Category Archives: Destinations

3 Days in London, Part 2

Our second day in London was already off to a better start than the first due to one simple factor….sleep. The first day in a new city with jet lag is always a challenge. We made a quick stop for breakfast at Pret a Manger. This is a chain café with multiple locations throughout London. We were able to get coffee, diet coke and 2 muffins for around £7. We didn’t realize until our last day that breakfast was included with our room at the Intercontinental, so lesson learned…always ask.

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We started our day at the Tower of London. Get here early; it gets busy fast. We arrived 30 minutes after opening and headed straight to the Crown Jewels exhibit without too much of a wait. There are multiple exhibits to visit within the Tower of London complex, but this is the only one we encountered that didn’t allow photographs.

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Walk along the Tower walls for great London views.

A walk along the walls of the outer castle will give you some great views of the Thames, City of London (financial district) and Tower Bridge.

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I wasn’t brave (crazy) enough to walk across the glass floor.

The Tower Bridge and Exhibition were next on our agenda. You can walk across the Tower Bridge for free on the bridge level. If you want to go up into the towers and walk across the elevated walkways which include the glass floor, you’ll need to purchase a ticket or use the London Pass. Also helpful to know is that there is a lift (elevator) up to the 4th level for the exhibit and walkways, a fact we discovered after much huffing, puffing and thigh burning going up the stairs.

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Views from the Tower Bridge Exhibition

Next up, Windsor Castle. Windsor is a short 35-minute train ride from Central London and I wish I’d planned a whole day here. The town is quintessential English and adorable. The grounds of the castle are gorgeous and I loved every minute of it. There are lots of cute shops and restaurants surrounding the castle and I would have loved more time to explore.

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Windsor Castle

Travel tipsTT: You can reach Windsor from Waterloo or Paddington stations. The Waterloo train takes almost an hour since it stops every 5 minutes. Paddington is express to Slough where you make a quick change and go straight to Windsor. The Paddington route is also covered by your London Pass. No need to buy a ticket, just show your pass to the conductor if requested.

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Town of Windsor

We returned to London and visited the National Portrait Gallery. The Centennial anniversary of Vogue special exhibit that featured photos of Duchess Kate had just opened. Kevin was a good sport and walked through with me.

I made reservations at 7:30 at Portrait, the restaurant on the top floor of the gallery. This was my favorite meal during our time in London. The food and the views were phenomenal. This photo doesn’t do it justice thanks to the glare on the glass but the timing of our reservation was perfect for sunset and seeing the city lights.

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Views from Portrait Restaurant

We ordered a crab appetizer, chateaubriand, and dessert. I am lacking words to express how scrumptious this meal was. My mouth is watering thinking about it as I reminisce while I’m writing. Easily one of the top 3 meals I’ve had in my lifetime. It’s also in the top 3 most expensive meals in my lifetime. With tip and currency exchange, it was close to $200. Typically, we don’t spend that much on food but this was a special occasion and I have no regrets.

The main entree at Portrait Restaurant

The main entree at Portrait Restaurant

london-travel-guideTT: We purchased 3 day London Passes for our stay and it was definitely a good deal. The pass gained us free entry to Westminster Abbey, Kensington Palace, Tower of London, Tower Bridge Exhibition, Windsor Castle, Queens Gallery, Royal Mews, and train travel to Windsor. The pass is also good at dozens of other venues but we got our money’s worth with just these few.

In case you missed it, you can read about Day 1 here and Day 3 is coming soon. Don’t forget you can click the ‘share’ button below to pin on pinterest or share on Facebook or Twitter. The bloggy love is appreciated!

3 Days in

 

Three Days in London, Part 1

The third time’s the charm for me and London. We’ve spent time together on two other occasions. Once, I arrived at 1 am and left at 6am, so that hardly counts. And another, I was hoping for a day in the city but a delayed flight left me with just a Buckingham Palace sighting and a trek across the Tower Bridge. It was so late when we finally arrived that everything was closed. This was my time to finally get to know the City, time for me to fulfill my girlhood fantasies of walking through palaces, and hoping that I might catch Princess Charlotte and Prince George out for a walk with the nanny in Kensington Gardens. (I didn’t.)

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Enjoying a Diet Coke in the lobby of Intercontinental London Park Lane while we wait for our room.

We arrived excruciatingly early at Heathrow at 6:30 am after a 9-hour flight that included 2 crying babies and one coughing old man. There’s not enough caffeine in the world to make up for that but I would not be deterred in my excitement of finally spending time in the city. We rode the Heathrow Express to Paddington station then taxied to our hotel, the lovely Intercontinental London Park Lane. Despite our early arrival, they said they could have our room ready in about an hour and we received a free upgrade thanks to my Platinum Elite status—automatic when you have the Chase IHG Rewards Club credit card. Our upgraded room included a sitting area and views of Big Ben and the London Eye.

 

Travel tipsBook Heathrow Express tickets online in advance for the best pricing. Prices are cheapest 90 days or more in advance, then 60 and 30.

 

 

Buckingham Palace was a short 5ish minute walk from the hotel and we were just in time to line up with the masses for the changing of the guard. We arrived at 10:45 and there were already hordes of people gathered for the 11:30 ceremony. Honestly, I was bored and unimpressed. For me, this was one of those touristy things that everyone raves is a must do and I’ve deemed it a must not. However, if I hadn’t watched it, I would have regretted the decision forever. Alternatively, I would recommend lining up near Whitehall to see the Horse Guard’s Parade. What’s not to love about beautiful horses all dressed up in their finery?

Buckingham-palace

It’s a lovely walk from Buckingham to Westminster Abbey. We used our London Pass for admission but the Abbey is one of the few places where you still need to wait in the regular line with everyone else with your Pass. The line looked long but moved quickly and we were inside in less than 10 minutes. Pick up the audio guide as you go in. You’ll brush up on your English history while seeing the place where coronations and weddings of the royals, including Kate and William, take place. You’ll also see the burial place of many royals, writers, and poets like Shakespeare, Keats, Chaucer… it really is awe inspiring.

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Westminster Abbey

After this, we continued to stroll past Big Ben, Parliament and the Thames river to the Westminster tube station which we took to South Kensington, also known as museum central. (Not really. I just made that up. But all of the main museums are in this area.) We found lunch at a Lebanese restaurant then walked to Kensington Palace. There is no tube station convenient to the Palace. Either lace up for a nice long walk or taxi. We enjoyed meandering past the museums and Royal Albert Hall, and through the gardens to the visitor’s entrance which faces the gardens. We used our London Pass again for tickets. Kensington has 4 exhibits: 3 dedicated to previous monarchs and 1 to the royal fashions of Diana, Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II mainly. All of the exhibits are well done and educational although on a smaller scale than I was anticipating. In fact, if I had paid the entry fee I might be upset about how little I received for £18.

Our poor feet were exhausted and protesting at this point so we grabbed a cab back to the hotel. For shorter trips in the city, a taxi can sometimes be cheaper or the same as the tube and much more convenient.

For two people to ride one way on the tube is £9.60. Taxiing back to our hotel from Kensington Palace was about £8. For shorter trips, we opted for taxis several times over the tube. If you’re going to use the tube 3 times or more in one day, buy the day pass for £12.

 

After a nap in our amazingly comfy hotel bed, we asked the concierge for a restaurant recommendation near Piccadilly Square, also a short 5 – 10 minute walk from the Intercontinental. She suggested several places on Swallow Street, all of which looked yummy but we chose Gaucho’s. The entry looks dignified and traditional but once you go upstairs to either the top floor bar area and the second floor restaurant area, it transforms to a modern, hip social scene. This is a steak place. As in, they walk around with slabs of raw meat to educate you on the different cuts prior to taking your order. The food was good, but not sure it was worth the $50 per person you should budget for. I should note that my opinion might be (strong possibility) influenced by the fact that jet lag had come to rest on my weary person and refused to leave until I got some sleep. I even turned down dessert just so I could get in the bed quicker.

P.s. Did you know you can click the “share” button below and share this post on any social media? I’m even providing you an image you can pin on Pinterest. Read about Day 2 here.

3 Days in

Budget Travel: London and French Riviera by the Numbers

We’ve been home from our latest adventure–12 days in London, French Riviera and Paris–for almost a week. I have so many posts and pictures and travel tips in my head, I hardly know where to begin. So we’ll start with the important stuff, like how this trip cost us less than $2,000 with a surprise twist at the end on how it will likely end up costing us almost nothing.

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Buckingham Palace, London

Flights: We flew American Airlines on miles. Our miles are from a combination of having the Citi Aadvantage card, utilizing the Aadvantage shopping portal, an occasional email complaining to customer service that my reading light didn’t work on a 9-hour flight, (netting 5,000 miles) and some actual miles from business travel.

We booked off-season and before the latest devaluation, so each round ticket was 40,000 miles with $86.40 in taxes and fuel surcharges. My Citi card also offers a 10% rebate on miles redeemed so 4,000 miles went back into my account for a net of 36,000 miles for my round trip ticket.

Hotels: We used points for all of our hotels but did pay to upgrade one of our stays. For London, we spent 3 nights at the Intercontinental London Park Lane. This is a 5-star hotel and I kept thinking I wasn’t classy enough to be allowed to sleep there. To book with points, Kevin and I both got the IHG Rewards Mastercard through Chase. The current sign-up bonus is 70,000 points but this expires June 29, 2016. At the time of booking, rooms were 50,000 points per night. We had some additional points from previous stays and the Priceless Surprises promotion to round out the required points.

In Nice, we stayed 5 nights at Le Meridien Nice. The total points needed were 64,000 (16,000 per night with the 5th night free). I applied for the American Express SPG card with a bonus of 25,000 points. I then referred Kevin for another 5,000 points and we collected another 25,000 points with his sign up bonus. Setting our car insurance and other monthly bills to auto-bill to the American Express topped off our points needed. We did pay to upgrade to a sea view room but could have kept our cost at $0, if needed.

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View from Le Meriden Nice

Our last night (we thought) was spent in Paris at the Holiday Inn Charles de Gaulle for a convenient overnight stay close to the airport for our morning flight. We used another 20,000 points, also from the IHG Priceless Surprises promotion.

Other Expenses: The rest of our expenses were out of pocket cash. I’ve given a quick summary below of estimated costs in each category.

Easy Jet flight from London to Nice: $200

Misc Travel Expenses (taxi, subway, regional trains): $200

London Pass for 2: Approximately $250 (depending on exchange rate)

Train from Nice to Paris: $150 (Could be cheaper if booked further in advance)

Food: I’m not going to list our food expense because this is one area where it is up to your personal preferences and budget. We chose to go cheap for most breakfasts and lunches and splurge on dinners. Because we didn’t pay for flights and hotels, I was okay with more expensive dinners to enhance our trip. We dined at several amazing places that were definitely at the higher end cost wise, that normally wouldn’t be on our radar.

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And the surprise twist: We were supposed to fly out of Paris on Saturday and our flight was cancelled. And I can’t really say I was upset about it other than wasting 10 hours in CDG. This worked to our advantage in several ways. We enjoyed another night in Paris with no hotel or food cost and because of the EU rules concerning delayed and cancelled flights, we’ll be able to file claims for 600 Euros each which almost covers our cash expenses. American also credited both of our accounts with 20,000 ‘apology miles’ which is almost enough for another round trip international flight.

12 days in Europe for almost no money out of pocket? I’m good with that!

 

About That Time I Was a Hobo in Italy

In 2014, my husband and I made our way back to Italy for the second time for what I dubbed “the minor cities” tour. We spent one week in Sorrento, using it as our home base for Capri, the Amalfi coast, and Pompeii. The second week, we used Milan as our base for Lake Como, Turin, and the Italian Riviera.

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Amalfi Coast, Italy

 

 

I had kept the last day of our trip open and unplanned, a miracle all on its own where I’m concerned. I tend to fall on the Type A control freak side of the personality scale. We decided to spend it on the Riviera. That’s always a good choice, right?

 

 

 

In keeping with our relaxed vibe for the day, we bought one-way train tickets from Milan to Santa Margherita Ligure with the intentions of buying the return ticket whenever we were ready to head back. We checked the return timetables so we would know what our options were and went on our merry way. And this is where the trouble ensued. We just didn’t know it yet.

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We arrived in Santa Margherita Ligure, walked from the train station to the port and began the walk along the coastal road to Portofino. This walk was gorgeous, has to be one of the most beautiful in the world, but for some reason, I remembered my Rick Steve’s guide saying it was about 1.5km. It’s not, trust me. More like about 2.5 miles.

portofino-italy-travelAfter making it Portofino we enjoyed a scrumptious seaside lunch. Side note: Italy is not America. A very boisterous American man was sitting at the table next to ours and requested ranch dressing for his salad. Do yourself a favor and at least attempt to educate yourself about the local culture before traveling somewhere. Just about any article about Italian life would have included the fact that there is no such thing as salad dressing in Italy; it’s all olive oil and vinegar over there. Also, please never eat at an Italian restaurant that has grated parmesan cheese on the table. That’s American, not Italian. (For more tips on what to expect in European culture, click here.)

Back to our adventure, at this point, Kevin and I had been together for 10 straight days with no break. We’ve been together for over 27 years and married for almost 26 and purposely choose to spend uninterrupted time together traveling.  We are obviously dedicated to one another and love each other deeply, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get on each other’s last nerve sometimes. We were kind of at the point in our trip where we just needed a break from each other, and that is okay! It’s okay to say “I’m going to go do this thing for a bit. You sit here and drink your coffee and people watch.” There have been many times that Kevin’s waited for me outside while I went into yet another museum that he had absolutely no interest in. Just because you love each other doesn’t mean you have to spend every single second together.

There are two options to get back to Santa Margherita Ligure from Portofino to catch the train back to Milan: your feet and a ferry boat. (There is no train station in Portofino.) Kevin picked his feet; I picked the ferry boat, which gave us about an hour and a half respite from each other’s company. Just what we needed.

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A lot of the train stations in the smaller Italian towns are unmanned. You can buy tickets from a machine or sometimes from the tabacchi, a tobacco and newsstand shop. We saw both when we got there so I wasn’t concerned about getting our return ticket. Problem: the machine only took cards with a chip and a pin, no cash. Being from America, we didn’t have a chip card at this point. No problem, we’ll go to the tabacchi. Except they don’t sell tickets at this particular one.  We are literally running back and forth between the tabacchi and the machine, trying to figure out what to do with like 2 minutes left before the train leaves. Thankfully, it was running about 5 minutes behind or we would have totally missed it.

Finally, the lady working at the tabbachi tells us just to get on the train and we can buy the ticket from the conductor. At least, I think that’s what she said. So we run and jump on the train and collapse exhausted into random seats, panicked that she had no idea what she was talking about. (There was a bit of a language barrier, enhanced by dramatic charades).

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We waited for the conductor to come by and check for tickets. I’ve been on a lot of Italian trains and a train official almost always comes by to check tickets. There’s even a fine for not validating your ticket in the machine before boarding the train. So we waited. And waited. And waited. No one came by to check or sell us a ticket or fine us or threaten us with time in an Italian jail.

And that is how we became Italian hobos.

Disneyland vs. Disney World

I just returned from several days in sunny California, exploring the original happiest place on earth with my Disney-loving third child. I encountered several people at church this morning and they all asked the same thing….”How is Disneyland different than Disney World?” It’s a difficult question to answer. In some ways, they are the same; in other ways, completely different.

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Resort Size: To put this in perspective for you, Disney World covers over 25,000 acres. Disneyland is just 500 acres. As a result, Disneyland just has a more intimate feel to it. Obviously, it doesn’t take long to walk between different park areas and because Disneyland, California Adventures, and Downtown Disney are all connected by a promenade it’s easy to walk between the different areas throughout the day without wearing yourself out. We were in the parks for almost 3 full days and easily saw and rode everything we wanted to, sometimes twice!

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A surprise visit from Donald Duck on Main Street, Disneyland

Character Meet & Greet: Because of Disney World’s size, character interactions have been regulated to waiting in line and posing for photographs. This does have its benefits if your child is set on meeting a particular character. Disneyland is much more spontaneous. You can be walking down Main Street and run into Donald Duck or Cruella Deville. This was always a fun surprise but also a bit frustrating if you happen to catch Mickey as he’s heading back to the clubhouse and is done with photos for the next hour.

 

Cast Members: Disney World attracts cast members (employees) from all over the world. This is partly due to their extensive college program which has US and International divisions. Cast members have their home city/country on their nametags and I’m always fascinated by the diversity among them. Disneyland, however, seems to pull their workforce from the local area for the most part. Almost every name tag I saw was a town in California. Cast members are almost always super helpful and anxious to help make your day magical!

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Monsters Inc., Disneyland

Rides: There’s been a lot of construction and renovation the last several years with the additions of Cars Land, Toy Story Land, Star Wars Land, and the updating of Fantasyland in Disney World that has changed the landscape, literally, of what rides you can find at each park. Rides seem to fall in three categories (which I just totally made up): twins, distant cousins, and no relation. There are multiple rides which are exactly the same in both resorts, too numerous to list, but the classic favorites seem to be similar both places. The main exception to this is Space Mountain. The Disneyland version has been updated to feature Star Wars and is hands down the winner. Disneyland also has some unique rides not available at Disney World like Monsters, Inc, and vice versa. Then there are the distant cousins that are essentially the same ride, but with different graphics and atmosphere: Radiator Springs Racers and Test Track or Indiana Jones and Dinosaur.

 

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Pixar Play Parade, California Adventures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parades, Shows, and Fireworks: Each resort has their own entertainment offerings and you won’t find the same parade or fireworks show at any of the parks. Maybe it’s because it was new and different, but I loved the Paint the Night parade and Forever fireworks show in Disneyland. But, I also love Celebrate the Magic in Disney World. You really can’t go wrong with either. California seems to be heavier on the Pixar characters in their parades so if your kids are big Woody and Nemo fans, maybe that’s the right park for you.

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Paint the Night Parade, Disneyland

Hotels: Disneyland has 3 hotels; Disney World has 28. We stayed in Paradise Pier in the Disneyland Resort and I’ll be posting a review of it later this week.

Transportation: There is no Magical Express in California but there is a shuttle service to and from John Wayne airport in Orange County and Los Angeles International Airport. Unlike the Magical Express, it will cost you and, depending on how many are in your group, it might be cheaper to rent a car. Be sure to factor in the cost of parking at the hotel. If you are staying in a Disneyland Resort hotel, it’s $18/day for parking.

More confused than ever as to which park you should visit? Sorry, I couldn’t pick one over the other. They both have their own unique vibe and advantages and you should probably visit both to form your own opinion! I haven’t had the opportunity to visit any of the international locations yet. Maybe one day!

Leave a comment and tell me your favorite Disney park!