Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thoughts on the trip to the UK

Now that we are back home, I thought I would put together a few thoughts about the trip that may help those of you who are thinking of doing a trip there in the next few years.

Time of year to go
We went in April / May and we were lucky with the weather in that we had very little rain. There was quite often a strong cold and damp breeze from the north or east and most days had cloud. However, in most places we did not experience the crowds that summer brings. Airfare costs are significantly lower than summer as well. Oddly enough, the predictable colder weather helps in packing since you only have to take clothes suitable for cold weather. The biggest negative is that all the flowers are not blooming, but if you suffer from allergies, that can be an advantage.

Personally, I would not go to England in late June through July. There are over 60 million people (and a whole lot of tourists) and the crowding in the tourist attractions can be daunting. Driving a car on the narrow roads would be a nightmare with all the extra holiday traffic.

The locals reckon that September and October are the best months and they are probably correct. However, these are the best months in the US so take your pick.

Getting there
This time we flew Virgin Atlantic and we thought they did pretty well. When coming back, remember to get to the airport well over an hour in advance. Check in finished one hour before departure. Heathrow airport is huge and the walk from the checkin to the gate can be lengthy. We've flown British Airways in the past and they have been fine.

We got to London quite early, before 7am. If it is a weekday, don't rush to go into London because you will be fighting the hoards who are going to work. Wait until at least 9am.

Staying in London
We got one of those deals where you can get three nights in a London hotel added on for not much extra cost. The hotel we used (Central Park Hotel) was fine. Don't expect London hotels to be the same as US hotels, many of them are in very old buildings that were not designed to be hotels. As the sign says 'lower your expectations' and you will be fine. Many of the cheaper hotels include a continental breakfast where you fill up on breadrolls, toast and jam. Many will also offer the full English breakfast for additional cost, usually with eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato and maybe some other delicacy such as baked beans.

We were lucky this time in that we could check in when we arrived at 9am. Most don't allow checking till later in the day, for example after 2pm. You can leave your bags with them however.

Virgin handed out what I call 'goggles' which you slip over your eyes to help you sleep. These can also be useful in hotels to help you go to sleep if it is light outside. Remember to set your alarm for breakfast. London is 5 hours ahead.

The London Underground is a great way to get around, but it can be very crowded at times, particularly rush hour. If you have trouble walking up and down stairs, the underground is not for you since although there are escalators and lifts / elevators at some stations, most require that you do some flights of stairs.

The Oyster Card works well and effectively replaces the old "go as you please" card. We just got 20 pound cards which were enough for the three days with a little left over. When we went out to Heathrow on the return journey, it was easy to top up our nearly empty cards to the two pounds 40 pence required.

We saved a lot of money by buying our tickets from London to Yorkshire two to three months in advance. We paid 15 pounds each way against the cheapest fare the day before of 43 pounds each way. Go to this East Coast train site to see how it works. Because we were going to be in the north for three weeks, I booked the one way journey north and then three weeks later, booked the journey south.

Car rental is much the same everywhere, but in the UK, be careful about CDW and whether your credit card covers you. This time we used Hertz. One way rentals can sometimes be very expensive.

Driving is still a pain in most of the UK. Roads are often narrow with lots of traffic. Roundabouts are every where but they are more efficient than traffic lights. You will need a navigator who is good at reading maps and telling the driver where to go next. Petrol is very expensive at roughly $8 per gallon. Rent as small a car as possible to save on fuel costs and to fit on the narrow roads.

Changing money, credit cards and paying.
We used our regular PNC ATM card and it worked fine everywhere at all the ATMs we tried. Our limit appeared to be 100 pounds ($160).

Most credit card companies now tack an additional 3% surcharge (ripoff) on to the cost of any foreign transaction as well as the profit they make on the exchange rate. To avoid this, we used Capital One which does not charge the 3%. It worked fine.

Every pub and restaurant we went to accepted credit cards as do the supermarkets and petrol / gas stations.

Since I am a classical music fan, I wanted to go to a concert in London. I use Bachtrack to find out what is on in cities around the globe. It works very well and I booked for my concert well in advance. Do not wait until you get to London to buy your tickets. First, the event may be sold out. Secondly, you do so much walking that you will decide that it is easier to stay back in the hotel and watch TV. IF you really want to see something, get those tickets in advance so that you feel obliged to go.

The UK used to have a lousy reputation for food decades ago. Not any more. There is good food everywhere and it's not really that expensive. Take a walk in the supermarkets and you may be surprised by how inexpensive most ingredients are compared to the US.

Photos and Blogging.
Take spare batteries, a spare SD card and some form of backup. Every day, I transferred my photos for the day (usually over 100) to my little netbook. You don't want to lose these photos like I did a few years ago when my SD card totally died.

The Dell Netbook was very handy. It is very light weight and though it is not very powerful, I can type on the keyboard and it does most of what I want. There is oodles of disk storage. Wireless networking is available in most hotels so you can check email, look up stuff, and of course, do your blogging. One of the new Apple Ipads might work very well.

I really enjoyed the blogging of the trip. Yes it takes some time at the end or start of the day, but I found that my photo taking improved because I was constantly aware of the need to develop some sort of interesting story for the blog and the photos were needed to illustrate it. I found that it was useful to take a photo of the sign at the entrance to castles, churches etc so that I could easily remember where I was when I was going thru all the hundreds of photos.

I did not blog all the places we went to even though many of them deserved a blog entry. Pretty quickly I recognized that themed blogs like the one on the distilleries worked very well.

By the way, if you liked my photos, I took a basic photography course at Cecil Community College twenty-five years ago. It's probably one of the most useful courses I ever took because I learned how to take better photos and how to recognize when a good photo is available and how to compose it. Remember, walk a few yards and the view and composition changes.

The UK is a wonderful place to visit. It seems like every few miles you are seeing something that you had heard about but never quite knew where it was. It is a very concentrated country and absolutely beautiful in most places. The people are very friendly and though some of the accents can be difficuly to understand, that is just one of the fascinating aspects of the place.

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