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vacation rental

Sure beats a cheap motel

The first time I went to Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer market convention, I was in a crappy Econolodge motel with stained carpets, intermittent Wi-Fi, barely working heat, lukewarm hot water, and a lumpy bed.

This time I stayed in a pristine room with a heavenly mattress, in a craftsman bungalow house in a quiet location. The Wi-Fi and hot water worked flawlessly and I had a table I could work at.

The interesting thing is, the latter was cheaper.

There are plenty of times a hotel is the best bet for where you’re going and the good ones can be excellent spots to roll into to get some work done or be right in the center of the action. If rates are at their peak though and there are not many empty rooms, you can really pay a premium. That’s how I ended up in someone’s spare bedroom in Salt Lake City two weeks ago: when a big convention comes to that city like the one I was attending, even the crappiest places like Motel 6 and Super 8 will raise their rates to $150, $200 or more per night.

I used AirBnB for that crash pad (with some lovely hosts) and got a beach rental place through them the month before in Puerto Escondido. We paid less than we would have for a very basic hotel, but had two bedrooms and a pool to ourselves.

They’re not the only game around though and when you’re looking outside of the United States, there’s often another dominant player or two you should pull up as well. In some Mexican towns, for instance, you’ll find more listings on the traditional sites like VacationRentals.com. When we still owned our beach house in the Yucatan state, you could rent it for $250 per week through there.

If you’re headed to Europe, HouseTrip has more than 300,000 places to choose from and is active almost anywhere you would want to go. They can save you some big bucks when you’re in an expensive European capital, or just give you some more space and a kitchen if you want to keep your expenses low and have more room to spread out. Unlike some of those rotten chain hotels, the owners aren’t going to charge you to use the internet signal.

Athens rental

Kitchen of a 47 euros per night European apartment for 4

I pulled up their Athens listings because the Travel Bloggers Exchange Europe–where I’m going to be a speaker—is happening there in October. I checked out what’s available for four people and there are some terrific values. Plenty of apartments are under 100 euros a night and there are quite a few that are half that. If you get a larger place for more people the cost per person would be getting a real apartment for less than a hostel dorm bed.

I like hotels a lot and my job has me reviewing a lot of them. When I’m with my family though, it gets old when all of us are sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom. Renting two connected rooms can be inexpensive in some countries, but often not. When we went from a cramped Bangkok hotel room to an apartment we rented on one trip, the price was about the same but we had three times as much space.

How about you? Where have you found terrific vacation rental deals?

Guelaguetza Oaxaca

When dishing out budget travel advice, I usually tell people to avoid going somewhere when it’s high season. There’s a whole chapter on timing in Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune about finding the sweet spot of shoulder season where you’re going. When crowds are at their peak, prices are bound to be at their highest.

Sometimes it’s worth it though. Sometimes it’s high season not just because of vacation schedules, but because there’s really something fantastic going on. That’s what I’m experiencing right now during the week of the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca. We didn’t even know this was going on when we first planned our vacation; we just lucked out. But now that we’re here during prime time, I’m really glad we made it when we did.

tamale festival

Woman making “tejate” drink at the tamale festival

I was originally going to call this post “Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca” since we spent the first morning here at a tamale festival (many of the tamales featuring different kinds of mole sauces) and the next afternoon at a mezcal fair. In both cases we got to try a huge variety of them in one place. The tamales were less than a dollar each and the equivalent of $3 got us into the Feria de Mezcal where we could walk around sampling them or buying bargain-priced cocktails for a few dollars each. Both of these events were unique to the Guelaguetza week and would not be going on other times during the year.

The same goes for all the artisan stalls taking up the whole rest of that park, with each booth listing the Oaxacan village that artisan came from. You can buy direct from them at this time, with no middleman and no traveling out to some remote town and finding the workshop behind an unmarked door. Two other artisan areas were set up in different parts of the center, also temporary, coming down in a few days.

mezcal festival

But what’s Guelaguetza? It’s an incredible dance performance featuring groups from different villages around Oaxaca. It’s an elaborate affair in an amphitheater overlooking the city and was far more spectacular than I had expected. There were 16 dances in all, over several hours. That sounds kind of excessive, but it never got boring because they were all very different. My daughter was also more into it than I thought she’d be too due to one key factor: at the end of each dance they threw things into the audience. So besides the hat, seat cushion, fan, and t-shirt we got upon arrival, gifts were flying through the air every 15 minutes or so. We scored some things like cool little baskets, woven fans, fruit, rolls, chocolate, and packets of coffee.

Guelaguetza Festival dance

Guelaguetza is the reason to have lots of other things going on in Oaxaca the same week though. We saw Lila Downs one night in that same amphitheater and it was quite a production with all the extra dancers in town.

We had already planned to do some shopping to buy things for our house in Mexico, so we had a lot to choose from with all the artisans in town. Thankfully we’re taking a bus back instead of a flight because we have loads of extra stuff to carry.

Oaxaca City

There was one downside to being here in high season: we couldn’t rent an apartment to stay in near the center, so we ended up in a hotel. The hotel, Las Golondrinas, didn’t jack up its rates though and we paid 780 pesos a night for a triple. It’s a decent deal. We got into restaurants fine and no place felt packed out. This is a tourist city anyway, so Oaxaca can absorb the traffic okay. So in the end, I don’t think we paid a premium at all for being here during high season, despite renting a car for two days too. Everything was just more crowded than it would normally be.

For more information, see the Oaxaca Tourism site, where they’ll have info posted on the 2015 Guelaguetza Festival far in advance. See their festivals page in Spanish for others or get a good guidebook. You can also trust what you see on the About.com Mexico site because the writer Suzanne lives in Oaxaca and also works as a guide.

 

budget Galapagos tough

A bit over a year ago I wrote this post on building splurge money into your shoestring travel budget. Sometimes you have to throw that $40 a day budget out the window. While I’m a big advocate for going to cheap destinations where you can get a lot more for your money, even in those places you have to drop some serious dough sometimes if you want to get the full experience.

I got an e-mail last week from someone who was flabbergasted at how expensive lodging was in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. But he was going in July, the peak of the peak season, and going to the most popular spots in Peru. I gave him some advice on shaving costs here and there by staying in some towns that wouldn’t be so mobbed, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s the same story in Ko Pha Ngan, Agra, Bali, or Pokhara if you come at the very peak. That may be a good time to be there weather-wise or event-wise, but understand that the laws of economics still apply.

There are other cases though where you are paying a lot because the place or experience just plain costs a lot. Because of a writing assignment, I just took my second trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. If you search around on the web, you can find articles on how to “do the Galapagos on the cheap,” but really it’s all relative. You have to spend a few hundred dollars to fly out there in the first place, you’ll pay $110 in fees after arrival into a conservation fund, and then virtually everything on Santa Cruz Island is going to be twice the price as the mainland while you’re lining up a tour.

marine iguana

Once you do get some kind of bargained-down tour, it’s still going to cost you north of $150 a day per person most likely to just take short jaunts to see the nearby islands. That’s cheaper than going with a well-known tour company where people are happy to pay $500 to $800 per night, but it’s not exactly shoestring travel territory. That’s because of a lot of good regulations that are in place to keep the environment from getting degraded. Guides must be trained and licensed, plus only around 100 ships are authorized to ply these waters with passengers.

Captains also have to be licensed and must undergo training on, among other things, how and where they can dock and send passengers to shore. They don’t really have a say in their itinerary. For good reasons, you can’t just hire a fishing boat captain in the harbor and say, “Show me some boobies!”

Galapagos OwlThat guide you’ll get at the low end will be the kind of guy who can’t get hired by any of the real tour operators paying a good salary to real naturalists. After he struck out with all of them or got fired because of a string of guest complaints, he has ended up with you. It’s a pretty safe bet he won’t be able to lead you to the hard-to-spot creatures like this owl who hunts in the daytime. He probably won’t be able to explain why this bird is so strange and how it got that way.

I’m using this fragile Galapagos ecosystem as an example, but all around the world there are spots like this where governments have in purposely put hurdles in your way for a good cause. If you want to go to Bhutan, be prepared to pay $300+ per day. There’s no budget tour to Antarctica. Visiting Petra is really going to cost you, so suck it up and overpay. If you want to go deep into the jungle almost anywhere, be it the Amazon, Borneo, or Sumatra, you’re probably going to have to pony up some cash to do it right.

If nothing else, this is all a good reminder than you don’t have to cram everything in on your first trip around the world. You can do that river cruise down the Danube or the Amazon later when grandma is paying for it. You can do that tour up the coast of Brazil when you’ve got a good job later and are making the big bucks. You can go scuba diving on the barrier reef of Australia when you go there as a vacationer rather than a backpacker.

Traveling on a budget means understanding that you can’t do it all, whenever you want, wherever you want. You’ve still got a thousand things to pick from. Save the most expensive ones for later instead of trying to do them half-assed on a limited budget. Even with climate change and economic growth going full-tilt, those experiences should still be waiting for you…

round-the-world travel

Around 21 years ago, I got on a flight that would change my life. I was on a plane to Japan and would then proceed through Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Greece, Turkey, and a bit of Europe.My then-girlfriend was with me and since we hadn’t killed each other after a year of being together 24/7, eventually it seemed like a good idea to get married. We did it two more times after that.

Last week I got an e-mail from someone asking for long-term travel advice and she said, “It seems so difficult and scary to just pick up and travel around for a year, much less three times. How did you manage it?”

That’s a funny question because to me it seems like traveling is incredibly easy now compared to what it was like when I first started. Instead of having to search hard for advice, you find a deluge of it. Things that used to be frustratingly difficult and took days are now done with a few clicks.

So that you about-to-depart travelers get a sense of perspective on how lucky you are these days, here are 21 things travelers couldn’t do 21 years ago, when I went on my first year-long backpacking trip in 1993.

1) Send an e-mail.

OK, if you were a real techie you could find a way to send an e-mail back in 1993, but unless your friends were computer programmers, they probably didn’t have an address. Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo Mail didn’t exist.

2) Find info about a hotel/restaurant/destination/travel site on the web

There was no web, no browser, nothing to look up even if you could. The Netscape browser launched to limited use at the end of 1994, but nobody could really “surf the web” until the following year. And only by dial-up through the phone line.

3) Google something

Nope, no browser, no World Wide Web, not even a rudimentary search engine. Yahoo was incorporated in 1995 and Google didn’t exist until 1998. A world without Google? It wasn’t so long ago.

camel safari

No website, no reviews.

4) Book a hotel/hostel/apartment online

To find a place to stay, you showed up and looked around. If you were really intrepid you could call ahead or have a travel agent do it, but you were flying blind with no photos or descriptions besides what was in your guidebook or that article you ripped out of a magazine. (Incidentally, the backpackers who still do it this way tend to pay significantly less over time than those who book everything in advance. Easier isn’t always better in terms of your budget.)

5) Compare flight prices and book a trip yourself

On our first round-the-world trip, we bought a RTW ticket from an agency specializing in that sort of thing and then carried the physical tickets around with us for a year. When we had to make a change at one point because of canceled flights in India, we had to phone the office in San Francisco from a telephone kiosk in Delhi and they had to get an Indian travel agent to issue us new tickets for us to pick up. The only way to get prices or book a ticket was to call the airline direct or deal with a travel agent.

6) Check in with a confirmation code or e-ticket

On all three of our round-the-world trips, we had to keep bringing a physical ticket to the airport to check in and get a boarding pass. It wasn’t until everyone and their brother had an e-mail address that airlines finally started accepting printed pieces of paper with a confirmation code. And forget about online check-in or boarding passes on your smart phone.

7) Check the status of your flight in real time

It was a big deal when airlines started texting passengers on their flip phones to tell them a flight was canceled or delayed. Before that, you had to proactively call and confirm and if things changed last minute, too bad!

Nobody could tweet this...

Nobody could tweet this…

8) Shop online for travel gear and luggage

We bought everything we needed for our first round-the-world trip at our local Campmor store in New Jersey. Had we been in some small town, however, we would have been SOL. You couldn’t just pull up a Backcountry, REI, Sierra Trading Post, or Zappos site to order the travel gear you needed. Your only choice would have been Wal-mart, Sears, or a mail order catalog. And you didn’t know what was good until you used it.

9) Easily keep in touch with friends and family

My mother would collect our mail and send it to an American Express office along the way according to our itinerary. We’d go to the office and get the bundle when we arrived. Often this meant getting letters about surprise bills or late charges months after the unforeseen infraction happened. If we wanted to communicate with our friends and relatives, we had to pay for an expensive phone call, send a letter/postcard, or send a fax. No Facebook, no Twitter, not even Friendster or MySpace.

10) Bank online

When you went traveling back in the early 1990s, you put all the money you had into your bank account and either wiped out all your debts or had Mom/Dad/Sis/Aunt Sally take care of writing checks for your outstanding bills. You took an ATM card and prayed you’d find a machine somewhere that would accept it. There were entire countries where there were no ATMS though and you had to go into a bank branch to do a withdrawal. This would often require waiting, paperwork, a bank manager calling someone for the current exchange rate, more waiting, and then a stack of big bills you needed to make last until you had the energy to do all that again. So you also carried these things called traveler’s checks that you paid for in advance. No online bill paying, no inter-bank transfers, no Paypal.

11) Post things on a blog

After the birth of the browser, the internet came to the common man. Blogging didn’t really get going until the beginning of the 21st century though and WordPress didn’t launch until 2003.

12) Ask questions on message boards

As with e-mail, there were a few geeks who were logging in and sharing information on online message boards through their dial-up connection, but this wasn’t a widespread practice. There was no Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, BootsnAll, Fodor’s board, or FlyerTalk. The message boards were often real boards instead: big cork things with messages pinned to them in Bangkok or Kathmandu guesthouses.

12) Read reviews on Tripadvisor

Before online reviews came along, crappy hotels could stay crappy and almost never suffer real consequences. Sure, they would get bad word of mouth and people would leave nasty “avoid this place” notes on those physical message boards. People might even write to Lonely Planet or Rough Guides and tell them what a bedbug-infested rathole that place was. But there was no central place to find out what other travelers had to say. Now every hotel needs to be on its toes and even hostels get rated on sites where you book hostels. Apartments get rated where you rent apartments. If a place is terrible, you’ll know it.

travel in 1990s

Never posted on Instagram

13) Pull up a map

If you wanted a map of where you were going 20 years ago, you visited a store that sold maps. If they didn’t have it, then you hoped you could find one where you were going. If you wanted to access one from your (15-pound) laptop, you needed this thing called a CD-ROM. And that didn’t come cheap.

14) Use GPS

Back in 1993, about the only people walking or driving around with a GPS device were Special Ops soldiers and jungle expedition guides. If you were lost, you unfolded a big map or asked for directions.

15) Store your photos digitally

Nobody had a digital camera then. Photos were stored on this stuff called film and you printed them out at a photo shop. We mailed ours home but kept the negatives in case they didn’t make it. When we got word they arrived at one of our parents’ houses, we sent the negatives in the next batch. Sometimes these photos faded, or got mildewed, or stuck together, or got lost. If I want to share them now, I need to dig them out and scan them. We didn’t know if we got a good shot until the developing was done. So two months later, we got this:

Indonesia travel

Landed in town Monday, decided on batik class on Tuesday

16) Share your photos

Unless someone was sitting next to you looking at printed photos (or the old slide projector), they didn’t see what you saw. The only place you could “post” them was on a cork bulletin board somewhere or in a frame on the wall.

17) Carry 40 books in your daypack

Trying to find good books to read on a regular basis was a constant struggle when we traveled. We read a lot of so-so books because they were all we could find. The main sources were used book shops (great in Bangkok, not so great in rural Indonesia), guesthouse book exchanges, and trading with other travelers. Carrying more than two or three at a time meant a lot of bulk and weight. There was no Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad, Nexus, or phone screen.

18) Carry 1,000 songs in your pocket

This was the pitch of the first iPod, which launched in 2001: “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Now you can carry 10,000+ if you want, or have an unlimited supply via Spotify. In the early 90s we traveled with this thing called a Walkman and it played cassettes. As you can imagine, there are only so many cassettes you can carry in a backpack. It got a little better when the price of portable CD players came down, but they and the player still took up a good bit of room. And you got sick of your collection fast.

Steripen review

19) Pack a UV wand water sterilizer

Our water sterilizers in 1993 were a little charcoal filter cup we used mostly for brushing our teeth and iodine tablets. Mostly we had to buy bottled water and contribute hundreds of throwaway plastic bottles to the environment. Now you can travel the world with a SteriPen that recharges by USB and have safe water to drink anywhere on Earth. Or this cool Camelbak bottle with a built-in sterilizer.

20) Find a place to crash online

We did a few homestays on our first trip around the world. It was through an organization called Servas. Here’s how cumbersome it was: you paid a fee to join, got interviewed to get approved, purchased lists for the country where you were going, wrote letters to potential hosts, waited for a reply by mail, then followed up by payphone once you arrived in the country. Compare that to the ease of Couchsurfing.

21) Get answers to trivia by IMDB, Shazam, or Google

Travelers used to argue for hours or agonize for hours about who that actor was in x movie or who sang that certain song that was playing on the cafe stereo. Now you just wake up your phone or open the tablet.

All you geezers out there that have been traveling for 20+ years, it’s your turn now. What else can you easily do now that you couldn’t do then?

yucatan Mexico

There may be a chance, because of how the travel industry conference circuit plays out, that I’ll be in Cancun three times this year. This turn of events is certainly not something I planned, wished for, or ever imagined. So for my TBEX blogger brethren who will soon be wondering how they ended up in a hotel zone that attracts four million tourists a year, here’s my advice: Go west young man/woman.

Tack on some time, because there are a lot of really cool places to see and interesting things to do in the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, beyond the vacation factories. Here’s a story I’ve been meaning to write for years: The Other Side of the Yucatan.

This one’s a little more personal, with a little more reflection than what I usually write. That’s because the Yucatan has been deeply entwined in my life for the past 11 years. It was the first place we took my daughter after she got her first passport at three and we returned there again and again after buying a little beach house on the Gulf Coast near Merida. Each time we did a little more exploring, plus I’ve been back a few times on my own for writing trips. I could post a hundred photos from there, but I mostly just put up some Mayan ruins, a fun video of a horse-drawn train, and some memories of when my teenager was a cuddly little girl.

Borneo man

In this month’s issue of Perceptive Travel though, that’s just the start. My buddy Bruce Northam is back with a fun story about hanging with a real man in Borneo, the kind of man who does the things we used to do before we got so soft. He catches fish with his bare hands and cooks them up in bamboo tubes. He can whip up a shelter in the jungle in no time flat with a tarp and a machete. See Rent a Real Man in Borneo.

James Dorsey has met up with plenty of wild men himself in the stories of Perceptive Travel and this time he ends up on a baboon hunt with the Hadzabe tribesmen in Tanzania. There’s smoking, spearing, and passing around primate meat. See Last of the Bushmen in Tanzania.

As always, we check out some new travel books so you’ll know what’s worth reading and we review some new world music albums so you’ll know what’s worth downloading. (Oh, okay, what’s worth at least checking out on Spotify.)

We’re always helping our loyal readers gear up for their travels. Last month someone scored some nice $100 polarized sunglasses from Bolle. This month we’re giving away two, yes two gift certificates to buy whatever Samsonite luggage, messenger bag, or travel accessories you need. If you’re on our newsletter list, watch your inbox. That’s the best bet because as you’ve probably noticed, even if you follow Perceptive Travel on Facebook, you’re probably not seeing the feed. That social network has become a “pay to play” platform where fan pages don’t show up unless they’re paying. Sign up here to be sure you can enter.