July 23, 2012
I have a big glass jar full of foreign currency; bills and coins left over from trips gone by. When I get ready to leave a place and have a substantial amount of local money, I get it changed to U.S. dollars at the airport, of course. But you always lose a couple of bucks that way, and sometimes it just takes too long to queue up at a currency exchange booth. Then, too, I generally intend to use leftover cash on a later trip, though I tend to forget I have it the next time I head to the same place.
A better way to clean out your wallet on departure is to give spare foreign currency to Unicef’s Change for Good program, which uses it to help children around the world. One big way the organization does that is with its immunization drive. Each booster costs only a few cents. “It’s an incredibly cost-effective way to save lives,” says UNICEF Senior Vice President of Private Section Partnerships and Ventures at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Rajesh Anandan.
Change for Good is supported by American Airlines and foreign carriers like Aer Lingus, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Finnair and JAL, whose employees take on the job of collecting currency in-flight and at airline clubs. Many are deeply-committed to the project, helping to decide how Unicef will spend the donations and then visiting Change for Good projects. In March, for instance, four American Airlines employees traveled to the Dominican Republic to see how the $1.34 million collected by AA Change for Good “champions” last year went to work on birth registration and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. Program revenue from 2011 also helped earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan and drought sufferers in the Horn of Africa.
Twenty-five years ago it seemed like an idea whose time had come to journalist and educator Howard Simons, who died in 1989. He proposed the plan in a Wall Street Journal editorial that was noticed by Unicef, which teamed up with Virgin Atlantic to try a pilot version of the project in 1987, raising $10,000 in just three months. Change for Good was officially launched in 1991 and is now one of the organization’s signature private sector partnerships, along with Gucci’s annual Unicef product line (kicking in up to 25 percent of an item’s price) and pro bono logistic support donated by UPS to streamline aid distribution.
So now I know what to do with my jar of foreign currency, provided I can get it through security. Actually, Change for Good accepts donations by mail, but posting the heavy jar full of Turkish liras, Cambodia riels and Irish 50-pence pieces (still accepted even though Ireland has adopted the euro) wouldn’t be cost-effective.
June 4, 2012
Even when you find affordable airfare to a great destination, the cost of lodgings—sometimes averaging over $200 a night—can be a deal-breaker. For that reason, I’ve resorted to every scheme I can think of to hold down the price of accommodations, including bunking with friends and apartment swaps. One of the best approaches I’ve found is renting a room in a college dorm when students are on summer vacation.
That’s how I once took a budget getaway up the Hudson River from New York, staying in a dorm room at Marymount College overlooking Tarrytown for $25 a night, clean sheets and towels included. I had fun touring the Rockefeller estate Kykuit and walking the old Croton Aqueduct Trail. But the best part was feeling like a freshman again.
Another college room I rented put me in the heart of literary Bloomsbury, though by comparison with my lodgings at Marymount, the University of London’s John Adams Hall seemed rather worse for the wear. My $35 room there was at the end of a dark hall with a narrow single bed, empty bookshelves and a bulletin board. That was 20 years ago, but the university still rents rooms during summer vacation in six student residences for as little as $90 a night.
It’s not as easy at it once was to find deals on campus like these, though USA Today reports that it’s still possible by getting a list of colleges in the place you want to visit and contacting their housing departments directly; even if vacation dorm rental isn’t part of the program, they’re sometimes willing to consider it in order to raise money.
One extremely attractive option is the little-known UC Santa Barbara Family Vacation Center, headquartered in a dorm with roomy suites on the university’s stunning, waterfront campus in striking distance of state park beaches, Santa Barbara cultural institutions and the Santa Ynez wine country. Actually, frequent UCSB vacationers are happy to stay put because the price ($965 per person for a week, $455 for a 4-night mini-week) includes meals, internet, housekeeping and recreation (tennis, yoga, hiking, mountain biking, infant and toddler care, kids camp), not to mention the good company of other family vacationers, many of whom return year after year.
The Summer Vacation Center has been attracting UCSB grads and their families for 40 years, but you don’t have to be an alum to take part. You do have to plan ahead, however, because reservations must be made by mid January for sessions the following summer that begin in late June and run until late August.
Talk about the benefits of higher education!
May 23, 2012
Hold on. Before you buy a new Audi, Fiat or BMW, take a look at a Volvo. Never mind the style and engineering. They’re giving away vacations.
Sound like one of those annoying TV ads? Hyperbolic. Too good to be true. Appended by fine print that makes the deal a loser.
In this case the offer is as sound as a Volvo, made to safely handle the ice and snow of the homeland.
The carmaker’s Overseas Delivery Program is for people who buy Volvos directly from the factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvos have been produced since 1927. Along with free shipping of the vehicle to a U.S. dealer, purchasers get two round-trip plane tickets to Sweden on Scandinavian Airlines and a one-night stay at a hotel in Gothenburg, giving them time to tour the Volvo Museum, where visitors learn that the brand’s name means “I roll” in Latin and that since 2010 it’s been owned by Geely Automotive, headquartered—where else?—in China. Gothenburg also has a city museum with Sweden’s only surviving Viking ship and some of the freshest seafood in Europe.
Once you get your car, which comes with European vehicle registration and insurance, you’re free to hit the road along the west coast of Sweden with its fishing villages, traditional folkways and scattering of islands. There’s Marstrand, guarded by 17th-century Carlsten Fortress, black dolomite-fringed Gullholmen and wild Hallo, where people who can tolerate cold water swim and snorkel.
Or you can head south over the Oresund Bridge to Denmark, the gateway to mainland Europe, driving the autobahn to Berlin, back roads in France, even over the Alps to Italy. Great destinations, all of them, especially in a new car. If you return the vehicle when you’re done to the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, shipping back to the U.S. is free, though a fee is charged from Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid and other drop-off points across the continent.
When I heard about the plan, I couldn’t figure out why the company would make such a generous offer. But it turns out to be a good deal for Volvo, too. “Our Overseas Delivery customers are among the best ambassadors we have for the brand,” U.S. manager Anders Robertson told me. Moreover, it saves the company money by not tying up capital while a car sits on the lot waiting for purchasers.
Too bad I’m not in the market for a car. But I may go window-shopping at a Volvo dealership, where I’ll ask a few questions about standard features before taking a seat behind the wheel, not for a test drive, but to fantasize about a trip to Europe.
May 2, 2012
When a storm dumped eight inches of snow on Rome this winter, I pored over photographs of the coated Colosseum, Forum and Piazza San Pietro, thrilled to reports of Romans shoveling streets with wooden spatulas, and above all wished I’d been there to see it. My friends in Rome reported frustration over coping with the deluge, and while there were no fatalities, the storm snarled traffic and stunned a city that thinks it only rains in winter. It made me remember the old story about how the site for Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was chosen when the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius on the night of August 4, 352, telling him to build a church where a patch of snow appeared the following morning. Santa Maria della Neve, as the basilica was originally called, duly rose on the Esquiline Hill, ever after the scene of an August 5 pontifical Mass celebrating the miracle.
Snow when you least expect it—divine apparitions notwithstanding—always seems a miracle to me, even when it wreaks havoc for travelers. My brother and I once went back-roading in northern Baja’s Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Stuck in a four-wheel drive vehicle on a rutted track leading toward 10,157-foot Picacho del Diablo, we set up camp, hoping to hike out for help the next morning. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, warm enough for shirt sleeves, but that night it snowed, leaving the two of us to shiver in front of a feisty little campfire until morning.
We’d forgotten a simple truth of geography and meteorology: the higher the elevation, the more likelihood there is of snow, in any season. It doesn’t take a genius to know that, but I forgot again on a trip to the Canary Islands, where I’d gone seeking sunshine while living in Europe a few winters ago—not an outlandish plan given that the Spanish archipelago is 100 miles off the coast of Africa at about the same latitude as the Sahara Desert.
My plane landed late at night on the main island of Tenerife, where I rented a little tin can of an economy-class car and set off for the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide on the flank of 12,200-foot Mount Teide, a 40-mile drive from the airport.
Up I went on a switchbacking road through lush forests of Canary Island pines that eventually yielded to ground-hugging broom and juniper, crossing razor-back ridges lined by steep precipices that offered heart-stopping views of lighted towns on the coast below.
Then it started to snow, at first softly and prettily. Alone on the road, I counted my blessings to be there to see it. But the dusting thickened and soon I was driving through whiteout conditions. I couldn’t believe it, but kept creeping along, eyes straining, fists glued to the wheel as the windshield wipers fought vainly against the onslaught and the car skidded. When another vehicle finally came by, headed down the mountain, I pulled over, flagged it down and hopped in the back seat, abandoning the rental to a snow bank and myself to the kindness of strangers. My saviors were a young man and woman who gave me a drink of good Spanish red wine to calm my nerves and ultimately deposited me in a hotel on the coast. I awoke the next morning to balmy blue skies, wondering if I’d only dreamed of snow. But the rental agency told me I was lucky to have made it down the mountain because the Teide road was closed, meaning I had to wait another day to reclaim the car in a tow truck.
Memory, which has some of the same white-washing propensities as snow, has resolved the nightmarish events of that night into an amazing adventure. I still tend to forget that winter is a frequent visitor at high elevations. And finding myself in snow when I least expect it will always seem to me the same kind of miracle that told a fourth-century pope where to build the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
April 26, 2012
In 2006 when the People’s Republic of China started railroad service from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—a 2,525-mile route cresting at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—people like me got in line. Though critics have seen it as yet another means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the railroad trip of a lifetime. I did think about waiting because I’d heard there were plans for a luxury version of the train, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with private-bath suites, elegant dining cars and window-lined lounges.
Then spring break came around and I couldn’t wait any longer. I flew to Lhasa and got a train ticket back to Beijing in a four-berth soft sleeper; it had pressed cotton sheets, pillows, comforters, TV monitors with headsets and oxygen canisters for victims of altitude sickness. All quite congenial at first. But it’s a 40-hour trip, so conditions deteriorated along the way (especially in the restrooms). At mealtime, passengers filed into the dining car for unappetizing food or bought noodles on the platform during brief stops.
I’d have been miserable, but every time I found myself wishing for a cup of coffee or a hot bath, all I had to do to raise my spirits was press my nose to the window. The first day we crossed the Tibetan Plateau, which looks like Utah with Alaska on top. Nameless ranges of snowcapped peaks passed by; fur-clad villagers stared at railroad crossings and yaks bolted off the tracks. The Chinese government spent millions to cross the plateau by rail, piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw and building underpasses for wildlife.
I fell asleep after a 30-minute stop in the lonely mining town of Golmud, then woke the next morning in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, decorated with sunshine and cherry blossoms. I remember passing through Xi’an, home of the terra-cotta warriors, before tucking in the second night, followed by wake-up the next morning at Beijing’s West Station.
In retrospect, I’m glad I made the trip when I did because the 5-star Beijing-Lhasa train is on what looks like permanent hold. Fifty percent owned by the flush Chinese electronic company Huawei, it’s still being touted. But Kempinski has bowed out and the perhaps too fast-and-furiously growing Chinese railway system has suffered setbacks: to wit, an accident last July on a new high-speed line in eastern China that killed 43 people and the imprisonment of the nation’s railway minister, suspected of graft.
So don’t wait for amenities on the railroad that crosses the Middle Kingdom to the Tibetan Plateau. Question your soul about the political correctness of taking a PRC train to embattled Tibet. And then, if you ask me, go.