Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cheap and Interesting Travel Resources

Since I've been busy vacationing, I haven't been busy blogging much - so I thought maybe I'd update with some references for travel sites and lists I use. A few friends have asked me for tips, so here is the collected recent lot.

The Caribbean

There are lots of deals right now. I just went to Turks and Caicos using, but there are other options. With Lastminute, you often have to check carefully for catches, like overnight flights, or trips priced for 2 if you're not going with someone. (I like solo travel, because I get to read more.) CheapCaribbean is one site that I think a friend and I used for an all-inclusive Cancun trip a few years ago. It's not hard to find resources like this. I've enjoyed winter trips to St. Croix and Grand Cayman for snorkeling using these types of sites. You'll still want to find a good site on the destination itself, to help you pick your hotel location, if you're not driven solely by price.

Adventure Travel

A few years ago, a friend recommended this site and their trips (she'd been on 2). I've been a drooling over their catalogs for the past several years myself, ever since going on a very wonderful trip to Morocco that they advertised. They offer group travel for active adults, sporty or cultural or no-frills, sometimes with an eco-orientation. I wouldn't go to Morocco alone, and I'm not sure I'd even go with just a female friend. But I had a terrific time in a group of young adult (mostly UK-based) adventurous travelers. It may have helped that an Irish woman brought along a bottle of gin. Note that their prices do not include the airfare, while the Caribbean deals above generally do.

Another adventurous option, solely in the UK, are the National Trust volunteer working holidays. These are also group trips, based in one spot, usually with lodging in a youth hostel; you are doing some type of local volunteer labor while there, with breaks for genuine sight seeing and socializing built in. The ages are quite mixed, without any young kids along. I myself did an archaeological survey trip in the Midlands. Lots of fun, albeit also some hard labor clearing off brush from a buried hill fortification. (I see their web site now says that for legal reasons they are currently only accepting EU and Swiss residents for their bookings. How sad!

A friend recommends EarthWatch expedition volunteer trips, but I find them a bit expensive for my tastes. There are some volunteer trips in the AdventureCenter catalog, as well. I'd like to know about more that are not extremely pricey, if you want to leave a comment or send me email?

Rentals in France

I know this is a bit specific, but since I did it recently (and have done it on and off for years), I thought I'd post the how-to's.

The primary source for good-value housing rentals in France (not Paris, but the rest of the country) is the French Gite system, on the Gites de France site (English available). Originally all arranged by paper catalog, it is now online, and many of them take internet bookings directly via the site. Normal reservations during high season are for weekend to weekend only; outside of high season, you can negotiate for different days or less than a week.

A few things to be aware of: You may need to pay a deposit or full amount in advance (by wire, or they may agree to hold a paper check); you often have to pay a surcharge for water, heating, and other fuel costs, and often for bed linen and towels. You are expected to clean before you go (they are not hotels - think of it more like a well-equipped private hostel). But if you can handle this, there are many beautiful farmhouses, cottages, and apartments, often old historic ones, for a steal - especially if you split the cost.

I admit I went out of the system for my recent Brittany vacation because it was easier to search for wifi on this UK site, French Connections. (Yes, it sounds like a bad dating site.) Some of these rentals are also cross-listed in the Gites listings.

Rental cars are easy to hire in France, from Avis, Alamo, etc.; use their sites, or a local European wholesaler like Nova. Pickup options that are most convenient are train stations in the main towns (I used Rennes) or airports. Even tiny airports that are taking RyanAir and other discount airlines have rental car options. It's much cheaper to get a manual transmission, but you can reserve automatics too.

The French train system requires reservations on many lines, and the TGV especially: You can use this RailEurope site instead of the SNCF site to book an electronic TGV ticket with a claim code that allows you to retrieve it at a kiosk at the station in France.

Paris rentals are a lot pricier. There are a zillion sites out there - use at your own risk, or get a hotel.

FYI, my trip recently was Boston-London, cross London by bus to Stansted airport, fly by cheapo Ryan Air (bought on their site) to Brittany (Dinan), pick up car there, drive to apartment with wifi. This was because I got a much better deal on a ticket to London at the time, and it saved me 2 train rides and a lot of time to go via Ryan Air direct to Brittany rather than travel via Paris.

Travel Deal Resources

I'm on a lot of lists and get notifications about travel deals. I recommend's airfare alerts, notifying me of current low prices from my home airport to wherever I care about, which is most of the world! Kayak also has email newsletters on deals they find. You need to register on the site, and then find their alerts section if you can. They let you set a price threshold, like "any flight under $600 to Europe." This will keep their notifications to the minimum you care about. (I use different price levels for different regions of the world.)

Other newsletters I subscribe to, which have been useful: Travelzoo, Booking Buddy's list, and Go-Today, a site I enjoy browsing too.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Otters in the Peak District

Otters at the Chestnut Centre for Otters and Owls, in the Peak District, UK:

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tips for Solo Travelers

An unsolicited link sent to me by another blogger, thinking it might be of interest, and it was-! Don't you love the Internet? Here are 40+ Safety Tips for the Solo Traveler, with special ones for women travelers. I admit to not having thought of or heard of some of these myself. For instance, don't hang the sign outside your hotel door ordering a breakfast for one at 7am; this may advertise to unsavories that you're in your room alone and willing to answer the door at that hour without checking who's there.

The great thing about lists like this, that make you really paranoid, is that you can decide how far you want to go down the risk-avoidance path, and not go that far. Or, maybe, go there if you're in a nasty-looking hotel.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cayman Island Critters

I went to Grand Cayman for snorkeling, and while it was excellent, I saw a lot of unexpectedly interesting animals.

The Blue Iguana is indigenous and endangered, but there are lots of other green iguanas and little brown lizards running around. The retired ones sun themselves on rich people's personal boat docks and pose for you. The blue iguanas roaming at the botanic gardens sport blue bling, a sample shown here: cayman blue iguana

The sting rays at Sting Ray City were amazingly interested in people. I guess they know a good food thing when they see it. You are swamped by them when you drop anchor in the shallow waters. The story is that fishermen cleaned their catch out there to avoid mosquitoes on land, and one smart guy turned it into a tourist attraction, undetered by Steve Irwin's sad demise at the tail of one. (Here is an article on "sting ray injuries survived.") They feel mushroomy on their underside, and sandpapery on the top side.

Here's a romantic shot of them in the water, but for up close and personal, you need to go see my critter picture collection here. (There is only one underwater shot there, to show off their smile, and one of the sting ray kiss you get wrestled into when you visit them on the tourist boats.) cayman sting rays

Finally, turtles are farmed for food and tourists there. I found the crowding conditions a mite disturbing, but it's undeniably an aesthetic experience to see all those shells and mottled skin up close. Also, undeniably expensive to get in. I did it for the photo opp, and the chance to snorkel in a private lagoon with turtles in training. Training for people like me touching them while swimming, I guess. In said turtle park were also pretty birds from the Caribbean, which you can see in the critter photos. cayman turtle

When I got home, I discovered a newly arrived National Geographic Traveler mag had an article reviewing destination islands, scoring them in part by how much tourism is affecting them. [I discovered I'd been in a few of their top 20 already, and added more to my destinations desired list.] They were pretty much on target about Grand Cayman: "Exceptional diving and snorkeling but banking defines the island. Tourism is heavily weighted to cruise ships." I'd add: with huge resorts, and retirement McMansions as seen in Florida. But it was the best walk-off-shore-snorkeling I've found yet.

Cayman photos here: turtles, lizards, birds, rays, beaches.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 12, 2007

Adventure Travel

I've been delinquent in blogging, due to travel (Cayman Islands for water, pics coming) and a whole lot of work. Speaking of travel, National Geographic's Adventure Travel magazine site has a tool that offers reviews of adventure travel companies. Pretty cool. I'd spend all my time on these trips if it weren't for the money, of course.

For a more eclectic and perhaps affordable set of options, use the site a friend recommended, from which I found my trip to Morocco: Adventurecenter. They aggregate trips from many companies, and have reasonable search options including price. Airfare is usually not included, and you'll find that it's the biggest issue with most of the more interesting destinations (read: off-the-beaten track). If you're afraid of traveling to "exciting" places alone (as a woman, I am), this type of group travel can be really fun.

For other resources on cheap travel, I recommend this site: Worldscheapestdestinations. It's not pretty, but the info is good.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Travel Need: Can someone help?

I'm a frustrated impulse traveler. It takes way too long to search through even existing ajax-rich travel websites for deals that meet my criteria. I'm on travel deal mailing lists (BookingBuddy, for one) but haven't found what I need. I know it's possible today, and it's a business that might already exist:

I want a search agent that's heavily customizable to send me updates when certain things happen. What I specifically want is the ability to watch for fares of certain types to specific places FROM MY LOCAL AIRPORTS, or fares for vacation deals, again, FROM MY LOCAL AIRPORTS.

Sample criteria I want to have an agent look for:

  • Boston to Greece, unusually low, no more than 1 stopover (and it can't be a 12 hour stopover)
  • Long weekend vacation packages to certain Caribbean islands, from Boston, flights no longer than 4 hours (including any stopovers). Under a certain price threshold.
  • Extraordinary low prices on fares to certain continents, again from Boston or local airports here.
  • Alerts for fares from Boston to key cities I care about (e.g., Paris, London, Cleveland, San Jose).
  • Unusual travel packages like volunteer work, adventure (er, not athletic, but cultural), educational. I get to rate these as they come in and get more like them or less like them, till it learns what I like.
  • A home page where I can tune and browse, and easily set up new email alerts; something like Amazon's Recommendations system. I want it to know me and learn about me.
Again, all this is possible. Am I missing someone's service somewhere? The cheap travel browsing sites are all very similar, too much work, and too manual for me.

PS. If someone wants to start this business, I'd be very motivated to help design it and to collect more requirements. Drop me a note.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Swiss Farms in the Spring

It was early, and the mist was burning off the valleys, so these look a bit like watercolors.

Labels: ,

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Swiss Bunnies

I've been away for a week and a half, looking at green hills and mountains, tinkling cows (their bells, not relieving themselves), and other cute animals. These are Swiss checkered rabbits, who are good friends. They live in Ballenberg, an outdoor folklife museum. I think it's fair to say that their disapproval is less intense than that of your average American variety, although it seems to be a basic trait of the species.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Mayan Art

From Chichen Itza this January. The eagle is eating a heart.

I am reading a great book, Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael Coe. The first paragraph says, "It was 12 cycles, 18 katuns, 16 tuns, 0 uinals, and 16 kins since the beginning of the Great Cycle. The day was 12 Cib 14 Uo, and was ruled by the seventh Lord of the Night. The moon was nine days old. Precisely 5,101 of our years and 235 days had passed since the creation of this universe, and only 23 years and 22 days remained until the final cataclysm that would destroy it. So the ancient Maya scribes and astronomers would have calculated, for the day was 14 May 1989, and we were in Leningrad."

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Windhouse Haunting Updated

I'm pleased to announce that I've updated my article about the haunted Windhouse in Scotland, based on a very interesting reader story I just received. I've added his account at the end as a postscript with a few more photos; and below that I added the Shetland online forum stories I found that appeared after I posted the original piece last January. (I got "seems to be the best researched" in the forum citation :-)

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Morocco Photo Selection

I haven't had the time to do this carefully, so this is rather hasty -- but here's a selection of the photos I took in Morocco this summer.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cheap Tickets

Over the weekend I caught up on Lifehacker, and found a bunch of posts and comment posts related to finding cheap airline tickets. Some were quite surprising to me -- like shop between 12 and 1am on Wed morning when companies update their records.

TripStalker -- a bot utility that continually looks for your best price and notifies you when it finds it.

Lifehacker thread of comments on this topic.

Another link collection on cheap ticket gimics.

Lots of people mentioned Sidestep (I use occasionally) and, and travelocity doesn't fare too badly in the listings.

Labels: ,

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Nova Scotia Animals Pics

A bunch of animal photos are up on this gallery.
It was a hot day -- so there are lots of sleepy, cuddly looking animals and only a few scary ones. Check out the bunnies, otters sleeping on their backs, porcupine draped over a tree branch, and fierce eagle in a kiddy pool.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Tips for Frequent Flyers

I was just booking an international flight, and faced with a lot of flights by many carriers in the same price range, I decided comfort was my primary goal. It was surprisingly hard to find a good resource that spelled out which airline and which equipment offered the best seats for this. Nevertheless, here's one article, more focused on users of laptops than on people with legs: Mobile Computing: Tips for Frequent Flyers.

It's the Boeing 777 that comes up winning on legs and outlets. Maybe this time I can get some sleep and if not, do some work. (Oh, and for those who know me, just because I'm small doesn't mean I don't like to stretch occasionally!)

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Fair Isle Travel Tales

Despite what it looks like from these pictures, everything on Fair Isle is not blue and red. Some of it is green, but there are red birds. There might be blue birds too, but I didn't see any. There are definitely a lot of cliffs and weather and some very nice people with telescopes.

Read about my 2002 trip to Fair Isle in the North Sea, in my newly polished old essay, "Twitchers and Tweeters of Fair Isle". It includes many photos, and it took all day (there's just got to be a faster way to do this web stuff....).

Labels: ,

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Bar du Marche, St Germain, Paris 2005. More photos of People Selling Things in Paris on the 2005 Photoblog (June 11).

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 09, 2005

MissTic and Troy in Paris

A couple of days before leaving for France, I posted about a street artist named MissTic. I not only found a few more MissTic pieces in Montmartre, but we also found a gallery right next to them showcasing her work. It was Galerie W on rue LePic.

Coincidentally, it turns out to be a gallery owned by an artist friend of friends of mine in Paris, one Troy Henriksen. He is an American, former fisherman of Boston, who moved Kerouac-style to Paris and became a sensation. His work is childlike, bright, text-filled; it makes me smile. His price is well beyond me now, but my friends have his early work all over their apartment.

To add even more charm to our artistic visit, while my California friends and I were wandering through the MissTic works, Troy and his girlfriend Delphine came downstairs from the atelier and chatted with us. Their baby Victor is now 4 and very adorable.

troy's bird on

You can find French biographies of the Galerie W artists on the gallery site.


Sunday, May 08, 2005

My Summer in Siberia

In 2003 I had an adventure in Siberia. I spruced up the story for this site and linked it off a new index page of essays. Eventually I will get the entire site in shape, but it's taking me a long time.

Russian taiga

Read about My Summer Vacation in Siberia.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

Top Ten Picks for Solo Travel

As a woman who likes to travel and often prefers to do it alone, I'm always worrying a bit about the types of places I go -- will they be difficult or downright dangerous for a woman alone? Here's a nice list of places that are not bad for solo travelers. I wasn't too excited when I saw the cruises at the bottom (I'd never do a cruise, not even when I'm retired), but when I read closer and saw they were sail-powered or river cruises, I got interested again.

In case you like soloing: Fodor's Travel Wire: Lea's Top Ten Picks for Soloists.


Friday, February 25, 2005

The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer

And in the "crushing another dream" category for today, The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer. Apparently they don't get all expense-paid trips or make enough to live on, and most editors don't care about their gastrointestinal travails either. Ok, maybe I suspected all this...


Thursday, February 10, 2005


Here's the cover of the new tabloid in France, the Anti-American. Sigh.

L'Anti-Americain PRIMAIRE ! And here's Yahoo's news story on it.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry

My friend Angus sent me this book, the cover of which had me howling this morning. I figure that makes it worth a pointer here, and it's well in the travel theme. The bios of the authors include this guy, whom many of us have met:
Philippe Miseree. A professional traveller since his youth, there is not a town or city Philippe has not been recently disappointed by. No matter how obscure the destination you can bet he has been there before you and found it was not half as good as it was in the 1970s. His earlier works include "Turkey Before it was Spoilt," "India the Hard Way," "South-East Asia on Less than You Need," and "Unnecessarily Rough Travel." Philippe helped compile our "Complaints" section.

The inside cover's sequel guides sound worthwhile too, like Surviving Moustaschistan: "Tucked away between the break-away Soviet state of Kalashnikov and the former Persian province of Carpetsan, this arid, inhospitable land will whet the appetite of the most heavily vaccinated traveller."

Check it out: Molvania (a Jetlag Travel Guide).

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Guide to Public Restrooms

Boston Online's Wicked Good Guide to Public Restrooms. Rated by number of toilet paper rolls.

(I had a friend in college whose mother wanted to write a coffee table book about restrooms she'd used; photos of graffiti, nice architecture, odd conversations overheard, etc. I remember it every time I visit one in a restaurant. In bus stations, I'm too busy running to remember it.)

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 17, 2005

Being French in America: Bridging Oceans of Differences

An American who has spent several years abroad in other countries, I never felt more "American" than I did when I lived in France. I felt it was a culture of polite indirection, circuitous discourse, and ephemeral business values and goals at odds with what I had learned in Silicon Valley. I'll never forget the bid my company lost with Euro Disney, an American company employing international staff. My boss's explanation for why they should have taken our proposal despite our pricetag and my understanding of why they didn't were 180 degrees divergent. A few years later, I'm still trying to understand my 18 months there. (And, it must be said, I feel a bit foreign in the US much of the time, especially around election time.)

Here's a very interesting article by a French consultant who lives in the States and writes about cross-cultural workplace issues. I'm not sure it's capturing exactly what I experienced, in terms of how I understand the cultural differences I saw, but it's valuable for me to see a French experience on the issues. I especially appreciated the section on "Feedback and Self-Esteem." See Life in America: an International Perspective.

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 15, 2005


An interesting teaching concept: an English-speaking "immersion" town in Spain for English-learners, offering a scenario that could be a setup for a cool Agatha-Christie-style novel or a very nice holiday if you speak English.

How does a 8-day stay in a picturesque village in the mountains of Spain sound? And how does it sound if you add in free room and board, and interesting company? These aren't trick questions – this is the deal offered by Vaughan Systems, a language school with offices in Madrid, Barcelona and Granada which specialises in helping professionals whose first language is Spanish to improve their conversational English by isolating them in said village for 8 days with a group of English speakers.The Spanish speakers pay, the English speakers stay free – they just have to live up to their name and speak English to the Spanish speakers, morning, noon, and night, through meals, excursions and dedicated “talking time”.

Check out Vaughan Village, their website. I seem to be unacceptable, since I have had some minor experience teaching ESOL when I was in college.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The last few St Croix pictures are on the Photo Blog: surf, salt flats, restaurants, ruins, old streets. (Navigate backwards by using the "prev" button.)

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Since I have a friend or two who like to see the country by driving, here's a site worth checking out beforehand (or even for your local homecooked options -- I like the MA options!):

What is roadfood? Great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods. It is sleeves-up food made by cooks, bakers, pitmasters, and sandwich-makers who are America’s culinary folk artists. Roadfood is almost always informal and inexpensive; and the best Roadfood restaurants are colorful places enjoyed by locals (and savvy travelers) for their character as well as their menu.


Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Club Med: An escape from hell?

The last time I was in the Caribbean was 1996, I think. It was sometime around when I finished my dissertation; a friend who needed a vacation then talked me into a hastily-chosen Club Med getaway for singles on Turks and Caicos. I didn't love it, because it was basically summer camp for adults. They kept hassling us into party games and get-to-know-you activities of the type I loathe. I eyed the empty beaches at the other resorts hungrily the whole time. Now I see on their website that T&C is rated closer to the "most active" end of the scale, rather than the "most serene." Uh huh.

They made you sit in groups at the dinner table. I got into a lot of interesting conversations with the camp counselors. One had been a fashion industry work-a-holic in Toronto, and had come to Club Med on a last-minute stress escape. After the week package, she was climbing the stairs to the airplane and froze at the door to the plane. "No, no, I won't go back!!" she screamed. She turned around and fled back to Club Med where she begged for a job. She was still working there, years later, doing the only work that was going begging: teaching wind-surfing under the brutal midday sun. She was as dark as a raisin, but seemed happy. Happier, anyway.

When I went snorkeling one day, I discovered whilst bobbing in the water that my snorkel partner was the kitchen baker who made the bread. It was truly awesome bread, I can still remember the texture and flavor. I had a lot to ask him about it, but it wasn't really the right time. I do remember him saying, "It's pretty easy to get work down here, everyone needs a boat captain or a cook." And he had off for most of the day. Too bad he had to get up at 3am, which I could never do.

If you're wondering how the "singles" thing went -- someone made a pass at my friend (the guy who taught trampoline) but I dodged all human contact apart from the help staff and a badly discordant earful of William Gibson reading Neuromancer to me via tape during long walks on the beach. I was ready to ditch him after the first sneering chapter, but didn't have enough paper to read.

See you all when I get back. This time I'm going with Neal Stephenson in book form -- we'll see if it goes any better.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

The curious side of the travel biz...

Gotten off Sarah Weinman's blog, an odd travel blog from the New Haven Register website, by Karen Olson (also now a mystery writer, according to Sarah). Her blog is frankly one I wish I wrote for: weird visits to places like prisons, the Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum, and a 2.5hour tour of Paris for fans of the Da Vinci Code. (The Paris tour has to be far more fun than reading the book itself.)

Going Places: The curious side of the travel biz.


Thursday, December 02, 2004

Our Tuareg Guide...

My friend Ellen went camping in the Sahara for Thanksgiving. It seems to be impossible to take a bad photo in the Sahara. This looks so romantic, despite the lack of toilets, privacy, or water. See her stream on flickr: Our Tuareg guide in the desert

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Marblehead Nature Log

I'm getting antsy because I haven't taken a photo in weeks. Here's a pretty site with photos from northeast Mass: Marblehead Nature Log. This fellow is doing an ebook on photographing wildflowers, which I'd like to get when it comes out.


Sunday, November 21, 2004

"Notes from the Road"

This is a beautiful site: Notes from the Road - Travels in City and Country. High quality images and pretty text. It's just slightly hard to navigate in places. Also, he's got some nice merchandise for travelers linked off the footer on the home page, which turns out to be part of a side-site that's also slightly hard to navigate at the moment. I have high hopes, though.