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Prague One of my favorite ways to see and learn about a new place is with local tour guides. Nobody knows a place like locals do. They know not only the beaten path (about which they can often reveal little-known facts), but also those gems I’d never find on my own. But most important for me, they offer cultural insights into a community that only someone who lives, sleeps and works there could possibly know.

Today, I stumbled upon a new twist on the local tour guiding concept – guided tours from the homeless. This adds an entirely new layer onto what visitors can learn about a place, its people and culture. And the best part is, not only do visitors gain a new perspective on life in the destination they’re visiting, but they’re also supporting people who need help.

My introduction to the concept came care of the Prague Daily Monitor, which reported on a tourism project that employs eight homeless people as tour guides. According to the article, the guides offer “the narration of less known stories and visits to special interesting places,” in both Prague’s center as well as on the outskirts of the city.

Prague Travel Guide

The guides use their “long-lasting experience with living in the street” to choose the places they want to share with visitors. One book-loving guide, for example, takes tourists to lesser-known bookshops where second-hand books are available.

Other guides take visitors to the places homeless people and squatters inhabit.

Prague is not the first city to offer such tours. A quick Google search turned up similar tours in London, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

Some, like the London tours, visit tourist favorites, where guides point out the usual as well as offer insights into what it’s like to be homeless there. Others, like the San Francisco tour, take visitors to the “invisible” spots like homeless shelters, soup kitchens and workplace training programs.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Would you take a tour led by a homeless person?

– written by Dori Saltzman

hotel signThe 2012 Summer Olympic Games are in full swing in London, and as is often the case during major events, prices for accommodations were sold at large premiums in the months leading up to the Games. But many hotels have seen less demand than they expected, prompting some to “discount” their inflated rates at the last minute in order to fill still-empty rooms.

According to the Press Association, some booking engines reported prices inflated as much as 300 percent over the past two months, but say rates have since fallen back to levels that are closer to the norm.

Over-inflated prices aren’t uncommon when major events come to town, such as Mardi Gras New Orleans or Venice‘s Carnevale, but when demand is lower than expected, prices do sometimes fall — leaving visitors who booked early feeling ripped off. So what’s a budget traveler to do to protect against price gouging when inflation is an issue?

1. Use sites like Tingo.com, which will credit your card accordingly if the price of your booked hotel room drops. (See Want a Hotel Refund? Yes. Please. to learn more about Tingo.)

2. Look into refundable rates, check cancellation policies and consider purchasing appropriate travel insurance in case you have buyer’s remorse after booking an expensive room. Whether you find a cheaper room elsewhere or just flat-out decide to forgo the entire trip, you’ll be more likely to get your money back.

3. Ditch the hotel. If hotels are out of your price range during certain special events, consider staying at a hostel, a bed and breakfast or someone’s home (also known as couch surfing). Vacation rentals are also another option, which can be less expensive and offer more homey comforts.

Have you ever overpaid for a hotel during a major world event? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Tingo.com.

heathrow airportSome of us love crowds. We can be found catching beads at Mardi Gras, hurling tomatoes at Tomatina and, at the London Games, ogling the athletes at the Horse Guards Parade — the venue for beach volleyball.

Not me. Ever since I spent a horrific New Year’s Eve in Times Square, I’ve been a bit crowd-phobic. The cheer isn’t enough to override the crowds and the commotion at the London Games. For the executive editor of our sister site, Cruise Critic, it’s the increased security at Heathrow that keeps her from London, even as a layover to Europe.

“The increased security is sure to add even more chaos to an already chaotic airport — and I still won’t feel completely safe,” Carolyn Spencer Brown told us.

Are You a Travel Olympian?

She’d like to avoid Heathrow this summer, but some airfare deals are making that difficult. “British Airways is offering cheap fares to Europe this summer,” Brown said. “I wonder if people are avoiding Heathrow.”

If they are shunning Heathrow and London, it’s a typical tendency to avoid visiting cities that host the Olympic Games. The Telegraph recently reported that Terry Williamson, chief operating officer of JacTravel, said “normal tourism” in past Olympic host cities post-Games dropped significantly during the events and “took some time to recover.”

Will the traffic, the crowds, the amped-up security, the missiles on rooftops keep you away from London this summer — even as a layover? Or will you be there — in the midst of it all? Vote in our poll below.

– written by Jodi Thompson

suitcase handleOn a recent trip to London, I bought a newspaper and sat on the train reading about the mounting worries surrounding the Olympic Games — with the U.K.’s transport infrastructure already struggling to cope with the influx of extra people.

Athletes visiting the U.K. have had to compete with slow-moving airport security and long queues, while a coach-load of Olympians was recently stuck for four hours in London traffic on its way to the Olympic Village. Onboard was American hurdler Kerron Clement, who tweeted, “Athletes are sleepy, hungry and need to pee.” It seems that, where travel’s concerned, we all have to deal with the same problems, no matter who we are.

This got me thinking of the trials we all face while traveling and made me wonder, could travel be a sport that I could actually compete in? Consider the potential events:

First up, weight lifting. Whether lugging a heavy suitcase from the car to the airport check-in or making the final heave into the overhead bin, we’ve all competed in this event before. It’s familiar territory for the Olympic traveler, and the key is in the preparation. Packing light is one of the hardest things to do, but as the old adage goes, “You never use what you don’t take.”

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Next, the 100-meter sprint to meet check-in. Most airlines require passengers to be at the airport a couple of hours before take-off, which can sometimes catch travelers out, particularly early in the morning. The most successful competitors will have already mapped their route and will diligently avoid all fast food and souvenir concessions, passport and tickets in hand, to get to the desk on time. Some will need to slalom between other vacationers or even indulge in some light wrestling in order to get their times down. You’ve got to want it!

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Synchronised swimming could be my stumbling block. I hate overcrowded swimming pools! Sometimes it’s nice when arriving at a destination, even before unpacking, to cool down with a dip. Faced with a jam-packed pool, though, I’d likely slink off with my towel to see if there were a quiet beach nearby. Synchronised swimming? Not for me.

10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip

The relay is tough. I’ve been on trips where I’ve had to transfer trains six times. My budget “saver” tickets meant I had to make every transfer (with very narrow time margins) or risk not getting to my destination at all. The period between trains is always the most stressful, frantically checking platform displays, with one eye on your watch. This can be bad in huge international airports too, with terminals sometimes being up to 15 minutes’ walk away from each other. Smooth transitions make for a smooth journey — it takes an expert traveler to score highly in the relay.

As is traditional, we should end with the marathon. I’ll put my hand up and say that long-haul traveling’s not something I enjoy. My longest trip started with 10 hours in a car, followed by 6 hours on a bus and another hour on a plane. The ultimate long-haul trip is Singapore Airlines’ nonstop flight between Newark Airport and Singapore, which takes a whopping 18.5 hours. I just don’t think I have the stamina.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

How do you compare? Are there any facets of travel at which you are a true Olympian?

– written by Josh Thomas

london heathrow lineHere’s hoping passengers flying into Heathrow Airport last week packed a good book. The lines for immigration at the London airport stretched for half a mile at times, leaving some travelers waiting for nearly two and a half hours, reports Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

The delays — mostly caused by inadequate staffing — are nothing new for London’s largest airport, which has been suffering from lengthy immigration queues for months. (See this April 2012 report from NBC News.) The problem is increasingly worrisome with the Olympics starting in just a few weeks; the Telegraph notes that the Games are expected to bring an extra 650,000 travelers through Heathrow. The immigration minister, Damian Green, has promised to increase the number of workers on duty in time for the Games.

Best Spots to Stay in London

Long immigration lines can happen anywhere, of course, especially with the recent economic recession forcing cuts in budget and staff. In 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster, our own Traveler’s Ed writes, “I recently stood in a line I estimated at more than 1,000 people at Newark airport, oof.” And don’t forget those dreaded airport security lines, which can stretch out just as long as the queues at customs. Just about every experienced traveler can tell a tale of sweating it out as their flight time loomed and their line inched agonizingly along.

What’s the longest airport line you’ve ever had to suffer through?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

big ben londonGet a group of politicians together and they often skip right over the important issues and on to agenda items that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Remember the U.S. House of Representatives and the “action” that called for French fries served in the restaurants and snack bars run by the House to be renamed freedom fries?

Another equally important proposal was recently put forth by the British Parliament: changing the name of London‘s famous clock tower — known throughout the world as Big Ben — to Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

According to the BBC, the proposal is now fait accompli.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in London

Okay, yes, Big Ben is simply a nickname that originally referred to the bell inside the tower (though few people distinguish between bell, clock and tower these days). And yes, it was even once known as Victoria Tower and is now officially recognized as the Clock Tower. But really, billions of people the world over know the entire tower as Big Ben. Why mess with brand name recognition?

It’s simply not as sexy to snap a photo of oneself in front of the tower and tell friends, “Here’s me in front of Elizabeth Tower.” Though as one writer here said, maybe people will just call it Big Beth.

– written by Dori Saltzman

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

– written by John Deiner

moneyTypically, we aim to showcase travel deals that save you money — like this half-price cruise to the Western Mediterranean. But a few deals for hostel dorm beds during the 2012 London Olympics (July 27 to August 12) were so frightening that we had to share.

Sites like Expedia and Hotels.com have policies dictating that you can’t book rooms more than 11 months out, which means they’re only now allowing reservations coinciding with the Olympics.

Here’s what we found: A 28-bed all-male dorm room at Palmers Lodge Hostel (just south of Hampstead Heath) is on sale for $157.50 per person, per night on Hotels.com — that’s about $4,400 per night for the whole room. (The rate includes 28 breakfasts.) That said, whichever bed you book in the hotel, be it in an ensuite double or an eight-person female-only room, the per-person price remains the same. (Hint: Palmers’ direct booking prices are significantly cheaper than those posted by Hotels.com.)

Want to stay at Hostel 639, a spot near Notting Hill, during similar dates? On Hotels.com, the per-person price for a night at Hostel 639 is equal to rates for a dorm at Palmers — but Hostel’s rates are two times what Palmers offers for a basic double with shared bathroom. That’s more than $500 per night for two travelers. Reserve a quad room today and you’ll pay $1,000 per night. Booking sites, including Hotels.com and Venere.com, have rates starting at less than $20 (includes taxes) for stays at the same properties this September.

These price hikes should come as no surprise, since news outlets have been reporting on soaring rates during the Olympics in London for some time. But perhaps we can be optimistic that the hoteliers are being, well, optimistic. Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), told the Telegraph, “In Athens [host city of the 2004 Olympics], around 15,000 hotel rooms were sold. London has 125,000 rooms to sell. Such optimistic pricing in the face of such disparity is extremely brave.”

David Tarsh, another spokesman for the ETOA, has been widely quoted as saying visitors to London during the Olympics should wait until early next year before booking accommodations; Tarsh has predicted that hotels with unsold rooms will be forced to reduce their prices by that time.

Have you ever stumbled upon a hotel deal that was too bad to be true? Share it in the comments.

– written by Dan Askin

new inn pub hotel london Here’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog (top right).

We have a winner — er, actually, two winners. The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $139.49 a night (based on the July 29 exchange rate) or 85 GBP. Susan Frye, who issued the first correct answer in GBP, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. But we’re also giving a T-shirt to Marcia, whose guess in U.S. dollars was closest based on the July 29 exchange rate.

The room pictured was a twin room at the New Inn, located in the St. John’s Wood neighborhood of London. The inn is best known for its friendly pub, which serves a mix of English and Thai cuisine, but it also offers five rooms (three double and two twin) for overnight guests. All rooms cost a flat rate of 85 pounds, regardless of the season — an extremely affordable rate for London. Read more about the New Inn in London Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

After eight years, I was back. I had last called on London in 2003 for 100 days during a college semester. Terrorist attacks, a winning Olympic bid and new recycling laws had left their indelible mark on city and psyche during the intervening years, and yet my surface experience as a tourist seemed largely untouched — except that now I had sterling to spend on a proper pub pint instead of a 99p can of Speckled Hen from the local Sainsbury.

Speakers’ Corner, a Sunday institution that celebrates “free speech,” belongs in the British Museum. The setting, the crowds, the English nationalist talking about the dilution of her breed, have all been cast in marble. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I turned away from the eugenics nonsense to see the same American preacher in a cowboy hat and U.S.A. flag shirt climb his ladder and begin, with a sly smile, to warn listeners of the dangers of “evilution.” Eight years had passed, but the anti-evilutionist and xenophobe’s spouts were still preserved in amber. As was the crowd’s response: unabashed mockery or visceral rancor for the racist; good-natured ribbing for the always-smiling preacher man.

speakers corner london


Some recollections seemed preordained. My lady and I had lunch at Cafe Below, located in the 11th-century crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, a Christopher Wren-designed building that was mostly destroyed during the Blitz — except for the crypt. As we walked down the stairs, I remembered a passing comment from our 6’3″ bearded professor, who took our class there for a lecture. “Oh, they have a wonderful cafe in the crypt,” I could hear him muttering in his slightly grizzled voice. Dining on local farm-sourced lamb burger and a pint of pear cider, I had to agree.

I headed back to Portobello Road for the mobbed Saturday market of antiques, sundresses, bric-a-brac, and food vendors hawking German fast food, crepes and Turkish stew in steaming mega-woks. I had lunch again at the Grain Shop, a vegetarian spot where you can fill a tin with multicolored salads, stews and stir-fries for about four quid. Just as in ’03, I followed my somewhat healthy vegetarian lunch with a second course of spicy Bavarian sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.

portobello road london


Also on the dining front were the ever-present takeaway paninis, a cheap lunch eaten hot-pressed or cold. But I couldn’t find my favorite sandwich spot from 2003, a purveyor of an addictive salad with roast ham, mature cheddar, hard-boiled egg, pickles and mayo. I’d been waiting eight years for that sandwich. The loss was hard to bear.

Even thoughtless moments triggered memory flashes. At my first busy crosswalk, I recalled how cab drivers seemed to speed up if they sensed the slightest intention to cross.

On Tube platforms, the once ubiquitous Cadbury machines had vanished. The emergency phones, should you need to report a sugar crash, remained. I may have splurged on an 80p chocolate three times in three months in 2003, but I could taste the absence of fruit and nut during pre-train idling.

I remembered hurrying down Tottenham Court Road, a central artery clogged with electronics and home furnishing stores, and chain cafes like Nero, Pret a Manger and Starbucks. Not much had changed, including my closely guarded opinion of it as the worst street in Central London.

Finally, at night, I remembered how the streets buzzed after football matches. On the evening after Brazil beat Scotland 2-0, the kilted army marched from pub to pub belting out victory songs. Perhaps they stopped watching before the players had left the pitch. I suppose only giving up two goals to Brazil is a victory.

big ben london


Have you ever revisited a place after a long absence? What changed and what stayed the same? Tell us below.

– written by Dan Askin