The Budget Travel Convert: Reporting from…Panama
Hobart Fowlkes, our "Budget Travel Convert," reports regularly from around the world. Today he updates us on a recent trip to Panama where he spent time relaxing on the beach and exploring the historic canal and the pleasures of Old Panama City.
I will just assume that you have never traveled to Panama, so let me begin by saying that it has a gorgeous landscape which is, for the most part, quite unspoiled. Out of a population of 3 million, more than 1.5 million live in Panama City (the rest are dispersed in little villages around the country).
Now, of course, the first thing you think about when you think about Panama is the canal. If you are like me, you pretty much yawn and feel satisfied to be in the general vicinity of a human accomplishment that changed navigation and our perspective of the modern world. An early morning phone call from my father (who was not aware I was traveling), however, convinced me that I should at least get in a taxi and go look at the canal. He was SO right. Trust me, it's worth 2 hours out of your day to cab it to the Miraflores Lock and watch a gigantic cruise ship pass through. Plus, the vintage 1914 U.S. Military Canal Zone architecture is awesome.
Besides the Canal Zone, Panama City at first glance might seem to be the Dubai of Latin America, by which I mean it is really a giant cluster of skyscrapers that I don't think are occupied...yet.
The Old City is CHARMING (in all caps). It has the flavor of a Spanish Colonial town, is inhabited by the same locals who have been there for generations, and seems to slowly be cultivating a hip, artsy culture of clubs, bars and restaurants. It is definitely worth a visit.
Where I stayed: I spent two days at the Royal Decameron Golf Resort in one of their golf course villa rooms. It is on the Pacific Coast, only a two-hour bus ride from Panama City.
How much I paid: I paid $150 per night, and EVERYTHING is included (room, meals, alcohol).
Why I recommend it: Royal Decameron is a chain with 11 properties spread throughout Latin America and North Africa. The property I stayed at is enormous with 1,170 rooms, 2 big buffets, 8 specialty restaurants, 11 bars, 11 pools (eight for adults, three that allow children), a disco, a full-service spa, and three boutiques.
Even though I don't typically go for big resorts, in a place this enormous you can easily make it your own by finding a quiet spot away from the crowd. No one insists that you get drunk at 10AM and sing karaoke or have salsa lessons by the pool (although that seems to be what most of the guests do). As a result their long pristine beach is mostly empty and can be all yours for as long as you like it. (Tip: The further you get from a bar, the more privacy you have.)
Likewise, avoid dining at the all-you-can-eat buffets. If you wake up early, make reservations in one of the many restaurants and you are guaranteed a pleasant experience. If, by some chance, your only option is the buffet, then try to get there when it opens and before the other guests have picked everything over. For a heftier price (not too bad, like $200/night) you can have one of the fancy rooms down by the water (though you will be subjected to disco dancing and karaoke until the club shuts down at 1AM). In my opinion, however, the best option is to stay in one of the cheaper $150 golf course villas, which feel like having your own little house far away from the hubbub.
Next up: Tune in again with me next month when I head to Greece, where LOTS of amazing hotel deals can be found nowadays (on account of their ugly little economic crisis) So, I'll be reporting to you from the Adrina Beach Hotel on the Tiny Island of Skopelos where they filmed the movie version of Mamma Mia.
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Introducing. . .The Budget Travel Convert
Meet our new blogger Hobart Fowlkes: high-end jetsetter by trade, budget globetrotter by choice. We fell in love with him and his travel tales, and think that you will, too. He'll be updating us regularly from around the world—but first, a personal introduction. I've seen from the inside how the other half travels, and let me tell you, it involves an awful lot of disappointment and complaints. Here's why: When fabulous folks pay zillions of dollars on travel, they expect perfection; anything less incites anger. Who wants to waste time in Milan, Melbourne, Mumbai—or Montana, for that matter—getting worked up over trifles like no robes and the occasional lukewarm shower? In 1993, I landed a life-changing gig with a private investment-management firm [the parent company of Budget Travel LLC, the owners of BudgetTravel.com] I was to be a sort of personal travel planner, coordinating and accompanying busy execs on high-end business trips, as well as all of their meetings and conferences. The firm, deeply enmeshed in a deal to open an Italian company at the time, hired me for my foreign-language skills—and I suddenly found myself jetting off on chartered planes, dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, and staying in five-star hotels around the globe. I became quite well versed in luxury travel. And, yes, it was a treat, to be sure, as long as someone else was paying. It wasn't until my work for the company changed and the travel opportunities slowed a bit, that I reconnected with why I fell in love with travel in the first place. All that fussing with luxury had turned travel into a chore rather than adventure. It had become quite the opposite of what jump-started my wanderlust in the first place. At the green age of 14, I decamped to Europe as a cheapo student with not much more than a copy of Let's Go Europe, cash for a Eurail Pass and a pocketful of contacts—friends of my parents and grandparents who were sprinkled around the continent and who were kind enough to host a restless, couch-surfing teenager. By the end of that first mind-expanding summer abroad, I was sold, and I continued to globetrot during my college years. For a time I planted myself in Rome, where I studied art and worked for Christie's auction house, scouting for bid-worthy items among the attics of recently divorced or widowed locals, and picking up Italian, French and German along the way. I was officially hooked—even when I had to sleep on sofas or floors. Nowadays, I mostly (but not exclusively) travel on my own dime. I look for places that cost around $150/night or less. Like us all, I need to get the best bang for my buck, but I've also noticed that it is only through such a venue and experience that a place will reveal itself by showing me local flavor, introducing me to the awesome characters that make a town tick—and, when I am not paying a zillion dollars for something, I'm a lot less likely to freak out if it is less than perfect. But as Budget Travel readers, you already know all this. It's just when it comes to the specifics—Which hotel in Panama, exactly? And why?—that we could all use a little guidance now and then. To that end, I welcome you to accompany me on my journey. Think of it as a personal-travel-planning service for the down-to-earth set. Follow me! SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 7 Affordable Farmstays Secret Hotels of Paris 6 Essential Items for a Successful Vacation
Rivers wreaking havoc: Mississippi too high, Rhine too low
As a rain-bloated Mississippi River threatens to spill into more towns along its banks, water levels on Europe's Rhine River have dropped to 18-month lows, potentially impacting river cruise itineraries there. Tourism destinations along the Mississippi this week are assuring visitors that their sites and attractions are not underwater. "Graceland is safe. And we would charge hell with a water pistol to keep it that way and I'd be willing to lead the charge," said Bob Nations Jr., director of the Shelby County Emergency Management Agency. Elvis Presleys's home, the Graceland mansion, is in Memphis, Tenn., where the Mississippi River crested on Tuesday. But the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau said that only one downtown attraction has been affected by the high water, Mud Island River Park and Museum, which is temporarily closed due to the lack of road access. Further downriver, "New Orleans is not subject to the type of river and tributary flooding seen along other parts of the Mississippi River due to the extensive water diversion systems that guide high river waters away from New Orleans," the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau assured visitors. When there is "flooding from a river like the Mississippi, probably the best place in the country to be is Baton Rouge and New Orleans," said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans CVB. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Rhine River could use some of the Mississippi's overflow. Water levels on the Rhine have dropped to their lowest levels in 18 months and are threatening to fall further, according to a Bloomberg news report. Consequently, river cruise companies are having to come up with contingency plans in case the waters don't rise soon. Avalon Waterways, which is christening its new Avalon Panorama ship this weekend, had to send guests and media invited to the christening ceremony and inaugural "Romantic Rhine" cruise from Frankfurt to Amsterdam a "Plan A," and a multi-pronged "Plan B," dependent on daily monitoring of water levels. Other river cruise operators are also monitoring the situation, but haven't altered itineraries yet. "Starting today, there is rain in the Alpine region, which feeds the Rhine," said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of Ama Waterways. "The forecast for the next seven days looks very wet and hopefully the situation will improve." If and when river cruise ships can't navigate portions of a river where the water level creates a problem, river cruise operators get creative to make sure that passengers can continue on their planned itinerary. "A few years back, we had a high water situation on the Danube and two of our ships were stopped at the Deggendorf Bridge in Bavaria. So, we performed a 'ship swap.' We simply moved guests and their belongings from one ship to the other, turned the ships around and both continued on their journeys as per normal," recalled Guy Young, president of Uniworld River Cruises. "Fortunately, the rivers of Europe are highly controlled through a series of locks and dam," explained Young. "Fluctuations in river water levels that impact the operation of passenger ships are therefore quite rare." More from Budget Travel: 25 Reasons We Love New Orleans 8 Places Every American Should See River Cruises: Into the Heart of Europe
Find a summer music festival near you
Summer is our favorite time to get outside, soak up the sun and take in some tunes at the same time. Fortunately, it's also high time for music festivals across North America. To help you get a jump start on your rock 'n' roll planning, we've identified the best performances across the U.S. and Canada with an eye toward those events where tickets are still available. The season's hottest concerts sell out fast, so if something catches your eye you'll want to book tickets sooner rather than later. The Location: San Francisco. The Festival: Outside Lands. The Background: Staged in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, this three-day festival plays host to rock's and hip hop's biggest stars The Dates: August 12-14. The Acts: Muse, Phish, Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, DeadMau5, the Shins, MGMT, Erykah Badu, The Roots, and more. The Price: Most of the general admission tickets have already been sold out, but the regular 3-day ticket from $199.50 still has (limited) availability. The Location: Chicago. The Festival: Lollapalooza. The Background: Staged in Chicago's Grant Park, Lollapalooza has been a summer festival staple for the last 20 years. With more than 115 acres to showcase the 130+ diverse artists and bands, it's sure to pack in the fans. The Dates: Aug. 5-7. The Acts: Eminem, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Muse, My Morning Jacket, DeadMau5, A Perfect Circle, Cee Lo Green, and more. The Price: The early bird special is already sold out, but the regular 3-day pass is available and starts from $215. The Location: The Black Rock Desert, Nev. The Festival: Burning Man. The Background: Burning Man hosts 48,000 people in the middle of the Nevada Desert for a week to be "part of an experimental community" where art, music, and self-expression take center stage. It is up to each participant to decide how they will contribute to this year's theme, Rites of Passage. The Dates: August 29-September 5. The Acts: You! The Price: Tickets start from $210. The Location: East Hampton, N.Y. The Festival: MTK: Music to Know Music Festival. The Background: The inaugural Music to Know Music Festival will be staged at the East Hampton Airport over two days in August. Vampire Weekend and Bright Eyes are set to headline, and will be joined by 16 other bands. The Dates: Aug. 13-14. The Acts: Vampire Weekend, Bright Eyes, Matt & Kim, Cold War Kids, Chromeo, Tame Impala, M. Ward, and more. The Price: Tickets start from $195. The Location: Canterbury Park, Minn. The Festival: Soundset. The Background: This "festival of hip hop" has been around since 2008, and offers over nine hours of music from 40 artists on two stages. The Dates: May 29. The Acts: Atmosphere, Big Boi, De La Soul, Slaughterhouse, Brother Ali, and more. The Price: Tickets start from $38. The Location: Bethlehem, Pa. The Festival: Musikfest. The Background: For ten days in August, this city nestled in the Lehigh Valley will play host to famous rock 'n roll, pop, and country artists, with venues both in the historic district, and the south side SteelSacks. The Dates: Aug. 5-14. The Acts: Stone Temple Pilots, Maroon 5, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Miller Band, Alison Kraus & Union Station, Steely Dan, Train, Gavin DeGraw, and more. The Price: Tickets start from $34. The Location: State College, Pa. The Festival: The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. The Background: Known simply as Arts Fest, State College brings about 125,000 people to its downtown to celebrate art, music, and culture of central Pennsylvania. Now in its 51st year, Arts Fest has rock and roll, bluegrass, jazz, and more, as well as great family options, including "Children's Day" on the 13th. The Dates: July 13-17. The Acts: Billy Bauer Band, Straight Drive, The Ultra Kings, and more. The Price: It's free! The Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Festival: Osheaga. The Background: Since 2006, Osheaga has brought together musical artists from diverse backgrounds, both local and internationally renowned. Staged on Montreal's Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène, Osheaga has played host to more than 70,000 music fans. The Dates: July 29-31. The Acts: Eminem, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, The Flaming Lips, Death Cab For Cutie, Cypress Hill, KiD CuDi, Lupe Fiasco, Janelle Monáe, and more. The Price: The three day festival, general admission tickets start from $225 ($217CAD). The single-day, general admission tickets start from $78 ($75CAD). The Location: Manchester, Tenn. The Festival: Bonnaroo. The Background: Bonnaroo is a four-day camping festival on a 700-acre farm where people are all about the music, man. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, the acts are primarily rock and roll, but hip-hop, jazz, and electronica also play in the 100-acre entertainment village. The Dates: June 9-12. The Acts: Eminem, Arcade Fire, Widespread Panic, The Black Keys, Buffalo Springfield, My Morning Jacket, Lil Wayne, and more. The Price: Tickets start from $155. The Location: Austin. The Festival: Austin Wine & Music Festival. The Background: The two day festival combines wine-lovers, beer-lover, and music-lovers in Northwest Austin's The Domain where fans can enjoy the home-grown talent. The Dates: May 28-29. The Acts: Deadman, Dirty River Boys, Kimberly Kelly, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, and more. The Price: Tickets start from $35 for a one-day pass. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Vote now for World's Best Cruiser! Would you pay for American's new pay-per-view movies? Cheaper fares for sneaky risk takers
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.? SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Bypassing International Roaming Plans Using Your Cell Phone in Europe Do You Turn Your Cell Phone Off on Planes?