Friday, February 26, 2010

Save Money with City Passes

I love City Passes. Not only can you can save money on some of the most popular attractions, in many cases you also save valuable holiday time by front of line advancement privileges.

Some cities (such as Paris) have more than one city pass option, so it’s a good idea to check out the benefits and decide which program best suits your family.

Decide first what sights you’re interested in and check out how many are on the city pass. This can also assist you in deciding which duration of the pass to choose. You often have a choice of passes which include different museums and attractions.

Some passes have public transportation built in. Before you buy a program, decide how far apart your preferred attractions are and how often you’ll use public transit. How much walking do you want to do? Certain city’s major sights are in fairly close proximity. Paris, Edinburgh and Prague are great examples of this. Do a little advance research and decide whether you’ll use the transit or not, after all, you don’t want to pay for something you’re not going to use.

Surprisingly, my favourite feature of these passes is not the financial savings but the time savings. There is something beautiful about advancing to the front of the line. In Paris, we saved over an hour of line-up time at both Versailles and the Louvre. Too bad the Eiffel Tower wasn’t on the program…but that’s another story.

You can usually buy the passes on location or ahead of time, on-line.

To research whether your destination city has a pass (or choice of passes), just google the city name with the word ‘pass’.

A city pass is not for everyone so take a few minutes to research it. It may just be your ticket to a more enjoyable and economic visit.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spend those Reward Points

I am not alone in my love of airline rewards points. Air Canada’s ‘Aeroplan’ program has over 4 million active members.

Many people save their travel rewards points year after year as they fantasize about an exotic future trip. This isn’t a good idea.

Did you know that in certain circumstances you can lose your points? Each reward program is unique so read the fine print of your specific program carefully.

Some programs, have an expiration date. Aeroplan’s expiry is seven years after the points were earned. With Jet Blue’s ‘True Blue’ program, you lose your point balance if you don’t redeem them within a year of your last flight. There are often ways to extend the period such as joining an affiliated credit card program, which in True Blue’s case keeps your points active up to 12 months after your last credit card activity.

Many programs also have a rule that if your account is inactive for a certain period of time, your points are lost. For example, if there is no activity in your Air Canada ‘Aeroplan’ account for 12 months you lose your points. You can easily keep your account going by simply buying juice or something else from a partner and inputting the purchase. Check out the Choose More program.

Depending on the situation, you can sometimes have the points reinstated. It never hurts to ask.

People worry that they’ll lose their points if the airline goes bankrupt. All airlines include a clause in their program agreements stating that they can change or cancel the reward program on short notice.

Many industries don’t want consumers to lose confidence in these programs because reward points are a huge customer incentive with a relatively small airline liability since upwards of 17% of airline points are never claimed. As a matter of fact, most airlines make a nice bundle by selling points to credit card, hotel, car rental and other companies not to mention the banks. These affiliated businesses use the points as their own customer incentives. If a floundering airline is acquired by another airline, the account points are usually also taken over

The greatest danger of losing points happens if an airline liquidates.

My advice is to make the most of your points and use them as soon as you can, thereby saving yourself the worry of expiration or airline liquidation.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Privately and Save a Bundle

Our family first booked privately owned accommodations when we discovered that my eldest son had serious food allergies. We needed a kitchen.

Privately owned accommodations can be houses, townhouses, condos, apartments and sometimes timeshares.

It didn’t take long to realize that we had just found one of the best ways to save money on accommodations and food. Not only do we pay less than by booking a hotel room, but we usually get more space and save hundreds of dollars by preparing some of our meals. Instead of sharing two beds with the kids in a one room hotel unit, we can get a one bedroom apartment that sleeps four and has a kitchen and family room for the same or less cost as the hotel.

There are many sites where you can find these accommodations. One of the best known is Vacation Rentals By Owners (VRBO), where we found Carolyn Banfalvi’s apartment that we rented in Budapest. We’ve booked accommodations including Hawaii, Florida and across Europe from this site alone

Other fabulous sites are Home Away, Flipkey, Only-Apartments, OMGtravel and Vacation Rentals to name a few. Once you have chosen a destination, just Google search “Vacation Rentals by Owners and the name of your location”. You’ll find many local sites this way.

Thoroughly read the descriptions and when you send an inquiry for your dates, make sure you ask for the TOTAL cost to rent including all taxes and any extra fees. You can often find reviews of your accommodation on line.

Most private accommodation will rent for as little as 3 nights and you can usually negotiate better prices if you rent for more than a week. If it’s a slow time of year or the renter is trying to fill a period of odd days between rental periods, you can also work out lower prices or get cleaning fees or taxes waived.

Check it out. For our family, it is the way to go.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Exploring the Labyrinth and Shopping the Market

It was our last night in Budapest. There was so much more I wanted to see.

The boys were intrigued by the Labyrinth Tour under Buda Castle. From 6-7:30pm, the Labyrinth lights are turned off and self guided tours take place by flame-lit lantern. One guide book stated that it was scary and not recommended for kids under 14. Upon hearing that, the boys were determined to go.

It wasn’t scary, even though the boys jumped out at their Dad and me at every opportunity. It was a little hokey. From time to time there would be vignettes to discover, however there didn’t seem to be a theme to them, just a mishmash of everything from replica cave paintings to a room that highlighted a fountain spouting wine.

Word of warning: although the aroma of wine fills the cavern making it tempting to taste, don’t. Upon closer inspection, the wine looked pretty grotty and behind the fountain, in a darkened area I spotted a sign advising that it wasn’t suitable for human consumption.

The next morning our apartment hosts were kind enough to store our luggage until we caught an overnight train to Krakow.

We walked around the parliament buildings and down Andrassy Utca with its beautiful Opera House and expensive shops. We also checked out the Jewish Quarter.

Lastly we shopped for souvenirs. Budapest has five indoor markets, the largest being Central Market Hall. Opened in 1897, this beautiful building is a must see. There are three levels selling everything from food to souvenirs. I purchased Hungarian Paprika and a winter hat. Other recommended Hungarian souvenirs are caviar, dolls, glasses, table cloths, chess boards and Hungarian style clothing.

We walked back to retrieve our luggage by way of a pedestrian shopping street called Vaci Utca and then it was time to say thank you and goodbye to our wonderful hosts and continue our journey.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Small but Lovely Szentendre

By 9am it was already 28 degrees Celsius in the shade. Wanting to sample some of Hungary outside of Budapest, we took a riverboat to the town of Szentedre. The riverboat picks up passengers on both the Pest and Buda sides of the Danube before heading to the pretty Baroque town.

Travellers in the know were quick to grab seats on the top deck of the boat. With the breezy upper deck filled, we sat at a table in the hot, enclosed lower deck. Despite the heat, the views through the windows were great for watching life along the river.

Locals on the river banks enjoyed their weekend by sun bathing and swimming. Many leisure boats plied the Danube including rowboats, canoes, kayaks and even dragon boats with drummers beating out the pace. Countless numbers of cyclists were visible on park trails and roads. All this activity seemed to explain why, despite the heavier foods, most of the locals were fairly slim.

The river landscape is similar to Ontario. Besides beaches and parks, small houses were scattered along the banks. I wondered if people used them all year, or just in the summer.

The town of Szentendre was beautiful with its gorgeous architecture, cobblestone streets and Serbian structures. The town was packed with day trippers taking in the ambiance. Our family headed straight for the food.

According to Frommers, we were in the best place in Hungary to get Lango; Alom Langos, located in the centre of town is open March-November, Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-6pm. We had to try it. Walking through a narrow, enclosed alleyway, we made our way to the small outdoor shop. Besides tourists, many Hungarians were lined up for lunch, but we didn’t have to wait too long to put in our order.

Langos is dough that is stretched, deep fried then topped with sweet or savoury offerings such as cheese, sausage, ham, sour cream, garlic, sugar, and fruit spreads. They cost between $2.00-$3.50 CAD and they’re similar to Canada’s Beavertails. If in Hungary, you have to try them at least once. My boys loved them.

Szentendre is a wonderful town for walking and exploring; beautiful architecture, old churches, hills, museums, galleries, quaint shops and great people watching. Not to mention, some amazing baked ice cream.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Budapest's Castle District and Beyond

Another hot, sunny, August morning in beautiful Budapest.

After filling our water bottles, we set out to explore the castle district. We made our first decision of the day when we reached the bottom of the hill. Do we take the funicular or walk the path to the castle? A one way trip by funicular cost approximately $5.00 CAD or $7.50 for a return trip. Wanting to work off last night’s meal, I suggested we walk. It took us about five enjoyable minutes to get to the top.

Conveniently located at the end of our climb was an ice cream stand. After one taste, the family was hooked. Hungarian ice cream is delicious, but the scoops are quite small. I find that two to three scoops is the perfect amount. Reasonably priced; each scoop costs approximately 80 Canadian cents.

While contemplating whether my favourite flavour was red current or caramel, I soaked in the fabulous views of both Buda and Pest from the hilltop.

We made our way to the castle which had been rebuilt and renovated so many times that it is now an eclectic mix of styles. The castle is host to three different museums; The Budapest History Museum, The Hungarian National Gallery and a contemporary art museum. We toured the History Museum. While I studied the exhibits, the boys enjoyed exploring the cellars. They also had a good time at an interactive kid’s area where they put together tile pictures.

Looking out of the upper floor windows, I was thrilled to see that the courtyard was set up for a show. A few of the famous Lipizzaner Stallions rehearsed their routines. I knew they were Lipizzaners by their white colour and intricate tricks. Our family had just been in Vienna a few days earlier where I’d been disappointed to discover that the horses were on tour. I bribed the boys with more ice cream and we sat a half hour to watch the horses practice. I purchased a ticket for that evening’s performance. My husband and the boys chose to later spend the evening at the apartment.

We continued to explore the district, toured St Matthias Church and enjoyed more amazing views from the Fisherman’s Bastion. A violinist played soulful gypsy music for coins from passing tourists. Talk about atmosphere.

That’s when nature called. There is a charge for most washrooms near sights in Budapest. While hurrying to the bathroom across from St. Matthias Church, I was confused to see a washroom sign with two prices on it; 100 and 50. I pondered this mystery. Why the two prices? Did it depend on whether you were a man or woman? Maybe it depended on what you did. If so, did someone go in after you to check the outcome? That’s not a job I’d want. What if the person ahead of you didn’t flush? Would you be charged for that as well?

Upon closer inspection of the sign, I noticed that charges were either 100 HUF or 50 Euros. Mystery solved.

After wandering the medieval fashioned streets, we descended the hill and using the Chain Bridge, crossed the quick flowing waters of the Danube River. That’s when I realized that Strauss had lied. It wasn’t the blue Danube, it was more of a muddy brown.

Once on the Pest side we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica. An impressive church but the boys wanted to see the main attraction, St. Stephen’s mummified right hand which is housed in the reliquary. Unfortunately, the reliquary had just closed.

When travelling with the family 24/7, it’s nice to have a bit of time to yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed the graceful performance of the Lipizzaner Stallions at the castle. At 10pm my husband met me at the castle gates. In the darkness, the Danube was no longer muddy but a canvas of glittering light.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mixing with Heroes in Budapest

Would have, could have, should have.

We should have booked a few more days in Budapest. As it stood, we had 3 ½ days, so we jam packed them with sight seeing.

Originally three cities, in 1873, Buda (west bank), Pest (east bank) and Obuda merged to become Budapest. We stayed in Buda which is separated from Pest by the Danube River.

Shortly after we moved into our rented apartment, we took the subway from Buda to Pest. If you visit this city you should know that payment for transit is taken very seriously. There was no shortage of transit staff checking for violators. Fortunately the Scutt family is law abiding and had no issues.

Heading first to the City Park (Varosliget), we enjoyed the greenery and walkways of this once royal hunting ground before grabbing a bite at a snack truck. (Having two boys, we stop often for snacks). To this day, I’m not certain exactly what I ate. It was an unknown substance coated with crumbs and fried to anonymity. After showing the vendor my son’s Hungarian allergy alert cards, the only thing confirmed was that the food in question didn’t contain or come in contact with any nuts or shellfish. Rather unappetizing on its own, large amounts of ketchup greatly improved this dish.

With full bellies we crossed the street to the impressive Heroes Square. The Millennium Monument dominates the square with its fierce statues of the seven tribe leaders that founded Hungry, and numerous other important figures from the country’s history. This monument was started in 1896 for the millennium but not fully completed until 1929.

Across the road lay the Museum of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, it was too late in the afternoon to give this museum a visit. I had heard that it was fabulous and was disappointed to miss it.

A few blocks down was Vajdahunyad Castle, a stunning replica of a Transylvanian style castle. It was built in 1896 for the millennium celebrations where it became so popular that it was later rebuilt with more permanent material. The castle hosts an agricultural museum. On the same grounds is another replica; a medieval church that is more impressive on the outside than inside. I was surprised to find out that Transylvania (in Romania), used to be part of Hungary. Maybe that was why I kept seeing vampire book ads everywhere…or maybe it was just due to the popularity of ‘Twilight’.

After walking around all day in 90 degree weather, it was a perfect time to visit the Szechenyi Baths. See my earlier post.

Refreshed, we returned to the Buda side of the Danube. On our way to a local restaurant we watched a woman in front of a small church, place fresh flowers into a vase held in the hands of a statue of Virgin Mary.

After dark, the temperature dropped to the mid 70’s. Walking back to the apartment, we admired the lights from the Parliament Buildings reflecting in the river. Simply magical!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bathing in Budapest

When planning last summer’s six week Europe trip, we organized the itinerary around Prague, England and the south of France. We hadn’t even thought of going to Budapest until my well travelled sister and brother-in-law recommended it. Because of its close proximity to Prague (three hours away by train), we decided to check it out. I am so glad we did.

The city was beautiful and well priced; similar to prices in Canada and the USA.

As is our habit, we booked a private apartment owned by Carolyn and Gabor Banfalvi. For the cost of a little more than $110.00 CAD per night, we had a spacious one bedroom apartment with a pull out couch in the separate living room, a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom. We even had a washer/dryer and wireless internet. Best of all was the location; a short walk to the Chain Bridge or the Buda Castle area. The landlords were friendly, extremely accommodating and helpful. Carolyn is a food and wine critic with a number of books under her belt. She suggested a few excellent Hungarian restaurants, ultimately introducing me to delicious Hungarian paprikash dishes. Check out "Eat Planet, Discover the World" where Jennifer Bushman will highlight Hungary and my favourite Chicken Paprikash recipe.

There is something for everyone in Budapest; art, history, beautiful architecture, castles and my family’s favourite, the baths.

Public baths are part of Budapest’s culture. Locals and tourists alike go there to recharge and relax. You can even have a massage. Many believe the minerals in the thermal spring waters help aching muscles. I tend to agree.

There are many baths in Budapest to choose from. My family visited the beautiful Szechenyi Bath for the perfect way to end a heavy day of touring.

We dragged our hot, sticky and exhausted bodies into the beautiful building that looked like a palace. My husband and the boys shared a locked change room while I got one all to myself. (There are advantages to being the only female).

A slight smell of sulphur permeated the air as we entered the bath area. We walked through room after room filled with pools of different sizes and temperatures. Exercise classes were conducted in a few of the pools. All ages mixed at the baths. In one of the outdoor pools, a large group of elderly men crowded around floating chess boards.

Many of the pools had strategically placed fountains that massaged my shoulders.

Not wanting to miss anything, our family tried most of the pools. By far my two boy’s favourites were the ones that had built in currents. I felt like a noodle in a stirred pot of chicken soup. You enter the water, lift your feet and let the current carry you around and around.

We dried our bodies in the sun because we couldn't figure out how to say we wanted to rent a towel in Hungarian. You can also bring your own towel with you, but we didn’t want to cart four towels around all day.

More to come in the next post on other favourite Budapest experiences.