Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cheap Sleeps

Blog entry Posting a tad early, as I'll be hiking in the Crimean mountains this week (guess what? The tour costs $100). As I haven't got all my receipts together to write about Ukraine, I thought I would mention some ways to minimize your accommodation costs. The reason I don't include lodging prices in "What I did.." is I do my best to avoid paying for a place to sleep. Many of my trips are visits to friends, which in addition to a couch, means I usually have a free guide. Sometimes this means missing the "important" sights in a particular country, but I always have a good time. If I want to go somewhere I don't know anyone, I use CouchSurfing. Even if I can't get a host, there are good tips in the forums, and members who are willing to meet up for coffee or a drink. Not infrequently, I will sleep in the airport or train station my first or last night. Airports are preferable in this circumstance, but their comfort and safety varies drastically. Many places hide electrical outlets or put armrests between the chairs to discourage lingering in certain areas. You can read airport reviews at The best airport I have slept in is the F terminal of Kyiv Boryspil Airport. The worst-- Geneva Airport. Hostels are good option for those who require beds and hot showers. Again, there is a great range of price and quality-- and these factors aren't exclusive of each other. Ask for a recommendation from a friend with similar travel tastes, or check out photos and reviews at or hostelworld. Don't forget to look at the hostels location with regard to the things you want to see. When you've found a place that suits you, try to contact them directly about rates instead of settling for what you see on a third party site. You might get a better deal for last minute or long-term bookings.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Playful Pause in Poland

Places: Warsaw and Lublin
Dates: April 16-22, 2012
Exchange: 100 USD= 311 PLN
Expense Summary:
  • Transport in Warsaw (1.80x2=3.60)
  • Polski bus ticket to Lublin (21)
  • Transport in Lublin (1.40x5= 7)
  • Sunglasses (42.90)
  • Earrings (11.18)
  • Subway 6” Turkey (9.40)
  • Hot salami and cheese sandwich (7)
  • Ice Cream (4.50)
  • Museum of Religious Art (5)
  • Night Club Entrance (10)
  • Taxi (total 19, 23= 42, my part=14)
  • Groceries, incl. alcohol (173.44)
Total: 309.02
What I did: Compared the “Old Town” in two Polish cities, took some sacrilegious photos at Lublin’s Museum of Religious Art, danced the night away… twice, stocked up on goodies to take back to Ukraine.

I decided to travel through Poland on my way home from France and Switzerland to visit a friend and check out a few more cities in a country that is fast becoming one of my favorites. I landed at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport in the early evening, and caught a bus from the arrivals level to the town center. Something I love about Polish city transport that I really wish Seattle Metro would adopt is that you can buy tickets in convenience stores all over town, and if you have small bills, you can buy tickets on the bus without exact change.

I stayed at Oki Doki hostel, located not far from the Palace of Culture. I appreciated that they e-mailed my very specific directions from the airport when I made my booking, otherwise I might have been wandering around for a while. While thinly staffed at the time, the facility is great and has its own bar, which serves breakfast in the morning. All the dorms have a different theme, and wouldn’t you know it, I was in the Communist Room. Unfortunately, this is where I spent most of my time in Warsaw, as I had caught a cold in France, and I was not up for doing much more than blowing my nose.

In the morning, I powered up on free breakfast (I make this a priority when booking hostels) and went to check out Warsaw’s Old Town. It was not a far walk from the hostel, and I got to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the way. Honestly, Warsaw’s Old Town is a lot like other old towns in this part of the world. It is not worth its own special trip to the city. While I was there, I changed a little money, which was a huge mistake. “Kantor” desks in Old town were buying dollars in the 2.3-2.4 range (did not see a bank there). In Lublin, however, they were all buying for over three.

I did not spend as much time in Warsaw as I would have liked, as Lublin was my true destination this trip. To get to there, I booked with PolskiBus. The trip was quick, comfortable, and the bus even had Wi-Fi connectivity, which was awesome. Less awesome though, was that I drained my cell phone battery using Facebook. This combined with the uselessness of card activated public phones caused me to have some trouble getting a hold of the Ukrainian friend with whom I planned to stay. I took a city bus to the place she had told me, but could not find her building. Eventually, I just asked a girl at the bus stop if she could call my friend and have her meet me.

I still was not feeling well, and neither was my friend (the reason she did not meet me at the bus station), so we mostly did not go anywhere that first day or the next, except to forage for food (49.09) and get a little fresh air. I stayed with her and one of her roommates in their dorm room, as their third roommate was kind enough to sleep elsewhere for the week. They snuck me in and out every day so I could stay without paying. It was all very thrilling and rebellious. The room was much bigger than mine was, back in the day, and overall very comfortable. However, not being a teenager anymore, a few days of late bedtimes, smokers in the halls and bathrooms, plus the constant pulse of music were enough for me.

When we were finally well enough to get out and about, it was an unfortunately gloomy day. So, we did what all (pseudo) teenagers do. We, like, went to the mall. I bought some sunny new sunglasses (42.90) and some H&M earrings (11.18). I also got a chance to do some fine people watching when we stopped at the food court Subway for lunch (9.40). Generally, I advise travelers to avoid familiar American chains in Eastern Europe, as they are significantly more expensive than local alternatives. I got a comparably tasty grilled sandwich a few days later for seven złoty. On the other hand, sometimes it’s just nice to get something you know.

On Friday, we got down to the real sightseeing. It was beautiful weather, and we were on our way to Old Town, when we spotted some walking cupcakes. I was obliged to chase them down and request a photo (“Excuse me, cakes…”). With that out of the way, we picked up some Lody (ice cream, 4.50), and wandered down the winding cobblestone streets to Lublin Castle.
Lublin is one of the biggest cities in eastern Poland (it even sort of got to be the capital for a while at the beginning of the 20th century), so naturally it has a big old castle. We just took some photos, but if you're interested, there is a museum there as well.

For me, the highlight of exploring Old Town was visiting the Museum of Religious Art. It was a bit hard to find, as we only had a vague idea where we were going, but it was well worth the trouble. Laid out over several levels in an old bell tower, this museum has some of the coolest woodcarvings I have seen. There were also paintings and even some old musical instruments. Even if you hate museums, you need to visit this one to see the amazing city views from the top. There was no one else there when we were, so my friend and I sat on the sunny roof for a quite a while just taking in the pastel buildings and busy people below.

After a rest and some dinner back at the dorm, we prepared to go out for the night. I guess on Fridays, if you get to this club Fashion Time before 10pm, entry is free. There is also an open bar until 11pm. Most ridiculous deal I've heard of. We took turns going to the bar and grabbing a fresh drink until we had several glasses a piece. There were two rooms with slightly different sounds, and even though the crowd was pretty young, I had a great time dancing.
Next night, we went to Shine (10). According to my friends, it's the best spot in Lublin, and I believe them. I had never been to a club with such awesome lights before! The music was also great, and the main level had two DJs. We happened to meet a friend of my friends who is also Ukrainian and he got us into the VIP lounge upstairs. He also bought us drinks all night, so way to save money there. The DJ in VIP played a little more retro stuff so I was really digging it. We didn't make it home until 5am.
My last day in Lublin, I went back to the megastore LeClerc near the dorm and picked up a bunch of treats to bring home. For whatever reason (European trade connections, magic?) Poland has acceptable prices for all the good things like peanut butter and maple syrup that are difficult or impossible to find in Ukraine. I spent a whopping 110.19 that afternoon making my food dreams come true. Probably the best item I bought was a bag of taco-flavored corn chips.
I went back to Ukraine that night on a minibus straight to Zhytomyr, which was a little cramped, but mighty convenient. The border crossing was mercifully uneventful, and as soon as we'd gone 400 meters or so into Ukraine, we made a midnight money-changing stop. It felt good to be going home.
Things to consider:
  • Exchange rates vary wildly, and banks are usually your best bet. Looking at the difference between the buying and selling price of a currency gives an idea of how much the service is pocketing.
  • I spent over a third of my budget on treats to bring home to Ukraine. That money definately could have been spent at restaraunts, on activities, or on visiting another city. On the other hand, if you are planning to go to Ukraine after Poland... bring treats.
  • The Lublin Jazz Festival was going on while I was there. If you'll be in Poland in April, consider checking it out.
  • Ukrainian friends are the best kind to have. They let you stay with them, they cook for you, and they buy you drinks.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Savvy Spending in Switzerland

Place: Geneva
Dates: April 6-8, 2012
Exchange: 100 USD= 88.6 CHF
Expense Summary:
  • Transport to Geneva Center (3.40)
  • One day hostel membership (6)
  • Soda from machine (2.50)
  • Groceries (17.50)
  • Hostel locker fee (2)
  • H&M handbag (29.90)
  • Grande Starbucks Caramel Macchiato (7.60)
  • St. Peter’s Museum (4)
  • Airport locker (7)
  • Airport pastry (2)
Total: 81.90

What I did: relaxed by Lake Geneva, took a self-guided tour of Old Town, investigated the ancient foundations of a city landmark, gate crashed an Easter Saturday Service.

The first day, I arrived mid-day at Geneva Airport and took the RER train to the city center. I had a little trouble figuring out the train and ticket situation at the automated kiosk (I blame massive sleep deprivation), but there was a nice railway representative who came to help at the first sign of confused hesitation. For your information, every train leaving the airport on tracks one to four goes to the center. You need to buy a “city ticket,” which is good for an hour and goes anywhere in “zone 10,” which covers almost all of Geneva proper. If you need to get to the suburbs for any reason, it will cost a little extra. Transportation was not an issue the rest of the trip, as the tourism bureau provides hotels and hostels with free fare cards for their guests, which are valid until the end of their stay.

After a few false starts trying to find my way out of the train station, I headed to the Geneva Youth Hostel, a member of Hostelling International. These hostels are for “members only,” but you can buy a one-day membership, which I did for six francs. The Geneva Youth Hostel was a great place to stay, located very near Lake Geneva in a quiet, ethnic part of town. I was able to walk everywhere I wanted to go without trouble, but the hostel is also located quite close to the tramlines. It is very clean and the mattress was a fabulously comfortable memory-foam or similar. The shower pressure is amazing, but it took some time to get warm and was one of those annoying contraptions where you have to press the button every 30 seconds or so to keep the water going. The price of your stay includes a card-activated locker and breakfast.

After I had settled in a bit, I went for a walk down to the lake and relaxed a while on a bench with a soda (2 CHF). As Geneva is very much an international city, people-watching was second to none. I walked as far as the Pont du Mont Blanc and wandered my way back to the hostel through the “Pâquis” neighborhood, stopping at a cool Eastern Grocery on the way to pick up some dinner and snacks (17.50 CHF). The cashier was super cute and I wish my French had not been so rusty so I could have flirted a little. For the shoestring traveler, I think it is better to buy groceries rather than eat out, as products are cheaper and healthier, plus you can get an impression of local tastes and everyday life. Ok, so maybe that last bit doesn’t pertain to Switzerland so much, but watch out for future posts about Eastern Europe.

On day two, I ate my fill of cereal and tartine (toast with toppings, essentially) at the free continental breakfast bar, and used the hostels free Wi-Fi to plan my day. The Geneva Tourism Bureau has a free iPhone app you can download with maps, a tour, plus restaurant and entertainment recommendations—all available offline. If you connect to a wireless network, you can use GPS to help you follow the tour and find things to do around you.

I walked downtown along the lake and got to watch swans build their nests. I had decided to try the tour of Old Town included on the app, as I didn’t see any other free tour options. However, as soon as I started off, it began to rain and I had to backtrack to get my umbrella from the day-use locker I had rented at the hostel (2 CHF). To both my delight and dismay, I spotted an H&M on the way. I went in “just to see,” but ended up falling in love with everything. I could leave without buying the best little handbag for spring and summer (29.90 CHF). I had planned to use the cash for a nice meal, but I do not regret my decision. Everyone needs a souvenir, right?

When I managed to extract myself, I got my umbrella, changed into boots… and decided to have a little break. I had seen a Starbucks near the quay, so I made a sandwich, ate it on the way, and settled down for a little taste of home. The appallingly high price of a Grande Caramel Macchiato (7.60 CHF) did not occur to me until later in the day.

Finally, I got around to doing the tour. The nice thing was I could stop and start again whenever I wanted. The disappointing thing was almost everything else about the tour. It was hard to stay on course as not all streets are marked and some construction has taken place since the last time it was updated. Also, there is absolutely no commentary about the sights included on the tour, although you can navigate back to the “Discover Geneva” part of the app to read about a few, and some places have their own info placards. I did see plenty of cool spots though, and decided to take a long stop to visit the archaeological museum at the Church of Saint Peter.

Museums are not generally my favorite places to visit, but this one is pretty cool as it shows how the area around Saint Peter’s has changed after two millennia of habitation. The church itself has existed in various stages since the fourth century, and you can see the old baptismal founts, crypt, and the exquisite floor of the bishop’s receiving room circa 1300. Included in the admission price is an audio guide, which could easily result in information inundation, but it is worth it to learn more about the parts that interest you or don’t have accompanying placards. I made a complete tour of the museum in one and a half hours, but there is plenty to interest for a longer visit, and it is small enough for a shorter trip, too.

After the tour, I took my things from the hostel and stashed them at the airport. Then I backtracked to Old Town for an Easter Saturday service at Eglise St. Germain. It was great to get a taste of local culture and some free food. I even got an Easter egg.

I spent my second night at the Geneva Airport, which I absolutely do not recommend. There were few (uncomfortable) seats, outlets were hard to find (not located near seats), and I witnessed police roughing up a possibly homeless guy. Sleeping in airports isn't always miserable, though, and can be a decent way to save on acommodation. More on this later.

All in all, I really enjoyed Geneva and will definately return. It's a beautiful, historical and multicultural city with something for every kind of traveller. Take away points to consider:

  • You only need to purchase a one-way "city ticket" to get from the airport to the city center.
  • Download the Geneva City Application on your smartphone.
  • Don't buy Starbucks here unless you really like overpaying for coffee.
  • If you go into an H&M, you risk not be able to get out without buying something.
Come back next week to find out what $100 buys in Poland!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Something old => Something New

This blog is undergoing a change. Every Tuesday morning (PST), I'm going to post for you some of my shoestring travel experiences and useful tips. In the interest of not starting "yet another" blog that I fail to update, I'm just going to modify this one. Sooooo, stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mon Banc

This is my favorite place in Paris. This is where I go when I am able to get up early enough to walk the half mile between the FIAP and Parc Montsouris. I sit on that green bench in front of the puppet theater, and I write to you.

Monday, June 30, 2008

La Vie est Belle

Sorry to have neglected updating for a week and for leaving off on such a sour note. Really, I have been enjoying Paris very much, which is why I’ve had so little time to run down to the local park that has free wifi.

In the time that this blog has been idle, I have:

    Watched four football matches
    Visited the Louvre
    Eaten six or seven ice creams
    Toured the city by bicycle
    Visited three Chateux
    Toured Chartres Cathedral
    Cut my hair
    Purchased zero souvenirs
    Walked ???? kilometers

I have also discovered that my innate charm appeals to a wide range of Parisians, as last night, I was catcalled by an eight-year-old while having an after dinner walk with my friend.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Je Suis Pleine

No, not really.

It’s a common mistake for students of French to use the auxiliary verb être (to be) instead of avoir (to have), when translating phrases like “I’m finished” and “I’m full.” This has humorous consequences.

If you were to say “Je suis fini” to a waiter, you would have just told him/her that you are (metaphorically) dead. If your waiter is a true Parisian, they will laugh at you in the face before taking your plate away.

Just to be clear, this has not happened to me. I say as little as possible to waiters here, as they are frequently (with many exceptions, of course) THE absolute rudest people possible. I’m not sure if this is a cause or a condition of the fact that tipping is not compulsory in France.

Now, what if you’re at your new French boyfriend’s house for dinner and his mother is a terrible cook? You want to be polite, so you take a few bites, smile widely, and coo “Je suis pleine.” Hopefully, his Catholic grandma is not there too, because you just told the whole room that you are pregnant.

I say all this to get to my nearly unrelated point that approximately one out of every four twenty-something, Parisian women I see is pregnant. By the size of their bellies, I’d say it was either a very cold November, or an extra festive Christmas.

This gave me an idea.

In my constant quest not to be propositioned, I have been wearing a ring on my left hand and scowling enough to make my face stick. This does not work. The predator has a keen eye, and zero inhibitions.

So, I decided to start acting pregnant—patting my belly a lot, wearing the front of my pants low, and always keeping some air in my lungs. You’d think that if it wasn’t an indication of couple-hood, pregnancy would at least decrease desirability.

I realized when I was pulled over by two male ambulance drivers this afternoon that this does not work any better. The only (very irritating) solution is to keep one of my male trip companions around whenever I leave the hostel. A single girl (or even group of girls) will always be viewed as a potential pick-up.