Monday, January 7, 2019

Plan You Best First Trip to London!

What? Plan? 

2019 (c) Sondra Singer
Westminster, near the Abbey, Parliament, and Big Ben
2018 (c) Sondra Singer

Again, we are the Boomers Traveling As Cheaply As Possible!

If you've been planning your first trip to London for a little while, and you're one to plan ahead, you probably already have a few destinations planned. Depending upon your preferences, there are so many choices, that it's almost impossible to do everything. So, I recommend narrowing down your destinations before you go. Leave yourself some flexibility. Don't plan every moment, because, for instance, the sun might be shining (and in London, you would definitely want to be outside on a sunny day), so you might want to trade a museum for a Thames cruise!

1. I always start with a book or two. Yes, an actual book. That way, you can mark it up, put sticky notes in it for your favored choices, etc. I particularly like Rick Steves for European travel, but have also had good luck with others. You can also download audio tours to listen to as you walk around, once you decide your priorities.

One of the books we used, Rick Steves' London

2. I go to the bookstore and actually look inside before purchasing, rather than going online. That way, I can make sure that the emphasis of the book, the pictures, etc. match ME. Some books are meant for families, some for Millenials. For me, Rick Steves is usually the guy. Emphasis matters.

3. Size matters. If you plan to walk around with your new book, make sure it's compact! If you want more detail, do that kind of research before you leave home and take the portable version with you to save on weight.

This post is about London but this strategy also worked for Paris (to be discussed later!)

Lists Help Avoid Conflict :-)👫

List your preferred activities before you go, making sure you are also taking into account your travel partner's desires (this is beyond important!). In our case, I'm an arts lover - museums, theater. And history.  My boyfriend loves history (so we come together on this one) and architecture. Sometimes, you can get lucky, and your interests converge in one place! See Shakespeare's Globe, below!

Many museums are free in London, so you can plan those on the fly pretty easily, which is not the case in, say, Paris, where there are long lines, so it paid for us to buy a Museum Pass there. We chose not to purchase the London Pass after talking with our hotel host. We'd have had to rush through everything and go a lot of places quickly, for that to pay for us. Since museums are mostly free in London, the London Pass is probably better for families who need a different array of and more activities than we, the seniors, trying to save money!

Our plans changed a lot, largely because of weather. We'd only really planned one day, a tour to Stonehenge and Bath. And, we wish we hadn't planned that in advance, because that was the coldest, wettest day. I know this goes against what most guides tell you. But, at least in early April, this worked for us!

10 Days in London

Here's a sampling of sights we visited while in London for 10 days. It was our first trip there together, so there is nothing out of the ordinary in this list, and for people with similar interests, this might be helpful to you. In no particular order:

1. Original Bus Tour (to get the lay of the land) - we purchased two days. The second day was the cruise, which was included, and discussed below. The only on-off bus I have liked in Europe thus far was in Vienna. Vienna's routes were laid out well, and buses ran on time. Not so much in London, and especially not in Paris.

We both love to take sightseeing cruises - we had good experiences with these both in Paris and London. And, we lucked out. Our best weather day was the one on the boat to Greenwich on the Thames. Original Tours has an agreement with City Cruises. You can also go to them directly. We had a fabulously entertaining guide going both directions. We heard the same jokes twice, but that was fine. They were good jokes. Felt like we were on the Monty Python cruise!
City Building and Gull, from Thames Cruise, 2019 (c) Sondra Singer

2. National Gallery (Rather than try to see every museum of art, we landed on this, in the center of Trafalgar Square, so there's more to see in the area, including the street performers and art in the square). There is also a wide variety of art here, including a room with some wonderful Van Gogh paintings. There are some more obscure artists there, who are also well worth the look, including William Hogarth's Marriage A-la-Mode series. Very funny! Art isn't ALL serious! Choose what kind of art you want to see once you look at the museum map. Otherwise, you can get lost in there!
Trafalgar Square with National Gallery
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

William Hogarth from his series, Marriage A-la-Mode at the National Gallery

3. British Museum (largely for history, but also art) - Even more important for this museum, plan which kind of history you want to see, don't try to see the whole thing. It's worse than eating an elephant!  We chose Egypt and Central America, and only saw some.Where we were was extremely hot, probably for preservation, but having to wear warm clothes for the outside, proved unwieldy and distracting. We might have spent more time there if we didn't have all the outer clothing to deal with.

Aztec Double-Headed Serpent, British Museum
4. Tower of London and Tower Bridge - So much history at the Tower of London - please know a lot of it is war history, and of course, the Crown Jewels. We didn't pay to go onto the Tower Bridge, just walked across it. I'm sure the view is better on the upper level where you pay, but remember, we are economy travelers!

The Tower of London
2019 (c) Sondra Singer
Tower Bridge
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

5. We weren't going to do it, but, yes, we went to Westminster Abbey. My boyfriend kept looking at it, and he LOVES church architecture. So, he sprung for that entry fee on a cloudy chilly day. Get ready for lots of memorials, elaborate tombs. And, markers with famous names. There are around 3,000 people buried in this church! My favorite part of this church was Poet's Corner. Very exciting to see all the placards for poets and writers that were either buried or memorialized, such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen. Hint: The most affordable gift shop we found in London, though small, was here.
Courtyard at Westminster Abbey
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

6. The next day, we walked over the Millennium Bridge to Shakespeare's Globe Theater. My boyfriend went, as his concession to me, since I went with him to Westminster Abbey. It's a relatively new replica of the original, and he just thought he was indulging my Shakespearean theater fantasies. I paid for these tickets, as this was my indulgence.
Shakespeare's Globe

He was disappointed to find out that we were too early in April to actually go to a play in the Globe itself. HOWEVER, it turns out that the history and the process of recreating that building to be exactly like the original, absorbed him. The story of the American actor, Sam Wanamaker, whose decades-long determination got it rebuilt, was also fascinating. We were lucky enough to walk into the theater and see parts of a tech rehearsal in which one of the characters was in costume, and being lifted as if flying!  Since it was a tech rehearsal, our guide was also able to talk and answer questions for us, and he was obviously also an actor!  In addition, this venue offers occasional demos of how layered Shakespearean costumes were put on (using audience members), sword fighting, and the like. There is a whole museum there about Shakespearean theater, tech, and the process of building the new building. Highly recommend this as a 1/2 day, and not just on a cloudy day! As tickets go in London, this wasn't as expensive as other choices.
Costume used at Shakespeare's Globe
7. Stonehenge and Bath. We did a tour, which I talked about a bit in a prior post. We didn't get enough time at either destination, and this was our WORST weather day, cold and pouring. Had we not purchased the tour tickets in advance, we could have been more flexible and gone other days. I would either do what my parents did, years ago, and brave renting a car and staying overnight around both locations, or taking trains and buses, not a tour. See my prior post for more info.
Roman Bath at the City of Bath
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

2019 (c) Sondra Singer

8. Walk - Just find an area you want to explore, and start walking. You can always get the Underground or a bus or a taxi if you wander too far. We saw a couple of parks, Buckingham Palace, walked along the Thames, etc. by doing this. Very enjoyable and free!

While Walking Near Our Hotel in Hammersmith
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

8. Theater - You can get discount tickets the day of. Look up TKTS. It's a standalone building in Leicester Square. You have to go in person. Check their website that morning to see what they have available and pricing. Give yourself at least two options in case they sell out the play you want to see. We got a great deal to see The Play That Goes Wrong. That show is now on Broadway, too. Very very funny, slapstick, and very British! It was another rainy day, so this was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon, a decision made that day.
Image result for tkts building london
TKTS Building for Discount Theater Tickets
(from their official site)

9. For shopping, we went to a Saturday market, the famous Portobello Market, which was packed with people. It was fun, but we couldn't take it for too long because of the crowds. We saw some wonderful looking produce and baked goods. We found unique, locally created souvenirs, I found some inexpensive jewelry, collectibles, antiques, and we saw some beautiful woven goods, as well.  We also went to the Greenwich Market, which was open the day we took the Thames Cruise. That was more contained, with both booths and shops.
At Portobello Market
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

10. Finally, we have to recommend the Museum of London. We learned that "London" is actually a relatively small area of the city. Westminster, where Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace reside, are in the City of Westminster, for example. There are also the boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith, Fulham, Wandsworth, and more. The Museum of London, which we learned about in the Rick Steves book, walks you chronologically through the ages, from prehistoric times, through Roman occupation, and after independence from the Romans through to the 20th Century. We spent too much time on ancient London and had to rush through the 1800's and 1900's, which is where they have some wonderful exhibits, replica of streets, time-lines, and memorabilia. Go! They ask for a small donation, but you also get a great book when you donate. It's actually the easiest museum to get through, as it's so well laid out. We got some duplication on history we'd already learned, but it was still very interesting.


From the Women's Suffrage Exhibit, Museum of London
Please know that we would have loved to have gone into Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, but they are under construction, being propped up so as not to fall into the river! Had we not gone during Easter Break, we might have still been able to tour Parliament for free, but since Parliament wasn't in session, we would have had to pay, and it probably wouldn't have been as much fun without the politicians yelling at each other!
Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, as they were in 2018
2019 (c) Sondra Singer

Then there is food. I don't get the British love affair with smashed peas. So, I did a separate post on that!

There is SO much to see in London. We didn't even get to the walking tours we wanted to do, like the Rock n' Roll tour or up to see Abbey Road. Next time!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Third Party Travel Sites - The Good, The Bad, and the REALLY Ugly

Use Travel Agents, Third Party Sites, and/or Booking Direct?

I've mentioned third party sites before in other posts. Some, by name. Well, this time, there will be more of that. And, examples of good, bad, and ugly.

I've traveled at least a little bit, since I was 17. I started planning my own travel in my late '20's. And, since the introduction of the internet and all of its changes, I've tried more and different strategies. I realize that not everyone is adept at searches. But, if you are, or would like to learn, and you have some time to do it, it's worth it.

The following opinions are just that. My opinions, and my experiences. I'm sure there are people who have had bad experiences with those I've had good experience with, and vice versa.  Always do your due diligence and check reviews, check with friends and relatives, and then make your decisions based on what you learn. And even after that, be prepared for anything. Be flexible.

Travel Agent 

Courtesy of

As I've mentioned in the past, you can still use a travel agent. I've even done that on occasion, but I find that they tend to use the same sites over and over, and don't necessarily always find the best deals. Or, the best tour operators. But, if you don't mind ultimately paying a bit more for them to do the work for you, and you either don't have time to do your own research, or have a complex, multi-city trip to plan, a travel agent can be a God-send.

That said, this post is about third party travel sites and also going direct to airlines and hotels, once you've checked the third party sites, which is what I find often works best.

Subscribe to multiple sites for alerts

Courtesy of

Yes, it's a lot of email. And, you can turn these alerts on and off if it's too much. But, you may get emails that get you thinking about traveling to somewhere you never thought of!

Most third party sites are general. They send you package deals and airline deals that typically fly out of New York, LA, or Ft. Lauderdale, so you have to go in and see what it would actually be from your airport. But there is at least one you can pay a small annual fee for that sends you only alerts for your own airport, as well as a free one.

I'm not going to pretend that I know all about all sites. I will just speak to those I do know about.

Some Third Party Sites That I Like

Courtesy of


They never took credit for saving our trip when a critical connecting flight was cancelled, but unless the Universe did it, Hotwire did reschedule our flight so that we were able to go to Paris, seamlessly, saving our trip. I've used them more than once, and can't complain.

Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz

I've used them all at some point or another, and often check them all.  These sites have been around for a long time. They are all limited in that they don't have ALL airlines (Southwest, I've noticed, needs to be checked separately), but when I've used them, most of the time, things have gone smoothly.


Looks at multiple sites, so you get a barrage of windows opening. But if you can, look at them and you might find a gem of a deal.


I can't speak to this, as I've only used them for a car rental once, and they were great. But one of my sisters has used it successfully. Again, it's been around for a long time.

Trip Advisor

I haven't booked through them yet, but I've used them for reviews and am also a reviewer on their site, so I'd use them if I find the best deal there. They also have helpful community discussions, which helped me find a different tour to Stonehenge than Viator (see below).


I've been getting their emails for a while, and the deals really look good. Typically, they are package deals from other vacation package sites, and, again, you need to customize those deals to your airport. Since I've primarily used this as an alert system for flights and not for complete packages, I can't speak to that. But, I find their "heads-ups" give me ideas.

Next Vacay

I signed up for this newish service recently, and the jury is still out. For $25/year, they send you emails when there is a great deal to fly out of your home airport. You get 24-72 hours to book it directly through the airline (which I like), they just let you know. They haven't developed a way for people to ask for a specific destination, however, and this is why I canceled them. They sent me great winter deals to northern destinations, but if I wanted to go to the Caribbean in the winter, they didn't send me anything I would actually use. They are advertising heavily on Facebook, which is where I learned about them. Again, I haven't actually followed through to see if I find the same deals they sent me because none of the destinations were attractive for this time of year. I hope they develop the next stage = ability for the public to choose where they want to go.

I have started getting their emails. They show flights from your home airport, like Next Vacay, but you can choose where you want to go, and wait for the emails with the deals to go there (and other places). It's free, too. I haven't checked to make sure these deals are real and bookable yet, but if they are, this is my new go-to.

Third Party Sites to Beware Of

Courtesy of


If you look at reviews online, which I didn't this time (not my typical style, so I screwed up), CheapOAir has many 1 star reviews and complaints. Wish I'd looked before I booked with them earlier this year. They may give you a low fare, but they then try to charge you for everything, including seats, even seats that the airline would give you free!  And, if you don't pay them, they don't let you get your seats until 24 hours before flight, or AT THE AIRPORT!

When you book through them, they don't let you go directly to the airline! They don't want to give you the airline reservation code for your flight. When I asked, I was refused. They want you to do everything through them, then charge you! 

Their "chat" feature kept me waiting for over half an hour at a time, for answers, and then the answers were not complete. A total waste of time. So, I tried calling them multiple times. Whenever I tried to get anything asked or done, they gave me the runaround. I'd end up saying goodbye, and then calling back and trying another agent. They make everything time-consuming and a lot harder than it needs to be, so it must serve their purpose.  I'm sure most people don't have the time to mess with them and just go along with whatever they try to make you do. Or they just don't question that there are better ways to travel than with this site.

Although technically they are a U.S. based, New York (or Las Vegas?) company, all of their actual reps are in India. One of their own reps told me they are all in India, when I tried to get to a U.S. based manager. There are none. Trying to charge me for what should have been free seats was my last straw. After having to deal with them and their shenanigans for a while, and getting upset, then I did the research. I'm not sure how I did it now, but I managed to get my actual airline booking number and went direct to the airline, where I stayed for the duration, thankfully cutting these clowns out.

The airline people were wonderful once I was able to get to them, and gave me great seats, FREE, as well as baggage, and good travel tips to boot. But CheapOair put me through a lot before I managed to get around them. STAY AWAY! They are doing a significant amount of TV advertising now, so they are obviously making money on an unsuspecting public. BEWARE!

Not to be confused with CheapAir, which is based in Denver, CO, and which I haven't yet used.


This is owned by the same company as CheapOair, and I think they have the same kinds of reviews. According to the Fareportal website, they also own a travel agency in New Jersey called Travelong, which existed prior to being purchased by Fareportal. I would never use any of their companies based on my experience.


This is not for airline travel, but for tours once you're there. Frankly, I haven't liked most of the planned tours I've taken because they rush you through everything and the guides have mostly been bored or rebellious. My first experience with Viator was planned by a travel agent (this seems to be a lot of agents' go-to tour company). The agent set up one tour with Viator. If it hadn't been us, I'd have thought I was watching a Monty Python sketch. The guide was obviously unhappy in his job, and he took it out on us, rushing ahead of elderly and disabled people, putting us on a water taxi instead of a tour boat on the Thames (then going to the bar), talking very fast, and not answering questions, instead, he was sarcastic and snippy. I complained when we got back, but nothing happened. I tried them again on my own for a tour in Paris, and again had issues that could have been avoided. So, I now try to find alternatives if I want a tour at all. Since we don't like to drive in foreign countries, sometimes we have to take a tour in order to see a site that's important to us. I just try to find the ones with the best reviews. Since I'm sure Viator is also a third party, they don't have quality control of the tour itself. So, whenever possible, I try to go direct and avoid the third party whenever possible.

Check the Third Parties, then Book Direct

As mentioned at the top, I like to use the third party sites as a way to find out which airlines are discounting, then I go to that airline's site to see if I can find that, or a better deal. And, yes, often, it's better direct, on the airline's website. I find the flight numbers I want on the third party site, then search out the flight on the airline's site. I've mostly used this strategy for domestic flights. But, why not for international? If anyone has experience with this, let me know. Please note, generally, the airlines don't give the same discounts if you call rather than use their website.

For hotels, there are some that will give you a better rate if you book direct with them instead of through third parties.

Here's an example:

Star Hotel B&B, courtesy of their website

We went to London early in 2018. Whereas the third party site we used for the flight was awful, I used a different strategy for the hotel. I did a number of searches, looking for the kind of hotel we like. Usually, that's a smaller hotel, not one of the big names. There was one hotel that kept showing up - The Star Hotel. It's not in the center of London, it's in the suburb of Hammersmith, but convenient to the Underground. It's not near Hyde Park like my previous trip there. So, not as convenient. But, the hotel I stayed at before had poor customer service and had very small rooms. So that's why I was looking deeper.  Rather than just believe the third party sites, I went direct to the Star's website. I found that it was owned and operated by a family. Check. The reviews had given me clues of what rooms to request. They had our dates. AND, their website stated that they prefer people to book direct. I emailed the proprietor, got more details, then booked the room direct. It was a noisy area with a fire station right down the block, but all of London is busy. It's like trying to find a quiet street in New York City. This was, at least, a suburb, so not as crazy. It was a nice area to walk around, and I wish we'd done more. The proprietors were great. There was a grocery store literally across the street and down an alley, so we could get club soda, beer (much cheaper than a pub, and we're not really bar people), etc. The restaurants in the neighborhood weren't fancy, but they also weren't as expensive as in the heart of the action. And, after all, this blog is about traveling for less, yes?

We saw just about all that we wanted to from this vantage point. And, it was more relaxed.

I had a similar experience domestically, with a motel in Colorado Springs, where they prefer (and charge less) if you book direct. This is probably not true in general, but if you think about it, they hotel probably has to give up some percentage of the booking through other sites. Why not reward those consumers who come to them directly?  I hope I'm not getting anyone in trouble by revealing this, but it's worked for me.

Be Flexible

So, there are some search tips. The most important piece to this travel puzzle, is flexibility. Always be open to alternatives. Try different sites, always check lots of reviews, ask around. As always, we look for the best deals, but also weigh that against the reviews. Enjoy!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Airline Connections Hell - Why We Avoid Them At All Costs!

Courtesy of Max Pixel

I'm Here to Tell A Story of A Flight Gone Bad...

Ah, travel!  When it works, it's great. When there are "issues," hang on!  This is the story of how we almost didn't make it to Paris in April of 2017...

I'm lucky that I live 45 minutes from a growing International airport that seems to get more and more direct flights overseas. Since connections have not worked out well the past few years, if we can get a direct flight, even if it costs a bit more, we'll do that to avoid a heart attack!

I alluded to this trip in an earlier post, but I wanted to share the WHOLE story as an illustration of why to avoid connections for international flights, IF YOU CAN. This is the trip that is ever-present in our guts as the worst flight my boyfriend and I have had together and the reason we now avoid connections like the plague!


The Best Laid Plans

In April of 2017, we went to Paris. We'd found an incredible deal for the flight, months earlier, under $500 round trip on a third party site (Hotwire), and then also found a great little hotel that was affordable, as well, on a different site (Agoda).

Unfortunately for us, the day of our travel had severe storms in Ohio, where we were to change planes. They canceled that flight. The Delta airline text I was sent wanted us to then leave the day we were to return, so that wasn't going to work! When we got up to the Delta counter, the agent was surprised because we'd miraculously already been placed on another flight later that day going through San Francisco on Air France. It was going the wrong direction, but it would still get us there within a day of when we were supposed to arrive. We assumed it was Hotwire that got this for us, but no one ever took credit for this, not Delta, and not Hotwire, so it must have been some kind of Divine Intervention!  The Delta agent couldn't get us boarding passes past our home airport, but didn't think it would be a problem.

Plan B

This new flight showed we had a 2-1/2 hour window between flights once getting to San Francisco, so we thought great, and went back home rather than wait around the airport for hours. And, it's a good thing that's what we decided to do! At home, I got on the computer to see what I could learn about this new flight, and also hoped to print out those boarding passes. But, for some reason, Air France wouldn't issue those passes from San Francisco to Paris, just some kind of provisional paper vouchers. But, I printed them out, just in case. Good thing...

As luck would have it, we got back to the airport, and THAT flight was also delayed for, yes, you guessed it, 2-1/2 hours, for bad storms in San Francisco!  That was a bad day for Spring storms all over the country. We almost threw in the towel. But, we were assured they would make up time in the air. So, we boarded.

Courtesy Wikipedia


By the time we got to San Francisco, we discovered that we had almost NO time, not enough time to get boarding passes. And, we had to go through security again once we got to the international gates! And, my boyfriend, Andy, couldn't run. He'd had knee replacement surgery just 5 months prior, and recovery was slow. If it had not been for the Air France representative who was miraculously waiting for us at security, we couldn't have gotten our boarding passes. I handed him my provisional papers, and 5 minutes later, he reappeared with boarding passes!  The last hurdle was security...

I flew through, but my boyfriend didn't. Andy had dutifully showed the TSA agent the card from his orthopedic doctor, which was supposed to help at security. He was immediately treated like a criminal and put through several more checks. The TSA man seemed to take delight from delaying 65 year old, limping Andy, "looking" for something on him instead of just believing that he'd had a knee replacement, or at least believing his own equipment that pointed to that very spot INSIDE Andy's knee. We are seniors, and were obviously in distress. This is the way to treat people? I know the TSA has a job to do, but if this were football, there would have been penalties on that TSA agent for unnecessary roughness AND delay of play!  TSA, we are not here for your "entertainment!" Yes, I said it out loud. I've never had such a bad experience with the TSA. They have serious mission. But then there is abuse of power, and that should never be an issue with the innocent traveling public, in my never-to-be-humble opinion!

By now, I was at the gate, and fell to the ground, having a panic attack, not able to contact Andy. The Air France rep told them to hold the plane (when does that ever happen?) and went back to security to see what was happening.  Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they reappeared. The TSA agent deliberately had kept Andy's phone, and Andy didn't realize it until they were nearly at the gate, so they had to go back, and that xxx agent made him show him his ID again!  He KNEW we were late for that plane. It was obvious that his actions were deliberate, and I wish to this day that I had reported him, but we didn't get his name...

Had it not been for that amazing Air France rep, we wouldn't have made it to Paris for our first big international trip together! I haven't seen a U.S. airline be that helpful in at least 30 years! There is something to be said for European airlines!

Courtesy of Pixabay Geneliao

And There's More!

So, now we could relax - or could we?

We got on the plane, and there was another couple in our seats!  Apparently, they assumed the seats were vacant by then...we did get those seats, though, in the middle of a row, toward the back. A few seats to our right, however, a mother and child sneezed and coughed all the way across the U.S. and then the ocean. But, we made it!

Well, WE made it, but my bag didn't!

Yes, my bag was lost somewhere between home, San Francisco, and Paris. For three days, I walked around Paris in boots NOT made for walking (and started getting blisters) and the same clothing I'd worn from home (washed and hung up at night). Fortunately, Andy carried on, so I was able to use some of his toiletries. Air France was very apologetic, gave me some toiletries, and finally did deliver my bag to the hotel. I'm just glad we stayed put in one hotel on that trip!

When I told my mother what had happened, she told me what I should have known. Don't just pack stuff for the flight and meds on the carry-on. Pack a change of underwear and some clothing (and Andy added, if the shoes aren't made for walking, carry a spare pair!)

Although I picked up a bit of a cold from the sick people down the aisle on the plane, the trip was amazing!

(c) Sondra Singer

 Fly Direct, Fly European Airlines, Whenever Possible

I would do it again, BUT I would look for a direct flight!  And, if I had the choice for not much more money, I'd choose a European airline like Air France. They had more snacks and better (hot) meals, more amenities, and were just more helpful!  But do be careful and make sure what you book really IS a European airline.

We made a rookie mistake earlier this year, and thought we were booking Lufthansa to London. Nope, the fine print was United. But, it was a new plane, and it was a direct flight! So, it turned out fine. More on this in another post.

Next....Third Party Sites to Try, and Some to Avoid. By Name...

In Service,

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Smashed Peas

This will be a very short post...

Someone please explain to me why the Brits like smashed peas!  This was sometimes the only option on menus, unless we went to non-British restaurants in London!

Smashed peas are the green mush on an otherwise tasty looking plate!
I admit, we didn't go to any high-end restaurants, because, of course, we are Boomers Traveling As Cheaply As Possible.

However, truly, our main options were pubs (almost always with smashed peas as the vegetable), Turkish, and Indian restaurants. Then, there are the tourist trap Italian places that beg you to come in off the street on your way to the theater (DON'T DO IT!  If they were good, they wouldn't need to beg!) 

Nothing is cheap in London anyway. But I just don't understand why they don't offer a nice little salad, or even whole peas? 

What IS the deal with smashed peas?  I can find some information on Wikipedia, but not the WHY... I even ran into another American tourist blogger asking the same question, after wondering at first if the cook had emptied his nose on the plate...

Smashed or Mushy Peas are essentially tasteless, and I can't imagine they have much nutritional value. Please, my British friends, please offer a small house salad so a tourist (or resident) can get some roughage!  We need that when we travel...

More on food in another post. I just had to put this one out there...sorry!

In Service,


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Boomer Travel: Google Maps, The Metro, Underground, On Off Bus, and More!

Public and Other Transportation Stories, Good, Bad, and Ugly

2018 (c) Sondra Singer

I've had interesting changes of "direction" the past few years, as I've learned how to best get around cities in Europe. Much depends on the city, it's volume of traffic, availability of public transportation, etc. as well as who we are and our comfort level with each mode of getting around.


We don't do well driving in strange cities, even here in the U.S. So, you can bet we don't rent cars in foreign countries!  If you're daring enough to do it, let me know how that works for you. We like to leave the driving to those who know where they are going! Especially if we are in a country that drives on the "wrong" side of the road!  We get lost easily enough when we are driving around the U.S.!
Drive? I don't think so. Let the locals do it!

On/Off Buses and Tours?

I used to think that I HAD to get the "lay of the land" first by taking some kind of tour, like an on/off bus, early in a trip. That is changing based on experiences and the layout of different cities.

My first trip, 4 years ago, I went with 3 other people who had varying degrees of mobility. For that group, in at least one city, Vienna, the Hop On Hop Off Bus was the best option. However, Vienna is the only city so far, where that was my main and best mode of transport, because the company we used knew the city well, had well-laid-out routes that ran frequently, and had frequent connecting points for different routes. So, even though I was limping around with a cane and still in recovery from a broken ankle, the buses got me close to my destinations, and also got the rest of the group around to drive by the sites they wanted. I wanted a more in-depth experience than they did, and that bus company served us all well. We also stayed in the Museum District, which gave us excellent access to those buses, with a stop just down the hill from our hotel.

Street in Vienna from the Hop On Hop Off bus
However, on that trip, we also did a day tour (not an on/off bus) in London, and that tour was a complete disaster. Had it been a Monty Python movie, it would have been funny to watch, but it was real! The tour guide obviously hated his job, hated tourists, and had a generally BAD attitude. For example, even though we had older people and less mobile people on the tour, he made no allowances, and often threatened to leave people behind. He'd walk up ahead fast, speak fast, then move on again, never waiting for people to catch up. At both the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, where we actually got off the bus, I'm sure he left people behind intentionally. We were supposed to have a guided river tour as part of the day.  However, he put us on what turned out to be a commuter river taxi, with no commentary, no guiding at all. He brought us on board, then went to the bar until it was time for us to get off. If you decide to do a tour like this, ask a lot of questions first. We trusted our travel agent. Perhaps in this case, we were just unlucky enough to get a guide who wanted to get fired, so did everything he could to make that happen!

From the river taxi. Our guide was in the bar, so this was the only site we recognized...

Yes, this is the man who should not be a tour front of where we had a lovely High Tea...without him...

More Recently...

Do your research. Read reviews, and talk to people who have gone to the cities where you are traveling, as well. In Paris, last year, we had a bad experience with an on-off bus company there, Open Tour. I booked through Viator, which I will avoid in future.  Open Tour was not good that week in April, 2017, in part because of the intense traffic in Paris, in part because the buses just didn't run regularly.  They apparently decided after we booked, to run winter hours when we were told (and the website stated) specifically that by the time we arrived, they would be on summer schedule (later and longer hours). It finally made sense when we saw hastily posted signs that they were running winter hours for an additional week. No explanation by those hawking the buses on street corners. Plus,the routes themselves were lackluster. We had to give up on using them by the 2nd day of 3 that we'd paid for. We couldn't even use the voucher for the Seine River cruise from that company after waiting an hour to board, and ended up having to buy a different cruise.

In Paris, public transportation is a much better option. Same with London. And, in Dubrovnik, you have to walk. Period.

Our Favorite Option to Get Around

I changed my expectations and planning in Paris last year, when we discovered Google Maps.  As long as there is Google Maps on my phone, this is now the best option for us to get around easily in many cities. If you know what you want to do on a particular day, after researching your travel books, you can get to your destinations with ease using Google, especially in cities that are spread out, have a lot of traffic, and have good public transportation.

It knows where you are, right? So, when you plug in your destination, it will let you know several options for getting there, depending upon your starting point. In both Paris and London, it will give you walking, public buses, and public train options, including estimated time for each leg of your journey. You can choose based upon your preferences. You get options for walking, walking to stations, etc. and you can even drill down to how long it will take to get through each leg. You may have to change trains, but it will show that, as well.

Google Maps example. Just put your destination in your smart phone, and you'll get options for getting there.

In Paris last year, we used the Metro more, but also found that a public bus was a better option on one journey, getting us to within walking distance to our hotel. On that little jaunt, we had a fascinating discussion with a woman on that bus about politics and religion! I know, we shouldn't have, but we did anyway. That, I've noticed, is harder to do on a train. Maybe we were just lucky, but I think that discussion got us all out of our "bubbles" and getting to know a person from a different country a little bit. It was close in time to their Presidential election, so it was enlightening hearing from a woman who had different political leanings than we did, what she was thinking.  It was all innocent conversation, and very cordial.  If you can keep your conversations friendly, I recommend this.

We didn't have any such conversations on London public transport, but perhaps it's because we didn't ride a public bus there.

Car Services

The other modes of transport, obviously are cabs, car services, and Uber. There is a lot of controversy around Uber in London at the moment. After seeing how potentially contentious this was, and also seeing that there was really no difference in cost between Uber and a car service, we used Adams Car Service to get from and to the airport. We could have taken the Underground back to the airport, but it was unclear how much walking we might have to do to our terminal (you have to do a lot of walking just to get to and from a flight at the international terminal at Heathrow already). So, we decided to make life a bit easier and take the same car company we'd taken to get into the city.

Plan to do a lot of walking, if you are able-bodied. You'll see more and have more options, as well. Plan to be somewhat adventurous and flexible, as well, if you travel a bit extemporaneously, as we do. It's also much cheaper to walk than to pay for any other form of transport. Especially in London!

The Metro and the Underground

On that front, Paris was expensive for some things, but not for transportation. The Metro is cheap compared with the London Underground. In both cases, you can buy tickets ahead. In Paris, you can buy books of tickets and use them as you go. In London, you buy an Oyster card (a 5 pound refundable deposit gets you going) and it's easy. You just reload that with money when needed at convenient ATM-type machines in the stations. It's just more expensive to get from point A to B in London, no matter what. However, you can get refunded up to a point when you're ready to leave, and it's all on easy-to-use machines at the stations.
Paddington Station in London


I was in Dubrovnik 4 years ago.  There were public buses to get to destinations, then you walked. Since Dubrovnik central is a walled city within the city, there are no cars. It's not that big, but with a recovering broken ankle, I just took my time and rested a lot.

Approaching the walled city in Dubrovnik from the public bus.

Walking above the walled city of Dubrovnik.

Outside The City

If you want to go outside the city, that's another story. I know people who rent cars but that's not us. I generally don't like tours because they never give you enough time at each destination. But, that's what we did to go to Stonehenge and Bath.

Stonehenge in the Rain
I chose a Premium Tour to just these two destinations because it seemed to give enough time - morning at Stonehenge, afternoon at Bath. But, in fact, in neither case was it enough time to explore, shop and also eat in a restaurant. Thankfully, we brought snacks from our hotel, and just toured what we had time for.  In future, I might do more research on taking trains and buses, but my concern was that we wouldn't get up early enough in the morning to have enough time at the destinations anyway. So, for us, the tour was good enough this time. More on those destinations in a later post.

I hope you find this helpful as you plan your trips, Boomers, and others who want to travel As Cheaply As Possible!

In Service,

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