Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cheap Flights to Mexico

David and I are excited about our house-sitting vacation in Mexico for the month of June, but we were not so elated when we checked on the price of getting us there. Flights out of San Diego hovered near the $600 per person mark. Considering our accommodations would be free, that's a bargain-priced vacation, but, still, we hoped to find a less expensive way to get to Ajijic, the little village just south of Guadalajara.

Since we live in San Diego County, it is relatively easy and inexpensive for us to reach the Mexican border. We wondered if it wouldn't be less costly to fly from the Tijuana International Airport instead of from San Diego Airport. Checking with friends who'd recently flown from Tijuana to Puerto Vallarta and Baja, we learned that the process is indeed easy and considerably cheaper. Instead of costing $600, each flight will be around $250!

A friend has kindly offered to drive us to the border. We'll then walk a few hundred yards to cross the border, take one of the dozen taxis always waiting there (It will cost around $5 for the taxi ride.), and head to the nearby airport. On the way home, we'll probably use a shuttle service ($60 for two people), rather than ask a friend to wait indefinitely while we go through customs.

There are other ways to do this, too. We could take the Coaster, the light rail system, from our town to the city of San Diego and then ride the trolley to the border. Or, if we use Volaris Airlines, a low-cost provider who's giving the long-standing, much more expensive airlines, Aeromexico and Mexicana, competition in the price-cutting department, we could use their shuttle service from the Greyhound Bus Station in San Diego for $20 per person.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Russia for the Winter Holidays

Wanderlust must run in our family. My cousin, Boyd, and his partner, Tom, love exploring the world as much as I do. Their trips are often the most interesting topics of conversation at our reunions. Luckily, this time I didn't have to wait until I see them in March to hear about their trip to Russia. Here's their report.
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
By Boyd Oliver
Photos by Tom Forlenza

Why would anyone choose to go to Russia in December?  This trip was planned with the ultimate destination of Austria to spend Christmas and New Year's with friends.  Then the notion of going as far as my partner and I could reasonably get en route with our frequent flier miles sparked the plan to go to St. Petersburg (Yes, Russia, not Florida!)   

St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia with 4.5 million people, is considered the Venice of the North because of the Neva River and the many canals spanned by graceful bridges. Although the water was frozen when we were there, this city is still impressive--even in winter.

So, after deciding on the city, the next questions were where to stay and what to do, aside from the obvious visit to the Hermitage?  We decided to book a Marriott since that can be done on-line without pre-payment or a deposit.   Thus, we ended up at the Baltic Renaissance. 

It turned out to be quite nice, and the staff were equally nice and helpful.  The only tip about staying here is, as with most European hotels, book with breakfast included if you like the buffet spreads offered because the a la carte price is exorbitant.   It is probably only fair to note, however, that the hotel restaurant, while a bit pricey, was excellent with the best borscht we had during the trip. 

We found, through our guide, a cozy local restaurant, the Teplo near our hotel, that was open for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner.  The staff there were also exceptionally friendly and loved speaking to us in English. 
Nevsky Prospekt
We didn’t have any problems with language as long as we were in tourist-frequented places.  Otherwise, we were fortunate to have our own personal guide. 

It may seem extravagant to hire a guide, but actually it really wasn’t, all things considered.  We thought language might be a problem, and it might have been, at least a bit, had we not had  Niko with us much of the time.   Plus we saw things and places that otherwise we may have missed.  And, another added benefit was that Niko drove us around town many times in his car (named Boris), plus he provided an airport pick up and drop off. 
Church of the Spilled Blood
Niko and Boris took us for a comprehensive tour of the Hermitage, which houses one of the world's largest collections of art, including a significant collection of Rembrandt paintings; Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's main, constantly busy, shopping street where all the major shops are located (But visit the side-street-stores for bargains such as wool socks for a dollar a pair.); Kazan Cathedral, one of the few active churches remaining in the city since the others were transformed into museums during the Communist era; the Church of the Spilled Blood, a museum famous for its thousands of mosaics; and Basil’s Island. 

One of my favorite buildings on our tour was the art deco Singer Sewing Machine Building, not because of its history necessarily, but because of its chic coffee bar.  But it is expensive, so skip a stop there if you are on a strict budget. 
                                   Singer Building
On another day, we took a trip to the Catherine Palace. When you visit the many palaces, now museums, it is not hard at all to understand why the peasants revolted against the nobility who lived in unbelievable opulence. Evidently the Nazis reveled in the luxury of the palace, too, and were hoping to live there themselves during the war. When they realized they weren’t going to take permanent possession of this palace, they attempted to burn it down.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Vacation Rental Apartment Advantages

Sunset view from our gite's terrace in Dordogne, France
“Rent once and you'll never go back to a hotel vacation again,” according to Pauline Frommer in today's newsletter. She cites the advantages that David and I discovered in France last fall: Apartments are usually cheaper, and sometimes considerably cheaper, than hotels; the extra space, especially the use of a kitchen, makes any vacation more enjoyable; apartments are usually located in interesting neighborhoods unlike hotels which are situated in commercial zones; and when you live like a local, you become more connected to the region and begin to feel—if only for a while—as though you live there.

View from our Paris apartment's balcony.
Ms. Frommer admits that the only drawback to rental apartments is having to do a bit more homework to find the best fit for you and your family, but her checklists of precautions should help you make the right choice. Her comprehensive article goes on to list trusted rental sources in the US in general and Hawaii and Orlando, Florida, in particular; France, Ireland, the UK, and Italy.
I think you'll find her article invaluable in planning your next apartment vacation rental.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Goodbye Vietnam - Hola Mexico

It's not the open-air plank toilet over a stream or the thought of bedbugs that has made us postpone a trip Vietnam, because we've done enough reading to know we would not be traveling the same way Karin Muller describes in her book, Hitchhiking Vietnam. (See Where Should We Go Next? article below.) It's a birthday that has stopped us cold.

No, it's not David's or my birthday. It's Vietnam's. The country is turning 1,000 years old, and its millennium celebration is going to be a crowd-filled twelve-month-long gala event. We've decided any year but 2010 is a better time to visit.

This would be a disappointment to us if we hadn't gotten an invitation from some friends of mine. The friends have a lovely two-bedroom, two-bath house in Ajijic, Mexico, but need a house/pet sitter for the summer while they're at their summer place in Vermont. They've offered their spacious house with gardeners and weekly maid service, the use of a computer and a car, in return for loving their two cats. We couldn't say yes fast enough!

We will be there for a month and another friend of mine, who's working on her second bi-lingual children's book, will cover the rest of the summer. That should be just the right amount of time to introduce David to the village where I lived for four years after I left North Carolina; to visit San Miguel de Allende, a world heritage site; and to tour Guanajuato, a colonial gem of a city with underground tunnels.

Best of all, we will walk down cobblestone streets, lined with plumeria and orchid trees, where purple, red and orange bougainvilleas tumble over the walls. We'll eat fresh bolillos and fruit that's still warm from the fields. Fireworks and church bells will interrupt the quiet of ordinary days. Friends will join us for lunch, and we'll linger at the table as long as we can. For these are moments to treasure, and we want to savor each one.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Comprehensive Travel Resources Link

Palm Springs Dreaming
David and I are still reading about Vietnam and have made no decisions yet, but I know that we will be consulting Peter Greenberg's travel resource links page no matter what trips we plan for the coming year.

Peter lists every link a traveler could possibly need—everything from fly/drive airport parking information to a world-wide location guide to free wi-fi spots. There are eco-tourism sites as well as places where the luxury travel (with Kipling and Clark) must be so expensive they dare not list the prices on their website.

Still, the practical information the tightwad traveler needs is consolidated here on this one page, so it's a good site to keep in mind as you plan your own vacations. You can also register for Peter's free newsletter to be sent to you daily or weekly.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Where Should We Go Next?

David and I are in the beginning stages of planning our trips for next year. Since we believe that tightwad travel dictates careful planning to ensure a favorable exchange rate, our first strategy is to decide on a destination—out of the dozens of places we'd like to visit—where our US dollar will receive a favorable exchange rate.

Since the dollar is doing so poorly in the UK and Western Europe, we have ruled out those areas. But, because we would receive a favorable exchange rate in Indochina, South America, Central America, Mexico, and Canada, those places are high on our list at the moment.

We've done some preliminary thinking about Vietnam and Cambodia since those two countries are at the top of our must-see list. One of our friends whose brother, a linguist, spends part of every academic year in Cambodia, told us, over a lengthy lunch, about the charms of that country.

When David and I were in Little Saigon on our December trip to Los Angeles, we stopped at a travel agency where we picked up brochures about escorted tours in Vietnam and Cambodia. While I have no intention of taking an organized tour, David is a bit more apprehensive about traveling such “foreign” countries on our own. I haven't quite convinced him—or myself--yet, that we can navigate independently, but I'm working on it. Still, even if we do not sign on for a tour, the brochures will come in handy for accommodation recommendations and travel itineraries.

I also just finished the remarkable book, Hitchhiking Vietnam, by Karin Muller. This intrepid 28-year-old spent seven months traversing Vietnam, top to bottom, by foot, motorcycle, train, and bus. She went off the tourist track as far it's possible to go and endured scurvy, arrest, bedbugs, flophouses, and dysentery. The country, through Karin's eyes, did not seem as enchanting as I'd envisioned.

Muller describes using the “toilet” in a remote village where the open-air apparatus, a plank set up over a stream, was designed to allow her waste to slip into the water. As she tiptoed out onto the plank, she heard the frenzied fish splashing below, anxious for whatever meal they might be able to wrest from the waste.

In yet another tiny settlement where she is a guest of a local family, Muller watches the mother fry two eggs in lard. She slips one of the eggs into an empty beer bottle for a later meal and arranges the remaining egg over the rice and green weeds that were collected that morning. This dish will be the only supper the five family members and Muller will receive.

Muller's book gave me insight into the country, but it made me question the lingering paradisiacal impression the lush movie Three Seasons had had on me. I can't remember the plot of that movie, but I'll never forget the Shangri-La it portrayed. Which is the true Vietnam? The squalor Muller found or the idyllic countryside portrayed in Three Seasons?

Obviously, David and I will have to do a bit more research to know if this country will be our next destination. We've been picking up Indochinese guidebooks and travelogues at yard sales all winter. Now it's time to do some more reading.

Practicalities -

For more information about Vietnam and Karin Muller's trip, see this PBS site or this public radio show site, the Savvy Traveler.

Click for the New York Times review of Three Seasons.