Secret Hotels

August 8, 2007
Extraordinary values in Provence, Tuscany, Tahiti, the Caribbean, and more--from the pages of Budget Travel.

Buy yours now! We're thrilled to announce the publication of a new book, Secret Hotels ($23). It's a compilation of eight of our best hotel stories--Provence, Tuscany, Tahiti, the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Cornwall, Bali, and the French Riviera--with expanded text and photography. Available wherever books are sold.

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Speaking in Tongues

Before going to Colombia on vacation, Lisa Tomlinson of New York City wanted to brush up on her Spanish. She tried listening to cassettes in the car, but found it too passive. Tomlinson signed up for three sessions with FluencyNow, a new company that uses online video streaming to give students real-time interaction with a native speaker. With a headset and a high-speed Internet connection, Tomlinson received one-on-one attention from Rocio, a Paraguayan now living in Vancouver. "The conversations really forced me to speak Spanish, and I got an immediate evaluation of my pronunciation," Tomlinson says. FluencyNow offers classes in 17 languages, including less-obvious ones like Ukrainian and Nepali. Students can customize lessons for real-life travel situations--ordering a coffee in Paris, figuring out a bus schedule in Shanghai, and so on. The instructors have webcams, so students can see them, but webcams are optional for students. (Tomlinson wishes she had purchased one.) Appropriately for the iPod era, many language companies are focusing their efforts on audio. ISpeak sells "audio phrase books" that include a CD. After importing the CD to your iPod, you can scroll down to choose which topic you want to study. Another outfit, Earworms, calls itself a Musical Brain Trainer because it uses groove-heavy music as a backdrop while teaching words and phrases. There are 10 languages, sold as 10-track albums. And Living Language, which has been producing self-study courses for 61 years, began selling audio-based online sessions in May. The languages on offer are Spanish, French, German, and Italian. One of the most interesting companies out there is Praxis, which started ChinesePod in 2005. It provides a free daily podcast with a 10-minute lesson about specific situations, such as dealing with health issues or visiting a museum. The company sells subscriptions from $9 per month, with which you get access to the ever-expanding archive. Pay more and you get more, including mobile access and study and vocab guides. ChinesePod also has a new sister outfit, SpanishSense. The granddaddy of language schools, Berlitz, offered its first live online lessons back in 2002, but those early efforts were focused mainly at business travelers and serious students--i.e., they were expensive, and less than ideal for someone spending just a few days in Prague or Buenos Aires. In August, the company launched Ticket to... French, a program for leisure travelers. Up to eight students participate in 90-minute, PC-only classes that meet once a week for five weeks. Students can hear the instructor and each other. Using a virtual pointer and pictures, the classes cover situations such as ordering food and asking for directions. Berlitz plans on adding more languages in December. Just be careful when you promise your teacher an apple; he might think an iPhone is coming his way. A few questions for Fatima Mooney, French instructor for FluencyNow... What do your students generally want help with? Pronunciation. They want to know the right way to speak French. So we have conversations in various scenarios: what to say at the airport, how to order a croissant at a bakery. Which words would one use to sound très cool in French--words that are too current to be in a guidebook? Use voilà all the time, like "there you have it," at the end of sentences. And c'est canon, used for an article of clothing or a person, means "it's really gorgeous." Do you care if people show up for class in pajamas? They need to have some clothes on, that's for sure. But pajamas are no problem. FluencyNow 50-minute class, $30; iSpeak Phrase book with CD, $13; Earworms Rapid downloads, $30; Living Language 10-session programs, $55; ChinesePod Basic subscription, $9; SpanishSense Basic subscription, $9; Berlitz Five-session Ticket to... course, $175; Special offer for Budget Travel readers! Use coupon code cpn9497JC on This coupon code is good for $5 off a session and it can be entered when purchasing. Valid through the end of September.

Veni, Visa, Vici

ARTICLE KEYDIY Do-it-yourself. Visas are easy to get on your own. $ Pay somebody. Save time and frustration by hiring some expert help. AUSTRALIA (DIY) The easiest and cheapest method is applying online for an Electronic Travel Authority, a stampless visa ($17, After completing a form that requires your passport details and a credit card, you can be approved in 30 seconds. You can also apply for an ETA in person at the embassy for free. Securing a visa by regular mail from the Washington, D.C., embassy is possible (, but it costs $70 and takes two weeks. If you want help The Australian government doesn't charge for visas arranged through expediters or travel agents, so all you'll have to pay is the company's fee. ( charges $20 for two-day processing.) Qantas agents can get you an electronic visa within 15 minutes for $25. Tour operators often handle visas, and some charge for the service. Newmans South Pacific Vacations will deduct its $25 processing fee if you take care of the visa yourself. BRAZIL ($) Visas cost $100, and it's worth it to hire a specialist (see below). Travel Document Systems' three- to seven-day service is $45; charges $59 for seven-day processing. Brazil tacks on a $10 surcharge for visas handled by third parties. To save money The rules for doing your own paperwork depend on where you live ( To get a visa from the consulates in San Francisco or New York, you must apply in person or pay an extra $10 if a third party appears for you. In San Francisco, visas are typically processed in five business days and can be sent to you via a U.S. Postal Service prepaid envelope, so bring one with you. In New York, visas are usually ready in 24 hours but must be picked up by someone. If you live near Chicago or D.C., you can apply by mail to those consulates. There's a $10 handling fee; allow at least three weeks. Most Brazilian consulates only accept U.S.P.S. money orders. And if you apply by mail, most require you to use U.S.P.S. Express Mail. CHINA ($) Specialists charge $45-$55 on top of the $100 consular fee (up from $50 as of August 1) to get you a visa in about four days. If you book a package, the operator will take care of your application for $20-$30, shipping included. To save money Apply in person or send a third party to the embassy in D.C., or the consulates in Chicago, Houston, L.A., New York City, or San Francisco ( There's no option to apply by mail, but visas will be mailed back to you if you supply a prepaid envelope. You should allow at least four business days for regular processing, or add an extra $30 for same-day service. Cashier's checks, money orders, and cash are OK. EGYPT (DIY) U.S. passport holders can pay $15 for a visa at the Cairo airport. Stop by the visa-payment booth before getting in line for immigration and customs. To apply in advance You can apply by mail to an Egyptian consulate; allow a week or more for processing ( You can also go to the New York consulate and get a visa that day; the San Francisco one needs at least 24 hours for processing. Some consul­ates only take money orders and certified or cashier's checks. A visa specialist can get a visa in three days starting at $45. To save time Travelers with Foreign Independent Tours and Misr Travel can pay an extra $20-$25 to have a staffer meet them at the Cairo airport with a prepaid visa sticker. That way, they can go directly to immigration. INDIA (DIY) Beware the 15-day transit visa: It only costs $30, but the countdown begins the moment the consulate stamps the visa. Instead, opt for the $60, six-month tourist visa. If you're booking your trip through a tour operator or travel agent, ask them to deal with the visa. Many will do it for free--all you have to pay is the fee (with a cashier's or certified check or a money order) and fill out the forms, which they can help with. The process takes about a week. Getting a visa from a consulate yourself via mail also takes about a week. To save time Apply before 12:30 P.M. at any of the five consulates in the U.S. (, and you can get a visa that afternoon. Cash, money orders, and certified or cashier's checks only. If you want help Compare expediters' prices. charges $59 (seven days), while Zierer Visa Service asks $55 (10 days). KENYA (DIY) Get a visa for $50 (U.S. cash only) at the airport upon arrival. Forms are available at the airport. To apply in advance If you're mailing your paperwork, allow at least seven days--and up to 16 days from May through August. It's possible to get a visa within a day if you apply in person and pay a $10 rush fee at the consulates in New York and L.A. or the embassy in D.C. ( Cashier's checks and money orders only. If you want help Expediters charge from $39 for seven-day processing, and $55 or so for four-day service. RUSSIA ($) Beyond the $100 fee, tourist visas require proof of a Russia-based sponsor (often a tour operator). Expect to pay $45-$55 for assistance if your trip is booked through the operator, and more if you arranged your trip some other way. Alternately, Travel Document Systems charges $45 for 10-day processing. If you need a visa sooner, the fees go up, and the consulate tacks on charges: $50 for three- to five-day processing, $100 for next-day service, or $200 if you require same-day turnaround. To save money You still need to show that you have a sponsor--a hotel in Russia will do. Your hotel should have the standard tourist confirmation document that you need to submit with your applications. You'll need a confirmation document for each place you stay. Apply in person or by mail through a consulate, and be sure to include a prepaid return envelope; payment must be through cashier's check or money order ( You should allow 6 to 10 business days for processing. TURKEY (DIY) Pay $20 at the Istanbul airport visa booth before going to immigration. To apply in advance Visas processed by mail cost $9 more and can take three weeks ( Consulates accept money orders and cashier's checks by mail, and cash in person. You used to be able to apply online for $29, but the service is down and no one knows when it'll be operating again. If you want help charges $39 for two-day service. VIETNAM (DIY) The prices and policies vary by consulate, and you need not apply via your regional office ( The San Francisco consulate charges $45 for three-day processing and $65 for next-day service. Others ask more--four-day service from New York, for example, is $105. For D.C., include a prepaid U.S.P.S. Express Mail envelope. If you want help charges $89 for four-day service; Travel Document Systems charges $45 (7 to 10 days). There's also the somewhat complicated option of asking a travel agent or tour operator to get an approval letter from the immigration department in Hanoi. Through Sinhcafe Travel, for example, you pay $30, get your letter in a week or so, and then bring the letter and $25 more to the airport.