Save Thousands on Your Next Vacation

Save $ Thousands On Your Next Vacation

Do you remember Europe on 5 Dollars a Day, the travel guide first published in 1957 by Arthur Frommer? Later it became 25 dollars. Today it would be over 100 dollars.

Fuhgetaboutit!

You can stay in absolute comfort for FREE  

Including a FREE car.

Homelink.org is your passport. This home exchange site (you stay in their home, while they occupy yours) has been operating since 1953 by book, and has been online for years. There are 18,000 listings – mostly from Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. A $100 annual fee is the only cost.

The advantages go way beyond free home and auto. Staying in someone’s home means you have all the comforts of your own space, in some cases more, think: great views, hot tubs, bicycles, electronic games, fireplaces, pools, etc. We’ve eaten many a fine dinner with and learned a great deal from friendly and helpful neighbors. And, since there’s a ready-to-cook larder, all you have to do for a meal is buy fresh food.

Restaurant meals, museums, theaters, public transportation, souvenirs, etc. cost about the same as it does if you stayed home. So in effect, it’s free. All you pay is airfare (see hints on saving below.) Of course, that’s theoretical. We spend more on vacation than we would at home because we do more, but exchanging makes small luxuries affordable.

In the past ten years, we’ve spent 26 weeks on 12 exchanges, each ranging from one to three weeks. Some people exchange for longer periods. It would be difficult to name a favorite, but our first in Great Massingham, England (pop. 750) was special. We enjoyed Munich during the 2014 World Cup when Germany won. We suffered the noisy, “Orange Head” Dutch in Paris during the 2010 World Cup. But who cares. I’ll take a free apartment in Paris anytime. (See “Urban Borderlands” xx link for more about that trip.) Amsterdam, facing an inner canal is worth repeating. If pressed for best: Vancouver Island. Hot tub, hidden from neighbors, on a deck facing the Strait of Georgia, which separates the island from the Canadian mainland. A clear view of the snow-capped coastal range. Eagles and hummingbirds. A wood-burning fireplace. Great ganja. Paradise.

You can exchange from wherever you live. The East and West Coasts, New England and especially NYC and Florida are the most sought destinations. Have a look at the properties complete with description and pics at www.homelink.org  Check out other exchange sites on the Web.

Cruising  On my first cruise, I learned the value of having an astute travel agent – remember them? He got me a free upgrade. At minimum rate, we had a full size bed in a room maybe ten by twelve feet as opposed to a closet with upper and lower bunk beds.

In the past 40 years I’ve spent 34 weeks cruising, and I’ve learned ways to maximize the experience while saving huge sums. Cruise prices (not necessarily quality) range from cheap to outrageous. Our last eight cruises (140 days) have been aboard Holland America ships. Nice quality. Great customer service. And there are amazing deals to be had. Here’s how:

1) Fares drop 60 or 90 days before departure (last cancellation date for earlier bookings) and will keep falling until every room is filled. That’s their business model. The cost to the cruise line is the same whether the rooms are full or not. They make their money on extras.

2) Avoid the extras. All food, sports facilities, pools, hot tubs, lectures, and entertainment are free. Wine and liquor are reasonably priced. The shops rob you. The art auction is a phony. The spa is expensive, but why not? It won’t break you. The big extra to avoid are the tours.

3) Especially avoid ship tours. Their markup is absurd, not to mention, do you want to travel on their schedule with fellow tourists in a bubble? On our cruise down the west coast of South America, the ship ran a three-day, two night excursion to Machu Picchu. Their price: $3000. A passenger on the ship booked the same trip on the Internet for $500. At every port, there’s local transportation to anywhere the ship’s tours go and more at one’s own pace. And why travel if not to mix in with natives.

4) Companies sometimes make pricing errors on their websites or sales brochures. Pay attention. Twice we saved thousands.

Last year we received a brochure from Holland America, discounting their 23-day cruise: Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina including 3-days in Antarctica waters. The original book price was $3300, which in the past had dropped to $2200 close to sailing date. The price in the brochure: $1100. We called the next day and the salesman said it was a mistake. I responded, “Then you should fire your proofreader,” and pressed my case. He asked his boss, who said they had put aside five cabins at that price and they were already taken. I said, “I think we have a credibility problem here.” They called us the following day, honoring the price. Two of our friends also came, taking advantage of a deal that with port fees and taxes, cost a total of $1500 each for a 23-day cruise. Exclusive of airfare, of course. Book your own. Going through the cruise line will cost more and limit your flexibility.

Airfare  Shop around. You can often save by Googling airlines within the country you’re going to. Especially if you plan to fly locally or regionally. We found that travel from Singapore, using airlines that didn’t appear in Expedia or similar, saved us plenty.

On cruises, one often has to fly into one city and out from another. For our recent South American cruise, the best price I could find into Santiago and out from Buenos Aires was $2200. I subsequently, priced a round trip to Buenos Aires and a separate one-way between there and Santiago. $1600. Before we booked, I noticed one of the round trip flights to Buenos Aires, stopped in Santiago on the way, eliminating the one-way flight. Price: $941.

A footnote. When I called the airline as a courtesy to let them know we’d be deplaning in Santiago, they wanted us to rebook at a cost of $200 each. I hung up. We got off in Santiago. (We travel light and had only carry-ons.)

Airline prices fluctuate with time and don’t always go down like ships. I don’t have a formula to gauge best times, I just search for the best deal. It also helps if you’re flexible about dates.

Scalpers  When I was just a teen, my friend Tom and I trained from our hamlet 50 miles into Manhattan to see a Knicks basketball game. As we approached the ticket window, an old guy signaled us to follow him, telling us on the way to a ticket taker, to slip the taker a couple of bucks – less than half the price of a ticket – for entry. Welcome to the big city. Any city.

Since then, I’ve done business with scalpers, who do us regular, not corporate, fans a favor. In New York: Yankee, Knick, and Ranger games. US Open Tennis. New York Philharmonic. In St Petersburg, Russia: Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. The opera in Paris. Most of the time, I’ve gotten better seats than were available at the box office and at a lower price.

I was burned once with counterfeit tickets to a playoff game, but overall I’ve saved tons without having to plan in advance. There are almost always tickets available, though prices will be jacked for sold out events. If there’s something you have to attend, don’t take a chance.

Uber. Airbnb. Couchsurfing. I’m sure you’ve heard of these. We’ve used Airbnb to cut our housing costs around the world when we’re not exchanging or cruising. Highly recommended. Couchsurfing is not our style, but I know people who use and like it. We’re just beginning to use Uber when we travel.

Urban Borderlands

                                     The Louvre Pyramid

                                     The Louvre Pyramid

Urban Borderlands

The essential Paris: a swirl of art & architecture, music & fashion, street & feet, and of course, food & wine. The Italians might have taught themhow to cook, but the French perfected it. On four prior visits I bathed in luxury and fantasy: eating at the likes of Le Pre Catelan and Taillevent, playing the horses at Longchamp, shopping art galleries and food markets, visiting countless museums, boating the Seine and canals and walking the Marais, the Left Bank, and the many parks.

It wasn’t until my fifth trip that I discovered a different Paris, an area guidebooks and tourists ignore. I didn’t seek it out. My business was obliterated in the recession of 2008, crippling mycash flow, so we cheaped it out this trip, exchanging our apartment in Boston for one on the Boulevard de Rochechouart in Montmartre (18th arrondissement.) We stayed in a third floor apartment one block from Place Pigalle and the sex entertainment area, and ten blocks from the only vineyards in Paris. Up the hill with a great view of Paris sits Sacre-Coeur, surrounded by scores of street artists and souvenir peddlers, attracting hordes of tourists, few of whom visit other areas of Montmartre.

The Boulevard we faced was a 24-hour noise fest: motorcycles, horns, sirens, tour busses, drunks, partygoers, buskers, and more. The middle class, mostly white, artsy neighborhood behind us felt more local French than center city. More heels than sneakers. Few cameras. Menus and waiters with little English.

In my walks around the neighborhood, a densely populated area filled with 19th century apartment buildings, I was impressed with the number of food establishments and set about to map them. I printed out Google maps and walked every block within 15 minutes of our apartment, forming a semicircle which ended at the boulevard.

I counted 118 restaurants: cafes, brasseries, mom & pops, Italian, Asian, and other ethnic, no McDonald’s, no place that would attract Michelin attention, and only a couple that were reviewed in Zagat’s guide – and 42 other food and wine shops including boulangeries, boucheries, charcuteries, chocolateries, creameries, creperies, fromageries, patisseries, poissonneries, rotisseries, and any other –eries you can think of. Only the French!

We could have eaten out two meals a day and have gone four months without repeating a restaurant, but we only had 18 days. Nonetheless, the two of us ate 60 meals at about 25 different restaurants (including takeout.) The food was affordable (3-course meal, 29 to 39 Euros,) predictable, and usually delicious. Beef bourguignon, steak frites, coq au vin, fish-of-the-moment, cold salad with hot fried potatoes …

In my experience, French restaurant service had almost always soared to the sublime. That belief crashed to the sidewalk in Montmartre. In one half-full café, we waited 15 minutes to get a menu, 15 to order, 25 to get our food and, after asking twice, 20 minutes to get l’addition.

A memory from Taillevent provides contrast. At the end of a luxurious lunch, I spotted a couple of cigars being torched on the other side of the room, so I asked our waiter and he brought over a selection which included Cubans unavailable in the States. He cut and lit, I puffed, and my sweetheart waved away the smoke. Within seconds he disappeared into the kitchen and hurried back with two portable fans, setting them in front of her, blowing in my direction.

Maybe Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises was right. In Paris, it’s about money. In other words, you pay for it, you get it. Otherwise fuhgettaboutit. Lunch at Taillevent cost us 300 dollars. Ah, the good old days.

As I was exploring further east, still north of our boulevard, I crossed the “Mediterranean Sea” (Boulevard Barbes) into North Africa. I was warned by two French women not to go there because “they” snatch backpacks, reach into pockets to take money, and lord knows what else. I saw few “white” faces.

The poverty showed: buildings in need of repair, closed shops, chipping paint, empty restaurants, laundry hanging out windows, and most notably, hundreds of men and some women just hanging around in midday, some holding out empty cups. The smell of cooking oil, body odor, and despair filled the air.

Many women wore colorful African-style dresses, others including men wore traditional Muslim garments. A number of shops catered to their needs with ready-to-wear clothing, but they were outnumbered by small shops with piles of fabrics and two or three women working at sewing machines.

I continued my survey, mapping food establishments throughout Barbes, an area approximately the size of the one I’d done in the more prosperous western Montmartre.

 By the numbers                     Montmartre               Barbes

Restaurants                                  118                              35

Specialty Food                               17                              19

General Food Market                     13                              23

Alcohol (Bars. Shops)                    12                              11  

The numbers tell only part of the story. Restaurants in Barbes are smaller, cheaper, and less busy. None looked particularly inviting, though I didn’t eat in any of them so I can’t comment on the food. Halal boucheries sell cheaper goat and stewing meats, not the beef and lamb sold in Montmartre. Patisseries bake bread but few fancy pastries. Live chickens and other poultry is sold out of a storefront whose entire floor is covered with clucking and fluttering birds. The larger number of food stores, many of which sell bulk tins of oil and bags of rice, indicate more home cooking in this sector as well as Mediterranean and North African cuisine.

Stores sell Islamic religious items, books, carpets, hookahs, and other products from North Africa. On my walking tour I passed two small art galleries, a Catholic church, and three mosques. The only hotels were small and no-star. Off the Boulevard, traffic was light. Public transportation surrounds but doesn’t transect the area. Boulevard Barbes is lined with stores: second hand, phone, deep discount clothing, shoes (5 Euros.) Swarms of hustlers with arms full of watches, sunglasses, handbags, cigarettes… Roasted corn sold from the top of a shopping cart. A woman peddler sitting on the sidewalk, straddling a basket of cassava. People struggling to stay alive.

A few blocks away I witnessed five women rummaging through a dumpster, grabbing food and other items discarded by nearby stores. One woman wore a mask. Two women tussled briefly over a package of crumpled pastries. After that, as I walked the neighborhood, I noticed other dumpsters with trash ringing them, a telltale sign that they’d been picked through.

Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements. Their boundaries are political, lines on a map. As one travels south from the 18th through the 9th and into the 1st and 2nd the change is gradual. The buildings become more monumental, the shops more expensive, and tourists begin to outnumber locals. It’s the tour guide Paris of romance. Of memory.

 But some boundaries, such as the one defined by Boulevard Barbes, are chasms –  an economic precipice. A dark divide.

Written by Gustaf Berger -- Pictures by Amika

 

 

13 Recommended Books

Books I’ve read and recommend (2016)

All The Light We Cannot See          Anthony Doerr

Borderlands                                         Michelle Hoover

Flight Behavior                                   Barbara Kingsolver

The Art Forger                                    B.A. Shapiro

The Sunflower                                     Simon Wiesenthal

Books I’ve read and recommend (2015)

American Pastoral                                           Philip Roth

Fine Just The Way You Were                      E. Annie Proulx

My Brilliant Friend                                           Elena Ferrante

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao    Junot Diaz

The God of Small Things                               Arundhati Roy

The Human Stain                                             Philip Roth

The Invention of Wings                                 Sue Monk Kidd

Wonder Boys                                              Michael Chabon

13 Things You Didn't Know About Singapore

Thirteen Things You Didn’t Know About Singapore

 Singapore is a clean, safe, modern, and expensive city/state with well-educated, polite, and moderately friendly inhabitants – any guidebook will tell you that. During my Feb 2015 visit, I observed or learned the following less known tidbits:

1) Warning: Death For Drug Traffickers Under Singapore Law is printed prominently on visitor documents, and they mean it. In the past 20 years, 420 people have been executed, mostly for drug trafficking. That’s over seven times the rate for Texas in the same time period.

2) Chewing gum is not available for sale.

3) There’s a shopping center at every subway stop, or so it seems.

4) I observed few homeless, bicycles, dogs/cats, sneakers, high heels, business suits, hats, tattoos, black people, or old cars (see below.)

5) Where are all the insects? Perhaps they spray too many poisons. Even in the extensive botanical gardens, I saw some butterflies but no ants, beetles, flies, or mosquitos. Same in the night zoo. Heavy fines for anyone with standing water on their property would account for some mosquito control, but …

6) People in the subway queue up and enter politely only after passengers leave, and they yield seats to the elderly (like me.) 

7) $750 fine for jaywalking or smoking outdoors where not permitted (e.g. within 100 ft. of a bus stop.) Push emergency stop on train when there’s no emergency and the fine is $3750.

8) What? No Knives? Place settings in Asian restaurants include only chopsticks or forks and spoons.

9) In a city of mostly high rise apartments with thousands of balconies, you’ll be hard pressed to find any plants on them. Following an accident in which a planter fell off and killed someone, the government passed laws making it extremely difficult to keep plants on balconies.

10) Wet laundry is hung from bamboo poles which protrude from balconies like elongated semaphores. Dripping water is a constant source of annoyance to occupants who hang their clothes from lower floors.

11) Apartments house over 90% of the population. Each apartment complex maintains a balanced quota representing the major ethnic groups –74% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian. The government mandated this to break up isolated ethnic enclaves.

12) One can only buy a new car, but first one must buy a Certificate of Entitlement (COE). The price fluctuates, the highest recent amount (Sept. 2013) was $72,000. This expires after 10 years, then the car is turned in to the government, which gives back a percentage of the COE. The government regulates the refurbishing and marketing of these cars to nearby countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to keep old cars off Singapore’s roads. Add the import duty of 300% and a small Toyota ends up costing well over $100,000.

13) While nominally a democracy, for the past 50+ years, Singapore has been controlled by the Lee family. So far, it has been a benevolent dictatorship.

(Note: Dollar amounts shown above are in US currency.)  

Also, from The Straits Times: 12 things you might not know you could be punished for in Singapore.  http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/12-things-you-might-not-know-you-could-be-punished-for-in-singapore

Weather:  There is no weather in Singapore; it’s the same every day. Sitting at the southern tip of Malaysia, one degree north of the Equator, it’s a of High 87ᵒF. Low 75ᵒF. Humidity 84%. Sunshine 5 hours/day. Rain 15 days @ month—a lot of rain.

Data: Singapore is the 190th biggest country in the world, occupying 278 sq. mi. It’s only twenty eight miles across at its widest. Population: 5.5 million. One of the highest GDPs in the world and highest % of über-rich.

Solve this and win my book free.

A few years ago, while driving the rarely used rural back roads of western Ireland, surrounded by hedgerows that made it impossible to see another vehicle roaring down a crossroad, I wondered what was the probability of having an accident if I just drove through and would I improve my chances by driving faster?

Math Problem

Cars A and B are 20 ft. long and 7 ft. wide.

Car A travels at 30 MPH and one passes through the intersection each hour.

The road is 10 feet wide. The potential impact area should be assumed to be as wide as the road.

If car B attempts to drive through the intersection at 30 MPH, what is the probability of an accident? Is the probability higher or lower if car B travels faster?