Friday, May 20, 2016

Do This, Not That!

People are constantly talking about how expensive England is and many times use it as an excuse not to visit. 

The truth is that England can be as cheap or expensive as you want to make it! I wrote this article to show you ways you can see England on the cheap and enjoy yourself as much as someone spending hundreds of dollars!


Instead of paying $30 a person to ride the London Eye, sign up for a free visit to the relatively new Sky Garden. You can reserve a spot up to three weeks in advance. Enjoy views of the entire city of London and pocket the money you would’ve spent on the London Eye. Or, alternatively, use the money to enjoy fine dining in one of several restaurants available in the building.

Adults pay £21.50/$30 to see the state rooms at Buckingham Palace and £17.25/$25 to see the Churchill War Rooms. London has a plethora of famous locations you can see for free instead! The Imperial War Museum in London offers excellent exhibits on Britain’s military past. And instead of visiting the state rooms, take in the changing of the Guard and the National Portrait Gallery for free!

You can find a list of free attractions in London here:


Instead of visiting a preferred restaurant at night, consider going during lunch when your food could be as much as half price! Many restaurants offer set lunch fares that are more than reasonable.

Instead of dining in restaurants, try a local pub or fish n chips shop. Or, even less costly, enter Sainsburys and Tesco to grab a sandwich and chips for a couple of pounds.

Instead of paying for breakfast, stay at a B&B that offers a Full English breakfast in the cost of their room (which would cost you around £10.00/$14.50 at an average restaurant).


The estimated fare for a cab from Heathrow to Chiswick (about halfway to London’s city centre) is £41.32 or $60. Instead, take the underground station to Turnham Green and get yourself easily to Chiswick high street for around $5. Alternatively, you can take the bus for $3. It will take a few minutes longer, but you’re savings are well worth the extra 15 minutes. For information on the London Underground, see this article.

Car rental costs quite a bit in GB. Take into account the rental fee, the insurance, and the ungodly price of gas and you are well on your way to broke! In addition, I once lost my keys and it cost me £500.00/$726.00!

If you want to get the most out of your trip, and if you’re planning on mainly hitting larger towns, get a BritRail pass. With a flexible pass, you can ride any 3, 4, 8, or 15 days during a month’s time. Wake up in London and go to sleep in Inverness, then take the train from Inverness to Cardiff Wales, to Cornwall and back for as little as $264 US dollars for an adult.

Note: You must purchase the pass before you go to GB. This can be done either online or through your travel agent! Also, if you’re not planning on traveling extensively, it could be that a straight ticket would be less expensive than a pass. Do your math to ensure savings!


Many B&Bs have offers if you stay over a certain number of nights. For instance, I booked at Kirkgate House in Knaresborough for three nights and got 10% of the nightly room rate. Always check ahead to see what discounts may be had. Another choice for simple lodging are pubs. If you’re *very* adventurous, try hostels or even wild camping (pitching a tent in designated areas for free). In addition, some schools (like the London School of Economics) offer their dorm suites for rent during the off seasons.


When you are out and about purchasing souvenirs or things for yourself, you’re going to be charged VAT (a 20% tax on retail goods). Rather than lugging gifts around, find a retailer who ships. When shipping, you won’t be charged VAT, and what you would’ve been charged will pay the shipping fees! This means you don’t have to lug around hefty gifts through cities, towns, busses, and airports.

Do: Go to local markets to find things at a cheaper rate than high street stores would charge. Don’t go to Harrods for anything other than a peek!


Rather than taking up valuable luggage space and tempting weight overages with hiking gear, consider renting your gear once you get to your destination. Places like George Fisher in Keswick will rent gear at a reasonable rate and will leave you with less to haul and more luggage space for dailywear. Remember to contact them ahead of time with your request.


Don’t get pounds on this side of the pond. You’ll pay a premium exchange rate, and you will have many chances at Heathrow simply to withdraw from an ATM. Get a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees. If you can, get a card through a bank or credit union that does not charge ATM feels.


Don't use your U.S. ISP.  You will be overcharged in almost every instance for voice, data, and text.  Instead, purchase a SIM card in the UK for as little as $15 (including initial pay as you go minutes).  See my article on communicating overseas for more information.


These are just a few things I've done to cut costs in the past.  You will probably have some of your own!  Keep your eyes open for even more ways to cut spending on your trip, and drop me a line when you do!  I'd love to find some more cost cutting ideas.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Final Days

We’re coming down to the wire. I have my calendar worked out, my confirmations printed, and tickets at the ready. All of the connections and trapdoors have been studied. I’ve minimized the possibility of a nervous travel breakdown. Or have I?

I thought I’d give you the last minute preparations that I make for my trips. Maybe this will help you when you get yourself together for your great British adventure!

Trip Book

I have a week to go, so I go down the list to ensure I have everything I need in my trip book. A trip book is the compilation of every bit of paperwork you’ll need for your trip. Mine includes
  • My trip calendar
  • Airline reservations
  • B&B/Hotel Confirmations
  • Event Confirmations and Tickets
  • In-Country travel reservations
    • Train
    • Car Rental
    • Taxi reservations
  • Expense sheet
  • Phone numbers and addresses for important contacts
  • Gift list for people who I’m taking gifts to from the U.S. and those I’m bringing gifts to from the U.K.
  • Trip insurance info
  • Maps and travel info for each step of the trip
  • Copy of my passport and important credit card info


I check the weather up to the day of departure. I also look at the historical weather for my destination. Currently, the low is in the upper 40s and the high in the mid 60s. It also appears to be raining (really?). But that tells me several things.
  • I need to layer – I’ll be bringing clothes that I can wear on top of other clothes and a fleece jacket to wear under my waterproof jacket.
  • I need shoes that are waterproof and that have good coverage (no sandals).
  • I may or may not bring an umbrella (your choice). I find that they usually just get in the way. A waterproof jacket with a hood works great.


I make sure my mail is being held during my trip. Just click here to fill out a form with the dates you’ll be gone.

Credit Cards

I call my bank and credit card companies to let them know the dates I’ll be out of country so I don’t have any of them shut down on me!


I have transportation set to get me to and from the airport both in the U.S. and England.


I’m carrying very little. I use cards most places I go so cash isn’t really necessary for the most part. When I land, I’ll get cash at an ATM.

So, this is it! Final days. Let the games begin!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Keep Pushing!

I decided to write today about travel writing.  It’s a wonderful, fulfilling, and challenging thing to blog in the hopes of helping others gain the information they want and need to travel.  It can also be very hard work with little (if any) monetary reward.

To those of you who also blog about travel, kudos to you for all you have done for the travel community!  You care enough to share enough.  That indicates a huge heart not only for travel but for people and cultures as well.

When people ask me why I’ve not made a living at this and why I am apparently glued to a corporate job, all I can say is that the right time and place haven’t become apparent.  I think God meets us halfway when we talk about our dreams.  Half of getting there is blood, sweat, and tears.  The other half is fate.  If it wasn’t meant to be, it won’t be.  The saddest thing is when a vision or dream isn’t realized.  But sometimes, it just isn’t.  You dust yourself off, you go on to the next thing.  Or you stay with the same thing and try something different.

I once asked a well-known author in the space industry (when I worked at NASA) what I had to do to write creatively for a living.  His response was that you have to give away a LOT of work up front just to make a name for yourself.  Even though this was many moons ago, and before the internet, I still see that today.

The other challenging piece of travel writing is getting the words out there in a way that people can find them.  That has to do with technology, understanding how to format and place your words, and how to maximize search engine hits.  That piece is very difficult for many writers (yours truly included).  I am hopefully going to remedy that by hiring someone to do the technical end of things.

When you are writing, don’t forget that hope and dedication are your mainstays.  Never say, “If I make it as a travel writer”, it’s “when you make it as a travel writer.”    Don’t lose sight of your passion or your goals.  I say this as much for myself as for those reading.  It’s easy to say, “oh well, it’s just a hobby” or “there are millions of travel writers out there, I’ll never make this into a business.” No, you have something to offer, something that’s valuable, and something that you obviously feel moved to share.

Travel writing is an investment in your passion, so be prepared to grab the rungs of that ladder and keep pushing upward! I’ll be right along with you.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Riding the Underground

The story I tell that makes a case for using London’s underground is this: 

I arrived at Heathrow one morning and didn’t want to mess with public transport.  I knew the hotel was fairly close to the airport, so I figured I’d take a taxi.  This incurred an incredible £42/$67 charge!  I was mortified.  So, on my way home, I took the tube for a mere £2/$3.  Hence, I avoid taxis like the plague while I’m in London!
Also called “the tube”, London’s underground is a network of connecting stops which give the rider a “hands free” option of getting around London on the cheap.
London Tube Map
(Click the map to see larger.)

But, how does it work? How do you ride? How do you pay? When should you ride?

How It Works

To ride the Underground, you’ll first need one of the following:
  • A single ticket
  • An oyster card (or oyster visitor card)
  • A Travel Card
  • Contactless (not recommended for U.S. tourists).

Purchasing Payment

To purchase a single ticket or top buy/top up an oyster card, go to any underground station and look for the payment kiosks.
Payment Kiosk

You just follow the instructions.  You’ll need to buy single tickets depending on the zones you are traveling from/to. Zones 1-6 cover central and outer London.
Zone Map

Single Ticket

A single ticket gets you from one station to another and is a one-time ride.  This will typically cost you more than other modes of payment (the oyster card or contactless).  For instance, a trip from Marble Arch to Baker Street using a straight ticket costs (at the time of this writing) £4.90 compared to £2.40 if you use Contactless or the Oyster Card.  The straight ticket is only good for the day of purchase up to 04:29 the next day.

To use the paper ticket, insert it into the slot on the front of the turnstyle you enter and it sweeps through the system and up through a top slot for you to pick up.

When to Purchase a Single Ticket

When you are traveling very little by tube during your stay.  The cost of a single ticket will be expensive, but not as much as purchasing an Oyster card (which provides for further underground trips).  Though your Oyster card can be refunded, you may not want the headache if you are only riding once or twice.

Oyster Card

An Oyster card looks like a regular credit card and can be topped up to pay as you go on the London Underground.  This card will get you to all zones that the tube travels as well as London busses and even some overland light rail trips to places like Greenwich and Penge East.

Paying for your Oyster Card

You’ll pay a one-time fee for the card (which is refundable when you return the card).  The cost is £5.  Once you have the card you can top it off with however much you want to spend on transportation during your stay.
Oyster Card

To purchase the Oyster card, check here for information.

Once you top up the card, you can then use it for transport.  Just go to the turnstyle that allows you into the underground station and place the card on the turnstyle reader.
Using the Oyster Card

Reasons for Purchasing an Oyster Card

Here are the reasons for purchasing the Oyster card:

  • Oyster card – has no expiration date.
  • The £5 fee is refundable at the end of the journey along with any residual funds on the card.
  • Standard Oyster cards can hold seven day and longer Travelcards.
  • It’s Pay as you Go, so don’t put a lot of cash on the card toward the end of your trip.

Where can you Use an Oyster Card?
  • Buses and trams
  • Tube, Docklands Light Rail, Transport for London (TfL)
  • National Rail on suburban trains stopping in Zones 1-9
  • Thames Clippers River Bus Services
  • Emirates Air Line

Visitor Oyster Card

The “benefit” of this card seems to be that you can get it mailed to you prior to your trip. However, there are so many drawbacks to it, that I would just recommend getting the regular oyster card.
  • £3 charge for a Visitor Oyster card is nonrefundable
  • Travelcards cannot usually be loaded on them.
  • Visitor cards cannot be registered: if lost or stolen there is no way to stop the card being used by another person


TravelCards are a paper ticket valid for 1 or 7 days of London travel.  These are not pay as you go, but are a set rate. 
If you don’t plan to travel a lot during your stay, you’re overpaying.
There is a price range (depending on zones traveled and number of days) that is from £12.10 for an adult traveling only in zones 1-4 to £32.40 if you’re traveling on a 7-day pass in zones 1-6.  For stays of 2-6 days, this may not be the right choice.  You’ll have to figure out if you are traveling on the underground enough to make it worth your while.
You can load a 7-day pass onto your OysterCard (just not the Visitor Oyster Card).

Contactless – Not Recommended for U.S. Tourists

Contactless refers to using your own credit/debit card as the source of funding using near field contact (NFC) technology. Contactless cards will have a wavy symbol on them.  The only card in the U.S. using this technology as of this writing is American Express.  Many issuers outside the U.K. have punitive fees for foreign exchange which may make that card unattractive for use purchasing transport in London.
Apple has just begun using NFC chips in the IPhone 6 and Iphone 6 Plus. Some Samsung Galaxy phones also offer NFC.  This means that you can now tap in with your bank card or NFC-enabled device. You don't having to regularly top up like you do for the Oyster card. This form of payment hasn’t really become mainstream in the U.S. and even if it was, you’d have to pay a conversion fee every time you used it.


As far as actually *riding* London’s mass transit, you can either think of yourself as spoiled for choice or as totally confused.  It feels, to me, that the transport board has overthought ticketing a bit.  I miss the days when you could either buy a London Visitor Pass or purchase an Oyster Card (or before that, just straight ticketing). 

Questions to Ask:

  • What modes of transportation does my card cover?
  • Do I get any discounts transportation (such as the River Bus) with this card?
  • Which zones am I traveling in?
  • How many days of transportation in London will I need?
  • How does a straight ticket compare with the oyster card and Travel Card for my needs?


Monday, May 9, 2016

Funny English Words

This goes under the heading of two countries divided by a common language!
  • Chin Wag – chat
  • Chuffed – pleased
  • Cracking – stunning
  • Fell – mountain (Cumbria)
  • Flush – instant wealth.  “He was feeling flush because he’d just been paid.”
  • Fortnight – two weeks
  • Gobsmacked – astonished
  • Gutted – upset
  • Having a butcher’s – having a look
  • Knackered – tired
  • Knickers – underwear
  • Nowt – nothing (Yorkshire)
  • Oldy-Worldy – looking as if from another era
  • Orangery – sun room
  • Owt – anything (Yorkshire)
  • Pants – underwear
  • Stone – 14 pounds of weight
  • t’ – the or to (north). Note that many times, the word “the” is dropped and then t’ ends up meaning “to”.  Going t’ hospital is going to (the) hospital.
  • Ta – thanks (North)
  • Tara – goodbye
  • Thissen – yourself (thyself) (Yorkshire)
  • Trousers – pants
  • Twee – Sweet
  • Welly – Wellington boots

There are tons more!  For a giggle, you might want to make up your own list of funny English words!

Well, I'll be gobsmacked!

Friday, May 6, 2016

One if by Land, Two if by Train (or something like that)

I love traveling by train in Europe. England is no exception to that rule! Though I hear locals complain a lot about the trains, they have nothing to compare against our horrendous lack of real mass transit. I thought I might lay out a trip that makes the most of travel by train.  I haven’t done this particular trip before, but if you can, it would be well worth a BritRail pass!

Speaking of BritRail passes, have a look here. Pick the pass that most resembles the trip you’d like to take.  You can only purchase these passes prior to your trip overseas. You can purchase online or through a travel agent. 

Tip: Make sure the pass is worth the cost!  Tally up how much the total trip would cost you if you paid for straight tickets. 
Tip: The Rail sites (like this one) will discount tickets at three weeks prior to departure.  You may be able to get a vast discount if you can wait for it.

Our Sample Itinerary


Of course, almost all trips to the UK begin at Heathrow.  I find that staying in London at least one night prior to taking off just to shower, relax, and prepare for the rest of your journey works a treat!  If you plan to do more sightseeing in London, then of course, book extra days!


From London, I would take the train to York. York is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, in my humble opinion.  The York Minster is an architectural delight with the largest collection of medieval stained glass in Europe.  The cobblestone streets of York, the Shambles, Betty’s, the Roman Wall, the Castle Museum, and the Viking Museum make it a wonderful place to sightsee. 


From York, I would make the short train jaunt to Knaresborough and would spend a day or two just soaking up the local atmosphere.  Knaresborough is home to Knaresborough Castle (a ruin) and probably the most scenic Viaduct in England.  The River Nidd is the scene of one of the craziest fundraisers of all time, The Great Knaresborough Bed Race which ends in an icy plunge into its waters.
You can also visit the local Market (on Wednesdays), the cave of Mother Shipton (a 16th century witch), and the Petrifying well.


From Knaresborough, consider taking the rails north to Durham. Durham is yet another city set with a gorgeous viaduct over the River Wear.  If you fancy shopping, you are in the right place as there are tons of shops in the center of the city.  To get to the Cathedral, Durham has a convenient Cathedral bus. 
Durham Cathedral is amazing and contains the remains of the Venerable Bede (one of the most famous chroniclers of English history) as well as relics from St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and a copy of the Magna Carta!


From Durham, it’s a short train ride of about two hours to Edinburgh, Scotland.  I love this city, but be prepared to walk up and down steeply graded streets!  The treasures of this city are so numerous.  Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace, and for hikers, the treat of a walk up to Arthur’s Seat  Come and stay for a few days exploring this wonderful city. 

English Lake District

From Edinburgh, we’ll hop aboard the train once more for a trip to the English Lake District and the town of Windermere.  Windermere is extremely crowded, but also very scenic.  The Lake District is home to the poet William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame), and many other famous historical characters.  In Windermere, you can take cruises around the lake (Windermere is the largest in the Lake District), shop, walk, and soak up what nature has to offer in England’s northern territory.


Passing through the midlands, on to your next destination, Oxford!  How can you not fall in love with a town renowned for its educational facilities, its list of academics to include Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, President Clinton, and others… and its links to… Harry Potter! Tour the universities and museums!
Oxford is charming, full of things to do and places to shop.  Street musicians play for the crowds and the weekends are full of adventure!


Leaving Oxford, the train continues southward to the city of Bath.  If you love ancient cities with a country air about them, you could do worse than Bath!  Of course, one of the main draws to the city is its Roman Baths, but the city itself is so beautiful that it was awarded UNESCO Heritage status!  Spend your days shopping, walking, and taking in the air of this unique destination!


Not far from Bath is another amazing city, Salisbury.  Today, it’s a bustling hub of business, but it boasts a stunning ancient cathedral that contains another one of four known copies of the Magna Carta.   The Cathedral is a 10 minute walk from the train station and sits next to a lovely city center and plenty of shops to keep you busy.  Try the Wig and Quill for a nice lunch or the Refectory Restaurant and Bell Tower Tea Rooms in the Cathedral for afternoon tea.


Sadly, all trips must end, so we’ll head back to London for a few days of London sightseeing before leaving the country.
I hope you enjoyed our train excursion through Great Britain.  There are many more trips to be planned by train, but this example may give you an idea of what’s possible.  Add a stay in Wales at the cities of Conwy and Llandudno or toss in a trip to Truro on the “Lizard Peninsula” of Cornwall to soak up the sea air.  Perhaps a trip to Portsmouth where you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight or a look at the windmills and broads of England’s east country with a trip to Norwich. 
Great Britain is your oyster by any means of transportation, but traveling by rail leaves you hands free to enjoy the countryside as you move through the hills, lakes and vistas of this ancient land.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Wednesday's Class

I taught a free class last night at a local outdoor retailer.  It was a class I’d been looking forward to with anticipation and a lot of preparation.  My approach to teaching typically goes something like this:
  1. Research like crazy.
  2. Prepare written materials
  3. Pack show and tell stuff.
  4. Arrive an hour early (because I’ve had technology kick my butt before).  This allows time to handle any emergencies.
  5. Relax and present.
Teaching for a non-profit through a retailer has had its moments, and last night was no different.  I showed up an hour early with my material (which, since this was a short, free class wasn’t a lot). 
The scenario goes something like this:
I walked up to the folks at the back desk and notice my class had been posted nowhere on their announcement board.  Indeed, the fellow behind the counter had trouble even looking up my class to see if I was supposed to be there.  I had to dig out that info for him (though, later I found that my class title had been posted on the door of the classroom).
The classroom was not set up, so I ended up moving tables and chairs around.
I had my computer because I’d been told to bring it, but no one bothered to tell me it was an old connector type and that I’d need an adapter cable!  So, we used the retailer’s laptop.  I believe this laptop had been one of the first ever released and must have had memory capacity of a gnat because any application opened would a) take forever to open and then b) crash at the most inopportune times.  We couldn’t even get the laptop to recognize a USB mouse – let alone open the class videos.
A total of seven people arrived. We chatted and I had to explain the limitations of the technology.  I began to teach and noticed two people about my age who were rapt with attention and asking great questions while the rest of the crowd just sat in a dazed stupor as if I was torturing them with information. 

My sense about classes (having given numerous) is that the more you pay/invest in one, the more you’ll pay attention and the more you’ll get out of it.  The classes at the retailer have not been as successful as the ones at the local university for which I’m paid a little.  People who come to free classes want something for nothing.  I don’t look down on them because of this – everyone likes a good deal.  I don’t short-change folks because they haven’t paid.  These intro classes lead into the paying ones at the university.  They’re more advertising, really, and also offer a service to the public.
But, I noticed most of the students didn’t seem willing to participate.  The class limped to its eventual end, and these people left hastily.  The only good note of the evening was that the couple who seemed interested stayed to chat with me for about another half hour.  These are the kind of people that make teaching worthwhile.
I have another class this weekend – a paying class.  So far, eleven people have signed up to attend.  We’ll see how it goes, but since the technology is never usually an issue, I come prepared, and the class has invested in money, time, and materials – I am hoping for better results.  Fingers crossed, me ducks!