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A friend sent me the following two email queries.  The first was sent last summer and although I responded to her directly, I thought I might tackle it here as well.

I have a travel question for you… I am leaving for Scotland tomorrow. Standby.

I will be getting there no problem, but coming home might be a bit of an issue for me (all the flights are full) and I’m wondering if you have any tips for the cheapest flight when you are searching.  :)

Looking forward to picking your brain.

Man, that is like crack cocaine to me.  A person wants to travel? And they want to save money?  This friend is one of my favourite homeschooling moms.  She can regularly slay me.  So why is she visiting Scotland?  She has decided to send herself to summer camp as a retreat.  What kind of summer camp, you ask?  Bagpipe camp.  Cricket, cricket.  No, seriously, she has been learning bagpipes and is taking herself off to Scotland for a masterclass. How homeschool is that?  You’ll recognize her on the plane because she’ll be the one with 100 ml of raw milk she brought onboard as her “liquids” and the Boiron homeopathic remedies she has in her pocket.

Down to business: I don’t have any information on dates or even which city in Scotland she wants to leave from.  In general terms, on short notice in the middle of high season, I would say the more flexible and resourceful you are, the better.  Are you willing to leave from another city, for example in northern England?  Are you willing to stay 4 or 5 days longer to get a way better price?  Are you willing to make multiple stops or to fly via a less-than-desirable airport?

Mystic Muffin, Toronto

Mystic Muffin, Toronto, Canada

Given the very limited information, if it were me, I would do the following:

  • Decide which concessions I would be willing to make (forego comfort, stay longer than I had planned, leave from a different city, arrive in a city other than my own).  BUT, sometimes often the logical decision is to bite the bullet and pay for convenience.
  • Check out cheapoair.com – if you play around a bit on the site, you will likely find cheap routes that you hadn’t known about with airlines that you didn’t realize flew there.  In the past, I have also been able to find available flights when those very same flights were full according to the airline’s own website.
  • Depending on route and airline, buying a round trip ticket can cost the same as a one-way ticket but round trip tickets are more likely to be on offer so try searching for cheap return tickets and just forego one flight.
  • From Canada, several airlines fly to Scotland in the summer.  For example, Westjet now flies to Glasgow from May – October.  Charter airlines like Thomas Cook also fly to the UK in high season.  Travelling in and out of Toronto will give you the most choices.
  • If you have the option to fly stand-by or on points out of another, further destination, consider Ryanair.  Ryanair has insanely cheap flights to a whole host of places in Europe (sadly not to Canada).  You could snag a one-way flight from Scotland to Paris for $40 all inclusive and then fly home from Paris.  Two things to consider: carry-on luggage only and flight in/out of secondary airports that might not be convenient.
Pub, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Pub, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The second question, arrived in my inbox this week.

Hi sweet traveller!
A woman in my French class has the chance to follow along her boyfriend for one year to Sarajevo but won’t have a work visa. She’d love to learn french there, but it doesn’t seem like there would be much opportunity. She might also be able to teach English. She doesn’t know anyone who has visited the city.

Would you have any words of advice for her ?

I have never been to Sarajevo despite extreme efforts to get there several times.  It just didn’t work out.  But I have been to Bosnia and I have lived in the Balkans.  Being an expert on many places I’ve never been :-), I can say with certainty that Sarajevo is a fantastic city.  It was heavily damaged during the Bosnian war and the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.  At over 3 1/2 years, the Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital in modern history.

Before 1992, Sarajevo was a beautiful and sophisticated city.  In the 20 years since the siege ended, the city has slowly rebuilt itself using art and creativity to forge a vibrant urban centre that deserves more visitors than it gets.  Kudos to your friend for taking a year off to tag along to Bosnia.

Coffee in market, Saigon, Vietnam

Coffee in market, Saigon, Vietnam

For advice, a few things have popped into my head.  Firstly, when I lived in the Balkans in 2005/06, it was impossible to find any English print material and internet cafés were still running on dial-up.  It would just take one friend to send me a jpeg of their kid’s birthday party and I would have to sit by the computer for 30 minutes while the file came through.  Things have changed a lot since then but you still won’t be finding English-language newspapers and magazines.  Especially not outside major tourist centres; especially not in the off-season.  You’ll be getting most of your world news from online sources.  And while internet connections may have improved, there still isn’t a lot of news, in English, about the Balkan region.  Luckily, two years ago, a new site launched and while it has had it’s teething pains, I would recommend it as being full of interesting and thought-provoking articles: Balkanist

With respect to learning French, I found the Balkans to be a surprisingly easy place to do such things.  Like many other places that don’t see a lot of tourists, people are intrigued by foreigners and what brought them to that place.  If you engage with people and pry for information about French expats, you’ll likely find someone who might be willing to tutor.  More likely, the person will be willing to take time out of their  routine to meet you for coffee once a week to chat in French.  I would keep my cards close to my chest regarding wanting French lessons though until you find a native speaker or you may find yourself guilted into taking French lessons from a local who isn’t much more fluent than you are.

Bay of Bones, Ohrid, Macedonia

Bay of Bones, Ohrid, Macedonia

Which brings me to teaching English.  Educated people in the region are serious about affording their children opportunities that were stolen from them.  You will encounter many, many, many people whose every effort is put into having their children grow up to leave the region and learning English is one of the things they need.  You’ll probably have people asking you to help them learn English.  This can be a great way to meet locals.

Reading between the lines of the request, I wonder if teaching English is a plan to earn money since there is no work visa.  If so, remember that Bosnian professionals such as doctors earn about 400€/$600 per MONTH.  You may find that it isn’t financially “worth it” to spend your days tutoring.  One year in a new city goes by surprisingly quickly and you may wish to forego cash for other experiences.  If you find that you can manage the year without a salary (most things in Bosnia are much cheaper than at home), you might was to investigate volunteering.  Given its troubled history, the Balkans are home to a host of international NGOs doing fascinating on-the-ground work.  For example, when I lived in Montenegro there was a Swiss group working to measure, mark and sign the long-distance footpaths that have always criss-crossed the region.  Doing so, would allow adventure travellers to come from abroad for hiking trips, increasing tourism in the region.

danica path5

Petrovac, Montenegro

One final word – your friend should invest in the Bradt Guide to Bosnia & Herzegovina.  Bradt is the leader in guidebooks for less well-trodden places.  The books are meticulously researched and written by experts and contain a lot of side-notes and cultural information useful to anyone planning an extended visit.