrific," he says. "So far, every detail of every rental has been trouble-free and exactly as advertised."

Orlando-bound travellers may also be interested in the website of an association of eight Orlando home rental companies, Discover Vacation Homes.

If you decide you like the Orlando area so much that you want to buy rather than rent, check out a USA Today article on Orlando's second-home market by Larry Olmsted, which includes details on prices and amenities in several neighbourhoods.

One thing to keep in mind about the Orlando rental market: because the city is sprawling and because there are so many rental properties, you may not get the whole "like a local" experience you might enjoy by renting, say, an apartment in a European city. You may well find yourself on a street surrounded by other travellers rather than year-round residents. On the other hand, if you prefer the ease of renting from professional property managers with local concierges, rather than renting directly from owners, Orlando has all sorts of choices.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My interview on Travelosophy

A bit of shameless self-promotion here: travel journalist Bob Fisher recently interviewed me about my book "Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel" for his excellent website, Travelosophy. Here's a link to the podcast.

The joys of foreign post offices

Wherever I travel, I usually make a point of going into at least one grocery store. While comparing prices and checking out the unusual items on the shelves, I always learn a lot. (In Buenos Aires, I found no starker evidence of Argentina's currency crisis than the imported Frosted Flakes selling for three times the price of their Argentine imitations.) 

But although I've visited many a foreign post office, I've rarely brought the thoughtful eye to these mundane spots that Audrey Scott does in "Five Things a Post Office Can Tell You About a Country" on the always intriguing BraveNewTraveler.com

Thursday, October 16, 2008

VacationRoost.com targets the condo crowd

A new site, www.VacationRoost.com, targets travellers who are interested in making the jump from hotel rooms to vacation rentals but uncomfortable with the idea of renting someone's actual home. The site's 100,000 properties in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean include lots of purpose-built vacation condos in beach, ski and outdoorsy locations. The site emphasizes that its properties are professionally managed, so travellers have someone to call if they run into trouble. 

The drawback is that you may not get the whole "like a local" experience, as many of these properties are located in hotel-like settings. In fact, a quick search through the properties in Banff, Alberta, showed that most of the site's Banff listings are hotel rooms rather than home-like properties--rather curious for a site that promotes the advantages of home-sized lodgings over hotels. The bottom line: read listings carefully to make sure you're clear about what sort of accommodation you're booking.

Even though VacationRoost.com is a new name, the Utah-based company traces its roots back to 2001, when it began offering snow-country rentals under the name Ski West. It's gone through several name and ownership changes since then.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Roomorama expands

Roomorama.com, the new peer-to-peer vacation rental and room sharing service, has expanded beyond New York City to Boston, Chicago and Toronto. Listings in my old hometown of Toronto are a bit meagre at the moment, with just 24 properties. 

As always with any rental or home-sharing site, it pays to ask lots of questions of the property owner and to research neighbourhoods carefully before booking. For instance, Parkdale is described in one Toronto listing as an "historic" neighbourhood close to trendy Queen Street West. Both facts are true, but some parts of Parkdale are a bit down at heel, while others are rapidly gentrifying. 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New website for NYC vacation rentals

Looking for a studio in Midtown or a temporary pied-a-terre in the West Village? Try Roomorama.com, a new peer-to-peer service that helps travellers find short-term apartment rentals and spare rooms in New York City. Properties include a Williamsburg house owned by an actor who appeared in "The Departed," complete with its own Zen garden, for US$189/night. 

There's a bit of everything here, from straight vacation rentals to requests for short-term roommates and sublet tenants, so you need to read carefully to make sure you're getting what you're looking for. And the interface needs a bit of work--for instance, when you move between pages, the screen goes unnervingly grey for a few moments. For all that, it looks like a useful new addition to the New York vacation rental scene.

The service, started by two New Yorkers who've rented out space in their own Lower East Side apartment in the past, plans to expand to Boston, Chicago and Toronto this fall. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A houseboat on the Seine

Looking for a unique place to stay in Paris, and money is no object? For rates starting at a cool 430 euro (approximately $700 Canadian or U.S.) per night, you can hole up in a 1,050-square-foot houseboat in St. Germain, complete with grand piano. Like many houseboats, it will wobble a bit if a larger boat goes by, so give it a miss if you're prone to seasickness. Welcome2France.com recently added the houseboat to its roster of properties for rent.

Obama lives like a local

The concept of vacation home rentals got a shot of publicity earlier this month from Barack Obama (perhaps you've heard of him?). The presumptive nominee rented an $8-million home in the Honolulu suburb of Kailua for a family holiday. Hey, when you don't own a ranch in Texas or a seaside compound in New England, you just have to make do...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Meet the Brits!

VisitBritain is the latest tourist board to realize that many travellers are hungry to meet locals and get off the beaten path while travelling. Its Be a Brit Different website includes blog posts from enthusiastic Britons about their favourite places and activities. According to the Modern Agent website, VisitBritain also has a plan to promote "homecations"--options such as self-catering apartments and home exchanges.

While I loathe the current mania for variations on the words "vacation" and "honeymoon" (staycation and babymoon spring to mind), I have to give VisitBritain credit for highlighting accommodation alternatives.

By the way, if you're looking for other tourist board "tips from locals" websites, check out two excellent Pennsylvania sites: Uwishunu, pronounced "you wish you knew" and run by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation; and VisitPA, a Pennsylvania Tourism site where video bloggers share their favourites.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Crash on a couch

Looking for a way to meet folks abroad? One option for adventurous types: couch surfing. It is, as the Christian Science Monitor put it recently, "the universe of social networking itself, simply pushed into the real world."

In a nutshell, travellers hit the CouchSurfing website and make connections with people willing to offer people a free place to stay for a night or two, along with a glimpse into local culture. It's not a technique for the faint of heart, as there's no way to guarantee that your host--or your guest--isn't someone you'd rather not share a roof with (the CSM article includes several horror stories). But the CouchSurfing Project claims that complaints are few, perhaps because many (though certainly not all) members are 20-somethings with an easygoing outlook on life.

For safety tips for travellers using services like CouchSurfing, see my article on hospitality clubs on my travelling-like-a-local website, LaVidaLocal.com.

Getting to know them

OK, this isn't so much about travelling like a local as it is about deepening your experience as a local in your own town. But I thought it was cool, anyway. The Neighbors Project aims to help people in densely packed urban cores and sprawling suburbs alike get to know the people next door, with pointers on everything from saying hi to strangers to throwing a block party. See more in a post on Condé Nast Traveler's Daily Traveler blog.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Rentalo revamps

Rentalo.com, the vacation home rental giant, has just relaunched its website. The home page is still incredibly busy--woe betide folks (like me, ahem) who find it hard to read tiny fonts--but there are a lot of useful changes. In particular for travellers who like to live "la vida local," it's now easier to distinguish vacation home listings from hotel and B&B listings.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bike sharing in Paris

Paris's bike-sharing program, Velib, recently celebrated its first anniversary. By most accounts (such as an article in The Telegraph), the program has been phenomenally successful, with 26 million trips taken in the first year (even though bike theft is also a problem).

It's a great alternative for visitors, as it's cheaper that the Metro and gives you a way to work off some of that yummy French food. This jazzy little video gives a sense of the appeal of the program.



As a visitor, you can sign up for a short-term Velib ticket online. A one-day ticket is 1 euro, and a seven-day ticket is 5 euros. Half-hour trips are free, with the first two additional half hours costing 1 euro each. After that, the price goes up steeply, since the aim is to get people to use them for short trips.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Travel sustainably in Southeast Asia

Heading to Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos? You might be interested in checking out Stay Another Day. This organization gives travellers the chance to meet, work with or stay with local people while supporting environmental and development projects. Opportunities include the chance to tour a handicraft workshop near Angkor Wat in Cambodia and to enjoy a homestay in Laos while participating in a locally run eco-tour.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Vacation Home Expo returning to Atlanta

The Vacation Home Expo is coming back to the Cobb Galleria Convention Centre in the Atlanta 'burbs, from January 23 to 25, 2009. I attended the inaugural show in April 2008 and found it a useful way to gather information on a wide range of vacation home rental companies. Granted, many of the exhibitors were promoting rentals in condo vacation complexes, which don't quite provide that "like a local" vibe. However, most of the big players who rent out houses and apartments in real residential neighbourhoods were also represented, and there were excellent seminars on the basics of renting a vacation property. For info, go to www.vacationhomeexpo.com.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

New insider's tour of Madrid

Like-a-Local.com, an Amsterdam-based organization that arranges dinners and tours with locals in several European cities, has added a Madrid shopping expert to its roster. Travellers can sign up for a three-hour customized tour with Tjarda, a Netherlands ex-pat, who focuses on boutiques in Madrid's gay village. For more, see her Like-a-Local profile.

Why "Facing the Street"?

I suppose I should start by explaining the name of this blog. Well, I wanted to call it "La Vida Local," to match my website of the same name. Unfortunately, that name was already taken. So I revived a name I'd considered years ago for another blog.

"Facing the street" is my short way of describing a phenomenon I've noticed in many countries outside North America. In Canada, where I live, seats at tables on restaurant patios usually face each other, so the people dining together can easily have a conversation. But in Paris, for instance, many restaurants line up their wicker chairs in rows facing the street, almost like seats at a play. That implies that the passing parade of pedestrians is at least as interesting to diners as their companions are.

In some countries, people leave their houses to see and be seen. In Canada, often, we go out to get lost in a crowd. About the closest many of us get to focusing beyond our own restaurant table is in a sports bar, when all eyes are locked on the Stanley Cup playoffs unfolding on the giant screens overhead.

These sorts of tiny differences in cultures have always fascinated me. And they're part of the reason I launched www.LaVidaLocal.com, which delves into ways people can live like locals when they're travelling--everything from renting an apartment in a residential neighbourhood to brushing up on local current events.

On this blog, I'll be covering news from the world of travelling like a local: recent articles in the media, developing trends, organizations that help travellers meet locals, you name it. So if you're looking for ways to get under the skin of your destination when you travel, stay tuned.