Friday, 25 January 2013

The Long & Winding Dollar: Saving Money While Travelling

The foldable bowl... budget saving magic.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this, he was reflecting on his two-week trek by donkey through the Cévennes mountains of France.

But who knows what his expenses were? Travelling for the sake of travel is great, but you can do so much more of it if you can make your money go further – and most 21st century travellers have many more expenses than donkey feed.

Drawing on my own travel experiences, here’s a baker’s dozen of tips on stretching your travel budget:

1. Pack light. The obvious benefit of taking minimal baggage is mobility, but it also saves cash. For a start, budget airlines normally charge more for luggage stored in the hold. Secondly, if you only have a small pack you can save money on taxis by walking or catching public transport. For more details, check out my post last year on how I pack ever so lightly.

2. Plan ahead with transport bookings. Inevitably, flights become more expensive the closer you are to the date you want to fly. I remember one time I had to book a flight from Kraków to London just a week before, and it was cheaper to fly British Airways than the usual budget carriers. And that wasn’t cheap at all, either. The same applies to train fares, especially in the UK.

3. Check out transport passes. There are a number of good-value rail passes which can only be bought outside that country before arrival, which can then save stacks of money if travelling frequently. The BritRail Pass, for example, is only available to non-Brits before arrival. The venerable Eurail Pass, by comparison, can be bought in Europe but at a 20% mark-up. Much better to buy before you go.

4. Catch local trains rather than international. In Europe, international trains tend to be pricey. A way of saving money is to catch a cheaper local train to the border or just beyond, then switch to a local train in the new country. Fiddly, but saves €€€.

5. Buy a local SIM card with plenty of data. Everyone should know this by now, but you should never be tempted to use your smartphone’s data roaming capabilities while overseas. Telstra, Australia’s biggest telco, charges about $15 per MB while you’re roaming; to put that in scarier context, that’s $15,000 per GB – about the size of the average movie download.

Instead, drop into a local telco when you arrive in a new country and ask for a SIM card with plenty of data allowance, or pick one up before you go from a local company which imports them. It's well worth doing this when visiting Australia in particular, as free wi-fi is not so common here.

6. Get a stored-value cash card loaded with foreign currency. You can obtain one of these from a bank before you go, rather than withdrawing cash via your credit card once there. Although withdrawals from these cards still attract fees, they’re generally much lower and easier to understand than the fees charged on credit card withdrawals.

7. Take advantage of tax-back schemes. Some countries allow travellers to recoup the tax they’ve paid in the country while visiting or working, subject to various rules and limits.

8. Take out travel insurance. I know, it’s counter-intuitive – insurance costs money. But it can save you a truckload of expenses if you should be robbed or injured. Insure yourself with a company with a good track record, and check the fine print first to make sure the cover is what it seems to be.

9. Haggle (if it’s part of the local culture).
In plenty of countries, the locals are happy to negotiate the prices of goods. But you should only haggle if you’re serious about reaching agreement and buying the thing, and you should always remain good-humoured during the process.

10. Aim for the free days.
Sometimes local museums will have a day of the week when entry is free (this is common in Poland, for example). It does mean you’ll be there in the company of a crowd, but it’ll save you money.

11. Eat standing up. In some places, restaurant dining is vastly more expensive than eating at a street stall. When we first visited Berlin in the 1990s on a tight budget, I remember living off stand-up kebabs.

12. Shop at supermarkets. An obvious one – you can save plenty of money by self-catering. And while you’re there, pick up some muesli for use with my final tip…

13. Buy a fold-up plastic bowl. Camping stores sell these origami-like sheets of plastic, which magically fold and tuck to form a usable bowl [pictured above]. I carry one of these flat in my backpack (with a lightweight spoon), for those days when I’m exhausted by nightfall and just want to eat something quick and easy in my hotel room. It’s brilliant.

This post was sponsored by Visit its site for information about how to apply for tax refunds after you've been working in Australia.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Warrnambool Attacks! Part 2: Cyborgs & Aliens

In last week's post, I was walking through the Invasion exhibition in Warrnambool, Australia, when I turned around to be confronted by a shiny metal head with glowing red eyes...

... which was, of course, from the Terminator series of films and TV programs. No matter how fictional, still scary up close:

Around the corner in a darker room, I'd entered alien territory. Here's the Predator:

... and in the room beyond that, an Ood from Doctor Who. They look vaguely as if they could be related, don't they?

Next to the Ood, my favourite TV science fiction villain of all time: a Dalek. My earliest distinct memory of watching Doctor Who is the 1960s Patrick Troughton story The Evil of the Daleks, which featured a Dalek civil war in glorious monochrome. What's particularly interesting about the Daleks is that though they look robotic, they contain an evil blobby organic creature and thus are cyborgs.

Nearby was a future inhabitant of our own planet, from the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes:

Within a case was one of the prosthetic skulls used to turn actors into aliens in the excellent TV series Alien Nation (again, for some reason, I'm thinking of the Ood):

Also on the cyborg list was Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, at a difficult time in his career when he'd been re-engineered by the Borg. Looks like he'd be accepted into the gritty 1970s British TV series Blake's 7, no questions asked:

Finally, we peered through glass at this model of the robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 movie masterpiece Metropolis. It seemed somehow fitting that we should finish our journey back through time with one of the first cinematic robots:

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Warrnambool Tourism and V/Line. The Invasion exhibition continues at the Warrnambool Art Gallery, 26 Liebig St, Warrnambool, until 28 January 2013. Entry: adult $15, child $7.50. Warrnambool can be reached by V/Line trains from Melbourne and Geelong.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Warrnambool Attacks! Part 1: Robots & Spacesuits

You may have heard that the US government recently declined a petition to construct a fully operational Death Star (spoilsports).

However, at an entirely different official level, the city of Warrnambool in southwestern Victoria, Australia, is proudly displaying an image of the partly-built orbital death machine from the Star Wars movies on its art gallery wall:

Rather unexpectedly, this coastal city three hours from Melbourne has found itself the exclusive Australian showcase for Invasion, an exhibition of science fiction costumes and props gathered from a wide range of TV shows and movies.

This temporary recasting of the Warrnambool Art Gallery as a science fiction hotspot was the brainchild of gallery director John Cunningham. Adopting the philosophy of "Why not?", Cunningham made contact with the Ideas Museum of Movie Magic in Falkirk, Scotland and asked if he could ship one of their travelling exhibitions a bit (well, a lot) further than usual.

The result is a strange and stimulating array of costumes, with the odd prop among them, encountered past this charming gent from Mars Attacks:

As I inspected the exhibits, I realised there were more replicas than original items among them, though often the replicas had been used by the original filmmakers to promote the finished product. That was the case with this model of Iron Man, used to publicise the first movie featuring the superhero:

Further on I spotted the B9 Robot from the original Lost in Space TV series, generally just known as "Robot" when addressed by young Will, or as "You ninny!" by the simperingly evil Dr Smith. The relationship between the three of them made the show, which otherwise was noted for its forgettable storylines and bland characters.

To keep with the Lost in Space theme, this suit was worn by Matt Le Blanc (of Friends fame) in the 1998 movie. Judging by the suit, he's shorter than he looks on the telly.

These next exhibits demonstrated the eclectic range of the Invasion collection. In the foreground was the shimmery uniform worn by the Arnold Rimmer character in the Red Dwarf episode Holoship (one of my favourites). At the rear was an odd-looking "nude" version of the android Kryten which apparently appeared in the very forgettable Season VIII of Red Dwarf.

My notes fail me here, but I believe this was a replica of the Forbidden Planet movie robot, Robby:

At the far end of the room, in an area by itself, was the gem of the collection - this authentic early version of the Darth Vader costume, in which the villain's helmet was crafted from black perspex. Behind him is a matching stormtrooper:

At this point I was only halfway through the exhibition, pleasantly surprised by both the diversity of costumes and how close one could get in order to examine the detail.

Then I swung around to find a shiny metal head glaring at me with glowing red eyes...

[Cue cliffhanger music from Doctor Who, run credits]

NEXT POST: In the second half of my Invasion review, I face off against aliens and an imaginative array of cyborgs. And Daleks take to the Warrnambool streets!

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Warrnambool Tourism and V/Line. The Invasion exhibition continues at the Warrnambool Art Gallery, 26 Liebig St, Warrnambool, until 28 January 2013. Entry: adult $15, child $7.50. Warrnambool can be reached by V/Line trains from Melbourne and Geelong.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

War Horse Review, Melbourne: Spectacle & Imagination

You've no doubt heard of the theory of persistence of vision, by which the brain threads together images in order to see a smoothly unified world.

Something similar is at work in theatre, I think, where the audience mentally melds non-realistic sets and bold acting into a vibrant, living universe (which might be why stage productions projected later on a screen seem flat).

This wonderful imaginative collaboration between audience and performers is cranked up to 11 by War Horse: a story of the bond between the boy and his horse, which is broken and reforged amid the horror of World War I.

The main drawcard of the show is its complex puppetry, involving full-sized horses which are operated by people within and beside their frames. These are simple marvellous; although the operators are clearly visible, the horses are entirely credible.

This is partly down to design - the horses are supremely flexible, being able to twitch their ears and tails, and move their heads in complex and subtle ways.

Credit must also be ladled on the operators, who imbue their mounts with both small and large details (including sound effects) which make it easy to believe in them. Though counter-intuitive, dressing the puppeteers in period costume rather than all-black works beautifully, and demonstrates a trust in the audience's imagination.

The puppetry and stagecraft are worth the hefty price of a ticket alone, a reminder of how theatre as spectacle can involve more than Hollywood-style special effects on stage.

The story itself is more problematic. Being derived from a 1980s children's book, it's populated with characters formed from broad cultural stereotypes, including larger than life village folk, bluff officers, naive but likeable young Tommies, they're-just-like-us enemy soldiers, etc.

Albert, the boy who pursues his horse to the battlefields of France, is so broadly portrayed that he comes across as a bit simple (but as the character can't read, perhaps that's the idea).

It seems a story pitched at children. But the theatre this night is packed with adults, and the war scenes are so impressively terrifying that I'd hesitate to take a young child along. With tickets ranging from $80 to $130, it'd be a pricey family night out in any case.

Having said that, if you had a kid over, say, ten years old who you wanted to introduce to the imaginative power of theatre, I couldn't think of a better example than War Horse to take them to.

All up, War Horse is a tour de force of puppetry and spectacle, if lacking in plot and character complexity. As with the earlier Lion King stage production, it's a fine example of the ability of theatre to transcend the literal and take a popular story to new creative heights. 

War Horse continues at the Arts Centre Melbourne to 10 March 2013. Bookings online.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Unpublished 12: Sunday Lunch in Benalla

Last year, The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia revamped its travel section, cancelling the Sunday Lunch column which I'd had the pleasure to contribute to from time to time. One of my country lunch reviews was left unpublished, so here it is now for your foodie pleasure...

Sunday Lunch: North Eastern Hotel

Passing beneath the elegant art nouveau lettering on the facade of the North Eastern Hotel in Benalla (about 200km northeast of Melbourne), we’re pleasantly surprised to find an expansive, relaxed interior, with lots of dark timber detail and natural light.

To one side there’s an area of low-slung lounge chairs, to the other a spacious dining room next to a bar topped with redgum timber.

The North Eastern’s menu is “a touch of fusion, towards gastropub,” according to co-owner Tony Ashton, crafted by himself in collaboration with young chef Sehan Waters. As the "Northo" only serves Sunday lunch once a month, followed by a blues session hosted by Neale Williams, we’re looking forward to a treat.

My house-smoked Atlantic salmon ($17) is just the ticket for this warm sunny day, flaked through a salad of orange, pickled fennel, chilli and snow pea tendrils. It’s fresh and tasty with a smooth smokiness, though the tendrils are a little unwieldy. Narrelle’s oysters ($18.50), finished with the “Northo Way” Asian-inspired dressing, are superb.

The sunshine is making us hanker for a bold white wine, so we share a bottle of the Mt Pilot Estate 2010 viognier chardonnay ($54) from Eldorado.

For main course, Narrelle’s selected the master stock duck Maryland ($32), whose richly flavoured and tender meat neatly contrasts with the crunch of the crispy egg noodles and wok-tossed vegetables beneath.

My bruschetta-style veal parma ($23.75) is a delicious upmarket take on the popular pub dish, with pesto, locally-sourced double-smoked ham and a speckled topping of tomato salsa along with house-made rosemary potato chips.

The other half of the Ashton duo, Helen, delivers a verbal dessert menu and we order the vanilla bean pannacotta ($10) and the mocha semifreddo with chocolate Cointreau sauce ($10), swapping plates halfway through.

It’s all excellent, and we’re full. Bring on the music.

Reviewed by Tim Richards, who was hosted by V/Line and the North East Victoria Tourism Board.

North Eastern Hotel, 1 Nunn St, Benalla, 5762 7333, serving meals 12-2.30pm Wed-Sat (and 2nd Sunday each month), 6-8.30pm Tue-Sat.

To stay nearby: Top of the Town Motel (, Belmont B&B (, Glen Falloch Farm Cottage (

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.