Planning: A Bite out of the Big Apple

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City

Right. So. The next trip up on the planning board is New York City for May.

I was in New York once for a brief visit during a training course in New Jersey. A few of us students took the bus into the city and walked over to see the Empire State Building. We went up and watched as the lights started to come on as dusk settled over the skyline. Walking back to Port Authority bus terminal, we could see the lights of Times Square as we crossed over 7th Ave. I stopped in the middle of the cross walk in the middle of the street to gawp and take pictures!

I spent Saturday in the city, as well, since I wasn’t flying home until Sunday. I spent the morning in the Metropolitan Museum and met up with an aquaintance for lunch, walking around the general area and into Times Square in the afternoon with him. My impressions of New York then were twofold.

Colour. There was colour everywhere! It was high summer and there were bright banners on buildings, magazine stands with lots of colours on display, people were wearing cheery clothing, yellow taxis were rivers on the streets. Then there was Times Square. Talk about an explosion of colour! Even the garbage bags were pink and blue and there was a neon sign over the police station!

Smell. There was a wide variety of smells, both good and bad as I walked along. Food drifting out of restaurants. Chemical smells from hair salons. Masses of human beings. Diesel and gasoline engines of the vehicles. Perfumes on people. New York was an assault on the senses, to be sure, and now after nearly 15 years, I’ll be back. We’ll still only scratch the surface in just a few days but it’s a start!

Already, I’ve been looking at hotel prices and wow, what a shock I’ve had!

When I was looking for hotels in Rome, I expected the hotel prices to be very expensive and they weren’t. They were no worse than London where I can always find reasonable hotels in London within my budget, generally paying between $125 and $160 Canadian per night. On the whole, we were quite happy with the Bailey’s Hotel in Rome and I’d recommend it.

New York City was an eye opener. Even cheap chains like Days Inn and that sort of thing were a good bit over $200 a night! Anything under $200 includes shared bathrooms and facilities or is in New Jersey, or by the airport or in Brooklyn or Queens. I want to stay on Manhattan and I don’t want to be way down at the tip or up on the north of the island either. It’s better to be within relative walking distance of many of the sights so I guess I’ll have to resign myself to a higher budget this time.

I’ve already got my eye on a couple of likely candidates, several being suite hotels with a small kitchen which is good for stocking up for breakfasts and evening snacks. The drawback to one of them  is it’s only serviced by housekeeping once a week though they’ll bring more towels or pillows if you ask. That’s probably not a big deal, really. I *do* know how to make a bed! Haven’t looked too much further into the other similar ones but I will be doing so.

Looking on Expedia, I see they will combine flight and hotel for some good discounts in some cases. I think I’ll look into that further across a few sites that do packages and see what kind of a deal I can get that way. Anyone that has any recommendations, do feel free to comment. It’s much appreciated.

Things to do: Well, my partner wants to go up the Empire State Building so we’ll do that. I like going up high places, too! I would like to take the Staten Island Ferry over and back for a good view of the skyline and *that* statue, though otherwise not that interested in actually visiting it. I have been to the Metropolitan Museum and, looking around at the other big museums, I think the Frick Collection might be just the thing. We will probably take in the theatre, too, at least one night.  St. Patrick’s Cathedral is also on my list.

We’ll probably take the hop-on hop-off tour around to see the main sights and it will be useful for transportation, too. The companies that do it have 48 and 72 hour passes that cover a handful of different tours you can take including a night tour. There are several routes so you could break them up over a couple of days rather than packing it all into one day.

London on Stage

Victoria Apollo Theatre

Here’s the last of my London posts (for now!) I hope you’ve enjoyed them and got some use from them if you’re planning to visit my favourite city!

London is famous for theatre. So famous, in fact, that if you overhear someone saying “It’s opening in the West End” you can be pretty sure they’re talking about London. The oldest part of London is close to the Tower of London, and is always referred to as The City. Outside the old city walls is the rest of London, comprised of several other incorporated cities and boroughs. To the west of the city lies Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Picadilly Circus, Covent Garden and the main theatre district which includes and surrounds these popular spots.

If you go back in time, however, most of the theatres were on the south bank of the Thames, outside the city walls and laws. There are a few there now including the rebuilt Globe, the Royal National Theatre (home of the Royal Shakespeare Company) as well as concert halls and arts centres.

London theatre is more than just the famous musicals. You can get classics, Shakespeare, comedies, and drama as well as cutting edge interpretive theatre. Ballet and Opera are also popular as well as symphonic orchestras. Leicester Square has the big movie theatres but you will most definitely pay well over the average to see a film there!

Getting Tickets:

The most straight forward way of booking tickets to a West End production is to contact the theatre or venue directly, either in person, on the phone or via their website. You can choose your seats from what’s available and pay the going rate. Websites now offer “print at home” tickets which is really convenient as long as you don’t lose them or forget to pack them! There are general theatre booking websites that charge a fee. Some let you choose your seat and some just give you the “best available” which may or may not be “best”. We’ve had a post impede the view a bit but the automatic booking facility didn’t take things like that into account.

Another service that’s hugely popular for discounted day-of-performance tickets is TKTS. There’s a booth on Leicester Square where you line up (queue up) and you can get tickets for lots of the popular shows for a good discount plus a small fee.  The group that runs the booth is non-profit and the fee just helps to run the business. There might not be any for the biggest and most popular shows, but it’s always worth looking to see what else is available and you might just discover a new favourite. Their website lists what’s available on the day and gives you prices though you can’t book online.  Useful to keep the link handy on your Smartphone, laptop or tablet.

The site does say they book advance tickets for the next couple of days as well. I suppose they might know ahead of time from various theatres if there are tickets available. They may also book some shows at the full price, but never more than the theatre itself sells them for and there’s no booking fee for these ones.  The booth opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m. just before most shows start (7:30 to 8:00) on Monday through Saturday and from 10.30 to 16.30 on Sunday. They get tickets throughout the day so you may not have to join the queue first thing in the morning.  There may be other similar booths and businesses offering discounted tickets but for the most part, they’re not really trustworthy. This business is in a round booth by or with a clock tower. That’s the one you want.

Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.

Some of these sites offer discounted tickets and even with a booking fee, that works out pretty well. I have booked tickets from Londontown. com. They do charge a fee and they do the automatic seat allocation. Or at least, they did four years ago when I last used them. We had to pick the tickets up at the theatre about an hour before the start of the show. I prefer printing at home.

In the past, I’ve booked tickets through my travel agent but I found that seems to inflate the price as they add on their fees as well. Sometimes you can book packages with flight, hotel and tickets which may be a good deal. You’d have to price things out and compare. I usually find that booking through the theatre or through a site offering discounts works out better for me but some people prefer to have it all arranged by a travel agent and that’s what works best for them. sometimes offers tickets and restaurant vouchers together which is nice, too.

London Theatre Guide

Official London Theatre

Timeout London


Tourist Traps: Come one, come all

Crowds at the Colosseum in Rome

People look down on the most popular spots in a destination, calling them “tourist traps”. They say these places are rip offs, scams, and attract throngs of crowds. All this can be true. But on the other hand, many of these places are of interest for various reasons, be it historical, architectural, religious or otherwise. Many of these places are iconic to the destinations. Does that mean you *should* avoid them?

Not necessarily. Some of them I do avoid, but many of them I visit anyway. It all comes down to personal choice and there are always ways to minimize the “trap”.

If the attraction has a very expensive entry fee, you have to decide how important it is to see it. If you can get the experience from viewing it from the outside, then it’s free. You don’t have to buy from the souvenirs or eat at the restaurants on site or near the site. If it’s that iconic, you can get souvenirs and postcards of it anywhere. Just compare the prices before you buy.

If it’s the crowds that put you off, go early in the day, or late in the day. If you can travel off season in the spring, fall or winter, even better. Chances are, there will still be lots of people but it won’t be claustrophobic.

I mention all this because I’ve just come back from Rome and believe me, there are quite a few iconic tourist destinations there that attract crowds. The good thing is that many of them are free or aren’t exorbitant in price.

So what did we see of these sites?

Vatican Museums = 15 euro for an adult entry.  Colosseum  = 12 euro for an adult entry. We paid a bit more because we booked a tour for both of them. In both cases, you see the highlights (Sistine Chapel!) but you can then stay on and wander around at your leisure. We were there in mid November, too, so though there were still lots of people, the crowds did not make us feel closed in.

The real “trap” feeling of the Colosseum is all the vendors in the area around it, both with booths set up or walking through the crowds attempting to sell you things they’re carrying. That can be really annoying. There’s also a few “gladiators” in costume and if you want your photo taken with them or want to take a photo of them, they expect cash payment. You can always take a photo from farther back with your camera’s zoom! The queues for tickets can certainly be very long. If you can pre-purchase them either online or from another agency, you will be able to use a much shorter line. We sailed through that one.

You see all the people in the photo with this post? This was taken on a November mid afternoon after we’d left the building. None of them are in queues to get in. They’re all just milling about looking at the structure from the outside. The day we were there, there seemed to be far more people outside than inside. Some are part of organized groups but most aren’t. Many, I’m sure were inside or were going to be.

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica are free and on Wednesday’s for the Pope’s “audience”, the square can fill up with thousands of people so keep that in mind.

Other famed tourist spots in Rome are the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon and piazza outside. The worst crowds we encountered here were at the fountain. There’s a tradition that you can toss a coin into the fountain to ensure a speedy return to Rome and it’s one that a lot of people take up. We did go, because the Baroque fountain covering the wall of a building really is lovely but we didn’t stay too long.Most of these are public squares or Piazzas so of course, they’re free to visit.

We visited all of these but my favourite is the Pantheon.  It was originally a temple and now a Christian church. The round domed structure is really beautiful inside. It, too, is free to enter and when we were there, not overly crowded though busy.

What seems to make an attraction a “tourist trap” is the sense that it’s not worth the price of admission or that it’s overpriced and far too crowded. The souvenir shops and restaurants tend to be overpriced. The food often of lesser quality (at least the ones by the Colosseum were, the other squares, maybe the quality doesn’t suffer but they ain’t cheap, even just for a cup of coffee.)

Some places you go are “visitor centres” and some of these really feel like rip offs. Some are very good with lots of information about the site but some are set up like a cheesy “experience” and you get little bang for your buck.

I wouldn’t avoid popular tourist attractions. If you’re going to Paris, why wouldn’t you want to see the Eiffel Tower? You don’t have to pay the price to go up, you can see it from most places in the city. You can walk across Tower Bridge in London for free. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry in New York.

Some attractions have a free entry day once a month or are discounted if you enter late in the day or on the evening opening. Expect more crowds but it’s a way to see or do something you might not want to pay the full price for otherwise.

It all comes down to your own interests, priorities and budget.

London: What is there to do?

Recently I wrote about thinking about the prices you see in London as the same as at home (for North Americans, anyway) and not calculate in your head how much it really costs with the exchange rate. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be careful about how much you pay for meals, shopping or attractions. Some things just aren’t worth the extra money. Some things are.

Some of the attractions are very pricey but they might be worth it to you if it’s something you *really* want to see. The Tower of London currently costs almost 21 pounds for an adult!! That almost takes my breath away. But you know? You can spend all day in there looking at things. It’s a lot more than just the Crown Jewels. Maybe it’s worth the price in that case if it’s something you will be interested in. The London Eye is almost as expensive and you might not think that’s worth it for a 30 minute ride with the spectacular views. The Zoo is also hugely expensive but you have to remember you’re supporting the upkeep of all those animals.

Other high priced tickets include Madame Toussaud’s, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Dungeons, Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey, all starting from 12 pounds and up. That really adds up! Most of the major musuems and galleries are now free for the regular exhibits, with a fee for special and temporary exhibitions. Some, like the Dungeon are out and out rip offs. The London Aquarium has higher prices during school holidays and summer. Most have cheaper prices for children, students and seniors.

You have to pick and choose according to your interests and evaluate whether it’s worth it *to you*. As always, your mileage may vary.

Major museums and galleries that are free:

British Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum
Natural History and Science Museum
Imperial War Museum
National Gallery
National Portrait Gallery
Wallace Collection
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Museum of London
Tate Britain and Tate Modern
More free London listings here

Types of rail tickets you can use for the 2For1 Deals

In addition, if you have a rail card, there are two for one deals and coupons you can download and present along with your rail card. And that *includes* the Tower of London or the Zoo. You can get a travel day pass at a train station and it will look like a rail card type ticket even if you haven’t traveled to London by train but you can’t use the electronic Oyster card. In the photo above, you’ll see one that has orange stripey borders, that’s the most common one. Check out the 2For1 website to get more details and find the coupons you want.

London usually has a lot of free things to do, like the many street festivals, concerts in the parks, street entertainers and the traditional Speaker’s Corner always has an entertaining budding opinionist or two. On Sundays, along the fence of Hyde Park on Bayswater road, artists set up their paintings and crafts for sale. It’s like having a free gallery set up for viewing. You can buy food in a market or grocery store and have a picnic in one of the parks and you can even take alcohol if you wish, something that’s frowned on here where I live.

Another thing to watch for is the one evening a week that an attraction stays open late. Sometimes you may get a bit of a discount then and there’s usually not as many people either. Check that out for both free museums and paid ones.

Wander the neighbourhoods, find hidden corners like the remains of a bombed out church behind an office building in the City of London, a quiet little oasis in the midst of chaotic traffic. Or find a quiet churchyard or park off a side street. If you have a little pocket map, you won’t get too lost. I wandered a bit through some back streets in Pimlico and did get a bit turned around. The little map I had only showed the main streets and I wasn’t sure where I was. But I knew once I saw the smoke stacks of the power station across the river that the Thames was in that direction and once I was on that main road, I knew in which direction I wanted to head.

London Pass

London Pass:

London has an attraction “pass” called the London Pass. I’ve never taken advantage of that. I have always found for myself that passes of this type, available in many cities for attractions or just museums, are not worth the cost. I’m not the type of person that can cram a couple of attractions in every day, for 3 days in a row to make the pass profitable for me. I just don’t have the stamina!

If you plan out your sightseeing like a military operation, and I know people that do, and you do have the stamina to run from one to the next during the daytime opening hours, it will be worth it for you. Check out what the pass covers and decide from there. They’re usually only good for sequential days, so you can’t work on a three day pass over a week.

They do have the advantage of being able to skip the lines or queues sometimes and it comes with a transport pass as well but you can always get the transport pass separately anyway. Buying tickets online is an increasingly popular option and that often will give you a bit of a discount.

London has things to do and see for all budgets. Most hotels have small brochures for what’s on in London each week. TimeOut London is a good magazine on the news stands to find out everything too. It lists everything from theatre to clubs to concerts to festivals and special exhibits and Time Out has mobile apps for your phone or tablet.

Set your budget, decide if there’s any of the big ticket items you just can’t miss and look for discounts or deals.

You’ll love London! I keep going back and there’s lots of good reasons for that. Everyone’s London is different, you will find yours.

London: The first post

Camden markets, one of my favourite parts of London

I haven’t been to a huge number of places but of all the places I have been to, London is my favourite city. The history of the city pulls me there and the vibe of the city keeps me coming back. I have friends and acquaintances in the city as well so I’m always happy to catch up with them.

I’ve been to London eleven times so far. Though that sounds like a lot, it’s probably only been a total of about 40 days in all. Some visits have been only a day or two, most for about an average of 3 days and a couple of times my visits have lasted a week.  I have a lot of memories of London and have gathered a lot of tips from my own experiences over the years. You should expect to see London related posts from me periodically!

I’ll try to focus on doing London on a budget in most of my London posts. At least, the kind of budget I generally keep. I have done London with a very limited budget but these days I’m a bit more comfortable. That’s not to say I don’t watch my pennies. I certainly don’t splash out on high cost hotels or fancy restaurants. I keep an eye out for deals, buy things like tickets online when I can find discounts, and usually take the less expensive route for food and entertainment as a rule.

The thing is, you see the prices of things in pounds and the same number seems to be the same as what you’d pay here in Canada but obviously, it costs you more in  your own money. i.e. in a pub, a burger and fries on the menu might cost you, say, £8.95 and in a pub in Canada, may also be around $8.95 but when you convert the price, you’re paying nearly $15.00 Canadian. You just can’t think about that. You have to think of the prices you see on the stickers and menus as the same as if you were home. You’d never buy or eat anything otherwise.

Food? Lots of ways to eat cheap. Transportation? Take the bus, it’s cheaper than the  underground though it takes longer. Or walk. Most of the big museums and galleries are free so you can splurge on one of the pricey things to do like the Tower of London or the London Eye.

Shopping? Avoid places like Oxford Street and Covent Garden and hit the markets or neighbourhoods like Notting Hill that are a bit out of the way. Those cheesy London souvenirs are cheaper if you look up Queensway off Bayswater Road. Same items, half the price. There are half price theatre tickets available from TKTS in Leicester Square.

In general, London can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. You can window shop and browse in stores without spending money. You can walk and explore and people watch. You can buy groceries and have picnics or eat at the “all you can eat” Chinese and Indian buffet places. You can visit free museums and galleries.

I love London and I hope I can bring my memories, experiences and ideas of how to survive London to you all.

The cost of airline travel

Flying Is probably the worst part of traveling for me!

Flying is expensive these days.  Ever since the skyrocketing price of fuel has caused the airlines to add fuel surcharges to the price of the tickets, you can double your ticket price very easily. There are budget airlines you might be able to take advantage of but even they add on extra charges.

This blog post at Helium talks about a few tips for saving money on flights, and they’re all good points,  but oddly they don’t mention watching for seat sales. Most airlines have email notifications that will let you know of web specials and seat sales. If you keep on top of those, you can often get the best prices. The blog post talks about booking in advance, from 3 to6 months but quite often seat sales can come up just a month or two before you want the flight. While it’s nice to book in advance to make sure you get your seat on a popular flight, if you can be flexible on your dates, it doesn’t hurt to wait a bit closer to the dates you want to keep an eye out for seat sales.

Also, for some reason, booking the flights mid week will sometimes save you money too. I don’t know why that is but I’ve checked prices at the beginning of the week and again on, say a Thursday, and saved up to $200! It could be that the seat sale started on a Thursday but I’ve also heard this tip before, regardless. So check through different days of the week.

Don’t just depend on sites like Expedia and Travelocity, either. They don’t cover all the airlines and definitely don’t cover the budget ones. You can use that as a comparison and they will mix and match different airlines which can still be good.  At least many airlines and websites these days are starting to show all the add-on costs in with the flight costs on the advertisements and initial search screens instead of giving you sticker shock when you go to purchase the ticket.

I belong to Air Canada’s points plan, Aeroplan, and I tend to stick to Star Aliance when I can. Living where I do, there is less choice for international flights and there’s a good chance I have to get routed through Toronto or Montreal which is a pain in the ass because it’s flying 2  hours backwards to get a flight to Europe. Since I mainly go to Manchester in the U.K. I pretty much always have to fly through Heathrow and Heathrow has quite high airport landing fees. That doesn’t help but there are no direct flights to Manchester from here, and only during the high season from Toronto on a charter airline if you can believe that! The second largest city in the U.K. and you have to take a knee-bruising hip-aching crowded charter flight from Toronto or Montreal to get there directly and even then, only between May and October. Not even British Airways or Virgin flies there out of Canada directly let alone Air Canada. Disgraceful!

Thus, the cost of my flight is always that little bit more for having to transfer through Heathrow coming and going no matter which airline I use and which route I take.  Between that and the fuel surcharge, a seat sale off season flight that might cost $399 still ends up costing $1000! It’s very rare these days to get a flight much less than that to England. I might save a little flying through the U.S. but there’s two problems with that. One is the excessive security and one is the fact that, as with Toronto, I have to fly 90 minutes to 2 hours west to fly east over the Atlantic.

Can you ever get free tickets? In this day and age, there’s almost always a catch. Even frequent flyer miles aren’t really free anymore. I remember when they were but most of them now make you pay the fuel surcharges and taxes so a “free” ticket can still cost you hundreds. That’s not very fair is it? I bet if you won tickets in a contest, you’d still have to pay those blasted fees. Free is free in my books but the airlines have us all hostage.  But I have booked a hotel room on points in the recent past and that was completely free so keep that in mind, too, to use those points.

There’s another website I belong to that sends out a weekly email newsletter. It’s called Travelzoo and they have sites for a few different countries for deals in  your area.  They search around and present you a list of great deals, some last minute and some for limited time only, on flights, hotels and packages.  They point you to where you need to go and you may also get a discount code to use when booking, if needed. I’ve booked great prices on hotel rooms from them a couple of times and have seen very good flight and package prices. They can really be worthwhile keeping your eye on.

I long for instant transportation

So what’s the answer? Lots of comparison shopping. If you don’t mind charter airlines, that’s a good option. Fly late at night or early in the morning. I don’t mind arriving at my destination late at night on the way home but I don’t like losing a whole day on my holiday arriving late getting there. Sign up with various airlines or websites like Travelzoo for email notifications of sales. Fly outside of the summer high season if you can. And hope that we might see instant Star Trek like transporters in our lifetime!