Ask Trip Coach: House swapping
The upside to a house swap is huge: free lodging in an apartment or home almost anywhere in the world. But that doesn't mean house swapping is for everybody.
The vast majority of travelers out there seem to be simultaneously fascinated with and fearful of the house swap. The idea of staying in a stranger's home -- and even more nerve-wracking, of having strangers stay in yours -- can push some travelers immediately to a hotel's website to click "Book Now."
We'd like to help readers figure out if house swapping is right for them, and to help swappers avoid problems and get the best experience possible. With that in mind, we're dedicating an upcoming Trip Coach column to house swapping, and we want to hear your concerns. You may be wondering:
What are the best resources for arranging a house swap?
Just how bad of an idea is it to arrange a swap through Craigslist?
What about utilities, household expenses, and other fees I should know about ahead of time?
What happens if something is broken or stolen during a house swap?
What precautions should I take to avoid things being broken or stolen, and to prep the home in general for guests?
How can you tell if the people interested in staying at your place are trustworthy?
How can you tell if the place you might stay at is a dump?
And what are some tips for presenting your own home in the best manner to maximize the potential for the perfect swap?
Send us whatever questions you have about house swapping, and we'll address the best topics in an upcoming issue of Budget Travel.
New site Wanderfly will be wonderful at inspiring travelers
Imagine if there were a Magic 8-Ball for trip planning. Shake the ball and it suggests a dream trip. The ball takes into account your interests, your budget, and your time constraints when it suggests a vacation spot for you. Some websites try to be a Magic 8-Ball like that: Travelocity has its Experience Finder and Kayak has its Explore tool. Goby, TravelMuse, and Uptake all generate personalized trip ideas as well. But these sites and tools aren't cutting the mustard for a majority of travelers. Enter, Wanderfly, by far the slickest attempt yet at being a Magic 8-Ball for trip inspiration. It's not perfect, for sure. But this invitation-only site goes a long way to simplifying the hunt for affordable places that match your style. Expedia helps to power the site. Once you find a destination and set of attractions you like, book the trip without having to punch in all of your choices all over again—a nice perk. You don't have to specify a destination to kickstart the site. Simply set your ideal budget range, your home airport, and when you'd approximately like to go, and Wanderfly takes it from there, delivering personalized recommendations. The total trip budget is posted in bold numbers. Add other search criteria if you like. Only want to see places where your Facebook friends live? No problem. Need hotel or restaurant suggestions? The site pulls in listings info from guidebooks like Lonely Planet, NileGuide, and Yelp. Save a few trip ideas; e-mail the plans to your friends and family; or pick one itinerary and book it using an Expedia-powered interface that's much easier to use than Expedia itself. For a sense of what your destination looks like, the site pulls in images from Flickr's creative commons stream dynamically. Still in beta testing, Wanderfly has a limited selection of destinations right now. It only has about 400 hand-curated destinations in the U.S. and about 800 hand-curated destinations abroad. An army of interns and staffers leverages the ratings of destinations and attractions on user-generated sites like Yelp to drive its recommendations. But more picks are on the way. Some travelers may find the site is not ready for prime time because you need to apply for an e-mail invitation to try it until it formally launches at the end of August. Frustratingly, some of its recommended destinations seem random and a bit too surprising for my tastes (Batemans Bay, Australia, anyone?) Overall verdict, though: Wanderfly seems on track to be a model of how sites can inspire people to travel. If you like trying new sites before other travelers do, sign up on wanderfly.com to be alerted by e-mail when the site is open for use in August. EARLIER TrustYou: I think this new site is cool, but many readers say it stinks AutoSlash: (Ditto)
Would you pay for the Whole Enchilada?
Denver-based Frontier Airlines is selling special "Whole Enchilada" fares that are fully refundable, include complimentary checked baggage, and don't require any advance purchase. What's the catch? Well, it's not a catch so much as the obvious: These special fares cost way more than the carrier's standard flight, albeit less than what a non-restricted refundable flight normally costs. A list of Frontier's Whole Enchilada fares shows that flights between Denver and airports such as Atlanta, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Chicago-Midway, and Spokane cost $199 each way. That's roughly double what you could pay for many of these same flights if you booked an economy ticket. A round-trip on Frontier between Denver and Atlanta, for example, will run as little as $239, all taxes and fees included. But if you book that $239 flight, you can't get a refund if your plans change, you'll pay extra if you want to check bags, and you'll have to deal with the other restrictions and fees that have become standard in air travel. Like American Airlines' Boarding and Flexibility package, Frontier's Whole Enchilada fare bundles services rather than selling them a la carte. These super-sized fares are marketed as the opposite of the nickel-and-dime model, but regardless of how different the strategies and the products seem, their goals are exactly the same: getting as much money out of customers. The question is: Do you prefer paying more upfront, or paying less and running the risk of getting nickel and dimed with fees later in the game?
Wandermom takes her kids to an Irish castle and a giant's causeway
One of our favorite family travel blogs is Wandermom, written by Michelle Duffy. We're especially excited to hear that she'll soon be embarking on a year-long trip with her husband and two young children. (See their global itinerary.) Recently, Wandermom blogged about her family's spring trip to Ireland. We were curious if she had any more terrific tales from her trip to share. She kindly agreed to share with us the following story: We're visiting Ireland, and my brother-in-law, Dan, says he's promised my children they'll see a castle, and a giant's causeway. Soon we were off for a daytrip from Dublin. The trip north on the motorway towards Belfast was speedy. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Slieve Gullion park outside Newry, where the kids had to be coaxed down from trees and high stone walls to eat and I explained to Charlie that 'Slieve' (Shliabh) is the Gaelic word for mountain. Legs and arms suitably stretched and tummies full, we continued north—crossing into the now-very-safe-for-tourists state of Northern Ireland. We reached the Giant's Causeway in the late afternoon. Bushmills is a scant 60 miles from Belfast. On a clear day, the views across to Scotland are stunning—mists on the Mull of Kintyre notwithstanding. Even though afternoon shadows were starting to lengthen, the sun was warm and there was no discernable wind as we made our way down to the interlocking basalt columns which make up the Causeway. Tromping over the hexagonal stones all three children scattered in different directions; thankfully there were three adults to follow. I overheard Dan telling Charlie that the water in the stones was giant's tears as I raced towards the headland to catch my younger son who was already on a mission to discover whether or not there really was a sunken bridge at the water's edge. As we heaved our way up the steep hill back to the car an hour or so later, Charlie summed up our visit as only a four-year-old can "That was the best Giant's Causeway ever!" Tomorrow would be a day for castles. The history of Dunluce Castle is a tale of battles and chieftains and Earls and ladies—perfect for the imaginations of three young boys who wasted no time disappearing to explore tall towers and stone stairwells and to hang, precariously, out stone windows exclaiming at the steep drop down to the sea below. The second Earl of Antrim Randal MacDonnell and his wife Lady Catherine were the last people to live here, although she apparently, did not like the sound of the sea and was eager to move further inland. Fate provided her with a rock solid excuse to leave when part of the castle kitchen fell into the sea killing a number of the kitchen staff—apparently while the Earl and the Countess were entertaining. I'd say that's the best "dinner party disaster" story I've ever heard. PLAN A TRIP The Giant's Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge are National Trust properties. Dunluce Castle is in the care of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. MORE Budget Travel's Family Travel page The Real Castles of Ireland
Turkey: An expert decodes where, what, and how to eat
For five years now, Virginia Maxwell has spent time eating her way across Turkey on assignment for Lonely Planet's Istanbul and Turkey guidebooks. So I enlisted her to write our Turkey Menu Decoder, a handy, one-page resource with translations of food terms and popular dishes—the latest in our growing Menu Decoder series. Below she dishes on the food scene and Turkish etiquette. Where do you love to eat in Istanbul?My two favorite restaurants in Istanbul are Çiya in the Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and Cercis Murat Konağı in Bostancı. Both serve cuisine from Southeastern Turkey. Are there any new dining trends?Southeastern Turkish cuisine is generally considered to be the most interesting of the regional styles, and new restaurants such as Antiochia in Istanbul's Asmalımecit neighborhood are presenting superbly executed, innovative dishes to Istanbullu foodies. How might someone coordinate a special experience like a meal in a local's home?Excellent travel outfit Intrepid Travel organizes small dinners in traditional family homes in Istanbul as part of its Urban Adventures program. Which Istanbul restaurants don't live up to the hype?The international press rhapsodizes about 360 in Beyoğlu, but in my experience the food has been a real letdown. I love having a drink at the bar there, though. And unfortunately, the food in the major tourist precinct, Sultanahmet, is universally disappointing—visitors staying in Sultanahmet hotels should cross the Galata Bridge every night to eat rather than accept the overpriced and poorly prepared food served at most Sultanahmet restaurants. What kind of street food is typical and where to try it?There are different street foods in every region. In Istanbul, the most famous is the balık ekmek (fish sandwich), a chunk of bread roll stuffed with grilled fish and topped with some salad and a squeeze of lemon juice. The best place to eat these is on the ferry dock at Eminönü. Other popular street dishes include gözleme, a thin crepe stuffed with spinach, cheese, mushrooms or potato that is eaten in Central Anatolia; and kokoreç, grilled lamb's intestines cooked with herbs and spices. The most famous street snack of all is, of course, döner kebap, lamb slow-cooked on an upright skewer, shaved off and stuffed in bread. Which other Turkish destinations would you recommend to foodies and for which specialties?Fish is best eaten along the Black Sea coast, where it is cooked and prepared simply and has loads of flavor. The destinations that all serious foodies should go to are Gaziantep, Urfa, Hatay, and Mardin in Southeastern Anatolia. Gaziantep is particularly famous for its pistachio baklava (layered filo pastry soaked in honey or sugar syrup and stuffed with nuts), Urfa for its Urfa kebap (skewered chunks of lamb grilled and served with tomatoes, sliced onions and hot peppers), Hatay for its künefe (shredded-wheat cake laid over mild fresh cheese, soaked in sugar syrup and baked till it's crispy and gooey at the same time) and Mardin for its içli köfte (meatballs rolled in bulgar and fried). What food rules and etiquette should tourists know about?Don't blow your nose at the table (or in public generally) and don't be surprised if waiters bring people's meals to the table at different times rather than all together—this sometimes happens and is considered quite acceptable. Waiters may also change your plates and cutlery a few times during each course if you are sharing dishes. And when the bill arrives, do you add on a tip?This is up to the individual. In restaurants, most locals will tip around 10 percent if they have been happy with the service. It's not necessary to tip in simple places serving kebaps, pides (flatbread similar to pizza), or lokanta dishes (ready-cooked food). MORE ON TURKEY 2010: Istanbul Kicks Off a Culture-Packed Year Sleep Tomorrow: A Night Out in Beyoğlu, Istanbul The BT Challenge: Testing the Limits of Online Networking in Istanbul