Category Archives: Budget Travel

Gran Hotel Bolivar’s Great Value in Lima

Terrific location, elegant architecture and down-to-earth prices. GranHotelBolivar-logo

The Gran Hotel Bolivar, located on Lima’s gorgeous Plaza San Martín, was very grand when it opened in the 1920s and was the social center of Peru’s capital. It faded and was even closed for a number of years, but it reopened with a bit less luster, to be sure, but with that enviable location, affordable prices and what I’m told are some of the city’s best Pisco Sours in the bar. The lobby is sparsely furnished these days, but the leaded glass dome is in place, recalling the original grandeur.  I didn’t stay there. I didn’t see any rooms. But I did wander around the main floor and think how fortunate it is that this landmark hotel has been preserved and is welcoming guests.

Glass and international flags above the main entrance.
Glass canopy and international flags above the main entrance.
Magnificent leaded glass dome.
Magnificent leaded glass dome.

Continue reading Gran Hotel Bolivar’s Great Value in Lima

Wow Fare on WOW Air

Ultra-cheap airline to offer $99 fare to Iceland

WOWAirThe latest à la carte airline offering super-cheap base fares is WOW Air, an Iceland-based carrier that I never herd of — even when I was in Iceland. It recently announced that this coming March, it will begin non-stop service from both Boston and Baltimore to Reykjavik for introductory fares as low as $99 one-way and one-stop flights onward to London and Copenhagen starting at $228 round-trip. The airline will begin offering the flights next March.

Like every other deep-discount carrier, a ticket on WOW Air will buy a seat, a mini-tray table and an 11-pound carry-on limit. Everything else will cost extra. A carry-on heavier than 11 pounds will be $29 additional when booked online or $48 at the airport. Checked luggage will be even more expensive,  each piece  adds an extra $48 online or $67 at check-in. And extra leg room, pre-assigned seats and food will add to the total cost of a the journey. Flying round-trip? Multiply by 2.

WOW Air says that it will be able to cross the Atlantic for so little thanks to some built-in efficiencies. Online sales and marketing enable it to avoid paying booking engines or travel agents. This is similar to other low-fare carriers and even Southwest. It currently a mini-fleet of only four aircraft. In theory, by refueling in Iceland, WOW can fly smaller planes, which is fuel-saving. Another fuel benefit is that planes don’t need to carry sufficient fuel for the entire transatlantic flight.

In addition to intra-European and US, Norwegian Air started flying cheap London-New York flights over the summer, but flights were reportedly plagued with delays, which could be a real issue for small-fleet WOW. Once a small-fleet airline’s flights get off schedule, there’s little redundancy and therefore difficult to get back on track again.  Discount airlines currently control nearly 0ne-third of the Noth American market (that must include Southwest) and more than one-third of it in Europe, but only Norwegian flies the transatlantic.

There’s room for growth but also for miscalculation.


In Praise of Prague’s Public Transport

Streetcars and buses and subways and ferries, oh my!

PragueCoatOfArmsEvery European city has public transportation that puts American cities to shame. Prague’s system comprises three Metro lines that reach all corners of the city. Of course, there are streetcars and buses on the surface. A few ferries across the Vlatava River, which in German and English is known as the Moldau, thanks to Czech composer is Bedřich Smetana’s Romantic symphony. Also, an open-air funicular shuttles up and down Petřín Hill, where a replica of the Eiffel Tower perches and the views are grand.

Prague's impressive public transportation map Service begins at 4:30 a.m. Most lines operate until midnight, but crucial ones run 24/7.
Prague’s impressive public transportation map Service begins at 4:30 a.m. Most lines operate until midnight, but crucial ones run 24/7.

At the airport on arrival, I bought a 5-day card for about $22 that included all that public transportation plus free or reduced admission to numerous fee-charging sites all over the city — including the famous Prague Castle. I always buy such unlimited-use cards, which is not only economical but flexible. In Prague, you validate the card at first use, stick it in your purse or pocket and never take it out unless some official comes around to check.

I love walking around cities, poking into small streets and quiet neighborhoods, but I often just hop on and off a streetcar or bus at will. Sometimes I get tired or hungry and want to ride just a short distance, or sometimes the weather turns — or sometimes I like to ride to the end of the line just to see what’s along the way.


AirBnB: First Time But Not the Last

Prague apartment more than meets expectations.

AirBnB-logoThe AirBnB listing promised an awesome view and a great location in central Prague. The photo looked good. The price was right (under $250 for four nights). There’s WiFi in the apartment. So after checking with friends who have not only stayed but also hosted via AirBnB, I was in. I corresponded a bit with Katerina, my hostess. When I arrived, her friend Martina let me in, showed me around and gave me the keys. Katerina, it turns out, is in Barcelona. That means that I have the whole apartment to myself — except, of course, Katerina’s own room.

The baronial door between two skateboard shops pretty much symbolizes Prague today --- a co-existence between the traditional and new.
The baronial door to Katerina’s apartment building is between two skateboard shops, which pretty much symbolizes Prague today — a co-existence between the timeless and the hip. The concrete rectangle with the steel railing is the entrance to the Metro.

The apartment is on the third floor. Since Europeans label the ground floor as 0, it is on what we would call the fourth floor. Taking into account that the ceilings are 10 or 12 feet high, it is like being on an American fifth or sixth floor. There is no elevator. I travel light, especially in summer, and had just one small roll-aboard, a small purse and a daypack for my netbook, assorted battery chargers, electrical cables and adapters. Still, I was grateful that Martina, who is probably half my age, offered to take my little suitcase. The ascent is worthwhile for the apartment’s artsy ambiance and great river view.

My room features high ceilings, a comfortable bed, a small desk and a bathroom that I might have had to share with my hostess if she were here.
My room features high ceilings, a comfortable bed, a small desk, fresh flowers and a bathroom that I might have had to share with Katerina if she were here.

Continue reading AirBnB: First Time But Not the Last

Alaska Railroad Adds March Midweek Train Service

Anchorage-Fairbanks service offered for the first time

AlaskaRailroad-logoAre you as fascinated as I am by the north-country experiences captured by the camera in “Ice Road Truckers” and especially “Railroad Alaska” on cable television? For me, and maybe you, the news that for the first time ever, the Alaska Railroad is offering midweek Aurora Winter Train specials between Fairbanks and Anchorage, is cheering. While travelers don’t have an unlimited choice of travel dates this winter, this inaugural season is a good start.

With northbound trains departing from Anchorage on Tuesday, March 11 and 18, and southbound trains departing from Fairbanks on Wednesday, March 12 and 19, these trains come at a time when Alaska’s two largest communities celebrate the winter season — and celebrate they do. Both residents and visitors the opportunity to ride the budget-friendly rails and experience “the real Alaska” without sharing it with hordes of cruise ship passengers. The days are getting longer (approaching 12 hours of daily sunlight), and with the trip taking roughly 24 hours, there’s plenty of time to sightsee and mingle. I’ve been to Alaska four times during the winter, and take from me: It’s fabulous.

The Alaska Railroad traveling through the spectacular snowy winter landscape of Alaska. (Photo: Wes Barnett via Pinterest)
The Alaska Railroad traveling through the spectacular snowy winter landscape of Alaska. (Photo: Wes Barnett via Pinterest)

Visitors to Fairbanks can book adventures such as aurora borealis viewing tours (those Northern Lights have reportedly been spectacular t this year), visiting Chena Hot Springs Resort, gazing at the intricate ice carvings at the BP World Ice Art Championships, experiencing the 2014 Arctic Winter Games and much more. Although the Iditarod is scheduled to start in Anchorage on March 1, that month is also a great time to visit Alyeska Resort for skiing and snowboarding, and the Great Land’s biggest city is also its cultural, entertainment and shopping hub.

This new train schedule coincides with University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Anchorage School District spring breaks, making travel even more accessible for students and enabling visitors to meet some locals. For $215 roundtrip (students,$178; children,$108), trips taken with March departures and returns by May 10 are ideal for those who wish to linger longer. Tickets may be booked online or by calling 907-265-2494 or 800-544-0552.

Small Economies Add Up When Traveling

Big travel savings + small economies = biggest savings

Travelers today often spend precious hours searching online for the very cheapest air fares and best-priced accommodations. I do it myself. I’ve dragged myself and my bags on public transportation to and from airports rather than taking expensive taxis. I’ve stayed in crummy motels to save a few bucks, especially if I’m overnighting near airport. And I’ve used CityPASS savings books for urban attractions when traveling domestically, especially when my husband and I are together and can get two entries for the price of one at many attractions.

As a co-owner of MileHighOnTheCheap and cotributor to the new LivingOnTheCheap site, I certainly believe in such major  strategies in the war to save travel dollars, but I also practice lots of tactics in minor saving skirmishes that do add up. So does Caroline Costello who wrote “10 Things to Pack That Will Save You Money” on SmarterTravel. Click on that link to read the full post of why the following 10 things (not all of which are clear just from the headers of her individual tips) add up to stretch the travel budget:

  • Empty Carry-On Travel Bottle
  • Sunscreen Stick
  • Luggage Scale
  • Snacks
  • Duct Tape
  • Compression Sack
  • E-Reader
  • Empty Water Bottle
  • Travel Laundry Detergent
  • Security Bags, Clothing, and Accessories

If you’re looking for more says to save money (and generally make travel easier), be sure to read the comments as well.

Icelandair to Inaugurate DIA in Spring

Traditional low-fare favorite flying Reykjavik-Denver beginning in May. Hooray!

Once upon a very long time ago, international airlines all quoted the same air fares for the same routes on  the same dates. All except one — Icelandic Airlines, which did not belong to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that effectively cast fares in concrete. Now, Icelandair plans to add Denver International Airport to its route map in May. I can hardly wait.

Icelandic Airlines in the Old Days

Students and other thrifty travelers loved Icelandic, despite the aircraft that were always a generation behind the times — hence the low fares. The ad, above, is from way before my time, when the carrier was still flying prop planes and when air travel was a true luxury that few could afford. Flying roundtrip between New York and Europe brought fares within reason — sort of.

I took great advantage of the carrier’s $135 roundtrip winter youth fare between New York’s JFK International Airport and Luxembourg because they considered you a youth until you were 3o. The price you paid for the cheap ticket was an obligatory stop in Reykjavik. All passengers had to deplane in the middle of the night eastbound and during the day westbound, but since Iceland is far enough north, it was always dark. We’d all stumble off the plane in the eerie glow of an airport night and buy stuff at the duty-free shop — on the way over, post cards and stamps, and on the way home, great wool knits, canned fish and booze.

Icelandair Today

In addition to flying modern Boeing aircraft, Icelandair now goes to eight Scandinavian cities and 15 elsewhere in Europe from Reykjavik and serves eight North American cities — nine when Denver comes on next spring. They got seating in Economy, Economy Comfort and Saga Class, which seems comparable to business class on other carriers but for considerably less. They’re offering n intriguing Mile High Getaway inaugural package starting at $679 per person for air and a mini-getaway to Iceland — extendable, of course.


Big Skiing & Big Values in the Big Sky State

Two adjoining Montana resorts’ combined trail systems offer the biggest, most varied ski terrain in the U.S. — and no liftlines

Big Sky Resort, founded nearly 30 years ago, grew organically. It started with 1970s technology and aesthetic and has replaced original lifts with newer ones, added terrain in every direction, 15 years ago installed a tram to Lone Peak’s 11,166-foot summit and has made do with a hodepodge base village that remains more functional than beautiful. By contrast, Moonlight Basin Resort directly adjacent is a real estate-driven, master-planned resort community with harmonious architecture, hotel-style services and its own sweet trail system.

Big Sky Trail Map.
Moonlight Basin Trail Map.

The two are interconnected with a joint lift ticket promoted under the copyrighted phrase, The Biggest Skiing in America. Between them, the two resorts boast 5,512 acres of downhill terrain, 4,350 feet of vertical, 27 lifts and 220+ trails, which may or may not include hike-to chutes and snowfields.

Helpful Hints

If you ski Big Sky/Moonlight Basin, here are some things you might want to know:

  • Without crowds and good snow, you get can a lot of skiing and riding in every day — 20,000 or more vertical feet? No problem for any but beginners. The terrain: Small, fenced-off baby slopes with moving carpets to vertiginious chutes of 50 degrees or more. In between, miles of groomed cruisers, bump runs and trees.
  • Big Sky has some amazing lodging specials going this season: Book three nights at the slopeside Summit Hotel and get a fourth free. Get 40 percent off condos and cabins. Two-night and longer stays in a Shoshone condo in 25 percent off. Call Big Sky Central Reservations, 800-548-4486.
  • The Huntley Lodge has a sterling location but is getting alittle shop-worn. If you are only sleeping there, it’s just fine. If you like to hang out in your lodgings, you might be happier in another, newer property.
  • If you have the two-area lift ticket, lunch as Moonlight Basin’s Headwaters Grill is about the same price as at Big Sky’s Whiskey Jack’s and has a lot better food. OTOH, apres-ski and evening socializing is livelier at Whiskey Jack’s, which has live poker, plus music and a less subdued crowd.
  • Pizza Night at Moonlight Basin’s Madison base lodge is great for families.
  • Midweek coupons for Moonlight Basin offer incredible deals. Example: one ticket and one  lunch voucher for $49.  Real estate-based though it may be, this resort offers 1,900 acres of lift-served terrain and 2,720 vertical feet of lift-served terrain.
  • Traveling between Bozeman and Big Sky/Moonlight Basin can be very pricey. Shuttle, taxis and rental cars are expensive. The Skyline Bus is cheap, and its Link Express connects town and mountain. One-way tickets are just $5. The only downside is that the Skyline Bus operates from downtown Bozeman and Montana State University but not from the airport — and taxis in town are  expensive too.

First Turns of the 2010-11 Ski Season

Early-season, early-week skiing at Copper Mountain was a great start   
11 of Copper's 22 lifts are operating today; 92 of 133 runs are open for skiing & riding on nearly 1,350 acres.

Colorado skiing kicked off back in October, but my season just started. It’s taken me six weeks or so to set skis on snow — and oh, did it feel good. The northern and central mountains have been hit with storm after storm — some dumping a foot or more, others frosting the mountains with just another couple of inches. My friend Jeannie, her friend Kathryn and I went to Copper Mountain yesterday, the first day of the season for all of us. We had a great day, and here’s why:     

  • The Drive – Nothing to it. The roads were clear and the traffic was light all the way from Boulder, so even with an espresso stop, we arrived in little more than an hour-and-a-half. My friends and I pulled into the free day skiers’ lot, near the big banner reading, “Thank you for carpooling.” The free shuttle came by in only a few minutes, and it wasn’t crowded either. 
  • The Snow – Really good conditions –the  packed powder that is so perfect for that first-day cruising. There were hardly any bare spots, very little vegetation sticking up out of the snow and no huge moguls yet, just baby bumps that enabled us to see whether our knees still worked. And better yet, none of the bumps we skied had that snowboarder-made unevenness or those sheered-off drops that they make on one side of steep moguls.
  • The Weather –  Temperatures were in the high 20s or low 30s, and except later in the afternoon, there was no wind.  We skied under light clouds with occasional sun, and in the early afternoon, it started snowing again. When we left, the snowplows were already patrolling I-70, though the pavement was still quite clear. According to this morning’s snow report, Copper has received 9 inches in the past 24 hours.
  • The Ambiance – Copper was practically our private mountain. There were no, I mean NO, liftlines. Lift operators, who are happy to be working any day this early in the season, were genuinely cheerful and happy to see us. By the end of the Christmas-New Year holiday crush, I always get the feeling that they are tired and that the friendliness is a tad forced. We usually had the trails almost to ourselves.
  • The Deal – The three of us already have our passes and/or fourpacks, but for anyone within striking distance of Copper who hasn’t bought them yet, it’s not to late to get a great deal. Four tickets good all season long are just $139 through December 12. Buy online or head for the hills and pick it up there. And if  don’t live in Colorado or elsewhere in the Rockies, book your vacation now. There are still some early-booking deals available. And if you can travel before Christmas, you too will have the slopes to yourself — though not on weekends, because all the locals know how good the conditions are. 

When I moved to Colorado more than 20 years ago, other immigrants from elsewhere often said, “I moved here for the winter and stayed because of summer.” And summer indeed is a glorious season. But on a day like yesterday, I think, “I moved here for the winter and stayed here for the winter too.” I made my last turns in late May, also with Jeannie, and I am looking forward to another four months or more or making turns.

Snow Mountain Ranch’s Yurt Village is New Lodging Category

Four yurts now with more to come provide affordable comfort

Snow Mountain Ranch/YMCA of the Rockies between Winter Park and Granby provides some of the best lodging and recreation values around. With accommodations ins large lodges, cabins and campgrounds. it has long provided affordable options in various types of lodging. Another was added this year: four yurts, one handicap-accessible and all available year-round. The yurts have few windows, so you have to go outside and around the back for the fabulous view.

Each sleeps up to six people (one big bed, two pairs of bunkbeds), plus a tent platform. Each has a microwave for minimal cooking indoors, picnic table and outdoor grill. A bathhouse with private bathrooms (indoor plumbing and no communal showers), laundry facilities and outdoor dish-washing sinks are steps away. The best part for economy-minded visitors is that they rent for just $89 per night  up to maximum occupancy, plus a crib on request. Th Y has abundant recreational opportunities as well, many of them included in the modest rate. Here’s what the “yurt village” looks like:

Make reservations online or by calling 800-777-9622 (central reservations) or 970-887-2152 (direct).