Sunday, December 20, 2009

Free Accommodations in Exotic Locales

Would you like to spend the summer on an Alaskan island with only orcas, sea otters and caribou for company? Or how about two weeks in Turkey where tree branches whisper your nightly lullaby? If you're the right person for those caretaking positions, either lodging could be yours for free!

Gary Dunn's Caretaker Gazette has been serving the public for 27 years by connecting caretakers with owners who need their help. The website states that positions are offered, “...on estates, mansions, farms, ranches, resort homes, retreat centers, camps, hunting and fishing lodges, vacation homes, private islands, and any other kind of property imaginable...” in the United States, Mexico, Canada and other countries. Tasks might be caring for a few livestock on a ranch in Arizona, performing light carpentry on a farm in California, or taking a dog for a walk twice a day in Pennsylvania. Typically there's no salary offered unless the position is long-term, but, because these situations provide free accommodations, they are an ideal opportunity for the tightwad traveler to fully experience life at a desirable location for a price that can't be beat.

While the Caretaker Gazette offers a variety of job possibilities, the British-based Mind My House site exists solely to connect pet/house sitters with potential clients. Since pet sitters cost anywhere from $50-75 a day, it is thriftier for owners to engage a sitter who trades pet care for accommodations in the owners' home. The owners are assured that their house and pet are well-cared for while they're on vacation, and the sitter has the chance to live like a native for a week or a month in a desirable location. Mind My House currently has 129 listings in 27 countries with the UK and the US having the greatest number of opportunities.

I'm a firm believer in renting a home or apartment for your vacation, but a situation that allows you to stay-for-free while performing minimal chores is an an even better option!

Practicalities -
For more information about Gary Dunn and articles about the Caretaker Gazette, see his blog.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Attention Anglophiles

Want to experience the London Eye—the third tallest Ferris wheel in the world—without leaving the ground? Britain's national tourism agency's website will let you do that—and a whole lot more. There's no need to mind-the-gap here, because there is no gap. I cannot imagine a question that could not be answered by this site. The plethora of information will satisfy the most curious Anglophile.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sleep in a Bath House, Chapel, Medieval Tower or Hospital

The Landmark Trust UK organization gives you a lot of options if you're craving a unique lodging experience. Founded as a building preservation charity by Sir John Smith and Lady Smith, the trust states that, “All landmarks are remarkable in some way for their architecture, history or setting.”

They aren't kidding. Beamsley Hospital in North Yorkshire, England, is Elizabethan architecture at its finest, but you can also experience modern architecture in the Anderton House built by Peter Aldington in 1969. If you rent a former inn called Collegehill House in Scotland, you can gaze over the garden wall at the Rosslyn Chapel which was featured in The Da Vinci Code book and film. If the inn isn't close enough, you can make reservations at the Rosslyn Castle itself. For solitude and communing with nature, try the three-mile long Lundy (Puffin Island) preserve in the Bristol Channel which is a pristine island with sweeping sea views and endless birding possibilities. There's a tiny village with a tavern and a shop or two, but most visitors are there for the natural beauty. You can only reach Lundy one way--by boat or by helicopter in the winter--but your twenty or so varied lodging choices, once you get there, range from a castle to camping.

My favorite choices, though, are the literary offerings. Imagine spending a few nights in the Piazza S. Felice in Florence, Italy, which was the home of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. In Rome, the flat in the Keats-Shelley house flanking the Spanish Steps would be sufficient inspiration to have me pulling out my manuscript. And is there a wordsmith who could resist the inspiration to be found at the bucolic Tivoli retreat in Italy believed to have been owned by the poet Horace?

While the UK Landmark Trust has, by far, the greatest number of properties offering 180 accommodations in the Channel Islands, England, Italy, Scotland and Wales, other organizations offer choices in other countries.

Friday, December 11, 2009

One Trip—or Three—for the Same Price?

Sacre Coeur

Brian, an employee of the Untours company which specializes in renting apartments to people who want to travel independently with a bit of support from a local expert, and I (as well as a couple other people) have been debating the advantages and disadvantages of a trip planned completely independently and one offered by Untours. You can read the thread here.

Brian's point is that novice travelers may be hesitant to plan their own trips because they fear the unexpected. The Untours company tries to ensure no unpleasantness occurs during the entire vacation experience. An Untours representative personally inspects the apartments on its list so there are no unwelcome surprises when tourists unlock the front door, and an English-speaking guide is on-site to handle—via telephone—any emergency that might arise from a lost passport, unforeseen medical problem, or an apartment key code snafu. I suppose Brian has a valid point if someone is extraordinarily nervous about traveling or is so busy he doesn't have time to do research on his own.

But Untour trips can only be had at a hefty price.

If you want to get the most for your travel dollars, planning your own trip is much more economical and rewarding. All you have to invest is a bit of time for research. And it is possible, I promise you, to have all those assurances Untours offers at a fraction of the Untours' price.

Let's look at a week in Paris during early September, 2010. Untours will pick you up at the airport, take you to your apartment, provide a printed guide written by their staff and a Paris street guide, an orientation lecture, and one group dinner at a restaurant. They will also supply each couple (Prices are listed per person but two people must share each apartment.) with forty metro tickets and two-day museum passes. They offer three small—as most apartments are in Paris—places in the 15th arrondisement and two apartment rentals in the Latin Quarter to choose from. The costs vary only slightly for each apartment, but let's say you choose the first apartment in the 15th arrondisement.  The total for this Untours trip is $3668.

Now, let's assume you make the same trip to Paris in early September, 2010, but do all the planning on your own.

There are several options for traveling from the airport to your apartment, some costing less than $20, but, let's do what Untours does and have a car service waiting for you, with a man holding a sign with your name on it, as you leave customs. The cost, for the round-trip, (This same company will return you to the airport at week's end for this one price.) is roughly $147. Let's assume you also picked up a $25 guidebook before leaving home so you could do some preliminary research. When you go to the metro the next day or to a tourist bureau, you will pick up a Paris street guide for free. You do not need an orientation lecture because you have already done considerable reading and Internet researching before you left home. Besides, you know you can ask any questions you might have at the tourist office. You will also buy two 2-day museum passes and four carnets (ten tickets in each carnet) of metro tickets for a total of $166. Being the cautious type, you've also bought traveler's insurance for both of you for $120 that will cover any cancellations in your lodging arrangements and pay for any medical costs you might have including being air-lifted back to the United States. You have also, after thoroughly checking the reviews left in the guest book and after many informative and reassuring e-mails from the owner, reserved a lovely one-bedroom apartment in the 10th arrondisement, a lovely and safe neighborhood with lots of cafes and shops and just steps away from a metro stop.  The apartment is also equipped with a telephone, computer, international-channels TV, a washer, dryer, and dishwasher.  All this for $662.

The total for the trip you plan yourselves will cost only $1120. Compare that to the Untours' price of $3668. Doing a bit of the legwork and research saves you a whopping $2548!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – How Much Extra for the Suitcase?

Want to know the latest airline charges for checked luggage? The charge for two suitcases? Three or more? Wondering about the fee you'll pay if your bag is overweight? What about carry-on? Find the answers to all your questions at luggage limits.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip - Ferrying Around

Ever since I rode the Staten Island Ferry with its singer/guitar players and jewelry saleswomen in the restrooms, I've been intrigued by this mode of transportation. Rather than spend an hour and a half fighting traffic to get into Manhattan, my cousins and I simply boarded a ferry, enjoyed some music, bought some earrings, and got off twenty minutes later near Wall Street. I was convinced then that a ferry is often the best and most economical way to travel from Point A to Point B. Now, after many more ferry rides in several countries, I'm certain that my initial impression was correct.  I can't promise you entertainment or shopping possibilities on all ferries, but I can assure you that this mode of public transportation may solve some of your navigational problems.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vagabonding – Slowly Traveling the World

“Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life—six weeks, four months, two years—to travel the world on your own terms.” That's what Rolf Potts advocates in his book about travel. He believes Americans are so consumed with achieving the American Dream, so caught up with mortgages and monthly payments and all the things advertisers lead them to believe they need, that they limit travel to “short, frenzied bursts.” Their travel, packaged as vacations, simply become another item to purchase each year and schedule for one or two weeks between May and September. In contrast, Potts would like us to become explorers and discover our world during long, leisurely trips where we see a lot—but experience even more.

Potts's excellent blog contains more travel information than you're likely to find at your local library. Vagablogging also features guest writers who are busily writing about the world they're idly exploring. Don't miss this treasure trove of information.

Two people who were influenced by Potts's philosophy are the Soul Travelers, a couple in their fifties and their daughter. They left Santa Cruz, California, planning to see the world in a leisurely two-year trip. That was four years ago. After exploring 23 countries and homeschooling their daughter, they have a lot of advice to share about everything from the benefits of early retirement to how to eat healthy meals while on the road every day of the year. Be sure to check out their delightful blog for travel tips and for articles about their latest travel adventures.

While the Soul Travelers are old hands at world travel, the folks writing “From Here to Uncertainty” are just beginning. Their blog, updated daily, chronicles the story of Brenna, Bob, and their two children in their fledgling first few months journeying around the world. As the title suggests, they have no idea what the outcome of their trip will be, but they plan to enjoy every second of the journey and remain open to the serendipity that often results from following your dream. I think Rolf Potts would approve!

Practicalities -

Rolf Potts's book, Vagabonding, is a compendium of travel philosophy and how-to-practicalities. It's available at all the usual places.

Monday, November 9, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Don't Believe What You're Told – Rental Car Follow-Up

For the second part of our trip to France, we needed a car to explore the Dordogne area. We arranged the rental with Kemwel, partners with Europcar, paying with a credit card before leaving home, and picked the car up in the Bordeaux Europcar office. The clerk's English at the Bordeaux office was somewhat difficult to understand, but she did make it quite clear that we were not being assessed extra fees right now. If there were additional fees, (such charges as a rail station surcharge, a daily road fee, an extra driver fee) they would be collected when we dropped the car off in Libourne.

When we returned the car to the Europcar office in Libourne, the clerk checked the car for damage, mileage, and gasoline, then told us everything was fine and we were free to go.

I asked about the extra charges that had been noted on the receipt at the Bordeaux office. The Libourne clerk insisted there was nothing to pay. Since David and I wanted to pay any extra charges with euros, rather than be billed a transaction fee by the credit card company, I asked the woman yet again if she were sure there were no additional fees. She insisted there were not.

David and I stopped in a cafe to wait for our train, but, as we sat there drinking our Cokes and going over the rental car experience, I still worried about the charges noted on our receipt. When we picked up the car, the Bordeaux clerk had said that any extra charges would be levied when we dropped off the car, but the Libourne clerk insisted we owed nothing. Were the fees noted in Bordeaux not applicable? Then why did that representative add them in the first place? Why had she kept our voucher from Kemwell which might have clarified what fees should or should not be paid?

The questions continued.  Could we rely on the Libourne clerk's word? What if the charges were mistakenly charged to the credit card? We would need some sort of proof that the Libourne representative had said we didn't owe anything. I decided to run back to the office and get the representative to make a note on our receipt that no extra charges would be billed to us.

Yet, despite David's and my best efforts to pay any additional charges and in spite of the Libourne clerk's reassurances, extra rental car charges appeared on my credit card statement just a few days after we returned home.

I have discussed the situation with Erica at the Kemwel customer service office in the United States, faxed the receipt with the Libourne clerk's notes stating that our credit card would not be charged along with a letter explaining our position, and called Kemwel three times (speaking to Shamus on October 13 and Lenora just last week) before finally finding out from Antonio today that there would be no change in the charges we were assessed.

Antonio suggested I look at the last line of the Kemwel voucher. Although our copy of the original voucher was retained by the clerk in Bordeaux, I had a copy in my computer file. Antonio insisted we should have known that we would be billed fees because of this line at the end of the fine print on the Kemwel voucher: “While you can use a debit card to pay for your reservation through Kemwel, cash deposits, Maestro, Switch and debit cards are rarely accepted locally, so please be sure to check with our agents at time of reservation if you require this facility.” Antonio says we were supposed to realize that the sentence meant we could not pay cash for any local fees we might be charged at the Libourne office.

I guess we were also supposed to realize that the sentence meant the Libourne clerk was mistaken when she insisted three times—and put in writing—that we owed nothing more that day, that nothing would be charged to the credit card, and that we were free to go.

Practicalities -

Do not rely on information given to you by European representatives of car rental companies. Read your documents carefully, especially the fine print, and clarify every detail—in writing if necessary—before you leave home.

Be sure to take two copies of your voucher, and any clarifying information, with you so you will still have a copy if the original is retained by the company representative when you pick up your car.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Drink Water

One of the items that needlessly increases the price of your restaurant bill is the drink you have with your meal. A soda adds $1.50-3, and a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail increases your bill by $4-12. A glass of water costs nothing and is healthier for you and your travel budget.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Lunch Saves on Food Costs

If you cannot prepare your own meals, the second best way to save money while traveling is by making lunch your main meal of the day. In every country in the world, you will find that many of the same offerings that appear on the restaurant's dinner menu are available on the lunch menu for a lot less money. The portions, usually too large at dinner anyway, may be slightly smaller, but you're unlikely to notice the difference. Also, if you eat a late lunch (Many restaurants, especially in the US, serve lunch until 4:30), you will only need a snack in the evening to satisfy you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Trip Back in Time – Los Angeles

Tightwad travel does not always involve major trips to foreign countries. David and I love thirty-hour trips for maximum pleasure at a minimal price. Last week, for $18 each, we first visited an ancient Roman villa, modeled after one dating back to 79 AD, and then went even further back in time to see the animals that roamed the earth during the last of the four Ice Ages at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. Staying over night in Venice Beach, modeled after Venice, Italy, and home to the Beat Generation during the 50s and 60s, provided the perfect nostalgic grace note to our entire back-in-time trip.

Our first stop Wednesday was the J Paul Getty Villa. Getty, while not exactly a tightwad, was indeed a traveler. He earned his first million in the United States by the time he was 24, but amassed most of his fortune, making him one of the richest men in America, by acquiring oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He also traveled to Greece and Rome where he became an avid collector of antiquities.

When his collection exceeded the exhibition space in his home, Getty built a replica of the Villa dei Papiri, the summer home of Julius Caesar's father-in-law in Herculaneum, Italy. Although both Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed in 79 AD by Vesuvius's volcanic eruption, excavations had revealed the design of this gracious mansion. The reproduction, which today stands on a hillside in Malibu, must surely be almost as beautiful as the original.

The approach to the museum simulates an archaeological dig with poured concrete walls that replicate strata of rock. Walking through the extensive herb garden or one of the other decorative gardens, you gradually approach the structure itself with its marble floors, painted ceilings, and decorative walls that were typical of Roman and Greek structures of the time.

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Floor Detail - Getty Villa

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Ceiling Detail - Getty Villa

All of the components of the original villa have been replicated from the Inner Peristyle, a courtyard with a columned porch, to the Outer Peristyle garden with its reflecting pool. And, of course, the small rooms of the first floor and the entire second floor are devoted to showcasing the antiquities that Getty accumulated during his lifetime.

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A Greek Vessel

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A Garden at the Getty Villa

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The Inner Peristyle

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The Outer Peristyle

Our stop the next day was the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits which were made possible by George Page. When he was twelve, Nebraska-born Page was smitten when he tasted his first orange. He decided he had to live where these luscious fruits were grown, so, at sixteen he became a tightwad traveler and eventually worked his way to California. He held a series of menial jobs, ate oranges, and eventually saved a thousand dollars to begin his own business—selling California fruit in a “Mission Pak” to people in colder climates. He later manufactured sports cars and dabbled in real estate until he amassed the fortune which enabled him to build the Page Museum showcasing the La Brea Tar Pits.

The Tar Pits, particularly sticky when warm, entrapped animals that came in search of water. When other animals heard the cries of the immobilized victims that were dying of starvation and dehydration, they attacked and became enmeshed in the sticky goo themselves. Thus, one large mammal might attract an entire food cycle chain with all them dying in the end. This cycle was repeated for over 30,000 years.

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Depiction of Animal Caught in Tar Pit

Because tar is a particularly effective preservative, digs in the tar pits have unearthed the largest and most diverse collection of Ice Age animal bones in the world. From the bones that have been recovered, saber tooth cats, dire wolves, mastodons and some eagle species of birds, all now extinct, were re-constructed and are now exhibited in the museum.

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A Tar Pit Victim

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Current Dig Site - Pit 91

Venice Beach, where David and I spent Wednesday night, does not contain antiquities or prehistoric animals, but it is a slice of Americana. Developed in 1905 by Abbot Kinney, the “Venice of America” project turned swamp land into canals meant to mimic its more famous namesake. Beatniks, poets, artists, and actors have walked its famous boardwalk and called it home for more than fifty years.

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Venice Beach

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The Canals

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The label above the fountain reads, "The World's Smallest Front Yard." This house on the boardwalk has a mirrored front, a narrow "reflecting pool," a strip of grass about 2 x 24 inches, and a fountain.

The flimsy houses which once lined the canals have been replaced by two million dollar extravaganzas, but the town and the boardwalk still retain the funky charm that made this place famous.

David and I returned to San Diego Thursday evening feeling as though we'd been gone thirty days, not thirty hours. After all, we'd taken a tour of ancient Herculaneum, come face to face with extinct animals from the Ice Age, and strolled the quirky streets and boardwalk of Venice. We did an entire trip back in time, and yet we were still home in time for supper!

Practicalities -

Admission to the Getty Villa, open Tuesday through Sunday, is free, but you must get a timed ticket in advance. Parking in the Getty lot costs $15. See this site for more information:

Admission to the Page Museum and Tar Pits, open daily, is $7 for adults. Parking costs $9, but $2 is reimbursed when your ticket is validated by the museum. See this site for more information:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to Plan Your Own Trip – And Save a Bundle!

For the tightwad traveler, independent travel is the best and cheapest way to go. Why spend $200-400 a day for an organized, commercial tour, when you can do it better yourself for less than $90 a day?

Planning your own vacation is also far more rewarding than signing up for an organized tour. While plotting your itinerary, you will learn the history of the places you plan to visit; you'll come to understand the local public transportation system so you'll feel like a native when you hop on the bus or subway; and, after researching apartment rentals or hotels, you'll have a “feel” for the area you couldn't get any other way.

Does planning your own trip take more time? Yes. But there's no better feeling than knowing you are the one in charge of your vacation--if you want to see four museums in one day or sleep late every morning, you can. You'll also find that doing your own planning increases your anticipation, and, after all, that's half the fun of any trip!

Arranging your own trip is not difficult, and, if you start six to twelve months in advance, you will be able to pace yourself so the planning is enjoyable rather than burdensome. Here are the steps that will make the process a pleasurable one.

If there are a number of destinations on your list that you'd like to visit over the next several years, it might be wise to narrow your choices by considering how your currency is faring right now in the countries you plan to visit. You may be able to save a considerable amount of money by traveling to a country this year with a favorable exchange rate and postponing the trip to the countries with unfavorable exchange rates until another time. For example, the UK is off-limits for David and me until the dollar is doing better compared to the pound; but we're seriously considering a trip to Southeast Asia where the dollar is thriving.

Once you know where you want to go, start thinking about airfare. If you're using frequent flyer miles, it is essential to reserve immediately because those seats disappear quickly. (Bear in mind that you can always change the dates of your FF flight, at no charge, should your plans change later.) If you're paying for your flight, you might want to check to see when the most economical fares are predicted. But, since your flight is one of the costliest aspects of a trip budget, you will not want to rely solely on predictions. You can assure yourself of getting the best rate possible by tracking the price over several months with frequent, detailed updates. Get that information with an airfare alert that will be sent to your e-mail in-box daily. The alert tells you whether the airfare you're seeking has increased or decreased in price, so you can buy when the price is right. I like, but there are many companies that perform this free service.

The next step involves the second most expensive item in your trip budget, the place you will sleep. I've said this several times before in previous articles, and Arthur Frommer, the travel expert himself, confirmed it in his blog last Friday (See blog post below.), that the cheapest accommodations in Europe right now are apartments.* If you are planning a week's stay in each location (Most apartment owners require a week's stay although, occasionally, you can find someone who will rent for only three-nights.), an apartment is the wisest choice. Not only can you prepare your own meals which results in tremendous financial savings, but you will have amenities that you cannot get in a hotel or B&B. And, on top of all that, you will find lovely apartments that are cheaper than budget hotels or even hostels!

Once you're convinced that an apartment is the best way to have a home away from home, you'll find that there are many resources to choose from. One of my favorites is http://www.slowtravel/ because the site prints honest reviews written by people, like you and me, who have actually stayed in the apartments. The reviews are lengthy and give excellent information about the room sizes, condition of the furniture, proximity to public transportation, price, and ease of working with the rental agent/owner. This is the site David and I used to locate our Paris apartment. Another source is Vacation Rentals by Owners, a site where owners list their houses or apartments in locations all over the world. Many friends have used this site with great success. Another option in rural areas, of course, is to look for gites in France and agriturismo in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Or use your computer search engine to search for holiday apartment rentals in whatever area you are considering.

No matter which source you use, however, be sure to do your homework. Trustworthy owners/companies will be honest about the apartment's advantages and shortcomings. They will provide lots of information about the amount of furniture and its condition. It's helpful to know, for example, the number of beds- if you have a group of people - and their sizes -if you're as tall as David and I. (Some sites are unintentionally misleading. For example, an owner will state on his site that there is bedding for four, and he is correct as long as one couple doesn't mind sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room! You need to read the descriptions carefully. Bedding that might be suitable for children may not be suitable for adults.) And, of course, learning you will have a washer/dryer, means you can pack far fewer clothes.

The site should supply the answers to all your questions. Here are a few questions we usually ask. Is there free parking? Is the apartment within walking distance of shops and public transportation? Are there stairs? Is there a cleaning fee or is the renter responsible for cleaning before he leaves? Is there a patio or terrace? Also look for lots of photographs (four is the minimum, and I love sites with ten to twenty!) to document the promises made in the text. The very best sites will also provide square footage and a diagram of the apartment's layout.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a listing, though, is that reviews from previous renters should be available to you. An owner who has nothing to hide should be proud to share his guest book with you. Read it and learn if what pleased or disappointed others will affect your vacation.

If you cannot find this basic information on the site, or if an owner/company does not promptly respond to your e-mails, move on to another. There are many owners/companies vying for your rental dollar, so deal with someone who will give you all the information you need to make an informed choice. After all, your rental will be your temporary home in a foreign country, so your selection needs to be a good one.

Now that you've got the two biggest expenses out of the way, it's time for the exciting part of the planning—deciding what you will see. You will want to invest in at least one or two current guidebooks because these sources are the lifeblood of an independent traveler. Here's one way of deciding which one you'll like best. Go to your favorite bookstore, gather every book on the shelves dealing with your chosen location, and find a chair to curl up in. Turn to the same section in each of the books, Paris, for example, and ask yourself some questions. Which book devotes the most pages to Paris? Which has the best maps and graphics? Which provides the most information about the sites in Paris that are high on my list? You'll soon know which guidebooks are the best ones for you.

Guidebooks are such a valuable commodity you will even find uses for old ones. Buy them at yard sales or used book stores for a quarter. Outdated guides are still helpful because the four-hundred-year-old sites you want to visit haven't changed much! When you've only spent pennies on a guidebook, you won't mind ripping out pages from several books. Organize these pages into one notebook to create your own personalized guidebook that will weigh far less than most novels.

That three-ring notebook will also hold information you'll gather from the Internet. While your just-purchased, current guidebook has up-to-the-minute information about hours of operation, costs, walking tours and itineraries; and your torn-apart, old guidebooks supply historical details about the sites you'll see, websites can often supply esoteric information that is not available anywhere else. For example, David and I were uncertain about finding the shuttle to our airport hotel on the last day. We found the information we needed on a Trip Advisor page. (We still got lost, but at least we didn't get lost quite as badly as we could have!) A New York Times article introduced us to macarons. (Though it would have been better for my waistline if macarons and I had never met!) So, don't overlook the Internet as a great source of information.

And, of course, you do not want to forget the information available on blogs. Type two words – the destination name and the word “blog” -- in any search engine, and you will discover scads of sites sharing their travel secrets with you. This is where you'll hear about the fabulous, tucked-away-in-a-back-alley restaurant where the food is divine and the bill negligible, or where you'll get tips on how to avoid the latest tourist scam. The information on blogs is invaluable; no matter where you're going, somebody's already been there and would love to give you a tip or two. Scour the site, follow the links, and take notes. Write a comment on the blog or ask a question. Most blog writers are anxious to share their knowledge and will enjoy re-living their trip while helping you at the same time.

After you've arranged your flight, rented an apartment, and planned your itinerary, sit back and relax. Bask in the good feeling that comes from being a tightwad traveler. You can be confident you've snagged the cheapest flight and saved hundreds of dollars per day by renting an apartment where you will prepare your own meals. You've also armed yourself with insider information about your destination because you've researched guidebooks, websites and blogs. You should be feeling something no tour company can provide right about now — satisfaction at having arranged the best and cheapest trip possible. Go ahead and enjoy it!

Practicalities -

*If you're planning a trip to Southeast Asia, Mexico or South America, you may find that hotels are inexpensive and rental apartments are in short supply. In those countries, it may be just as inexpensive to eat locally and stay in hotels or B&Bs.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Vacation in a European Apartment

Today, Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's Travel Guides, discussed the advantage of renting an apartment or hostel for your next vacation in Europe.

We are getting to the point where, when you seek the U.S. dollar equivalent of a European price, you will always need to add about 60% to 70% to the prices you encounter. A European hotel room priced at €100 will end up costing you about $160. A British hotel room costing £100 will cost you about $175. It's an expensive world out there.

Your response, in my opinion, should be to seriously consider the use of alternative, cheaper lodgings for your next trip to Europe. You should think about lengthening your stay in each European city to a week so that you can rent an apartment at a considerable savings.

He cites only one savings advantage of renting an apartment/hostel rather than a hotel room, but I believe there's another major financial advantage. When you are able to prepare your own food and drink, the cost of your vacation decreases dramatically.

Click to read all of Arthur Frommer's advice today.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Weight-Loss Strategy

Weight control is not easy for me. I have to work at it. Three aerobic sessions per week at the gym are mandatory if I don't want to gain weight. If I actually want to lose a couple pounds over a period of months, I must limit calories and increase time at the gym. It's a slow process.

I suppose, if I were not a tightwad, I could spend a week at the beautiful Canyon Ranch Resort in Tucson, Arizona, where I'd stay in a deluxe room and enjoy three gourmet, albeit nutritious and low-calorie, meals a day for $730 per day. For that price I can also take fitness classes and bike, hike or walk to my heart's content.

Or I could stay a little closer to home at the Rancho La Puerta Spa, just one hour's drive south of San Diego in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, which bills itself as an economy—but still deluxe—alternative to pricier resorts. Here I can enjoy a week's worth of accommodations and meals plus the same activities offered at Canyon Ranch for $494 a day.

But I think my approach is cheaper and a lot more interesting. I ate delicious food, slept in a lovely apartment, did all the walking I could handle, and enjoyed world-class museums for only $83 a day. And I lost weight. Eight pounds in all!

Every time I'm in Europe, I lose eight to ten pounds without even trying. (I lost ten pounds when I spent six weeks in France and Italy in 2007.) The trip in September was no exception. Despite devouring at least one chocolate croissant each day and ice cream more times than I care to recall (plus the usual three meals a day), David and I both dropped eight pounds. Is it because we walked for hours a day and did not snack between meals? Or is it because French food is much less caloric than American food? I don't know the answer, but I do know that I prefer travel as the best approach to weight loss. It's much more fun than aerobics and a whole lot cheaper than fancy spas.

Wouldn't you rather spend $581 for a week in Paris than $5110 for a week at Canyon Ranch or $3460 for a week at Rancho La Puerta? Besides, think how cosmopolitan you'll sound when you tell your friends you're going to Paris to lose weight!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Iced Drinks in Europe

Tightwad Travel Tip – Iced Drinks in Europe

My morning beverage of choice is iced tea, but ice is difficult to come by in Europe. So, since iced tea isn't iced tea without the ice, I make my own. I buy plastic ice cube trays at Wal-Mart (three for a dollar last August, 2oo9) which take little space in my suitcase since the trays nest together. This way I enjoy cold drinks during my vacation, but, because the trays are so inexpensive, I don't worry about packing them for the return trip home. I like to leave them behind for the next iced tea drinker who might happen by.

Monday, October 19, 2009

France Trip 2009 – Food

Market day in Sarlat

We're not foodies. While David and I enjoy tasty food — at home, I make almost everything “from scratch" - it's what's on sale this week that dictates our menu, not the latest recipes from gourmet magazines. On this trip to France, in the fall of 2009, we hoped to eat well, but, unlike many of our friends, we were more interested in using our funds to pay for museum tickets, not restaurant meals.

David's photo of the fish counter in the market

When we told people that we actually planned to use the kitchens in our rented apartments, several said they would not want to be stuck in the kitchen; a vacation meant freedom from cooking. We can understand that point. Still, since David's and my agreement is that one person cooks and the other cleans up, we didn't think it would take long, or be too much of an imposition, to prepare delicious meals.

Besides, there was simply no way to finance this trip if we ate in restaurants for three meals a day. With breakfasts consisting of a croissant, coffee and juice for 6 euros ($9 US) and fixed price lunches and dinners 11-18 euros ($16.50 - $27 US), three restaurant meals a day would have exceeded half our allotted daily budget per person! (We actually averaged $13 US per day for both of us.) When it came down to taking the trip and cooking ourselves or not going at all, the choice was easy.

David's photo of the cheese counter

Breakfasts were delicious. We usually had eggs in some form—fried, scrambled, or in an omelet with some herbs and cheese, or slices of quiche from a bakery—orange juice, hunks of excellent French bread with butter and strawberry jam, fruit, and either coffee or iced tea. It takes no more than five minutes to prepare or clean up after this breakfast, and we thought it a much more enjoyable and leisurely way to begin the day than going out in the chilly mornings to find a restaurant. Actually, although restaurants and cafes were nearby in Paris, we would have had to drive five miles or so in the Dodogne for a restaurant breakfast. It was much easier to eat at home!

Bakery in The Marais section of Paris

In Paris, lunch was usually whatever looked appealing in the bakery windows. Between 12-2:00, bakeries serve from a window that opens on to the sidewalk where you can order a croque monsieur, an open-faced sandwich of ham, cheese and bechamel sauce, pizza, or choose from several other finger foods. The bakery heats (chaud, s'il vous plait) your choice and you can sit on a bench or the steps of a building and enjoy your meal while watching the people pass by. If you've brought your water bottle, you don't even need to buy a drink, so the cost of your lunch is minimal. By the way, the French seem to love street-picnics. There were always a lot of them in line with us.

In the Dordogne, we took a different approach because we had a car which could conveniently hold the little cooler, a collapsible, insulated fabric model that we bought at a yard sale in the States for a dollar, until we were ready for a picnic. Our lunches didn't vary. You may think we'd tire of croissants, slathered with a Dijon mustard/mayonaisse, topped with ham (The French have wonderful ham products!) and Emmentaler cheese slices, but we didn't. Since we never have this type of sandwich at home, it was a treat the first time as well as the tenth time we ate it in France! We rounded out our picnics with fruit and a dessert of some sort that we'd picked up from a bakery.

I must confess that dinner, a couple times in Paris, consisted of no more than bread, cheese, and wine, not because we weren't hungry but because we were too exhausted to do more. On those days we almost had no energy left to eat! Still, given the diversity of French cheese and the quality of their bread and wine, this was not a bad way to end a day. Usually, though, we were more energetic and managed to spend a few minutes preparing very good dinners. We either bought frozen entrees from the grocery store (I maintain that any frozen French entree will always beat the best frozen American entree in a taste test.), took home a particularly interesting-looking main course from the market, or grilled a chicken breast or pork loin in a wine sauce. To that we added a salad from a prepared bag of greens we got at the grocery store or some vegetables, and more of that French bread and butter. Delicious!

A chocolate shop in the Latin Quarter, Paris

I suppose, if we had eaten this way much longer than three weeks, we might have craved a steak or a casserole, but our meals were nutritious, inexpensive, and satisfying. The ease of preparation and the inexpensive cost of our own cooking more than compensated for the slight lack of variety.

We discovered other advantages to cooking our own food, besides the pleasure of having breakfast in our pajamas. Because we shopped in the local markets, bakeries, and grocery stores, we got to know some of the shop owners. The woman in my favorite patisserie in Paris frowned and corrected my French the first day, but soon she was smiling when she saw me opening the door. The grocery stores, three within a few blocks of our Paris apartment, were endlessly interesting to us because of the items they did, or did not, stock. We could not find fresh cream for coffee, but there were at least six kinds of butter. Eggs were clearly labeled as being from chickens raised in “fresh air” or from chickens raised in pens, and prices were accordingly quite high or very low. We also got a kick from loading our own grocery bags, and had new appreciation for all the services we received in the US. When we discovered the Carrefour grocery store in Sarlat, we wandered the aisles for hours. While only half the size of American stores, it was three times the size of the Paris places and stocked a lot more items.

But perhaps the best advantage to shopping and cooking our own food was that we felt, however briefly, as though we were French. We could pretend that we actually lived in this wonderful country, that we shopped the markets like everyone else, and that we prepared our meals using French cutlery, cookware and appliances. That was a feeling we couldn't have gotten any other way.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Independent Trips Compared to Tour Company Trips

Organized tours are advantageous for some countries where the language and custom barriers are too great to bridge, so David and I will probably use a commercial company when we travel to China, India, or Vietnam. But for trips to other parts of the world, we much prefer to travel independently.

Since organized-tour companies do all the planning, it is certainly easier for a traveler to arrange a trip this way, but we find tours unsatisfactory for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that your days are scheduled according to the group's needs, not your own. If you want to sleep late some mornings or laze about in the afternoon sun, you cannot do either if the tour bus must leave the parking lot at 7:30 am or there's a city tour scheduled for the afternoon.

That tight scheduling also means that you see what the tour company wants you to see for whatever length of time the company decides, rather than spend time at places that interest you most. For example, I had no desire to see a furniture manufacturer in Sorrento, but there was no choice. The tour group spent well over an hour learning more than we wanted to know about marquetry when we could have been exploring the town instead. I couldn't help but wonder if the tour company received a portion of the sales made that day.

On another day, I was anticipating a particular stop along the bus route. After teaching Romeo and Juliet for many years, I was interested in seeing Verona where Shakespeare's play was set. Since the tale was supposedly based on a true story, I looked forward to going through Juliet's house and visiting her grave. The tour company allotted only an hour, though, and that included lunch. There was time only to see the outside of Juliet's house and grab a sandwich before climbing back on the bus.

That's the other thing that bothers us about tours. The bus. If you've booked a tour that promises many cities in a short amount of time, and the majority of tours are of this type, you see more of the bus than you do any of the sights. Spending four to six hours a day on a bus certainly allows you to see a lot of the countryside, but we prefer to visit places and museums instead.

That bus also limits where you go and what accommodations you get. A huge tour bus cannot reach some secluded sights that may be on your wish list. You can also forget that charming B&B in the heart of a historic village. The bus needs a huge parking lot and that dictates a large, often personality-less hotel, usually on the outskirts of town.

Perhaps the very worst thing about organized tours, however, is their price. There's a supposedly “budget-priced” seven-night independent Paris tour by a popular company being offered for $1365 dollars a person based on two people sharing the hotel room. The cost for two is therefore $2730, or $390 per day per couple. We saw all of Paris, including Versailles which is included in the tour package, and loved our apartment home-base for only $166 per day for the two of us. That's a difference of $224 a day!

Even more dramatic is the difference in price between a tour of the Dordogne, offered by the University of North Carolina, and the price we paid for a glorious week in this historic valley. Housed in Sarlat and traveling to two cave sites as well as many of the same towns and castle we visited, the seven-night trip sponsored by the University, in 2007, cost each person $2795 or $5590 per couple. That's $798 per day! Again, we saw the same caves and visited even more towns, including Oradour, for only $166 per the two of us per day. That's a whopping savings of $632 per day!

At least one company seems to be aware of the huge profit margins involved in organized tours, so they have developed their own niche by specializing in non-tours. The company touts the advantages of living in an apartment in Europe so you can feel as though you're part of the neighborhood and get a real feel for living as the Europeans do by shopping the local markets, using public transportation, and setting your own itinerary. There is an expert on-site should you need advice, but you are on your own in deciding what museums or sights to visit. Since this is the travel philosophy I believe in, I was hoping their prices for this immersion experience would be similar to those David and I experienced.

In the company's most recent catalog, a one-week experience in Paris, in an apartment the company has chosen, plus a Metro and museum pass, costs $1769 per person. They also throw in a guidebook and some pre-trip planning advice. The catch is that the rate assumes two people share the same apartment, so the cost then becomes $3538 for two people for one week in Paris. (Note that no meals are included in this price.) That is $505 per day for two people. Again, David and I had the same Paris experience with a lovely apartment, a Metro and museum pass, plus three meals a day, on only $166 a day for both of us. That is a difference of $339 a day per couple and our budget included food!

One point I find particularly galling with tour companies is that a per person price is quoted, yet two people must occupy the same hotel room (or apartment in the case of the non-tour company) or pay an additional fee. If you are traveling solo and insist on a single-room accommodation, the supplemental charge is around $600. Yet, when hotels list their prices, rates are quoted per room, not per person. The hotel assumes one or two people will occupy a room; the rate remains the same even if only one person spends the night. Why is it, then, that the tour company charges a supplemental fee for single rooms? I can only assume it's because they make a large share of their profit from charging each person for a hotel room that is rented to them by the hotels for two people.

Truly, given the advantages of independent travel and the huge difference in price between a do-it-yourself independent trip and a tour company trip, I find it difficult to understand why anyone opts for an organized tour.

If it is fear that keeps you from planning your own travel, I hope that this blog will help alleviate your concerns. Although a lot of work is involved, David and I truly enjoy planning our own trips. Studying guide books and reading material on-line not only makes us better informed when we arrive, but those preparations also build anticipation. And, after all, isn't anticipation part of the fun of going some place? We also appreciate the money we save by doing it ourselves because that means more frequent travel to more places. An upcoming article will focus on the steps needed to plan your own trip.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

France on $70 a Day – The Bottom Line

The title of this series of articles is “France on $70 a Day,” and you're probably wondering if we succeeded in keeping our budget to this amount for each of us. The short answer is Yes! More or less. Let me explain.

When we began planning this trip, the dollar was $1.30 to the euro. We did most of our financial planning last January and February, and calculated and re-calculated our budget during those months. I knew, then, without doubt, that we could manage the trip on $70 US a day per person.

Unfortunately, by the time we left eight months later, it took $1.50 to equal one euro, a 15% increase. In other words, through no fault of our budgeting, the trip was more costly than anticipated before we even set foot on French soil. The $70 per day budget had increased 15% to $80.50 per day per person before we left home!

I probably should have changed the title of the series to France on $80 a day, but, optimist that I am, I kept expecting the euro to drop. Even on the plane, I was hoping for a miracle. Still, although the daily cost was more than we anticipated, I don't feel as though I misled anyone about the low-budget cost of the trip. Even $80 a day is still a tremendous bargain.

So, did we bring it in for $80 a day? Almost. We got very close. Before I give you the details, I must issue a disclaimer.

There were good reasons why I majored in English rather than math. Despite my best efforts at conviviality, numbers and I do not get along. But I have learned to accommodate this failing with certain coping mechanisms. For example, I gave up balancing a checkbook years ago and now devote my time to hoping for the best each month. (So far, this has worked well. The credit union and I are on very good terms.)

In France, I kept a little spiral notebook in my purse so I could record every day's expenditures. These figures were then transferred to a larger notebook each evening in hopes that this bookkeeping system would make end-of-the-trip analysis easy. It didn't. I spent several frustrating evenings adding up all the columns and getting a slightly different figure each time. After throwing the notebook on the floor and declaring I would never touch a calculator again, David, a business major, came to my rescue. He suggested an approach to calculating our expenses that made good sense and, more importantly, was easy.

I totaled the ATM deductions I'd made in France, adding the 1% international transaction fees and the 75 cent usage fees, for a total of $1733 US. Next, David suggested I subtract the euros I had left over, convert them to US dollars and subtract that from the total. The result is $1373. This figure represents every expenditure made while in France.

In going through my notebook, though, I did not think it right to include my personal costs in that tally. I bought gifts, souvenirs for myself, wine, the special cream for my leg rash, and indulged in ice cream a few too many times. It seemed appropriate to deduct those costs from the total because they vary so much from person to person. You might spend a lot more or considerably less than I did for those items. So, I subtracted $150 from $1377 for a total of $1227.

Next, of course, David told me I needed to add the pre-paid items for those reservations and deposits we'd made before leaving the States. They were
$152 for my train tickets, $150 for my half of the car rental, $104 for my share of the deposit on the Magenta Paris apartment, and half the $28 cost of the Ibis Hotel at the airport for a total of $434.

That makes the total amount I spent (David's figures are almost identical though we varied in what we spent on personal items.) in France to $1661. That figure includes my share of the cost for accommodations in Paris, the Dordogne and the airport; transportation costs for the Metro, taxi, train, boat, car, gasoline and toll roads; all grocery, bakery, and restaurant costs; and museum pass, museum or cave admissions,and tour fees.

We feel that this trip was one of the best either one of us has ever taken. We ate well (more about that later), saw every museum or site we had the time and energy to see, and stayed in some of the loveliest accommodations available. And we did it all for $83 per person a day! Yes, we did exceed the $80 we had budgeted (Remember the euro had increased before we left, so that proposed $70 a day morphed into $80 through no fault of our own.), but not by much. Here's how David and I feel about the amount we spent.

Yeah, we did it!

Practicalities -

Our, the Magenta, cost 660 euros for ten nights.

Our gite country house in the Dordogne Valley cost 290 euros plus a 22 euro booking fee for seven nights.

David insists you will want to know these things, so here are some additional figures, all in US dollars. We budgeted $234 for grocery costs (This includes items from bakeries and markets as well as food from more traditional grocery stores.) but spent a little less--$230.55. We used $147.20 of gasoline to drive 1,097 kilometers, and we spent $21.75 on toll roads.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Going Home

Our rule is to use public transportation in cities and rental cars in rural areas, and that maxim served us well this trip.

We arrived in Libourne with two hours to spare before catching the train. Driving through the French countryside was easy. The secondary roads in France, more sinuous than American roads because they follow nature's geographical curves rather than man's desire for straight stretches of pavement, have convenient spots so slow-moving traffic can occasionally pull over to let other drivers pass. That speeds travel on the two-lane roads, and the toll roads allow even faster driving.

Although they are only four lanes, you can maintain a steady speed because there seem to be fewer drivers on the toll autoroutes, and Frenchmen are courteous about moving back into the right-hand lane after passing. No one hogs the passing lane. And the aires, rest stop areas for gas refueling and food, every twenty kilometers or so, means you can stop frequently if you get weary.

Although the drive was relatively easy (We did get lost just a bit trying to find the car rental return office.), we were disheartened when we saw the rail station. The large depots in big cities have escalators or ramps so you can reach the platform you need without lugging your suitcases up and down stairs, but, unfortunately, Libourne had neither.

David counted the stairs down and another staircase back up to arrive at our platform, and was convinced he could manage two relatively heavy suitcases, two carry-ons, plus a large hand-held bag up and down the 32 steps. Since I didn't know how to say, Call the paramedics, in French, I suggested an alternative.

Every rail station in France has the capability to provide help to travelers. There's always a wheelchair somewhere in their office (This is how Mary got to her train when she broke her leg in Arles. See “Is Travel Medical Insurance Necessary?” published in the July blog articles.), and I'd noticed elderly tourists being helped with their luggage.

I went outside and to the back of the station where the tracks are and looked for the Accueil sign. (I think accueil means reception, but no matter. I knew that's where we'd find help.) Sure enough, a nice man said he understood our wanting to avoid emergency medical care. Then he plopped a railroad cap on his head, took down a chain barricade, and led us straight across the tracks themselves to the correct platform. We gave him a two euro tip which was a whole lot cheaper than a heart attack!

We had chosen to leave from Libourne because that particular TGV route ended at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, thus saving us an expensive taxi ride from the center of Paris, but we had a difficult time trying to find the waiting area for the shuttle. Signs were confusing because the airport has a shuttle to take travelers to various terminals, and we didn't know how to distinguish the hotel shuttle signs from the airport shuttle signs. After wandering about for half an hour, we finally found two other lost souls, and between us we finally figured out what to do. We followed the taxi signs because we assumed that the hotel shuttles would probably also depart from this point. Luckily, we were correct.

David and I settled into the Ibis Charles de Gaulle Paris Nord 2 Hotel, enjoyed an excellent dinner at the restaurant nearby, and slept well even though we were sad to be leaving this country we loved.

Breakfast at the Ibis the next morning was filling and delicious, the shuttle was prompt, and we were on the plane heading for California before we had much time to think about it.

Perhaps it was just as well that everything went quickly that last morning. We had no time for regrets and, instead, on the sixteen-hour trip home, we remembered only the pleasure we'd experienced in this beautiful country.

And at night, back in California when we studied the sky, we'd see the same stars and moon that had graced the night sky over France. That's the thought we held on to all the way home.

Practicalities -

There's a tremendous amount of advice about driving in France on this thread on the Slow Travel website

Never hesitate to ask for help at a train station if there are too many stairs and too much luggage involved in reaching your platform. Request aid at the ticket counter where the agent will refer you to the proper person, or go to the back of the building and look for the “Accueil” sign.

If you arrive at the rail terminal at CDG Airport, do not pay any attention to the shuttle signs. Take the elevator up to the fifth level. Go outside and you will find the hotel shuttle stop. It may take twenty minutes for your shuttle, or navette as they're called in France, to arrive since a dozen serve the many hotels, but it will pick you up eventually.

We were very pleased with our room at the two-star Ibis Charles de Gaulle Paris Nord 2 Hotel. It was compact but comfortable. We slept well because the beds were heavenly, and there was absolutely no noise from the nearby airport. We were also quite pleased with the price. We'd reserved our no-changes-allowed room on-line in August for 39 euros; paying in advance was advantageous because the marquee in front of the hotel advertised the room rate as 85 euros. We saved over 100% by reserving early.

As a general rule, the Accor hotel chain, of which Ibis is a part, provides comfortable accommodations throughout Europe. There are eleven or so different hotel chains offering accommodations ranging from the luxurious Sofitel, with high prices to match, all the way to the budget -friendly (Motel 6-type) Etap and Formule 1 chains. The Ibis, similar to Holiday Inn Express in the US, is a choice between those two extremes. See this site for more information.

Monday, October 12, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Last Day in the Dordogne

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

We'd been blessed with good weather on this trip—jacket weather in the cool mornings and evenings, and T-shirt weather in the hot afternoons—and our last day in the Dordogne was no exception. The day dawned bright and clear, but there was no time to linger on the terrace enjoying the sunshine as there were several items on our to-do list. We hurried into Sarlat.

After a twenty-minute walk, we found the Internet cafe where David wanted to double-check our driving directions (printed before we left home) to Libourne. We wanted to make sure we'd get to the EuropCar rental office on time tomorrow to return the Peugeot and it would help if, for once, we didn't get lost. It was closed. Next we stopped at the little complex where the gas station and Carrefour grocery store were located. Both were closed.

Then we remembered. It was Sunday and most of the people in France were enjoying spending time with their families. Since we didn't have much choice, we decided to do the same. We'd relax and enjoy our last day in this beautiful valley.

We drove into Les Eyzies and had lunch on the terrace of a restaurant we'd admired every time we'd visited the town. Then we headed home where we said goodbye to Donkey. We're probably the only tourists in France who had a donkey as a borrowed pet, but he came every time we called (the chunks of bread we fed him probably had something to do with his promptness), and we'd grown quite fond of him.

As we sat on the terrace eating some of the cheese we'd collected the past week (With hundreds to choose from, this country is a cheese-lovers paradise.), we tried to decide whether we were obligated to clean the gite. Stephanie, at the tourist office, had said we were not, but some of the gite information said renters did need to do this. We'd never seen Jean-Francois, the caretaker, again and certainly didn't want to bother him on a Sunday, so we decided to do a little cleaning in hopes that would suffice.

David swept while I cleaned the bathrooms and kitchen. We packed our belongings, said goodbye yet again to the geese and Donkey, and relocated the lizard, that regularly climbed into the bedroom through the open window, to the outdoors one last time. Our minimal chores were finished.

After a candle-lit dinner, we watched the stars one last time and concluded that maybe the French were on to something. This relaxing day, when we enjoyed the time with each other instead of Getting Things Done was one of the best we'd had during our entire trip. Yes, the French definitely had the right idea about Sundays.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Splitting Expenses

David and I split grocery and transportation costs (gasoline, toll roads) equally. Rather than tediously figuring who owes what with each transaction, we draw from the zippered pouch we use as a kitty. Each of us contributes $20 (or 20 euros or whatever denomination we're using) to the pouch, and shared expenses are withdrawn from this fund which is replenished as needed.

Friday, October 9, 2009

France on $70 a Day – A Unique World War II Memorial

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

In the small French village of Oradour, a town with three schools, bakeries, a blacksmith shop, and tailors, two hundred SS troops marched into the main street on 10 June 1944. They had already secured the only exits to the village so the townspeople, lacking any escape, were forced to follow the SS commands as the troops combed through the houses and shops.

The men of the town, 198 of them, were herded into barns while the women and children were forced into the local church. Told that the village was going to be searched for weapons, the men, who knew there were no weapons, were confident of a quick release. The children were encouraged to sing on their way to the church.

When the people were securely barricaded, the men were shot with machine guns and later, even though some were still clinging to life, burned. A bomb was thrown into the church to asphyxiate the 444 women and children, but it proved ineffective. The SS went in, shot their victims to subdue them, and then threw logs atop their prone, but still-conscious, bodies and lit a fire. Many of the SS watched the carnage from the windows of the church.

Although five men and one woman managed, despite injuries, to escape, the SS killed every one of the other 642 inhabitants. When they had finished murdering, the troops moved on to loot the houses and then burn down the entire village.

To this day, no one is sure what motivated the Nazis. Oradour was not part of the French Resistance. It was, up until 10 June 1944, one of the sleepiest and most peaceful villages in France.

David and I watched this historical horror story unfold via slides and narration, in the auditorium of the Centre de la Memoire, a memorial dedicated to the innocent victims of Oradour. We sat there, long after the credits had rolled by, wondering how it was possible for the SS to have treated these innocent people so cruelly. How could they have watched children burn to death? Two children's charred bodies had been found holding on to each other. What sort of monster could allow that to happen?

Lost in our thoughts, we slowly walked from the auditorium. Surely an atrocity of this type could never happen again. These SS were not human beings, but savages. Human beings could not have demolished an entire town and tortured the townspeople before killing them. Human beings would not stand outside church windows and listen to the screams and pleas of injured people slowly being burned to death. No, these Nazis were a breed apart, monsters who existed only during that devastating war.

David and I entered the next room which was dimly lit. As our eyes adjusted to the low light, we saw that parts of the glass floor were illuminated with what, at first glance, looked like headstones, but were, in fact, quotes from famous people about the atrocities of war.

As we studied them, I had the uneasy feeling that someone was behind me. Finally turning around, I saw that the entire back wall of this room was a mirror. And, there, David and I had our answer in the mirror's reflection. The Nazis were not monsters, not a breed apart, after all. They were, given the right conditions of time and place, just like you and me.



The village has been left just as it was in June, 1944, as a memorial to the people who died in the senseless war, while a second “new” Oradour has been built nearby.

The town is roughly twelve miles northwest of Limoges. Parking is free. You can only enter the Oradour ruins, at no cost, via the Memorial's gates, but if you decide to tour the Memorial first to learn of the events leading up to the massacre, the cost is 7.60 euros.

See this site for further information:

When we were there in September, there was another touring exhibition on display. We paid another 2 euros to view the Memorial to 9/11 where, among many artifacts, the misshapen cornerstone of the World Trade Centers, parts of the planes, and portions of the fence (that became a memorial at the site), were displayed.

I fought back emotions as I wandered through the room, but a painting by Italian artist Piero Capobianco brought tears. The Statue of Liberty, impaled on the cross created by the two World Trade Centers, reminded me, yet again, that atrocities are not limited to the distant past. Sadly, Oradour and New York City have a lot in common.

Painting by Piero Capobianco


Tightwad Travel Tip – Driving in France (without getting lost)

If you plan to travel far afield from your “home base,” as we did from Bordeaux to Sarlat and again from Sarlat to Oradour, it is helpful to use Google,, or Via, to plan your driving directions. We also found it more practical to do this before we left home, with our own computers and printers, because it's often difficult to find the English version of these sites using European computers in Internet cafes. Using your own printer also means you won't pay a fee for printing copies at a cafe.

When you get the directions, be sure to get them coming AND going. You may think it would be easy to re-trace your steps, but it is all but impossible to do so. For example, exit 16 might be easy to find on the way to Oradour but impossible to locate on the return trip.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I forgot this important point for the return trip from Oradour, and, had it not been for a Portuguese truck driver in an aires (the French rest stop with a service station and restaurant located every 20 kilometers or so along toll autoroutes) who spoke excellent English and knew how to read maps better than we did, we might still be driving around the Dordogne countryside.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

France on $70 a Day – The Dordogne Valley

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

The Dordogne Valley, with whole towns seemingly carved out of the steep limestone cliffs flanking the river, is stunning whether viewed from a car or a bike, but perhaps the best way to appreciate the scenery is from a boat. The river provides the vantage point of traveling the boundary that, during The Hundred Years War, separated French territory from the English. The Beynac boat tour offers an ideal way to see the French and English castles that faced each other across the river banks. In two kilometers, there are five castles: Fayrac, Castelnaud, Marqueyssac, Beynac and Milandes.

We wished we'd had time to explore Castelnaud and its museum of medieval weaponry, built in the 1400s and refurbished over the past 35 years; and Milandes, owned by American Josephine Baker who raised twelve children of different nationalities there, but we had time only to see Beynac Castle.

We found a little cafe in town where we had the only unpleasant encounter during the whole trip. Usually restaurants are happy to supply, for free, a chilled carafe of water with two glasses. This man, though, said--No carafes d'eau--and pointed to a sign on the wall that prohibited bringing in your own drinks. I put my water bottle back in my purse. After reprimanding us, the owner smiled and asked what we'd like to drink with our meal. He seemed surprised when we said we wanted nothing.

Despite the unpleasantness of the owner, David and I enjoyed our meal before we started arguing about how to reach Beynac Castle itself. He wanted to hike twenty minutes through town and up a relatively steep hill, while I preferred to drive. By this time on our vacation, my whole body, not just my feet, ached. I tried to save energy for the sites themselves rather than expend energy getting to them. David finally agreed with me, and we drove up and up and up to park, free, just a few hundred yards from the castle itself.

David's photo of Beynac Castle

We paid 7.65 each for tickets and an English-language brochure (There are no free brochures.) describing the property. Beynac Castle, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and owned by the English—Richard the Lionheart from 1189-1199—and the French, is now a historic monument that is privately owned.

We were impressed by the huge rooms, a floor made of pise, paving made of stones resembling teeth which are nailed into the floor bed, and a stunning spiral staircase, but it was the view from the top level keeps and terraces which took our breath away. At 450 feet above the river, the vista of river and valley was one of the most beautiful we'd seen. It was obvious that the owners of these castles, who built atop the highest cliffs, would have had no difficulty seeing approaching enemies.

The view from the top.

In order to see where the peasants lived, we moved on to La Roque-Gageac, a town so picture-perfect it's difficult to believe it's not a set for a Disney theme park. The oatmeal-colored buildings cling to the cliff, seemingly protected by an escarpment, and there's only one way to reach them—by going up.

David's photo

The tourist office gave us a map directing us to climb a staircase which led to a tropical garden, possible because of the micro-climates existing in this part of France; a lovely rustic church; the home of a long-time resident of La Roque; and troglodyte caves.

David's photo
Finishing up our visit by sitting in a outdoor cafe, eating our ice cream cones while staring at this village ranked one of the prettiest in France, was a great way to end the day.

David's photo

Practicalities -

The 50-minute Gabarres de Beynac river tour, 7.50 euros, departs from the dock located near the free public parking area in town.

From the town of Beynac, you can walk or drive to the castle. The tourist office will provide you with a map and directions.

Perhaps because it was not prime tourist season, parking was not a problem in either Beynac or La Roque-Gageac. Evidently the towns are doing their best, though, to encourage visitors because parking was free in both locations.