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 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

Thursday, October 16, 2008 targets the condo crowd

A new site,, 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 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, 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.