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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.

 

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.

 

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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Arenas beach

It’s been hard to open up a travel magazine the past few months and not see something on the Corn Islands of Nicaragua. What’s all the fuss about? My take first, then the secret behind all those magazine spreads at the end.

There are plenty of great places to visit in Nicaragua. This country is roughly the size of New York State, after all, just a lot warmer. And if you’re the type who is allergic to places filled with tour buses, you’ll be very happy here. If value is at the top of your priority list, even better.

Most travelers stick to the mainland since you’ve got the colonial city of Granada close to the main international airport and you can skip down the coast checking out great beaches for chilling out or surfing. Also close by is a huge lake, where you can take a ferry to explore the volcanic islands of Ometepe.

If you head out to the Corn Islands, you are doing something only a small fraction of the already not-so-large numbers of tourists do. Enough do though that you need to make plane reservations ahead of time with La Costeña and get to the airport plenty early since flights are often full and it’s open seating. This is a monopoly carrier, a turboprop plane stopping off in Bluefields on the way, but it’s reasonably comfortable and not too pricey at around $164 round trip. (Less if you just go to Bluefields on the return and take your time going overland by bus.) In theory you can get to Big Corn by boat, but the island is 70 kms off the east coast and the boat only leaves once a week from a port town called El Rama.

fish and tostones Nicaragua

Once you get there, prices are higher than on the mainland, but still not bad. You can get a fresh catch meal like this one pictured here at a nice restaurant on the beach—with a view of waves lapping the shore or the sun going down—for $12, or a full-blown lobster one for $15. If ambiance is not at the top of your list, you can cut that price in half in the more rustic places. Dollar beers are common and it’s rare you’ll see a Toña going for more than $1.40 even at the best places.  You can order rum drinks made with good Flor de Caña for $2 or get a bottle and mixers to share with friends for $8-$10.

Big Corn Island resortRates top out at 20 cordobas per person for a taxi on Big Corn, which is US 80 cents. You can navigate the whole island by bicycle if your hotel is near a rental place (mine on the south side wasn’t, unfortunately.) You can find a cheap place to bunk down on either island for around $10 if you just show up and look around. If you book ahead you’ll pay more. If your budget is higher, you can often find a room at the best beachfront places on Big Corn for under $100 a night, or $120 for a bungalow that sleeps four. In between those two extremes are plenty of choices. This is certainly one of the best bargains in the Caribbean for lodging, especially considering how nice the beaches are.

Most people travel to Little Corn island because the snorkeling and diving are better and it’s even more chilled out, with no cars. Getting there is straightforward. You show up early for the ferry at the main dock, buy a $6 ticket, and slather on lots of sunscreen. Your half-hour trip across the water is in a little open boat crammed with as many people as they can fit on. If there are a lot of tickets sold, they’ll send two boats. Rumor is the ferry boat is never going to get any larger because the ruling elders on Little Corn don’t really want any more tourists coming than they’ve already got. But hey, the price was $6 in 2008 and it still is, so give them credit for that.

getting to Little Corn Island

Here’s why you’re now reading so much about Little Corn Island though and why Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, and others of their ilk are suddenly gushing about why it’s a hot destination and “where to go in 2014.” A nice new hotel called Yemaya just opened there and it’s a yoga retreat/healthy eating kind of upscale resort opened by an Australian who also has three beach hotels in Tulum, Mexico. This is really all that’s required to suddenly get a destination on the radar of those magazines: a new hotel that goes for more than $300 per night. And has fancy $8 smoothies.

Little Corn Island Nicaragua

It is really nice though. That photo above is one of their beaches…

Argentina travel

Why did you leave me all these pesos instead of dollars?”

Getting ready to travel somewhere for a few weeks or months of independent travel? If you want a great value, put these countries on your short list:

Argentina

India

Indonesia

Mexico

Why these? Not because of their “friendly locals,” “charming towns” or “pristine beaches,” yada yada yada. And not because they’re a hot destination this year. You should go if you like to get a lot more for you money there than you did in the past. If you like traveling well while spending less than you do just existing at home, a plunging exchange rate is a surefire ticket to savings.

Most travelers approach exchange rates backwards. They don’t even think about them until they get to where they’re going, then fret about how everything is more expensive than they expected. It makes a lot more sense to see where your timing will be right and go there. Heck, even if you’re going somewhere expensive this makes sense: the pain of Canada, Japan, or Australia stings about 10% less right now than it did a year or two ago.

Argentina’s Pain, Your Gain

I took Argentina out of the last edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations because high inflation, high import duties, and a slew of nutty economic policies were making it an unfriendly place for tourists. You’ll still face a hefty visa cost before you even exit the airport if you’re American and there’s still a crazy small limit on how much you can take out of an ATM each day. If you arrive with U.S. dollar wads in your pocket though, you are going to tango your way across the land in much better shape than even just a few weeks ago.

That’s because the peso has plunged badly for a whole host of reasons and the government’s injection of $115 million to buy up pesos isn’t helping much. Here’s how Reuters put it:

“The local currency weakened on the black market to 12.15 pesos per U.S. dollar, while the official exchange rate was unchanged at 8 per dollar in thin trading. Last week, the official peso slid nearly 20 percent as investors scrambled to make sense of the new currency regime.”

rupee decline

India’s Rupee in Decline

Two years ago this month, a dollar got you 50 Indian rupees. Today it gets you 62. That’s a 24% increase in what you get for your money. And you could already get a lot.

The government is intervening to try to keep this figure from falling further, mostly by raising interest rates. Who knows how well that will hold or not. But if you’re already planning on going there, happy days are ahead. (If you were going to Nepal, you’ll also get more for your money there, in what’s already probably the cheapest destination in the world. As the Indian rupee goes, so does Nepal’s currency.)

Let me take you to Indonesia

Two years ago a buck got you 9,000 rupiah. Today that same greenback will get you around 12,000. For those of you who flunked math class, that’s a 1/3 increase in your purchasing power. Maybe not in a chic Bali resort priced in dollars, but you weren’t planning on doing that anyway, right?

Indonesia was already one of the world’s best bargains, especially as soon as you leave Bali and head anywhere else. Yes, the country is getting wealthier and the middle class is rising fast—thus the horrible traffic jams in Jakarta—but if you stroll in with an ATM card linked to a bank account in a country that uses the US dollar, Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, euro, or yen, you’ll be feeling flush. Head to Sumatra and you can check out for months on a couple grand.

Unfortunately, the flight price is going to kill you for any of these if you’re coming from the USA or Canada, so it’s better if you’re already on the move and can get there from somewhere closer. At this time of year it’s hard to find a flight to any of the three for under $1,000, so sometimes you’re better off with a package deal that includes hotels.

Which leads us to the backyard choice:

Guadalajara

Mexico, Mexico!

I guess I moved back to Mexico at a good time. The exchange rate hasn’t dipped below 12 to the dollar since I got here this past summer and it just hit a new high of 13.3 when I took money out of the ATM yesterday. That means my “What you can get for a buck or less” list keeps expanding. Here’s a partial list

Two kilos of oranges or bananas, a large beer in a store, 12 ounces of fresh squeezed orange juice, a kilo of fresh tortillas, 2+ local bus rides, a few street tacos, a bootleg DVD, an ice cream cone or fresh fruit popsicle, a tamale, four breakfast buns, four sandwich rolls, y mucho mas,

A cheap meal of the day lunch in the market here is 30 pesos, which is now less than $2.50. A taxi from one side of Guanajuato to the other is less than $3. The average museum admission is $2 or less. As I always say though, those are prices in the real Mexico, not Cancun or Los Cabos.

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