Posts Tagged ‘Travel Tips’

Embrace The Tourist Cheese (Why We Love City Bus Tours)


Historic Monument! Modern motel! Bus Railing!

Rules of Travel #1: Avoid Touristy Stuff

Generally speaking, we at Elegant Retreats are advocates of avoiding the usual tourist trappings while on holiday. The whole point of renting a holiday flat, cottage or home on vacation is to avoid the myriad costs, hassles and inauthentic experiences heavily marketed to visitors of any city, town or village. We cherish the sensation of living like a local as much as possible in the few short days or weeks that we get to spend in an area, and most of the tourist-targeting hoopla tends to detract heavily from that feeling.

There is one place where we quite emphatically and consistently contradict ourselves on the subject, however: City Bus (or Boat) Sightseeing Tours.

Rules of Travel #2: Periodically Ignore Rule #1

The first time you visit a famous monument and landmark-filled city, go ahead and hop on one of these delightfully garish tourist traps. Most large cities and some of the smaller, more popular villages in Europe have some version of these guided tours, usually on an open-top double-decker bus, sometimes on a small shuttle bus.  In cities with prominent rivers or waterways, there is very often a floating version of the tour via canal boat or other small craft.

These sorts of guided tours are the single best way to quickly and  easily get to know the approximate layout and major landmarks of a new destination. The best ones are manned by live guides, who spin tales of history woven with modern hints, tips and humorous facts about the places being visited along the way. Some versions feature taped commentary (which sometimes lowers the price of a tour) and ensures that you won’t be stuck with one of those bored guides who can no longer hide his disdain for telling the same story day in and day out. (To be fair, these sorts of sour guides are rare, and while they can dull the fun of a city tour experience, they can also rather funny to listen to in their own right – it’s amazing what a bitter, bored, had-it-up-to-here-with-this-nonsense person will come up with to amuse themselves or keep from karate chopping the 37,000th tourist who asks about leprechauns in Ireland, or where to find the best “coffee shops” in Amsterdam, or if it’s possible to attend high tea with the Queen in London).

Rules of Travel #3: If Ignoring Rule # 1, Embrace the Elements

Dark and fairly useless photo of Edinburgh Castle taken from the tour bus - one of our favorite useless bus top snapshot memories.

What’s so great about these tourist tours, with their tourist price tags and their potentially snarky-at-tourists tour guides, you ask? They are, in just a word, great:

– Designed for broad appeal: They hit the hottest spots and most ubiquitous landmarks in every guidebook. You can get a cursory lay of the land quickly and without having to think too much about it.

– No thinking skills required: The absolutely perfect thing to do straight off the plane, require zero effort beyond finding a stop and purchasing the ticket (which can often be done ahead of time online and with a discount!), and can be enjoyed in the fog of jetlag while waiting for the sun to go down so you can finally collapse into bed on the day you’ve arrived.

– Inspires serendipity: A great way to figure out what of the major attractions you might feel most inclined to visit or experience more in depth. (For example, we had no desire to visit the Whisky museum in Edinburgh until our bus guide pointed it out as we drove down the Royal Mile away from Edinburgh Castle and told us that it featured an interactive carnival-type ride in a whisky barrel, carrying passengers through 3-D diorama scenes explaining the history of Scotch in Scotland and ended with a fancy shot of booze… off the bus we went, picking up the another one about an hour later, now very well informed about the intricacies of Scotch whiskey making in the various regions of the country and very pleasantly buzzed!).

– Dual carriage: A nice, low-stress way to get around on your first day in town. Passes are usually good for 24 hours and let passengers hop on and off at any spot.

– Reasonably priced for something that rolls sightseeing and transportation into one easy package. Some tickets come with discounts for the monuments and attractions along the route. Prices vary only slightly between competing companies in any given city. It seems that most offer a fairly similar experience, though in larger cities like London, routes and major attractions may vary by company, or even within a single operation.

Rules of Travel #3B: Embrace the good, avoid the bad, try not to worry about the smaller details in between.

Awkward photos of people's heads and various monuments from the deck of a double decker tour bus!

The caveats: Yes, you will see the city in a bit of a blur. Yes, you will take terrible fuzzy photos of famous monuments and interesting sites from very odd and ultimately unattractive angles. Yes, you may very well be a bit chilly in the open top bus (but it’s really the best place to sit, so bring layers!). Yes, you will laugh at the corny jokes of your guide and immediately forget all the interesting historical anecdotes you found so fascinating in the moment, that you wanted to remember to write down in order to pass along to others later, perhaps at a dinner party or a wedding reception. Yes, the price of the ticket will feel a bit extravagant if you are trying to keep within a daily travel budget.

And yet: we cannot over-emphasize the value of these wonderfully cheesy, terribly informative, exceptionally tourist targeting sightseeing vehicular experiences. Once your 24-hour pass expires, you can continue on your merry trying-to-blend-in way, and no one (except those who might one day look at your cockeyed photos) ever has to know you indulged in such a guilty tourism pleasure.

More Information about Various City Tours

DUBLIN:
Dublin Sightseeing City Tour
City Sightseeing – Dublin

EDINBURGH:
Here’s a round up of several of the bus tours in Edinburgh, that includes the following:
City Sightseeing – Edinburgh
Edinburgh Tours
MacTours City Tour Edinburgh

LONDON:
The Original London Bus Tour
Big Bus Tours
The London Tour Bus Company

Boats versus buses: more leisurely pace, less car fumes to breathe, none of the urgency of careening through city traffic! Often warmer, though sometimes views are obscured if raining heavily on the glass roof top above.

PARIS:

Paris A La Carte (Bus AND Boat package)
Paris L’Open Tour
City Sightseeing – Paris

AMSTERDAM:
City Sightseeing Amsterdam
Canal Boat Tours

We don’t have any particular tour operating recommendations. In every city, these kinds of companies seem to be well regulated by the local tourist board, well managed, legitimate operations and thoughtfully (if not sometimes cheesily) entertaining.

You could always sift through online reviews of various operators in your destination location in order to make your decision, or you can wing it and jump on the one that looks best when you stumble into town or is select one that lets on/off closest to your apartment.  Research ahead of time is worth it for large groups when group or pre-booking discounts might be available.

Rules of Travel #4: Have Fun!

This is really rule number 1, of course. Have fun, take lots of wonderfully terrible snapshots and perhaps send us a few pics from the road!

 

 


Holiday Rental Flats Eaton Square London

First Time In London

We have so much to tell you first time visitors, it’s hard to be brief.  Here is a condensed version of the basic information you’ll need to plan a terrific first time holiday in London. Keep in mind that much of it you can find in a guidebook in greater detail, but really all you need is a few of the important bits of information to have an exceptional travel experience. These are the things we feel will serve you well, and provide you with a great trip, even if you don’t learn anything else prior to your arrival in London (not that we are recommending this, but if by necessity or happenstance, you would be fine with only the following info lodged safely in mind).

Things to know before you go to London, England:

Passport/Visa/Permission to enter the country – You do need a passport to enter England, and a visa as well, however for Americans and passport holders of certain other nationalities, the visa is issued by the stamping of your passport on arrival, and is valid for 6 months. If you are not an American or European Union member nation passport holder, check the simply named “Do I Need A Visa?” section of the UK Border Agency to find out if you’ll need to apply ahead of your trip for a visa to enter the country.

Currency – the monetary unit is the British pound Sterling (£), and has been hovering at about $1.60 – $1.70 in US dollars for a while now. It can change on a dime (or more appropriately, ten pence), but has been enjoying a steady and moderate rate of exhange, which will hopefully continue. So, if something costs a pound, figure you’ll be spending at least a dollar-fifty, more like a dollar-sixty or a dollar and sixty-five cents. At the highest exchange rates of the last decade, the rate was nearly two dollars to one pound, and that was a huge bummer for the old travel budget.

They rely pretty heavily on coinage in the UK, so plan to be overwhelmed by the amount of change that will begin to collect in your pockets and purses. Coins come in denominations of £2, £1, £.50, £.20, £.10, £.05, £.02 and £.01. There are no paper £ notes under £5.

Access to money – if you  have 4 digit ATM pin number and you have let your bank know you’ll be traveling overseas,  you should have no problem withdrawing pounds directly from any ATM. (There is usually a fee associated with this, anywhere from $2 – $10 per withdrawal, depending on your financial institution, so check before you go and think about the right balance of how much cash you want to carry versus how many withdrawal fees you want to rack up).

There are also TravelEx and Bureau de Change all over London, from the minute you land and walk through the airport to many of the train stations and many strategically placed retail currency exchange storefronts dotted around the city.

Time – 24:00 clocks in the United Kingdom, so bone up on your military time now if you will be using trains or going to the theater or trying to make it to certain museums before they close. 5:00pm is 17:00, for example, and 11:00pm is 23:00.

Electricity – The voltage in the UK is 220 – 240. You will need an adapter to plug in your electronics. They can be purchased online, from travel stores, and in many hardware, travel or supply shops in London.

Driving & Pedestrian Caution – Cars drive on the opposite sides of the road from places like the United States and continental Europe. All the rental cars have little reminders on the dash that say “Keep Left!” You most likely will not be driving in London (no really, please don’t drive unless you absolutely have to), but as you walk through the city, be mindful that cars travel the opposite directions, so you must look right instead of left when stepping into a crosswalk.

Transportation – The London Underground or Tube, as the underground train system is called, is comprehensive and easy to navigate once you’ve familiarized yourself with the system.

Where to Stay – We tend to think that the busy, crowded, bustling and quite loud areas of the city around Oxford, Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square, etc, are a bit too much for the first time traveler to commit to as a base. Instead we suggest any of the lovely boroughs or neighborhoods fanning out around the parks – Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, even St. James Park.

First time visit to London:

There are a few different ways to approach your first trip to London.  Actually, there are infinite ways to approach a first trip, with regard to planning and reservations and activities, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stick with a favorite few, that we’ve casually named, and include:  The Top Ten Everything Whirlwind Tour; The Slow Travel Best Of The Best; and The Wandering Wonders.

Top Ten Everything Whirlwind Tour of London

We at Elegant Retreats are big fans of the Eyewitness series Top Ten Guides from DK Publishing. Some first time travelers enjoy devouring the thick, wordy, wonderfully informative travel tomes. Others, initially wary of exploring a new city can be unnerved by the pages and pages of tiny-printed text in some of the thickest guide books. In such cases the simplified and picture-filled Top Ten Guides are life-savers.

To be continued…