Monday, May 31, 2010

An Interview with a Veteran "Couchsurfer"

Late last September, I got a call from my dear friend Erin Hill. She had just gotten a job in the orchestra of the Broadway touring production of "South Pacific" (she's a harpist) and was hoping to save money on the road by staying with friends or friends of friends. Problem was, she couldn't find anyone who knew people in Greenville, South Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina or the other cities that the tour was playing. I suggested she try finding lodgings through the website, a site that connects travelers with friendly people who have extra bedrooms and open them up to visitors at no cost. She's been traveling for free ever since.

Today, she's a much greater expert on the activity of Couchsurfing than I, so I called her in Los Angeles (her current stop on the tour) to interview her about the ups and downs of her experience. Here's our conversation:

Pauline: So how long have you now been on the road? And have you exclusively "couch surfed" while traveling? 

Erin: Oh, wow, I should be looking at a computer so I can tell you. I started in the end of October, and took 11 weeks off in the middle. So, all in all, I've been sleeping with strangers (she laughs) for a good four months now. And I haven't had to pay for a hotel room once.  

Pauline: How much money do you think you've saved altogether?

Erin: Well, let me see. I guess I would have paid a minimum of $70 a night for hotel rooms. Let me look at the calculator on my phone.  I'm guessing I've saved at least $8000, probably more.

Pauline: Tell me how you got started with Couchsurfing.

Erin: I googled "Couchsurfing" and when you google it, the second link that comes up, after, is "Couchsurfing horror stories". So I went to the complaints before I looked at the couch surfing site. They amounted to things like people finding hair in a sink or getting a boring host. And I thought, well, if these are the horror stories, I think I can handle this fine.

So I went to and created a profile. At the beginning I didn’t realize how important it is to upload a picture and make sure I gave a lot of information about myself . I hadn’t even uploaded a picture when I requested my first stay. But luckily, in my email, I included a link to my website so the guy could see I was a normal person. My host told me later that he wouldn't have responded to me if he hadn't seen the website and felt like it was enough to verify that I was a decent person. (Pauline's note: Erin's website contains samples of her music, photos of her and her resume).

Pauline: So putting up a profile is important to the process?

Erin:: Really, really important. You should upload several pictures, and give details about who you are so that people will want to host you. 

Also, part of the process involves getting your identity verified by You send in your profile, then Couchsurfing sends a postcard to your house with a code on it. You have to enter the code online. That way people know you’re a real person, you really live somewhere and it’s all kosher. When I’m looking at possible places to stay, I only stay with people who have verified themselves in this way.
I also donated $25 to Couchsurfing and that turns up in my profile. If someone’s trying to abuse the system, it’s unlikely they’d donate, so that's a good thing to look for, too, when you're considering hosting people or staying with them.

Pauline: Okay, so you get your profile going. Then how did you decide to stay with? And how many tries did it take before you got matches?

Erin: Well, the first thing you do is get to the right area of the site geographically and start reading people’s profiles. Then you decide whether the person you're reading about sounds cool, like someone you'd get along with. If they do, you send a request. Then they respond either yes or no.

As for how many tries it takes, that varies. My first time, I emailed only one person and he said yes. When I went to Lincoln, Nebraska I had six places to choose among, everyone said they'd host me! I chose the guy that I ended up staying with for two reason. First off, he said his aunt was a harpist for the Des Moines symphony and secondly, he said that he was a big comic book collector and I love comics. That stay was fantastic! I met his whole family--his mother took us out to dinner, I went to see his band play and I met his aunt. Actually, when the tour went to Des Moines, his aunt hooked me up with another harpist to stay with in Des Moines. We're still really great friends and he came to visit me in New York City when I was off the road.

Pauline: Sounds like a great time. Did you ever have any bad experiences?

Erin: You know, I really didn't. The worst that happened was that one of my hosts was a bit boring. I won't be keeping in touch with him. But that was one out of, I guess, 14 hosts I've been with. The rest were wonderful.

Really, this experience has restored a little bit of my faith in the world. Everyone has been so great. People have lent me their cars, and picked me up at the theater with my luggage. The folks doing this do it for all the right reasons: to meet other people and do a bit of good in the world.

And I love not having to go to a sterile hotel room at the end of the day. You’re in a real home, you’re with people who know the area. You go to places you never would have found if you were staying in a hotel. The whole spirit is wonderful.

I always wanted to be around in the 1960's and Couchsurfing feels to me what I imagine the 60's would have been like, peace and love and all that.

Pauline: What would you say are the rules of etiquette for Couchsurfing?

Erin:Well, if you look at the references people have posted on my profile, one thing that keeps coming up is that I’m laid back and easy-going. To be a good guest, you just go with the flow. Once I slept on a couch that was too short for me for a few days but that was okay, I made it work. And I loved meeting that host. You never know what you're going to get, it really runs the gamut. In one place I had my own room with an attached bathroom, and a host who left early in the morning for work, so I had the run of the place.

Key things: you don’t want to complain and you wash the dishes immediately after you're finished using them.

Pauline:Is there a length of time most guests stay?

Erin: Based on my touring schedule, I usually asked to stay a week. But you can ask whatever you want and they can say yes or no. I have found that people often say "you can stay with us for these three nights", but once you get there they say you can say longer. A lot of people say just three nights so they can make sure they like you. Knock wood, everyone's liked me so far!

Pauline: Do you have to host people now when they come to your hometown? Is that part of the deal?

Erin: No, you don't have to reciprocate. But once you start couchsurfing, I don’t see how you could not want to. That’s part of the beauty of it. People have been so nice, welcoming me into their homes. And I’ve loved reciprocating. Some of the people I stayed with have come to visit. I've also welcomed strangers into my home. I love making friends and I now feel like I have friends all across the country. Really, it's just so cool: I have so many places I can go now and be welcomed by friends.

(Photo of three possible couchsurfers by Satem Kemet)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cultural intolerance or animal rights? The menu at the Beijing Zoo's restaurant raises some interesting ethical issues

My friend Tamra Holt, a food writer, alerted me to a Beijing brouhaha that recently made the pages of the UK's Guardian newspaper. It seems that the restaurant at the Beijing Zoo isn't drawing as strict a line as some would like between what's in the cages and what's on the plate. Among the delicacies served at the zoo restaurant are crocodile meat, webbed hippopotamus toes, deer penis, kangaroo tails, peacocks, ostrich eggs and ant soup. In the recent past, signs on the animal's enclosures could have acted as promos for the restaurant: among other facts about the animals, they listed which parts were tastiest and which animals were used in Chinese traditional medicines.

 (Pandas are on display, but not on the menu, at the Beijing Zoo; photo by May Wong)

Animal rights activists convinced the zoo to change the signs and are now lobbying for a change in menu. The Guardian quotes Ge Rui, the Asian regional director of the International Fund of Animal Welfare, as saying "One of the zoo's missions is to foster love of animals and a desire to protect them. But by selling the meat of caged beasts, this zoo stimulates consumption and increases pressure on the animals in the wild. It is socially irresponsible."

While I'd agree that the zoo shouldn't be selling the meats of any endangered animals, like hippos (added to the endangered species list in 2006), why is it any more wrong for park visitors to be eating venison (ie deer meat) or crocodile than it is for them to eat chicken? Holt posted an intriguing insight on Facebook "I think it is a great idea to make the connection between live animals and meat on the plate. If people had reverence for the animals they ate, we might be able to get rid of factory farms and develop a more humane food system. Should the restaurant only serve cows and sheep and chicken? Are some animals more worthy of respect than others?".

As a carnivore, someone who ate beef just last night, I have to agree. Don't the consumption issues that Rui refers to have more to do with the explosion of the human population than with how zoos present their animals? Yes, the restaurant's choices seem a bit tawdry, considering the location of the restaurant, but are they fundamentally unethical? Or do they simply represent the different cultural norms for acceptable foods that exist in China?

Obviously, there are no easy answers. But I'm not convinced that pushing the restaurant to remove the non-endangered animals on its menu makes any kind of coherent statement.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Disney's Discounting in summer?!? Well, Look Who's Moving in Next Door

Methinks a bespectacled little boy, with a lightening strike scar on his forehead, has a certain Mouse running scared. How else to explain Disney's high season discounting of its All Star resorts this summer? With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opening mid-June at Universal's Islands of Adventure, DisneyWorld had to squeak a bit louder to get heard.

And squeak louder it did. Usually when Disney discounts its All Star Resorts, the price falls to $79 (from $99 usually, peaking at $109 during crowded seasons). This time the midweek price will be just $58, a significant deviation from the norm. (Discounts of 20% to 40% are available on Disney's more upscale properties.)

Frankly, I'm not a fan of the All Stars. Cinder-block motels with little charm and fewer amenities, they're actually farther from the Disney World attractions than the cheaper motels on International Drive. (The All Stars were not built originally by Disney, simply lightly refurbished when the company finally decided to go after the budget market). Still, you do get certain perks by staying on Disney property such as extended "Magic Hours" at the various Disney theme parks and free transportation within the parks and in from the airport. It's that last freebie that keeps most visitors who stay at Disney from going anywhere else in town during their vacation; they don't have the wheels (or the will) to get to SeaWorld, Universal Studios or one of the city's myriad of other attractions. So what Disney giveth it taketh back, in additional moneys spent on food, souvenirs (again, you'll find these cheaper outside the parks), sunscreen, you name it.

But back to the deal. Best prices kick in August 15 for midweek stays only. If you book an earlier date you could pay $102 per night or more for an All-Star Resort, with a 20% savings on the Mouse's plusher properties (discounts for these increase to 40% in mid-August). To see full details, simply click here or call 407/939-5696

But be careful if you use the phone to book. Disney agents are expert at up-selling! Before you buy a package from them, with entry to the parks, meals and the like, think through carefully what you want your time in Orlando to be like. Will you want to go off property for a day to visit Harry Potter? What time will your flight arrive (if it arrives after noon be sure you don't get stuck paying for a full day at the parks that you won't be able to use). Do you have tape worm? I ask this last question because the Disney Dining program only works if you eat waaay too much, and spend far too much time at the resort's sit-down restaurants (time that could be better spent on the rides).

It will be fascinating to see just how this rivalry between Wizard and Mouse plays out in the future.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Travel Bloopers in Print: A Very Funny New Travel Book

A sad truth in travel: sometimes we think we're stepping aboard the most glamorous cruiseship afloat...and end up on the Titanic. That's the theme of the laugh-out-loud funny new book "The Titanic Awards: Celebrating the Worst in Travel". It examines all of the awful things that can go wrong when one hits the road. Though they couldn't have been fun for the travelers living through them, these experiences make for a great read. 

Author Doug Lansky also quotes well-known travel authorities, including yours truly, about weird and wacky misadventures they've had on the road. (I tell about my most frightening combination parenting/travel accident, as well as dish about the worst airline I ever flew. I'll give you a hint on the latter: the seats were held together with duct tape and cockroaches scurried through the aisles). 

For a quick preview of the book, and my personal list of "worsts", you can look at Lansky's highly interactive website 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bed, Breakfast and Savings in Taos from Now Through June 30

Two nights. That’s the amount of time most visitors give Taos, New Mexico outside of ski season, and the local innkeepers are fed up.

So, these guardians of the town’s most romantic and historic lodgings have joined together for the first time in the Taos' history, to offer a city-wide discount program. From now through June 30, those visitors who stay for three nights at one of the 20 Taos Association of Bed and Breakfast Inns will get the third night at 50% off. That means that visitors to the Adobe & Pines Inn, an 1830’s adobe hacienda updated with bold splashes of color and such niceties as Jacuzzi tubs, CD-players and fireplaces, could pay as little as $245 for the three night stay ($98 for the first two nights, $49 for the last). Other lodgings boast similar rates (along with suites for much, much higher prices).

So is Taos worth more than a two-night stay? That depends on your tastes. Some visitors are underwhelmed by this small town (5000 residents) filled with art galleries and laid-back, former hippies. It’s too cute, too quiet, they think.

Others revel in its aesthetic pleasures, from the beauty of the setting (at the foot of the soaring Sangre de Cristo mountains) to its bustling arts scene (museums, galleries, the oddly shaped homes of the "earthship" residents) and topnotch restaurants. Just outside the town are more than enough diversions to keep outdoor enthusiasts happy—challenging rafting, rock climbing, biking, fishing, even llama trekking. And few leave without visiting Taos' Native American Pueblo, the well preserved home of the Tiwa tribe (many still living in the way their ancestors did several centuries ago), a fascinating and moving community to visit.

For full information on the discount program, go to

(Photo of Taos Pueblo by Cynthia Carodean)

Monday, May 24, 2010

All the Sun, Half the Price: Club Med's Current Summer Sales

Club Med's casting a wide net with its latest round of sales. Targeting couples, families and solo travelers--in short, everyone--the discounts are a whopping 50% off the usual weekly rates for travel throughout the summer and fall (through December 11, to be exact).

Best rates are at what may be, because of the horrific BP oil spill, the Club's iffiest destination, the Sandpiper Resort in Florida. At this point, scientists are watching to see whether the so-called "loop stream" hits the southern coast of Florida. Sandpiper is located on the east coast, which doesn't appear to be in imminent danger, though with no end in sight for the spill, the entire east coast of the USA is seen as possibly endangered by this event.

(Photo: Windsurfers and a ship wreck off the beach at Club Med, Punta Cana; photo by Ed You

Still, if you're willing to risk it (go soon, I say), family travelers (2 adults, up to 2 children) could pay as little as $549 per person, per week for a full seven-days of lodgings as well as golf, tennis (at a well-respected on-site tennis academy), circus school, water sports, meals at two different on-site restaurants, and unlimited drinks. Also included are a kid's camp and baby care; the latter is usually extra. Couples pay $724 per person, solo travelers $954 (which is still 50% off the regular rate). In addition, non-members have to pay a one-time fee of $60 per adult, $30 per child to join the Club.

Club Med also has a sale on its properties in Cancun, Ixtapa, Punta Cana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas (though the last two resorts are not available to families at a discount).

As for the Club Med experience: it's gotten a lot more luxe in the past decade, with the Club upgrading its facilities, food preparation practices and activities in a serious attempt to compete with such luxury all-inclusive brands as SuperClubs and Couples (most industry experts think they succeeded in this makeover).

For full info on these deals and others (there are a handful of last-minute offers), head to

Friday, May 21, 2010

Oenephile Alert: Wine Festivals Across Oregon May 28-31

2008 was a nail-biter of a year for the pinot noir grape growers of Oregon. An unusually chilly winter had stunted the growth of the grapes. As the rainy summer season approached--the time at which the grapes had to be harvested, or the rain would destroy the quality of the fruit--the farmers decided to "cut back" the vines, basically, cutting off good grapes to allow the remaining ones to draw more nourishment from the soil and grow faster. It was hoped that this culling would allow the remaining grapes to ripen before the rains arrived.

June came, but for once, rains did not come with it. In fact, the rains held off for over six weeks meaning that the grapes everyone assumed wouldn't be able to properly ripen received an unusually long growing period. That extended maturation created one of the finest crops in years, though because of the early culling, it was also one of the smallest harvests in years.

The wine created from those treasured grapes is just now just hitting the shelves (it takes over a year for Pinot Noir to mature in casks before its bottled) and most experts expect it to sell out quickly. Much of it won't even make it out of Oregon, which makes a perfect excuse for a wine tasting vacation there.

And the perfect time to take said vacation is over the USA's Memorial Day long weekend (May 28-31). That's one of two weekends a year (the other is over Thanksgiving in November) when every single winery in the state will open to visitors, even those that demand appointments for tasting room sessions at other times of the year. Many will also be offering free concerts, food, classes, transportation and other enticements. Its an exuberant celebration, set in one of the most bucolic, unpretentious, welcoming areas of the USA.

If you want to learn more about Oregon's wine country, watch out for the column I wrote for the Toronto Star, which should be appearing in about two weeks. It delves into just how affordable the wine tasting experience is in Oregon (especially compared with California), from lodging costs to meals to the reasonable price tag on bottles (which more than off-sets the customs fees you'll pay to bring the wine back to Canada).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Healthier habits lead to happier vacations?

Okay, this may seem an odd sentiment from the blogger who was urging you to buy potato chips for the coupons on the bags yesterday (see blog below). But recently I've come to the conclusion that overeating can really undermine a vacation. As can not being active enough.

This comes from a person, admittedly, who has had her weight battles (I recently lost 25 pounds on Weight Watchers). From them, I know that I feel much more alert, more energetic and downright happier when I get in a daily workout, and when I eat just enough to feel satisfied (as opposed to feeling full). Why is it then that I, and so many others, throw these good habits out the window when somewhere new? Why on vacation do I eat until I feel like I may explode and skip activities that would boost my heart rate (and energy level)? Is this one of the reasons I sometimes come back from vacation feeling like I need another vacation to recover?

I'm starting to think so. So this vacation, I'm going to try some new strategies:

  1. I'm going to seek out activities every day--biking, hiking, kayaking, maybe even rock climbing--that will allow me to see parts of the destination I wouldn't have otherwise while still getting a workout in.
  2. I'm going to try all the new foods I want, but I'm going to chew them more slowly and make an effort NOT to clean my plate. Recent metabolism studies have shown that people who eat  slowly release a larger dose of the hormone that makes us feel full. By increasing the time it took them to ingest their meals from 5 minutes to 30, research subjects ate a significantly smaller amount of food, yet still felt satisfied after their meals. Sounds good to me!
  3. I'm going to bring along some healthy snacks. There's something about travel that brings out primordial "hunter/gatherer" impulses. I know that when I'm on the road, I constantly worry about being hungry, something I never do at home, and grab food when I see it, even when my body tells me I'm full. To allay these irrational fears, my backpack is going to be a movable farmer's market, filled with colorful, fresh snacks I can nosh on without overdoing it. We'll see if I can tempt my daughters, too, with all the fruits and veggies I'll be carrying. 
  4. I'm going to try and change my vacation mindset. Too often I justify my overindulgence by reminding myself that I'm on vacation. But is gorging myself and not moving really that much of a treat? It usually doesn't feel like it a half-hour after I've done the damage. So, I'm going to remind myself that being in a new place and away from the cares of my everyday life is the real treat.  Or at least that's the strategy now (am worried this last one may not work).
I'll report back after the vacation to let you all know how these strategies worked. Hopefully I'll discover a few new ones while on the road.

(Photo by Ernst Moeksis)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Deep Fried Savings: Travel Discounts for Potato Chip Eaters (No Joke)

You never know where the next travel deal may turn up. In this case, its on a bag of potato chips, Lays Potato chips to be exact.

With its new "Chip Trips" promo, the snack maker is giving away points towards travel coupons with each bag sold.  And you don't need to buy a monster-sized bag to garner big points, sometimes picking specialty flavors will do it. Each bag is worth at least 5 points, with some topping out at 15. Since the coupons kick in at just 5 points on some deals (which could be just one bag of chips), getting a deal seems pretty darn easy.

In the state of Ontario alone,  a whopping 323 facilities and activities being discounted. Here are just a few that caught my eye:

  • 50% off the CN Tower's "Total Tower Experience" package, a savings of $16.50 (10 points). Good for those times when you have out-of-town guests to impress
  • Buy one ticket, get the second for half price at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a savings of $49 (30 points)
  • Stay one night, get the second one for 50% off. Good for Marriott Hotels or Choice Hotels throughout Ontario and at the Great Wolf Lodge (an indoor water park), a savings of $100 or more (50 points)
  • $25 off hot air balloon rides in several places around the state (20 points)
  • Buy one, get one free adventure tour (white water rafting, ATVing or biking) from Outdoor Adventure (from 5 points)
  • 50% off the cost of a daily parking permit at an Ontario provincial park, savings of $7 (5 points)
Additional savings are available throughout Canada. Head to the ChipTrips site for full information on the promotion.

(Photo by Rainer Zenz)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The UK's Travelodge Chain to the Rescue with 19 pound rooms this summer

Two years ago, my husband, our two daughters and I set off on what would ultimately be one of the priciest vacations of our lives. We headed to the UK, and because the British pound at that time was pounding the dollar, even the simplest meals cost at least $80 for the four of us. Car rental fees were through the roof (we spent part of the time motoring around Scotland) as were admissions fees.

Where we didn't get taken was on our nightly sleeps, and I can thank Travelodge for that. We stumbled upon a sale, one that's being repeated right now, which allowed vacationers to book rooms for just 19 pounds a night. Sounds like a come-on, right? Not so! Travelodge was (and is) offering hundreds of rooms at these rates. We were able to book stays in several Scottish cities for less than 20 pounds.

The hidden extra value of Travelodge is that these rates aren't just for singles and couples, they also apply to families. In each property, many of the rooms are equipped with couches that handily transform into trundle beds, allowing 4 people to share a room comfortably. Travelodge does not charge extra for these rooms, bucking the British trend of sharply hiking prices for quad rooms.

And rooms are pretty comfortable. The furnishings are Ikea-esque, well-maintained if simple (see the photo). Bathrooms are private and yes, small, but well-designed so they don't feel too cramped. There are never amenities like  swimming pools or room-service at the hotels, and often the location of the motel is off the highway rather than in the heart of town, but these seem fair trade-offs for a stay this cheap.

For full information, click here. Do so sooner rather than later: the sale lasts only as long as the inventory of discounted rooms does.

(Photo by Karen Bryan)

Monday, May 17, 2010

An Extraordinarily Good Sale from Toronto to 3 African Cities

The window is small, but the savings are great. If you can fly out between 10/09/10 and 10/12/10 you could get to the distant continent of Africa for as little as $995 total (the price is return, and includes all taxes, fees and surcharges). That's the low rate of KLM's current flash sale to Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Entebbe; those who book it can return anytime in the 12 months after those departure dates.

Alas, the booking window is narrow, too: to score this deal, you must put your money down by the end of the day today! Click here to get to the sale page. These prices also hold for Ottawa and Montreal departures.

If a safari is your goal, quickly surf over to the websites of such companies as Lion World Travel, Adventure Center or 2Afrika to get an overview of affordable safari options. Once you've decided on the the length of time in the bush, book the airfare before it disappears. You'll have a number of months before you need to finalize your plans for the safari itself.
(Photo by Paul Mannix)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sneaky Ways to Use Your Frequent Flyer Miles

The Perrin Post, Conde Nast Travel Editor Wendy Perrin's blog, held a contest recently for the best frequent flyer usage stories. They came up with some doozies, which are not only fun to read but contain valuable advice on the myriad of ways one can successfully work loyalty programs.

One reader was trying to use her miles to get her college-age son home during a holiday weekend. She was told "no, no, NO!" by reservationists, over and over. There were absolutely no seats in coach available. Then inspiration struck. She called back and asked if she could get a first class seat with her miles. Bingo! The seat cost no more miles than an economy class one would have, and the kid got to travel in style, to boot.

Another traveler finessed one round-trip flight into a two-week trip in two different locations. He flew from Dallas to Las Vegas via New York City, and used his free layover privileges to spend the week in the Big Apple before moving on to Sin City and then returning home. He wrote that he could have added another free layover on his return trip from Vegas to Dallas.

A final passenger knew the routing of her home airlines partners, and was able to get the perfect trip, for the miles she had with that partner.

It all boils down to the three cardinal rules for mileage usage:

  • Be creative
  • Be persistent 
  • Be informed
And for those holding frequent flyer miles with Air Canada, like Toronto Star editor Jim Byers, you'll be happy to hear that the Wall Street Journal today named it one of the most generous on the planet towards its loyalty members.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Air Canada's Introducing New Routes...But Should You Care?

Usually when a carrier begins a new route, its a good thing for passengers. The newcomer to that corner of the market undercuts the competition to establish itself, every one's prices drop and bingo! Consumers get a deal. Increased competition leads to lower prices.

Well, it seems that Air Canada doesn't use that playbook. Sure, its website pays lip-service to the idea that travelers will snag a steal if they book these new European non-stops before the deadline (May 18 in this case). The fares listed certainly look tempting--$403 each way Toronto to Copenhagen! $415 to Brussels! $425 to Rome. But once you get all the way to the end of the booking process, what with fuel surcharges, fees and taxes, rates across the pond are a good $350 higher than expected. And if you go to a general search engine or the website of one of Air Canada's competitors on these routes--as you should--you find that the other carriers are slaughtering Air Canada on price, often to the tune of $200 to $300 less. Air Canada's vaunted non-stops didn't come up in the affordable end of any of the searches I did, either.

After a good two hours price shopping on the web (one of the more exciting parts of my job), I found that Air Canada beat the competition on these routes only about 20% of the time. I searched for flights in July and August and if I boil down the results here's how they play:
  • Toronto to Copenhagen: Icelandair and JetAirways India are consistently the price leaders, beating Air Canada by a range of $30 to $200
  • Toronto to Brussels: A fairer fight. On this route, Air Canada came in first a number of times, though Lufthansa and US Airways were never far behind (and often bested AC)
  • Toronto to Rome: The starkest difference. On this route, Air Canada was pretty much whupped, often by as much as $300 by Lufthansa and Brussels Airlines
  • Toronto to Madrid: Air Canada was either  behind JetAirways India and Finnair by a little (about $40) and a lot (closer to $200). On the dates I checked, it never beat the competition
  • Toronto to Athens: A rare route on which Air Canada shone, offering lower prices than the others a good amount of the time. Its closest rivals were US Airways and Lufthansa
Of course, sometimes it was no one airline that beat Air Canada, but a combo flight of two different carriers. These tended to be put together by such booking engines as OneTravel and Expedia .

Another reason, perhaps, to ignore Air Canada's sale UNLESS, and I know this will pertain to a lot of readers, unless you're a member of Air Canada's loyalty program. Then you're going to have to weigh for yourself the difference in costs with the advantages of accruing miles on such long hops.

However you end up booking, know that, for now, your loonie is going to go a wee bit farther in Europe than it would have several months ago. The euro and the pound have been hurting, good news for Canadian and US travelers. Those lowered costs on the ground may just ease the sting of hefty airfares.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Top Travel Read: Grounded by Seth Stevenson

I have a confession to make: when I read for fun, I don't read about travel. I tend to go with novels or compelling books on history (Antonia Fraser and David McCullough--you make me smile).

But the other week I found myself laughing out loud, and furiously flipping through the pages, of a travel book I had to read for work. I was interviewing the author Seth Stevenson for our radio show and had grudgingly begun his book about three-days before the interview in preparation.

A travel memoir, Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World is the tale of Stevenson and his partner Rebecca's circumnavigation around the globe, accomplished entirely on the surface of the planet. Though in many cases it would have been less expensive and quicker, they made the decision to forgo airline travel altogether and embarked on a romp that rivals "Around the World in 80 Days".

Grounded is everything most travel memoirs are not. It has suspense, as the problems inherent in getting from continent to continent by boat nearly force the couple to abandon their quest at several points. There's a laugh on nearly every page. And Stevenson has a wonderful way of interweaving his personal tale with history--both the history of the places they visit and the modes of transportation they use--that opens up the story and gives it greater interest. I feel like I know a lot more about international commerce thanks to his explanation of how cargo ships have reworked the way nations trade with one another...and that's a good thing!

Best of all, the book introduced me to a number of places that I haven't visited yet and am now eager to see. If you're still wrestling with your summer travel plans, this could be a terrific resource to peruse. It's one of those rare travel books that truly opens up the world. I urge you to pick up a copy.

(And just in case you're wondering: I have no connection to Stevenson, nor does the publishing company that publishes the Pauline Frommer guidebooks. I'm just a fan.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Identity Theft on the Road: What You Need to Know

Last week was not fun. I got hacked, and spent countless hours contacting worried friends who'd been told I was stranded penniless in London; reconfiguring my email and Facebook accounts; and reloading programs onto my computer (the hackers left a virus, I suspect).

But at least I was home when it happened and had a base from which I could counterattack. Sadly, an increasing number of travelers find themselves victimized on vacation. In fact, it's the carefree nature of vacations--and the increased use of credit cards--that make us more likely to fall victim to identity theft on the road than at home. We let our guard down, we spend freely (often on credit), we're less careful. And on the nitty gritty level we use hotel computers and wifi systems that may not have the necessary firewalls and encryption we have at home.

This weekend, we interviewed Wayne Ivy, a police officer and law enforcement liaison for about how travelers can keep their identities safe away from home.

  1. Try to avoid using the hotel computer for any interactions that might involve the use of credit cards. And if you're logged in, on it, to an account with personal information, remember to log out. Too many folks simply leave their accounts open, right there in the lobby, where anyone could nab your info.
  2. Be aware of the people around you when you're typing on your computer. "Shoulder surfing" (the act of someone glancing over your shoulder as you type on your computer) is an easy way for bad guys to filch your passwords and other valuable information. This is particularly a problem in coffee shops.
  3. Use just one credit card when you travel. That way, if your credit information gets swiped, say by a waiter or taxi driver with a card reader, you'll be able to spot the fraud more quickly. And will only have one battle to fight rather than several. (Pauline's note: you may want to carry more than one, however. There are cases when car rental companies and even resorts can require such a large deposit, your credit may be temporarily frozen. This can particularly be a problem if you have a car accident). As well, a number of establishments limit themselves to one or two types of cards that they'll accept; carry another form of credit and you'll be in trouble.
One thing you should not do is try to avoid using credit cards by carrying around large amounts of cash. If you do, and your stash gets stolen, you're out of luck. At least with credit cards, your bank or credit card company will reimburse you for any thefts.

Have you ever been a victim of identity theft on the road? I'd so appreciate it if you'd share your story below. The more we all know about this growing problem, the better we can combat it!

(Photo by Don Hankins)

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Hello From Your New Travel Blogger

A very wise college professor of mine once veered sharply off-topic to talk about our coming careers. She said, “You’ll likely choose your profession for one reason, but to keep doing it, you’ll have to keep coming up with ever new and more compelling reasons. If you can’t find those reasons, change careers.”

My career, travel writing and editing, in a manner, chose me. I am the daughter of travel writers Arthur Frommer and Hope Arthur, after all, and started vagabonding around the globe at the age of four months. I’d always loved to write, the planet was my playground, and travel gave me a charge—boom, profession picked.

But beyond the visceral thrill of dashing here and there, trying exotic foods, and seeing eye-popping works of art and architecture--the initial lures—I’ve found new reasons to write over the years which I hope will become the hallmarks of this column. They include:

  • Frugality: Unlike many of the travel bloggers you’ll read online, I pay for my own travel. So I understand how important, no crucial, saving a loonie is. Lack of cash very literally clips our wings. I’m going to do my darndest in this column and in my blog, to uncover the best deals out there—ones that allow us, as adults, to travel in comfort and safety, but not overpay. From money-saving methods of travel to last minute offers, you’ll find them with my byline.
  • Estrogen: No secret, I’m a woman. And I do think that many of the issues in travel, particularly safety and destination choice, can vary, a bit, by gender. So I’ll be gearing some of these posts towards women’s travel. But you fellows who are in touch with your feminine sides, please feel free to read along, too.
  • Motherhood: Blame it on estrogen (see above), but over the years I've "reproduced". I have two daughters and now drag them along with me, from China to Guatemala to Disneyland. This has been both a joy and a royal pain and it has schooled me in the art of planning trips that are appropriate for all ages and levels of obsession with Justin Bieber. So family travel, too, will be a focus.
  • Expanding Horizons: I’m all for going to the top of the Eiffel Tower when you’re in Paris, or to the edge of the Grand Canyon when in Arizona. But I believe travel is more than just viewing natural wonders and works created decades or even centuries ago. You need to get off the tourist treadmill. It’s eye-opening and just plain fun to engage with the locals, pull back the curtain on the current culture of the places you’re visiting, learn new skills, have adventures! So I’ll also be devoting a good amount of space here to the more unusual experiences one can have on the road, experiences that create friendships and open eyes.

I look forward to creating an ongoing conversation on all these issues and more in the upcoming months.

(Photo: Me with my exhausted daughter in Mykonos, Greece taken by my husband Mahlon Stewart)