15. June 2011 · 2 comments · Categories: books

Just over a year ago, I was in Canada, about to fly on to the UK. I was browsing Lonely Planet’s website, looking to buy one of their electronic books in PDF form, for England and Scotland. I found one, at what seemed like a reasonable price, in Canadian dollars – however, the moment I entered my Australian credit card number, the price jumped by more than 50%.

I couldn’t believe it. An electronic book has no delivery costs, and yet they were operating a multi-tiered pricing scheme for them, based on the country from which your credit card is issued.

I was interested to see if this pricing scheme is still in operation – and, yes, it is.

When I go to the Lonely Planet website and look at their Germany Travel Guide book, from here in Australia, the price for their “buy all chapters” PDF edition is AUD$35.99 (US$38.49). I asked a friend of mine in the US to look up the same book from there, and she said it would cost her US$22.49.

I also have access to a server based in the UK, so I checked the price of the same e-book when purchased there: £13.59 (US$22.27). So Australians are being charged a disgusting 73%25 more for the same electronic book than UK or US residents would have to pay.

How can anyone justify this at all?

I’ve listed the prices of a few of their e-books, in both Australia and the UK, in the table below, along with the price of the same book in a Kindle version, if available.

Book Australian Price (PDF) UK Price (PDF) Markup Kindle Edition
Germany Travel Guide AUD$35.99 (US$38.49) £13.59 (US$22.27) US$16.22 (72%) US$15.39
Western Europe Travel Guide AUD$37.59 (US$40.20) £14.39 (US$23.57) US$16.63 (70%) N/A
USA Travel Guide AUD$36.79 (US$39.35) £14.39 (US$23.57) US$15.78 (66%) US$16.49
Australia Travel Guide AUD$39.19 (US$41.92) £14.39 (US$23.57) US$18.35 (77%) US$16.49
Thailand Travel Guide AUD$39.19 (US$41.92) £13.59 (US$22.57) US$19.35 (85%) US$14.57

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23. April 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: norway, photo · Tags:

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21. April 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: packing · Tags:

I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, but it’s worth repeating again and again: when packing for any sort of trip, only take what you need. And it makes sense, too. Carrying around a needlessly heavy backpack is seriously annoying. It makes it difficult to walk long distances, it can possibly increase your flight costs and you run the risk of losing a lot more if your bag gets stolen.

Sometimes, however, even that isn’t enough. If you’re planning for a longer than normal trip that might take you through a number of seasons or climates, you’ll have to pack more than you would on a shorter trip. So, what can you do to keep the weight down?

Here’s a few solutions:

  • Don’t double up on clothes. How many pairs of pants do you need? Do you really need a coat? You’re likely to find that you’ll wear the same clothes over and over again, and never wear the other clothes that you take. In many cases, there’s no need to take a big heavy coat at all; instead, you can wear your other clothing as layers, with a windbreaker or lightweight rainproof jacket over the top.
  • You only need one pair of shoes! A second pair of shoes is likely to increase the weight you’re lugging around considerably. Before you leave, find a good pair of shoes that fit you well, will last for a whole year and are appropriate for a range of situations that you’ll likely find yourself in.

  • Consider purchasing special travel clothing. There’s a huge market in professional, lightweight travel clothing, much of which will dry quickly when went and also be odour resistant, so if you’re forced into doing so, you can get away without washing it when wearing it for a couple of days in a row. Companies like Icebreaker and The North Face sell a good range of such clothing, as do plenty of other manufacturers. The one downside to this, however, is that much of the clothing of this nature cannot be tried in a tumble-drier
  • Dump the travel guides. Let’s face it, multiple-country travel guides aren’t much use; you’ll get far more out of separate books on Germany and France than you will from a Western Europe guidebook, but if you’re going on a long trip, you can’t possibly carry a guidebook for every country you’re likely to pass through. What to do? Dump them! There’s a huge amount of travel information online, these days – such as Wikitravel, and virtually every good guidebook publisher will sell you electronic versions of their books. Alternatively, you could buy an e-Reader and load all of your guidebooks onto that.
  • If in doubt, throw it out. Unless you’re going to an impoverished African or Asian country, there’s a good chance that you can buy anything you’re likely to need at your destination. Take a good look at what you’re taking with you, and make an assessment whether you need it at all. If it’s likely that you’ll only use it once while you’re away, it might not be worth taking at all.

Remember, the smaller your luggage, the easier you’ll find it to get around, and the more enjoyable your trip will be.

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Of all of the optional extras that I took with me on my last trip, the one thing I would make sure to take with me again would be my GPS-enabled mobile phone. I realise that in the travel world, this can be somewhat of a contentious subject; I’ve had more than one person tell me that backpacking with a GPS is cheating, or that it takes all the fun out of it.

Naturally, I know as well as anyone the benefits of discovering places that are off the beaten track, or stumbling into a cool part of a town that isn’t mentioned in a guidebook; but I also know too well how annoying it is to walk five kilometres in the wrong direction while carrying a huge backpack, because you don’t have a map; or being dumped on the edge of town in the middle of the night, after a long bus trip, and not knowing which way the centre is.

Phone with maps.

There are so many times when the maps on my phone saved me from a long walk, or rescued me when I was just plain lost – or directed me to an elusive hostel, hidden in backstreets.

But not all GPS phones are equal. It’s important to ensure that you have access to the maps when you’re offline, as is likely to be the case when you’re travelling overseas. The cost of overseas broadband access can be prohibitive, especially if your phone is locked and you can’t buy local prepaid sims.

This is why both standard iPhones and Android phones aren’t particularly good for this, unless you’re willing to pay for extra software to provide locally stored maps; the online map software on both of them is quite useless when you don’t have any network access.

In my case, I was using my trusty N85 phone. It was shipped with free mapping software and downloadable maps that can be stored on a micro SD card, so anywhere you go, the maps come with you.

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When I look at some of the things I packed when I went travelling around Europe back in 1999, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. I’d bought myself a standard YHA-issue cotton sleeping sheet to use in youth hostels, not even thinking twice about the fact that it took up about a fifth of the space in my backpack, and weighed as much as a couple of Lonely Planet books – the brick sized ones.

Before I took off on my current trip, I invested in a Kathmandu silk sleeping liner (large size). It barely weighs anything, is easily large enough to accomodate a 183cm length body such as mine, and compresses down to a tiny 250 cubic centimetres in its supplied carry bag. As an added bonus, the carry bag is attached to the sleeping sheet by a strap, so you don’t have to try to find it every time you pack the sheet away.

I haven’t actually had a chance to use it, until now, as all of the hostels I’ve stayed in have supplied their own sheets, so confronted with a long train journey and fierce air-conditioning, I figured I’d give it a go and hopefully avoid freezing.

Surprisingly, despite being very thin silk, it did help keep me warm. Not warm enough to avoid having to cover myself in various other items of thick clothing, but it was definitely warmer with the sheet than without.

It was reasonably easy to pack it back into its carry bag, although to make it as small as possible, it needs to be folded up tightly, and this isn’t really practical on a train. Still, randomly stuffing it into the bag worked well enough.

The one real downside to using a silk sheet over a cotton sheet seems to be the build-up of static-electricity on your skin when you use it. Annoying, but not too much of an issue.

The one thing to be wary of when buying it, is that there are two different types: the standard liner (which I purchased) doesn’t have a space for a pillow, whereas the same product with the YHA designation does have one. I’ve found it hard to find a silk pillowcase to use alongside it, so if you need it to hold a pillow too, make sure to get the right one.

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I’m currently twenty-three hours into a forty-seven hour trip on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, a journey which travels more than halfway across the US, from Seattle to Chicago. As I write this, the train is hurtling across Montana’s northern plains between Malta and Glasgow. To the north, it’s dead flat as far as the eye can see; to the south, there are hills in the distance, but they are mostly insignificant.

This is a distinct change from earlier in the day, as the train weaved its way through the Rocky Mountains, so high in altitude that even the tracks were covered in snow.

This is farming country – the landscape is occasionally interrupted by farmhouses, barns, grain silos and graveyards of rusted-out agricultural machinery. I haven’t seen a car on the road that runs beside the railway line for about half an hour, and I can’t recall the last place where my mobile broadband device had a signal.

Not wanting to shell out $400 or more for a sleeper, I’ve chosen coach class, which effectively means being unable to lie down and stretch out for two nights in a row. The seats in couch class do have the ability to recline quite a way, and have a decent legrest that pops up, but it’s still not quite the same as having a bed to stretch out on. I’m fortunate that the train is more than half-empty and I have staked a claim on both my seats; this let me lie across both of them during the previous night and get around eight hours of – frequently interrupted – sleep. Not ideal, but considerably better than a bus.

The entire journey costs $153; possibly less if booked in advance – but, strangely, at least $100 more if broken in the middle for a night. As you might imagine, I’ve decided not to go with that option, and thus am in it for the long haul.

Naturally, there’s not a lot to do, other than look at the scenery or eat in the cafe, so bring a lot of reading material or a laptop if you’re inclined to get bored easily. My carriage had power points at each seat, but other Amtrak trains I’ve been on haven’t always had this, so be prepared to charge your electronic equipment up in the toilets.

The dining car is available during breakfast and lunch, but must be reserved for dinner; the cafe is open during daylight hours, although strangely the attendant takes a break smack bang in the middle of breakfast time.

The train’s air conditioning seems to run permanently, and it can get cold in the middle of the night, so I recommend either bringing a blanket, or wear as much layered clothing as you can. I’d also recommend a facemask, if you’re sensitive to light when trying to sleep, because it’s never completely dark inside the train.

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For the last three nights, I’ve been staying at Portland, Oregon’s Northwest Hostel, which is one of two Hostelling International hostels in this city. The hostel consists of two historic buildings, one containing the reception, kitchen and rooms, and the other containing a second kitchen and more rooms, often reserved for groups.

This hostel is the only one of the two that is located within easy walking distance of Portland’s main attractions – as its name suggests, it is in Portland’s north-west quarter, and it is only three blocks from the “free rail zone” – the area where all rail-based public transport in Portland is free. Theoretically, it is possible to get from Portland’s Amtrak and Greyhound stations to the hostel for free, only using the MAX light-rail and the streetcar, but it’s not really a direct path, and it’s probably easier just walking for fifteen minutes, unless your luggage is particularly heavy.

The hostel’s website notes that it has dormitories ranging from 4-bed and 6-bed rooms through to 8-bed rooms, however it doesn’t mention that these rooms are not necessarily isolated from one another. In my case, while my room was an 8-bed room, it was separated from another 8-bed room by a couple of curtains, so effectively I was staying in a 16-bed room. Personally, I prefer to stay in 4-bed dorms, but unfortunately, the Hostelling International USA website doesn’t give you any ability to specify this when you book.

The beds – all bunks – were fairly sturdy, and didn’t rock too much when climbing in, so there’s less chance of being woken up when the person above you arrives in the middle of the night. Bedclothes are provided by the hostel – basically a pillowcase and a folded-up YHA-style sleeping sheet – and there were extra blankets available in a trunk in the hallway.

My room had free lockers, with a clip for attaching your own padlock, although the reception also had padlocks available if guests required them. There were also plenty of lockers available outside the rooms, again all free. I can’t understate just how great it is to have free lockers; while obviously it’s no guarantee of security, it’s nice to be able to leave your valuables behind for a little while and not have to lug them around with you all day. Hostels that insist on providing only pay-per-use lockers – or none at all – should really look at this and learn.

Other than that, the rooms were fairly typical for a hostel. One minor annoyance was that towel hooks were located on the bed. Admittedly, it was nice to have hooks (I’ve stayed in some cheap hostels that don’t have any at all), but it would be better for them to be located on the walls, away from where you can smell them.

The bathrooms were fairly drab, as one would expect from such an old building, but they were very clean. The showers were of the bath/shower combination variety, which might present problems for people with mobility issues, and while the water was always hot, the shower-head in one bathroom was missing, and it fired a fairly narrow stream of water at the occupant.

My dormitory had its own ensuite bathroom, and there were two others located out in the hall, one upstairs and one downstairs. I suspect the hostel could probably do with a few more of them, as there were times when they were all occupied.

Each building has a small kitchen, with a refrigerator where guests could store perishable food, however there wasn’t much storage space for non-chilled food. Cooking equipment consisted of an oven, a four-plate stove and a microwave, with a fairly complete set of utensils. Not quite like the industrial kitchens of various hostels in other counties (such as New Zealand, for example) but certainly workable. I’m not sure how well it would cope if the hostel was full, though.

Also, simple things like washing-up brushes were missing, meaning that guests had to clean their dishes with a sponge – this doesn’t strike me as a particularly good way to clean.

The hostel had plenty of common areas, from the dining rooms attached to each of the kitchens to a comfortable, although dark, ground floor lounge in the second building. There didn’t appear to be a TV room anywhere, although given the quality of American TV, this was probably a blessing.

There is free wifi covering every room, and the speeds were good, although it did drop out a few times. There’s also a large selection of board games available, plus a good range of travel books and also a book-swap collection.

Each building has a laundry, with one washing machine and one tumble-drier – I suspect in busy periods, this would be insufficient. Only one of the buildings had a rack where clothes could be hung out to dry.

The staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and upon arrival, they would take each guest through the hostel, showing them the various facilities, before taking them to their room. They also provided advice about Portland’s sights and nightlife, and were more than happy to print out my onward Amtrak ticket (naturally, for a fee).

In all, this would have to be one of the most comfortable hostels I’ve stayed in so far, but this is tempered by the fact that it wasn’t high-season and the hostel was half-empty. In more crowded periods, I do wonder if the small kitchens, low number of washing machines and lack of bathrooms might make the place a bit cramped.

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Well, it’s been over two years since my last post on this blog. What’s been the problem? Well, work and lack of travel, mostly. Hopefully, however, that is all set to change, as I am now on the road again. I’ve taken a year off to go travelling, without much of a plan.

I’m currently in the US, and hope to be giving a good rundown of all the places I visit, as well as a guide to New Zealand, where I spent much of January and February this year. And in a couple of months, Europe!

So to those of you following on the rss feed, thanks for sticking around all this time, and expect to see more content from now on.

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For years, flights between Australia and the United States have been dominated by the Qantas and United Airlines duopoly due to an agreement between the two countries that limited any other airlines flying the route to only four flights per week. This severely limited competition on the route, drove up prices and resulted in poor service, to the extent that serious travellers would only fly with Qantas.

Now, with a new government in Australia, a new open skies agreement has been struck between the two countries, and there are no longer any restrictions on flights for any Australian or US airlines.

Virgin Blue has been planning to fly on this route for a while now, and will commence services towards the end of this year under the banner of V Australia.

The new agreement, however, will not remove restrictions on airlines from other countries on the US-Australia route. Singapore Airlines has long wanted to fly a Sydney to Los Angeles service, but is still hamstrung by Australia’s refusal to allow such a move.

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Whenever I travel, I always carry a small, portable shortwave radio with me, mainly to keep up with world news, when I’m travelling through countries where English isn’t the main language. You may wonder what the point is, in this age of 24 hour BBC World and CNN satellite television – until you find yourself in a small bed and breakfast or hostel without a television, let alone a satellite receiver.

I was staying in a hostel in Florence back in March 1999, when NATO commenced its bombing campaign over parts of Kosovo and Serbia. The hostel didn’t have a TV room, and there was certainly no English programming on the radio in the city at that time; if I hadn’t had my shortwave radio with me, I probably wouldn’t have even known anything was going on, just across the Adriatic. Now, many might argue that knowing about this might not have helped me in the least – but who knows; I could well have been heading to Croatia at the time, and there’s nothing to say the NATO attacks might not have reignited the conflicts that had been going on in that area for many years.

The BBC have announced that their World Service broadcasts to Europe will close on February 18th, 2008. The World Service has been broadcasting in a number of forms since 1938, and has been one of the most reliable broadcasters of news and information programs available, and I dare say has been invaluable to many a traveller on the road in that time. Unfortunately, the BBC now expect people to hear their service via local rebroadcasts (which tend to only be available in big cities, if at all), the internet (hard to get to that when you’re on the move) or satellite radio (not exactly something you want to put in your backpack).

It’s a pity that the BBC couldn’t wait until future technologies, such as portable satellite radio, or Digital Radio Mondiale broadcasts on shortwave, became feasible, because once they have left the shortwave bands in Europe, they are going to be leaving a very big gap for the traveller in times of emergency.

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