Tuesday, 30 December 2008

How To Save Money On A Winter Sports Holiday

As promised I have comprised a list of good ideas to minimise the costs of a ski trip this coming season.

Get a late deal

To get a late deal you need to be flexible with your holiday dates and sometimes where you fly into or from. Booking as late as a week before your desired date of departure can save you hundreds of pounds on accommodation because companies are eager to fill every empty bed. The biggest savings are commonly found on chalet accommodation and less so on hotel rooms. If you need to go on a certain date and want to go to a particular location, then waiting for a late deal is extremely risky. It pays to be flexible.

Book a chalet not a hotel

If you have a big party or even if you do not, a chalet can be very cost effective as most of the time they offer half board living. In every chalet I have stayed in I have received breakfast and a three course meal in the evening with a good helping of wine. This is great value as restaurants in ski resorts can be pricey especially as the Euro is so strong. Chalets in my opinion are also much more comfortable than hotels as you have your own living area and not just a bedroom, plus it is a good way to meet other people.

Buy a Sensible ski pass

Use common sense and be realistic when you buy a ski pass. It will obviously be cheaper to buy a weekly pass over 5 or 6 daily ones, but also think about where you want to ski. Many resorts are huge and have hundreds of kilometres of runs in several valleys. Buy a pass which includes a couple of valleys but not all. It is unlikely you will get time in a week or be quick enough (unless you are a very confident skier) to get across to further valleys and back in a day anyway so save your money. In the unlikely event that you do tire of your current ski pass boundary, you can usually buy daily passes to other areas. If you buy passes through your tour operator you can sometimes get a discount so ask.

Slope cuisine vs packed lunch

Ski resorts can be quite snobby places and this is one of the reasons why the mark up on food is quite high. You will find a lot of eateries on the slopes but you can easily pay over the odds. The food is great but do not just stop at the first convenient place. Ski around on the first day or ask people’s advice for the cheaper restaurants/cafes where you can get a pizza, a sandwich or bowl of soup. I have experienced mountain restaurants at either end of the price scale so I know what it means to find a suitable restaurant. Alternatively you can take a packed lunch onto the piste. On a good sunny day you cannot beat it plus it is by far the cheapest option. Many chalets will offer a packed lunch to you for free or you can pick up supplies in the resort before you take the gondola up to the slopes.

Drinks and Apres Ski

A lot of money is thrown away in the evenings at ski resorts in bars and clubs. You can pay up to £5 for a beer at a bar and more for spirits so be sure to either pick up a crate before you get to the resort from a supermarket or get tanked up on free wine at the chalet if you are staying in one. I will add that nightlife in ski resorts is always good natured and very lively, often with live entertainment, but the drinks will burn a whole in your pocket.

Borrow or buy equipment

If it is your first time skiing or boarding then definitely hire your gear and take out the insurance. If you know someone with a pair of skis or a board then ask if you can borrow it as this will save you a packet. Alternatively, if you have been a couple of times and plan to go again, consider buying your own gear because it will be a very worthwhile investment over a 5 to 10 year period. If you do think this is the way to go then always wait until the end of the season before making a purchase. Ski shops generally have their sales then to make room for the new season’s stock. Many a bargain can be had.

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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Snow Sports And A Bad Economy

Holidays in the snow are typically very expensive at the best of times because there a lot of extras to consider. Once you have paid for the flight and accommodation, you need to include the cost of the ski hire, the lift pass, winter sport insurance, expensive mountain restaurants and of course the après ski (evening drinks which are not cheap). A ski trip will hit your account hard at the best of times but in the current economic climate what will this mean for people heading to the Alps?

I for one am trying to organise a ski trip France in the New Year but am in two minds about when to book and what company to go with. I can see many smaller ski operators going bust as not so many Brits will be making the journey to the slopes in 2009 as the purse strings tighten. It is a pretty safe bet that companies will be offering very competitive prices to entice the business in order to survive the recession. Therefore there is a strong chance that you could get a really good deal on ski packages if you can wait until the last minute to book. This is a risky game though if you are not flexible as there is always a chance that you hold out for that cracking deal and nothing comes up for the location, accommodation, or airport you need.

Lets say you did get a last minute deal I think many people still would be deterred from going because the pound is so weak against the Euro right now. Prices in the mountains are always higher so it is good to be prepared for this and think of ways to cut the costs. In my next article I will outline a few ways you can save the pennies on the slopes.


Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Lost Luggage: A Solution Has Arrived

Do you ever stand at the luggage reclaim conveyor belt and pray that your bag has not been lost in that void somewhere between check in desk and your airplane? Well if so you are not alone and light is at the end of the tunnel. Could microchips in the luggage labels be the answer?

As a backpacker you rely on the items you carry in your bag as they are the bare necessities you need to keep yourself dressed, clean and generally presentable for the period of time you are away. Being so dependent on these things highlights the tragedy it would be if your backpack was to go missing at an airport during one of the many flights you may take on your journey. Unfortunately lost luggage is far from uncommon as the Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimated that between May and July 2007 over a million items of luggage were either lost or damaged in the USA alone, which would make anybody a little unsettled throughout the flight.

However, a solution is being tested in airports across the US, Kuala Lumpur, Japan and Beijing. Instead of using bar code systems which rely on directly aligned lasers reading bar codes and filtering the bags towards aircrafts, minute RFID chips are placed in the luggage tags. These RFID tags can be picked up and read by an antenna from several feet away, and unlike bar codes, the readings are not obscured by dust or other luggage. This has lead to a much more reliable system of routing bags to the correct destination. In fact, with the tags being read when routed to the aircraft, when being put on the aircraft and when being unloaded at the destination, lost luggage can be tracked precisely and flawlessly.

Although trials have proved successful for this new method, the price of implementing these RFID tags is greater than the bar code alternative. As RFIDs have many more uses than luggage labelling, mass production will see prices fall per unit in years to come. The implementation of a system such as this would also mean a total upgrade of the systems currently in place at many airports around the world. Despite this being worth the investment, it would still an enormous project.

Until then you can purchase your own luggage tracking units from independent manufacturers if you do worry excessively about your baggage, or take your chances and hope that your luggage does not enter that forgotten baggage grave yard lying beyond the desks at check in.


Saturday, 20 December 2008

Space Flight With Virgin Galactic

My previous post got me thinking about the possibilities of commercial space flights and space tourism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to enter orbit for either the experience and/or to travel to the other side of the world in a fraction of the time. Well the Virgin group headed by Richard Branson could make this possible by 2012.

Initially the space craft will be limited to a six person cabin, and will only fly from California and then later from a spaceport New Mexico. The 2.5 hour space flight has caught many eyes with 65,000 people showing interest despite the $200,000 price tag, but clearly there is still a long way to go before it will have benefits other than being pretty cool.

This all seems well and good but it has been met with different reactions. The biggest issue underpinning the concept is safety. Many people, including myself to an extent, would be apprehensive in taking a trip into space. Virgin Galactic’s answer is a mandatory 3 day training session at the spaceport to get used to the gravity difference and to ensure that people can make the most of the experience. This could be quite annoying for holiday makers wanting a last minute escape to Australia, but on the plus side I would imagine this training/briefing would only have to be undergone once. Medical checks on the other hand could be necessary for each take off.

So what will this do for the future of air travel? Clearly this is not affordable for the average person but if competition emerges and prices fall, space tourism would be a welcome reality to reduce lengthy flight times. I think it is a definite possibility that by 2020 we could see spacecraft which will take hundreds of passengers into orbit much like the planes of today. Virgin aims to make the possibilities of space travel available globally and are looking to build spaceports around the world. I don’t think this will spell the end for traditional long haul flights just yet because to make space trips affordable will take time and probably competition from another provider. Watch this “space”.

More info at http://www.virgingalactic.com/


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

An Overview: The Kennedy Space Centre

Most young people dream of becoming an astronaut before they realise the qualifications and training necessary to have this chance. As the majority of people do not make it into orbit, the next best thing for any space enthusiast is visiting the Kennedy Space centre in Florida. I visited the Space Centre this time last year as a pit stop while travelling from Miami up to Orlando. It was a 45 minute detour from our route but I thoroughly enjoyed the day out. It should be noted that the visitors centre is only accessible by car because there are no public transport links.

Once at the complex there are numerous activities, shows and tours to keep you occupied. It is best to plan your day well, especially if it is busy to ensure you fit everything in. The first thing I did was to jump on the next available tour bus. There are a couple of routes you can take depending on what you want to see, but as I thought time was on my side I went for the whole lot.

The first stop was to the launch pad view point. The bus takes you passed the rocket construction building where the rockets are built or repaired before launch. I was lucky enough to see the enormous mobile platform which takes the rockets the launch area, and also a rare viewing of a rocket actually on the pad ready for a mission in the coming week. From the lookout point you can see the launch pad even though it is still a fair distance away and you can also see across to Cape Canaveral where take off used to take place. There are coin operated binoculars on the tower and as you can see in the photo below I captured the rocket through the lens.

The next stop was the labs to see where parts of the International Space Station were being created for the eminent launch. From the overhead walkway, you can see scientists working below on the new additions to the Space Station and the next experiments to be taken up. This is also the chance to see the normal amenities of the space station such as the living quarters, on board labs, and of course the toilets. It is then only a short stop from there to numerous exhibitions about space travel through the ages. There is a show about the first moon landing, interesting artefacts and hands on attractions.

Once back at the main visitor complex there is still much to see and do. You can get on board a retired space shuttle and look at the cramped conditions astronauts live in for weeks at a time, and experience the closest thing to a real space launch. This is a very popular new attraction and will get busy so make sure you leave plenty of time for this. There are also short movies showing at the 5 story iMax cinema which gives the viewing an extra edge. I have not mentioned all that is available as I did not get round the whole experience as I did not have a full day. For more information please visit the Kennedy Space Centre website.

Admission costs $38 for adults and $28 for children plus that pesky tax. I think this is a reasonable price as it is a whole day out and is one of the only places in the world to give you a working day insight into live space exploration programmes. If you would like to look at some of the photos from my day out visit my Florida photo gallery.

I highly recommend a visit if you are in the area because where else can you have lunch with an astronaut, see a rock from Mars, and board a space shuttle all in one day?


Saturday, 13 December 2008

Budget Internet Access Around The Globe

This is one of the more useful articles I have written for ezinearticles.com and thought I would share it with my readers.

When you pack your bags and head off around the world with only a backpack and a few essential belongings, you become more aware of what you are leaving behind. You forfeit frequent contact with friends and family, miss social events and can feel isolated. With thanks to the World Wide Web, technology has bridged the gap and we are now able to communicate, upload photos and create blogs to share experiences with loved ones from any where on the globe, but how easy is it to find cheap access to the web.

Well this depends on where you are. Having navigated the globe myself, I always kept an eye out looking for Internet access to keep my blogs going, photos up to date, and to book the next stages of my journey online. It was clear how the ease of Internet access varied from one destination to the next and found myself planning my time online.

The USA was flooded with wireless access points in the cities and many hostels offered free access to those blessed with a laptop, something which grated on my nerves when I was sat ploughing dollar bills into the wired terminal. Hostels in New Zealand and Australia seemed also to grant free wireless access to people carrying laptops and yet charged those that did not. I came to the conclusion that people with laptops carried the burden of having to be extra security conscious with their expensive equipment while I travelled for months without the worry. The best free wired spots I found in "The Western World" were local libraries which seem obliged to offer free access even if you are not a member. It is always worth checking where the nearest library as the Internet does drain your wallet if you seek frequent access. Wireless points on the other hand seem to be all over in major cities and very common in airports, budget hotels, hostels and you can even use any house hold connection if people are foolish enough to leave it unsecured.

In South East Asia offered access at the cheapest rates but Internet cafes were slightly harder to find the further from main cities you ventured and free wireless access was unheard of in hostels. This was true for Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia but the number of Internet cafes improved in Malaysia and further again into Singapore. Most towns boasted at least one terminal to burn CDs and a couple with Skype facilities whereas larger towns and cities have plenty. Skype incidentally is a great way to make international calls for the price of the Internet connection time. Be sure to set up an account for yourself and your other party at home before you leave in order to take advantage.

The most expensive access I found was in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. You may be thinking why would I want to go on the Internet in location so beautiful. Well, there is not a lot to do beside sunbathe and swim in the sea, and if you get caught in an afternoon downpour, playing cards soon loose their appeal. The charge was over 4 pounds an hour for rather slow access. Others in the hostel told of how they had spent 10 pounds for an hour on the neighbouring islands of Fiji.

I would recommend if you are going more to "The Western World" on your travels to buy one of these cheap, small, lightweight, low spec laptops (or notebooks) as you will save big bucks on access, and would be good for backing up photos. These are being sold for as little as £150 from manufacturers such as Acer and ASUS commonly with 4GB of flash storage. Alternatively you could invest in an iPod Touch which can act as a web browser, video and music player and general entertainment system all in one.

It is also important not to be glued to a computer screen for your entire journey as there are far more brilliant things to see and do outdoors. After all, you did not decide to travel the world to go web surfing!


Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Been Around The World But Still Love London

On my travels I have been to quite a few cities in several continents, but I have recently decided that none of them top the one on my own doorstep. Now this may sound pig headed but from the ones I have seen, London has the greatest variety of activities, modern attractions, history, and entertainment of them all.

Before I start with London I will say that other cities I have visited have been a nice change. I enjoyed Paris as a city because there are lots of sights, churches, a good atmosphere and great food, and Rome for similar reasons and additionally the ancient history. Cities further away such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur each left me with a good vibe because they were busy, hectic and so very different from what I had previously known.

I feel that London has brilliant choice and can satisfy people searching for different things. If you are into history then you can visit the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge or one of the many superb (and free) museums. If history is not what makes you tick then you can catch a show in the west end, party at a gig at the o2 arena, or browse the National art Gallery for free. Kids can also be entertained at London Zoo, the Aquarium, on the London Eye Ferris Wheel, at the London Dungeons Experience, Madame Tussauds or the Science Museum. Furthermore, the city flaunts some of the best shopping and night life around. At the risk of this post turning into a tourist’s guide to London, it is fair to say that the variety is immense, and I did not find this was true for a lot of other cities around the world. The USA, particularly New York, did have a lot to see and do but lacked the history as it is a relatively new nation. Auckland seemed very small in comparison and could not compete on the same level but is good for a short break. Sydney was another of my favourites because after you have seen the sights you can head out of the city on an excursion to the bush, and Tokyo was a crazy place, very busy but certainly not for everyone. I found the language barrier quite hard to get on board with through no fault of its own.

I am by no means knocking any other city; I would never do that until I tried it. They are all different which is great and how it should be, but am I being narrow minded? Despite travelling the globe am I still blinded by my love for my own city? Let me know if you prefer your own city or share my love for London.

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Monday, 8 December 2008

"Statues" Of Liberty

When you think of the Statue of Liberty your mind immediately turns to New York City and the towering statue off the coast of Manhattan. However, this is not the only place in the world you can see this famous monument. Before I took the ferry out to climb the statue I had already seen it twice before on my travels in two other countries. Can you guess where they were?

The first one I saw was standing in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. I caught a glimpse of it while traveling past on the Metro and have since learnt there is another in Paris on an island in the Seine called the Île des Cygnes. It was given to France as a gift in return for the original built and placed in New York to commemorate 100 years of American independence, and as recognition of their new government. They are both relatively small compared to the monster in the USA but still worth a photo.

The second one I spotted took me a bit by surprise. It was standing in Tokyo on the riverside near to the Rainbow Bridge. It was placed there in commemoration of "The French year in Japan" in the late 1990’s and has stood there ever since (see the photo on the left). Apparently this is one of the larger replicas overshadowing those in Norway, Peru, Argentina and Oklahoma.

Another interesting fact is that the reason why you cannot climb right to the top of the Statue of Liberty in New York is because of fire regulations. Apparently to adhere to the regulations only 5 people would be able to climb every hour and it would not be profitable to maintain or provide support staff for this experience. According to the security guard it will never be climbed by a tourist again.

Let me know if you have seen any other replicas by leaving a comment below.

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Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ghost Flights: Are They Still Around?

I took a number of internal flights in the states with Delta, South West and Jet Blue last year to prevent long Greyhound bus journeys and because the difference in price was marginal. A flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco only cost me $30 more than the equivalent bus ride, which left me asking why are more people not flying. The only advantage of the Greyhound buses I can see is that the terminals are in the centre of town reducing transfer fees from out of town airports. Anyway, I was surprised to see that many of my internal flights were half empty and we were able to spread out across entire rows.

The term for this phenomenon is “ghost flight”. Now there is nothing spooky about a ghost flight as the name may suggest, but in recent years they have sparked anger from environmentalists and in the past week have irritated people stranded in Bangkok where flights are taking off without passengers. It is estimated that if a Boeing 747 flew from London to Chicago, London to Hong Kong and then London to Australia, it would emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as 300 motorists do in a year. This is clearly an unacceptable statistic and as a consequence the Aviation Environmental Federation stepped in late last year. They enforced an environmental tax of up to £80 per available ticket rather than a flat rate per aircraft. In my opinion this was a brilliant move and a great incentive for airlines to fill their seats and reduce half filled flights.

From what I can see, America’s problem stems from budget airlines being run like buses. Although passengers are sometimes asked to spill over to later flights if theirs is not full, it is more often the case that the flight goes half empty perhaps to retain good customer relations in a competitive market. Airlines will have to fill seats and merge flights but also balance this with keeping customers loyal to their service.

As I do not fly internally on budget airlines often, I invite you to leave some comments as to whether you have seen a reduction in the number of ghost flights over the past year as a result of this new taxing policy.


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Tubing In Khao Sok, Thailand

I don’t suppose many people have heard of tubing. Those who travel to South East Asia usually take on this activity if it is offered as it is a little bit different, and can be a lot of fun in a group. All you need to go tubing is the inner tube from a tractor tyre and a river. The concept, as you may have guessed, is floating down the river on the tube with your friends and seeing where you end up. Normally you are taken out by locals who know the river and arrange for a vehicle to pick you up when you reach the end point, or are forced to before you sail over a waterfall (probably not as fun as it sounds).

When I was in Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, tubing was one of the activities on the agenda. I did know what this was beforehand as a friend had told me what I should expect. I was not really looking forward to the experience because when he went the water was dark brown and had excrement floating along. He recalled positioning himself on the tube in such a way that none of his body touched the water; this does not sound like a comfortable ride. However, I was not deterred by this and was prepared to try anything once. The rest of the tour group and I dragged our inner tubes to the waters edge and waded to the middle of the river (which was brown but excrement free). We were told that there were a lot of eels in the river but once we were under way we laid back and took it all in. Unfortunately it was tipping down with rain for the entire time in Khao Sok but as we were sitting in a river this did not matter. We cruised for about 30 minutes in total and were followed by monkeys in the tree tops the majority of the way which was pretty special. There were a few hairy moments when the current took us off track into the bushes on the banks but the locals were experienced and eventually got you back on route.

The only downside of tubing is that you cannot take photos unless you have a water proof camera. I did not and so the only memories I have are in my head. It is not recommended to do this in the UK or under your own esteem because tides and currents can be unpredictable. Keep and eye out for tubing as I can see it catching on as a leisure activity in other tourist hot spots if it hasn’t already. Has anybody else “tubed”? Leave me a comment and let me know.


Monday, 1 December 2008

American Airlines: You Cannot Be Serious?

Continuing the airline pricing theme from one of last weeks posts, I stumbled across this story about American Airlines. I still cannot decide if it is actually a joke or not because it sounds absurd. I cannot really get to grips with this article but it seems as though American Airlines are charging surcharges to customers who are not even flying. This quote is taken from theonion.com:

"Tough times unfortunately mean tough measures," American Airlines president Gerard Arpey said."It's never an easy decision to ask our loyal customers, as well as thousands of people chosen at random out of a telephone book, to pay a little extra, but that's just the reality of today's economic climate. We hope all Americans will understand this when receiving one of our new bills in the mail."

The rest of the article can be found at the link below so please tell me what is going on? Is this a joke or do American airlines seriously think people are going to pay?

Rest of Article