Los Angeles Things to Do

Combine Los Angeles with a few side trips to get the most out of your vacation

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and even though I often find the place quite frustrating, I always tell anyone who’ll listen that it’s a city that you just have to see with your own eyes at least once to be taken seriously as a “traveler.” I’ve met quite a few people who say that they “just aren’t interested in Los Angeles” and I don’t believe that for a minute, though I do see why people might not love the place. Still, it’s a great idea to combine a few side trips with your LA visit to get the most out of the whole holiday, so here are some recommendations.

The Grand Canyon

grandcanyonIf you are coming from across the country or across an ocean to get here, you should definitely consider adding this to your itinerary, at least for a couple of days. You could drive all the way there, but it’ll take you at least 8 hours on the road, and it’s actually not very scenic on the way. A better idea is to look into flights to Phoenix, which tend to be very cheap. You can rent a car there, usually for less than you’ll pay in Los Angeles, and then it’s about a 3-hour drive that is actually quite nice.

There are plenty of Grand Canyon hotels from which to choose, but especially during summer those are going to be very expensive. I recommend spending one night at one of those hotels so you have two days to experience the national park surrounding the canyon, but before and after I’d recommend checking out one of the cheap hotels in Phoenix. Prices there are usually much less than in Los Angeles or the Grand Canyon, especially during summer. I’ve lived in Phoenix for about 5 years as well and there is plenty to do, though the summer heat will get to you after a few days.

San Diego

If you’ve spent a few days in Los Angeles already then San Diego won’t feel like a shock. I’ve spent plenty of time there and it’s pretty much exactly the same place, but with fewer crowds and generally more of a laid-back atmosphere. There are plenty of nice beaches there, but really no better than some of those you’ll find in Los Angeles. It’s just generally a nice and large city by the beach, and perhaps the most interesting thing for travelers from far away is that you can drive about 20 miles south and you’ll be nearing Tijuana, Mexico. Locals will tell you that it’s better to park on the US side (to avoid insurance issues plus a few other difficulties) and then walk across the border since Tijuana is right there.

If you are coming from far away you might just look for flights to San Diego instead of Los Angeles. It’s usually a bit more expensive, but the airport is smaller and nicer, and if you are visiting anyway it’s often worth a bit more money. Don’t fly from Los Angeles though. The flights are expensive and will take longer than taking the train or driving anyway.

Santa Barbara

About 90 miles up the coast from Los Angeles you’ll come to one of the nicest cities on the West Coast. Santa Barbara has great beaches and a lovely downtown that is filled with excellent restaurants and surprisingly good nightlife considering the place is mostly filled with the idle rich. There is a big university just north of town, so the college kids need places to go, and the downtown area accommodates them nicely.

There are plenty of really nice and really expensive hotels in Santa Barbara, but there are also a handful of cheaper places on or near State Street, which is the main street that connects the lovely pier with the downtown area.

You might also just consider Santa Barbara as a day trip, since it usually takes less than two hours each way by car, as long as you don’t go on a Friday afternoon or try to come back on a Sunday evening.

Portugal travel guide

Portugal and Spain: Touring South Western Europe on a low budget

lisbon-sept-28The two countries, Portugal and Spain, share the Iberian Peninsula and although they don’t share the language, it’s easy to mix both of them in your travel itinerary. Lisbon , Portugal’s capital, is famous for its nightlife, architecture and gambling industry, while Madrid , Spain’s capital, is best known for its cultural heritable, being also a nightlife hotspot.

Point of entry

Both countries are served by large airports and there are numerous deals available into both countries. Finding a cheap flight to Lisbon is especially easy during fall, when the hype of summer is already behind us. The airport is located within the city which makes it easy (and cheap) to get to the hotel or hostel. Although the airport is large, you might find it cheaper to fly into a major European hub and take a connecting flight to Lisbon.

Flights to Madrid are easier to find since the city is one of the major gateways into the continent. The airport is a primary hub for Iberia , so there are quite a lot of possibilities to find good deals from the carrier.

However, you might be able to find great deals into either city. Regardless of your choice, there are numerous ways to get from Madrid to Lisbon (or the other way around) and you might find that a low-cost flight is cheaper than taking the bus.

>>Madrid to Lisbon, one way flight in October from €40 per person

Places to stay

Just like finding the best airfare option, it’s also important to find accommodation which suites your budget. Lisbon hotel rooms come in many sizes and prices but with some research you’ll be able to find good deals even at the hotels located in the city center. Remember that fall is shoulder season in Portugal so the prices are lower than during summer (although the crowds might still exist if the weather continues to be nice).

>>hotel room rates from €25 per night

On the other hand, hostels in Lisbon are affordable and they cater for all types of traveler. Since Lisbon is a party city, make sure to read the reviews before you decide which hostel to book. You really don’t want to stay in a party area if you plan to get your sleep at night.

>>hostel bed rates from €7.50 per night

Hostels in Madrid are somewhat similar to those in Lisbon. Madrid is also a very well known city for its night life and it also has the largest number of bars per capita on the entire continent. So if you plan to get your sleep during the night, you’d better search carefully and decided where to stay.

>>hostel bed rates from €5.15 per night

Both the hostels in Madrid and those in Lisbon offer dorms and private rooms, so they cater for every need. There are small hostels, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, which are perfect for couples and families. And there are also large hostels, ideal for those who like to be sociable and don’t exactly plan to get their sleep at night.

Photo credit: McPig on Flickr

Edinburgh travel guide

How to Secure a Hostel Bed in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival (Without Reserving a Year in Advance)

fringeThe cleaners may still be sweeping up what remains of this year’s Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, which wrapped up yet another year of crazy fun on August 31, but with the ever-increasing popularity of this festival that can mean only one thing: it’s time to start planning for next year.

The 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe (as it’s properly known) is set to run from August 6-30, and as anyone who’s been to the festival before will tell you, it’s a whopping good time – and it crowds the city like just about nothing else. That’s great if you like big, outdoor parties, but not so great if you’re a last minute travel planner (and yes, I acknowledge the words “last minute” and “planner” don’t really belong in the same sentence) who just shows up in Edinburgh expecting to find an available bed at an affordable price.

Does this mean that if you don’t book your accommodation right this very second, nearly a year before the 2010 festival starts, that you’ll be sleeping on the streets of Edinburgh or forced to skip the festivities altogether? Of course not. In a popular tourist city like Edinburgh, there are almost always (note the qualifier) going to be places you can stay, even in the busiest times. But for most travelers, this isn’t something to take comfort in, because the rooms that will still be available at the last minute are either going to be extraordinarily expensive, too far from the action, or just plain gross. There is, after all, a reason they’re empty during the most important festival of the year.

So how can you prevent the catastrophe of showing up to the Edinburgh Fringe with no bed to sleep in? Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travelers, listen up – this one may be tough to stomach. You’re going to need to book in advance. I know, I know – but it’s really for the best. And “in advance” doesn’t mean 11 months in advance, either. It just means you’ll need to do a little planning before you show up.

Booking Edinburgh Hostels for the Fringe Festival

If you’re one of those travelers who loves the trip planning process and you know without a doubt you’re going to next year’s Fringe Festival, then by all means scope out which hostel you want to stay in ASAP and book yourself a bed without delay. The sooner you do this, the better off you’ll be in terms of the choices you’ll have – and this includes budget choices, meaning you’re more likely to get a better deal on a room if you’re booking in advance.

But if you can’t handle the idea of booking a hostel bed for something that’s happening a year from now, then here’s what I recommend you do. It still involves some travel research, and it’ll involve some time and organization on your part, but this method will let you maintain some flexibility in your travel plans.

1. Research the hostels in Edinburgh.
This is the part that’s going to feel most like “work” if you hate trip planning, but you only have to do it once. There are quite a few hostels in Edinburgh. This means if you’re visiting at any other time of year, you’ll be spoiled for choice and likely have no issues just arriving in town and finding a decent bed at a decent price. But you’re not visiting at “any other time,” are you? Of course not.

Do some reading about which are the best hostels in Edinburgh. Find out where they’re located, what amenities they offer, what they charge for their beds (and make sure you check their “festival prices,” as those will be higher than their regular season prices). Make a note of the ones that appeal most to you, based on their proximity to Fringe events, their freebies, their prices – whatever is most important to you.

Save this list of hostels somewhere, preferably with links to their respective websites and email addresses, and preferably on your computer so you can just copy and paste things like URLs and email addresses when you need them for step two.

2. Email your chosen hostels regularly.
I’ll let you define what “regularly” is, but it’s probably a good idea to try not to be a pest. The idea here is to get an idea of how full the hostel is during the upcoming Fringe Festival, and how full it’s getting over time. So to start with, if the hostels you’re checking in with say they’ve got no bookings (or only a few), you can probably just check in again a month later. Sending a quick email once a month to the hostels you’re watching will let you see when they start filling up and allow you to grab a bed just before they sell out.

Of course, if “just before they sell out” is still four months before the festival and you’re not 100% certain you’ll be going – or you just don’t want to commit to anything that far out on the calendar – then your emails should include an addendum.

In addition to checking in regularly (which has the added benefit of allowing you to become a known quantity to the hostel staff, so that once you choose a hostel you’ve got friends there already when you show up – provided, of course, that you took the advice at the start of this section to heart and avoided becoming a pest), you’ll want to let them know why you’re doing this. Then, if they respond eventually with, “Oh, we’ve only got three beds left,” you can say, “Well, I’m still not ready to book… Do you have any suggestions for another place to try if you guys are full when I check back?” There are some hostel families in Edinburgh, so it’s likely they’ll have a hostel or two they can refer you to. These may have already been on your list, but if they weren’t then that’s one more hostel to add to your watch list.

3. Thank the people you’re emailing.
So, you’ve come to the end of Project Edinburgh Hostel Watch, and you’ve booked a room. The staff at the hostel you chose are overjoyed because you’re not going to be emailing them anymore (I kid, I hope), and may give you a friendly poke in the ribs over it when you finally show up for your stay. You’ve thanked them, I’m sure, but spending money at their establishment is a good thanks as well.

But what about the hostels you didn’t choose? Did you thank them? Or did you just stop emailing them?

If you’ve just exchanged quick emails with no one in particular at the other hostels and never established any kind of rapport with them, then you don’t have to worry about sending a little “thank you” email to let them know you’ve booked a bed elsewhere. But if you’ve been emailing the same person on the staff over and over again, then it’s probably not a bad idea to send off a little note explaining why they won’t be hearing from you anymore.

I have a tendency to guilt trip myself into feeling badly about things I shouldn’t, but in this case I think it can’t hurt to tell them you’ll pass their hostel’s name onto other travelers headed to Edinburgh, or leave them a nice review on a hostel booking site, or some such thing. They’ve taken the time to answer your emails nicely, so it’s just good karma to offer something nice back to them. And a little good karma never hurt, right?

Some Edinburgh Hostels to Consider

  • Caledonian Backpackers – This hostel is between Old Town & New Town with easy access to both, & the on-site bar helps with the party atmosphere.
  • Royal Mile Backpackers – One of three hostels in the MacBackpackers chain in Edinburgh (they run Scotland tours as well as hostels), this one is small and right on the Royal Mile; there’s a free pub crawl every Thursday.
  • Castle Rock Hostel – Another MacBackpackers hostel, this one’s just below the castle & features a movie lounge, ping-pong & pool tables, and an outdoor patio/garden space.
  • Budget Backpackers – This hostel has a less-than-creative name, but it’s very well-liked, has a good Old Town location, and offers free walking tours and free pub crawls.
  • St. Christopher’s Inn Edinburgh – Experienced backpackers don’t need to be told about the St. Christopher’s chain, they’re well-regarded wherever they’ve opened a branch; the Edinburgh location is in Old Town and has one of their trademark on-site bars.

>> For more information about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, be sure to bookmark the festival’s official website to keep updated on all the latest – including the program schedule and even how you can be a performer (if that’s your thing).

photo by Matito

travel guide

Finding Smoke-Free Hostels in Amsterdam

amsterdamMost of the time, when you say you’re planning to travel to Amsterdam you’ll get nods and knowing looks from friends and fellow travelers who think you’re going to spend your whole trip in an Amsterdam coffeeshop stoned out of your mind. Now, you might visit a coffeeshop or two during your stay, and you may smoke a fair amount of weed as well. But even if you’re not interested in the many non-marijuana-related reasons to visit Amsterdam, you might not want to spend your nights in a place that’s cloudy with smoke every night. If that describes you, you’ll be pleased to know that isn’t the difficult task it used to be.

In July 2008, Amsterdam joined the ranks of the cities and countries around the world that have instituted smoke-free laws. In a city like Amsterdam, where smoking is one of the things people come to Amsterdam specifically to do, that’s posed some challenges. The many coffeeshops around the city still have plenty of smoking going on in them, but some of the best party hostels in Amsterdam have had to get creative in order to comply with the smoking ban while not losing their party reputation (not to mention their clientele).

So how can you be sure you won’t end up booking a room in a place that’s not taking the smoking ban seriously? Honestly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a hotel where even the lounge isn’t smoke-free, and almost every hotel room in Amsterdam is now smoke-free as well. But if you’re traveling on a budget, you’ll be looking at the city’s hostels instead – and that’s where you’re more likely to run into management trying to skirt the smoke-free law.

Amsterdam’s No-Smoking Laws

While in most places, smoke-free legislation is simple and straightforward, in Amsterdam it’s just not. This is a city where smoking pot has been legal and accepted for as long as anyone can remember, so to just quit cold turkey wasn’t going to be easy. Luckily for all the folks who make pilgrimages to Amsterdam just for the coffeeshops, there’s still plenty of pot-smoking going on. And luckily for the folks who’d just as soon avoid all the second-hand smoke, there are plenty of places where you can do that, too.

The 2008 law was intended to limit tobacco (not marijuana) smoking, and city officials in Amsterdam have repeatedly said they have no plans to close all the coffeeshops (with all that money they bring in!). Many coffeeshops in the city have built enclosed spaces where people can still smoke tobacco, but for the most part the marijuana smoking goes on in coffeeshops just as it always has.

>> Learn more about what changes the 2008 no-smoking law in Amsterdam has brought to the city’s coffeeshop culture

The complications arise with the hostels that pretty much double as smoking rooms at times. Again, if you’re only interested in smoking weed then you won’t have any problems – but some of the hostels in Amsterdam are more lax when it comes to enforcing the smoking ban than others. If you want to be absolutely sure you’re not booking yourself into one of those hostels, then you’ll want to check out this article about the smoke-friendly hostels in Amsterdam (and avoid every hostel on that list).

Smoke-Free Hostels in Amsterdam

As mentioned, most places are now smoke-free (with the smoke-friendly places linked above being the biggest exceptions), but some of them advertise their smoke-free status more than others. So, in addition to avoiding the places on that list of smoke-friendly hostels, booking a bed in one of these smoke-free hostels means you’ll at least have some guaranteed respite from smoke – even if you spend all the rest of your time in a coffeeshop!

  • Shelter Jordan – In the Jordaan area, down the street from the Anne Frank House, Christian youth hostel, smoking/alcohol/drug-free, free breakfast
  • Hostel Cosmos – In the city center, walking distance from train station & most points of interest, free breakfast, free walking tour
  • Shelter City – In the city center, walking distance from most points of interest, Christian youth hostel, free breakfast (smoking allowed during certain hours in the restaurant, but not in the dorms)
  • Euphemia Hotel/Hostel – 1-star budget hotel, in the city center, walking distance from most points of interest, both private & shared bathroom options, free WiFi
  • Marnix Hotel/Hostel – Budget hotel, near Leidseplein in the city center, free breakfast, free internet

photo by David Silverline

Los Angeles travel guide

Things to Know Before You Book a Hostel in Los Angeles

losangelesIt’s understandable that the first thing most people think of when they’re planning a trip to Los Angeles isn’t what hostel they’re going to stay in. This is the city where the streets are paved with gold, right? And where you’ll bump into movie stars everywhere you go, right? And where there are Hollywood agents on every street corner just waiting to give you, the latest unknown potential celebrity, a starring role in a movie, right? Hostel? Screw a hostel, gimme the keys to the Ritz!

But of course you’ll wake up from that daydream soon enough, and then you’ll realize that not only won’t you turn into a celebrity overnight, you’ll also need an affordable place to stay in this notoriously expensive city. Which is, as you’ve probably guessed, where the hostels come in.

The next challenge (especially for those of us who don’t know L.A. very well) is to figure out which hostel to choose. There are enough options, but also enough differences that it can be hard to know what you’re getting into. So to help you begin your hostel search with a little more information, here’s a list of important things to know about hostels in Los Angeles before you go.

1. Get familiar with that famous L.A. sprawl

We’ve all heard about it – how unbelievably enormous Los Angeles is, and how it just seems to keep going in all directions. There are all sorts of issues that go with that kind of sprawl, including environmental concerns (because essentially everyone needs a car to get anywhere) and community concerns (because it’s harder to develop a sense of community when everything’s so spread out), but those things don’t really impact tourists. How, then, is it important for you to get a handle on L.A.’s sprawl?

It’s important for a couple reasons, first and foremost because not everything that says it’s in Los Angeles is actually going to be in the city proper. There are countless suburbs that make up the L.A. metro area, and while you may decide one of those ‘burbs is where you want to stay, it’s the kind of thing you’ll want to know in advance.

The other big reason why learning about the sprawl in L.A. is a good idea has to do with your sightseeing “to-do” list. With just a cursory look at a map of Los Angeles, you should be able to plot out exactly where the attractions on your list are in the city. It’s unlikely that they’ll all be in one concentrated area, but if you find that most of them are (or at least the ones that are higher on your priority list), you’ll want to concentrate your search for L.A. hostels in that area to make your sightseeing tasks easier.

2. Is that an L.A. address, or what?

This one is kind of related to the first one, but enough of its own thing that I’m giving it its own number (so there). While you’ve got that map of Los Angeles out, cross-reference it with some of the addresses on the hostels you’re looking at. It doesn’t matter if a hostel turns up under a search for “hostels in Los Angeles,” it may very well be in a completely different city.

Now, you may want to stay in a completely different city – who, for instance, wouldn’t be tempted to stay right on Venice Beach instead of congested L.A.? I’m not saying that if a hostel’s address doesn’t include the words “Los” and “Angeles” in its address that you shouldn’t consider it – only that you should know that kind of thing before you put your money on the table.

3. You got there just fine, now for the getting around part…

Yes, this is sort of another sub-topic of item #1. (Which just emphasizes how important #1 is, no?) Here’s the thing – you might expect a city the size of Los Angeles to have a top-notch public transportation system that’ll have you from one end of the I’ve-already-told-you-how-big-it-is city to the other in no time, so that you, a visitor with no desire to rent a car or negotiate L.A. traffic, won’t have to do any of the driving yourself.

Sadly, L.A. isn’t that city. Sure, there’s a public transit system, and sure, plenty of people use it every day. But it’s neither particularly convenient (especially for visitors) nor terribly speedy. So even if you think you’re doing yourself a favor by finding a hostel that advertises how close they are to a bus stop, that may end up being more of a curse than a blessing.

The good news is that many hostels in L.A. know this about their city, so there are actually quite a few hostels that offer shuttle services to and from some of the more popular tourist destinations in the area. This is a life-saver for travelers who don’t want to rent a car, aren’t old enough to rent a car, or can’t afford to rent a car. So if you fall into any of those groups, be sure to check on the shuttle options at the hostels you’re looking at.

4. Expect higher prices

Unfortunately, the going rate for a hostel bed in L.A. is more than most veteran hostel-goers are used to spending, especially if your travels have taken you to Europe, South America, Asia… Well, pretty much anywhere outside the United States. (Heck, even in the U.S.) Prices like $40-45 per bed per night are not only not unheard of, they’re the average.

Obviously, you’ll have to work that into your budget before you even leave home, and this will certainly give you more incentive to find out whether the hostels you’re looking at have free perks (like WiFi, breakfast, shuttle service, etc.) – but even beyond that, knowing that the prices in L.A. are higher than you might ordinarily expect will make it so you don’t dismiss a place out of hand because you think they’re charging too much, when they’re really just charging what everyone else is charging.

And in the end, you might take the higher prices on L.A. hostels to be a sign that you might as well opt for a budget hotel instead. If you’ve been traveling for awhile and haven’t had a private room in months, or you’re going to L.A. with friends and can share the expense of a 2-star hotel room, then that’s definitely an option to consider. (Of course, you’ll want to keep in mind that most hotels don’t offer shuttle services to their guests – especially the cheap hotels – so the hostel route might still be your best bet.)

Now you’re ready!

Alright, that might be an overstatement. But it’s true that knowing the things listed above can really help someone who doesn’t know the L.A. area plan their trip better and find a hostel that’ll suit their travel needs and budget. Now go have fun in Los Angeles, kids, and bring me back a pair of mouse ears, won’t you?

photo by kla4067

Los Angeles

Choosing which Los Angeles airport to fly into

airplane-landingAs someone who was born in Los Angeles and who traveled more than my fair share while living there for most of my life, it’s not surprising that I get quite a few questions about which of the airports to use when people are looking for a cheap fare for their visit.

There are five major airports serving the metro Los Angeles area, and that is not counting dozens of general aviation airports where private pilots and private planes dominate. Sure, Los Angeles International (LAX) is by far the largest, and in fact it’s the busiest airport in the world when only counting passengers beginning or ending their journey (rather than just changing planes), but the other four each have good uses, depending on where you are coming from and what you plan on doing in LA.

If you are coming from anywhere other than the United States, the cheapest flights to Los Angeles will almost always be into LAX. The lowest fares to Los Angeles from outside the country are almost exclusive to LAX, but that’s not always the case from US destinations.

The 5 major Los Angeles airports and when to use them:

Los Angeles International (LAX)

This giant is located in West Los Angeles so it’s quite close to most beach destinations in LA County, and it’s also fairly close to Downtown Los Angeles. This is also most popular for those flying in to the busy San Pedro cruise port. With all the family cruise deals lately, it’s getting even more crowded. And in spite of Disneyland being much closer to Orange County Airport, this is the closest to where the Disney Cruises leave from in Los Angeles.

Burbank International (BUR)

This airport is in the San Fernando Valley and is now officially known as Bob Hope Airport (he lived in part of Burbank called Toluca Lake for much of his life), but the locals always just call it Burbank Airport. It’s only about 8 miles from Hollywood and even closer to Universal Studios, so if the “entertainment business” is your main thing, this airport puts you closest of all.

Long Beach Airport (LGB)

This is a small airport that is about 20 miles southeast of LAX and it’s very quick and easy to get in and out of, though the traffic on the freeway nearby is almost always bad. This airport has become trendy in the past few years since this is the only place in the area that JetBlue flies into.

Orange County/John Wayne Airport (SNA)

This airport is the fanciest in the area, but airfares are always on the high side due to strict limits on the number of flights each day. This means every departure has to make a certain amount of money for whatever airline, and they can’t afford to offer bargain basement prices like the other ones. Also, this airport is in the middle of a very crowded and affluent area, so it seems there are always people willing to pay $50 or $100 more for the privilege of flying here. This is also closest do the main theme parks in Orange County so it’s very popular for Disneyland vacation packages.

Ontario International Airport (ONT)

This airport is out in what’s locally known as the “Inland Empire” which is a very densely packed area of suburbs. If you are going somewhere east of Downtown Los Angeles then this might be your best bet of all, as airfares are often low and it keeps you out of the worst downtown traffic.

Bottom line

If you are coming from somewhere within 2,000 miles or so, it’s not a bad idea to check the airport closest to where you’ll be staying in addition to LAX. Once in a while you’ll actually find a lower fare and save a lot of hassle in the process.

travel guide

Italy Budget Travel Tips (Hint: They Include Hostels)

romeAnyone who’s even started looking into booking a vacation in Italy knows that it’s not a cheap endeavor. Italy knows it’s fabulous, and it’s not giving anything away for free. But a cursory glance at backpacker travel blogs is all you need to find evidence that even people who don’t have a six-figure income are traveling in Italy and enjoying everything this gorgeous country has to offer. So how are they doing it?

There are several big things you can do to make sure you’re not spending your life savings on an Italy trip. What’s fantastic is that some of them will actually help you have a more true-to-life local experience than if you could afford to spend more money. How’s that for a win-win situation?

Here are five of the best tips for making Italy travel affordable, including one that should be obvious to readers of this blog and a couple that you might not have thought of.

5 Budget Tips for Italy Travel

1. Be flexible when shopping for an airline ticket
The #1 way to save hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars when planning a trip to Italy (or anywhere, for that matter) is to be flexible. Some booking sites make this easy by having a box you can check that allows them to do things like include airports that are close to (but not exactly) the one you chose, or by searching a few days on either side of your desired travel dates. If you don’t see options like that, however, and you’re not interested in trying out another handful of booking sites, then you’ll have to do the work yourself and play with different departure and arrival dates as well as airports. It may seem like a pain, but if you save a few hundred bucks, then it’s worth it, right? How much gelato can you buy with a few hundred bucks? Quite a bit, I assure you.

2. Look beyond the trains for getting around
As much as I love the trains in Italy, the truth is that with all the super-budget airlines that have popped up in recent years, on some routes it’s infinitely cheaper to fly from city to city rather than take the train. This isn’t always going to be the case, of course – both the airlines and the trains have regular sales and promotions – but it’s true enough of the time that it’s a good idea to check all your options before you book your train ticket. And your alternatives aren’t limited to airplanes, either. For some routes, especially the shorter ones within one region, taking the bus might be the cheapest option yet.

3. Eat like the locals
Italy is all about seasonal and regional cuisine, so rather than ordering pizza everywhere you go because you think that’s Italian food, learn a little bit about what the local foods are where you are. Not only are you going to get fresher and better quality meals, you’re also more likely to spend less money as well. After all, if the ingredients are local there’s no need to have them shipped in from elsewhere, right? Oh, and another great way to eat like the locals and therefore save money (and eat better) is to avoid any restaurant that has its menu translated into multiple languages. Stick to the places that have Italian-only menus (bring along a menu decoder and you’ll be fine) and, preferably, where tourists are in the minority.

4. Take advantage of free attractions
Sure, many of Italy’s top sights have an entry fee, and many of them are things you’ll feel like you missed out on if you don’t fork over the money to go see. But for every admission-charging church in Italy there are a zillion more (I counted) that are free to enter and may have world-class artwork on display to boot. In other words, if you see a church in Italy, go inside and you might just get treated to a Caravaggio or a Bernini without spending a penny. It’s not all the no-name churches that are admission-free, either. St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps the best-known cathedral in Italy (and throughout the Catholic world) is absolutely free. What’s more, there are more free things to do in Italy than just churches. Check with the tourist information office of whatever city you’re visiting to find out what you can get into without paying anything.

5. Stay in Italy’s hostels
Okay, this is the one that should’ve been obvious to you from the start – but it’s true. Italy’s biggest tourist cities are nearly overflowing with accommodation options, so it’s not like you’re going to have to sleep on the street if you show up without a reservation, but even some of the hostels in Italy are more expensive than you might think they’d be. So to make sure you’re really traveling on a budget, you’ll want to do your research and book a bed in one of the cheaper hostels before they fill up. Every major city throughout Italy has plenty of choices when it comes to hostels, so you should be able to find one that fits not only your budget but your travel style as well.

photo by xiquinhosilva

travel guide

Euro-Style Hostels on a Budget in Buenos Aires

buenosairesEuropean vacations are the stuff of dreams, and are often on those so-called “bucket lists” for people who don’t travel much. It’s easy to understand why a trip to Europe is such a big deal, with all the history, art, scenery, and great food that’s found there. But what if you wanted to experience something like a European trip without spending the kind of money it usually takes to travel in Europe? Then I’d tell you to head straight for Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Buenos Aires has the benefit of being extremely European in feel (thanks in large part to its history as the landing zone for lots of settlers from countries in Europe) while being South American budget-friendly. There’s a Latin flair in B.A. that you won’t find in Europe, not to mention the tango culture, and it’s all easily accessible even on a backpacker’s travel budget (unlike some points across the pond).

In addition to the trick of having a Euro-style vacation in a country that’s not in Europe, there’s another trick to making your trip to B.A. even cheaper. The fact that this article is on a blog about hostels should pretty much give away that trick, but I’ll spell it out for you anyway – staying in one of the hostels in Buenos Aires can save you a bundle, which can enable you to extend your stay in this fantastic city (or spend it on yet more tango lessons with that gorgeous Argentinian instructor…).

What Makes Buenos Aires “European”

If you’ve never been to Buenos Aires, you might well wonder what exactly it is about this city so far from Europe that makes it “European.” Certainly it’s not a carbon copy of Paris or Rome or Vienna, as it’s got its own style and distinct feel, but over and over again you’ll read about how European B.A. is. But why?

For one thing, much of the city looks like an Old World European capital. There are grand avenues lined with grand buildings. There are streetside cafes where people sip cappuccinos and watch the passers by. There are big green spaces where locals enjoy life and prove every long lunch hour that they’re not wedded to their jobs.

But at the root of all of this is something even the locals recognize – that while other South American countries have historical ties to native cultures in South America, the people of today’s Argentina have more ties to the lands where their European ancestors came from. The residents of Buenos Aires come largely from Spanish or Italian backgrounds, so it’s not all that surprising that they recreated what they knew in their new home.

As mentioned, however, all this Euro-influence doesn’t mean that Buenos Aires is like a transplanted European city on another continent. This city has absorbed its European ancestry and mixed it up with local flavor to produce something unique. So although you’ll definitely understand why everyone says B.A. is so European in feel when you visit, you’ll also experience things in B.A. that you wouldn’t be able to experience in any actual European city.

And you won’t have to spend a mint to do it. How great is that?

Hostels in Buenos Aires

No matter what you’re into, chances are you’ll be able to do it for less in Buenos Aires. You’ll be amazed at how low the prices are to see a show, go to a soccer match, have a three+ course meal you’ll remember for years – especially if you’ve traveled in Europe and know what the prices are like there. And if you’ve got a little more money to spend, you can probably upgrade from your usual hostel options to a 1- or 2-star hotel for not much more than you’d pay for a hostel in some more expensive places. But if you really want to string your Buenos Aires vacation along, or want to save even more, you’ll still choose to stay in a Buenos Aires hostel when you go.

Thankfully, Buenos Aires has lots of hostels to choose from, all over the city. Some of the neighborhoods are more interesting to stay in than others, but the bus system is enormous (if a bit challenging to master) so you’ll be able to get around wherever you want to go as long as you’ve got a bus stop close by. A few of the more popular hostels in Buenos Aires are listed below, but there are plenty more where these came from.

Terrazas Estoril
This hostel (sometimes listed as “Hostel Terraces”) is relatively new to Buenos Aires, but it was opened by a family that’s been working in and running hostels for more than two decades – so they’re no slouches in the hostel department. It’s in a restored building close to many of the city’s main attractions, so you can walk to many of the things you’d want to see anyway. Guests get free internet access and breakfast, and because the hostel is on the top floor of the building you’ll also get to experience the lovely terraces (which give the hostel its name) for some great views of Buenos Aires.

Hostel Suites Obelisco
Another centrally-located hostel is Hostel Suites Obelisco, which is close (as the name suggests) to the city’s obelisk monument. This hostel also offers free internet access, and there’s a WiFi area if you’ve got your own laptop. The guest kitchen is great for making your trip even more budget-friendly, and the hostel’s on-site bar is the perfect place to meet and hang out with new friends.

Hostel Estoril
Hostel Estoril is right on the prominent Avenida de Mayo, close to the obelisk and the San Telmo and La Boca neighborhoods. And if there’s a spot you want to get to that isn’t within walking distance, there are bus and subway stops just outside the hostel’s front door. The TV lounge is a comfortable place to kick back and relax, especially on one of the hostel’s movie nights, but even more fun is heading out with a crew from the hostel to explore the city’s nightlife. Internet, WiFi, and breakfast are included in the price of the bed.dd

America del Sur Hostel
Located in the popular San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, the America del Sur Hostel is a great choice if you’re particularly interested in the tango culture of B.A. – because it’s the San Telmo neighborhood where you’ll find it in spades. The hostel is modern and fresh, with lots of natural light and a big outdoor patio space for relaxing or dining. Breakfast, internet and WiFi are free, and even the dorms (which only have four beds) have their own private bathrooms.

Pax Hostel
Pax Hostel is another hostel situated in the tango-rific San Telmo neighborhood. It’s close to plenty of the city’s major sights, and a block away from a subway stop for anything that’s further away. In addition to the smaller private rooms, there are dorms that sleep up to 12 – so you can save even more by booking a bed in one of the bigger dorms. Breakfast and internet access are free, as are bike rentals and international phone calls. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a lovely rooftop terrace and an on-site bar with great happy hour drink specials.

photo by rewbs.soal

travel guide

Book Your Hostel ASAP for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010

vancouverWith the summer now over in the Northern Hemisphere (sorry to be the one to deliver the bad news), we’re officially on the downward slope of 2009. Which means 2010 is right around the corner, and with it come the Winter Olympics. Which means even if you’re not usually the kind of traveler who plans your accommodation months in advance you’ll want to get your bed booked as soon as possible if you’re going to Vancouver to see the games.

Canadians are famously good at the budget travel/backpacking thing, so Vancouver has lots of budget accommodation options you can choose from – including many hostels in the city center. But the fact is that Olympics groupies who’ve been planning their Vancouver trips since the city was awarded the 2010 games have already booked their beds. Sure, plenty have probably chosen more expensive hotels than you’ll be interested in, but if you’re definitely going to Vancouver for the Olympics – whether you’re planning to go to the events or just soak up the Olympic atmosphere – there’s no time to waste in securing your own cheap lodging in one of the hostels in Vancouver.

travel guide

Want to sleep during your vacation? Choose your Dublin hostel carefully.

dublinDublin is one of those places that’s ideal for a weekend city break from continental Europe, which makes it an incredibly popular destination for things like hen and stag parties. But even without those out-of-town partyers arriving to celebrate one person’s last moments of pre-married life, the city is notorious for its raucous Temple Bar area where revelers are enjoying themselves (loudly) well into the wee hours.

As you can imagine, there are many hostels in or near Temple Bar to accommodate those party-goers who don’t want to have too far to stumble from their last pint to their pillow. But Ireland’s capital is about more than just partying, so if you’d like your trip to include more than just Dublin’s nightlife (or not include the nightlife at all) but you’re still on a budget, there are other parts of the city where you can find hostels. And that’s a good thing, because Dublin is not a cheap city to visit – so saving money on your bed is the first step to making it an affordable holiday.