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Traveler vs. taxi driver

Yesterday as Drew and I were chatting with other frequent travelers in the lounge here at the IC Kiev, the conversation led to an age old challenge: the traveler versus the taxi driver.  Every traveller has experienced this “face off.”  It comes up in conversations with backpackers and luxury travelers alike.

We all agree that it sucks to be ripped off.  But what can we do to avoid it?

Drew and I don’t have a very good track record for being proactive in avoiding some of these setbacks.  One of the stories that came up in the conversation last night recounts one of the most ignorant moments in Drew and my travel history together.

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Two years ago we stepped off a bus in Jingzhou, China, a small city for China yet boasting a population of over a million.  Like the travel newbs I can now admit we were, we had written down the address of our friend’s teaching location in English using Romanic characters that we quickly discovered no taxi driver could decipher.  As a city that brings in no international tourism, there were no English signs anywhere and we walked aimlessly for literally hours before finding someone who understood enough English to point out the direction she thought maybe Yangzi University might be.

The first taxi driver we put our trust in was obviously just guessing, dropping us off in the middle of a different set of equally undecipherable signs.  Just as we were starting to voice our feelings of hopelessness at this new, unhelpful location, Drew realized his wallet wasn’t in his pocket.  He dashed across the street, dodging traffic until he caught the taxi we’d just exited.  Lucky for us it had not disappeared in the sea of motorcycles and cars, but had turned around to head back to where it had come from.  He yanked the door open, grabbed his untouched wallet and dashed right back across the street where he had left me.  If you can count retrieving the wallet you just abandoned as a success, then it was our first for the day and would be our last for hours to come.

We had entered mainland China with an address no one could read.  Clearly we had no idea how to even successfully get a taxi ride let alone get it for a fair price.

Where can you find fair taxi fares?

We haven’t gotten much more proactive since then, but every now and then we do think to do a little research about fair taxi prices before flying somewhere.  If we want to know the fair taxi price from the airport to a specific hotel for instance, this information is sometimes provided on the forum Flyer Talk on a hotel’s thread.

Another cite I just discovered that gives you estimates for taxi fares is TaxiFareFinder.com.  This website doesn’t cover everywhere by a long shot, but may be helpful for major cities and seems to be fairly accurate.

Aside from that site, most others I found were specific to an individual country.  For instance Yourtaximeter.com is just for the UK, though also offers an app and made me wonder if there are more apps for this than there are websites…

TripAdvisor is another place to snoop around.  If you put a city’s name in the search bar, a drop down of that city will appear on the navigation bar.  That will offer you a number of options, many of which include transportation information.  No guarantee you’ll find taxi prices, but sometimes.

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Or…Just Walk

But honestly, one of our big money savers as we travel is simply our willingness to walk.  It may not look like it based on our travel stats but we actually don’t utilize taxis all that often.  In Bucharest we did because taxis there are surprisingly cheap.  So often instead of googling the fair taxi price though, we’ll pull up google maps to see if the distance is walkable, or if there’s a bus that can take us downtown.

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And we’re pretty liberal about what constitutes a “walkable” distance.  After all, it’s a great way to see a place.  Why get a taxi from the North of Bali to the East if you can just walk?  Ok…that was a little extreme and turned more into hitch-hiking by the end but not before we’d already put 8 hours into the 50 odd miles.

A disclaimer about safety

If you’re worried walking from A to B is going to be unsafe, ask a local at your hotel what they think.  Personally Drew and I don’t worry too much about that and we’ve been fine, but I’m not going to be the person to convince you to do the thing that gets you in trouble.  We’ve been fine, but maybe we don’t know how lucky we are.  Who’s to say.

And of course, don’t get in an unmarked taxi.  For one, there’s no meter (which is always going to be your best bet at a fair price: demanding the taxi driver use the meter).  But the more obvious reason is it’s no different than getting in a stranger’s car and we’re all told from childhood not to do that.

 

 

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Kiev in all its gritty prettiness: thoughts and photos bookending 15 years of experiencing Kiev

I hold Kiev in a very special place in my heart for so many reasons.  Firstly, when I was 5 years old my family invited a Russian/Ukrainian friend to live in our pseudo basement apartment while he looked for work.  He spent a year living with us and became a close family friend.  Then, when I was 12 or so we made a trip to Ukraine to visit his extended family members.  That was my first time overseas and it will never ever ever be topped in terms of wide-eyed wonderment.  I was too young to have many preconceived notions about any place so it was pure discovery.

This visit is very different from my visit 15 years ago.  I’m not sleeping on a pull-out mattress in our friend’s tiny apartment, brushing my teeth with soda-water and spacing out my showers to conserve the hot water use.  I’m in a 5 star InterContinental hotel eating my meals in the lounge.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the gritty quirks of a still fairly suppressed country.  Even the finest spots in town have a distinct Ukrainian tilt.  For instance every few days there is a flutter in electricity just for a few minutes.  Lights go out. Lights flicker back on.  Off. On, and then everything’s fine again.

But that’s just how it is.  This hotel is absolutely superb and yet can’t be expected to erase all signs of the status of the local economy.  It’s not a first world country just yet outside of the doors of the IC (though locals have high hopes for their upcoming consideration for inclusion in the EU) and so I am not going to expect it to magically be one inside these doors, though the IC does an excellent job providing an absolutely exquisite environment. Kiev has a grittiness that can’t be fully hidden by any amount of prettiness.  It’s just fact and the more real a place feels, to be honest, the better I like it.

The IC Kiev

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IC Kiev lobby, room and lounge

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The best photo I could take of St. Michael’s Cathedral as a 12 year old with a Walmart film camera. (1999)

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St. Michael’s Cathedral from this past week (15 years later) with my Nikon D40. (2013)

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A tired dog amidst tired feet on the popular arts/crafters street in Kiev, photographed 15 years ago (1999)

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Accidentally crashing a wedding in St. Andrew’s church in Kiev (2013)

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Downtown Kiev on a week night… (2013)

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Speaking with our host’s high school students in Kahovka in 1999.  One of the students put on cultural dress and showed us a traditional dance.  

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EVEN MORE thoughts

In part because of its significance I imagine, my older sister has added a reason for this place to be important to my family by beginning the adoption process to adopt a child from a Ukrainian orphanage.  I could not be more excited for my sister and her husband, though we’re all well aware of the many challenges that can come along with adopting a child (not an infant) who will always have memories of life in an orphanage.  A bleak place to call home, despite how hard I imagine the orphanages must try to provide what they can.

It blows my mind to imagine that the child who will be my niece or nephew in a little over a year is living in an orphanage somewhere, perhaps in this very town.  I wish I could look into the future and know who that child was so that I could go give them an enormous hug.  Or bring them to the IC lounge!  Treat them to a hot shower, a comfortable bed and one of IC Kiev’s delicious desserts in the lounge.

I can’t even begin to process the reality that while I’m in a five star hotel that child is likely sharing a room with a dozen other children in who knows what kind of conditions…

That seems to be a side effect of travel- that it will make you confront things that aren’t always comfortable to think about.

I’d love for people to share some of the (even uncomfortable) things travel has taught you or made you think about.

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September Costs: Totals for the month of September

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How did we do in September?

Each month I write a report of sorts, to show a bit of the bigger picture.  For a more detailed list of each spend, go to the stats page or click here.

Here are some totals for the month of September spanning 5 countries: Germany again, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary again, and Ukraine.

Most of our September time was spent hopping between Germany and Austria.

Category
Cash
Points
September Total$1,930.54
Tourist Attraction Total--
Food & Beverage Total$575.95
Land Transit Total$204.42
Air Transit Total$194.629,000 BA Avios
Accommodation total$532.6760,000 IHG
152,000 Club Carlson

 

Photo of the month… Streets of Salzburg

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Kochel See on a makeshift catamaran

 

I wish I had a picture of the vessel we used for our river/lake excursion today but, alas, I value my Nikon enough not to take it on rugged adventures.  By now I’ve come to realize that an outing arranged by our host Jake is going to be a crazy rugged one.  Thus…may likely yield no photos.

A drawing is the best I can do.

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Picture this:  Two kayaks attached at their ends with securely fastened 2×4’s, their cockpits sealed off with fitted canvas/tarp.  Then, a diaper (yes…a diaper) wrapped around a metal piece (that once served a similar make-shifty purpose) to prevent the metal piece from causing a puncture.  Atop all of this, picture an inflatable raft, tied into place.  Lastly picture three people sitting on top of the mess of structure.  That was our catamaran.

Let me tell you, if you ever stumble upon the chance to take a raft atop two kayaks down the Loisach river…(though I doubt you will…), do it.  Our makeshift catamaran was the slickest, suavest little vessel out that day, bouncing over rough waters like a boss.  Or perhaps its excellence was magnified by its irony the way it would be for the shortest kid in the class to dunk a basketball.  The expectation of complete failure makes even a fluke success seem applaud-worthy.

The river portion of the excursion was short in hindsight as we soon were  spit out into the Kochel Lake.  Huge and placid like a great big mirror to the sky.  Mountains crowded right up to the lake’s edge where they seemed to peer into the reflective waters.  Here, our catamaran had much less…expediency.  Periodically we stopped our rowing to let our goofy boat spin along the glassy surface as the gulls played about the gray sky above.

These are the adventures I love.  Travel is sometimes about seeing famous sites, or snapping photos of incredibly famous things.  But I like it best when it is about doing the things you couldn’t have imagined before.

Like floating down a river in a homemade boat.

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InterContinental Berchtesgaden- Rain or Shine?

Drew and I have been wanting to go to the InterContinental Berchtesgaden for a little while now.  It was a bucket-list kind of hotel and InterContinental’s only mountain resort (until Davos opens up this winter).  When Drew tried to book it for the dates we wanted though…sold out.  No room at the InterContinental Berchtesgaden…until the following week.  We’re flexible folks.  We’re used to basing our travel plans around this or that availability but the problem was the week that showed availability was also a week that was calling for rain- 100% chance of rain on most of the days we’d be there.

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Well we booked it anyway and discovered that a rainy Berchtesgaden is still a wonderful Berchtesgaden, for at least one night.  We had envisioned our IC Berchtesgaden visit as a multi-night vacation in which we cold explore the many hiking trails in the area and even hike all the way up to the Eagle’s Nest.  When we finally admitted to ourselves that the weather offered nothing but rain, we changed our plans (as we seem to constantly do) and opted for a one night sample of the InterContinental Berchtesgaden with as much hiking as we could cram in before the rains came.

Over all, a success though it wouldn’t have been worth 35,000 points a night in rainy weather, even with an awesome room complete with a fireplace and mountain view.  35,000 points can translate to 7 nights on PointBreaks…so…it just felt like an expensive way to stay warm from the rain.  Glad we caught one night though and this one night was enough to seal the IC Berchtesgaden as my all-time favorite InterContinental.

So we checked out of the IC Berchtesgaden a day after checking in and hitch-hiked to Innsbruck, crossing our fingers that no one from the IC staff would drive by us and see our thumbs out.

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The things to love about the IC Berchtesgaden, despite the rain?

-The staff.  Can’t say this enough the staff is absolutely incredible.

-The view.  Yes even with clouds sweeping over the peaks, it’s still a great view.  Not that it’s much to look at, but we could see the Eagle’s Nest from our window.

-A nice mix of remote and accessible.  The hotel is located up on a hill above town, right where you want to be if you’re interested in hiking and that “away from it all” feeling.  But it’s also east to get to town as the IC gives each guest a little white card that serves as a free bus pas essentially for the bus to downtown Berchtesgaden.  No, there’s not a whole lot in the little town, but if you want to save a few Euros by eating off of the IC grounds, it’s a nice way to get to town.  Don’t get your hopes too high though: the food in town is only slightly cheaper.

-Style.  The property has a beautiful style inside and out.  It’s a fairly new hotel (about 8 or 9 years?) and has a classy style that melds a modern feel with a cozy-lodge feel.  A fireplace in a seating area on the lobby floor and a library make it feel like home….a very classy home…

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augusttotals

August Costs: Totals for the month of August

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Time to assess the damage!

Each month I write a report of sorts, to show a bit of the bigger picture.  For a more detailed list of each spend, go to the stats page or click here.

Here are some totals for the month of August spanning 4 countries: Greece, Romania, Hungary, and Germany.

Category
Cash
Points
August Total2,092.90
Tourist Attraction Total--
Food & Beverage Total$559.86
Land Transit Total$649.44
Air Transit Total$581.159,000 BA Avios
60,000 AA
Accommodation total$138.8955,000 IHG
24,000 Club Carlson

 

Photo of the month…

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Cutting Costs with Car-pooling Sites

Domestic transit is expensive. In fact, it’s one of the highest contributors to our expenses.  We can fly half way across the world for peanuts so I’m hard-pressed to spend 180 Euros on a train ticket from Berlin to Hamburg.  I’m much more comfortable with 15 Euros per person.

Turns out there are plenty of resources for carpooling here in Europe.  Apparently many of these websites used to be totally free and now do come with some costs.  The site we chose for our Berlin to Hamburg trip yesterday morning, blablacar.com, doesn’t have a fee for creating a profile or any such thing, but does allow people to list their price so to speak.  Most people doing the Berlin to Hamburg drive were asking for 14 or 15 Euros a person.

 

Here are the sites we’ve used for car-pooling so far:

(I was going to include a list of others I haven’t tried yet, but there are SO many.  I imagine a quick google search will do the trick but I’ll also update the above list whenever we try one out.)

 

Pretty simple though there are loops to get around (as seems true with everything).  The tricky part about blablacar.com (and many of them) is that you receive your registration pin for using the website via text.  Maybe this isn’t a big issue for people who plan ahead or for people who have phones that function internationally, but we use a texting app and apparently the site did not recognize our text-app’s phone number as a viable number.  The only reason this was a complication is because we were working at it fairly last-minute.  The night before we needed to make our trip, we Skyped Drew’s family, offered their phone number as the account number, and had them relay the pin number to us once they received the text.

I’ve heard that some sites like this require you have a phone number from that country to register, thus eliminating the carpooling site as an option for tourists.  Luckily blablacar.com didn’t do that.

Our driver offered lots of good conversation, telling us more about the history of Germany and particularly the division between the Federal Republic of Germany (the capitalist West) and the German Democratic Republic (the Stalinist, Soviet satellite state).  Once we got to Hamburg, he also gave us a quick, mini-tour before taking us to our hotel, explaining that the Alster Lake Festival was going on and showing us exactly where the festivities were happening.

I think that anything providing an opportunity to chat with a local about their town is a wonderful idea, as is saving more than 100 Euro on a trip.

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How to Stretch Your Club Carlson Points

Thanks to a “bonus night on rewards stays” perk offered by the Club Carlson Visa, card holders can make great use of Club Carlson points with little to no work what-so-ever.  We use this ridiculously easy trick all the time. In this post I’ll walk you through how we got two nights for 15,000 points total at a hotel going for around 65 Euro’s a night.

The Currency: 15,000 Club Carlson Points

How it’s earned: Paid stays, promotions, and Club Carlson sign-up and spend bonuses

Tools: Club Carlson Visa Card

What you’ll learn: How to book your free bonus award night and examples of how we’ve used this perk to stretch out our points.

The free bonus night on reward stays

The Club Carson Visa Card comes with (in my opinion) the normal collection of hotel-card perks.  A first spend bonus of 50,000 points and another spend bonus of 35,000 points if you spend $2,500 bucks in the first 90 days. That’s all well and good, yes, but the feature we find really useful is the “free bonus night on reward stays of up to two nights or more.”  It’s as simple as that really.  For every stay of 2 nights or more, the last night’s charge magically disappears.

How it works

How it works is very simple.  When you go to Club Carlson to make a booking, make sure you’re signed in and Club Carlson will do the work for you.  The first check out screen will not show the discount but will instead show a notice that as a card member, you will receive the last night free.

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Then, your final check-out screen will show the accurate price, this time with the last night’s charge taken off.

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It’s always nice when it just works without any hassle. 🙂

Taking full advantage of this

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Everyone’s got a different strategy I suppose but we try to make the most of our points by booking mostly 2 night stays at Category 1 locations or Category 2 locations.  We think of it this way.  A category 1 Park Plaza might go for 9,000 points or around $110.  That’s about 1.2 cents per point.  A category 6 Radisson Blu however could go for $410.  That’s just 0.8 cents per point.

The reality is that two nights for the price of one is a good deal no matter what category, but for long-term travelers like us, 2 nights for 9,000 points is a convenient way to make our points last.

 

How we’ve used this perk

The Park Plaza Prenzlauer Berg Berlin: 2 nights for 15,000 points (Category 2)

One thing that will sometimes sway me toward the higher category hotels are their fantastic central locations.  But I have to say that our category 2, 2 night stay at the Park Plaza Prenzlauer Berg Berlin was right by the metro and thus, didn’t really feel inconvenient.  The extra points spent to score two nights at the Radisson blu would have gotten us a bit more proximity, lots more luxury, and an aquarium elevator.

Don’t pay extra for what you didn’t realize you wanted in the first place.

Alas, no free breakfast with this stay since we’ve only got Gold status with Club Carlson, though it did get us a nice little fruit tray. 🙂

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The Radisson Blu Budapest: 2 nights for 9,000 points (Category 1)

This hotel is not centrally located compared to the InterContinental Budapest, but is really only a short walk from the river in a city that’s beautiful everywhere, so definitely worth saving points staying here.

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The Radisson Blu Salzburg: 6 nights (not entirely consecutive) for 84,000 points (Category 3)

We spent 6 nights at the Radisson Blu Salzburg total, but these were not entirely consecutive stays, though all within the same week.  One way you can do this is to simply stick a night in between your 2 reservations of 2 nights each.  So instead of staying four nights and only getting that fourth night discounted, your spending two nights (and getting the last night free), taking a one night hiatus, then two nights again (getting the last night free again).  For example spend two nights at the Radisson Blu for 28,000 points, then hop over to the Crowne Plaza for a night, then right back to the Radisson Blu for 28,000 points.

If you and your spouse or travel partner both happen to have the Club Carlson card this is even easier.  Just spend 2 nights reserved under one person’s account, and the next 2 nights reserved under the other person’s account.

We had lounge access here for 4 of the 6 nights which became our meal plan for that half of our Salzburg time.  I’ve never had so much Kombucha in my life…

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The Park Inn Bratislava: 2 nights for 9,000 points (Category 1)

The Park Inn Bratislava is one example that there can be Category 1 hotels in great, central locations.  The Park Inn is right on the river and is basically where the old city begins.  We had a view of the castle from our window and were walking distance from everything.  I’ll admit though…that the main tourist zone of Bratislava is so small that being “in walking distance from everything” is just not that hard to achieve.

 

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20 Euros for 6 nights- Mistake Fare in Berlin

Mistake Fare Details

I love having the flexibility to actually take advantage of mistake fares.

A few months ago we caught wind of a mistake fare at the Leonardo hotels.  The news told of a hotel going for just 20 points per night instead of 20,000.  Signing up for Leonardo’s loyalty program set us up with 250 points each- plenty of points when each night is going for just 20 points.

We played around with this but could only find the mistake fare for Leonardo hotels in Germany.  Hence the appreciation for a flexible schedule.  🙂 Then and there we decided to go to Germany and booked more than 20 nights in Leonardos all over Germany- Berlin, Hamburg, Baden Baden, and Hannover.  Most of these reservations are for rooms that come with breakfast, which is great.

Granted, we may cancel some of those nights if we feel like moving on, but it’s nice to know we’ve got that cheap stay option to lean on if we need to.

Basically we booked in week-long increments and the taxes come out to 20 Euros regardless of how many nights we spend at each.

The Leonardo Hotel Berlin City West

The Leonardo Hotel Berlin City West was our first Leonardo stay.  This hotel advertises itself as a four-star hotel and is…not at all.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly sufficient hotel; very clean and the staff is friendly.  But there should not be stars involved when explaining this hotel.  It’s nice.  But the decor looks like every other ordinary hotel and the elevator is shared with the kitchen staff so that if you’re lucky (or unlucky?) you can pit-stop at the kitchen for a behind the scenes view before landing at the ground-floor level.

But that’s not the point here.  The point is that we got six nights and 6 breakfasts out of this mistake fare for just 20 Euro.

When you’re traveling non-stop, things like free breakfast and a week with basically no accommodation expenses are important; more important than stars.

 

 

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Taking advantage of Best Rate Guarantees

This trip we have really been taking advantage of Best Rate Guarantee’s which I’ve already talked a bit about.  However, if you’re not familiar with what this is, it’s basically a promise a hotel company has to offer you the best rate for a room on their very own website.  If you find a lower rate on a different site like Kayak or Expedia, they will essentially reward you for your find.  This helps them keep their rates up to date on all sites and helps you get a deal on a room!

Though I’ve mentioned it before, here is a recap of how a BRG works, then I’ll take you through some of our successes.

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