AH, HEATHROW . . .
the international airport all international travelers love to hate. Wait a minute. Is there an airport we all love to love?
Copyright Photo: Keith Burton
London Heathrow Airport (LHR) (9/2004)
Right up front, I want to say that we haven’t flown in and out of a lot of international airports. If you’re a seasoned air traveler, you may wonder why I’m picking on Heathrow.
Simple. It’s the international airport that’s critical to the type of traveling we do – almost exclusively in and out of the UK. I don’t even pretend to know much about others, and I’m too lazy to research them just for this simple blog.
Whew. I feel better just ‘fessing up. Onward.
Heathrow, like almost all airports, isn’t pleasant, but it is necessary. It’s a place where you set your jaw and soldier on. It’s where international travelers pay their dues physically, mentally, and especially financially. It has the most expensive fees, tariffs, etc, in the world. This info comes straight from the mouth of one of its staff members who had to scrape us off the floor after telling us the taxes – just taxes – on our US-purchased tickets to Zagreb.)
I know its name is Heathrow Airport but like many metro airports, it’s really a city. But Heathrow, unlike some US airports, is an ever-changing, confusing, sprawling, OLD city. By most counts, it’s the world’s busiest international airport.
The area in and around today’s Heathrow began being used for aviation as early as 1915. WWI and WWII kept it busy, though it was called a myriad of names during its early years. Heathrow, as we know it, began taking shape at the end of WWII – over Churchill’s objections, I might add. Because it’s old, it’s constantly being repaired, renovated, updated. And believe me, there are plenty of its bits that need updating.
In spite of all this, the troops at Heathrow are doing some things right as they process the most international travelers of all the world’s airports.
- It’s well signposted.
- They don’t skimp on staff, who are strategically positioned to keep travelers going down the correct cattle chute.
- The escalators work – well, most of the time.
Here’s how you practice Heathrow frugality:
avoid costly rescheduling of connecting flights.
Regardless of what a travel agent might tell you or how optimistic you’d like to be as you plan your connecting flights, allow a minimum of THREE HOURS for any connecting flight at Heathrow. You’ll need to be shuttled hither and yon from one terminal to another, up and down several elevators and escalators, rerouted around perennial construction, etc. That last bit – the perennial construction – is the wild card. Couple it with a delayed flight, not-to-be-rushed security troops, some non-working shuttles or elevators, and you’re in trouble before you even land.
I can’t emphasize this enough. You will NOT be able to get from one terminal to another on your own, as the area is totally unfamiliar to you and forever changing. More importantly, the Heathrow folks very much want you to use their shuttles, and they make it difficult to do otherwise. The airport’s shuttle service is your only reasonable option. And don’t think for a minute that your shuttle driver gives a whit whether you make your connecting flight or not. He will not be hustled along for little old you, trust me.
If you’re a seasoned air traveler, you may be thinking isn’t everything you’ve just read true of all large, international airports? Well, while we may not have been in as many international airports as some, we have been in our fair share, and this one always confuses us, irritates us, and raises our anxiety level more than others. Maybe it’s just us.
Or is it? Give us all your take on good ole Heathrow.
$800 IS THE MAGIC NUMBER.
That’s the amount of foreign-purchased goods which US citizens are allowed to bring into the country duty-free. Unless you find an absolute steal or an item you cannot possibly live without, try not to go above this $800 figure. The next $1000 after the first duty-free $800 will be slapped with a 3% duty. After that, the duty percentage just keeps climbing.
(To my truly frugal traveler readers, I say, please don’t be insulted, as I well know this is akin to telling you, “Don’t spend $20 on that pack of gum.” This $800-limit warning is for all the not-so-frugal travelers who’ve waded in this far out of curiosity – or boredom.)
Right about now would probably be a good time to revisit my earlier Gift-Buying post and Our Cheap Credentials page. Remember why you’re traveling abroad. If you’re like us, you’re not traveling just so you can shop.
But no matter how tightly we hold the purse reins, all of us will buy some things. So how will you know what you’ve spent if you don’t keep records? You won’t. When your flight attendant hands you a customs declaration form on your flight home, it’ll be reconstruction time. Hmm. Now what’s in our luggage that wasn’t when we lifted off two weeks ago? On your form, you’ll be expected to itemize every purchase you are bringing back into the US.
Every? Yes, every. So who’s gonna know? The Customs folks who will welcome you back to the good ole US of A, that’s who. They’ll question you about your form, and they just might decide to have a little look-see for themselves. They also have nifty sniffer dogs who can smell that forgotten clementine (still in your daypack) at 50 feet. Trust me, I know about these things.
Photo by Robert Stolank for NYT
© 2011 The New York Times Company
Frugal traveler that you are, you’ll want to read through this form before you plant your feet on international soil. No sense paying good money for something that the customs troops will confiscate later. If you can’t read the rather fuzzy PDF of the form on the gov’s site, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version. They’re pretty fussy about fresh produce, plants and plant products, soil, meat and meat products, birds and other live animals or animal products. You can see why: they don’t want any more strange critters brought into the US, since we already have plenty. [Read more →]
Tags:duty-free·smart travel·us customs
TAKE A VACATION FROM YOUR VACATION.
If your trip abroad is a very short one, you may not be able to do this. You may have to hoover on even if your brain and body are travel weary. However, if your trip is a little longer – two weeks or more – be okay with taking a vacation from your vacation.
Since our trips usually last around four weeks, we HAVE to take a vacation from our vacation, or we’ll collapse! Sometimes, we need only a morning or afternoon to rejuvenate. Other times, when we’ve had the pedal to the medal a bit too much, we need an entire day.
We read, nap, read some more, eat, nap – the same routine you use here in The States when you tell yourself, “I need a down day.” Over there, it’s even more critical. Our brains can only process so much information, and our bodies can only stand so much exertion (which will almost always be much more than your normal amount of exertion).
Right about now, you may be thinking this sounds like a not-so-frugal habit. After all, a day spent resting is a day spent not sightseeing. This is one of those judgment calls. If you or someone in your party has some physical problems that are affecting mobility, you’re not going to get much out of touring anyway. (Isn’t amazing how sore feet create disinterest – even in things you’re normally passionate about?) Others in your party may have reached a mental saturation point and need a break from all the new information being thrown at them all day long.
I knew we’d reached that point near the end of a four-week trip when we finally toured Edinburgh Castle. Late in the day, as we peered into one of the museums in the castle complex, we simultaneously turned to each other and asked, “Do you care?” “Nope.” So we turned heel to wander aimlessly around the castle grounds, and I thought to myself we have voiced the unspeakable! And I can tell you from plenty more experiences just like it that when you reach this point, very little you see or hear will matter to you.
Best to give it all a break and do everything kind you can think to do for your body and brain SO THAT tomorrow, you’ll be back in form. Then, you will be back on track as a frugal traveler, ready to drain every drop from your touring experiences.
Tags:smart travel·take a vacation from your vacation
PICKPOCKETS ARE EVERYWHERE . . .
and rarely do they look like pickpockets, as that would be just plain dumb. Since these folks make a robust, tax-free living picking pockets, they definitely are not dumb. Disgusting and despicable, for sure, but not dumb.
Their “work clothes” look just like the rest of the tourists or commuters that are all around you. The more average, the more nondescript they can appear, the better.
It breaks my heart when I hear fellow travelers’ stories of teams working together – one to distract while the other picks pockets. Then there are the traveling friends taken unaware by lone pickpockets who bluster in and out of subway cars quickly* or clumsily bump into their victims on crowded sidewalks. Their MO is either creating a distraction or taking advantage of a distraction created quite innocently by someone else, coupled with a very quick and anonymous egress.
The result is that our friends spent valuable touring time replacing what was stolen, were sometimes just “out” considerable cash, and were edgy and nervous for the rest of their trip. Bummer. In almost every story I can remember, our friends had done something they knew not to do. One laid her purse on a counter in order to help another shopper pick up a pile of sweaters she’d knocked to the floor. The perfect distraction ploy by a pair of pickpockets. Another friend left his credit card in his pocket after buying a ticket rather than taking the time to unobtrusively slip it back into his hidden security belt. Talk about low-hanging fruit.
We’ve never had even a close call, but then we’ve removed the low-hanging fruit. We keep the bulk of our pounds/euros, passports, credit/ATM cards, etc., in security pouches. My husband’s fits around his waist – under his boxers, shirt tail, and Dockers. Mine fits around my neck, hidden by turtlenecks and three or four other layers of warmth on fall trips. During warmer, summer trips, I’ve devised a way to wear mine around my waist, under my undies, shirt tail, and slacks.
My husband’s day pack contains our food for the day, some rain gear, picnic supplies, etc. – nothing that would be a devastating loss, if it were stolen. We have garments with zippered or Velcro pockets (that make noise when being opened) to hold our cell phones (password protected, of course) and the day’s cash. I also have a tiny travel gem of a pack which I wear around my waist (also cross body when we’re out in the country) and where I store some of the above, keeping my hand on it almost all the time when we’re in close quarters.
Now, I ask you, what pickpocket would pass up distracted tourists with shoulder bags and purses loosely dangling off their shoulders, promising-looking bulges in their hip pockets, and hands busy holding shopping bags for a couple of buttoned-up travelers like us? They wouldn’t. They don’t. At least, not so far.
Pickpockets are smart but also just a tad bit lazy. (Otherwise they’d get a real job.) They’re not about to work harder than necessary and increase their chances of being caught when there are plenty of tourists making their job so easy.
If you make their job hard, you’ve increased your chances of bypassing this tourist hazard. By the way, I am not saying they couldn’t pick our pockets clean and yours, too, if they really wanted to. A professional pickpocket makes David Copperfield look like an amateur.
I still stick by my advice to sit back and enjoy the show while taking public transportation, walking on sidewalks, and stopping at pavilions for street buskers’ shows. I’m just advising you don’t become comatose while you’re enjoying the show. Wedge your day pack and packages between your feet and legs while seated. Keep your hands on everything else. Be aware of other “audience members” who seem to be edging awfully close for no good reason – or even for good reason. Move away.
You’ll be fine as long as you remember pickpockets are not stupid criminals; they’re very savvy, successful ones. The proof? They’re seldom caught, meaning, frugal traveler, that you won’t recover what they steal. And that just adds unnecessary and avoidable expense to that trip you’ve anticipated for so long.
Okay. Your turn. Tell us your most harrowing pickpocket story!
*On the Paris Metro, we observed a wild-eyed, gibbering fellow rush onto our car at evening rush hour just before its doors closed. He worked his way down the aisle through packed, standing commuters, blowing and going. He exited at the opposite end’s door at the very next stop. A well-dressed businessman beside us immediately and frantically began patting his pockets, as did the other commuters around us. They recognized the MO. We, still pretty much country bumpkins, just thought he was crazy.
SIT BACK AND ENJOY THE SHOW.*
Just so you know, this is the great big exception to the blog post titled, Do not make eye contact. And it’s all based on our Parisian Metro (subway) and RER (train) experiences. We haven’t ridden enough mass transit in the rest of Europe to say that its metro public transportation is as entertaining as Paris’. I suppose some other city’s could be, but I don’t see how. And neither will you, once you’ve finished reading this post.
You’ve no doubt heard about how cheap mass transit is in Europe. But just remember, cheap is a relative term and in our frugal mindset, not an accurate descriptor in this case. Nevertheless, we’re good with the prices we pay for Parisian mass transit because, you see, it comes with free entertainment. Yes! And we all love getting two for the price of one, don’t we? And that, dear traveler, is what you get with your Paris Visite Pass: fast, efficient transportation AND lively, quirky entertainment.
Now, I can’t actually verify this, but I think I’ve figured out why Paris offers this two-fer deal. I think Paris, ever solicitous for its aspiring actors, has devised a method of encouraging and “supporting” them. And a quite clever scheme it is.
Evidently, there’s a central clearing house, perhaps called Le Bureau Central de les Acteurs Amateur (or something very near it). This must be where aspiring Parisian actors go to get their marching orders for the day. No other way to account for all the free and ever-changing entertainment we enjoyed on Paris’ mass transit. And I have to say, they performed admirably, on the whole.
I’m guessing there’s a wink-wink sort of understanding that all tips are to be regarded as tax-free. It’s brilliant. No government or non-profit pays a dime, but wannabe actors and actresses can put in their 10,000 hours (read Outliers by Malcom Gladwell) and make a starving-artist living while they’re honing their craft.
You think I’m making this up? You’re right. I have no clue if there’s such a scheme. But I definitely am not making up the rest of this. What follows are the entertainment highlights from a 19-day, 2006 trip to Paris. Sit back and enjoy.
Our first entertainer was a Charlie-Chaplin-esque fella, slowly walking up and down our Metro car’s center aisle, looking VERY sad and pathetic. A little too pathetic. His acting was overdone, for my taste. He astutely sized us up as English-speakers and wordlessly and ever so gently placed on my knee a little hand-cut piece of paper with his tale of woe – in English. He continued on to every car on our train and then came back through to collect his haul. Alas, no haul from moi since he’d done nothing but be melodramatic, and I don’t tip overdone theatrics.
A day later, we crammed ourselves into a standing-room-only car – face to face with two accordion players and a saxophonist. Talk about in-your-face Parisian music. After a couple of stops, the accordion players granted us all a little mercy (they really weren’t very good) and got off. The sax guy soldiered on, but had kind of lost his heart and faced the door, eking out a few wimpy notes. Eventually he gave up and got off, too. By now, we were beginning to understand this whole entertain-the-masses scheme.
The accordion-sax concert was on the way to Versailles and we found it mildly amusing. We had NO idea what a superior performance was planned for us on our trip from Versailles.
WHAT a performance! WHAT riveting drama! From this point on in our trip, we judged all other metro actors and actresses by her stellar show – and they all came up wanting. If any other actors had thought about poaching on her territory, I’m sure they would’ve quickly given up.
She started off stage, which is the mark of a very clever actress, indeed. Approaching as an angry – make that a very angry – young woman in a mini skirt with a gargantuan piece of rolling luggage, first-aid tape completely covering one thigh, and a couple of forearm crutches, she created a stir before ever boarding our train. She yowled and howled at the male station officials for several minutes before they allowed her through the turnstile. (I guess they knew about Le Bureau Central de les Acteurs Amateur and that they had no choice but to let her into her “workplace.”)
Cussing and fussing, she drug herself, her crutches, and her gorilla-sized luggage up to the second level of our car and started dramatically and loudly relaying a tale of woe to everyone around her. But those savvy Parisians – having read my no-eye-contact blog post, I’m guessing – were having none of it and practiced the no-eye-contact rule.
Eschewing those unappreciative snobs in the balcony, she clunked back down –with her luggage and crutches – to the entry level of the car. That placed her about two feet from where we were sitting in a slightly raised area (think mezzanine level). Now visible to all passengers on the lower below-ground level, all passengers on the upper second level, and all passengers on our mezzanine level, she had shrewdly positioned herself center stage.
What luck. We had front-row mezzanine (almost dress-circle) seats, and we didn’t even pay extra for them!
Fortunately, two young men were already standing on her “stage.” Perfect: unsuspecting fellas who can function as supporting actors without expecting a cut of the tips. (Monologues are hard to do properly, as we shall see.) Striking up a heated argument with the two guys, who thought the whole episode immensely funny, she switched back and forth between French, Spanish, German, and English, haranguing them multilingually. We picked up enough from her four languages to know that “her man had done her wrong,” and let’s just leave it at that.
The two supporting actors eventually tired of such a prima donna and got off the train. Left with no protagonists, she continued her dramatic ranting, trying to make eye contact with all of us in the audience, but we were most uncooperative. She sang a little of the Beatles Help, but had lost her nerve, I think, and gradually began to fizzle out, merely muttering to herself “que rien de bon bâtard.”
She tugged her luggage off at the next stop, tucked her crutches under her arm and strode off, stage right. My drama critic view? Strong start but lacked punch at the finale.
Wow. Wonder who they’ll send us tomorrow??
Someone with not quite the pizazz, as it turned out. Our next performer might have had a better chance if we hadn’t been been spoiled by the angry-four-language gal.
Let me set the stage. Paris was unseasonably warm while we were there, and Paris is notorious for lacking AC. We planned poorly one day and found ourselves competing for seats and standing room with hundreds of Parisian commuters headed home. Packed like sardines into an unairconditioned Metro car, those commuters had taken every seat, every hand strap, every rail.
Enter a diminutive, 4’10″, senior citizen who hopped onto our car just as the doors were closing. Once on secure footing on her stage, she began loudly and dramatically reciting something in French. A dramatic poem well known to the French, I assumed. Belying her age, she hopped, skipped, and jumped through the center aisle, squeezing between tired, overheated commuters, orating as she went.
It was a tough crowd. They were not appreciative – or amused. Heck, we weren’t amused – even though it was free. She left our car, jumped into the next one, and we all heaved a sigh of relief. But wait, she returned (tip-less, no doubt). But on this return trip through, the bounce had gone out of her hopping, skipping, and jumping. She got off at the next stop.
What was she thinking? End of day: tired commuters. Hot day: overheated, cranky commuters. Even angry-four-language gal couldn’t have worked that crowd. And then, bad acting is bad acting, no matter how you slice it.
Comme ci comme ça. Since our Metro pass didn’t include a line item for “entertainment,” we couldn’t very well complain, could we? Besides, we had plenty more exciting performances – more than you have time to read about. So. Did we get our money’s worth? Oh, baby. Did we ever!
*But while you’re enjoying the show, keep an eye out for pickpockets.
Tags:Paris Metro·pickpockets·public transportation entertainment
DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT.
If you live on the East Coast or in a major metropolitan area with reliable public transit, you already know this rule of conduct. You can stop reading right here if you like, Savvy Traveler.
We, however, are rubes. We live in the West. We didn’t know this eye contact rule when we first began international traveling. But it isn’t our fault that we’re so backward: we’ve been deprived. Our Denver RTD has been telling us for years how marvelous their system will be. Of course, we don’t have it, will continue to be taxed for what we don’t have, and can’t live long enough to use it if it ever gets built. (Yes, I am annoyed: my frugal nature detests paying repeatedly for something I’ll never receive.)
There. I feel better. Sometimes a good rant just has to be indulged, and it always feels better when you can honestly say “it’s not my fault.”
In our humble experience, this no-eye-contact rule applies more to European mass transit than to Scotland’s – or even England’s. We’ve had delightful conversations with friendly Brits and Scots alike on trains and buses. In Europe? Not so much.
There’s sound logic for this simple rule: you never know just how unhinged the person across the aisle might be. Best not to provoke any hoo-ha that could easily be avoided by simply not looking.
There is, though, one stellar and wonderfully frugal exception to this rule.
April 11th, 2013 · Touring
VERIFY. VERIFY. VERIFY.
As much research as I do before we ever leave home and the additional research I do via Internet access at our nightly digs, you’d think that would be enough. Wrong. We’ve learned to call the day before we plan to tour to verify our online and guidebook research. This is one of those lessons learned through disappointment and letdown.
Since we usually spend three to four weeks on a UK holiday, the loss of a few hours in a day really isn’t all that catastrophic. But if you have only 10-14 days of actual touring time, you can ill afford to waste much daylight. Just imagine how disappointed you’ll be to drive an hour or two to a destination you’d thoroughly researched before leaving the States, whose admission times you thought you knew, and were very much looking forward to seeing, only to discover the site is closed.
Though this hasn’t been a regular occurrence for us, it’s happened enough to make us wary. Here are the situations that have sabotaged our best-laid plans – and could well do the same to yours.
You already know that traveling in either spring or fall – the aptly named shoulder season – is the most effective way to cut your airfare expenses. It also means you’ll rub elbows with fewer fellow tourists, and there’ll be no raucous school children swirling about your knees. Good stuff.
What isn’t good stuff is the fact, based on our six trips to the UK, that shoulder season times and dates on websites are, well, not entirely accurate. This niggling fact caused us to waste quite a bit of time during our first fall trip when we were sans cell.
Though the National Trust and its counterparts might have seemingly top-down-imposed admission times and dates, we’ve found they’re not set in concrete. We found closed sites which were apparently closed early at the discretion of the local NTS folks because their visitor numbers were down enough that they felt justified in closing early. We, not contributors to the “down” numbers, were merely collateral damage.
If these kinds of large, tourist-oriented organizations play fast and loose with admission times and dates, you can imagine what happens in privately owned and run tourist sites, so verify. That brings me to . . .
Extremely Limited Openings
There are some castles and country homes which are still very much homes. Folks live in them – all rooms, all floors. Through pure grit, they’ve soldiered on through all sorts of political adversities, calamities of war, and death duties, keeping the pile – or at least most of it – in the fam. However, as a way of bringing in just a little cash (to keep stone walls pointed and fix dry rot messes) without disrupting their lives too terribly much, they open their doors to the public.
Sort of: on the third Tuesday between 2:00 and 4:00, or the fourth Saturday between 11:00 and 3:00. You get the picture: extremely limited touring times. If a family or maintenance emergency arises, you can guess what happens. One of the two days per week or month that the estate is scheduled to be open will evaporate. Verify.
Construction and Repairs
I want to be fair here. If a rainstorm breaks through the crevices in an aging castle’s slate roof, raining down buckets into the Laird’s Sitting Room, it’s all hands on deck to control the damage. There may be no one who can think past the emergency to go to the website and add, “In view of last night’s thunderstorm, Castle —- regrets to announce we will be closed —– through —–.”
But there are also times when serious repairs have been planned for several days, maybe even weeks, and are being addressed, but someone was asleep at the wheel. Staff had plenty of time to alert the public via their website. They just didn’t. These are the situations that also make it necessary to . . . verify.
This rather uncommon epizootic was fairly well publicized during our 2001 trip. (Wouldn’t you know, during two weeks of our trip, we were centered in the worst affected area.) We knew our chances of walking along Hadrian’s Wall were slim to none, so we didn’t even bother driving to any of the walking paths. Instead, we contented ourselves with the Roman forts just south of it which weren’t infested. So far, so good.
But that same year, we schlepped ourselves to at least three other sites we can remember, which weren’t publicized as off limits, only to discover that they were. Bummer. Did I mention these were waaay out in the country and we spent a good deal of time on little B roads trying to find them?
Granted, hoof-and-mouth disease isn’t your usual snafu, there may be other agricultural situations or human diseases than can spoil your plans. Verify.
How about you? Have you lost out on a touring experience because of other situations? Please warn us all, if you have.
Tags:admission dates and times·cheap scottish travel·National Trust for Scotland·NTS
WORDS AND PHOTOS
AREN’T THE ONLY WAYS
TO REMEMBER A TRIP.
A very savvy travel agent shared this first tip with me many years ago, and I can confidently say it works. The rest are of our own devising.
Scents are magical things. They can transport us to a different place and time in a nanosecond. Use that magic to help you take yourself back to your trip: buy cologne either in an airport shop while you wait to depart or at your first tour site’s gift shop. Use only that cologne all trip long. Once home, use it sparingly – whenever you want to “take a trip.” I’m telling you, it works.
You know this from your own experiences with songs from your youth. Hearing a song you haven’t heard in years can often take you back to a very specific place and time. If you have a trip experience involving music, buy the musicians’ CD. (Yes, I did say buy.) Every time you play that CD, you’ll be transported. (See our French Dixieland Jazz experience toward the end of Wandering.)
Here’s another bit of magic and, yes, I know it contradicts what I say in Our Cheap Credentials. This is another instance where I make an exception. All trip long, I keep a lookout for a piece of nice jewelry (not that costume rubbish). (You want this piece to last for years.) If I find something suitable and affordable, I – gasp – buy it. Yes, I do.
I have a pair of butter-colored amber and silver earrings I bought at a St.-Martin-in-the-Field’s arts-and-crafts market stall. Every time I push those posts through my ears, I’m transported. I see the kind Polish vendors who so patiently helped me choose them. I feel the crisp fall day. I smell that unmistakable odor of decaying leaves. I hear the sounds of the market all around me. I remember just minutes later, being nosy and getting us into a free concert. All these rich memories from one pair of earrings!
If you’re not into jewelry, maybe there’s something else small and affordable that you might buy to keep somewhere (bedroom or bath?) where you’ll see it daily. I’ll bet it could have transporter capabilities, just like my little bits of jewelry.
Just so you know, though, I still stick with my original, don’t-buy-stuff premise in Our Cheap Credentials. I’m talking about selectively buying ONE, small, affordable souvenir that you will use regularly and, therefore, regularly be transported. Does it fit our cheap mindset? You bet. Taking a trip over and over in your head is just about the most frugal way I know of “traveling.”
Depending on your age, you may remember carefully preserving ticket stubs, prom napkins, programs, etc., in a cheap scrapbook on yellowish, grade-school-reminiscent, and – what we now know to be – very acidic pages.
Today, women scrapbook on an entirely different level. Oh my, do they ever. While they’ve taken this memory-building hobby to new heights, they still incorporate the same items, along with photos, that previous generations used. But let us be clear: I am not advocating all-out, over-the-top scrapbooking (unless you’ve already bought into it).
I’m merely suggesting borrowing scrapbookers’ habits of hanging on to a few mementos of your trip: some ticket stubs, leaflets, or brochures. Back home, use them as bookmarks. Or stick them on a bulletin board. Or place them in a glass-topped display table. Park them anywhere you’ll see them regularly.
Your turn. What memory aids have you used to transport yourself to places visited on a trip taken years ago?
Tags:cheap scottish travel·making memories
DO IT NIGHTLY
Upload and keyword your day’s photos, that is.
The first few years we traveled, we packed 60+ containers of film and shot every one of them. Back home, it took days to compare those photos with my trip diary to ensure I’d labeled them all correctly and placed them in chronological sequence in albums. I’m not talking all-out scrapbooking here – just a name or phrase to identify each photo in acid-free plastic sleeves in a nondescript three-ring binder. I had a system of labeling film canisters and recording our shots in my diary, which I won’t go into here. My system made it a doable project, albeit a very tedious and time-consuming one.
Thank heavens for digital photography.
On our last trip, I uploaded photos from our digital camera to my laptop nightly. With my artist-husband right beside me, I entered the correct keywords into iPhoto for each photo. (Sometimes he took photos when I was elsewhere, and I had no clue what I was viewing on screen.) Since that trip, he’s asked for a specific subject several times, and I was able to take him straight to the photos he wanted. Granted, he paints from these photos, which makes this process more important to us than it might be for you.
However, you may want to show a friend a very specific castle she’s interested in. Rather than scroll through all 800 of your trip photos, you can efficiently pull up only what she wants to see – if you took the time to keyword them when you still remembered what they were.
But even if not one single person gives a rip about your trip photos and never asks to see them, you may want to take a trip down memory lane – maybe several trips over the years. Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew what you were viewing?? And if you pair your keyworded, electronic photos with your trip diary, you can really maximize your trip dollars by taking the trip again and again and again – in your head.
If you’ve never taken an extended vacation abroad, I assure you that all the reasons I gave for nightly journaling apply to this habit as well. You will be positively drowning in new information, sites, insight, etc. You can’t possibly remember it all unless you record the subjects of your photos nightly – before you forget what you saw. In years to come, you absolutely will not regret the few minutes it takes to complete this little chore each night of your trip.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·making memories·trip photography
DO IT NIGHTLY.
“Good morning. My name is Marybeth. Welcome to Culzean Castle. As you can see, we’re in the Great Hall, where the first laird –”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. This is my 25th castle – not counting the other 28 tourist sites we’ve seen – in four weeks. I can’t absorb one more fact. Could I just –”
“Say no more. Just wander to your heart’s content. If you do have any questions, though, I’m sure the guide in each room will be happy to help you.”
This was a real conversation I had with a very understanding castle guide on our first trip to Scotland. She also had a sense of humor about my plight and didn’t take offense, which I greatly appreciated.
Unfortunately, we’re slow learners. On every successive trip, my artist-husband and I have done the same thing – museum and castle ourselves to death. Our UK trips are rarely less than three weeks long and usually closer to four weeks long. Have any idea how many tourist sites can be crammed into three or four weeks? A LOT.
You may be able to tour for three or four weeks, too, but are capable of exercising a good deal more restraint than we do and, therefore, have less to remember. Or not.
You may not have three or four weeks off. You may be desperately trying to cram everything you can into ten days or two weeks. That’s concentrated sightseeing, with plenty to remember. And forget.
However, how much time you can spend on holiday and how much you decide to fit into it aren’t the only factors involved. Every place you tour, everything you see, will be new to you. Working out the currency exchange will be a puzzling new experience. Working hard to understand a foreign language or English spoken with an unfamiliar accent will be a new experience. If you choose to drive, that will also be a brave new experience and a whole lot of work. Shucks. Just deciphering unfamiliar items on a menu will be a new experience (more brain work).
Get the picture? Your brain will be on overload all day, every day. Many of us have developed an unconscious habit of dealing with information overload: we clean off our brain’s hard drive each night so we’ll have enough space on it for the next day’s activities. Consequence? Once back in your own humble abode in the States, you’ll scarcely remember a fraction of what you saw and learned.
The solution to this perpetual emptying of the brain is simple: journal each night. Your trip diary can be as skeletal or as detailed as you want it to be. Since we’re touring to take our own photos and collect information about those photo subjects for my husband’s Scottish art website, I keep a rather detailed trip diary of what we’ve seen each day. If you’re not traveling for similar reasons, you have no compelling reason to be so thorough. You could spend just a few minutes hitting the highlights of each day.
Then again, with laptops, iPads, etc., recording as much as you can remember about what you’ve seen – and your responses to it all – is quite painless. On our first few trips, I journaled by hand every night and eventually got tired of writing, the end result being that my trip diaries weren’t as thorough as I would’ve liked.
But, wait. This is a blog about thrifty traveling. What does journaling have to do with frugal sightseeing?
Simple. I reread these journals to my husband on their anniversary dates. “A year ago today, we were in . . . .” “Five years ago today, we were at . . . .” (When I’m rereading the journals that include more details, we both get to relive more vividly each day of that trip.) We “take a trip” several times every year, in a figurative way, because I took the time to record our day’s activities each night on every trip. THAT, dear traveler, is called getting your money’s worth from your holiday dollars . . . or pounds . . . or euros.
I suppose I could record my notes during the day, as we go, on my iPad. But while we’re out and about, I just want to soak it all up and, of course, I’m pretty busy taking an obscene amount of photos. I’d rather wait till evening, back in our exchangers’ home or in our B&B room, to take care of my secretarial duties. Regardless, the when isn’t as important as the do part. JUST DO IT.
You won’t regret it. You’ll get to relive some of your greatest memories over and over. Additionally, when someone asks about your trip, you won’t have to embarrassingly mumble, “Hmm. I don’t really remember. I think we went to ——–, but I’m not sure.” Instead, you’ll be able to regale them with all sorts of interesting information. (Do wait to be asked, though.)
Now, let’s hear your tips for remembering what you see on holiday.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·journaling·trip diary
March 28th, 2013 · Touring
LOOK FOR THIS SIGN.
We give the Scots and Brits very high marks for their tourism efforts. Very high indeed.
Near, if not smack in the middle of, almost every village or city centre is a Tourist Information Centre. Often, they’re within easy walking distance of the main mass transit hub for the city. They always display a sign containing this italicized, lower-case i, and they are almost always staffed by kind people who often act as if their whole purpose for being is to point tourists in the right direction.
But that’s where the similarity among TICs stops.
Don’t look for similar architecture, roof design, or any other distinguishing feature that would make a TIC easy to spot. The Tourist Information folks aren’t being difficult; it’s just that every village and city centre is different, with many protected buildings.
Here in the States, a government entity as powerful as a national tourism board could march into the Podunk, Iowa, city center, level a few buildings, and build a cookie-cutter building that looks identical to the one in Detroit – and Denver – and San Francisco. In the UK, not so much. No one has that kind of clout. Besides, it’s counterproductive, as it destroys the very history and quaintness that the UK’s tourism industry is trying to promote. They site a TIC anyplace they can find that makes sense for the space needed and is convenient for tourists. We’ve visited TICs in former churches, jails, private homes, courts, etc. Use the search term uk tourist information centres in Google Images, and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s why you’ll want to become adept at spotting this little i, which may be the way it’s shown here – white on blue – or not. Might be red on white, black on white, or white on green over a dragon (Wales). Might be part of a larger sign or simply by itself. And – here’s the part you really need to know – it might not exist at all. We’ve found a few villages that apparently were too small to warrant a stand-alone TIC.
Example: unable to find the ubiquitous TIC sign in Haddington, I popped into the chemist’s and minutes later, we were walking two blocks to the . . . library. Yep. Turns out, the TIC folks had purloined a little corner of the library and stocked it with all the brochures and leaflets we’d expect to see in a “real” TIC. We didn’t require help, but I’ll bet the librarians – all local people – could’ve answered any of our questions.
This was the first time we’d encountered this setup, but I expect to see more of it. Given how the UK has had to practice austerity measures like the rest of us, it wouldn’t surprise me if they move the TICs in very small villages or more out-of-the-way villages into other shops or businesses as a cost-cutting measure. Keep that in mind when you travel. If you can’t find that magic little i, just ask the locals.
I cannot say enough good things about these dedicated TIC staff. They know their region. They know their tourist-board-provided materials. And they know their manners.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·TIC·tourist information centre
GET IN SHAPE!
International travel is work – strenuous work. If you’re barely able to motor around your own home or get from your car to the supermarket door, you have NO business traveling abroad. This would seem obvious, but I’m astounded at stories I’ve heard about people in exactly this state. It would seem plenty of otherwise astute people spoil their own and their traveling companions’ trip because they simply won’t take an honest look in the mirror before booking their flights.
DON’T DO THAT to the friends and family who’ll be traveling with you. Oh, at first they’ll feel sorry for you. But that sorrow will eventually and inevitably turn to irritation as they consistently have to wait for you to catch up, schlep your luggage – plus theirs – up the Tube steps, and miss out on events and sights they’d planned to see because you “don’t feel up to it.” You’ll feel guilty – or at least you should. They’ll feel guilty, thinking such unkind thoughts about you. See how this works? DON’T DO IT.
Ah. I see you still need convincing. Well, here you go.
Even if you have a tour bus depositing you right at the door of every place you intend to visit, you’ll still be walking a surprising amount of the time. Many – if not most – historical buildings, great houses, and castles cannot reasonably be altered to allow for elevators, escalators, or even wheelchairs. In 2012, we watched a busload of very sad senior citizens turn around and leave a great house, sans tour, because they had tried unsuccessfully to carry some of their tour members (in wheelchairs) up the front entrance’s 30+ stairs. Just as well: inside, the house was full of stairs with no elevator in sight.
Even if you’re renting a car, you will still be doing plenty of walking.
Let’s say you’re planning on visiting several great houses or castles in the country, and you’ll be driving yourselves to each one. Even on these large country estates, regardless of who owns them – the hereditary clan, National Trust for Scotland, or Historic Scotland – you’ll still get your exercise. They may have opened them to the public but the public is still, well, The Public – best kept at arm’s length if at all possible, if you get my drift. Consequently, the car park is WELL AWAY from the great house or castle, so as not to spoil the view. You and the other unwashed masses will be hiking a bit just to get to the drawbridge.
Then, of course, there are The Grounds. Every country estate worth a glitzy guidebook has gorgeous formal gardens (maybe even a walled kitchen garden), tennis courts, the puzzling, no-purpose Folly at the end of a long walk, woodlands, their private cemetery, their own chapel, and so on. Shucks, at Manderston House, we hiked (more than we intended) to see its Marble Dairy (and I don’t even like cows) just because, well, have you ever seen a dairy with every square inch covered in marble? See? So how could we not hike down to the dairy – unless, of course, we were very out of shape?
Furthermore, even many middling-sized villages out in the country near these country great houses and castles have pedestrianized their centres. Their pay-and-display car parks are a loooong way from all the attractions you’ll want to see in their village centres.
And then there are the cities where, dear traveler, there is no parking right in front of a destination. European cities were not built for cars; you’ll be “pahking the cah” and hoofing it many blocks to your tourist destination. Heck, some cities – London comes to mind – have made it illegal to drive into their city centres without a special permit – which you will not have.
Old Edinburgh is the supreme example of the necessity of being in shape. With its castle built on volcanic rock, it spreads out over a mass of hills. Translations: bazillions of stairs and steps. It would’ve been psychological suicide to count the steps we trod making our way up from Princes Street Gardens to the Royal Mile, so we didn’t. But this photo I snapped on a wynd up to the Royal Mile (after we’d already slogged up more stairs than what you see here just to get ourselves to this level on Canongate) is a perfect, kill-your-thighs example of what you can expect.
Are you planning on mass transit “adventure” to get you to your sightseeing adventures? Then, honey, you’ll be clocking some serious mileage. You’ll be walking to the bus stop, terminal, or station. Once off the bus, you’ll walk to your first destination, and then the next one, and the next one. . . Once at your destination, you’ll be walking miles inside the museum or whatever. So start clocking up the mileage NOW. Get a pedometer if you don’t already have one. Use it. Whoops. See? You don’t walk very much in a day. (Right about now would be an appropriate time to read Travel Shoes.)
Have I made it crystal clear? If you can’t “do” stairs, you may not be too happy about how you spent your travel bucks. If you can’t walk at least four to six hours (preferably more) per day, you may feel a bit cheated at the end of your trip – that you really didn’t get to see all you’d planned.
Due to family responsibilities, we took a hiatus from our UK travels from 2006 to 2012. During the first five years of our hiatus, I got lazy and slacked off on my workout routine. Good news: I eventually took a hard, merciless look in the mirror and got my rear in gear. A year before our scheduled 2012 trip, I signed up for a YMCA membership and used it like a woman obsessed.
Now let me say right here, I detest physical exercise, and sweating is so Not-My-Thing. NEVERTHELESS, I did both.
Every time my arms begged me to bypass the chest press machine, I told them: We WILL hoist our own luggage into the overhead bins and cart it everywhere we need to, troops. So shut up!
When my thighs begged for a break from the leg press machine, I told them: We WILL climb any number of stairs we please. So shut up!
When my heart was convinced it would explode if we spent another minute on that blasted exercise bike, I assured it: We WILL run through terminals to catch flights or anywhere else we need to run. So shut up!
You know what? A year later, my flabby, out-of-shape body was ready. And it performed all the above feats. I swung my luggage wherever I wanted. I climbed thousands of stairs. I ran through Heathrow to catch a flight (thanks to some rather inept and slow security folks). I did it all – with minimal grousing from my arms, shoulders, thighs, and heart.
This is a mid-60s, bookworm-ish woman talking here, folks. If I can do it, you can, too – but only if you’re willing to do the necessary work now to get your body in shape for your long-awaited trip. If you’re like most people, you’ve planned and saved for months – maybe years – for your trip abroad. Don’t sabotage your own careful planning and frugal saving by refusing to get your body in shape.
(Incidentally, while on your holiday, it’s a good idea to keep up with as much of your workout routine as feasible. Pack lightweight resistance bands and make yourself use them.)
Tags:cheap scottish travel·getting in shape for travel
DO THE BEST YOU CAN.
Every decent travel guide book worth its sticker price has at least a few paragraphs about this topic.
Read them because I won’t repeat their advice here. This post is only about tips we’ve found that worked for us.
- Research jet lag potions.
One year I tried a herbal concoction with lackluster results. I tried melatonin on a few trips and I think it helped. Google melatonin and jet lag, and you’ll see lots of folks are convinced it works. However, there are serious warnings about it as a supplement. Read them and make up your own mind. If you decide to try it, just remember to keep the dose low – around 1 mg. On our last trip, I tried Pycnogenol (also known as French Maritime Pine Bark Extract), and I had less trouble with jet-lag than on any previous trip. Of course, this is one woman’s experience, one time – but plenty of others have weighed in. Google it, too.
- Reset your brain’s clock.
As soon as you board your plane in the States, reset your watch for your destination’s time. No watch? Reset your electronic devices, if need be. But above all, don’t think of time in terms of “home.” Think of the time it is at your destination.
- Go through your normal bedtime routine.
After you’ve been served your deliciously yummy coach dinner, go to the wee little restroom. Brush your teeth. Take out your contacts. Wash your face. Do as much of your nightly routine as feasible. You’re playing a mind game.
- Get comfy.
Back at your seat, kick off your shoes. Loosen your belt. Roll up coats, sweaters, airline blankets, whatever, and stick them in all the right places of your munchkin seating accommodations to make yourself as comfortable as possible. If you can wedge it into place, try using your daypack as a footrest to simulate the recliner-like seating those profligate snots in first class have paid for. Your goal is to convince your brain you’re “in bed” and ready “for a long winter’s nap.” It’s a mind game, I’m telling you.
- Good morning; it’s breakfast!
Our flight from Denver to London includes breakfast. If yours does as well, think of it as truly a new morning (not an extension of your 9-hour flight) and an honest-to-goodness breakfast. Brush your teeth afterward and include as many of your morning rituals as you can. Mind game stuff again.
- Stay busy.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination and unpacked, FIND SOMETHING TO DO. Try some reconnaissance in your immediate area. Expose yourself to some sun. Take a brisk walk. Do anything but take a nap! I know. I know. This is soooo hard. Your body is crying out, “It’s time to sleep!!!” Don’t listen. You’re trying to retrain it for your destination’s time, so keep yourself up till at least 9:00 p.m.
Would you like to hear what happened when I was too much of a novice to know about all this helpful advice? About three days into our very first trip, I was trying to work out ferry times and hotels for the next leg of our trip. After three hours of trying to make sense of it all, I broke down crying just as my husband entered the room.
“I think I have Alzheimer’s! I can’t understand these ferry tables, and nothing makes sense!”
“You ninny. It’s jet lag. People don’t ‘get’ Alzheimer’s overnight.”
“Oh, right. Whew. What a relief!” (See how jet lag addles the brain? I knew this but I forgot I knew it.)
Yes, sometimes jet lag really can do a number on your brain and body. And yes, even if you follow all the advice above and try your hardest to bypass jet lag, sometimes it still hits. Just do the best you can and wait it out. (And please try to refrain from hopping in a rental car and hitting the motorway while you’re waiting out the jet lag.) We’ve found the worst is past for us (coming from Colorado) in about four days. It could be less for you if you’re flying from the East Coast into the UK or Europe. In large part, it depends on the number of time zones you cross.
How about your jet lag experiences? Have you found some sure-fire ways to decrease – better yet – eliminate jet lag? I wish you’d share: sleepwalking through the first few days means we really don’t get our money’s worth from those days of sightseeing. And you know how I hate wasting money.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·driving in scotland·jet lag
COMFORT TRUMPS CUTE – ALWAYS.
How many miles do you walk in an average day? Thought so – not nearly enough. We’re a fairly sedentary lot, for the most part, here in the States. If you’re one of the rare birds who truly does walk all day (or most of the day) in your line of work, you can stop reading right here. You already know what I’m about to say and already own the right kind of shoes for touring.
Then there’s the rest of us. When we walk here – whatever number of miles we like to fool ourselves into thinking we walk per day – we have an inaccurate picture of how comfortable a shoe might be for serious, all-day walking. I know, because this is another one of those lessons learned the hard way – the incredibly painful, somebody-just-take-me-out-and-shoot-me way.
I took shoes on our first trip that were very comfortable here, except that I had never walked in them all day. What did I know? Not much, it turns out. On later trips, I took “comfort shoes” that I also hadn’t walked in all day. But, hey, they’re sold as “comfort shoes” so they must be comfortable, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. It took months before our feet forgave us after a six-week trip abroad in 2004. That would be the trip that we packed Dansko clogs – sold as “comfort shoes” – as our all-day walking shoes.
None of us know if a shoe will be comfortable for a day’s worth of walking until . . . we do a days’ worth of walking in it. Duh. That’s when you learn this shoe, with multiple layers of dense cushioning, unfortunately, rubs your big toe callus raw. That shoe, with a nice roomy toe box, creates a heel blister. Another one, with the beefed-up arch support, cramps your little toe. And on and on it goes.
Finding a shoe that’s comfortable for all-day walking takes some research, a fair amount of walking around in shoe departments, and some false starts. This is one area where you can’t afford to be chintzy. You can always get your money’s worth from any brand new shoes that you find you can’t wear all day after all. Just wear them here in the States during your sedentary work days and don’t carp about wasting money on the non-travel-worthy rejects.
And don’t get me started on the critical importance of choosing the right size – not the size you’ve always worn or the size you want to tell others you wear – the CORRECT size.
So how do you ensure you pack only shoes your feet will love all day?
- Buy new comfort shoes months from your trip departure date, and wear them all day, on several different occasions. Which ones pass the all-day test and which ones flunk?
- Find the shoes you already own that seem likely candidates for all-day walking, and wear them all day, on several different occasions. (No, it isn’t your imagination and yes, this is A LOT like choosing correct travel clothing.) Ditto above: are they comfortable all day? Be honest.
If you’re a guy, you’ll have no trouble with what I’ve just said. You get it. That’s because, silly man, you don’t care how your shoes look which, in this case, is a good thing.
If you’re a woman, this is the part where you may have just stuck your fingers in your ears and chanted “La, la, la; not listening.” Furthermore, this is the part where women often go on to add, “Oh, but I just bought the cutest pair of ballerina flats AND they go with my whole travel wardrobe.”
Don’t be daft. You’ve presumably planned for a very long time and will spend some serious moola on this trip, even if you are über-frugal. Few things will ruin that trip faster than feet that are crying out, “You’ve abused us, and we’re not taking another step without giving you excruciating pain!” When you give in to the pain and decide to forgo seeing several sites because your feet are killing you, is that called “getting your money’s worth”? It is not, and you now become very unthrifty, dear traveler.
I cannot say this enough: abused feet will mutiny and sabotage your lovely holiday. Make sure the shoes you pack are shoes you can wear comfortably ALL DAY. No, they probably won’t be cute. Get over it. “Cute” will just have to wait till you’re back at the office.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·comfort shoes·shoes for touring
March 8th, 2013 · Touring
TRAIN YOUR EAR BEFORE YOU GO,
AND WATCH THE HANDS.
The bloke* who first said “England and America are two countries separated by the same language” was only half right. In addition to unexpectedly varying word usage, we should add the alarming number of UK regional dialects. These two factors – word usage and dialect – can occasionally make understanding the locals almost impossible.
Almost – but not quite. Especially not if you’ve been training your ear by watching anything you can find – documentaries, movies, TV shows – that were created in the UK. The more, the better because, presumably, you’ll hear a variety of dialects from various parts of the country. Start NOW, regardless of your travel dates.
Not so helpful, but still worth a go, is listening to a BBC radio channel on iTunes as you work in your office and home. Let it play all the time, regardless of whether you’re actively listening or not.
Why is this method not so helpful? Your average Brit and Scot snicker at the ever-so-correct BBC English, which some of our exchanger friends claim exists nowhere in the UK. The FreeDictionary, however, defines it as “a pronunciation of British English based on the speech of the upper class of southeastern England, formerly used as a broadcast standard in British media.” As such, it won’t be as helpful to you as your doc-movie-TV-show regimen unless, of course, you intend to spend your touring time hobnobbing with the upper crust. If that’s the case, why on earth have you waded this far into a blog all about cheap travel?? Slumming it, are you?
Regardless, filling your pre-trip travel time with all the above can’t help but improve your ear. However, right about now would be a good time for me to come clean: we still get tripped up. As it turns out, we’re in very good company.
On our 2004 trip, we toured the National Museum of Rural Life just south of Glasgow. By this time, we were getting cocky: we’d done the doc-movie-TV-show routine for 20 years and taken three UK trips – all lengthy ones, ranging from Kirkwall to below the Borders and all points between. We thought we pretty much had all the Scots’ funny little dialects mastered. (Cockiness is never a good idea, which should tip you off on what’s to follow.)
Owned by ten generations of Reids and gifted to the NTS by the Reid family, this property was a place that two of our Scottish exchanger friends also wanted to see. Even with an American “gentleman farmer” along, though, I was the most excited of any in our party: I’m a Reid by birth. We’d allotted a whole day to see it all: the museum, the working farm, and the Laird’s House.
Everything was going just fine till the Laird’s House. After only three minutes listening to the house tour guide, we knew we were in trouble. Before we could whisper to our Scottish friends, “WHAT is he saying?” one of them said to us, “Whut the ‘ell is ‘e saying?!” None of us got very much out of that tour, I’m very sad to say. We and our native-Scots friends may as well have been listening to a tour given in Swahili.
We later learned from another Scottish friend – a native Glaswegian – that Glaswegians often can’t understand one another; he claimed it’s because there are seven distinctly different dialects in that city. (Glasgow is about 68 square miles!) Apparently our Laird’s House tour guide was speaking one of those seven Glaswegian dialects, and our Edinburgh-born-and-bred friends were clueless. (Edinburgh and Glasgow are 51 miles apart!)
If the locals can’t always understand each other, we Yanks shouldn’t be surprised if we’re also left in the dark from time to time. While it was a disappointing tour experience, especially for me, I had to to keep it in perspective. The vast majority of the time, we’ve been able to decode the locals’ speech. Only rarely will a Laird’s-House-tour-guide sort of chap knock us off our high horse and leave us clueless. Not often – just often enough to keep us humble.
Here’s my last tip, courtesy of my intuitive, right-brain husband. He reads hands. No, not lips. HANDS. This method has served him well, mostly when asking directions. As I listened to two old geezers (each dressed in five different kinds of plaids) give him directions one foggy morning just outside Lauder, I knew he couldn’t possibly have understood their Gaelic-thick, hairball-in-the-throat brogue. As he cheerfully hopped back in the car, I asked, “Okay, so now what?”
“No problem. I read their hands. Jedburgh’s over there.” He was right, and that’s not the only time he did that.
Training your ear before your trip and paying attention to speakers’ hands once you’re on The Mother Land’s soil, might not seem thrifty tips at first glance. Hang on: can you think of anything un-thriftier than understanding very little folks say to you on your long-awaited trip to the UK? Talk about not getting your money’s worth . . . .
Your turn. What have you tried – successfully – to ensure you understand UK natives?
*Beats me who gets credit for this pithy saying. Scholars sharper than I can’t decide if it was Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or Winston Churchill, so who am I to weigh in?
Tags:cheap scottish travel·tour guides·train your ear·understanding the locals
March 4th, 2013 · Touring
DON’T. BUT IF YOU CAN’T AVOID IT, MAKE GOOD USE OF IT.
Folks in the UK are famous for their willingness to wait patiently in line – to “queue” – for just about anything. We Americans? Not so much.
I’m ‘fessing up right now; I’m even more impatient than most Americans. Miss Efficiency personified, I’m willing to wait in line for very few things. So. It shouldn’t surprise you that I’ve devised ways for NOT waiting in the ubiquitous queue while traveling. Check ‘em out.
- Pack your own food and drink.
That’s right: snacks, a thermos of hot tea or coffee, water bottle, lunch, etc. Trust me: a queue of hungry, cranky tourists all waiting for overpriced, mediocre food from a kiosk or sidewalk cafe is not how you want to spend your time. Eating whenever and wherever you want (or need to) is marvelously freeing. It also frees more of your time for sightseeing which, after all, is what we go there to do.
- Buy passes.
When you buy a pass, you’re not just buying the cheapest entry into multiple sites; you’re also buying the privilege of bypassing the inevitable queue for big-city (or wildly popular) tour sites. Issuers of almost every pass you’d care to name usually guarantee speedier entry via a pass-holders or members-only gate or line. (At Edinburgh Castle, we breezed past a line of thirty or forty people, smugly exchanging an hour of queueing for an extra hour of touring.)
- Buy a Global Entry card.
This is mainly for US citizens, and I intend to buy this before our next trip abroad, as I’m all done with snarky customs people and the shoe-less, belt-less TSA folderol. I know. You can’t increase your UK sight-seeing time by avoiding a queue in a US airport, but you CAN decrease your stress level and arrive in the UK defused and ready to hit the ground running. A February/March 2013 AARP Magazine article says: “Originally designed to speed Americans through immigration and customs (you use a special kiosk and bypass hour-long lines), the Global Entry program, which costs $100 for five years, now qualifies its members for TSA PreCheck, currently available in about 30 participating airports.”
- Avoid opening night.
. . . or the first day an exhibit opens, if you can. It’s nuts when an event first opens. We schedule ourselves to see something else that day or night and come back when the initial excitement has subsided and the lines are shorter – or nonexistent.
Bad news: even if you use every one of our tricks plus some of your own, you’ll still have to queue up from time to time. Good news: here are five tips from our playbook to take your mind off the glaring inefficiency all around you that’s chewing up your valuable sightseeing time.
- Chat up fellow sightseeers.
If they’re local, so much the better: you’ll have a chance to learn a lot about local customs, sentiment, politics, etc., and painlessly pass your queue time. If they’re tourists from another country, their English may be good enough that you can converse – and also learn a lot while painlessly waiting in line. (If they’re other Americans, converse QUIETLY.)
- Study a guidebook or travel app.
Brush up on any information you’ve previously read about the site or were in too much of a pre-travel panic to read. You’ll have a running head start once you’re in the door.
- Eat your snack or lunch –
even if it’s a little earlier than usual. Take the time to slowly hydrate yourselves from your water bottle or thermos. Just take the time to find the first-floor loo once you’re in to avoid consternation later on the third floor where there’s no loo in sight.)
- Take turns staying in line –
if you have a travel partner. One of you can check out – who knows? – whatever’s in the immediate vicinity that seems interesting. If you begin the queue together, folks behind you will recognize you both and – hopefully – won’t get too hot and bothered when you trade off.
- Do your favorite stretching exercises –
if you can do so without drawing too much attention. Take advantage of the downtime to relieve the inevitable travel tension.
How about sharing some of your own tips for avoiding the queue or for making good use of the time once you’re in it?
Tags:food·passes·queue·waiting in line
February 28th, 2013 · Touring
DO YOUR HOMEWORK. THEN DO SOME MORE.
Are you suspicious that international travel is a thinly disguised master’s thesis research project? Bingo. Get over it. Research IS the game – if you expect to get your money’s worth from travel.
Not doing research guarantees you’ll return almost as ignorant as when you left. A certain friend comes to mind. She took a whirlwind, cruise-ship tour of Europe and the UK and argued with me afterward, claiming unequivocally that Big Ben is in Paris. No, I am not making this up. And, no, studiously checking out cruise-ship clothing dress-codes – which sums up my friend’s pre-trip “research” – doesn’t count.
So, researcher that YOU are, stay with me. At the end of this blog post, I’ve included links to most of the organizations whose passes you’ll want to check out.
I’m giving you their international tourist pass page links, which can be devilishly hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Though they’re in no particular order, I’m hoping this uncharacteristic thoughtfulness on my part will make up for that get-over-it bit of snittiness above. It should make it easier for you to hit the ground running when you start your research. And you will be running: the sheer quantity of UK historic sites is staggering.
Mostly established in the late 1800s, these pass-issuing organizations are sometimes-interconnected government and sometimes private entities/charities. Overall, we give them high marks for having done a pretty decent job of protecting UK history and nature from obliteration. Each has a different focus, of course, and for the most part, a different set of properties. UK-ers interested in their own culture and history usually buy annual – or even lifetime – memberships.
Of course, even an annual membership would be overkill for you – unless you plan to visit the UK again within 12 months. Once, we planned a trip around our previous trip’s one-year pass expiration dates, giving ourselves a screaming deal on entry fees when calculated over the 12-month period. But for most UK visitors, these associations’ three-day, seven-day, or 14-day passes are sufficient.
Unfortunately, though, a nifty little pass (which saves money and jets you to the head of the queue) won’t get you into every place you may want to see. Though they’ve been dropping like flies ever since the World Wars, there are plenty of great houses, castles, and other historic sites still privately owned by the families or clans who’ve owned them for centuries. Some are privately owned by enterprising new owners who run them as purely business ventures with no aristocratic, preserve-the-estate-for-the-heirs notions driving their decisions. These, it pains me to say, are often not part of any pass. (See Historic Houses Associations below for the exceptions.)
Here’s our solution to this annoying fact of life. If we feel we simply must see some of these private properties not included in any pass, we plan their tour dates either before we activate our passes or after our passes expire. During our pass duration, we stay focused on its options: we see every site we can squeeze in that’s included in our passes.
By the way, in some parts of the UK, there are so many sites that are free (London’s and Edinburgh’s city museums spring to mind), that we really couldn’t justify the expense of buying a pass to see other sites, let alone paying to see a private property which charged the equivalent of $20-$30. Just didn’t seem frugal, don’t cha know, or even necessary for getting our dose of local culture.
Now, for the hard part: from which of these organizations should you buy your pass? As is often the case, that decision is best decided by the process of elimination. Before you begin furiously clicking your way through the list at the end of this post, make sure you’ve:
- made a To-See List of specific sites you and your traveling companions want to see, in order of priority. That last bit’s important, as you’ll have some niggling decisions to make about what you won’t get to see. Just so you know, you can’t swing a dead cat anywhere in the UK without hitting a castle or an equally worthy tour destination. Translation: you’ll have to pass up many, many, many sites. Get used to it.
- decided how many sites you can reasonably squeeze into your trip. One per day? Two per day? Three per day? Be real, now; don’t kill yourselves. Oh, that was so hypocritical. We’ve make a habit of museum-ing and castle-ing ourselves to death every trip, rationalizing that it might be our last trip and we “may as well” soldier on to yet another site. So do as I say – not as I do. Try not to cram so much into each day that your brain is muddled and befuddled after only two or three days of touring.
- factored into your decisions your lodging location/s. However, if the world is your oyster and you can stay anywhere you like, then this decision is the very last one you’ll make and has no bearing on site or association/organization/agency selection.
After you’ve wandered around these organizations’ websites and compared their international passes with their other membership options, you’ll realize their international passes are the cheapest entry for you. Don’t even worry about those mainly-for-the-locals membership deals. You’re interested only in comparing each organization’s international tourist pass cost and choice of sites with every other organization’s international tourist pass cost and choice of sites.
Now you’re ready for the fun stuff: drilling through these sites to see if, hopefully, there’s one organization which owns the majority of sites on your To-See List. Oh, sorry. That was just mean. One organization has everything you want to see? We should all be so lucky. More likely, you’ll find that two or three of the organizations have the bulk of your choices. Using the suggestions above, decide which ones are the best deals.
This isn’t as laborious as it sounds, especially if you’ve never toured the UK. Review all the organizations, factor in where you’ll be staying, and choose the pass/es with the most sites within easy commuting distance. Of course, repeat UK travelers have fewer unseen sites to choose from, making their elimination process a little trickier.
Here you go: knock yourself out. Hint: the best deals on UK* passes are tied to US organizations’ memberships.
National Trust for Scotland (NTS) Discover Ticket
We thought this pass was good value for our US dollars. Not until we had used it to see just about everything we wanted to see in Scotland did we discover the next two, far cheaper alternatives.
National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) Membership Card
A marvelously frugal alternative to NTS, this American NPO offers a $30 family membership deal. What does an American preservation agency have to do with Scotland? Heh, heh, heh. It has a reciprocal arrangement with National Trust for Scotland! Yes! Truly! But there’s a catch. Due to an apparent communication breakdown between NTHP and NTS, ticket-takers at NTS properties don’t always know this, as we learned the fairly awkward way. Thank goodness, I’d cut and pasted NTHP’s page outlining this agreement into my iPod. This means, dear traveler, that when you duplicate my CYA action, a NTHP 12-month $30 membership for two gains you BOTH entry into ALL NTS properties, regardless of how long your stay. (If you’re shopping for one, make that a measly 20 bucks.) By comparison, NTS’s paltry seven-day pass for two will take $62 from your wallet (at this writing’s exchange rate). And, of course, your NTHP pass also gets you into a healthy selection of US historic sites and properties in the other countries also listed on its International Reciprocal Program page. What’s not to like?
Scottish Heritage USA (SHUSA)
This US organization says NTS will honor its members’ SHUSA membership and admit them to all National Trust for Scotland properties and “some” National Trust properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This is because SHUSA has a reciprocal agreement with NTS which has a reciprocal agreement with NT. Confused yet? According to my contact at SHUSA, no one at NTS can say why NT accepts this SHUSA card at some NT sites and not at other NT sites. If you spring for this membership, better copy all pertinent information from their website and keep it on your smartphone, iPod, iPad, or a hard copy in your daypack. You may need to flash it along with your membership card to avoid possible ticket-taker push back. And even then, you may be out of luck for some NT sites. (I plan to email NT sites we want to see, asking if they accept this card, before our next trip.) A single membership is $40 and a couple’s is $50. Again, remember this is an annual membership; you could stay a very long time in the UK and keep right on using this membership card. By comparison, a two-week NT pass for two would cost you $77.
Historic Scotland (HS) Explorer Pass
We have used this pass on more than one trip and highly recommend it as, I think, there’s no overlap between its properties and NTS’ properties. (On our first trip – four weeks long – we bought NTS and HS passes.)
National Trust (NT) Touring Pass
(England, Northern Ireland, and Wales)
We’ve not used this one yet. When compared with SHUSA, it’s not a great deal. But this is the website you’ll want to check to find the complete list of NT sites in all three of these UK countries.
English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass
(England – not Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland)
We’ve never used this one either, so there may be some overlap with NT. Don’t know. I do know this organization’s list includes Stonehenge (a must-see for most tourists to England) and all the forts along Hadrian’s Wall (another iconic must-see). Pass prices start at about $35 for a single person.
Historic Houses Association
You can buy only an annual Friends Pass (not a short-term tourist pass) for this association, which claims public access to 300 privately owned UK historical houses. We haven’t used this organization yet. If you have several privately owned properties on your To-See List, it’s possible that even the pricey (at this writing) $66 annual Friends Pass might be a better deal than plumping down full price at several of its properties. Do the math. I arbitrarily picked Chatsworth House: full price admission for one is $29. Spencer House (Princess Di’s ancestors’ digs) charges $18 for full price admission. Winston Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace, costs a whopping $32. Whoops. We’re at $79 already, for just three sites. You can see how quickly you could recoup your $66 Friends Pass cost.
*If you’re of Irish descent and planning a trip to the Republic of Ireland, don’t go postal on me. After all, it is what it is – a completely separate entity from the UK. I’ve not included its associations in this post for that reason AND because of the inconvenient fact that I know nothing about the government agencies or NPOs charged with preserving its heritage. If you do, would you post a comment and make up for my ignorance?
Tags:cheap scottish travel·english heritage·historic houses·Historic Scotland·international tourist pass·national trust·national trust for historic preservation·National Trust for Scotland·NTHP·scottish heritage USA·SHUSA
February 28th, 2013 · Touring
DIG, BECAUSE FREEBIES ARE OUT THERE.
Happily, a fair amount of UK and European sites you’ll want to see – mostly concentrated in city centres – offer free admission.
For example, we spent a week touring London’s museums and never paid a pence in admission prices. Of course, we paid for their lockers and coat checks. And we paid through the nose for ridiculously priced coffee in their cafes but now, I guess, I’m just being illogical and churlish. Coffee is not a necessity for touring any of these places, and no one kidnapped us and made us buy the stuff. The point is, the loot in plenty of museums is on offer for free viewing.
Other world-class tourist sites offer free admission on the first Saturday of the month or the second Monday, or . . . . You get the picture. There’s a freebie on their calendars somewhere. Your job is to find it.
During 19 days in Paris, we used our Paris Museum Pass hot and heavy till our week was up. Having scoped out the freebie days at other non-pass sites, we visited them before and after our pass dates.
There’s more to this than being stunningly frugal. It’s about ensuring you don’t pay good money for something you wished you hadn’t. Ever done that? Leaves a nauseating taste in your mouth, doesn’t it? If you find a freebie that, well, has been correctly “priced,” you’re out little time and no money. If you find a freebie that’s a genuine, tucked-away jewel, you’ll be able to make an informed decision, should you want to go back (to finish the job properly) and pay full admission price.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·free admission
DO NOT WAIT TILL YOU HAVE TO.
You’ve no doubt heard that you have to pay to use public restrooms* in the UK and Europe. You heard correctly – mostly. While it’s true there are mercilessly few free restrooms in public (read: government-owned) facilities, there are still free restrooms to be had. They’re in businesses, for paying customers only, and they’re clean – usually.
The 20-pence ones you’ll find in all kinds of mass transit stations/terminals, city parks, and city centres are supposedly maintained all day long by attendants. Supposedly, with 24/7 maintenance, these bathrooms are cleaner than other bathrooms. Supposedly, you, grateful tourist that you are, would love to tip said attendants.
Can you guess where I’m going with this? Yes, I’m getting on another soapbox. After frequenting PLENTY of these restrooms, I can tell you that a public restroom . . . is a public restroom. The attended ones? Seldom markedly cleaner than the unattended ones. Shoddy service means no tip, in my book. If you find an exception to this, knock yourself out and tip the poor girl. I’m just confessing that:
- frantically digging through our pockets and daypacks for 20p,
- finding no toilet tissue (not counting the sodden mass on the floor),
- nastiness all ’round,
- no soap in the soap dispenser,
- a dead electric hand drier,
- no paper toweling, AND
- an attendant at the outside turnstile waiting expectantly (and not very unobtrusively)
just puts us in a cranky, most uncharitable mood. You can see why it took us only days on our first trip to devise a workaround for such a downer experience.
Use your paying-customer freebies.
We pay to get into all sorts of places all day long. Sometimes – not often, though – we pay for food or drink in an establishment. Whenever we’re paying customers, we revert back to our two-year-old, toilet-training days. We use their loo** – WHETHER WE “NEED TO” OR NOT, never missing a chance to check out the porcelain anywhere it’s free. It’s usually considerably cleaner than the mess commonly found in government-owned, public restrooms – except for city art museum restrooms, which are utterly trendy and almost always spotless. (Check out the faucets; they’re all different and way cool.)
Get into this habit: anywhere you’re paying for something – supermarkets, department stores, cafes, pubs, tourist sites – use their porcelain. That’ll spare you from the public ones I’ve mentioned above on the street or in parks that are just plain nasty. (Way more so than here!)
My discriminating husband’s all-time favorite for-paying-customers-only loo was at McDonalds on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. McDonalds? In Paris?? Yes, I know, but we were desperate for cheap caffeine in this very expensive city. (I also know that since we were in Paris, technically speaking, it wasn’t a loo.)
Gents faced a black marble wall to do their business, while a waterfall gently and genteelly washed the you-know-what down into a superbly crafted floor grate, allowing it a very discreet exit. Or, at least, so I was told as hubby came out saying he had just “peed in Paradise.” After this riveting report, he was anxious to take me on a tour of this marble marvel. I declined, even though he ranked it right up there – craftsman-wise – with the Eiffel Tower. (We do tend to wax eloquent when we’re allowed to give way to natural bodily functions in SUCH luxury.) As I recall, the ladies room was posh, but not that posh – just blessedly clean and well-provisioned.
My favorite loo of all time was truly a loo, as it was in the UK but, technically, it was the pay-to-play kind. Imagine a stainless steel cylinder about 10 feet in diameter and seven feet tall, discreetly (well, as discreetly as possible) placed by the side of a village street. Imagine a sliding door that magically opens when you drop your £1 coin into a slot and then silently and magically closes behind you once you’re inside. Imagine spotlessly gleaming stainless steel and chrome covering every square inch. But wait: there’s no handle for flushing. Of course not, you rube. After washing your hands, you simply step out, the curved door closes silently and magically behind you, and THE ENTIRE LOO GETS A WASH-DOWN from ceiling to floor. Yes! You can hear it from outside. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. Now, is that cool or what?
I know. I know. I paid five times the going rate to use that beauty, which quite violates our frugal scruples. Unless, of course, we count it as “entertainment,” which makes it very frugal, indeed. It all depends on which budget category we give it, doesn’t it? Or how running-in-place desperate we are!
But let’s get real.
From time to time, you’ll have to use a public (ick) loo, or toilette, or WC, or john, or whatever they’re calling it wherever you are. And they won’t come anywhere near my steel beauty. Here’s my reality check for you, dear traveler. Keep:
- 20p coins (or the appropriate euro coins) on you at all times,
- plenty of tissues or purloined napkins in your daypack at all times, and
- moistened towelettes or a small bottle of gel hand sanitizer in your daypack at all times.
Have we covered Morse code yet?
On each successive trip, we’ve noticed less and less of a need to know Morse code when flushing a john – public or private. But we still run into a cantankerous old stool often enough to use it, and so you’ll need to know this next bit. Let’s see, now. Is it three shorts and a long? Or two longs and a short? Oh, wait. I remember: it’s different for each one. So just try some staccato, Morse-code action when you push down that little lever after . . . you know . . . you’re done.
Prepare for munchkin spaces.
Oops. We’re not quite done. Here’s one more heads-up. Many a UK loo has been shoe-horned into a space where we might try to fit a couple of brooms, but certainly not two pieces of porcelain AND a human. But UK historic buildings being what they are, this parsimonious use of real estate is a necessity.
This means, soon-to-be, consummate traveler, that you will wash your hands in cereal-bowl-size sinks, do a do-si-do simply to get the door securely closed behind you, and – to save time and bodily contortions – stay seated while you wash your hands. It means you’ll become quite inventive in finding a place to park your daypack or bag. Once inside that broom closet, try to look on it all as an “adventure” – and a small price to pay for seeing The Mother Land.
Your turn. Leave a comment about your most memorable loo experience. Just keep it clean, or I’ll have to flush it.
*We say restroom or bathroom and studiously avoid toilet (unless we’re describing the seating apparatus found in every bathroom). They say toilet and wonder why we otherwise uninhibited Yanks won’t. It helps to remember this word is derived from the French toilette. If you say it properly in French, it sounds très élégant and less – well, you know – primitive and crass. So instead of the very American “toylut,” practice saying the more French-sounding “twälet.” Asking for the toilette rather than the restroom just might help you sidestep that very French, smug smirk we Americans dislike so very much.
**Plenty of folks have had ideas about the origin of loo. The one with the most credibility is that it’s the shortened, anglicized version of the French gardez l’eau, meaning look out for the water. If you speak even a little French, you know that l’eau is phonetically loo. Back in the good old days, it was shouted just before a maid tossed the “water” (which her master had thoughtfully collected for her during the night) out the upper-story window down to the gutter . . . and street . . . and sidewalk . . . and hapless passersby below who didn’t hear her gardez l’eau. Yesssirr. Those were the days.
Tags:bathroom·cheap scottish travel·john·public restrooms·restroom·the loo·toilet·toilette·WC
February 18th, 2013 · Touring
We never realized just how obnoxiously loud we Americans are till we found ourselves in tea rooms and restaurants where we could easily reach over to poach goodies off our neighbors’ tables if we were clever enough and quick enough.
Many of these little mom-and-pop eateries are teensy – shoe-horned into ancient buildings with 18-inch-thick stone walls. Guests, it goes without saying, are also shoe-horned in, as few owners are willing to knock out 18-inch walls. Sometimes, in the interest of maintaining “quaint,” city codes even forbid it. Everyone just has to make the best of small spaces.
So how do you conduct yourselves appropriately in these conditions? You do it by speaking in a WHISPER, that’s how. So tone it down. You can’t carry on the same way you do with friends at your favorite US “casual dining” restaurant.*
And while you’re at it, keep your mouth shut in other public spaces – great houses, museums, historical sites, etc. If you need to speak to someone in your party, find them and then whisper what you wanted to say. DO NOT holler from one gallery room to another, “Ethel, cum take a look at this here pitcher!” We watched this play out several times in a Paris museum, much to our embarrassment. From that point on, we murmured discreetly to each other, determined NO ONE would know we were also Americans.
When you’re asking questions, oh, say, like the ones in our Getting the Most From Your Tour post, ask softly, gently, and respectfully. Let the locals warm up to you slowly. When asking for help with directions, my husband has found a self-deprecating line that works like a charm every time. He flashes that perfect-teeth, American smile and says quietly, “Hi, we’re from Colorado, and we’re lost.” Their response is often a dry, “Aye, lad. That you are.” Then they beam and ask where we want to go, happy to help such well-mannered folk.
So use the first half of Teddy Roosevelt’s well-known foreign policy: speak softly. (Don’t pack the stick. You won’t need it.)
*Exception: at a pub or tavern, when the alcohol begins to flow freely after work and the locals let her rip. Alcohol almost always produces artificial conviviality; add a couple of musical instruments, and a ceilidh is born. Obviously, if the locals are whooping it up, whispering is unnecessary.
Tags:cheap scottish travel·european etiquette