Category Archives: Europe

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.

windsor-castle

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.

National-portrait-gallery

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.

Westminster-Abbey

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.

Eiffel-tower-paris

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.

Portofino-3

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.

What to Expect on Your First Trip to Europe

First time travelers to European countries often experience a bit of culture shock. I don’t know why you would assume that things will be the same in a foreign country halfway around the world, but people do. Doing a little research ahead of time will help you be prepared and hopefully enjoy all the ways we’re different from our neighbors across the Atlantic.

The point of traveling is to experience new cultures, foods, languages….to broaden our perspectives beyond what is normal in our everyday lives. Being flexible and accepting of the culture you are visiting will only enrich your experience.

Beginners guide to european travel

Restaurants

Coffee is King and Soda is not. For the most part, Europeans don’t drink soda, pop, or whatever you call it in your area. If you order a Coca Lite (Diet Coke), be ready to wear that “tourist” label loud and proud. There’s also no such thing as free refills on soda. The locals will have coffee for breakfast and wine with lunch and dinner, sometimes followed by an after dinner coffee. One French waiter actually gave me the stink eye (in a joking manner) for ordering Coca Lite at breakfast in a Parisian café. But I don’t like coffee, so what’s a girl to do?

Free water is almost non-existent. Tap water in most European countries is safe to drink, but that hasn’t always been the case. Typically, you’ll order water by the liter for the table, either still or sparkling. Some waiters will phrase this as “gas or no gas”.

what to expect on your first trip to europe

Mealtime is an occasion, and a late one. In America, we’re all about rushing through our meal and getting frustrated if the server hasn’t returned with our check in 5 minutes. You’ll enjoy your European experience more if you just leave those expectations at home. A meal in Europe is meant to be savored and enjoyed. There’s no rush and you’ll most likely need to ask for the check or ticket when you’re ready to leave.

Europeans also eat much later than we do. 8:30 or 9 pm is a typical dinner time. We tried to eat an early dinner one night in Rome since we had to leave for the airport at 4am the next morning. We walked forever trying to find a place that was open. We finally found a place at 7:30, it had just opened for the evening meal and we were the only ones in the whole restaurant.

No Ranch dressing. Salad dressings are not a thing in Europe, at least not in the parts I’ve visited. One of the things I love about European food, is it’s usually made with fresh, local ingredients. For salads, this means topping them with olive oil and vinegar in most cases.

Bathrooms

Public bathrooms aren’t free. Keep some change handy for those moments when you need a public restroom. Most are 1 Euro or less. I usually seize the opportunity to use restrooms in museums and restaurants, just like I used to tell my kids, whether I need to go or not. Most restrooms in the train stations are also paid. If you find yourself in a bind, you can usually pop into a café and buy a bottle of water and gain access to their restroom.

Beginners guide to europe travel

View from the top of the Eiffel Tower, Paris

Hotels

Americans, in general, have become accustomed to bigger is better with our McMansions and spa bathrooms. Unless you’re staying in a luxury hotel suite, expect the rooms to be small and the bathrooms to be smaller. We’ve had a few rooms where getting into and out of the shower was a bit of a challenge, even for me at 5’4” and not a lot of pounds. (You didn’t really think I was going to tell you how much I weigh, did you?)

Room options are a little different and it helps to know what you’re actually reserving. A single is one twin bed. A double is two twins pushed together, so king size. You can also request that the beds be separated. A triple is 3 twins that can be configured as a king and a twin, if needed. The hotel will usually contact you directly after you make your reservation to find out your preference.

You’ll need a converter for your electronic devices. You can find these easily on Amazon or in the luggage aisle at Walmart. If you have a phone and a camera or tablet you’ll want to charge in the evenings, it will probably be worth it to buy several converters.

Pay close attention to what amenities are available in your hotel room. Not all have hair dryers and I’ve never seen an iron and ironing board in a European hotel room. Most will not offer washcloths either. I do not understand this. Seriously, what do they wash their faces with? I pack several in my suitcase and take a Ziploc bag to put the used ones in.

Also be sure to check that the hotel has private in-room bathrooms and a lift (elevator) if this is important to you. Don’t assume as it’s not always the case.

Language

Beginners guide to europe travel

Duomo, Milan

Larger cities that are popular tourist destinations will commonly have English menus and signage. In smaller towns and villages, you’ll find less, if any, English speaking locals. Learning greetings, numbers, basic directions and food words can be extremely helpful and is appreciated by your host country. With that bit of language and a good game of charades, you can communicate pretty well with just about anyone.

European city names may not be the same as we are familiar with in America. When planning my first trip to Italy, I searched on the map forever for Naples before realizing that it is really Napoli. Be familiar with the local name for the cities you’re visiting. This will be helpful in reading maps and in train stations, especially.

Money

Notify your banks of your travel plans. I prefer to take a small amount of local currency with me (You can order this from your local bank. Order at least 2 weeks before your trip.) I use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees for most of my purchases. You can always use an ATM to get more cash if needed. Avoid using a currency exchange service.

Local hotel tax. The local hotel tax is most often not included in your room rate. Be prepared to pay this in cash at checkout.

Taxis. If you are planning to use a taxi to get to the airport or train station, have your hotel arrange this for you. Confirm with the driver the rate and if he/she accepts credit cards before getting in. I got in a bit of a bind in Rome because the driver didn’t want to take my credit card and only wanted cash, even though he had a credit card machine in the front seat. He tried to tell me it didn’t work but when I had no other method to pay him, it magically started working again.

Leave a comment if you have questions about your trip not answered here.