Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vagabonding – Slowly Traveling the World

“Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life—six weeks, four months, two years—to travel the world on your own terms.” That's what Rolf Potts advocates in his book about travel. He believes Americans are so consumed with achieving the American Dream, so caught up with mortgages and monthly payments and all the things advertisers lead them to believe they need, that they limit travel to “short, frenzied bursts.” Their travel, packaged as vacations, simply become another item to purchase each year and schedule for one or two weeks between May and September. In contrast, Potts would like us to become explorers and discover our world during long, leisurely trips where we see a lot—but experience even more.

Potts's excellent blog contains more travel information than you're likely to find at your local library. Vagablogging also features guest writers who are busily writing about the world they're idly exploring. Don't miss this treasure trove of information.

Two people who were influenced by Potts's philosophy are the Soul Travelers, a couple in their fifties and their daughter. They left Santa Cruz, California, planning to see the world in a leisurely two-year trip. That was four years ago. After exploring 23 countries and homeschooling their daughter, they have a lot of advice to share about everything from the benefits of early retirement to how to eat healthy meals while on the road every day of the year. Be sure to check out their delightful blog for travel tips and for articles about their latest travel adventures.

While the Soul Travelers are old hands at world travel, the folks writing “From Here to Uncertainty” are just beginning. Their blog, updated daily, chronicles the story of Brenna, Bob, and their two children in their fledgling first few months journeying around the world. As the title suggests, they have no idea what the outcome of their trip will be, but they plan to enjoy every second of the journey and remain open to the serendipity that often results from following your dream. I think Rolf Potts would approve!

Practicalities -

Rolf Potts's book, Vagabonding, is a compendium of travel philosophy and how-to-practicalities. It's available at all the usual places.

Monday, November 9, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Don't Believe What You're Told – Rental Car Follow-Up

For the second part of our trip to France, we needed a car to explore the Dordogne area. We arranged the rental with Kemwel, partners with Europcar, paying with a credit card before leaving home, and picked the car up in the Bordeaux Europcar office. The clerk's English at the Bordeaux office was somewhat difficult to understand, but she did make it quite clear that we were not being assessed extra fees right now. If there were additional fees, (such charges as a rail station surcharge, a daily road fee, an extra driver fee) they would be collected when we dropped the car off in Libourne.

When we returned the car to the Europcar office in Libourne, the clerk checked the car for damage, mileage, and gasoline, then told us everything was fine and we were free to go.

I asked about the extra charges that had been noted on the receipt at the Bordeaux office. The Libourne clerk insisted there was nothing to pay. Since David and I wanted to pay any extra charges with euros, rather than be billed a transaction fee by the credit card company, I asked the woman yet again if she were sure there were no additional fees. She insisted there were not.

David and I stopped in a cafe to wait for our train, but, as we sat there drinking our Cokes and going over the rental car experience, I still worried about the charges noted on our receipt. When we picked up the car, the Bordeaux clerk had said that any extra charges would be levied when we dropped off the car, but the Libourne clerk insisted we owed nothing. Were the fees noted in Bordeaux not applicable? Then why did that representative add them in the first place? Why had she kept our voucher from Kemwell which might have clarified what fees should or should not be paid?

The questions continued.  Could we rely on the Libourne clerk's word? What if the charges were mistakenly charged to the credit card? We would need some sort of proof that the Libourne representative had said we didn't owe anything. I decided to run back to the office and get the representative to make a note on our receipt that no extra charges would be billed to us.

Yet, despite David's and my best efforts to pay any additional charges and in spite of the Libourne clerk's reassurances, extra rental car charges appeared on my credit card statement just a few days after we returned home.

I have discussed the situation with Erica at the Kemwel customer service office in the United States, faxed the receipt with the Libourne clerk's notes stating that our credit card would not be charged along with a letter explaining our position, and called Kemwel three times (speaking to Shamus on October 13 and Lenora just last week) before finally finding out from Antonio today that there would be no change in the charges we were assessed.

Antonio suggested I look at the last line of the Kemwel voucher. Although our copy of the original voucher was retained by the clerk in Bordeaux, I had a copy in my computer file. Antonio insisted we should have known that we would be billed fees because of this line at the end of the fine print on the Kemwel voucher: “While you can use a debit card to pay for your reservation through Kemwel, cash deposits, Maestro, Switch and debit cards are rarely accepted locally, so please be sure to check with our agents at time of reservation if you require this facility.” Antonio says we were supposed to realize that the sentence meant we could not pay cash for any local fees we might be charged at the Libourne office.

I guess we were also supposed to realize that the sentence meant the Libourne clerk was mistaken when she insisted three times—and put in writing—that we owed nothing more that day, that nothing would be charged to the credit card, and that we were free to go.

Practicalities -

Do not rely on information given to you by European representatives of car rental companies. Read your documents carefully, especially the fine print, and clarify every detail—in writing if necessary—before you leave home.

Be sure to take two copies of your voucher, and any clarifying information, with you so you will still have a copy if the original is retained by the company representative when you pick up your car.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Drink Water

One of the items that needlessly increases the price of your restaurant bill is the drink you have with your meal. A soda adds $1.50-3, and a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail increases your bill by $4-12. A glass of water costs nothing and is healthier for you and your travel budget.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Lunch Saves on Food Costs

If you cannot prepare your own meals, the second best way to save money while traveling is by making lunch your main meal of the day. In every country in the world, you will find that many of the same offerings that appear on the restaurant's dinner menu are available on the lunch menu for a lot less money. The portions, usually too large at dinner anyway, may be slightly smaller, but you're unlikely to notice the difference. Also, if you eat a late lunch (Many restaurants, especially in the US, serve lunch until 4:30), you will only need a snack in the evening to satisfy you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Trip Back in Time – Los Angeles

Tightwad travel does not always involve major trips to foreign countries. David and I love thirty-hour trips for maximum pleasure at a minimal price. Last week, for $18 each, we first visited an ancient Roman villa, modeled after one dating back to 79 AD, and then went even further back in time to see the animals that roamed the earth during the last of the four Ice Ages at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. Staying over night in Venice Beach, modeled after Venice, Italy, and home to the Beat Generation during the 50s and 60s, provided the perfect nostalgic grace note to our entire back-in-time trip.

Our first stop Wednesday was the J Paul Getty Villa. Getty, while not exactly a tightwad, was indeed a traveler. He earned his first million in the United States by the time he was 24, but amassed most of his fortune, making him one of the richest men in America, by acquiring oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He also traveled to Greece and Rome where he became an avid collector of antiquities.

When his collection exceeded the exhibition space in his home, Getty built a replica of the Villa dei Papiri, the summer home of Julius Caesar's father-in-law in Herculaneum, Italy. Although both Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed in 79 AD by Vesuvius's volcanic eruption, excavations had revealed the design of this gracious mansion. The reproduction, which today stands on a hillside in Malibu, must surely be almost as beautiful as the original.

The approach to the museum simulates an archaeological dig with poured concrete walls that replicate strata of rock. Walking through the extensive herb garden or one of the other decorative gardens, you gradually approach the structure itself with its marble floors, painted ceilings, and decorative walls that were typical of Roman and Greek structures of the time.

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Floor Detail - Getty Villa

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Ceiling Detail - Getty Villa

All of the components of the original villa have been replicated from the Inner Peristyle, a courtyard with a columned porch, to the Outer Peristyle garden with its reflecting pool. And, of course, the small rooms of the first floor and the entire second floor are devoted to showcasing the antiquities that Getty accumulated during his lifetime.

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A Greek Vessel

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A Garden at the Getty Villa

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The Inner Peristyle

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The Outer Peristyle

Our stop the next day was the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits which were made possible by George Page. When he was twelve, Nebraska-born Page was smitten when he tasted his first orange. He decided he had to live where these luscious fruits were grown, so, at sixteen he became a tightwad traveler and eventually worked his way to California. He held a series of menial jobs, ate oranges, and eventually saved a thousand dollars to begin his own business—selling California fruit in a “Mission Pak” to people in colder climates. He later manufactured sports cars and dabbled in real estate until he amassed the fortune which enabled him to build the Page Museum showcasing the La Brea Tar Pits.

The Tar Pits, particularly sticky when warm, entrapped animals that came in search of water. When other animals heard the cries of the immobilized victims that were dying of starvation and dehydration, they attacked and became enmeshed in the sticky goo themselves. Thus, one large mammal might attract an entire food cycle chain with all them dying in the end. This cycle was repeated for over 30,000 years.

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Depiction of Animal Caught in Tar Pit

Because tar is a particularly effective preservative, digs in the tar pits have unearthed the largest and most diverse collection of Ice Age animal bones in the world. From the bones that have been recovered, saber tooth cats, dire wolves, mastodons and some eagle species of birds, all now extinct, were re-constructed and are now exhibited in the museum.

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A Tar Pit Victim

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Current Dig Site - Pit 91

Venice Beach, where David and I spent Wednesday night, does not contain antiquities or prehistoric animals, but it is a slice of Americana. Developed in 1905 by Abbot Kinney, the “Venice of America” project turned swamp land into canals meant to mimic its more famous namesake. Beatniks, poets, artists, and actors have walked its famous boardwalk and called it home for more than fifty years.

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Venice Beach

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The Canals

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The label above the fountain reads, "The World's Smallest Front Yard." This house on the boardwalk has a mirrored front, a narrow "reflecting pool," a strip of grass about 2 x 24 inches, and a fountain.

The flimsy houses which once lined the canals have been replaced by two million dollar extravaganzas, but the town and the boardwalk still retain the funky charm that made this place famous.

David and I returned to San Diego Thursday evening feeling as though we'd been gone thirty days, not thirty hours. After all, we'd taken a tour of ancient Herculaneum, come face to face with extinct animals from the Ice Age, and strolled the quirky streets and boardwalk of Venice. We did an entire trip back in time, and yet we were still home in time for supper!

Practicalities -

Admission to the Getty Villa, open Tuesday through Sunday, is free, but you must get a timed ticket in advance. Parking in the Getty lot costs $15. See this site for more information:

Admission to the Page Museum and Tar Pits, open daily, is $7 for adults. Parking costs $9, but $2 is reimbursed when your ticket is validated by the museum. See this site for more information: