Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – What's That Number?

There's a natural antipathy between numbers and me. Try as I might, I don't understand them, and they do their best to trip me up whenever possible. Every time I think I have a handle on the slippery devils, they outwit me one way or another. Luckily, when traveling, I don't have to pin them down exactly in two areas; I'm not a stickler when it comes to mileage or temperature. If I can convert kilometers or Celsius in an easy-to-remember way and come relatively close to the actual number, that's good enough for me. That's why I'm a fan of the “close enough” method.

Here's how it works. To convert kilometers into miles, I multiply the kilometers by six and drop the last digit. So, 50 kilometers times 6 equals 300. Drop the last digit and the answer is 30 miles. (If you went through a more complicated math equation, the absolutely correct answer, as opposed to the “close enough” answer, would be 31.06 miles.) If you've got 120 kilometers to drive before dinner, multiply 120 by 6 and get 720. Drop the last digit, and you realize you'll be stopping after only 72 miles (actually 74.56 miles). Doesn't that sound better than 120 km?

The same approach works when converting Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit. You could opt for an elaborate mathematical formula, which you'd never remember, or use “close enough.” With my method, you double the Celsius number and add 32. So, 20 C doubled is 40 and when you add 32, the final answer is 72 F (Actually, if you used the complicated formula, the answer is 68 F.); 25 C becomes 82 F (actually 77 F); and 30 C is 92 F (actually 86 F). What's most interesting about this approach is that the method yields more accurate results in the lower range when it is imperative that you know the true temperature so you can dress appropriately, and less accurate temperatures when you are in the comfortable temperature range above 70F and won't suffer if you forget your sweater!

This “close enough” method has worked for me in Mexico as well as Europe. Now, if only my bank would appreciate this approach to checkbook balancing, I'd be a completely happy woman!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Never on a Sunday

I know many shops in France are closed on Sunday, so I should have thought about how that might affect car rental agencies before we made plans to go from Paris to Sarlat on that day of the week. We had no problem with the train schedule, but it was impossible to find a car agency in the smaller towns. They are open six days a week, not seven.

Because the rental agencies are closed in Brive and most of the other towns around Sarlat when we're arriving in the Dordogne area, we have had to alter our plans considerably. Instead of the 40-mile drive from the Brive rail station, we will have a 120-mile drive from Bordeaux to Sarlat. Since I made the error, I've offered to do all the driving that day. I think David's going to take me up on my offer!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Quinceanero Party in Mexico

While traveling, if you're invited to participate in a festive event, whether it is a town's celebration or a family's milestone party or wedding, by all means do so. There's no better way to appreciate a culture than by being part of one of its celebrations. When I lived in Mexico, I participated in many festivals and one memorable quinceanero party.

My housekeeper Maria rushed through her work one Thursday in early April, and, after she’d changed back to her street clothes, she dug in her purse and handed me an envelope. It held an invitation to her daughter’s quinceanero party, the event that would mark Rosario’s fifteenth birthday and her passage into adulthood.

I was touched. The fifteenth birthday party is equivalent to a coming-out party in the States or to a bat mitzvah ceremony in the Jewish faith. It is often the most memorable day in a girl’s life.

Maria had worked for me since September. She arrived every week in a clean, freshly ironed dress that she changed before beginning to work. Over the past six months, she had proved to be reliable, scrupulously honest, and punctual.

Maria and I had gotten to know each other fairly well. She had told me about her husband’s sudden disappearance, leaving her with four children to raise. When she reported to my house one week with bruises all over her face and tears in her eyes, I knew that Manuel must have returned for a visit. I frequently drove her home when it was raining, but she always insisted I drop her off a block from her house in the barrio. One of my neighbors told me Maria was ashamed of her home, a concrete block three-room structure with cement floors and holes without glass “windows.” When we had a two-week cold spell, I went through my clothing and told Maria she’d be doing me a favor if she’d take some sweaters, jeans, and jackets off my hands.

In return, Maria always smiled, didn’t touch the dozens of papers cluttering my desk, and tried to teach me Spanish. Every so often, after she’d left for the day, I’d find a perfectly formed, ripe avocado or orange on my counter top in the spot where her purse had rested a few minutes before.

Jake, my friend and neighbor around the corner, had also received an invitation, so we decided to attend the event together. I was somewhat leery about this plan as I was afraid I’d be left alone while “Jake the Rake” used his lines on some unsuspecting nubile Mexican girl, so I made Jake promise to be on his best behavior that night.

Jake gave his word, but that didn’t mean much. He was a short, wiry man, almost sixty but trying to pass for forty, who seemed determined to live in infamy. He drank the diet liquid, Ensure, for two meals a day and spent hours lying in the sun working on his tan. Jake’s entrepreneurial spirit had landed him in prison for a short stint in California, and he was politely told never to return to England. It seems the officials in both countries had no appreciation for black-market CDs and DVDs. He drove a blue Mercedes and had the only limousine service in Ajijic.

He handed me two things when I climbed into the leather front seat of the Mercedes. One was the card he’d chosen stuffed with pesos. We’d agreed that Maria would be hard-pressed to pay for her daughter’s celebration, so cash presents would be the most appropriate gift. I added a few hundred pesos, signed my name, and then turned over the manila envelope and began to open it.

“What do you think, babe? I want to hand those out. I figured I’d might as well stir up a little action. After all, just think how many gorgeous girls will be at this little blow out.”

Inside the envelope were about fifty flyers. Jake’s picture was there along with a blurb in Spanish extolling his virtues. According to the paper I held in my hands, Jake was a wealthy, good-looking, fit forty-year-old American who wanted to make some lovely Mexican woman (under thirty, please) his wife.

“Good gracious, Jake, you can’t possibly give these out. This is a religious ceremony. Maria would kill you!”

Jake turned to look at me and I was afraid the car would crash into the guardrail on the carretera. “Now, Dru, I thought you knew me better than that. I’m an exemplary Jewish man with exquisite manners. I wouldn’t dream of giving the flyers out during the church ceremony. These are for after. At the party later.”

I knew it was pointless to argue. Jake saw an opportunity and wasn’t about to let it slip away. There was nothing I could do but “forget” to put the flyers in my purse. I slipped the package under the seat while Jake looked for a parking spot.

As we approached the main Catholic church in Chapala, down near the lake, we saw a dozen people standing outside. When I peeked inside, I saw almost every pew was filled. Maria had invited everyone she knew.

Jake and I stood outside waiting to extend our congratulations to Maria and Rosario. More women, dressed in their Sunday best, accompanied by their husbands in clean shirts and ties, filed into the church. It was almost 6:00 and I was beginning to worry that Maria might be late. Jake was fretting. He’d offered his limousine for the night, but Maria had said relatives would be bringing her.

Suddenly, Jake poked my arm and said, “Don’t look now, but the Blues Brothers have just arrived.” He pointed across the street where twelve young men, none over 25 years old, waited for the traffic to stop. They were all dressed in black, from head to toe. Each had black pants, a black shirt, a black jacket, and a black fedora. Only a white tie broke the monotony.

Egads! I hoped these guys strutting across the street, tipping their hats to any woman they saw, weren’t going to ruin Maria’s and Rosario’s ceremony. I was on the verge of asking them what they were doing here when Maria’s car pulled up and the men in black formed two lines, bowing to Rosario as she left the car and approached the church.

I stopped worrying about the men and began wondering why Rosario was dressed as though she were a bride. She had on a formal gown, similar to the ones my friends and I wore to the high school prom, there was a tiara on her head, and she carried a bouquet of flowers. Only the veil was missing. I didn’t have time to ask questions, though, because when Maria spotted Jake and me, she insisted the photographer take our picture with the lovely Rosario.

Then it was time for Rosario to make her church entrance. The twelve men in black who seemed, after all, to be Rosario's attendants, not the Blues Brothers, lined up in two rows behind her and the procession began. Jake and I slipped into the last pew. An hour later, after what was surely a memorable but incomprehensible, ceremony, Jake said, “That was the finest church service I ever attended. I couldn’t understand a single word.”

The party was held at the Beer Garden across the street. On Sundays, particularly, this restaurant was considered the place to see and be seen. Mariachi strolled through the crowd of tables and Mexicans and gringos alike ate and drank their way through a pleasant afternoon. Tonight, though, the place was transformed.

Blue and white balloons hung in clusters from the ceiling. At least twenty white-paper-covered tables, each seating eight, were arranged in two rows. There was a head table for Rosario and her family with a blue and white balloon arch over a table that held a three-tiered cake topped with a lone plastic female figure. On the table itself were more balloon bouquets and ashtrays imprinted with Rosario’s name and the date. A dance floor had been created at the front of the room, and the band was warming up as Jake and I strolled through the room.

When Jake and I gave Rosario our gift, Maria tried to make us sit at the head table, but, not wanting her to make a fuss over us, we said we were joining friends. Jake quickly spotted the only other gringo couple in the room, and we joined them at a table near the back. There was an open bar, of sorts. A waiter put a fifth of tequila on each table along with a liter of Squirt, plastic cups, and a plastic bucket of ice. Later, we were served plates of rice, beans, and carne asada. A basket filled with hot-from-the-oven tortillas also made the rounds.

Children ran through the aisles. Toasts were made. A mother in front of us laid her infant on the table and ate her dinner while she and the rest of the family took turns waving scraps of foil from a gum wrapper in front of the baby’s face. People got up to dance, announcements were made, and fourteen-year-old girls gathered in the restroom to giggle about their upcoming quinceanera parties. The old couple at the next table tapped their feet in time to the music. The youngest children clustered at the back of the hall, doing their own dance that involved a lot of twirling and falling down. Jake sulked only a few minutes when I told him I’d forgotten the flyers and then excused himself to go to the restroom. I saw him later standing in a corner, deep in conversation with a Mexican woman who looked to be about 25.

Maria made her rounds to thank everyone for coming. When she got to me, I congratulated her on hosting such a lovely party. Then the part of me that believes in good hygiene and the avoidance of dysentery asked the next question: When was the water going to be turned on? The toilets didn’t flush, the sink faucets were dry in the bathrooms, and the staff told me they had no water in the kitchen. Maria simply shrugged and gave me yet another hug.

I tossed a couple ice cubes into my plastic cup and splashed in more tequila and Squirt; the band began my favorite song, Perfidia; and I saw a good-looking man heading in my direction. I took a sip of my drink and smiled. It was time to dance. Clean hands didn't seem so important after all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – The Best and Least Expensive Food in the USA

Skip McDonald's and find true American cuisine where the eating is delicious and the price is right. The Roadfood website, see Tightwad Travel Links on the right, says, Roadfood is, “...non-franchised, sleeves-up food made by cooks, bakers, pitmasters, and sandwich-makers who are America's culinary folk artists. Roadfood is almost always informal and inexpensive; and the best Roadfood restaurants are colorful places enjoyed by locals (and savvy travelers) for their character as well as their menu.”

Membership is free and the Internet site's search function allows you to find all the Roadfood restaurants according to city, state, food item, keyword, and/or restaurant type. The 67 restaurant types are varied with everything from Asian-- deli, grocery store, small town cafe, tea room--to vegetarian. Before your trip, consult the lists for choices. When you get back home, add your favorites to the website reviews.

If you want to carry Roadfood information with you electronically, you can join the Roadfood Insider for $19.95 a year.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Finding Inexpensive and Unique USA Motels

About five years ago, I traveled across country staying at some of the cheapest and most interesting motels in the United States. These are the small-town, forgotten motels with names like the Dew Drop Inn or the Wigwam; the ones that were on a major highway before the Interstate system bypassed them. Here you will find unique floor plans and, sometimes, astonishing color schemes. I'll never forget the place in Kansas with a grass-green bedroom and a Pepto Bismol-pink tiled bathroom! But, regardless of the décor, one consistent feature of all these motels is price. They are 50 to 75% cheaper than their counterparts on the Interstate.

The owners operate these motels on a shoestring budget that does not allow for an Internet presence, so you can't make reservations in advance. But, if you're willing to spend a few extra minutes at the end of your day's drive, you'll be richly rewarded with an inexpensive and unique motel experience.

When you're ready to stop driving for the day, look for a cluster of motel advertisements near an exit. Get off and pass by the motels flanking the Interstate and drive the three to five miles into town. You should find the lower-priced, distinctive motels along what was formerly the main route through town. If you don't immediately see one or two, stop at a gas station and ask for a recommendation.

By the way, since these motels are usually family-owned, the owners do not have to follow corporate policy and can more easily accommodate your needs. In the two weeks I spent criss-crossing the United States, no one objected to, or charged extra for, my dog.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Staying in Touch

Most people communicate electronically when they're on the road. In the United States, anyone can use the public library's computer for no charge by showing a driver's license, and, in the rest of the world, cybercafes are in every town. Still, there are some people on your list who may want to receive a postcard. You'll find that mailing them is less tedious and time-consuming if you print address labels before leaving home. With this approach, you won't forget to keep in touch and there's no danger of misplacing your list.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Train Update

There are three Internet sources of train tickets in France. The least well-known is probably Euro Railways, which we found the most expensive for our tickets. Then there's SNCF in French, and the SNCF-affiliate site in English, Rail Europe.

You might think you could use Rail Europe and find the same rates and schedules as on SNCF, but that is not the case. Even though Rail Europe is the English-language affiliate of SNCF, the prices are higher and not as many routes are offered.

Using the SNCF site and simply changing the language to English, results in an automatic switch to Rail Europe. When you try to change the language either to reserve the tickets or when you identify your home country, you are switched from the less expensive SNCF to the more expensive Rail Europe site. In order to use the SNCF site, you must navigate the site in French for the complete reservation. You must also specify France as your country of residence.

So using the SNCF site isn't the easiest way to buy train tickets because you're working in a foreign language, but it is definitely the cheapest. Only you can decide whether the savings are worth the frustration.

To use the SNCF French language site, it's helpful to have three screens available in your computer task bar. This Man in Seat 61 website page shows the same pages you will encounter on the SNCF site. It shows English translations for each page and provides a narrative to aid in each step of the process. It is also helpful to have the Babelfish translator site handy in case you run into a phrase whose meaning you'd like to double-check and, of course, you need the SNCF site itself. This may sound cumbersome or difficult, but we found the process easy after a few trial runs.

Here are some examples of price differences we encountered. Using the French SNCF site, we found prices for a one-way TGV train trip from Paris to Bordeaux for 44 Euros or roughly 63 USD per person. This ticket was refundable and exchangeable up to a day or two before the trip. There are also Prem (special sale) tickets available only on this site that offer considerable savings. There were Prem tickets available for 22 Euros/31 USD and 33 Euros/46 USD per person, depending on the time of day the train left the station, but these tickets were non-refundable and allowed for no change of plans. Compare those prices to the Rail Europe price of 73.50 USD per person, and the Prem fares become even more attractive.

Having said all this, you may be surprised to know that we opted to buy our tickets from Rail Europe. At the time we wanted to leave Paris, (Remember that the best PREM tickets are usually offered at off-peak times.) the Prem ticket offerings were only a few dollars less than the Rail Europe ones, and we felt the flexibility offered with the refundable tickets was worth the small extra cost.

Also, we would have had to redeem our tickets in a French rail station, and we understood from The Man in Seat 61 website that the rail station machines can be problematic for American credit cards. If we hadn't succeeded with the machine, we would have had to wait in a long line at the ticket counter. So, being leery of the ticket machines and wanting to avoid a long line, the idea of having tickets in hand was too attractive to pass up. We spent a bit more than anticipated, but it's reassuring to know we'll have the passes we need in hand to speed us on our way to the Dordogne.

Racticalities -
To snag the cheapest Prem tickets, make your reservations early. Prem and other sale ticket prices are posted roughly ninety days in advance.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers – A drive from Central Mexico to North Carolina

After a year and a half in Mexico, I decided I no longer wanted to be a long distance landlady. I loaded my 1985 Westfalia VW camping van with my dog, Lena, and all the items I thought I might need for three months or so until I sold my house and headed for North Carolina. This is an account of that 2001 trip.

The trip from Ajijic started off uneventfully. I didn't get lost once, only went over one invisible tope (Mexican speed bumps which are also called sleeping policemen.) at 35 mph which provided endless amusement for the village onlookers as the van took to the air and thunked down on the other side, and found a great motel, inexpensive and secure, for the first night.

The problem came the next day when I tried to leave Mexico. Ajijic friends from Texas, Dee and Al, had warned me about crossing the border on a weekend, especially a Saturday in December when hordes of people were shopping, and now I know always to listen to Dee and Al.

The line of traffic, two lanes of cars jockeying for the one lane available, started in the shopping district of Nuevo Laredo. At first I didn't mind sitting there after a long morning of driving. The hucksters, who took advantage of their captive audience of stalled drivers, gathered around with their birds in cages, Jesus figures on crosses, and cacahuates (roasted peanuts). All for sale. Cheap. Because they liked me.

The intermittent request to buy something was a diversion from the seemingly endless line of stopped traffic, but my dog didn't seem to appreciate the interruptions. She growled and moaned as each approached, and I had to reassure her and discourage the salesmen all at the same time.

We inched forward. The line of cars seemed to get slower. We were moving about one foot every twenty minutes. I kept wishing it weren't raining.

Of course, after two blocks and two hours, I was growing nervous. And I was really worried about the van. I'd turn it off to sit for twenty minutes, then turn it on to progress five inches. How many "starts" did the old thing have in her anyway?

We'd been in this stop and go traffic for more than three hours when I saw a policeman up ahead directing traffic. Surely he would speed things up and surely that customs office had to be just a few feet away.

I was wrong on both counts. The cop was simply letting in other cars off a feeder street and the customs office was across the bridge....a long, long way away.

I'd been waiting for three hours, but apparently the cars on that feeder street had been waiting, too. With so many more cars in front of me, the customs office got farther and farther away.

At dusk, I paid my toll and almost shouted with delight. Victory was mine at last! I would cross the bridge, clear customs, and find a lovely hotel in Laredo for a much-deserved night's rest.

I started inching across the bridge. And I do mean inching. The traffic going across the bridge was as slow as the traffic leading up to it. It would take at least a half hour to cross this short bridge.

At least there was one advantage to being on the bridge as the traffic was now two lanes. I eased into the inside lane. I noticed there was something wrong with the van because the fan refused to shut off, but I didn't dare test the fan by turning off the ignition for fear the car wouldn't start again.

I tried to take my mind off the knot that was growing to the size of a basketball in my stomach by studying the bridge. The Mexican half had no working streetlights or Christmas decorations while the American half was brightly lit and sported wreaths on each pole. When I reached the first pole with a wreath, I knew I'd make it to the American side. There was only a quarter mile to go. That fan must not be a problem after all.

And that's when the car died.

Now, there I was in traffic, the inside lane no less, with a lot of other frustrated people who'd been in line for three or four or five hours, too, and the car refused to go another inch. I kept wishing I'd bought that Jesus figure on a cross. Nothing short of divine intervention was going to help me now.

I truly didn't know what to do. I was afraid to tell the people around me that they were stuck behind a dead car, just a quarter mile from their goal, because I wanted to live to see Christmas. What could I do? How could a tow-truck reach me in the inside lane of a traffic-clogged bridge?

So I sat there. And felt the basketball in my stomach turn into a beach ball.

That's when two Mexicans knocked at my window.

They told me to put the car in neutral and they would push me! Push this fully loaded van, with Lena and me inside, a quarter mile? I didn't believe them. They had to be joking. They disappeared around the back, I hesitantly put the van in neutral, and prayed.

The van moved slightly. Then a little more. Someone got out of his car to stop the other lane of traffic so my van could ease its way over to the outside lane. The two men kept pushing. They didn't stop until my van was parked beside the customs office, safely on the American side of the bridge.

By that point, of course, I was a blubbering idiot, but at least I had the presence of mind to give them every last peso I had in my wallet.

And the car eventually did start again although the fan never stopped. I got through customs and found a Red Roof Inn for the night.

I wasn't through with car problems, but at least they were manageable from then on. The battery was run down the next morning because of the fan problem, but the motel manager gave me a jump and I went on my way, trying to make it past Houston. I figured I'd have to get the car jumped every morning, but some wonderful people at a rest stop told me how to avoid that.

They said to simply disconnect the battery cable every night when I stopped and re-connect it the next morning. And that worked beautifully. I made it all the way to NC, driving twelve and fourteen hour days, by simply disconnecting that cable every night.

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers!

Practicalities -
Be sure to use the cuotas or toll roads when traveling the country of Mexico. There are Green Angels, mechanics driving green trucks, who are paid by the government to help stranded motorists.
If you'd like more information about driving in Mexico, see my book Retire in Mexico at

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip - Driving

After reading "Disaster in Provence," you may be considering other modes of transportation for your vacation. But don't reserve a hot air balloon just yet! Keeping a few tips in mind will make driving a car in other countries a pleasure, and there's no better way to encounter serendipitous surprises in villages along the way.

How to Get Where You're Going
Highway numbers on maps are infrequently posted on road signs, but upcoming towns are almost always listed. Make sure you know what towns, both large and small, are on your route so you can steer in that direction. But don't forget the next tip.

What's that Name?
Is it Florence or Firenze? Regardless of your mode of transportation, it's helpful to remember that some Americanized names for towns will not appear on maps or train schedules in the country itself. For example, in Italy, Genoa is Genova; Rome is Roma; Turin is Torino. To avoid problems, be certain you know how a city is identified.

Towns and cities in Europe use rectangular blue signs with a white "P" in the middle to indicate public parking. Don't forget to take your parking ticket with you when you exit the car. Usually there are no attendants at the lot, and you must pay your ticket at a machine which is often located far away from the parking lot itself.

When you are ready to return to your car, look for the parking meter machine. Follow the instructions, pay the fee, take your receipt, and use it to exit the lot. You cannot leave the lot without that receipt.

The Passing Lane Is Really Just for Passing!
In Europe, motorists do not hog the passing lane. Endear yourself to other drivers by using the passing lane only to pass. As soon as you've driven beyond the slower traffic, ease back in to the appropriate lane.

Create Your Own Passing Lane
In Mexico and Ireland, and perhaps other countries with narrow, two-lane major highways, the shoulder serves as a third lane, more or less. Don't panic when you're on a two-lane road and someone zooms up behind you and begins to pass. Ease off to the side, more or less straddling the road and the shoulder, and let the anxious driver get on by.