Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review: Discovering Hidden Europe with Francis Tapon


So many books, essays and articles have been written about Europe, that there is not much to say anymore. Or is there?

Apparently, Francis Tapon still has a thing or two to argue when talking about Europe, the hidden Europe, the most unknown part of the Old Continent, that fascinating region from Germany eastward that still bears mystery and retains much of its old charm.

Reading his book, The Hidden Europe, you will embark on a journey of the unknown, that will still keep the European features of a rich culture and fascinating artistic traditions, with the additional benefit of visiting places that are seldom mentioned anywhere else.

The book, however, has a deeper mission than merely describing beautiful countries. As the author himself says, "the purpose of this book isn’t to just share Eastern European insights. Its purpose is also to stir curiosity in you. I hope to inspire you to wander and learn. I want America to open its borders and brains not just to the brightest minds of Eastern Europe, but to the brightest minds of the world."

Humor, vivid descriptions, anecdotes stemming from seven years of wandering around that not-so-remote European region, more or less straightforward interactions with locals and, last but not least, a stunning set of photos as the perfect closure, are the main ingredients of this unusual journey.

Despite its 700-something pages, you will read the book straight through. The topics you will find throughout the piece are all of deep importance, but Tapon's light style meets the challenge to make them pleasant (and hilarious!).

Please, travel vicariously through Francis Tapon's words towards unsung destinations, hostile-looking yet stunning landscapes, harsh weather conditions and their correspondent human attitudes in facing Mother Nature's tests, be amazed at the unexpected hospitality, if not pure candor, of Eastern Europeans towards foreigners, learn about Finland (you didn't know it was in Eastern Europe? Discover why), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova and the other countries and populations that make Eastern Europe such a demanding travel destination.

You will be enriched by this book, you will learn what "Eastern Europe can teach us" and you will be more encouraged and curious to book there your next trip.

To buy The Hidden Europe, click here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Christmas Magic in Paris

Christmas is coming, and where better to spend this merry time of year than in one of the most magical cities in the world? Paris certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to winter festivities; you’ll find the city streets lavishly decorated with Christmas lights and street vendors selling hot chestnuts and winter warming crêpes on every street corner. The whole city comes to life with a Christmas buzz as the 25th of December fast approaches… Be sure to not miss out on any of the Parisian winter magic this year!

Shop till you drop.
I’m sure you’re aware that Paris is a prime shopping destination throughout the year, however to experience ‘la crème de la crème’ of Parisian shopping, the weeks building up to Christmas are without a doubt the most special shopping weeks of all. Everything from high street shops to department stores to small and exclusive boutiques make an exceptional effort and although the sales officially start in January, they will often offer their customers fantastic winter deals – perfect if you’re looking to get good value for your money on Christmas gifts! The fabulous 10 story shopping centre - Galleries Lafayette is particularly impressive at this time of year. You’ll find an enormous Christmas tree in the middle of the building and each of the 63 stores are immaculately decorated.

There are also many Christmas markets where you’ll find handmade arts and crafts, typical French sweet treats such as nougat and Yule log, and much more! They’re the perfect place to pick up a unique French present or two. The biggest market stretches all the way along the Champs-Elysées to Place de la Concorde. There are also two markets which feature a ‘Santa’s Village’ where you have the chance to meet the big guy himself! They’re both located in the 6th arrondissement; Sant-Supice and Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Get your skates on!
There is nothing more magical than wrapping up in your favourite coat, hat, gloves and scarf and going ice-skating in an open-air ice rink. Parisians are no exception – the city offers several ice-skating options. For an unforgettable experience it is actually possible to ice-skate on the Eiffel Tower! If you fancy gliding through the air; this 57 foot high ice-rink holds up to 80 daring ice-skaters at once. For something more down to earth (and a much shorter queue!) the much larger ice-rink outside Hotel de Ville is an equally festive and enjoyable experience.

Time to meet Mickey Mouse…
If you’re in Paris with children or you just want to let your inner-child loose, than a visit to Disneyland Paris is a must! The theme park goes out of its way to fully embrace the Christmas sprit. With special shows and parades, characters and staff in Christmas themed costumes and even a Disney themed Christmas market, there’s no better time to experience the magic of Disney.

Don’t forget to relax
After a hectic day of running around Paris admiring the sights, lights and shops you’ll certainly appreciate a warm and welcoming place to go back to. The best option for those after a relaxing and enjoyable holiday is to rent a Paris apartment. There are plenty of Paris apartments for rent in the city centre and renting an apartment is an easy way to bring convenience, luxury and space during your stay in Paris.

Photo credits - http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalbera/4175210166/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thinking about living in London? Here's my experience

Big Ben, one of the most popular landmarks of the English capital
I've lived in London for two years, and one of my favourite aspects of the city was that it has direct flights to all major destinations in Europe and all over the world. And if this isn't enough, from London I've always found the best deals, both with British Airlines and with other companies.

From London I traveled to wonderful Istanbul, to Abu Dhabi, and finally to Shanghai, where I stayed for a year. I've always used the metro to get to the airport, but who owns a car and plans a short vacation can consider some of the convenient options at Heathrow Airport Parking, so that you can leave it either inside or outside the airport without spending a fortune.

A similar opportunity is also at Manchester Airport Parking, and from Manchester too you can find great flights to the major European destinations.

I have lived in many places, but I've always found London the most convenient stopover, to the extent that now, even if I'm currently based in Italy, when I have to fly outside Europe, I would always consider London before Rome.

Actually, I've lived in Rome much longer than London, and I even know Rome much better than I know London, but for some odd reason that I can't even pin down, I feel more familiar in the airports of the English capital.

I have a controversial relationship with London. In the two years I've lived there I've had great experiences, met interesting people, participated to many demonstrations, felt its underground society, and also worked like crazy.

I took a Master in London, but was my second, so I wasn't exactly the carefree young student like many of my colleagues. I worked and studied at the same time, and at the end of my degree I launched with my freelance activity, meaning that I had to have also a part time job in order to pay bills and rent.

Needless to say, the beginning of my freelance career has been very hard (not that now it's a walk in the park), and being London so expensive didn't make things easier.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the city, walking along the South Bank, where there is always something to see/do/buy/photograph, going to the Globe Theatre to see Romeo and Juliet, visiting picturesque Covent Garden and ethnic Brick Lane, and also clubbing a bit.

London is indeed expensive, but it's also possible to find very good deals quite often. For food I don't remember spending a fortune, neither for my daily grocery nor for eating out. What can affect your budget is certainly the rent, the bills and the transport, especially if you take the train, but other than that you can pretty much afford an enjoyable life.

I spent in London two years and then went back a couple of times, if there is something you feel I omitted and you would like to know, I'll be glad to help!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The UK and my missed chances

I've lived in London for two years, I can say I know the city quite well, went out day and night, explored it, enjoyed events, museums, demonstrations, conferences, seminars and anything the English capital can offer.

So what's bothering me?

I didn't travel throughout the UK as I would have liked. In London I was working, the city was expensive so the little I managed to save was spent in trips outside the country, whenever I could take some time off

First of all, I would have loved to visit Scotland, Edinburgh is possibly my biggest regret. Actually I had already started making some plans of going there, and since I doubt I would have gone around by car, first of all because I'm a big fan of public transport, and also because I'm not really a great driver, I would have organized in a way to leave the car at the Edinburgh airport parking and hang around by bus.

I would love dawdling around the city's castles, exploring its fascinating history, experiencing its lively society, discovering little by little the UNESCO World Heritage Site situated on the very heart of the city such as the medieval Old Town, the Georgian New Town and the famous modern architecture.

I have by all means enjoyed my stay in London, but other than that, I didn't visit much. I went to Swansea and Cardiff, Wales, for a weekend, unfortunately only once and needless to say, it was pouring. Ok, I also went to Oxford, but for a conference, so I didn't get to see the city much, only a small walk at night just to have the time to see it's a lovely town.

Admittedly, in the public mind the UK is not a dream tourist destination, and weather-wise it's kind of understandable, but nevertheless, Scotland has always captivated me. Apart from Edinburgh, another city I would like to visit is Glasgow. Of course here too I would travel by bus so I would leave my car at the Glasgow airport parking.

Although the Scottish capital is Edinburgh, Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and one of the most cosmopolitan in the country. Situated on the River Clyde, it developed from the medieval Bishopric of Glasgow, becoming a major center of the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Even if little of the old medieval Glasgow is still available to visitors, there are many places I would love to see (and take photo of), such as the fascinating Provand's Lordship, commissioned in 1471 by Andrew Muirhead, Bishop of Glasgow, as part of St Nicholas' Hospital, today's oldest remaining house in Glasgow, while the nearby Cathedral is the oldest building.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are some of my biggest regrets of my two years in the UK, but now that I'm back to Europe after a year in China I'm planning some trips around the Old Continent and certainly Scotland will be included.

Photo credits kevgibbo.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Interested in Travel Photography? Read this.

I've been cyber-stalking Bethany Salvon of Beers and Beans for a while now, barraging her with questions about photography, exposure, shutter speed, ISO and all the nice words you need to know (and understand) when you really want to capture that moment.

She has always been very patient, answering my questions and probably wondering why I wouldn't read some photography books. Well, the truth is, I did try to read digital photography books, but I somehow stopped half way.

I'm not saying they were not helpful, far from that, all the books I have are very detailed and explain well techniques and stuff, but I couldn't manage to understand and memorize them. Sometimes too technical, sometimes they just took for granted too many terms, I've always abandoned reading them and just kept on with my slow self-learning methods.

So now that Bethany has released her book on travel photography, aptly named Getting Out Of Auto, I couldn't miss it, could I? I've read it in one go, and I can officially state that I've fully understood the difference between exposure and shutter speed, to the extent that I can explain it with my own words and I know what I'm doing when I shoot night time or from a bridge.

This might seem very elementary, and for professionals it certainly is, but I've always been a little confused regarding the two definitions, since both of them are related to the amount of light that enters the camera.

I've often felt I've been taking photos in a sort of "unconscious" way, after reading this book I feel I know what I'm doing.

Bethany doesn't take anything for granted, she explains the basics in a way anybody can understand and gives simple and helpful examples for every situation. After making sure everybody is confident with concepts such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed and ISO, the book dives headfirst into composition and artistic techniques and, most importantly, teaches how to break the rules, because, as Bethany says, "Rules are made to be broken. BUT... You can't successfully break the rules, until you know what it is you are breaking."

All rules, tips and techniques described are matched with photos in order to help readers understand what's the topic of discussion.

This book has been a revelation for me, I got explained what I was doing wrong and how I can get the effects I never managed to obtain (or if I did, it happened accidentally!). My next step will be getting out and putting Bethany's advices into practice as soon as possible so that I'll be well prepared when she will release (because I'm sure she will) her second book about travel photography for more advanced levels. 

To buy the book, click here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Choosing the Right Cruise for You

This is a guest post by Holly Miller from Coupon Croc, where you can save on all your travel plans with a Travelodge discount code.

Cruises are easily the most popular vacation option for holiday-goers from around the world, and with itineraries that span the globe, your opportunities are limitless. Choosing the right cruise for your needs is important, as you will want to be sure your choice can deliver the holiday experience you’ve been looking for. We all look to get something different out of our holiday, whether it’s an opportunity to relax, be pampered, or be adventurous, cruises can offer a little something for everyone. Here are just a few tips that can help serve as a guideline when you’re looking to choose your cruise vacation.

- Off board activities: although many of us focus on the facilities available on board, we often forget that there are also on shore opportunities to experience as well. Many ships offer multiple opportunities to disembark and discover more attractions, whether it be the local coastal towns, or snorkeling in the ocean. If you are interested in getting off ship during your journey, make sure you look into what options they provide. Some cruises organize water sports, excursions into nearby towns, and other activities. Find a ship that offers the most opportunities you’d be interested in.

- Price options: every traveler will have a different budget to work with, and cruises are known for catering to all finances. You have plenty of accommodation options, which means broad price ranges, and all-inclusive packages as well. You can choose to have all of your meals included, as well as facilities such as the spa, gym, and more. Depending on your cruise package, you can find additional savings by bundling up your expenses. Consider all your options, and what will be the best price for the trip as a whole, not just the upfront cost. There are plenty of ways to have a cruise vacation on a budget, such as by choosing a room in the center of the ship, or choosing a shorter itinerary.

- Family-friendly: if you’re traveling with your family, you’ll want to be sure there will be something for everyone. Young children, teens, and adults can equally enjoy a cruise, as long as you choose one with plenty of activities for everyone. Many ships have a children’s pool, shows and entertainment, and day care facilities to keep them busy. Adults can enjoy adult-only pools, spas, and restaurants. As for teens, there are lounges with arcade games and soda bars for them to socialize and have fun on their own. No matter who you’re traveling with, make sure everyone will have something of interest on board.

- Itinerary: the route your cruise will follow could play a big part in your vacation, depending on your plans. If you plan on staying on board, consecutive days at sea won’t be a problem. If you want to do some on shore discovering, you’ll want a cruise that will hit multiple ports, in diverse and intriguing cities. Mediterranean cruises, for example, offer both island and continental destinations. You can visit the coastal towns of Italy and Spain, the Greek islands, the Spanish islands, and more. Make sure you provide yourself with the opportunity to experience exciting off board activities as well.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Ultimate Guide to Budget Airline Charges (... and how to beat them!)

This is a guest post from money.co.uk.


Budget air travel has made the world a smaller place, bringing previously far-flung destinations within easy reach of Heathrow. The fares are cheaper, but the no-frills airlines are still determined to get their hands on every last penny they can squeeze from your wallet.
The team here at money.co.uk has identified the sneakiest tricks played by the main budget airlines. The flights might look cheap to start with, but here - in order of sneakiness - is how the price can double with the errant click of a mouse.

1. Card fees

EasyJet: charge around £5.25 | $7.10 | €6.20 per person, per flight when you use a debit or credit card to book (they also add a 2.5% credit card loading charge too). If you have a Visa Electron card, however, you won't have to pay this fee.

Ryanair: impose a £5 | $7.10 | €5.60 'administration fee', payable by anybody using a debit or credit card to book online. The charge applies both ways, so it'll add £10 | $16.45 | €11.20 per person to the cost of your flights. They don't charge if you are using a MasterCard pre-paid charge card.

Flybe: charge £4.50 | $7.40 | €5 to pay on plastic unless you're using a Visa Electron card, and it'll be £5 | €5.60 | $8.20per person, per flight if you're using a credit card.

Aer Lingus: charge £5 | $8.20 | €5.60 per person, per flight for using any credit or debit card except Visa Electron.

money.co.uk tip: Get a prepaid card so that you can avoid costly transaction charges. These work like debit cards but aren't linked to your bank account; instead you top them up with the credit you need to make your purchase. Check which type of prepaid card the airline that you plan to travel with lets you use to book fee free & apply for your card online.
Make sure that you choose your prepaid card carefully as many apply costly transaction charges and top up fees. Doing so will mean you save a significant amount by avoiding airline booking fees.

2. Check-in fees

Jet2: will charge £6 | $9.90 | €6.70 for you just to check in at the airport, although this drops to £2 | $3.30 | €2.25 if you do it online.

Ryanair: offers free online check-in on some flights, and charge a small sum on others. If you check in online and forget to bring your printed boarding pass, expect to pay £40 | $65 | €45 per person per way.

money.co.uk tip: Check-in online. Some budget airlines like bmi baby and the Eastern European Whizz Air don't charge at all for online check-in. Just remember to print out the proof!

3. Seat reservation Fees

Jet2: charge a seating fee of £4 | $6.60 | €4.50 per person, and this doesn't even guarantee you seats in the same area as your travel companions.

Flybe: charge a seat reservation fee of £6 | $9.90 | €6.70 per flight or £15 | $24.70 | €16.90 for a more spacious emergency exit seat.

EasyJet: charge around £7.25 | $11.90 | €8.15 for various types of "Speedy Boarding" options to get you onto the plane quicker. We recommend deselecting these options when booking online in order to save money, since it rarely reduces waiting time by more than a few minutes and the plane won't leave any quicker regardless.

money.co.uk tip: Don't bother with these; they're basically a waste of money. Most budget airlines fill their planes up like buses (on a first come, first serve basis for the best seats) so the reserved seats count for very little in reality.

4. Changing the name on your ticket

Easyjet: If the name on your ticket isn't identical to the one on your passport, EasyJet insist you change it for £30 | $49.35 | €33.70 online or £40 | $65 | €45 at the airport.

Jet2: will charge you £27.50 | $45.20 | €30.90 if you miss out your middle name but it appears on your passport.

Ryanair: charge around £125 | $205 | €140 to amend the name on your ticket, so remember to include your full name as it appears on official documents.

money.co.uk tip: Check, check and check again. Just because your friends call you 'Hazza' doesn't mean the person at the check-in desk will.

5. Baggage limits and charges

Flybe: limit you to 10kg for hand luggage, and will charge you £11 | $18.10 | €12.40 for a mere 15kg of hold luggage.

Aer Lingus: you'll pay £12 | $19.70 | €13.50 per item of hold luggage for flights around Europe, this increases to £36 | $59.20 | €40.50 a piece on flights to the USA.

Easyjet: If you try to take more than your allotted amount of luggage (currently 20kg) onto an EasyJet flight, you have to pay £25 | $41.10 | €28.10 at check-in or £40 | $65 | €45 at the boarding gate for them to take it from you and put it in the hold.

money.co.uk tip: For short breaks, consider taking hand luggage only but make sure this meets not only weight but also dimension guidelines (Ryanair are particularly restrictive on the size of hand luggage).

6. Telephone booking premium

Ryanair: charge £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 for over-the-phone bookings.

EasyJet: lets you book by phone for "free", but the call will be charged at an extortionate rate. It is easy to rack up a hefty bill using this method.

money.co.uk tip: Book online. Even if there isn't a specific fee for booking by phone, the cost of the call will be greater than the equivalent internet use.

7. Cost per kilo of overweight bags

Ryanair: will set you back £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 for every kilo your luggage is overweight, and their rules state that 'no pooling of baggage allowance is permitted' so it's not possible to share your unused allowance with others in your party.

EasyJet: will charge you £10 | $16.45 | €11.25 per 1kg your luggage is overweight.

Flybe: charge you £12 | $19.70 | €13.50 for every additional kilo over the meagre 15kg bag limit.

money.co.uk tip: Weigh your bags carefully before you set off for the airport. Put as much in your hand luggage as possible, but remember that liquids over a small amount (usually 50ml) and certain sharp toiletries will need to go in the hold.

8. Sports equipment

Ryanair: will charge £40 | $65 | €45 online or £50 | $82.30 | €56.25 at the airport for any large sports equipment or musical instruments you want to take onto the plane.

EasyJet: will sell you extra weight at a discounted rate for sports equipment and musical instruments. This is £18.50 | $30.40 | €20.80 when you arrange it in advance, or around £30 | $49.34 | €33.70 at the airport itself.

money.co.uk tip: Buy the extra weight online in advance if you absolutely need to take this kind of luggage. Otherwise, consider renting abroad or getting there by other means (train or coach).

9. Final tips and pointers

Jet2: By default Jet2 adds extra hold luggage, a 'sit together' fee of £4 | $6.60 | €4.50 per person included on a booking, insurance for everybody and a premium meal for every leg of the journey. These expensive additions have to be manually deselected during the booking process. Also, be aware when checking out Jet2's prices that they add a 'variable fuel charge' of around £10 | $16.45 | €11.25 per person, depending on the journey.

Ryanair: counts Reus and Girona as 'Barcelona', despite the fact they're both well over an hour away by road. Be sure to factor in airport transfer when calculating the best deals.

money.co.uk tip: Read every part of the terms and conditions, and triple check every amount and detail before pressing the 'ok' button to confirm your booking on the website.

Twelve things to remember when booking cheap flights:
1.
The advertised price will nearly always go up. There's always some sort of unavoidable levy or charge. Some of Ryanair's best prices are genuinely under £5 | $8.20 | €5.60, but most are closer to £20 | $32.90 | €22.50 when everything is taken into account.

2.
Booking and checking-in online saves the airline money and it will also save you money as long as you remember your boarding pass.

3.
If possible, stick to hand luggage. Apart from the savings you'll make, it'll allow you to escape the airport at the other end without delays at the baggage carousel. Remember you won't be able to take sharp items or aerosols - check your airline's website for hand luggage restrictions.

4.
Double check all your details and dates. It is surprisingly easy to get dates muddled (especially if they're in the American mm/dd/yy format) and it'll result in a hefty, opportunist fee to change them. The same goes for names. Include all your middle names and they won't be able to fleece you.

5.
Don't bother buying priority booking or reserving a seat if you're trying to save money. We've found that it doesn't always work and isn't worth the cash, especially if there's a bus transfer to the plane.

6.
Always check the terms and conditions on the airline's website. Their website is the only up-to-date source of information, so don't trust third parties with something as important as your holiday.

7.
Budget airlines normally offer a point-to-point service, which implies no commitment to get you to any onward flights on time. If you end up at a peculiar airport miles from town due to delays, you might be in for a long wait for your next available flight. Ryanair actually discourage people from using their services if they're trying to make a connection.

8.
Remember that cheap flights often end up at remote airports. You might save £30 | $49.35 | €33.70 getting a flight to Reus, but getting over to Barcelona will easily absorb that amount.

9.
Snack before you get on the plane, and drink plenty of water. The average price for a bottle of water on board seems to be around £1.70 | $2.80 | €1.90.

10.
Fly in the early morning or late evening, on a weekday. Aim to travel in the low season and definitely avoid school holidays if you want to get the cheapest deals.

11.
Budget airlines won't wait for late passengers. The gates shut promptly and if you're not on the plane, you may face a lengthy wait for your luggage and you certainly won't get a refund.

12.
Don't ignore the traditional, non-budget carriers. These are less restrictive than the budget airlines, fly to major airports, generally have more comfortable aircraft and might even be as cheap if not cheaper than their budget equivalent.

Photo courtesy of MarinaAvila
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