Sunday, April 3, 2016

England, Wales and Scotland...oh my!

I need to find a loo for a comfort stop and I have forty pence to pee!

The Tour Itself: We left Indianapolis Friday afternoon and arrived in London the following morning at about 6 am. They were five hours ahead of us.

  • Saturday: We were alone in London all day to explore at our leisure. The hotel was in an excellent location that allowed us to wander over to Big Ben, shopping areas, restaurants and pubs. We walked down the Thames River and came up some open markets with food and shopping. It was an excellent find.

  • Sunday: we were given a 4 hour tour of London and it was so fun. We were taken to the Palace and Westminster Abbey, lots of amazing things were explained and shown. Then around 12:30 we were returned to our hotel to enjoy the rest of the day. This was perfect because the tour had shown us all the things we would want to revisit.

Greater England (outside of London):
  • Monday: we left early each morning, bags outside around 6:45 and exiting the hotel about 7:30-8.  We went to the home of Henry VIII and saw his ornamental Gardens then went on to see Stonehenge. Finally, we arrived at the Roman Baths. The baths were interesting the town was old and had an abundance of character within walking distance. There was a grocery store next door which was interesting and allowed us the chance to buy some bottled water and lots of candy bars and local chips we had never seen before.

  • Tuesday: onto a new hotel, yep, bags out at 6:45 am and onto a new place! This took some getting used to and we basically lived out of our bags. We traveled on to Straton-Upon-Avon which was the birthplace of William Shakespeare and his cottage with his wife Anne Hathaway’s. This was a sweet town we were able to walk the streets, shop and have some lunch. Then back onto the bus to venture onto Wales.

  • Wednesday: onto the bus again to move onto Scotland for two nights.  First,  we went to see the Roman walls and the Rows. These were some original two story shopping areas.  Next on to Gretna Green to see a small chapel area where runaway brides historically married. Since this territory is not technically England you could get married under 18 and without parent permission. Apparently, there was still arranged marriages so people might flee to marry for true love.  Then onto Scotland to spend two nights. We were free for the night to tour Scotland and have dinner which was excellent.

  • Thursday: We woke up and headed to a tour of Scotland by a local guide with a wonderful Scottish accent.  We were taken around on bus to see many historic and ancient buildings. We toured Holyrood Palace the Queen’s residence in Scotland where she stays each June.  This was an awesome history of Scotland tour explained by locals. Next, onto the Edinburgh (pronounced Edinburough) Castle which was fascinating. We could tour the prisons and facilities. We got to go and see the cafe where J.K. Rowling first put pen to paper on the Harry Potter nerds were pretty excited. So much of her stories (and many others) came alive in a new way as we looked at all the amazing buildings. This tour ended mid day and we were able to tour on our own and find some excellent pub food. We enjoyed listening to bagpipers in the halls and shopping along the way. With great options to purchase kilts and the like. Bus Ghost Tour that night was 45 pounds for our family of four and a highlight of our stay. We all loved the tour, it was a little creepy but very fun and inside the bus as opposed to a freezing cold walking tour.

England beyond London
  • Friday: back onto the coach to head back south. First stop, Sir Walter Scott’s home. This home was quite the sight. He was a hoarder much like my mom...but holy cow it was crazy. He obviously had a lot of money and a lot of interests. So one room was full of armory and weapons and others were full of china and yet more had incredible collections of books.  Next, we traveled into York which was an impressive city. Our guide explained the buildings were built up and then in toward the center of the street in the “shambles” this allowed both sides to come within feet of each other to provide a canopy. This was a butcher area and it was important to keep the meat fresh and not under the sun. This was so neat to see in person. Photos don’t do any of this justice.

Return to London
  • Saturday: While returning to London we stopped off at Cambridge. This historic college was a great little stop for lunch or a coffee and some photos. This was clearly a way to break up a painfully long ride and a nice place to stop along the way. We spent the evening walking about London on our own. We chose to head to Hyde and Kensington park where we could see the home of the Prince and Princess.

Heading Home
  • Our flights were at 11:30 so we were transferred to the airport at 7:30 am.

Before you travel:
  • Credit Cards: Call your credit card company a few weeks before travel. Let them know what countries you plan to visit or they might stop purchases to keep your account safe from hacking. It is also important to determine if there are any fees for use of a different currency.  For instance, we have two Chase cards. One card charges a fee every time it is used in a different currency. The other has no fees. Calling and making this determination in advance saved us a lot.
  • Cell Phones: Call to find out about your international calling plans.  With our Sprint plan for instance, we could text free and use all the data we could connect to abroad. However, voice calls cost per minute.
  • Passports: check early to ensure your passports won’t expire within six months of leaving the U.S. renew if this is an issue. A stolen U.S. passport can get you $2,000 on the black market so it is very important to photocopy your passport and leave a copy with a family member at home and with your luggage. This would allow you to get the proper documentation to the US Embassy to get another issued which is apparently a lot of work. I also left copies of my credit cards that I took so they could be canceled if lost.
  • Currency Converting: You will want British pounds. You can go to your bank and let them know you need to convert the money. Our bank charged a one time fee of $17 for the conversion regardless of the amount of money actually being converted. For our family of four we converted $1,000 U.S. dollars. This allowed us to tip our Globus guides and driver and buy food and extras throughout the 9 day trip. Some locations (in a local market for instance) charged less if you paid with pounds versus a credit card.  No one accepted U.S. money. This is very different than the Caribbean.

U.K. Weather: wet, cold, slight ray of sun, rain, rain, cold...did I mention rain?  So, here’s the thing it seems to rain intermittently.  The rain goes away pretty quickly so it’s best to duck inside if you can so you can wait it out and not remain wet.

Things to Pack:
  • I am really liking the Columbia brand of clothing for travel. They sell clothing that is rain resistant so it doesn’t soak water in but rather lets it bead and run off. I bought two different types of black pants that could easily be worn and reworn. Since they were plain black it would be easy to dress them up or down. The things I bought didn’t have much wrinkling from travel either.
  • Food: we all agreed we would have loved some goldfish crackers...if that isn’t a staple in your home bring something non-sweet and cracker like. We do a lot of time in buses. This can make some people a little queasy and it helps if you have a snack that isn’t sweet. There are plenty of dangerously delicious candy bars and pastries. No need to bring those.  I did bring my favorite granola bars because breakfast is odd. There are baked beans, fried ham, porridge and there is little flavor. I also don’t generally eat large breakfasts so I need a later morning snack. I always travel with gum.
  • We should have invested in a very nice insulated rain coat with hat. It was windy and rained on and off. So, having a raincoat that we could put a hood up would have really been nice. It was in the 40’s-50’s all week so it would need to be insulated.
  • Deck of cards especially if you are traveling with teens that might want something to do when back at the hotel at night.
  • An extra charging cord for your phone. This has now happened to us twice when traveling internationally...cell phone cords get kinked and have electronic breaks and quit working. It is very frustrating to be traveling and have to go on a wild chase to find a cord. Just spend the money, buy the extra.
  • You need gloves.
  • My daughter had low rainboots (those new Sperry shoes) those were ideal. They were not bulky and tall but rather like regular high top shoes but the entire bottom was waterproof.
  • I would take ONLY two pair of shoes. That way if one gets really wet you can alternate them the following day.
  • Cool pajamas or shorts for sleeping We found many hotels did not get cool overnight. We would have to open windows. This certainly could be our ignorance but it seemed there wasn’t a lot of cooling systems.  There weren’t sheets either. There were down style comforters. So if you were hot there was all blankets or no blankets.
  • We packed entirely too many clothes and we are avid travelers and trying to be sensible. You can rewear clothes more than you might expect. Since it is never truly hot there isn’t nearly the sweating. I need a fresh top daily but was able to rewear jeans and black comfortable pants. Lots of underwear and socks. We brought dress clothes because the itinerary said we had three meals with the tour. We didn’t need dress clothes or shoes ever. If you think you might take in a performance in a theater you would want one nice outfit. This wasted a lot of space we could have had for purchases.

U.K. Hotels:
  • The first floor is not the first you enter on G and then one flight up is the first floor
  • Bathrooms….wow….I am very picky about hotels and try not to stay any less than 4 star levels.  We were told showering is a newer concept in the U.K. and baths are more the norm. As an exclusive showerer, this did not please me.  A couple of the showers only had half walls, so the rest was open. I felt like I was overheating the water because the other half of me was freezing...burning on half and freezing on half!  The faucets were a bit tricky and the temperature is marked but in celsius.
  • Electricity: This was a situation where you finally just have to laugh. We were big planners and bought a converter box.  It had three places to plug in American outlets to the converter.  However, we got there and there were several types of plugs. Our converter plugged in and we were able to charge electronics. However, my plain curling iron NEVER worked. My hair dryer never worked. I should not have brought a hair dryer because they were in every hotel. Women really need a hairstyle that handles windy rain and no curling iron. This annoyed me because I wanted to look a little nicer in photos. If you have a ‘goto hairstyle’ that can be managed a little easier I suggest you plan for it.
  • Bedding: The rooms all had two TWIN beds. This was pretty funny. So, for our family of four we had two rooms. A family of three we were traveling with had a ‘triple’ so they had two twin beds and a fold out couch. Think "I love Lucy" marriage beds :-)

  • Travel Alarm: There were not  clocks in the hotel rooms. So you had to set your phone and get a wake up call. Since your time is all messed up from flying over (they were five hours ahead) we would wake often in the night and have to walk across the room to our phones to see what time it was fearing we’d overslept. There were never outlets by our beds. If you could find a small inexpensive light up digital clock it would be really nice to have.

Heathrow Airport Difference:
  • Upon entering the airport you check-in and deposit bags just like in America. Security was very quick. Then you can do quite a bit of duty free shopping so we tried to have pretty empty backpacks. Next, there is a large market area with shops of books,clothing and restaurants.  You won’t know your gate number. You will have to show your boarding pass to make purchases. You will stay in this large shopping/restaurant area and lounge in the chairs. One hour prior to flight the televisions will begin to show your flight gate and number. Once you head that way there is a bathroom and nothing more. You will show your ticket and passport to gain access to a large room for your gate only. This really expedites loading the plane. It was impressive and I really wondered why America hasn’t figured this out! AND you are not moving terminal to terminal as they change where the plane will be.

  • We were very impressed with Globus. While the hotels were incredibly old they were clean and reasonable. I believe this is just part of traveling abroad in a much older country. There are not big new hotels like in the states.
  • Globus had a one bag limit per person. We realized this before leaving and crammed everything into four bags.  Thankfully we brought a large expandable duffle that we used for dirty laundry. Basically the limit means, that is how many you have paid for them to move on your behalf each day in and out of hotels.  I think they might limit you if you were excessive but they allowed us to bring our extra bag as long as we carried it all the time, placing it under the coach ourselves each day.
  • The tour guide and driver were phenomenal. There is absolutely nothing negative I could say about either one. It made an enormous difference in our trip and I was so incredibly impressed. They were knowledgeable and fascinating with a great sense of humor. We would have missed out on so much information and wasted a ridiculous amount of time if we did not have a guided tour director with us. Paul was our tour guide and Carmine (Car man ay) was our driver.  Our daughter is hearing impaired and wears hearing aids. I let them know the first day and they knew her name and called her by name the entire trip. At stops he would look for her as we disembarked the bus and say, “come on, Emma!” (EEEEEma-love their accents) And make sure she could was right up front with him so she wouldn't get lost in the crowd.
  • Tipping: you are expected to tip both the driver and guide, this is explained in the booklet you receive prior to travel. You will need to have their currency for that tipping.
  • You make up a lot of sleep on buses. There are areas where there are lots of beautiful landscapes to see but sometimes you end up on highways and a good nap makes your day go a little smoother.

Cultural Differences:
  • Bathrooms: Bathrooms often cost money to use in public locations. For instance, using a bathroom in London will cost 40p (pence or about $.60). Outside of the city it was about 20 pence. If you eat in a restaurant you can often use the bathrooms free.
  • Asking to find a bathroom: Don’t ask for a bathroom or restroom. You will ask for the “loo” or “toilet”
  • Why are their two parts to the ‘flushing button”: It would appear this is where the concept of ‘going 1” or “going 2” might have originated. If you have left a lot in the toilet you would push both buttons so that it flushes more heavily!
  • Restaurant Service and Tipping: Restaurant service can be very slow and oftentimes one server would start taking care of us and someone else would show up along the way.  Tipping is generally only 10% and is often added directly to your bill so do not double tip. We chose to tip our customary 20% when given normal service we have come to expect in the U.S. Due to this lack of tipping it was common to never get a refill of water at all.
  • Soda: I had a shocked 16 year old...soda is not consumed in mass quantities overseas (not a surprise so many of our youth are obese!) A can of soda is about half the size of American standard drinks. There are never refills at any restaurant. We were very impressed in the flavor of the tap water. I am quite picky and it was excellent. My son, a soda connoisseur found the soda in the U.K. to be much better. Like their chocolate it is made with a lot higher quality standard.  Lots of lemonade which I really enjoyed because I prefer lemonade to soda.
  • Take Away Food: Many counter service style dining places allow you to pay a ‘take away’ price. This is often up to a pound less per item. They have limited seating so it can be easier to eat on the walk.  Ask questions about what you are ordering and reword your question if they seem confused. They call some foods or items by different names that might confuse you.  Biscuits are cookies, clotted cream is like butter, but there are other things they would tell me and I kept offering like terms until I hit one they knew.  
  • People: I have to say people watching was a blast. Our guide correctly pointed out that the English people were watching us as much as we were watching them. We would have loved to have recorded the English children calling to their ‘mummies’ they were absolutely beyond adorable. We were honored to eat with “Holly” one night and her family. She stole our hearts while climbing all over my husband and whispering secrets. Then posing for a photo with his police badge. In Scotland, our server from Italy started to take our order and began to stifle a laugh at our sweet Emma (14 years old) and blurted out,”where are you from?” Like our accent was just more than he could take. As we tried to get through the menu in typical US fashion hoping to change things to our liking he stopped her and said “I will bring you, you will like, yeah?” Basically he was choosing her meal for her. He was right it was fantastic. When we asked for a refill of our water pitcher he had no idea what we were talking about and after working through a pitcher is a jug, not a photo he kept laughing as he walked away saying "pitcher" After our meal he sat with us and we exchanged cultural info. He was shocked our servers earn 20% and he asked for our son’s XBOX info to meet up with him online.  We noticed so many were tender with Emma calling her ‘sweetie’ or ‘darling’. We sat back and watched others in the tour keeping to ourselves trying to figure out how families connected. Eventually we realized we were with a school group that had two teachers several older teens and a few parents. There were others as well.  Many nights into the stay we got to know one family at dinner and the kids stayed out late playing cards and it really changed their trip.  They had enjoyed the trip but these quick friends added many memories. 

I would definitely encourage families of teenage kids to take this trip with a guide. It was wonderful life experience with tons of laughs and memories.

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