.



I'm a 37-year old Seattle girl who was bitten by the travel bug on my first tour of Europe in 2004. This personal blog follows my attempts to visit as many countries as I can, as often as my budget will allow. Since starting this blog in 2007, I've also worked as a freelance copywriter for an online travel publication. This only served to add even more must-see locations to my already extended list.
Follow me as I try to balance "real life" with exploring the world, all while trying to conquer a wickedly ironic case of homesickness.



27.2.08

To all high and mighty travelers,

I’ve been out of my own country seven times now. I have ten countries under my belt so far. In my circle of friends at home, I’m considered the expert world traveler. But in the cultish world of wanderlust travelers, I'm a novice. I still have so very much to learn. I’m not the confident, surge-forward sort of trekker.

Add to that the fact that I’m naturally a reserved person. Even at home, I feel vulnerable when I come out of my shell. Traveling to another country can make the most engaging person feel out of their element, so these trips are real efforts for me.

This is why I really hate it when know-it-all travelers harshly judge those of us that don’t completely, totally and utterly immerse themselves in a new culture right away. They’ve developed these unfair stereotypes, looking down at everyone from up there on their high horses.

Listen…I understand a hotel with a hair dryer, a coach bus or a tour guide might remove me from the heartbeat of a local environment. I more than agree that different cultures have a lot of life-altering perspective to offer if we’ll take part. And I’ve also been disgusted at many Ugly American types that I want nothing to do with.

But there are those of us somewhere in between; those of us that want to experience these things but need to feel assured every once and a while during this new endeavour. We don't have loads of experience to lean on in vulnerable situations. We need certain familiarities as we are transitioning. This is, after all, a vacation. We've saved money for a long time to get here and we're hoping to enjoy the ride.

Just give us some time; we’ll get there. We want to step beyond that glass wall, taste that food, try to communicate in that new language; that’s why we spent the money and bought the ticket. Just let us go at our own speed. Besides, every single one of us had to start somewhere.

So back off.

25.2.08

Budget London in a Nutshell


My quick and dirty overview of traveling to London
with a dwindling dollar, an ongoing project.

This post has also been published as a Knol.




Getting There:

By Air:
If you fly into London, you'll most likely come into Heathrow or Gatwick airports. Sometimes, you'll have to transfer for connecting flights. There are many options to do so, depending on your budget and timetable.

To get into the city from Heathrow airport, you can use Heathrow Express. However, I recommend using The Tube as a more affordable option (see Transporation section below for more information). Gatwick isn't connected directly to the Tube, but you can use Gatwick Express to Victoria Station and transfer to the Tube from there.

If you'd rather splurge on door-to-door service, check out Hotelink or National Express Dot2Dot. They're usually more affordable than taking a cab.

By Rail:
If you come into London by train, you'll most likely come into one of the following stations. These usually have Tube stations attached or nearby for a quick and easy transfer to the rest of the city:
Paddington Station
Waterloo Station
St. Pancras Station
King's Cross Station
Victoria Station



Accommodations:
There are countless places to stay in London that run the gamut of accommodation types. On this blog, I'm sharing my reviews of the places I've stayed to help you make the decision that best suits you:


Ramada Jarvis Hyde Park, Bayswater
Tube Stations: Bayswater, Notting Hill Gate
I've also stayed twice at this typically comfortable midline London hotel. It’s comfy, quiet and clean. The full English breakfast included with most rooms is rather decent compared to some. It hosts lots of groups so it can be busy for such a small hotel, but it’s still quiet. Kensington Gardens is right across the street.

Central Park Hotel, Bayswater
Tube Stations: Lancaster Gate, Bayswater
I’ve stayed here twice; it’s a decent budget option in a quaint neighborhood. The keyword here is budget: you get what you pay for. The beds are entertainingly British, but comfortable. The bathrooms are small but clean. The walls are unbearably thin; bring earplugs. It’s been remodeled since we last stayed there, as well. But avoiding the breakfast is probably wise; it’s packed and the food isn’t worth the line.

Hilton London Metropole, Edgeware Road
Tube Station: Paddington
In a word, huge. And it's not cheap either. It’s the only non-budget London hotel I’ve stayed in, the largest hotel in the city. Restaurant options are plentiful, but prices are high. Food is tasty, but lines are long. Overall, it’s a Hilton so don’t look for London flavor. But compared to a budget option, it’s a nice little bit of luxury.


Royal National Hotel, Russell Square
Tube Station: Russell Square
Another huge hotel you will get lost in, but don't expect luxury. It's rudimentary yet sufficient and comfortable enough. The rooms are large and tourist resources are plentiful, but there are always crowds around. Bring ear plugs; this hotel caters to younger groups, and lots of them. It can feel a bit like a cattle call at times.

Russell Hotel, Russell Square
Tube Station: Russell Square
Absolutely lovely, but you'll pay for it! If you can afford to splurge, I'd wholeheartedly recommend this hotel. It provides luxury while refusing to sacrifice the flavor of London. You can usually snag a good deal during the winter months.


Rent a short-term flat: These options are usually located in more residential areas of the city and frequently have a 1-week minimum rental charge, but they can be wonderful options if you'd like to feel more "at home" in London. Always proceed with caution when dealing with private leasing agents, but these companies screen for reputable landlords:
Holiday Rentals UK
Vacation Rentals By Owner



Sights to see:

Seeing London on foot is one of the best ways to experience her!

Book The London Eye online to save some money and schedule a boarding time.

Though you can't miss seeing Big Ben and Parliament from outside any time of year, you can go inside and watch proceedings during its Summer Opening.

Tower of London - take a Beefeater tour, free with admission. Prepare to wait in line to see the Crown Jewels. Don't miss a walk through the White Tower.

You can indeed go inside Tower Bridge, most often mistaken for London Bridge

Westminster Abbey - Stunning gothic architecture; don't miss Poet's Corner. Get in for free if you visit for Evensong.

St. Paul's Cathedral - The Whispering Gallery is amazing, but climb to the very top for an awesome view of the city. Also has a free daily Evensong.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre offers tours, but see a play to fully experience it!

British Library - The Treasure's Gallery can't be missed!

There are parts of Buckingham Palace you can visit, in addition to seeing The Changing of the Guard.

Millennium Bridge is one of my favorite spots in the entire city.

Head down The Strand if just to see Blitz schrapnel ridden St. Clement Danes Chapel, the infamously narrow Twinings tea shop, and the Royal Courts of Justice, all kitty-corner from each other.

Most museums in London are free:


The British Museum - The Reading Room and the Parthenon exhibit are amazing!

The Tate Britain, British art from 1500

The Tate Modern, the building and views are worth it, even if you aren't into modern art

The National Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery, next to each other, do them together.

The Imperial War Museum has a very powerful WWII exhibit

London's Natural History Museum is great for kids and families. Pair it with the reknowned Victoria and Albert Museum, as they're near each other.

Some of my favorite spots are in London's parks; they are part of the experience! Stroll through the Green Park at lunchtime, have a picnic in St. James Park, go rollerblading along or take a paddleboat out on the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

I can't recommend everything in London. Some sites are overrun by tourists and not worth the money, in my opinion. However, I'll add the links in an effort to be thorough. Proceed with caution:
London Aquarium
The London Dungeon
Madame Tussaud's



Transportation:

Your best option by far is to use London's award-winning public transportation, including the London Underground (aka "the Tube") and an extensive bus system. (Most major London sites are within Zones 1-3, but Heathrow is in Zone 6.)

Your most affordable option is for each traveler to get an Oyster Card once you arrive. Oyster cards can seem quite complicated and intimidating for visitors at first, but it is worth the extra planning in the long run. The basics to remember are:

~ It can be used on multiple London Transport options, including the Tube and buses.
~ The card and balance can be retained and used on future visits to London.
~ Adding more money to your Oyster balance (or topping up) can be done at many ticket offices and newsagents all over the city; it's very simple and convenient.
~ UK residents can register and maintain their account online, including auto top-up.
~ The fare you pay with an Oyster card is almost guaranteed to be lower than the price of buying tickets individually.
~ How much money to put on your Oyster card depends on how many days you'll be staying, what time of day you need to travel and how many zones you intend to travel to. Price cap information can be found here:
The Tube, DLR and London Overground
Buses and Trams


If public transportation is not for you, taxi cabs abound on the streets of London. London cabbies are some of the best tour guides in the city. But be advised: traffic in the city can be horrendous, so travel time above ground could be slow-going and therefore expensive. Also, always ensure you are using a licensed cab company, for example London Black Cabs.

Not many would recommend renting a car in London. Traffic and parking can be a nightmare, and you'll always have to deal with the added expense of driving within the congestion zone. With so many better options, I do not recommend it.

Double-decker bus tours:
A great first day investment to get acquainted with the city. They can also double as your transportation for the day. Choose from the reputable Original Tour or Big Bus Tour companies.
Also popular are Thames River Cruises.



Affordable eats:

Eating options are plentiful in London. You will find familiar chain restaurants a-plenty; TGI Fridays frequently has a 2-hour waiting list, and I'm convinced there are more Pizza Huts and KFCs in London than in my own American hometown. But don't be afraid to wander and try new places! These are a few of my old standbys and favorite spots to grab a bite:

Pret a Manger - Chain soup and sandwich shop, great for fast, healthy and on-the-go
Pizza Express - Chain Italian restaurant, decent pasta
Bella Italia - Another chain Italian restaurant I usually end up in at some point
Wagamama - Very popular noodle bar
Gourmet Burger Kitchen - the name says it all
Giraffe - Thanks to Laurimi for this tip!
S&M Cafe - Thank Laurimi for this one, too!
Chop'd - Make your own salads and soups
Leon - Thanks to Patricia for this tip!
Cafe Diana - Quirky cafe in Notting Hill
The Cow Pub - popular for seafood, also in Notting Hill
Camden Market food stalls have great options for international dishes
Mermaid's Tail Restaurant - Relatively new in Leicester Square, offers decently priced yet elegantly presented seafood in the heart of the city.
Chinatown is also conveniently located right off Leicester Square.
Also, don't underestimate cheap pub grub, especially a pub with lots of locals.
London has some of the best Indian food outside of India. Check out highly-recommended spots like Rasa.

Afternoon Tea:These will never be very cheap, but they can be incredibly fun!
Fortnum and Mason
The Ritz Hotel
Laduree at Harrods



Enjoying the city:


Options for retail therapy are seemingly endless in London. Outdoor markets abound, as well as large, addictive retail stores like Topshop. Some of the best spending spots are:
Harrods
Covent Garden
Camden Market
Portobello Road Market
Oxford, Bond & Regent Streets
Spitalfield's Market
Leadenhall Market
Borough Market


The crowds of London are half the fun for locals and tourists alike. Get out and just wander. Some of the best spots to see and be seen are:
Leicester Square
Piccadilly Circus
South Bank
Trafalgar Square


It's okay if you forgot your toothbrush or need a bottle of water. Options are everywhere! The most common shops are:
Boots the Chemist
Sainsburys
Marks and Spencer
Tesco


Nightlife:
Take advantage of some of the world's best theatre! The Half Price Ticket Booth will get you the best price for that day's West End shows.
Put on your dancing shoes, because London also has some of the best nightclubs in the world.



Venture out from the crowds:

Enjoyable spots within London yet beyond the city center:
Primrose Hill
Hampstead Heath
Greenwich
Kew Gardens
Richmond

Daytrips outside London: Traveling outside London can be done by escorted coach companies like Evan Evans Tours or independently by car or rail. Thanks to Abby for recommending The Train Line for rail travel, but be aware that the best fares are booked early. Choose which option works best for you.

Canterbury - Awesome cathedral (pictured at right), incredible walled city
Leeds Castle - fun garden maze
Warwick Castle - My favorite English castle
Bath - Stunning Georgian architecture
Stonehenge - can be done easily on the way to Bath
Stratford-Upon-Avon - Shakespeare's birthplace
The Cotswolds - Stow-on-the-Wold is my favorite village
Blenheim Palace - Find Winston Churchill's burial site

Hampton Court Palace - Henry VIII's stomping grounds
Oxford - Tolkien & CS Lewis country (pictured at left)
Cambridge - Gorgeous university town; try punting!
Dover - White cliffs are also at Seven Sisters Park further east
Windsor - visit historic Windsor Castle



Stay at least a night or two: These locations are easily accessible from London. However, I don't recommend trying to squeeze them into a single daytrip. Stay at least a night or two:
Edinburgh, Scotland
Paris, France via Eurostar
Brussels, Belgium via Eurostar
York, England (pictured right)
Brighton, England
England's Lake District
Cardiff, Wales



Money:


Great Britain uses the Pound Sterling. The current exchange rate can be found here, though it's safe for Americans to assume everything will cost approximately twice as much.

Several credit cards nowadays don't charge foreign transaction fees (ie. Capital One) making them the best method of payment abroad. However, if currency conversion is not free on your credit card, you will be charged a small fee every single time you use it. This can add up.

In that case, use your ATM/debit card to withdraw cash at an ATM. Choose an ATM attached to a bank to avoid any additional ATM fees, and withdraw the maximum amount of cash at a time, usually £250. This way, you'll be charged the minimum amount of fees possible. I recommend carrying your ATM card and your cash in a money belt, as well.

The best currency exchange rates can frequently be found with credit unions. Opening a separate travel account at a low-rate credit union before leaving home can be worth the saved money in the long run.

If you ever need to deal with an exchange bureau, pay attention not only to the rate of exchange, but whether or not you will be charged commission fees. I try to use exchange bureaus as little as possible for this reason. Some Marks and Spencer stores have commission free exchange bureaus inside. These give you a much better exchange rate than the desks on the streets and at the airports.

Some larger stores, like Harrods, can run your transaction in your home currency. This avoids any foreign transaction fees, as the store is pulling your own currency out of your acccount instead converting it to pounds first.

Most everything in the UK has a 17.5% Value-Added-Tax (VAT) already included in the price. However, as a visitor, you are eligible to get this money back upon your departure from the country. To do this, you must remember to ask for a VAT refund form from the sales clerk every time you make a purchase. Make certain you retain this form and the transaction receipt throughout the duration of your trip. Once you arrive at the airport to depart the country, you take all these forms and receipts to the customs office to process your refund. Allow a healthy amount of extra time for this; the customs queue is often long.

19.2.08

TSA's New Security Lanes

The travel world is abuzz with TSA's recent announcement that they will soon be testing a new concept aimed at more efficient security procedures: segregated lines and traveler definitions. Read more about it here.

At the surface level, I thank the TSA for feeling my pain when I'm in the security line, trapped behind the family with twelve whining toddlers, twelve bulky carry-ons, twenty-four stinky shoes and a lot of whining, mostly from me.

However, I really wonder how this is going to work. The obvious goal here is to make things quicker for those that are ready, but like most government notions, there is quite the gray area here. The family line I completely understand, no questions there. But what about the rest of us childless folk? I mean, there is no Naive First-Time Traveler with No Children line. Or Senior Travelers That Always Overpack line. The only people this is going to truly benefit are the business commuters, the people that are traveling often, usually on their company credit card in business class or higher. In which case, I can only ask, "Seriously?"

I take two major international trips a year which leave me pretty familiar with the procedure, but it doesn't exactly make me an Expert Traveler. So I wonder if I really qualify to jump into the line with the man who flies five times a week. And if not, am I condemned to wait in the other line with most everyone else who has been lumped together?

Plus, this self-classification idea based on a simple sign hasn't exactly worked in the past. I think we've all waited in the customs line marked "US CITIZENS ONLY" behind the clueless foreign family that have no idea they're in the wrong place. There is no guarantee I won't still get stuck behind The Brady Bunch.

I don't dislike the idea. Anything to make security lines shorter is a Godsend. But I think if TSA is going to start classifying travelers, they need to grab it by the balls and do it right. Make it clear. Provide sufficient classifications and enforce them. You are, after all, security.

Politics for the Traveler

With the mud slinging back and forth in Washington during this blissful election year (yes, that's sarcasm you're sensing), travel columnist Christopher Elliott has written a powerful piece on matters these candidates should be paying attention to.

Go check it out.

1.2.08

All Aboard

Well, we just booked our Eurostar tickets; I am officially going to Belgium!

On one hand, I'm really excited to savor some chocolates, waffles and frites, and try yet again to speak French without sounding like a chicken with her tongue caught on something. I miss getting the Europe you can only experience when you're in a place that looks like this:



On the other hand, however, I've discovered I have a bit of an irrational fear of trains. (stop laughing)
Am I worried about the fact that I'm going to scream down train tracks at 186 miles an hour? No, not really a problem.

Am I intimidated that I'll be underneath the 23 miles of water between Dover, England and Calais, France? No, though I'd rather not dwell on that.

No, my major concern is simple: getting on the wrong bloody train.

You see, we have a connecting Netherlands train between Brussels and Brugge, but I've never been on a train before. In my 28 years on this earth, never have I been presented with the opportunity or misfortune to travel by traditional rail. My train education consists solely of tourist videos listing the 127 ways you can screw up in a European train station and accidentally end up in Minsk instead of your intended Italian Riviera.

That's why I'm making my fearless little sister come with me. At least while we're forced to use charades to communicate with the fine people of Minsk, I can blame her and not myself.
Related Posts with Thumbnails