Tips from My Family Travels to England
By Howard High
We decided to re-instate the family vacation this summer after forgoing this ritual in 2008 (to save money and accommodate everyone’s busy schedule). It should be noted that our two kids are college and high school age, so we never know when ‘family vacations” are going to fall out of favor. But so far, when we offer everyone jumps at the chance to travel together. This summer’s destination was England, predominantly London. Rather than give you a review of our travels, I thought I would pass along travel tips we found on this journey that might save you money or headaches.
Airfare: Call if you have questions
Obviously, you want to book your air travel, hotels, etc. as early as you can and understand the cancelation policies before you confirm. Airfare: Call if you have questions. My airfare investigation turned into a pleasant discovery. I checked a few of my favorite bargain airfare websites but found all the airlines wanted roughly the same amounts to go from San Francisco to London during the dates we hoped to travel.
I had some miles saved up on United and thought I could use them for a few of the tickets. Supersaver mileage tickets (the tickets that require the fewest number of miles) were not available when I checked on the website, but using the standard rate, I could still get two “free” tickets using my miles. But, I would have to pay for two tickets as well. Fortunately, I didn’t know how to do this mixed bag of tickets on line and make sure our seats were together.
I called in to the mileage reservation 800 number and explained that I needed to book two tickets and buy two. To my surprise, when I gave the dates I wanted to travel and the flights I hoped to book, the agent said she could book all four tickets using supersaver mileage seats that she showed as available. On line it had indicated that none were to be had. My lesson learned was, for anything free, it best to call the inside experts rather than assuming it can’t be done and isn’t available just because the website said it was so.
Hotels: understand the cancelation policies
Generally, European hotel rooms don’t accommodate parties of four adults. But, through thorough web investigation, I found an American hotel chain in London (in this case Hilton) with two queen beds in a room. While it wasn’t cheap (collectively the hotel was our most expensive cost item of our trip), one room here was less expensive than two rooms everywhere else.
On line, I was struggling to understand the hotel’s cancellation policy. I decided to call. Thank heaven for VOIP (phone calls over the Internet) international calling rates. As the hotel reservations clerk confirmed availability, she walked me through my options. It turned out that for a very small additional fee per night; I could have the option of cancelling or changing my dates at the last minute and not have to pay a huge penalty. It seemed like a good investment given how problems and surprises can crop up.
I found I could also get a full buffet breakfast for all four of us (prepaid) for less than I knew it would cost if we bought breakfast out each day. I selected this option. And because breakfast was only served for a set time in the morning, I used this as an excuse to get the kids up early each day. I didn’t want them sleeping the day away. I may have shorten the hours or operation and skewed toward the early hours (as I recall).
I also was able to secure an AAA discount with the clerk. So I felt we had as good a deal as possible in a good hotel with good accommodations.
Money, Money, Money
When traveling abroad, you get the best exchange rates by far through the ATM (Automated Teller Machine). It needs to have the “plus” or the “star” symbols on the back of the card, but often banks won’t charge you an exchange rate at all, or at least a comparatively modest rate. However, I recommend that you call your bank and let them know you will be traveling out of the country, where you intend to travel and on what days. Otherwise, the bank might see someone trying to take money out of your account from some foreign land and freeze your account until they can call you at home and confirm that everything is OK. In other words, your account would typically become available after you’ve returned home.
Also, it is a good precaution to take the bank’s international customer service phone number with you (remember 800 numbers won’t work outside of the US) so you can call if something isn’t working correctly. They will ask you all your security questions and the last four digits of your social security number, etc. but you can easily get things unfrozen from the road if you have the correct phone number to call.
From my point of view, there is no better way to travel around London than on the Tube (the subway). It seems that the Tube can place you within easy walking distance of almost any destination within London and its suburbs. For my family, we purchased one-week, all-zone Tube passes for a touch over $60/each. In doing so, we didn’t have to stop and fumble for money to buy tickets at the beginning of every trip. With the all zone-pass we could ride the subway into downtown London from the airport and back again when we left the country (assume 45 to 60 minutes for the trip) and the price meant we could ride anywhere within the city (on subway and city buses) in essence for free (when I compared the cost of other methods of transport just to get from the airport into the city. By the way, there is a subway station right at the airport so you catch the Tube right from the terminal.
There are faster, direct trains from Heathrow airport to downtown London (Heathrow Express) that only take 15-20 minutes, but they cost between $29 and $46 (depending on a first or second class ticket) and then you still have to get from the train station to your hotel. A black cab will cost you $90 – $140 and take you about an hour in travel time, but it is door-to-door. Buses cost care cheap but can take 60 – 90 minutes to get into London, depending on traffic.
We did take a couple a cab rides while in the city – part for the experience of riding with a London cabbie (many consider then the best rained taxi drivers in the world) and part to save time and directly find a destination. All the rest of our in city travels were by foot and by Tube. A special note: I recommend against rental cars in many cities, but especially London. Because London is a medieval city, its street layout is unique, parking is impossible to find and very expensive if you find a parking lot, and there is a special tax/fee if you drive in central London (to reduce traffic congestion). So, if in central London, just the Tube, use the buses, use the cabs – it will be faster, cheaper and much, much easier.
Museums for free
While there are numerous opportunities to spend money, there can be some first-rate activities that don’t cost a cent. In London, many of the biggest and most significant museums are free – for example, The British Museum, the Natural History Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington Park are world-class museums and admission is free. Each of these locations is an easy way to enjoy yourself for several hours (if not several days) and not have to spend a dime.
Stores like Harrod’s in London can be a little like visiting a museum. There’s a bunch to see and you don’t have to purchase a thing. Enjoy a free, live operatic concert as you ride the escalators, laugh at the extravagance of the pet department or finger some of the classic rock guitars (only $3,000) that you’d never find in a US department store.
If you want a treat and are looking to buy some inexpensive souvenirs (I know you really want to buy some of those funny T-shirts, but…) browse around the grocery stores. They have an abundance of prepared food so you can create an instant picnic in a nearby park if you chose.
For me, some of my best gifts for friends and family are high-quality, reasonably price tea, marmalade, cookies (called digestives and biscuits in Britain) and more (obviously you can’t take meat or plants back into the US). Give it a try. I find it fascinating to know what people buy, what it costs, how it’s prepared and what things from the US find their way onto store shelves in another country.
If you take a computer
If you are someone who travels with a computer (we are) then there are many useful tasks it can perform for you.
Obviously, I back up all the digital photos and video we shot on our vacation onto the computer’ hard drive and then usually copy that onto a small portable drive or some of these flash memory sticks. Just like film can get ruined in the old days, memory can get corrupted or a disk can crash and the lost memories of create great heartache. So we back up regularly and on several media.
If you have internet access (it is almost always available from the hotel, but for a fee; and there are some places, such as coffee shops, where you can get free access), then you can call internationally at extremely low cost using Skype. The software download is free, but I recommend purchasing an inexpensive headset/microphone designed to fit directly into your USB port. Using Skype or some other VOIP service allows you to call the US for 5 pennies a minute. I started with $10 in my account. We placed nightly calls to the grandparents and I even had a several hour conference all for work and I didn’t come close to using up the $10 amount. Cell phones won’t work in London unless you have a multiband phone (most are now days) AND you activate international calling (which can get pretty expensive. If you do activate your cell phone for international calling, many plans (even ones where you have unlimited, coast-tocoast calling here in the US) charge a couple of bucks a minute for each call. That can add up quickly.
Lastly, I don’t like to write and mail postcards when I travel so I’ve gotten into the habit of writing travelogues of our trips. I email them to all our family and friends so they can share our experiences and know where we are in our journey. I don’t post these on open forums such as Facebook, MySpace, etc. for security reasons. Instead I email it directly to friends. I also find these travelogues are like diary that we can use a reference in the future to remind us of our wonderful vacation adventures.
Howard High can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.