Riding the train in Europe just got a little easier
It seems like there are apps aplenty for air travelers no matter where in the world you are, but railroad riders in Europe have had to figure out things the old fashioned way…until now.
Last month, Rail Europe released a new mobile booking device that works with iPhones and iPads. The, app, which is available for free from the iTunes App Store, connects 35 European railroads in 32 countries and allows travelers to choose their route, select a seat and book tickets without waiting in line or interacting with a ticket vendor (a definite plus if you don't speak the language!).
Once an individual has booked a ticket, his or her digital itinerary is automatically saved. The app also provides updates on rail advisories that may affect your trip (impending strikes, for example).
We haven't had a chance to put this app in action yet and we're wondering if any of you have tried it yet? If so, do you like it? Would you like to see something similar in the U.S.?
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Pushing trains as an alternative to the pump
Just as gas prices are threatening to soar this summer and put a damper on those roadtrippin' plans, the country's rail network has seized the opportunity to tout the advantages of traveling by train. "When you consider today's average gas prices, the cost of a rail ticket on one of Amtrak's long-distance trains is significantly less than keeping the car fueled," said Todd Powell, president of Chicago-based specialty travel company Vacations By Rail. Vacations by Rail breaks down some of the distances of major train routes across the U.S. and what it would cost to fill up the car versus to take the train. For instance, it's 1,547 miles from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana. If a car gets an average of say 25 miles per gallon, then it will take nearly 62 gallons to get there. At $5 per gallon, which is how high gas prices might get this summer, it will cost $310 to fuel the car each way. The train ticket is $155 each way. So, of course, it also depends how many people are in the car. If there are two people in the car, that's arguably the same price. To further encourage families to consider training it rather than driving, as part of one of Amtrak's summer promotions, kids can ride the Auto Train, a train the can accommodate cars, vans, motorcycles, boats and jet skis, for $19, for bookings made by June 5 for travel between June 1 and August 30. There are more reasons to celebrate rail travel right now too. Amtrak turns 40 this month, and to celebrate an Amtrak Exhibit Train is touring the U.S. to celebrate. Additionally, May 7 is National Train Day and Amtrak is hosting events at train stations in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago that include live entertainment, exhibits, kids' activities and model train displays, and tours of Amtrak equipment, freight and commuter trains, and private railroad cars. More from Budget Travel: Is high-speed train travel the way of the future? The guys of Mad Men think so! Trains versus planes? Survey shows a pull towards tracks America's Most Scenic Train Rides
Chernobyl officially opens for tours
The big yellow Ferris wheel sits idle; the bumper cars look frozen in suspended animation, as if they were abandoned mid-collision. So does the nearby school, whose cafeteria is littered with the detritus of dusty gas masks in case of nuclear war, its classrooms strewn with Cyrillic math textbooks and Soviet newspapers from the 1980s. A sign warns schoolchildren to save energy and heat. Welcome to Pripyat, the Ukrainian town with the misfortune of sitting just miles from the world's most notorious nuclear power plant, Chernobyl. Twenty-five years ago this once heavily forested area bore the brunt of the world's deadliest nuclear power disaster, leaving untold victims who suffered from the radioactive fallout and ecological disaster in its wake. Now it is one of Ukraine's most visited sites. Roughly 6,000 tourists—most of them Europeans—stream through this ghost town annually on private tours unsanctioned by the authorities. But starting this year, the government is also looking to cash in on the plant's notoriety, with plans to open up the zone to official tours, as well as boost its safety by building a giant concrete shell to encase the reactor by 2015. See photos of Chernobyl today. After making the two-hour drive from Kiev, the tour kicks off in the no-frills office of the Ukrainian information agency. My guide, Yuri, points at color-coded maps of the radioactive fallout from the exclusion zone—or "dead zone"—a 30-kilometer radius that requires permits (and passports for foreigners) to enter. Next up is a drive-by photo op of the half-finished cooling towers and rusting nuclear reactors. There's an Iwo Jima-like statue devoted to the 29 firemen who died here, too. Tourists tote around a yellow Geiger counter, which resembles a garage door opener and beeps incessantly as it measures the air's radiation. Levels can vary from as low as 10 microroentgens or one-millionth of a roentgen, in Pripyat (harmless), to 200 in front of Reactor No. 4. (possibly harmful with long-term exposure), the site of the meltdown. "Only when it started beeping a lot was I scared," said Lina Selander, an artist visiting the nuclear zone from Sweden. "It's like Chernobyl's soundtrack." The most surreal stop of the tour is Pripyat. There are no hazmat-like outfits or special masks necessary. The poplars do not glow from radiation. The town is an eerily mundane time capsule, buried in dust and left almost exactly as it was when its roughly 50,000 inhabitants were forced to flee in 1986. Tourists are allowed to roam relatively un-chaperoned through the necropolis' spooky remains of apartment blocs, a gymnasium, dance hall, swimming pool, and an Orwellian-eque Palace of Culture, whose peeling sky-blue paint and scattered broken glass feel like a Soviet version of the Titanic. After the four-hour tour and a prison-style meal, visitors stand on a contraption that looks like a time machine. If it flashes green—no radiation—then you are good to go. On your way out of the exclusion zone, you (and your vehicle) must go through a similar radiation x-ray of sorts. Tours are not cheap, running upwards of $150 for groups and $400 for individuals. Sergii Mirnyi, a commander of the radiation reconnaissance platoon that responded in 1986, accuses the government of "milking" the disaster for every last tourist dollar. He says the reactor should stand as a monument to ecological education. "Chernobyl tourism," he told me, "undoubtedly can generate money. But I believe it can generate so much more." What do you think? Would you go on a tour of Chernobyl? Do you support the fact that the government is offering tours of the region? INFORMATION The government is expected to roll out official tours later this year. Until then, there are roughly a half dozen private companies offering tours in English. Visit tour2chernobyl.com or tourkiev.comfor more information. —Lionel Beehner
One incredibly delicious reason to be grateful to Mexico
Cinco de Mayo is not, as some believe, the celebration of Mexican independence (that's September 16). In fact, most Mexicans don't celebrate the 5th of May at all, which is when Mexico beat France at the Battle of Puebla, effectively driving the French out of North America. So why do Americans love the holiday? I can't speak for all of my compatriots, but for me it's a chance to celebrate the things that I love about Mexico. There are many reasons to exalt the country (ancient ruins, beautiful beaches, and colonial towns to name a few), but that list would be way too long for this forum. Instead, I'd like to take this opportunity to hail one of my favorite Mexican gifts to the U.S.—the taco. Not only are tacos delicious, affordable, and easy to eat on the go, they're diverse. You can pretty much wrap anything between the folds of a corn tortilla and call it a taco. And you're just as likely to encounter (and enjoy) them in upscale Mexican establishments as you are when they're whipped up roadside. Not surprisingly, they feature prominently in our tour of the world's best street food. For this occasion, I decided to track down a top notch taco recipe. The easy thing to do would have been a Google search (taco recipes are a dime a dozen), but I wanted something a little more special. For guidance, I turned to my friend and chef, Jesse Kramer—the only person I know whose obsession with the hand-held comfort food rivals my own. While I spend an embarrassing portion of my after-work hours consuming tacos, he has made producing them his life's work. He even left behind a job as a cook at the Gramercy Park Hotel's Maialina restaurant and moved to one of Brooklyn's most Mexican neighborhoods, Sunset Park, to pursue his passion (his taco stand, which opened this past December, is appropriately named "Brooklyn Taco" and I can personally attest to the fact that they craft one of the best tacos in all of New York). To hear him talk about his specialty is like listening to a painter discuss a masterpiece. According to Jesse, a successful taco starts with finding just the right corn tortilla. And he can't say enough about the spices and vegetables from Mexico (he talks about cinnamon from the Yucatan peninsula the way I talk about my favorite author). All the wheedling in the world couldn't convince Jesse to give up one of his patented taco recipes, but he did graciously share a traditional Mayan favorite of his—Rescado Rojo—a flavorful paste that can be applied to the taco filling of your choice (typically chicken, beef or fish): Ingredients: 1 tablespoons achiote (annatto) seeds 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano 8 black peppercorns 1/2 teaspoon of allspice 1 whole clove 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cloves garlic 3 tablespoons bitter (Seville) orange juice or 2 tablespoons orange juice mixed with 1 tablespoon white vinegar Instructions: In a nut or coffee grinder, grind the achiote seeds, cumin, oregano, peppercorns, allspice, clove and salt. Grind the garlic in a mortar or molcajete, add the ground spices and sir in the orange juice to make a paste. Place in a small glass jar, cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Prepare your choice of filling (chicken, beef, or fish) as you would normally, and then top with the paste and pile into a warm, corn tortilla. If you do make the recipe, tell me how you liked it! (If you find yourself in the city, check out Brooklyn Taco on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 6:30pm at Artists and Fleas, a local arts and crafts show, in Brooklyn.) Do you celebrate Cinco de Mayo? If so, what do you do in honor of the holiday? SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 10 Smallest Bars in the World Confessions of a New York Street Food Vendor Vote Now for the World's Best Cruiser
Is air travel the next frontier for social networking?
Are you the type of flier who's learned the name, hometown, and five-year plan of all the passengers in your row (and maybe a flight attendant or two) by the time you de-plane? Or are you of the "Headphones on. Do not talk to me" variety? Planely, an air travel-focused social networking site that debuted in late 2010, is on a mission to make the friendly skies…well, friendlier. The service connects Planely users to one another by allowing them to register their upcoming flights on the site. It then alerts travelers to fellow Planely passengers that are on their flight, or passing through common departure or arrival airports. (For a glimpse of why Planely might just be onto something with this, check out their Twitter feed chronicling "people bored at airports over the world."). To help get the word out, Planely launched a contest that deemed Cebu Pacific Air, a Philippines-based carrier, The World's Most Sociable Airline. 142 airlines (among them JetBlue, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, and Delta) were tallied in the ranking, which had Norwegian Air Shuttle in second place, Swiss in third, American Airlines (the top U.S. carrier) in eighth, and Binter Canarias, a Spanish airline, pulling up the rear at number 121 (as one of 22 airlines that booked a single flight). All flights registered on Planely between April 13 and April 20 were tabulated, and after a Twitter campaign that corralled their more than 150,000 followers, Cebu Pacific, the participating airline with the most flights registered (an impressive 913), was crowned the winner on April 22. if (WIDGETBOX) WIDGETBOX.renderWidget('bbedda30-44fc-4ef7-af84-45e790fc5f4a');Get the Poll Creator Pro widget and many other great free widgets at Widgetbox! Not seeing a widget? (More info)While skeptics will (justifiably) say that Planely's premise has the potential to veer into the cheesy (mixers in the airport lounge, anyone?), there is something to be said for the benefits of their communal approach to traveling. Having a network of contacts not only makes the world an easier place to navigate, but it lends itself to budget-mindedness as well. In a conversation with Planely's CEO, Nick Martin, interviewer Phil Campbell described looking forward to "the day—it might be a way off yet—that I get into an airport and manage to share a taxi with someone into a city…this whole process of sort of sharing the cost is starting to take off more and more." Would you be interested in connecting with other travelers through a social networking site like Planely? MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: What's the best social network for travel? How travelers can complain effectively with social media. Denmark launches a social media site for travelers.