Monday, June 22, 2009

China podcasts are available now!

We interrupt this series of blogs on how to travel cheaply to bring you this important announcement: the walking tours of Beijing I wrote for are now for sale!

I wrote and photographed a total of nine tours, with seven of them about Beijing and its environs. Right now they're available only as downloads to mobile devices, but they will be available on CD soon.

The tours are:
  • China's Great Wall: Walking on History. The Great Wall is undeniably one of China's top attractions. This tour visits several sites in the Beijing area.
  • Cuandixia: China's Village that Time Forgot. Cuandixia is a village about three hours by car from Beijing. In an effort at economic revitalization, it has turned itself into a living history museum. I've been there twice, and will go again.
  • Imperial Beijing: Tian'anmen, Forbidden City, Jingshan. This tour starts at Tian'anmen Square, the largest square in the world, and the heart and soul of China. It then crosses the street for a tour of the Forbidden City, once off limits to commoners but which is now toured by thousands of them every day. It ends at the north entrance to the Forbidden City where visitors climb to the top of Coal Hill in Jingshan Park for stunning views overlooking the Forbidden City. The park was a playground for China's royal families.
  • Beijing for Kids. This is a fun tour for kids of all ages, which provides ideas for different things to do such as visiting the world's largest inland aquarium, shopping for toys and taking pictures of silly signs.
  • A Walk Through Beijing's Past. This tour starts at Beihai Park with its landmark White Dagoba Temple. The park was a playground for China's imperial family. The photo above, of Chinese characters cut into bamboo, was taken there. The tour then goes on to explore the city's disappearing hutongs, a centuries' old style of housing that is unique to China and now giving way to 21st century modernization. The tour ends at the Soong Ching Ling House on the northeast shore of Houhai Lake. Soong Ching Line was the widow of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, first president of China, and so important in her own right she was referred to as "the mother of China."
  • Western Beijing: Boats, Blooms 'n Boots. This tour explores the Summer Palace, which is one of my favorite places to visit in Beijing. See the controversial Marble Boat, built by funds diverted from the Royal Navy. Grab a taxi to the Beijing Botanical Garden with its beautiful flower gardens and tropical conservatory; the Sleeping Buddha Temple is located inside the garden. Finally, end the day at Fragrant Hills Park which offers hiking and stunning views of the Beijing landscape from atop a hill.
  • Beijing: Finding Peace and Quiet. Beijing has millions of people and there will be times you feel like they're all visiting the Summer Palace at the same time you are. This tour provides ideas on places you can visit to escape the crowds.

The other two tours I've written are:

  • Maryhill Museum: Guarding the Columbia River Gorge. Maryhill is a fabulous little museum in southcentral Washington which overlooks the scenic Columbia River Gorge. It has the largest collection of Rodin works on the West Coast, a replica of Stonehenge which serves as a war memorial, and the first paved road in Washington State. The tour ends with a visit to Maryhill Winery with its outdoor amphitheatre for summer concerts.
  • Motorcycle Museums in Britain. Jon and I went to England in May where we visited England's top three motorcycle museums: National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham, Sammy Miller Museum in New Milton near Southampton and the London Motorcycle Museum. We also visited a couple of lesser known museums which also had motorcycles. We saw everything from the earliest motorcycles which were simply bicycles with gas engines to the Triumph Bonneville Tom Cruise rode in Mission Impossible III.

Please see my website for more information about traveling in China.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tips for traveling cheaply, part I

Jon and I do a lot of international travel. Why not? I come up with such good deals, it's stupid to stay home! Because of this, many of my friends ask me to find similar deals for them on the spot. Can't be done. You need to do your homework and that can take weeks or months.

Since 2003, here's some of the prices I've come up with for airfare and hotel:
  • Pasco, Washington, to London, 7 nights in a three-star hotel in great location, breakfast included, $800 pp.
  • Pasco to Nice, France, 7 nights in a tourist hotel, $800 pp.
  • Pasco to Munich, 7 nights in a three-star, $735 pp.
  • Portland to Beijing, 5 nights in a three-star, breakfast included, $750 pp
  • Pasco to Shanghai, 10 nights in a three-star, $1,050 pp.
  • Portland to Beijing, 12 nights in a three-star. $1,230 pp.
  • Pasco to London, 6 nights in a three-star in Birmingham and 7 nights in a four-star in London Kensington, $1,100 pp.

When we start thinking about an international trip, I start checking prices about three months ahead. If you're flexible on dates, you can pick up some really great bargains. When I was working a full-time job, I could only get a week off at a time, so we tried to leave on Saturday returning the second Sunday, which would give us nine days. But sometimes this was too expensive, so I looked at leaving other days of the week.

All but two of the trips were booked with online travel agencies, such as, Expedia or Travelocity. They'll give discounts if you buy a hotel/air fare package; sometimes, the combined price is cheaper than what the airlines want for just a ticket. On the long Beijing trip, we bought air tickets separately, and I negotiated a discount directly with the hotel because there were four of us going and we wanted to spend the whole time in one hotel. On the longer English trip, we used frequent flyer miles for the tickets (we still had to pay taxes and fees); I booked the Birmingham hotel through Expedia and the London one through

The cheap trips are after exploring all possible pricing options. I've booked a couple of trips through When we travel, we like to base ourselves in one city, and then take day trips. sometimes has great prices for short trips, if all you want is airfare and hotel. They include breakfast in any package, and you can make up your own tour program with tours they have available. We don't go for any of the extras, because they're quite a bit more expensive than what you pay if you book at your destination. But I usually start my travel pricing with them so I'll have ball park figures to work with.

I always check the airlines' websites to see what they're charging for tickets. I like it that you can stipulate flexible dates for travel. I'll then run the cheapest dates by online travel agents to see what they can come up with in an air/hotel combination. I'll do this maybe once or twice a month in the early planning stages of our trip, then weekly and finally daily the closer it gets to our desired departure date. I'll also run price checks on leaving on different days of the week as well as the same day in weeks before and after. For example, the Munich package was only good on one specific date. Prices for the day before or after were almost $1,000 per person more. So guess when we went!

Finding cheap deals takes a lot of work. It depends on how much your time is worth to you. For us, the extra time is worth it because we save so much money. It means we can spend more at our destination or on our next trip.