Capital punishment as London prices climb again

Independent on Sunday
Sarah Barrell: Travel View, Sunday, 17 July 2011

Some friends moved from Mexico to London this week.
In the year since I last saw them there have been births, job losses and near divorces, and what did we talk about? How expensive London is.

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Ah yes, I remember it well – or do I?

Independent on Sunday, 10 July
Sarah Barrell: Travel View

A couple of weeks ago, I met Ellen Davignon, a Canadian frontierswoman who had penned a book about her childhood on the Alaska Highway. Her family opened one of the first tourist lodges in this sub-Arctic region, and although that might date her, Ellen’s memory was as sharp as a midwinter icicle.

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BBC Radio: travel feature

Just did a segment for the MacAulay & Co show on BBC Radio Scotland, on travelling by camper van. And hello to any listeners who’ve been routed over here for more info. Here’s the extended version of our Q&A:

Q. Campervans seem to have been around for eons – but there’s definitely more variety on the market nowadays? Yes, there are a pretty bewildering choice of different vans and conversions around these days, ranging from a dirt cheap ex-delivery van conversions to mammoth motorhomes that have showers, heating and even satellite dishes.

Q. What’s the difference between a mobile home and a campervan? There isn’t really any difference. And some rental companies will use the terms as interchangeable, simply defining them as vehicles with a living space, that allow cheap and easy living on the road. But purists might say that a modern motorhome gives you more space. There’s generally a divide between the cab and living quarters in a motorhome and the kitchen area and facilities are more elaborate than a campervan but that said, some of the latest campers come with enough gadgets, gizmos and mod cons to challenge a hotel. A new company called Wicked Campers, for example have vans that come with iPod docks, booze coolers and pop out two-man tents so you can sleep up to five, albeit two not in the van. They have depots in Edinburgh and Dundee and offer week’s rentals for around £600 over summer.

Q. What are the advantages over a caravan? The cool factor, clearly. And they’re more compact. You can treat a camper a bit like a beefy car. You don’t need campsites or special parking spots.

Q. Are they heavy on fuel – how far would you get on a gallon of fuel? A general rule of thumb is that the smaller the vehicle, the less fuel they consume. Asking around, VWs seem to do anything from 15 to 40 miles per gallon, depending on age and engine efficiency. But some are built to be very fuel efficient for their size. For example, a company called (based in Bradford, West Yorkshire) have two small modern two-berth Peugeot campervans converted to run on LPG (half the price of petrol) as well as petrol. Rental costs £550 for a week in July.

Q. How many do they sleep? It varies but campers tend to sleep four, motorhomes can fit six but some conversions and pop up roofs allow for more in both types of vehicle. There’s a company based in Glasgow, Car Rental Scotland, that offers vans that sleeping up to six, in three double beds. They have depots in Edinburgh, Prestwick and Glasgow.

Q. Presumably you don’t have to park in campsite…the beauty of them is you can park where you want? Exactly. How about hiring one from Glasgow based company, Scotlandbycamper. They have two 1970s converted vans, sleeping up to four people. From Glasgow head out half an hour to Adrossan to go island hopping – Arran, Islay and the like. And the Loch Lomond & Trossachs park is within easy reach – there’s a good week of open-roading to be had there. Unless you get away this weekend you’ll miss the Highland games in Stirling but there are a ton of festivals to visit – surely the spiritual home of the camper. I love the sound of Loopallu, that advertises itself “a festival held late September, in a remote village on the west coast of Scotland, 60 miles from the nearest town.” Doesn’t seem to have put people off as it’s now in its 7th year, and has pulled in big names like Mumford & Sons and Franz Ferdinand this year.

Q. How do they compare price-wise with hotels? When you factor in the fuel costs and insurance, they might not stack up too well against B&Bs or self-catering properties but when you factor in food costs in hotels and transport of getting there… it’s not bad. Rates seem to range from £500 to £800 a week. For example, ScotlandbyCamper offer both its vans (sleeping two adults, two kids) for £575 for a week in summer. From 1 October to 31 March, they are £85 for a day, or £235 a weekend, and £435 a week. Minimum one-week rental in summer.

Q. What type of facilities do they offer? Most will come with basic cooking utensils – just like a self-catering property would. Some come with fold out chairs and CD players. Mobile homes often have a shower/basic loo. Some are cleverly decked out. Like the Toyota people carriers adapted by a New Zealand company new to the UK called Spaceship rentals. They rent four-person vans that looks somewhere between an easyJet hire car and a safari vehicle. All bright colours and company logo but a tent on the roof and a ladder leading up to it. Cost £80 per day in July.

Q. Are they widely available to rent as well as to buy? They are. And in fact, there’s far more varieties available for purchase than for rent. For example, as far as I know you can’t rent an Airstream Trailer in the UK – one of those gorgeous shiny American 1950s mobile homes. But you can buy one. Strictly speaking these are caravans albeit extremely glam’ retro ones. Is there any reason we not buy one? They are expensive. Expensive enough for most of us to then have to consider making this the main holiday for the next few years after buying one. And while we love the idea of the open road, the reality is, flying off on a plane to guaranteed sunshine might start to seem pretty attractive after a few August’s spent in traffic jams or parked up in a lay-by. Unlike cars though, classic VW campers, for example, more or less hold their price.

Travel Notes: In the Amazon, you can’t see the trees for the wood

Travel view: Independent on Sunday, 5 June 2011

Money does grow on trees…or at least under them. The Amazon has featured a good deal in the news in recent weeks, most stories examining the value of the world’s largest rainforest if denuded as agricultural land or penetrated for oil or gas.

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Sarah Barrell: How a trip with the children can set you free

Travel view: Independent on Sunday, 20 March 2011

Travel with children: it’s something I used to believe was an oxymoron. Parents who strapped their newborns to their backs and travelled overland across Africa were not to be trusted. The same suspicion was raised by those who went on a two-week holiday to Thailand with their toddler.

Apart from the fear factor (bugs, bites and boiling nights) my main concern was that travelling with a small child wouldn’t be fun. In fact, it would be so lacking in fun as to remove the reason to travel in the first place. A reason that speaks of escapism but whispers a need, for the travel addict at least, to briefly deny their reality … or step into someone else’s for awhile.

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Sarah Barrell: Don’t feel pressured by screaming headlines

Travel view: Independent on Sunday, 20 February 2011

“Are you sure?” is the current question greeting news of a planned trip to the Middle East.

And by that I don’t mean Gaza or Tunis but anywhere in the Near East. I got an “are you sure?” from my husband, my sister, and my editor when I announced I was off to Syria and Lebanon. My airline was, of course, more pragmatic. BMI, which flies to some exciting, if not edgy, near-eastern and pan-Saharan spots, advised me to register online with the Foreign Office, then sent me off.

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Post for help
So, I’m stuck in India. It’s 5am and I’ve been awake on and off for hours. This time it’s not due to monkeys on the roof or the punishing heat (although that’s probably not helping); it’s because I can’t get home and it’s making me rabid.

My hotel in Cochin has air con and WiFi and we’re striking distance from the beach. How bad could it be? In any other situation I’d be relishing the excuse to set up exotic home but my other half has been looking after our 3-year-old daughter for the last 10 days. Let’s just say she hasn’t made that task very easy. And to add insult to injury, other half celebrates a very significant birthday, tomorrow (not allowed to mention incriminating numbers). Meanwhile, our daughter, having had just about enough of this single parent effort, has taken to walking around the house hugging a photo of me, crying and saying “I want my real mummy.”

Feeling good, then, over here. No heart-rending homesickness or creeping guilt whatsoever. Been attached to the computer for the last 48 hours refusing to believe I couldn’t get home but as of this morning, my scheduled flight time has officially passed and there’s nothing but “cancelled” stamped all over the airline’s webpage. Getting any information over the phone has proved harder than fending off the army of mosquitoes who seem to know you’re vulnerable once you’ve got a pen in one hand and a sweaty phone in the other. Our hotel is doing a roaring trade in plying overheated Europeans with cold beer.

This feeling of impotence is further compounded by stories of derring-do gracing the BBC website and such, from Brits who have buckled up and knuckled down and managed to get home by hire car, bike and container ship. Friends are being helpful, suggesting I hitch or find sea passage. Not sure if they realise that I’m in India rather than Italy. So anyway, I’ve looked into it and it goes something like this…

By rail: It’s once again possible, in theory, to travel between India and London by rail. In theory. Now that Bam, in southern Iran, has recovered from its own natural disaster that tore apart the city and its transport network (the enormous earthquake in 2003), this missing link in rail line traversing India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey into Europe has been reinstated. Or at least I thought it was. Then a local agent here in Cochin tells me that, perhaps not surprisingly, the rail line crossing the India Pakistan border has been closed. Even if it was possible, with a bit of border hopping on foot/by bus, the journey would take around three weeks. Time spent trying to secure visas however, would be an entirely different story.

By ship: Plenty of ships leaving Mumbai. Not entirely sure installing a small blond girl on a container ship out of India’s most frenetic port would be entirely hassle free but hey, I’m game (not something I’ll be saying out loud once on board). Again, it would take an arduous two to three weeks but the route sounds pretty enticing: bye bye to Bombay, hello Arabian sea, then into the Red Sea, along the Suez Canal onto Egypt, then Malta, mainland Europe and… well, I guess I could walk from there. My insurance company has gone rather quiet on covering this commute.

By air: I can get as far as Athens with my airline. Then the Magic Bus?

Whatever happens I’m not going to make it home in time to celebrate my husband’s Big Significant Birthday with him. And that, to use volcanic parlance, blows.

Read my editor’s take on ash cloud travel, here: