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 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, 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, (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 site.

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