This blog is about more than my move to Morocco. It’s about all of us moving, changing, learning. It’s about discovering new people and places that make us come alive. A new year is the perfect time to move from pondering to planning new experiences in 2015. Like travel. Since some readers found the posts on London appealing, here’s what I’ve learned in 7 stays in Shakespeare’s City—particularly on this last trip where I planned my own itinerary rather than relying on a tour company. Some of these suggestions apply to any destination. London is great for first-timers-abroad a bit nervous about speaking only English. It’s a lit lover’s dream where summers are cabbage roses and winters mulled wine. It’s Christmas where Charles- Dickens- tradition meets high-street -shopping.
It’s Big Ben, Boxing Day, and The British Library housing the oldest copy of Beowulf. It’s touching the wall built by William the Conqueror and hearing the bells at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day where/when he was crowned king. It’s tracing the steps of Jack the Ripper, standing on Harry Potter’s Platform, and crossing Portobello Road.
Thanks to former colleagues and roomies-on-the-road, Sharon, Betty, and Theresa, who led educational trips via EF Tours for years, and to new coworkers, Asil, a Londoner who gave us bus and tube tips for getting around, particularly for Christmas Day when the city almost totally shuts down, and Jasna, London lover who pointed us to Primark and Pret. And to Moni…my Spanish friend who did Morocco with me North to South and told us not to miss Camden Station.
Please reply below if you have a question or travel tip to add.
Passport/Travel Documents Start planning early. Check online to see where you obtain one in your area, noting time needed for the process. Get going to avoid paying extra to expedite US passport or to risk being grounded if it doesn’t arrive by your fly date. Some airlines for international flights require passport information at time of booking. Some allow you to add it online before you leave, but get it ASAP to avoid stress later. Although you will keep your passport/visa and money on your person at all times, also start a folder of all travel documents, such as hard copies of booking confirmations for your carryon. Don’t rely solely on emails or even notes in your phone since service isn’t always available and batteries can die during travel. At the border of each country you plan to enter (and in some cases, leave), you will have to fill out a card with the exact address of where you will be staying, the dates of your stay, and the reason for being in the country. Just knowing the name of the hotel or apartment you’ve booked isn’t enough. You need the address as well.
Flights Track prices through sites like SkyScanner. CNN Money advises buying plane tickets 8 weeks before departure date on a Sunday—cheapest day—rather than Tuesday as long thought. They say Monday is the most expensive day to book. And thanks to MIT computer scientists and Suzy Stratner at The Huffington Post for sharing with readers the best-tool-to-date for finding the lowest airfares, the ITA Matrix. Buy tickets early—particularly if flying with smaller airlines from this side of the pond, like Easy Jet or Ryan Air— who have amazing fares but limited flights that book fast for holidays. Christmas 2014 prices started going up in October, peaked in November, and went down some in December. If traveling solo or uber flexible, last minute deals are great, but not so if needing to ask off early or schedule around school/work breaks of multiple travelers. Carefully consider connecting flights. If the connection is in a large airport, you will need more than an hour—2 to be safe—to make the next flight, particularly if the first one is delayed. When traveling to Costa Rica through Atlanta I almost missed my flight because I allowed only an hour for the connection. Running through an airport is no bueno. I opted to send my children through Chicago O’Hare though there is always a chance for snow there in December. The connection time was longer than Atlanta allowed and it is a smaller, less complicated hub than JFK.
Be aware of policies particular to the airlines you choose. Easy Jet and Ryan Air require customers to print boarding passes before arriving at the airport and charge you if you don’t. A typical “airline-sized carryon” bag purchased in the US will probably exceed the size they allow free of charge. On Easy Jet, you are allowed one small carryon, but a purse or computer must be placed inside it when you board the plane. Ryanair’s carryon size is even smaller, though they allow a personal item. Prices for luggage to be checked in/placed in the hold area are expensive though the person checking our bags at the desk charged us less–perhaps based on weight?– than the “cheapest price” Easy Jet offered online if bought beforehand. Though American Airlines allowed my children checked bags at no charge in addition to their carry ons, Easy Jet did not. Weigh—LITERALLY—the cost of extra baggage.When possible, travel light, particularly when walking or traveling on the tube or train. Leave space for purchases. I learned from Europeans long ago to simplify my wardrobe to basic, dark pieces that can be worn in many combinations more than once. The good news is if you do need to check a bag, it can be a large one (check dimensions on website lest they change) as long as it doesn’t exceed 20 kg/44 pounds.Gatwick also allows one bag of purchases from their duty free shops to be carried on free. On January 1st those shops had 1/2 off most merchandise.
Travel to/from Airport In London, you have options of taxis, busses, trains, and the tube between your hotel and the airport. The most expensive option is a taxi. I tried the other three. I tried Gatwick Connect upon arriving Christmas Eve. Though it is less expensive than Gatwick Express, its additional stops meant a 1 ½ commute to the hotel. Gatwick and Heathrow Express, on the other hand, runs every 15 minutes and take less than 30 minutes. Gatwick Express runs to and from Victoria Station, from which you can grab a taxi, bus, or the tube. Heathrow Express runs to and from Paddington Station from which you can travel likewise. Express tickets to/from each airport can be bought at the train station. Buying a roundtrip ticket saves money. The Heathrow ticket was collected once the train left the station; the Gatwick ticket as we exited to the airport. When Taylor and Cole departed London from Heathrow, I saw them off, then caught a bus to Gatwick, where my plane flying out of later. I was in no hurry and on January 1 there was no traffic. The trip took one hour. Traveling on the actual holiday, such as Christmas Day, means cheaper airline tickets, but consider that public transportation in London–trains, tubes, public busses and taxis–will not be available.
No matter how you plan to travel to/from the airport, be sure you know from which terminal your plane will arrive/depart. It may be on your confirmation or boarding pass or you may need to find it online. Departing Gatwick you will go through security first. If you have your boarding pass, no bags to check, and a carry on that meets regulations, you will check the board for your gate. Easy Jet posts boarding gates only 30-45 minutes prior to boarding but given lines at security it is recommended you arrive at least 2 hours before flight. For bigger airlines flying abroad, its best to be safe and arrive 2 ½-3 hours before flight time.
Tubing It If the tube maps in the station on the wall or in print drive you mad, pre map your journey before arrival with this handy dandy tool (thanks, Asil!) At the sub station an Oyster card can be purchased and loaded for all day hoping on and off the tube and busses. If you need a ticket for one day only, the cost is less than 9 British Sterling Pounds. If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, check out The London Pass before booking tours on your own (more on that below).
Accommodations Price I start with Trip Advisor for hotels to read reviews and see rankings and Airbnb for home stays. If you want to live like a local and save money, Airbnb is great, though with its popularity properties go quickly. By October there was almost nothing left in central London and within weeks the same was true of hotels. A travel blogger led me to Airbnb two years ago when I stayed with her in Puerto Viejo and with her friend near the Costa Rica airport. Likewise, homes of my friends, Chuck and Emily, in Nashville, Tennessee and Monica and Ale in Vigo, Spain are listed. Once I’ve found favorites, I Google for best price. Since moving here I’ve found good deals on Booking.com, but Home Away, Holiday Lettings, Holiday Watchdog, are options, too. But here’s something else I’ve discovered…contacting hotels directly can get you the best deal of all. In London after finding the best price online, I called the Shaftesbury Premier London Paddington Hotel and got an even sweeter deal. Same was true yesterday when a bout of spring fever led me to booking a weekend beach getaway. Some hotels promise to match or go below online booking sites. If one Morocco has taught me one thing, it has been how to bargain.
Location Staying outside of major cities like NYC or London can save money, even though you have a commute price. But when staying only 3 days and one of them is Christmas when all public transportation shuts down (trains, tube, taxis), being within walking distance (Trip Adviser calculates this) of major attractions, subway and bus stops, and neighborhood groceries was a better choice. It also gave us the experience of living like a local. I chose a Paddington hotel from which we could walk to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland (a Christmas Market of food, lights, and crafts that was my favorite stop this trip), Oxford Street, Regents Street, Little Venice, and Notting Hill. Paddington Train Station is also hub for the Heathrow Express as well as tube lines and bus stops.
Christmas Day–quite chilly– we cheated a bit. Dressed for the service at Westminster Abbey (reserved seats obtained through Eventbrite via the Westminster Abbey website) and on a tight schedule, I booked a private taxi through our hotel in Paddington to Westminster. After the service, lasting from 10:30-11:50, we walked to Westminster Pier to catch a 12:15 Thames River Cruise I’d purchased through Golden Tours online. To make our reservations for a late lunch, we caught a black cab (again, no cheap taxes that day) from the pier to Notting Hill. Both trips were twice the cost of a public taxi on any other day but since we walked the rest of the trip, walked home from lunch to the hotel, and it was my son’s first cab ride which took us past Buckingham Palace, it was worth it. We’d saved a lot by doing the Thames cruise without dinner served on the boat, opting for The Castle Pub which had better reviews.
New Year’s Eve Finding a hotel near the London Eye is a good idea if you want to walk to fireworks on the Thames New Year’s Eve. Though the tube is free that night, overcrowding makes it a place to avoid. Likewise, the authorities asked people not to drive given the crowds, though cabs, costing twice as much as on Christmas Day, were packed and at a standstill. Tickets were sold online to get closer to the fireworks but couldn’t be printed, so between the risk of not receiving them in the mail on time (there were some issues) and their selling out by the time we reached London (they did), booking a hotel near a “free bridge” near the Eye was our best option. We also had no trouble getting a table without a reservation for dinner—unlike the feeding frenzy of pre-booking Christmas Day—but we went early. January 1 our hotel booked a private shuttle to the airport, again, limited service on the holiday, but for the same price as taking the dragging luggage at 6:30 Am to the tube, then Heathrow Express.
Food Our hotels included “full English breakfasts”—something that saved us money, filled us up, and started the day together. If traveling solo, this may not be an advantage, but for families or those who want to go all day and not eat again until dinner, breakfast included is a benefit. We also ate in Pubs–public houses–where food is good and more reasonable than some restaurants. Pret and Eat, soup and sandwich shops, are in almost all neighborhoods, offering the fastest, most affordable, and healthy fare.
Groupons, Living Social, and the Like Sign up for deals in London (or wherever you are going) but be sure to read the fine print on when and how they can be used. These are recommended for longer stays and/or a flexible schedule in terms of attraction admissions and meals. Be sure a “deal” is for real on hotels. In Costa Rica I saw a couple horrified when our van arrived at their destination. It was far from the picture. On a Sahara desert trip a couple on vacation paid more for the Groupon deal than those of us who booked the trip from local companies in Marrakesh.
Socializing For solo travelers writing members of Meetup.com or Couchsurfing, or contacting bloggers as I did before traveling to Central America, can give you inside info and maybe a new friend.
Essential Prebooking Christmas Day Meal Most restaurants and pubs are closed and the few that are open require prepayment and selections premade from their special menu. I searched high and low for a traditional meal and found one on quaint Notting Hill just off Portobello Road. But the one printed confirmation I didn’t print was from The Castle pub concerning our booking. Thankfully, I did have our emails back and forth on my phone, and though they had no record of the reservation, they gave us a table. After popping our English crackers, donning paper crowns, and eating good food, all was well.
Westminster Abbey Sung Eucharist Check their website for all holiday services. None were left when I first checked in October, but days before departure EventBrite had 3 returned seats. A miracle. Other tips It’s a good idea to exchange some money through your home bank before the trip. Banks don’t have foreign currency readily available so allow time to order. Check exchange rates because the bank may not be your best option. But if you don’t have time to exchange, ATMs—some without transaction fees—are at the airport and off many tube stops. Using your credit card sometimes gives you a better exchange rate, but be sure to notify your home bank of travel destinations/dates and use cash for small purchases. At the airport, if your phone is unlocked but doesn’t have global calling, you can buy a SIM card, have it cut to fit your phone and activated by the vendor. While an airport store may charge more than buying a card at a local grocery ($20 vs $6) where you have to cut the card and activate the service yourself, the extra $14 to be sure it fits and works is worth it. Wifi can be used in areas without phone service activation, but if you need a GPS for exploring the city, meeting up with a fellow traveler or any other phone use outside the wifi areas, buying a SIM card is an option. Either way, grab a tube map or city map at the station or hotel. Boxing Day Tips Name brand shops in Camden had the same 50% off sales as Oxford Street. The area also offers diverse food, handmade goods, and an artistic, local London crowd. Covent Garden is still one of my favorite places to shop, eat gingerbread snowmen, be wowed by the decorations, and hear live music. We fell in love with Primark. But after fighting the Christmas Eve crowd turned away at 6 PM…after giving up getting in there on Boxing Day (a tradition observed December 26 which took on a new and literal meaning when Cole had to yank Taylor and me free from a mosh pit in front of a store on Oxford Street where customers stormed a store), I discovered shopping December 27 at opening is perfect. No crowds. Just the best bargains I’ve seen anywhere.
And last but not least… Who knew the Jack the Ripper tours fill faster than any attraction in London? That people love gory tales other than those of the Scrooge’s ghosts right through the holidays? My children had one request when I began planning the trip in October, and I was determined to find a tour with an opening. Eight tour companies later, I booked the Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes Tour of Haunted London online. We met our our knowledgeable and entertaining guide at the Victoria Bus Station who escorted us to a double decker vintage red bus and off we went. Using his iPad to show us actual newspaper clippings/illustrations of the murders of London’s serial killer, he was a storyteller who knew how to build suspense. We dark –alley-crime -scenes and saw sites where Charles I was beheaded and William Wallace was executed—now a grassy park where people eat lunch. Take a Risk… Planning the “perfect Christmas” for my children was important, and I was more Type A than usual. But when flight schedules demanded I arrive in London a day early to meet them at the airport for a Love Actually greeting, I decided to take my chances and go with one of Priceline’s “No Bidding, Big Savings Express Deals.” I knew I wanted to stay in the Paddington area near the Heathrow Express I’d catch the next day, so I booked sight-unseen the 4-star hotel for under $100—unheard of in central London. It was amazing…a little gift for which I’m still grateful.
For another time… Had we more time in London, we would have hit the museums and taken a day trip to Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Stonehenge. Had it been summer, we would have rented a car and gone to my favorite places—the Lake District and Yorkshire. One day I mean to get to Cornwall and Wales as well. Planning takes time, and I learned a lot. But traveling with the most precious people in our lives is more than what we see or do. It’s what we become—even closer.