Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Fake Reviews of Dubai Hostels on HostelWorld.com

By Glenn Campbell, June 15, 2015

I love HostelWorld.com. It has opened the world to me more than any other tool apart from the airplane. Whenever I travel to a new city, this website means I can find a safe, comfortable place to sleep, endorsed by the reviews of previous guests.

But what happens when those guests aren't real? In the course of my planning for a round-the-world trip, I stumbled on a hostel operator in Dubai who has fabricated at least 39 positive reviews for his properties, obviously attempting to counteract his many negative reviews. Generating fake reviews is easy enough to do: You just create a bogus account on HostelWorld, make a reservation for your property, then leave a review after the reservation date has passed. (You pay a reservation fee but don't have to pay for the bed.)

Check out the hostels in question (2 in Dubai and 1 in Minsk) and look carefully at the reviews.

Notice that all of the positive reviews are from "Novice Nomads" whose only activity on HostelWorld consists of glowing reviews of these three properties. Each of these reviewers has changed their nationality, sometimes their language and even their gender in the course of writing superlative reviews each of these properties and no others. All of these reviews are in the 85% to 100% range.

Most of the reviews from experienced travelers are poor. Here is one offering a 34% rating....
There is no facilities at all and the toilet is extremely dirty and disorganized. The place is an "office" in a commercial building with 5 bunk beds, one toilet and one sink. There is a small round table for four people and a wardrobe.
I count seven dubious Novice Nomads who have each left reviews for only these three properties. Here they are: User1, User2, User3, User4, User5, User6, User7, How likely is it that one person, new to hosteling, would just happen to stay at all three hostels from the same operator? Furthermore their nationality changes in each review. How likely is is that one person would stay at all three hostels and change their nationality twice? There are 9 more Novice Nomads who reviewed only the two Dubai hostels while switching nationalities. All the positive reviewers are "Anonymous", whereas many of the negative reviews are not.

One reviewer not only changed their nationality (from Norway to Czech Republic to Canada) but also changed their gender.... (See review at top and click to enlarge)

The value of HostelWorld depends entirely on the veracity of their user reviews. My faith in their system has been shaken because they have taken no action more than two weeks after I first alerted them. In that time, at lot of innocent travelers have been seduced by an fraud facilitated by HostelWorld. It seems they are not really committed to keeping reviews honest.

My two emails to HostelWorld received replies but no action. When I first emailed on May 24, 2015. Alejandro at HostelWorld wrote: "We will appreciate your feedback and we will look into this matter internally in order to clarify if there is any sort of issue."

Two days later (May 27), I emailed Alejandro links to all 16 of the fake reviewers I identified (Novice Nomads who reviewed more than one of the properties and no others). He wrote back: "We are investigating this issue directly with the hostel in order to clarify if there was any sort of irregularity."

It is now June 15. In the meantime, dozens of innocent traveler have probably been booking these hostels thinking the ratings are higher than they really are. What sort of investigation is needed? At least 39 reviews are provably fake, and dozens more are suspicious (Novice Nomads who have produced only one review). How long does HostelWorld need?

I can't see the necessity to "clarify with the hostel" when their reviews are physically impossible (like the reviewer changing both their nationality and gender).. What kind of clarity can be expected?

I have now doubt that these phony hostels will eventually be removed from HostelWorld, especially if I keep harassing them about it. The real question now is how long it will take. Here we have overwhelming evidence of fraud by an operator who isn't very bright. If HostelWorld can't act quickly on this one, you begin to question every hostel listing.

When HostelWorld finally does remove these hostel listings, what is going to happen to people who have already booked these hostels. Are they going to arrive in Dubai to a hostel that isn't what it claims to be or that might not even exist? Will they be informed of the fraud?

My own solution: I booked a regular hotel on Expedia for only about $10 more.

MORE EVIDENCE - June 20, 2015

Looking through the reviews for Easyflat 12 Dubai, I find some interesting new data. Here are the latest reviews to date, which are pretty dismal. (Click to enlarge.)

But scrolling down one page, here are the reviews right after the 71% one...

All in the 97-100% range! There is a series of 6 reviews like this, all from people who supposedly stayed at the hostel between March 15 and March 17, 2015, then it's back to the dismal reviews again, spread over a wider range of time.

Those six glowing reviews are from Novice Nomads with only one review each. That means they aren't even counted in my official tally of 39 verified fakes. (I can't prove they are fake, but they are certainly suspicious.)

Reading the authentic reviews is quite enlightening. The owner is said to have five apartments. He is regarded as a nice guy, but he is clearly in over his head.

- G.C.


Friday, May 29, 2015

My Gezi Park video in "Mein Leben unter Erdogan" Documentary

By Glenn Campbell

A least one of the videos I shot during the Istanbul Gezi Park protests in 2013 now appears in a German documentary available online.

The documentary, in German, is Mein Leben unter Erdogan (My Life Under Erdogan). The 3-part program consists mainly of Skype interviews with participants in the protest. I haven't located my own footage yet, but it is probably shots of the peaceful parts of the protest on June 6.

My original video was Turkish Woodstock, a 16-minute video taken June 6, 2015. I also experienced the joy of teargas on June 15 in this 9-minute video during the crackdown: Teargas for Everyone.

My still photos from the protest are in several albums, starting with Gezi Park. Other albums are found in my Istanbul Index.

I'm glad I could be of assistance to real journalists.

My videos...

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Encounter with Eric Harroun, American Jihadist

By Glenn Campbell, Sept. 5, 2014

When I travel, I don't go looking for trouble. I am deeply concerned about my own safety. I may visit places like Kosovo and Bosnia that were once dangerous, but I'm careful to avoid active war zones and places my government advises me not to go. I would never go anywhere near the Syrian conflict, but I have been to Istanbul several times, and on one of these trips, I encountered an American who was heading there to fight.

In November 2012, in a hostel in Istanbul, I met an American military veteran named Eric Harroun, who was heading to Syria to fight against the forces of Assad in Syria. I happened to share a hostel bunkroom with him, and he became my Facebook friend.  Eric is deceased now, but not from anything that happened in Syria. He died of a drug overdose in Arizona in April 2014. While the manner of his death was unexpected, the fact of his death did not surprise me at all. I knew it was coming from the day I met him. Now that it has actually come to pass, I want to tell you why I believed his days were numbered.

There has been plenty written about Eric on the web (including an article in the
New York Times and a Wikipedia entry), but all of the articles I have seen have neglected a key fact: He was profoundly brain damaged.

Eric was a US Army veteran during the early era of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, but according to Wikipedia, he never saw combat: "He was discharged after a jeep crash at his base in Fort Riley, Kansas, which left him with a serious head injury, resulting in a metal plate being inserted into his head by doctors" (apparently in 2003). This is consistent with what he told me in Istanbul.

Here is a Facebook video of Eric taken by another guest at the hostel. You can see the scar from his brain surgery, and you can gauge his general frame of mind.

It was obvious to me that Eric was mentally disabled. You couldn't tell it from the outside, but if you spent a little time with him, you could see how skewed his judgment was, even in a relatively safe place like Istanbul. We shared a bunkroom at the hostel for at least a week, during which time he exhibited numerous lapses of judgment in normal everyday tasks, like navigating the city. His brain just didn't work right.
Eric spoke Arabic. I asked him how he learned it, and he said his father came from an Arabic country. (I don't recall; Lebanon perhaps?) I don't know how much of the language he learned from his father and how much he learned later, but obviously having a parent who knows a foreign language gives you a running start. In Eric's case, I think speaking Arabic was a very dangerous thing. It gave him a pass to visit all the danger zones of the Middle East, and his brain injury meant he had no critical judgment holding him back.

In short, there was not an ounce of common sense in that boy. In heading for Syria, he had no clear idea what he was fighting for or against. He seemed to have little grasp of the factional nature of the Assad opposition. I think he was seeking out an adrenaline thrill but had none of the critical thinking skills or self-preservation instincts that keep any normal thrill-seeker alive.

My very first memory of him was in the hostel common area one afternoon (somewhere around Nov. 27, 2012). He had just come in from the streets of Istanbul after an hours-long expedition, and he was describing the ordeal he had gone through. He was trying to find an address in Istanbul. According to his own account, he kept asking people for directions, but he spoke to them in Arabic. He would have been much better using English. People said, "We don't speak Arabic here. We speak Turkish." It was incomprehensible to Eric that a Muslim country would not speak Arabic, so he kept using it. Eric eventually found the address he was looking for, but it took him many times longer than it would take anyone else.

At this point, I had no idea about his Syrian aspirations. I was only thinking, "What a jerk!" I had seen it many times: One of my fellow countrymen making a fool of himself in a foreign country. Some people should never be given passports because they only get themselves in trouble overseas, and I pegged Eric as one of them. Nonetheless, our relationship from that point on was friendly.

A few hours later, we were in the bunkroom together, exchanging the usual pleasantries—Where are you from? Where are you going? etc. That was when he told me about his plans to go to Syria to fight Assad. I was aghast! Here was a guy who couldn't even navigate the streets of a "safe" city, and he was heading into a war zone where nothing is clear. At this point, the Syrian Civil War had been going on for a year and a half, and things were already messy. There were factions fighting Assad who couldn't be regarded as any better (what we now know as "ISIS").

Eric was completely unable to grasp any nuance in the conflict. To him, things were black and white: Assad was bad, and anyone opposed to Assad was good. As I learned about his brain injury, I began to see that his lack of nuance judgment was probably organic. Some part his brain's higher functions had been damaged. It might have been an interesting case for Dr. Oliver Sacks to study, but in these circumstances I quickly saw that his disability would inevitably lead to death.

Eric and I were roommates for a little more than a week, so I got to know him fairly well. He told me about his previous visits to Egypt during their unrest. I had been to Egypt, too—during a lull in the storm—but even in a period of relative peace, the country frightened me. Eric had been deliberately diving into the most dangerous protests, with no regard for his own safety. One of the people he met in Egypt was now fighting in Syria, and Eric planned to hook up with him at the border. I can't remember why Eric was staying so long in Istanbul, but it may have been related to difficulties in contacting that person. According to Wikipedia, Eric crossed into Syria on Jan 7, 2013, about 6 weeks after I met him, and was already in trouble three days later, separated from his unit and apparently as lost as he was on the streets of Istanbul.

Things got interesting when I told Eric I had been to Israel several times. You could tell he had trouble processing this, since it was neither black nor white. In his simple world-view, anyone who had anything to do with Israel was automatically the enemy. His brain couldn't differentiate any subtleties within a category. On the other hand, I was an American, standing right in front of him, obviously not a threat. I pointed out that I had also visited Palestine and Egypt and that visiting Israel didn't mean I agreed with their policies. From that point on, Eric referred to me as a Mossad agent, but our relations remained warm. When he accepted my friend request on Nov. 30, he understood I was a potential Israeli agent (in his view) but apparently felt okay about it.

Getting to know Eric, I started becoming really worried about him. He had an obvious mental disorder, and I felt he faced almost certain death in Syria. If I were a rebel leader, I wouldn't want him fighting on my side because his judgment was so poor. Because he was an American, he was more likely to become a political pawn. Even if Assad was bad, Eric was not going to help anyone's cause by going to Syria. He was just going to get himself killed—or worse: captured by one side or the other.

One evening, I decided to give him a friendly talk, trying to dissuade him from going to Syria. I gave it my best. I repeated back to him his own observation that his brain had been "totally fucked up" by his injury. I said something to the effect of: "You have no judgment, dude! Your brain injury has taken it away from you. It took you three hours in Istanbul finding an address anyone else could find in twenty minutes. If you get out there in a war zone, you won't be able to tell friend from foe. Not everyone fighting Assad is good. Some of those guys could be just as dangerous as Assad's forces, but because of your brain injury, you won't be able to tell the difference. If you go to Syria, you are going to die, dude. I don't know how to put this more bluntly: You are going to die!"

Eric listened respectfully and said he would think about what I said, but I knew I didn't have any effect on him. His actions weren't under rational control, so nothing I said would stop him.

I felt comfortable after that. At least I tried.

I friended him on Facebook and followed his posts. A few weeks after I left Turkey, he posted photos and videos of himself in Jihadist garb, seeming to wage war against Assad's forces. In my mind, it was all for show. I think the social media postings making him seem like a Jihadist fighter were more important to him than anything he actually did in Syria. According to the Wikipedia page, he was only in Syria for a little more than a month (Jan 7 to Feb 10, 2013), just enough time to collect some war stories and lots of good material for Facebook.

To me, his most remarkable accomplishment in Syria was that he came out alive!

Via Istanbul, he eventually made his way back to the USA, where he was arrested. The only reason he was arrested (I read in another article) was that he went to the U.S. Government and explicitly told them he had been in Syria fighting Assad. The government didn't come to him; he want to them! This is consistent with the Eric I knew, seeing things in black and white and possessing no critical judgment whatsoever. As far as I knew, he was incapable of lying or hiding his intent—which isn't necessarily a good thing. He was a loyal American, so why shouldn't he tell his government what he had been up to? His prosecution was public, and there were a lot of news articles about it. None of the articles seemed to pick up on his brain injury.

When I learned of Eric's arrest, I was relieved! At least that meant he was safe. Up to that point, his intention was to return to Syria to continue the fight (or so he claimed). At least being arrested meant he would stay alive a little longer.

But Eric couldn't escape his brain injury. When I learned he had died a few months ago, I wasn't surprised. One way or another, he was a time bomb waiting to go off. Dying of a drug overdose was plausible to me, because he didn't have the judgment to, say, decide how much drugs were too much. There were worse ways to die, like being beheaded on an ISIS video. Eric at least died painlessly without causing as much distress to others as he might have.

I don't regret meeting Eric. It was a window into a piece of history. The important thing to me is that I made a reasonable effort to dissuade him. I probably wasn't the only one. I'm sure his family was deeply distressed by the direction his life went, but I doubt there was anything they could have done either. It all came down to that brain injury in 2003. From that point on, his critical judgment was gone and his fate was sealed.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Transatlantic Airfare Tips: How to Hop the Pond for Less

By Glenn Campbell (updated Sept. 22, 2014)

I fly to Europe from the USA about twice a year, always on an extremely tight budget. Compared to airfares within the USA, transatlantic fares are atrocious, but here are some ways to find the lowest fares. I never spend more than $800 for a roundtrip, even with some fancy stopovers, and I have occasionally found fares as low as $600. The article contains my tips for getting across the pond for the lowest airfare possible, honed over about 5 years of active travel.

Airfare is the most significant trip component for a budget US visitor to Europe. You can speculate about where you may want to go and stay, but you have to nail down your airfare before anything else. Once you have a cheap airfare across the pond, everything else can be worked out. Cheap airfares within Europe often mean your best bet is to land in an obscure city then take a train or cheap flight to your intended destination. If you are into hosteling, then your ground accommodations can be quite affordable, but you have to get across the pond first.

Taxes and fees make up a huge portion of transatlantic airfares, far more than flying either within USA or within Europe. They often dwarf the actual fare (as shown above: my 2013 NYC-Warsaw trip with a stopover in London: Airfare $128. Taxes/fees $670.). The taxes and fees are the main reason low airfares are so fare. A round-trip airfare of about $700 is the best you can expect. In the summer (June-August) fares go sky-high. In that case, anything under $1000 r/t would be golden. The rest of the year, even around Christmas, you are aiming for a fare of $700-800.

Whatever time of year you travel, don't get discouraged when the first fares you see are high. There is always a way if you are willing to be creative and land in an unexpected place. Once you hop the pond, airfares within Europe are comparable to those within the USA, and there are plenty of bargains to be had.

To find the lowest fares, just plug a lot of different city pairs into Expedia or another travel site. Start with the cities you most want to visit then experiment with others. Think of creative ways to get where you want to go. The main obstacle is the Atlantic Ocean, once you're over that, there are a lot of options for getting around within Europe. It costs you nothing to plug city pairs into Expedia, so do it recklessly!
Here are some specific tips on working with Expedia and other travel resources....

  • On the US side, always start with NYC. Transatlantic fares out of New York are usually far cheaper than from anywhere else on the continent, even if you have to pay for a separate connecting flight to get there. (Always search for the code "NYC", not JFK, so you include flights out of EWR.) After you find a low NYC airfare, you can experiment with other USA cities heading to that same European destination.
  •  CHI, WAS, QLA, QSF, ATL, MCO, MIA, YYZ and BOS are often worth checking too, but most of my transatlantic journeys start in New York.
  • Fares to Eastern Europe cities are usually lower than "old" European cities like Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, even when changing planes in those expensive cities. Try Warsaw, Istanbul, Riga, etc. Getting to Moscow always seems to be cheap (fares around $700 r/t) but the visa process is hell if you plan to leave the airport. (Here are my Russians visa tips, even though my effort failed.)
  • Check Expedia frequently for rogue fares. A "rogue fare" is my term for a low airfare the appears only for a short time in an unexpected place. They could pop up anywhere, and you find out about them only by checking airfares frequently. An exceptional fare would be around $600-700. If you see a great fare, book it immediately. On Expedia, you have 24 hours to ask for a full refund—a feature I use liberally.
  • In 2014, Copenhagen was a surprising low-fare city. Try it! I flew from JFK to CPH for $748 r/t, and such fares were consistently available in late 2014, even booking at the last minute. Copenhagen itself is horrendously expensive (twice the prices as the USA, with hostels starting at $40), but it is easy to get directly from the airport to Germany by train. For example, you can get off your flight at CPH in the morning, board a train directly from the airport terminal and be in Hamburg or Berlin by the end of the day. In Germany, you'll find prices about the same as the USA. Train tickets can be booked online at Bahn.de.
  • My experience in Copenhagen suggests you should never discount Scandinavia for low fares. The fact that the cities are expensive doesn't necessarily mean airfares are.
  • In theory, you could book a trip to a cheap Eastern Europe city, then get off the plane in, say, London. Unfortunately, your luggage has to go all the way to your destination. I also worry that my remaining legs may be cancelled if I fail to get on a connecting flight. (Probably not a real risk, but I can't be positive.) This system works better on the US side, where you can, say, abort your journey in New York when you change planes there. In USA, your luggage is always returned to you at the first city you land in, so you can clear customs, and you have to recheck your luggage for connecting flights. Such is not true when you land in, say, AMS. In Europe, you won't see your luggage until your final destination, so it is best to stick with your booked itinerary. 
  • Use cut-rate carriers to get around within Europe for a song. (See this great overview of European Discount Airlines on Wikitravel. I have have good experiences with EasyJetPegasusAir Baltic.) Many of these airlines are not listed on Expedia and other travel sites. You have to go directly to their websites. Play with dates and book ahead for the best fares. (Be aware that these airlines hit you with extra charges whenever they can, including checked bags and even checking in at the airport instead of online. Read the fine print.)
  • Check the Deutsche Bahn website for train fares within Europe. Train is often a good alternative to flying within Europe. Low fares require only a minimal advance purchase. The Bahn site allowed you to immediately book trains that begin or end in Germany. For other trains, the site is useful mainly for schedules.
  • Once you find a low cost round-trip transatlantic airfare to a city you are interested in, try experimenting with stopover options in gateway cities like Paris and London. You can often get a 24 hour stopover at little or no additional charge. (If you stay longer, the price will probably go up.)
  • Once you have identified a low airfare out of NYC, try using multicity options to return to a different USA city. For example roundtrips out of Cleveland may be expensive, but a multicity trip that starts in New York City and ends in Cleveland may not be. (All you have to add is the separate one way leg from Cleveland to NYC. Be sure to allow a lot of time to connect, since the airline won't protect you if the separate first leg is late.)
  • Also experiment with multicity legs within Europe, and see what you get. Sometimes visiting a Eastern European city with a long "stopover" in London or Paris can be cheaper than a round trip to London or Paris, even if your main destination is London or Paris.
  • The Westway Hotel is my fallback hostel lodging when connecting in NYC via LGA. Located about a 10-minute bus ride from LGA and under and hour by subway from JFK. Not romantic but always $40 a night. If only JFK is involve, not LGA, then try the Q4 Hotel or the NY Loft Hostel, which are convenient by subway to the airport.
  • Note: The cost of getting from the airport to the city can be non-trivial in Western Europe. You need to factor it into your budget. Check the airport's official website for guidance. If train seems to expensive, look into an airport bus.
  • Be conscious of the frequent flyer miles you are accruing, since they can be huge. One round trip to Europe can sometimes get you half the miles you need for free round-trip within the USA, or get you much closer to elite status. Faced with comparable airfares from different airlines, frequent flyer benefits usually guide my choice. I'm even willing to pay a $100 premium for the right FF miles.
  • Consider flying Icelandair. Their fares are competitive with other airlines, but they allow you a free stopover in Iceland. (Icelandair has useless frequent-flier benefits, however. No reciprocal airlines.) See my Iceland Travel Advice.
  • Aeroflot is often the cheapest airline to Eastern Europe. You don't need a visa to connect because you will not be leaving the transit area (like Edward Snowden), but apparently there is a passport check there, which makes me uncomfortable. Before the Ukraine problems in 2014, I was willing to fly Aeroflot, but until Ukraine is settled, I regard it is risky. Not any physical danger, but your flight could be cancelled if tensions escalate.
  • Fun fact: In the summer, it is about the same price to fly from JFK to India as it is to fly from JFK to London.
  • If you want to fly between cities within Europe, plug-in a lot of different dates and city pairs Into Expedia. Fares can vary widely from day to day and city to city. On Expedia, I have encountered a lot of low "rogue fares" popping up in unexpected places. Remember that you can use the train to connect from a low-fare city to the one you actually want to go to. Cut-rate carriers often fly out of obscure airports you never heard of.
  • Eastern Europe and Western Europe are different economies. Eastern Europe prices can be half of those of Western Europe for things like food, lodging and ground transportation. Eastern Europe however is just as safe, modern and easy to get around for an English speaker as Western Europe.
  • Train travel can be expensive within Western Europe, almost as much is flying, but it is usually cheap in Eastern Europe. Also look into luxury buses between Eastern European cities. In Western Europe, buying your tickets a few days in advance can greatly reduce the cost.
  • In my younger years, I used a Eurail Pass to loaf around Europe. Now I consider it not a particularly good deal. You can do a lot better with point-to-point fares on a variety of modes (plane, train, bus).
  • For a visitor from USA, only Russia and Belarus require pre-arranged visas. (And the Russian one is extremely difficult. See my Russia visa article.) Nonetheless, be sure to look into the US state department's advice on travel and visas for every country you are visiting.
  • Learn how to Hostel! It means you can find cheap accommodations wherever you go and at any season. Hosteling also gives you contact with a lot of other travelers for advice on where to go and how to get around. See hostelworld.com. Personally, I would stay in hostels even if I could afford the Hilton.
  • There is usually no compelling reason to buy an airfare more than a month or two before traveling, except perhaps in the summer. You don't usually get a cheaper fare, but you are restricting your ability to change or to come up with something even better. I usually buy my own airfares about a month in advance and have still gotten some ridiculously cheap ones. Nonetheless, once you know you are travelling, kept checking airfares on your preferred travel sites. If you are traveling in summer and see a fare for under $1000, you might want to grab it.
  • Travel sites like Expedia give you a 24 hour grace period after you purchase your ticket to obtain a full refund. (You cancel the flight right on the website.) This means when you see a low fare, you can grab it right away. Then you have 24 hours to piece together other elements of your trip and decide whether you really want it.
  • All forms of transportation—ground and air—can bog down in Western Europe in July and August. Advanced planning of intercity legs is important then. The rest of the year you can be much more relaxed and just work things out when you get there. (June is a more relaxed month and a good time to travel. Only the airfare is a barrier.)
  • Don't over-plan the ground portion of your visit. It's hard to know what you are going to want to do until you get there. Just go with the flow. I don't bother reading travel books or doing much research before I arrive. (I'd rather just go there than waste time reading about going there.) With the Internet at your hostel, you can bring a laptop and work on it all out once you get there.
  • When should you buy, and when should you wait? That's probably the most difficult issue of all. If you find a low-fare online it is tempting to buy it right away. You lock in the low fare, but you also lock out any better option that you can't yet foresee. Deciding when to buy is more of an art than a science. It rests on your experience with airfares but also in your knowledge of yourself. Many people just can't handle ambiguity in their plans. They are under pressure to buy now, but they may regret it when they see what they've overlooked. Others delay and put off the purchase too long, and then the low airfares are gone. You have to find a balance between the two.
  • I found some surprisingly low transatlantic fares for selected dates on Norwegian Airlines (Oslo, etc). They have a fare calculator to show you the dates of the lowest fares. I constructed a hypothetical fare in November 2013 of $400 roundtrip from NYC, including tax. (Luggage, seat selection and meal for $69 more.) Also Fort Lauderdale to Oslo for similar pricing. This airline is not listed on major travel websites (and probably doesn't give useful FF miles).
  • It's fine to use a website like Expedia to search for airfares, but when it comes to actually buying the airfare you have found, consider using the airline's own website. The reason: If you have to make changes, you can deal directly with the airline. If you book through a "travel agent" (which includes Expedia and other websites) then the airline may require you to do it through them.

  • Note: The blacked out city in the image above is Warsaw. (I didn't want to reveal that when I first created this entry.) Yes, that's a round trip transatlantic airfare of $123 (plus taxes and fees), including a 24-hour stopover in London.

    Tuesday, April 30, 2013

    Porterville, California Police Nab Illicit Park Photographer

    Porterville, California, April 27, 2013. The photo above that I took in a city park earned me a visit and lengthy interview from the local police department. In the course of the encounter, the officer took a photo of me and even asked me for my shoe size! Here is the full story:

    I was on a week-long "working vacation" in California, doing some sightseeing but also working on a book. I had just visited Sequoia National Forest and I was now in this small Central Valley city just below the mountains. I was sitting in my rental car in a city park (Murry Park) working on my computer when this couple appeared directly in front of me. I couldn't resist the free photo op! I picked up my camera from the car seat beside me and took six frames while still sitting in the drivers seat of the car. (The best photo is above.) I was using a telephoto lens (on my Canon 60D), so the couple was actually quite far away. The "bride" said, "Hey, he's taking pictures!" at which point I stopped shooting, put down the camera, smiled and waved. I didn't want to make them uncomfortable. My whole photo shoot lasted 20 seconds at most. The group got back into the car next to mine. Although my windows were open and they were just a few feet away, they didn't say anything to me.

    (I assumed at the time that it was a wedding couple, but a friend points out that these are probably prom outfits. Not elaborate enough for a wedding, and the "groom" is wearing sneakers.)

    About an hour after they left, an officer of the Porterville Police Department arrived in a cruiser. He said that someone has reported me for taking photos. (It could only have been the prom party, and I assume it was the girl, since she was the only one who seemed to notice me.) The officer was very friendly and agreed that I was doing nothing illegal, but we had a very long interview anyway (with him standing outside my vehicle and me inside with a computer on my lap). I was asked about who I was, where I had been, where I was going. I was happy to answer, because I had nothing to hide. The officer took my licence back to his cruiser where he said he was filling out a written report. Then he came back to the car and asked if he could take my photo (with a small camera he brought from his cruiser). I laughed at that! I said that since I was taking photos of the wedding party without their permission, I couldn't object to him taking a photo of me! He asked me to step out of the car for the photo, which I did. I gave him a big smile as he took a photo of me standing in front of my rental car.

    After that, he asked me more information for his report. He asked for my height, and I pointed out that it was on my driver's licence which he held in his hand. He also asked for my social security number (which was not on my license) and my phone number. He then asked for my shoe size. I drew the line at this. I laughed and told him I was asserting my "Miranda rights" and I refused to give him my shoe size. He guessed that my shoe size was 10, but I refused to confirm or deny this information. The officer completed his report; we chatted a bit, and he left.

    My actual photography of the couple lasted no more than 20 seconds. Six quick photos. The interview with the officer lasted about 20 minutes. The officer never asked to see the photos I had taken, and I did not offer to show them to him. Although the encounter was cordial, the incident struck me as petty and a senseless waste of police resources. Can you imagine the LAPD responding to a complaint like this and spending so much time on it? (I'm sure the first question of LAPD dispatchers would be, "What law has allegedly been violated here?") What was the bigger personal intrusion: my photography or the police interview?

    After the officer left, I decided it was time to depart the park. I moved to the parking lot of the local Walmart, where I knew I wouldn't be hassled, and I continued working on my computer for a few hours. (I was publishing a new ebook, "Kilroy Cafe".) After nightfall, I decided to leave Porterville forever.

    But leaving Porterville wasn't so easy. Rather like a Stephen King novel where a character tries to get out of a small rural town but can't. The story continues...

    During this week-long visit to California, I was sleeping in my rental car at night. I usually have no problem with this. The weather was nice, and I usually choose my overnight parking locations well, so people don't notice me. Sometimes I sleep in Walmart parking lots, but it was too warm for that. I needed a remote place to park where I could open the car windows.

    After dark, I headed out of Porterville toward the west, until I thought I was beyond the city limits. I didn't want another encounter with the Porterville police! I found what I thought was an empty desert area near an aquaduct. It was dark, but I saw no habitation around, so I pulled into the desert, well away from the road.

    I went to sleep in the back seat, only be wakened about an hour later by... another police officer! He was in a different uniform and a different style of car, so I assume he was a county officer. He said that a neighbor had reported me. I was surprised, because I looked around me and could see no neighbors, just dark desert. The officer agreed that I wasn't doing anything wrong, but he took my license back to his cruiser.

    When he returned to my car, he commented on my camera on the passenger seat, which suggested to me that he now knew about the earlier photography incident.

    "You weren't out here taking pictures of people were you?" he asked.

    I assured him that I was here only to sleep. (I did not bother to point out to him that, in this location, there was no one to take pictures of!)

    The officer did not tell me that sleeping in a car was illegal, and he did not ask me to move, but I offered to move anyway. He agreed that this was probably a good idea because the current situation we "just a little creepy." He suggested the I go back to town and sleep in the Walmart parking lot.

    At this point, there was NO WAY I was returning to Porterville! I could imagine this thing growing bigger and bigger, with vague suspicions about this outsider continuing to grow until they found something to charge me with.

    After the county officer left, I got back on the road and continued west. Although it was late, I was now determined to get out of this county as quickly as possible! I drove for a hour until I was sure I was beyond Tulare County. I found a safe parking place near the main freeway, and I got at least a few hours sleep without further interruption.

    Nice town, Porterville. I can tell people are concerned about safety. When you urge people, "If you see something, say something," they apparently take it seriously. And without much crime, police apparently have a LOT of time to investigate suspicious activities. Still, for a guy like me, engaged in "unusual" activities or lifestyle, this small town Utopia can get tired really fast.

    I'm still in the desert as I write this (near Palmdale on April 30), but the Big City is looking really attractive right now! There, they have something called "crime", which is good in a way. At least it keeps the police occupied and off the backs of people whose only crime is being "unusual".

    If you happen to know the couple in the photo, perhaps you can forward the photo to them. (Shot April 27, 2013 around 4pm in Murry Park in Porterville, California, and photographed in Murry Park.) Here is the hi-res photo on Facebook.

    Wednesday, December 26, 2012

    Wednesday, September 26, 2012

    Tips on Applying for a Russian Tourist Visa (from one who FAILED)

    By Glenn Campbell
    Mar. 13, 2014

    To visit Russia, almost everyone needs a visa, and getting one is a convoluted process virtually unchanged since the days of the Soviet Union. My own attempt to obtain a tourist visa FAILED because I ran out of time, energy and money. But I did gain some valuable experience, which I want to share with any American who cares to try. The process is not impossible, just convoluted. To give the Russians the benefit of the doubt, let's call it "whimsical".

    In the original blog entry here (Sept. 2012), I had some hypothetical advice on obtaining a Russian tourist visa, based only on what I found on the internet. Now that I have actually gone through the process, I deleted most of the post and replaced it with the things I now know from my own direct experience.

    I was planning a visit to Moscow on a 18-day European trip, but the Russian Consulate called me in for a personal interview in New York only about 3 weeks before I was to leave home. This interrogation—er, interview—was necessary before the visa was granted. Since I was in another part of the USA at the time, it would have been prohibitively expensive to fly to New York for this interview, so I decided to throw in the towel and abort the Russian leg of my vacation. (Technically, I withdrew my visa application. It wasn't rejected.)

    (Being called in for an interview may or may not have had anything to do with the Ukrainian crisis. My airline ticket was bought long before the Russian invasion of Crimea, but my visa didn't reach the consulate until a week after it. There's no way of knowing their reasons for wanting to interview me personally, since I didn't go.)

    Expense aside, at the point where the government of Vladimir Putin calls you in for a personal interview, you have to wonder if the process is worth the vulnerability and loss of privacy. They wanted more documentation: bank statements, proof of income, evidence of real estate holdings and certificate of health insurance. This was in line with what the United States might require for a Russian wanting a visa to the USA—to assure they will go home—but for me it had become too burdensome in time, money and anxiety. Visiting Russia just wasn't important enough to me to jump through all the hoops.

    Although my own effort failed, I picked up a few bits of advice that might be helpful to another American who might want to apply for a tourist visa. The process is not impossible, just a journey in itself. Here is my advice as of March 2014...
    1. Start the visa application process EARLY, as it could take a long time to work out the defects in your application. And the process is so obtuse and poorly documented that there probably WILL be defects.
    2. USA residents are supposed submit their applications through an intermediate agency, Invisa Logisitic Services, not directly to the Russian consulate. These people are taking a cut (and a BIG cut if you want the visa mailed back to you), but the agent I dealt with at ILS was very nice. Although the process is still clunky, ILS is probably going to be a lot more user-friendly than the consulate could ever be.
    3. I strongly urge you to visit an ILS office in person to deliver your visa application, because they can tell you right away whether anything is wrong, and they might be able to correct the problem immediately. Correcting problems by mail can be awkward. Only when everything is perfect will the ILS submit the application to the consulate. (You need an appointment at ILS, but it's free.)
    4. You may be called into the Russian consulate for an interview at a time of their choosing (as I was), so you have to be prepared for it. Only the Russians know who gets called in and why. This is going to be the consulate where you made the application, so if you don't live in one of the major cities where a consulate is located, just getting to the interview could be awkward and expensive (the thing that killed the process for me).
    5. USA residents are supposed to apply for a 3-year multiple entry visa, but the forms seem to be only interested in a single trip. Apparently you are supposed to fill out the forms for your FIRST planned visit, although it doesn't really state this anywhere.
    6. The application requires copies of your plane tickets to and from Russia, so you need to book them in advance (not knowing if you are actually going to get the visa). As a hedge, I think you should book your transatlantic flights to a traditional European city that doesn't require visas (like Warsaw), then book cut-rate local flights from there into Russia. That way if you can't get into Russia, you only lose the cheap flights and can still have a nice European vacation. (Air Baltic is a great airline for getting into Russia cheaply.) DO NOT ASSUME ANY LENIENCY FROM THE AIRLINE IF YOU FAIL TO GET A VISA. (In my case, the same change/cancellation fees applied.) Once you have the 3-year visa and have made your first visit, it is safer to fly directly to Russia.
    7. The visa application itself is generated by clunky software on a Russian government website, which produces a PDF that you print out. Be sure to bring your application number and password with you to ILS, because if something is wrong with the application, they can reprint it for you while you wait. (It is awkward to get back into the application after you have printed it the first time, but I finally figured it out. Hint: go back to the topmost level.)
    8. The 3-year visa requires TWO identical visa applications. I never saw that instruction online anywhere. The ILS agent had to tell me. (Each application needs a passport photo attached.)
    9. For the three-year visa, the dates on the application are the date of your first entry into Russia and the same day three years later (or maybe the day before, I'm not sure. I would use the day before.). At least, that's what the ILS agent put on my revised application.
    10. The application requires you to list the cities you expect to visit in Russia. How are you supposed to do this for a 3-year multiple entry visa? I just listed the city I planned to visit on my first trip: Moscow. (Will you get in trouble for visiting other cities you didn't list on your original application? In the Soviet era, you probably would. These days, who knows?)
    11. You need an "invitation" to come to Russia. This is relatively easy to obtain if you plan to stay in a hostel in Moscow, like Godzilla's. For $35, they will provide an invitation sent by email. (Although even that process can be clunky. I had to email them a couple of times to get a readable JPG version.)
    12. There can be absolutely no pen marks on the application form apart from your signature and date. No scratches or white-outs. Just another way the bureaucracy tries to trip you up.
    13. The application seems to require health insurance for your stay. I used GeoBlue to get insurance for my first visit then printed out the documentation they provided. I think that was sufficient, but since I didn't get the visa, I can't be sure.
    14. Once you have the visa and have taken your first visit to Russia, it "seems" that you can come and go from Russia as you please... but don't take my word for it. The wonderful thing about Russia is YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT THE RULES REALLY MEAN.
    15. Seriously, do you really need to go to Russia? There are so many great places Americans can visit without visas (nearly all of Europe apart from Belarus and Russia). The Russian Government tries so hard to turn away tourists that you really have to be dedicated to make it happen.
    16. Needless to say, if you've got plenty of money, there are bound to be agencies and tour companies willing to relieve you of it to "help" you with the visa process. I can't give you any advice on them. At that point, my budget it burst and I'd rather hang out in "old" Europe for much less.
    The tips above only scratch the surface. The visa application process is still totally Cold War, and I didn't have the stamina to pull it off. Maybe you will do better.

    Sunday, September 23, 2012

    Washington, D.C.—Best Transportation Hub in USA!

    Sometimes even a homeless travelling dude has to lay back and chill for a while, so where does he do it without a home? It has to be someplace with mild weather where he can get by cheaply. It also has to be someplace well-connected with transportation options, especially if he doesn't know where he is going next. So where is the best place in North America to conduct such a-chill'n?

    Transportation-wise, you might think that someplace in the center of the country would be best, like St. Louis or Kansas City, where you are equidistant from the coasts and where the cost of living is low. Turns out, however, that airfares to and from these places aren't cheap. Due to competitive pressures, it is usually cheaper to fly from, say, New York to L.A. than from St. Louis to L.A. Furthermore, although the cost of living may be low in the Heartland for people who live there, there aren't many options for the traveler, like hostels or cheap intercity buses.

    You might think that New York City would be a good transportation hub, and it is, but transportation is just about all that New York offers. It's a jungle, painful to get in and out of and not the sort of place you can comfortably chill homelessly. Even the New York suburbs are dense and hard to navigate.

    So where is the best hang-out for the homeless traveler? Suburban Washington, D.C.! I'm there right now, typing in the back seat of my cheap rental car in Alexandria, Virginia. Due to the vagaries of my business (gun for hire), I don't know exactly where I will be going next, and given that fact, this is the best place in the world to be.

    I'm not interested in downtown Washington. I've already seen every tourist attraction. The suburbs are the "in" place for me, usually Virginia not far from Dulles or National airport. I rent a big full-size car and sleep in it. National airport is often a surprisingly cheap place to rent a car. This one, a spacious Impala, set me back $136/week, which is pretty cheap housing.

    In D.C., I am blessed with the nation's best selection of transportation options. There are three airports: DCA, IAD and BWI, all accessible by public transit. Wherever I need to fly to, chances are one of those airports will offer a low fare.

    D.C. is also a hub for Megabus, the new bus line the offering fares between major cities far less than Greyhound or Amtrak. I can get to New York or Philadelphia for $25 any day, which puts even more airports within my reach (PHL, EWR, JFK, LGA, RIC). Long haul routes are only about $45 to Boston, Toronto, Knoxville, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, and with connecting routes I can get as far as Florida, Minnesota or Texas. (See their system map.) Megabus can be cramped if every seat is booked, but one huge advantage is power sockets at every seat (more valuable to me than the wifi). Now, I can compute continuously from the moment I sit down.

    Amtrak is an option if you can plan ahead, but their last-minute fares are way too high. If I wanted to go to New York today, I'd be paying $153 on Amtrak but still only $25-33 on Megabus. Megabus is really what made D.C. a hub for me. If I were a foreign backpacker touring the U.S., I would fly into whatever Eastern city had the best airfares than using Megabus to tour the East Coast. Cheaper than any sort of bus or rail pass.

    The ambiance is nice in the D.C. suburbs. Here I have access to one of the two health club chains I belong to (Anytime Fitness), so showers and exercise are near at hand. Plenty of food options and other services. I can park almost anywhere to work or sleep; these suburbs are spacious enough that no one cares. I certainly have no concern for my safety in the Virginia suburbs. Demographics protect me from the rif-raff of the inner city.

    Of course, there are plenty of Walmarts in Virginia for all my supply needs (clothing, camping supplies, etc.). These would be hard to come by in the dense suburbs of New York or Boston.

    Only the summer sucks, when the humidity can be oppressive and sleeping in the car is a challenge. Cold is almost never a problem when sleeping in a car: You just close the windows and add more clothing and Walmart sleeping bags. Heat is the problem. To sleep in the car in the summer in Virginia, I would have to open all the windows for ventilation, and that means I have to be in a remote location with few mosquitoes. Good luck finding that! I would probably drive far out of D.C. in that case, perhaps to the shore where I can find some sea breeze.

    D.C. also has hostels if I need them. (See the selection on Hostelworld.) If a rental car is prohibitively expensive or I need to catch an early morning bus, I may use a hostel for the night, generally for $25 to $40. Several are within walking distance of Union Station.

    There is sightseeing here if I care to do it. While I have been to all the major D.C. attractions (my photos) there are always more obscure museums to explore. It seems that every organization wants to put some sort of museum or monument in Washington, and it would take years to visit them all.

    Did I mention that it's our nation's capital? I may be jaded from overexposure, but Washington is a city that everyone should visit. Most of the government attractions are free. "Washington" looms so large in the news, that I think every human should have some direct experience with it.

    But best to sleep in a rental car in the suburbs if you want an easy visit.

    Monday, September 17, 2012

    Travel Notes on Iceland

    I am just coming to the end of a three-day visit to Iceland. (I am writing from my hostel in Reykjavik.) I feel very comfortable here and hope to come back someday. Here are my notes—things you might not figure out with Google alone. Also see my Facebook photos: Iceland and Reykjavik and here is a Google Map of my drive
    1. Iceland is very green. (Don't believe the "ice" part. It's Greenland that's the icy one.) It seems about equivalent in terrain and climate to the north of Scotland. Supposedly, winter temperatures are as mild as New York or Toronto, but it's probably much more gray and rainy. Bring an umbrella!

    2. Iceland is basically one giant volcano. 100% of the landscape is volcanic, primarily endless lava fields covered with moss.

    3. There is hardly a tree anywhere! I found this especially surprising, because even Siberia has trees. Apparently Iceland was once forested but got pillaged of trees by the Vikings. Most of the landscape is mosses, grasses and low shrubs. At least there's nothing to obscure your view!

    4. I was surprises by the lack of obvious history. There are museums but hardly any old buildings. Almost all the buildings in Iceland look new, as though the island was settled only in the past 50 years. It is hard to find any old buildings apart from a few stone foundations. The only "history" is what you read on information signs. Although the Vikings were here for centuries, they apparently built with wood and sod, which has rotted away. What's left looks like generic modern Scandinavia.

    5. Iceland is expensive, but once you take care of food and lodging, there's not much opportunity to spend money. This is a good place to use hostels and camp to avoid outrageous lodging charges.

    6. The only hostels are in Reykjavik. I was very happy with the Kex Hostel. For a short stay or for the first couple of days of a longer one, this is a pretty good base of operations, since the main tourist sites can be done in day trips from there.

    7. You really need a rental car to do Iceland justice. You can take tours to see the sights, but it is very confining and may not be much cheaper than having your own car and stopping where you wish.

    8. The one thing I would bring next time is a sleeping bag to allow me to sleep in the car. (Even a throw-away one.) Camping supplies are available here but don't come cheap.

    9. You have to work hard to meet an actual Icelander, and there's no obvious "culture" on the surface. You come here mainly for the natural scenery not the human environment.

    10. Assuming you can find one, it seems that nearly every Icelander along the tourist tracks speaks English. You'll have no trouble getting along without knowing a word of Icelandic.

    11. Icelandic towns are spotless, sanitary and bland. Hardly worth stopping in them.

    12. There is virtually nothing in Iceland to hurt you. No significant crime and nothing poisonous. (No snakes, lizards or even frogs.) The only danger is your own stupidity walking on rocks or too close to a cliff. Iceland won't protect you from that! Even at their national parks, you can walk right up to the edge of a waterfall if you choose.

    13. In Iceland, you'll soon suffer from Waterfall Fatigue. There are so many spectacular ones that after a while stopping at every one you pass seems like a burden.

    14. "Big City" Reykjavik is only a small city in global terms (140k in the city and 200k in the area). Not a lot to see. You can do it all in a day. Add another day if you want to do the museums.

    15. Two-thirds of Iceland's tiny population is concentrated around Reykjavik. They rest of Iceland is wild and woolly (literally). You'll meet only sheep and other tourists.

    16. Easiest and cheapest way to visit Iceland is to stopover on an Icelandair flight to Europe. Stopovers of up to 7 days at no additional charge!

    17. Gas seems to be the same fixed price everywhere in the country. In Sept. 2012, it was ISK 260 per liter. That's US$8.12 per gallon! A major part of your travel budget will be gas. (I drove a small automatic getting 7 km/liter. My total cost was about IKR 21000 (US$175) for 1250 km of driving.)

    18. Most gas stations are unmanned and automated. YOU MUST HAVE A PIN NUMBER for your credit card in order to use them! (Also, be sure to inform your card issuer of your overseas travel to avoid having your card disabled for unusual charges.)

    19. My three days in Iceland were quite satisfying. I stayed at the Kex Hostel in Reykjavik all three nights. On the first full day, I visited the most popular tourist sites in the "Golden Circle". On the second full day, I took a long day trip to the big Vatnajokull Glacier and the sights along the way. On the half days on either side, I explored Reykjavik itself. There is a lot of Iceland I haven't yet explored, but I feel I got the gist and that staying longer wouldn't give me much more to remember. If I had 7 days, I would have driven the full Ring Road. (Beyond 7 days, I probably would have gone mad in Iceland!)

    20. Kex Hostel: Close to downtown. Good kitchen facilities with lots of food left behind by past guests (pasta, condiments). Free lower linen. Use your own sleeping bag or rent top linen/duvet for ISK 1000 per stay. Free parking in front of the hostel overnight, but you have to pay between 10:00 and 16:00.

    21. There are steaming volcanic springs everywhere in Iceland, but I never found any natural hot pools where you can soak. There are, however, lots of commercial and municipal hot pools where you will pay money to swim. (Not my cup o' tea, since I would rather keep moving.)

    22. The most famous commercial hot spring is the Blue Lagoon, about 10 km off the main road to the airport. To actually use the swimming facilities costs €35, but it costs nothing to visit adjoining pools or look through the glass at the fools willing to shell out the money to swim. It's not really natural, having being created as a side-effect of the nearby geothermal plant, but it's quite interesting and worth the 20km diversion to see.

    23. There is a nice municipal pool complex in Reykjavik (near the City Hostel). It's only ISK 500 (under $5), but there's nothing natural about it except the water itself. (It's modern swimming complex like you might find in Canadian cities.) It looks like other big towns have similar developed hot pools.

    24. A full drive of the "Ring Road" around Iceland would take 4 full days ( I estimate, based on my tour of 1/4 of it) stopping at all the roadside sights along the way. I might do this someday. I would be camping or sleeping in the rental car.

    25. In Reykjavik, there is a tenting campground next to the City Hostel. Outside Reykjavik, it is easy to sleep in a car or find a discreet tenting spot after dark. (You need a tent mainly because of rain.) Many tourists rent small campers, but I don't see the need for them.

    26. Fast food is limited and expensive. KFC, Taco Bell and Dominoes are in the few big town. McDonalds, Burger King and all the others are nowhere to be seen.

    27. Grocery shopping is done at chain supermarkets. (You rarely see a "mom and pop" store, even in small towns.) Iceland seems to have been Walmartted by the Bonus grocery store chain, but don't expect low prices. Prices range from 100-300% of U.S. prices. All your basic foodstuffs are available, but not much variety.

    28. When driving, the usual European rules and signage applies. No left turn on a red light. Iceland stoplights do you the courtesy of showing red and yellow just before the green, but I don't understand why. Expect lots of roundabouts!

    29. The airport is a good place to change money, both coming and going. There's no commission, and the spread is reasonable. This is especially handy when you have excess cash you need to get rid of at the end of your trip. (You change dollars/euros into Kroners outside security, but you change money in the other direction inside security.)

    30. There are signs in the airport terminal saying you can't sleep there. The airport is in a lonely location 45km from the city. You'll have to either take a pricey bus or rent a car.

    Sunday, July 8, 2012

    Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on the Cheap

    New information page on cheap travel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, posted today as a Facebook Note.