Browsing Posts in Travel bargains

travel booking companies

Why is it important to get travel advice (and prices) from different sources? Because almost every source is flawed in one way or another.

The “truth in travel” magazines that brag about not accepting freebies purposely sell special advertising sections meant to fool you into thinking ad copy is really editorial. You won’t read a bad hotel review or negative cruise story in them because they get millions a year in hotel and cruise advertising. They do fashion shoots disguised as travel pictorials because the jewelry and clothing companies pay them even more. They put Italy on the cover twice a year because newsstand sales are highest when they do.

Travel + Leisure and Departures magazines are owned by American Express. Think they want you to travel within your means on a budget? Or would they rather you aspire to be rich and pull out the plastic, cost be damned?

Travel bloggers who are writing about a new country every week or two are generally not paying for that themselves. They wouldn’t be moving around so quickly if they were. They’re on press trips hosted by tourism bureaus or private companies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that (travel writers’ earnings are generally pitiful), but the reason it seems like “everybody’s going there” may not be because it’s the best place to go. Only that they’ve got a healthy media budget.

SmarterTravel, TravelPod, and VirtualTourist are all owned by TripAdvisor, which also owns SeatGuru, CruiseCritic, AirfareWatchdog, and others. So naturally, they recommend each other a lot as a source you should be checking out. They’ll send you to an associated site for a booking—they’d be crazy not to. But just understand that’s going on.

Expedia brands

That parent company used to be owned by Expedia, the largest online booking service by far. Expedia still owns Hotwire, Hotels.com, and Venere. Thus the “Also check rates on…” prompts that are really just sending you to the same company.

The hotels appearing at the top of city searches on these sites paid to be there. Understand that and search by price or neighborhood instead.

If someone is recommending a product or service, do they/did they use it themselves? Or are they just plugging an advertiser or putting up an affiliate link to make money?

Most of the stories on the front of Huffington Post, CNN.com, Yahoo, and the like are not the most important stories or the best-written articles. They’re the ones that are getting the most clicks. Dig deeper or subscribe to The Economist.

Not an Agenda, Just Suspect

People who write hotel reviews for no compensation are people who have a lot of time on their hands and need a hobby. They often haven’t traveled much either, so when they tell you a hotel is “the best in town,” how do they know? I’ve had hotel owners beg me to write a review on Tripadvisor. Others I know have been offered cocktails or meals if they’ll do so before they check out. And if you pay enough, you can get someone to write anything you want.

Ditto for your social media circles. It’s great to ask for recommendations, but consider the source. Do they travel like you do?

The best advice? Consult multiple sources, trust who has earned your trust. And verify.

 

Travel in Romania

I write fairly often on here about how even seasoned travelers sometimes have very warped perceptions of potential travel destinations. The other day I saw someone spewing out all kinds of vile, derogatory comments on Romania on someone’s travel story, which I’m sure the person writing had never visited. It was one of those “I’ll never set foot in that sh&thole” rants from an ignoramus.

Living in a foreign country that has its share of bashers, I hear this from my own seldom-traveled friends and relatives in the states sometimes. I’m always surprised though when it comes from people who should know better. So let me go on record to say Romania can be a really lovely place.

Brasov Romania

That shot at the very top is from the countryside, which is quite beautiful, with high mountains and a lot of historic towns. The second one is from Brasov, which I wouldn’t mind living in for at least a few months. There’s good skiing nearby too. Yes, you can ski in Romania, and for about 1/3 of what you would spend a country or two over.

Romanian wineYou can also drink good wine here. This was an Iron Curtain country for a few decades, so as in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, great wine makers were forced to go into quantity over quality mode for a depressing period. Freed from the shackles of communism, they now have an incentive to return to quality again and have come roaring back. This Rhein Cellars winery I visited in Azuga, Romania makes sparkling wine with the labor intensive Champagne method. Since labor is pretty cheap here though, a really good bottle will set you back $15 or so.

Borders in this part of the world have been very fluid over the past couple centuries, so people are often surprised that Romania contains a lot of gorgeous medieval towns like they would expect to see in Germany. This one below is Sighisoara, which has changed hands multiple times after various wars. It’s a great place to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, especially if you can hang out a couple days and take a stroll after all the tour buses are gone. You can get here on an overnight train from Budapest, so it’s a good place to start your Romanian journey.

Sighisoara Transylvania

The shot below is from Sibiu, which would be a relaxing place to hang out for a few days, doing nothing but strolling the plazas, dining on hearty food at outdoor cafes, and drinking good wine for cheap at night.

Sibiu Transylvania

And this photo below, is it from one of those super-popular European capitals that are mobbed with hundreds of thousands of tourists in the summer? No, it’s much-maligned Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Yes, the famous last dictator ripped down much of the historic center to build his giant ugly “Palace of the People,” but there are still some nice neighborhoods with some interesting walks and good cafes.

bucharest-romania

If you like intricately carved wooden doors that are a few hundred years old, here are some great photos of interesting doors I saw in Romania. Next time I go back, I want to check out some of these cool castles in the countryside.

 

best-travel-writertravel writing award

I won some more travel writing awards this month, thus the badges to kick this off, but I’ll save the braggadocio for last. First here are some articles I’ve written in other places.

When’s the last time you read a travel article about Guadalajara? If you answered zero or one, I think you’re pretty normal. I’ve done a few over the years though and this is one of the most useful ones you’ll find if I may say so myself. My latest on the Viator travel blog: From Tequila to Tlaquepaque in Guadalajara. (With some fun photos.)

One of my other semi-regular gigs is to dish out value travel advice on the personal finance blog of H&R Block. Here’s my latest for them: Going on Vacation Without Breaking the Bank.

I didn’t write this piece for Grandparents.com, but I got quoted in it a lot and the article is useful, so go check it out: Affordable Tips for Your Travel Bucket List.

I wrote about New Orleans restaurants for the Trivago blog.

Leffel in Nicaragua

Of course I’m reviewing travel gear each week. Like Field Notes, a new sun hat I’m digging, and something everyone who wants to pack light should have: ExOfficio travel underwear.

I just set up a pretty portfolio on this site called Contently if you want to check out some of my life outside this blog: Tim Leffel portfolio. .

So about those awards. Perceptive Travel won a Silver from the North American Travel Journalists Association for “best online travel magazine.” Two of my individual stories won prizes too, ones on Miami and Portugal.

Next time we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

 

Nicaragua cost of living

$2 appetizer platter at a nice restaurant in Nicaragua

“If you make $1,000 a month, you can drive a small car, take your family out to decent restaurants sometimes, and visit a place like this on the weekends.” That was an offhand comment from my Nicaraguan guide Pablo when we were at the overlook area checking out Lake Apoyo between Managua and Granada. “On that salary, you are middle class here.”

A lot more people are stepping up to that level in Nicaragua as the economy keeps improving and its relatively low crime rate make it a place international companies want to invest. If you’re coming from a developed country though, it’s an incredibly cheap place to live.

I do an annual post and individual country rundowns on the cheapest places to live in the world and there’s one key thing they have in common: most people earn less in that country than most people earn in yours. The big picture really is that simple. If you come from a country where the median income is above $40,000 per year, as it is in the USA, Canada, or Australia, then you’re clearly going to feel richer if you go live in a place where the median income is more like $6,000 a year. Even if you’re just living off a Social Security or pension check.

shopping Nicaragua

1/5 the price of Safeway, Kroger, or Tesco

These official numbers are kind of clumsy, of course, whether you’re talking about median income, per-capita GDP, or some other yardstick. Some “work” isn’t counted correctly, bartered goods don’t figure in, and naturally people under-report their real income if there are tax implications. Still, whether an average worker in Nepal makes $600 a year or $900 doesn’t make a big difference for my point. Compared to the Nepalis you’re loaded, even if you’re making the equivalent of a fast-food burger flipper.

If you’re living in a more expensive place, however, your money is worth less. Your purchasing power is crappy. Per-capita GDP may be almost six figures in Norway, but you’ll pay out the nose for virtually everything you would spend money on. It may be only 1% of that in Cambodia, but you can find a good meal for a couple dollars. In a sit-down place with a waiter. Then in the U.S., you have to factor in health care costs, which are astronomical if you’re not covered by a company health plan. This illogical, for-profit arrangement does not exist in most of the rest of the world.

Which brings us back to my travels in Nicaragua earlier this month. I was working on a few articles on assignment, so I had an English-speaking guide driving me around, one who had grown up in Miami and then moved back to Nicaragua when he was in high school. He wants to get back to the USA at some point, to take his kids to Disney World, but he’ll keep living where he is. His electric bill is usually eight or nine dollars. His house is paid for. His family eats very well on what he makes.

Granada house for sale

House in the center of Granada, for the price of a BMW…

I had coffee with a retired couple living in Granada and I’ll profile them in the book I have coming out later this year. “My pension alone is 3-4 times what the average Nica makes,” Jim told me. We spend around $1,800 a month, which is extravagant by local standards. We live in a big air-conditioned house with a swimming pool and pay $650 a month in rent. We eat out whenever we want, wherever we want. Medical care is so inexpensive here we don’t even have insurance. We just pay for things as they come up. I had to go to the best hospital in Managua for surgery and it was cheap enough that I put it on a credit card.”

Another couple I’ve been corresponding with there has lived in Leon, Granada, and now San Juan del Sur for around $1,400 a month, while having a really good time. They’re sensible with what they spend, but not all that frugal when it comes to having fun. Their housing is only $300 of that.

Flor de Cana

$4 – $8 for a bottle of rum with set-ups in a bar

I like Nicaragua and I could live there, but this is just one country out of many that will have a detailed chapter. It’s one of the best deals, yes, but there are plenty of countries out there where the per capita GDP is 1/4 or less than what it is where most people reading this blog are from. Some of them have pretty good infrastructure too: popular destinations like Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, and Colombia. It’s just that a “middle class life” has a much lower price tag.

After surveying people who have signed up for the Cheap Living Abroad e-mail newsletter, the verdict is in on the book title:

A Better Life for Half the Price

The second and third choices will get worked into the subtitle.

For those who are serious about cutting their expenses in half and upgrading their life in the process, there will be other packages available with worksheets, webinars, and more. Details to follow, but sign up here to get the inside scoop.

St. Charles line

In general, the United States is a crappy place to get around by public transportation. There are a few cities that are exceptions, however, and in some of those it’s actually pleasant. At the top of that list would have to be New Orleans, where people actually board the streetcars because it’s a fun ride.

I was in New Orleans a few months back for the first time in ages, on a post-convention trip eating my way through Louisiana. I was lucky enough to be there while an annual seafood festival was going on and as it so happened, that was taking place at the end of the green Canal Streetcar line. Then I hopped on another line that goes through the Garden District, with views out the windows of the grand homes in the nicest neighborhoods. See a video tour here:

 

Sure, staying, eating, and partying in the French Quarter is lots of fun, but you’re not doing the city justice if that’s the only part you see. Take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar line and if you go far enough, you’ll see a huge levee holding back the Mississippi River. Grab a bite to eat or a beer there an imagine what it must have felt like to be there when Hurricane Katrina ripped through. You’ll also pass near Loyola and Tulane Universities. Another line goes directly to Loyola, while the red Canal line goes up to the above-ground cemeteries, where you can get some cool photos. touring New Orleans

These are refreshingly creaky old cars too, not some aerodynamic modern marvels whooshing along on dedicated median strips. These are vintage cars going through real neighborhoods.

Not only is this an enjoyable way to see the city, but fitting to this blog, it’s also cheap. A normal one-time ride is $1.25 and transfers are free. Or you can buy a day pass (which also works for bus lines) for just $3. Pony up $55 and you can ride as much as you want for a whole month. In between are passes for 3 and 5 days. If you’re 65 or over, you only have to pull out four dimes to be on your way.

Parking in the French Quarter is crazy expensive, topping $25 a day at some hotels, so this is not a city you want to drive into and park. You’re much better off catching a taxi from the airport and then walking and using the streetcars after that. Or if you are doing some kind of cross-country journey, find a public parking lot or street parking near one of the streetcar lines and leave the car there until it’s time to leave.

New Orleans is a city where you actually want to take public transportation, so enjoy it! See the full scoop on the streetcars at norta.com and get more info on New Orleans at their official tourism site. (Yes, on my 4th visit to the city, I was hosted by them this time.)

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