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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.

 

Budapest train

What’s the biggest perception difference between an experienced budget traveler and one planning to take off around the world?

The first has learned what really breaks the budget over time. The latter generally has it all backwards.

Here are some paraphrased quotes from people who have sent me e-mails or asked questions on message boards I’ve been on.

- “Yes, I know we’re going to a lot of expensive places in Europe, but we’re going to sleep in hostels.” (Person who had Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Greek Islands on their itinerary.)

- “We’re on a tight budget, but we really want to hit all every continent except Antarctica on our trip.” (A trip that was just 12 months long.)

- “I’m trying to find a cheap round-the-world flight that includes South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia but I’m not having much luck.”

These statements are inherently at odds with traveling on a budget. They’re hoping for a magic bullet answer that is the equivalent of defying the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle the big budget items, you had better have lots and lots of money saved.

You can ignore most of the “Top-10 Ways to Shave Your Travel Costs in Europe” articles that are meant to be click bait. Most of the time they’re just about messing with the margins, the small stuff. It’s like trying to fix the U.S. deficit problem by cutting funding for the arts. To really make a difference we would need to reform social security, truly fix the health care system, or cut defense spending. All three at once to achieve anything dramatic.

hostel prices

For the price of a hostel bed here, you get a really nice hotel room for 2 in a cheap destination.

Location

Budapest is a fantastic bargain. Nobody will ever call Oslo a bargain, or even London for that matter. You can buy a round of drinks for all your friends in Hungary for the price of one in Norway.  The price of a hostel bed in Copenhagen will get you a spacious hotel room for two almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. One nice restaurant meal in Switzerland will feed you for a week in Portugal.

Now take that further and go to Central America, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Prices drop in half again, for almost everything you could possibly spend money on. So don’t think of how you can shave costs by self-catering and staying at hostels. If you cut the entire “basket of goods and services” cost by 2/3, messing with the margins isn’t necessary.

And as I’ve said often, getting out of the big capital cities will usually help no matter where you are.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?

Velocity

The more you’re moving around, the more money you’re going to spend every week, every month. It’s not far-fetched to say that someone visiting 24 countries in one year is going to spend twice as much as someone visiting 12. The one visiting 8 will spend even less.

If those 24 countries are on multiple continents that require long-haul flights, bump the budget up by thousand of dollars. Even in places where transportation is cheap, being on the move a lot requires constant spending on some kind of tickets. If you’re in one place for a month though, it’s just your feet and local buses or subways. Plus when you get to know an area, you don’t have to throw money at hurdles because you’re in a hurry. You can figure out cheaper/better options for everything from lodging to groceries to bus options for leaving town at the end.

Many people setting out on their first round-the-world trip act as if their life is going to end the moment they return home. They have to do it all, see it all, on this one grand adventure. Hey, you’re 28 years old; is this really the last time in your life you’re going to get on a plane and go somewhere? On my three round-the-world trips, I never even set foot in Latin America. Now I’ve been to a dozen countries in Latin America. They didn’t disappear from the map. I still haven’t been to New Zealand. But I think it’ll wait for me.

round the world flight

This route STARTS at $7,250.

Distance

I’ve written a few articles related to my book on traveling in the cheap clusters of the world. This one is getting a bit dated, but apart from Turkey getting more expensive it’s still pretty accurate.

The idea is, you take a long-haul flight to a cluster of cheap countries, then go overland from there. The most common one is to get a flight to Bangkok and then you can hit a half-dozen other countries without getting on another long-haul flight. You can get a cheapo flight from Singapore to Indonesia or a not-so-bad one from Bangkok to Nepal or India, which is the start of another cluster. The cheapest cluster option from the U.S. or Canada is to fly to Mexico or Guatemala and then make your way south by land and boat. For the Brits, a cheap flight to Budapest or Prague can then turn into lots of jaunts by train and bus to the least expensive parts of Europe.

The easiest way to ratchet up your long-term travel budget in a hurry is to try to check far-flung places off your list on one trip. Sure, you may have always dreamed of visiting Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, and France, but if you’re trying to find a ticket hitting all those areas, it’s going to be the price of a used car, no way around it. Save some for later.

What lesson did you learn the hard way between planning and actually traveling?

Italy travel Carrara

Sometimes editor types joke about the “three I’s of travel” that grace so many magazine covers: Italy, Ireland, and India. They’re photogenic, look exotic, and have nice luxury hotels with ad money to spend. You’ll rarely find a travel magazine that goes a whole 12 months without one of the three on a cover.

In the current issue of Perceptive Travel, we subbed in Iceland for Ireland. (Don’t worry, you can still find the latter plenty of places on our blog.) Iceland is also photogenic, can look exotic, and has some nice hotels. As usual though, we don’t tick off places you’ve already seen a hundred times before. We like to take the road less traveled. In this case we’re literally on the road with Luke Armstrong as he tries to learn how to drive a stick shift on the fly. In a van. Going across Iceland in the “crazy season.” See Learning to Drive a Dinosaur in Iceland.

We also have a story about Italy, but toss out your expectations because Debi Goodwin is not going to check anything off your bucket list. This place was on hers though: the Italian marble quarries of Carrara.

Old Delhi

We had a story in the past on how the “Incredible India” portrayed in ads and glossy travel stories is like an alternate universe to the Slumdog Millionaire reality that non-luxury travelers see every day. Being sheltered from the grinding poverty is next to impossible if you go for a walk though, as Jim Johnston finds out in Hunger and Privilege: Dinner in Old Delhi.

As always we run down some world music worth listening to, from a globalFEST compilation to classical music with a Turkish twinge, through the ears of Laurence Mitchell.

Susan Griffith reviews three new travel books: one from a legend, one from a shipping industry reporter, and one from…well, you decide.

Need some new travel shoes?

We give away something cool to one of our loyal Perceptive Travel readers each month and last time Jack P. from Florida scored a nice $139 daypack from Granite Gear. In April we’re setting someone from the USA up with a nice $90 pair summer travel shoes: the H2O Escape Bungee Sneaker from Sperry Topsiders.

To win, you could follow PT on Facebook and pay close attention. The better bet is to sign up for the monthly e-mail newsletter.

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.

 

facebook Tim Leffel

I broke down and started a Cheapest Destinations fan page. Come like me if you like me. Or if you just like what I write about.

From the start I’ve been a reluctant Facebook user. I liked the movie and do I admire the ability of anyone to build something that addictive that fast. We haven’t seen such a concoction since the crack epidemic started. Instead of giving your money and your health though, you give all your personal data and a big heap of all your friends’ data. It’s an advertiser’s ultimate fantasy and everyone is still voluntarily signing up by the millions.

I avoid spending much time on there for a more prosaic reason though: it’s a massive time suck. TV is a productivity black hole too, but after a while you go, “Man, there is just nothing on.” With Facebook that never happens. Every minute there’s something new, designed just for you! Your college buddy just posted vacation photos. Your old boss has a birthday. Your sister got a new job. Your work colleague just posted a video that is hi-lar-i-ous. There’s a half-off sale at your favorite shoe store. A special on your favorite beer at the bar down the street. And look at what that cute cat is doing! Plus it’s not passive: there are groups of people obsessed with exactly what you’re obsessed with and you can talk about it any time of the day, wherever you live.

If you’re unemployed and have nothing to do, great fun. If you’re trying to run a business and support a family, half a day can go by interacting with all this and you’ve gotten bumpkis done.

Facebook addict

…and this is from 2012.

The Trouble with 1,000 Virtual Friends

While I’ve long had pages for the websites I run (links on the home pages if you’re interested), my personal one has been, well, personal. I see updates from real people I’ve hung out with and shared jokes with, in person. Relatives I’ve seen 10 times. People I’ve traveled with. You know, friends, not “friends.”

This has long made me an oddball minority though. One day a well-known Travel Channel celebrity host sent me a friend request and I mentioned it to my wife because it seemed odd. “You accepted it, right?” the wife asked.

“Well, I’ve only seen her on TV. I don’t know her,” I replied. “Not even by e-mail.”

“So what?! Just accept it!”

I did, but it bugged me because it broke my rule. There’s a constant push-me, pull-me tug going on from me trying to promote my projects but also trying to keep some shred of my personal life shielded from my work life. I spent seven years working for a record company where my work life was my only life. It was great fun partying with the same crowd I worked with, but when I left that job, I left my entire social structure and nightlife schedule on 6th Avenue in New York. There was no separation between “colleagues” and “friends,” something I didn’t truly grasp until I suddenly had lots of time on my hands. I may be an entrepreneur now, but that doesn’t mean I have to be selling 24/7.

Leffel working

So I’m bowing to the need to have fans and likes in a way I can’t do on my “friends and relatives” page. I’ll probably post more often on this new page because I won’t feel like I’m boring my friends and relatives who don’t travel—or rubbing it in their face that I’m in a new country every month or two for work. And it’s my job to stay at beach resorts and go hiking through the Andes Mountains.

Come join me on the Cheapest Destinations page and we’ll talk about cheap travel, living abroad, and where to get $1 beers. Hey, if you only pop in once every week or two, believe me, I’ll understand.

Who’s with me?