Portugal travel guide

Portugal – warm European winter destination

portugal-lisbonPortugal is one of the warmest countries in Europe and is a preferred winter getaway for the Europeans who want to escape their homeland’s colder climates. Winters are rainy and a bit cold but temperatures never fall below 5C near the sea (although they can get bit under freezing inland).

As any Europe travel guide will tell you, Portugal is one of the best value destinations on the entire continent. Airline tickets to Europe are easy to find year round and Portugal makes no exception. A lot of low-cost carriers fly here, including during winter. If you fly from outside Europe, it’s a good idea to fly into a major hub first, such as London and then catch a low cost flight to Portugal.

Alentejo region – ideal for winter vacation

Portugal offers outstanding landscape diversity, with green mountains in the North to near-desert landscape in the Alentejo region and incredible beaches in the Algarve region.

Alentejo region is an excellent choice for vacation year-round. The soft hills which make up this agricultural region change colors along the year, allowing for some incredible sunsets. Evora is the regional capital and is a culturally rich town. The easiest way to check out the sites is by walking although if you prefer a more romantic approach, don’t be shy to take a horse carriage ride. There are some Roman ruins to check out, the creepy Bone Chapel (decorated with real human bones) and the old aqueduct is also a very interesting sight to see.

Neolithic ruins are spread all over the countryside near Evora, including cave painting and stunning megalithic monuments. Tours can be arranged at the tourist office in the city.

Lisbon – charming, fascinating and warm

When it comes to accommodation, the network of Europe hostels is very well developed in Portugal. More and more budget travelers have discovered that hostels aren’t just for backpackers or dorm-dwellers. Hostels are suitable for families and couples as well, thanks to the private rooms available. If you plan to visit the capital, Lisbon, staying in a hostel is an excellent way to save money.

The charming city entices the visitors with its bleached limestone buildings, culture, laid-back atmosphere and intimate alleys. It is a place popular among tourists year round and with good reasons. There are plenty of things to do and visit in the capital. For a quick and interesting tour of the major sites, take tram 28. The ride costs only €1.40 and you get to see many of the capital’s charming neighborhoods.

Don’t miss taking a photo of the Ponte Vasco da Gama, the longest bridge in Europe (and ninth longest in the world).

Photo credit

travel guide Turkey

When should I plan my vacation in Turkey?

turkeyFor the majority of travelers Turkey conjures images of beaches, mosques, Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. For backpackers, Turkey is an affordable destination, which should be added to their travel itinerary.

Regardless of your reasons to visit the country, it’s important to plan your vacation in such a way that you’d get the best out of the days (weeks) spend here.

Spring is definitely the prime time to visit Turkey, thanks to the moderate weather, long days and lack of tourists. Then, autumn is the second best choice as the weather is mild but the days are shorter and rain might occur. Summer is when the majority of tourists get airline tickets to Turkey, especially if they have the beach resorts in mind. However, summer is a bit more expensive than the rest of the year and the weather is quite hot.

Visiting Istanbul

Winter is chilly and rainy in Turkey. But you can find cheap flights to Istanbul during this time of the year and you won’t be bumping into too many tourists when visiting the beautiful city, either.

When it comes to finding cheap hotels in Istanbul you don’t really need to worry much about the time of the year. The city is dotted with a lot of affordable places to stay but if you come here when the rest of the tourists are, then you’ll need to book the accommodation ahead of time.

Stretching on both sides of the Bosphorus, Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe, both culturally and physically. Those visiting the city cannot pinpoint whether they are in a posh European town or are swept away by the Asian charms.

Having been the capital of several empires, Istanbul boasts a wealth of religious and historic places to visit. Most of them are located in the Old City, including Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

No visit to Istanbul is complete without indulging in some of its “guilty pleasures”: smoking the narghile, visiting a hamam (Turkish bath) and shopping in the bazaar.

Touring the country

Turkey is also a preferred destination for those who love adventure tours. Turkey adventure tours range from 10 hour safaris in Antalya, exploring national parks and mountains, to several days exploring the cultural heritage of the country. There are many options for those interesting in such vacations. Tours are typically available year round although the best weather is from spring to autumn.

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Las Vegas

It’s now as cheap to go to Las Vegas as it is to stay home

mgmgrandfrontLately we’ve been discussing various side trips that people often make in conjunction with a trip to Los Angeles, and things over in Las Vegas continue to get weirder so now it’s even harder to pass up. The first 3 weeks in Sin City are always the least crowded of the whole year and of course this year will be no different. Cheap flights are easy to find and hotel rooms are practically free.

The thing about travel to Las Vegas is that if you play your cards right, pun intended, you can often get drinks for free or almost free, and nearly everything else is available at great discounts if you know where to look. This isn’t to say that these super-cheap alternatives are always the best choice, but more that they are there if you look, especially during this time of year.

Getting there for a song

The fact that it’s nearly empty doesn’t mean that flights are at their lowest rates of the year, but it’s pretty close. Cheap flights to Las Vegas are just a few clicks away no matter where you are, it seems. In early December you can get a roundtrip from LAX to Vegas for around $125, and you can fly from Long Beach or Burbank or Orange County for just a bit more. These flights have been around $99 in the past, but that was years ago and this is pretty much rock-bottom these days unless you run into a great promotion on Southwest Airlines.

Where to stay

This is where things really get good. Cheap hotels in Las Vegas get even cheaper in early December, and right now several of them are advertising rooms under $20 per night. You can actually book yourself into the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino in the Downtown area for $11 per night including all taxes. It’s obviously not one of the more luxurious hotels in the city, but the location is pretty decent and the rooms are clean. This city’s loss is your gain and it’s a buyer’s market.

If you prefer to be on the Strip you can book the Riviera or the Imperial Palace for only $25 per night. Those are both nice places with great locations, and you could pay for the whole night by just getting a bit lucky with a $10 roll of quarters, or at least that was true back when the machines actually accepted coins.

What to do

The list of things to do in Las Vegas is a long one, but most people are interested in gambling, eating, drinking, and maybe a bit of shopping. There are great opportunities for all of those things pretty much everywhere you turn, but there is also the Red Rock Canyon just a few miles east of the city if you want to see one of the most scenic drives in the US.

There’s also golf and tennis and other outdoor activities, though it’s worth noting that in early December it’s actually colder in Vegas than it is in Los Angeles, so it’s best to plan one of the many indoor activities.

Los Angeles Things to Do

San Diego is a worthwhile alternative to Los Angeles

sandiego350This site focuses on Los Angeles and one day we might start one specifically for San Diego, but for now we’ll discuss a bit about San Diego right here. That city near the Mexico border tends to be forgotten by most Angelenos, so it’s easy to forget that for many people it’s actually a more appealing destination than Los Angeles itself.

Not long ago we covered the various methods for getting between Los Angeles and San Diego, but we haven’t discussed much about people who’d prefer to skip LA completely. I know from living in the Phoenix area for 5 years that San Diego vacations are actually preferred among people from Arizona, so I’m sure the same is true for many people from other places as well.

Getting to San Diego

If you are coming from another part of the US then it should be simple enough to find cheap flights to San Diego. All the major airlines, including most of the discount carriers, fly directly to San Diego so fares are competitive. If you are coming from a city where a direct set of flights seems more expensive than you’d think, it’s not a bad idea to check flights into LAX as well.

You are going to need a car in either city and you can rent them just as cheaply in LA (and often cheaper) than San Diego, so you might save $100 on a flight in exchange for 2.5 hours driving down the coast in a rental car each way. Once you get into Orange County the drive itself is quite nice as well.

Where to stay in San Diego

You have two main choices here, but both of them are pretty broad. The hotels in San Diego are scattered throughout the area, and generally you’ll be looking at either a business-type hotel in the downtown area, or one of the many family-type hotels near a beach. The good news about these beach hotels is that there are literally many hundreds of them so prices are more reasonable than you might imagine.

Where I recommend that people stay

I prefer the area they call North County. The beaches near the city center are nice, but the area around them is so crowded that it doesn’t really feel like a resort community at all. But if you stay just 10 miles or so north of downtown San Diego, you’ll feel like you are in vacationland, in a good way.

I recommend Solana Beach if you can find a place there, or Del Mar or Encinitas are nice too. One word of warning though about Del Mar and Solana Beach. There is a popular horse racing track in Del Mar (called Del Mar) and from late July through mid September they have a popular race meeting and all hotels get more expensive and tend to be more full. If you can come before or after that you’ll find lower prices and smaller crowds.

Photo by Nick Chill on Flickr

travel guide

Prague: Not So Cheap Anymore, but Hostels Help

In the latter half of my sophomore year of college, I was in the midst of preparing for my first trip to Europe. I was heading to England to study abroad for a semester, and was already filling my upcoming breaks with planned trips to visit relatives in Paris and Zurich as well as a much-anticipated outing to Prague for four days with my Swiss cousin. A college girlfriend who had visited Prague on a summer trip during high school heard my excitement about seeing the city, and immediately attempted to dampen my enthusiasm.

“Prague is cold,” she said. And she didn’t just mean the weather.

She had visited during the summer, but since she had been there when the city was still under Soviet rule, she said it just felt unfriendly, foreboding, and cold. Sure, Prague was cheap back then for her and her classmates, and they all came home with loads of pretty souvenirs and gifts for family and friends, but she said she wouldn’t be eager to go back.

As I walked around Prague that September with my cousin, I thought about what my friend had said – and sent her a postcard telling her she had to return to the city someday. When I visited, a non-Soviet Czechoslovakia was less than a year old and the city seemed like it was basking in its newfound freedom. The city squares were bustling with life, and the famous Charles Bridge was crammed each day with artists and vendors – and then crammed each night with buskers and musicians.

Best of all, Prague was still dirt cheap.

When I finally returned for a second visit to Prague, it was in a different country (the Czech Republic) and the Old Town was virtually overrun with tourists. On one hand, I was pleased so many people were discovering the beauty of the city. And on the other hand, I lamented that the days of Prague being the off-the-beaten-path and cheap travel destination it had been.

So does that mean it’s no longer worth visiting Prague? Absolutely not. It does, however, mean you’ve got to be a bit more clever about how you visit so that you avoid both the high tourist season and the higher prices. Here are my tips to help you enjoy Prague on a budget – and to help you enjoy Prague at all.

When to Visit Prague

Although the Czech Republic is still considered part of Central or Eastern Europe, Prague now has a high season and low season for tourism that is basically like most of Western Europe. In other words, the summer season is when you’ll find the biggest crowds and the highest prices. Prague’s high season is generally said to be June through August, but as the city grows in popularity that peak season is stretching in both directions – making May and September more crowded and expensive than they were even a few short years ago.

Weather-wise, the summers are when you’ll get the warmest temperatures – in recent years, highs have been in the upper 90s and above. But there’s still plenty of nice weather in May and September (which is why they’re starting to become part of the high season now, of course). And if you want to try to steer clear of the crowds even more, book your trip for April or October – and just pack a light raincoat or umbrella. You won’t have to deal with the cold winter that way, but you’ll also avoid the worst of the crowds (as well as the worst of the high season prices).

Budget Travel Tips for Prague

Even if you plan ahead and visit Prague outside the high season, you could still be surprised by the costs of a Prague vacation. Yes, the city remains cheaper overall to visit than cities like Paris or Rome or London, but the difference isn’t as great as it once was. Not only that, some hotels consider April-June and September-October “high season” in terms of how much they charge per night, so even if you’re missing the peak of summer you might not be avoiding the highest hotel prices.

With that in mind, saving money on your accommodation in Prague is even more important – and luckily, it’s actually not too hard if you stay in hostels or book another kind of budget bed.

Sleeping Cheap in Prague

After airfare, accommodation is typically your biggest travel expense. The good news for budget travelers is that Prague is full of cheap places to sleep. The most obvious ones are the hostels in Prague (and there are many to choose from), but Prague also has other options.

You can rent an entire apartment if you like (an excellent option if you’re traveling with a few friends or have your kids with you), often for very cheap rates. There are also “pension” or “residence” lodging options, which vary from being guest-house style (a few rooms rented out in a private home or apartment) to small apartments rented out in their entirety. Prague has some budget hotels, too, although their prices have risen steadily over the past decade so that they’re not always the bargain they used to be.

Some of the best budget accommodation options in Prague are the hostels, though, and these hostels in particular get high marks:

  • Hostel ElfThe party hostel in Prague, it’s close to the city’s train and bus stations in the Zizkov neighborhood and has an on-site bar, free breakfast, and free linens.
  • Miss Sophie’s – Located near Wenceslas Square and within walking distance of the Old Town Square, this modern hostel has a nice terrace, guest kitchen, and internet access available.
  • Sir Toby’s Hostel – This is definitely a social hotspot, although not totally party central; there’s an on-site bar, a garden for BBQs, regular movie nights, and a pillow-laden reading room.

photo by wili_hybrid

England travel guide

Combine London with a stop on the Continent

parisnightWhen Americans and Canadians visit England, it takes a bit of getting used to when you hear locals asking if you are also going to “Europe” on this trip. This might stem back from the Colonial days, when the sun never set on the British Empire, and England being part of Europe seemed like a quaint notion, but it’s still true that most Brits refer to the Continent as Europe, and only in the technical sense does that term apply to the UK.

With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to visit somewhere else in Europe on your England trip. It’ll almost certainly be cheaper than you’d think to add in at least one other major city, and it also adds some really nice contrast to the England part of your trip.

With the possible exception of Dublin and Stockholm, most of England is just about as expensive as things get in Europe. Compared to London, Paris will feel cheap, and compared to Edinburgh, Barcelona is a real bargain.