If you’ve been following along for this London trip series (if you missed it, start here), then maybe you are considering a trip of your own, so in this last installment of the series, I want to share some of my planning process for this trip.
As I mentioned in Part 1, this trip was a celebratory “I’m cancer-free!” trip to tour London and then visit some of my family in Portsmouth. Normally, my husband and I are pretty thrifty, but we know where and when to splurge, and because this was a celebratory trip, some of the things we did were definitely splurges. YOLO right? Read on to see what my trip planning method looked like and some of the money-saving tips that allowed us to spend extra where we really wanted to.
Weather, Airfare, and Lodgings
The first step in planning any trip is figuring out where and when you want to go. I always start by researching average weather and temperatures for my destination, so I can gauge the best time to visit. This is all subjective of course, but I’m going to be doing a lot of walking around outside, so I don’t want to sweat it out or freeze if I don’t have to. Of course, we take into account when we are able to get vacation time, child care, limited-time-only attractions, etc. Maybe we are limited in when we can go, I still check the weather so I know what sort of clothes to pack, if I need an umbrella, or a winter coat, etc.
Once we had our dates, I was off to the travel websites to get a handle on airfare. This may sound extreme, but I usually start planning for international trips about 6 months in advance, but the only thing I’m really doing for most of that time upfront is watching the price of airfare for fluctuations and gathering ideas on things to see. I monitored airfares from a variety of booking websites, for example, Kayak, Cheapo Air, Expedia, etc and purchased our tickets about three months ahead of our travel dates. In my experience, 90 days prior to your travel date yields lower average fares than any other time, with the exception of rolling the dice and waiting until the last minute in hopes for a super cheap seat-filler fare. I’m no gambler, and I’m too Type A to risk my entire budget on a last-minute seat. But using booking sites like these is beneficial because it will search across multiple airlines to get you the best deals. You can even see if flying on a different day of the week yields a less expensive fare. All ways to save on airfare.
At the same time, I was also looking into where we were going to stay. I looked at hotels, bed and breakfasts, inns, and rental services like Airbnb and HomeAway. When I start looking for lodging, I try to consider location relative to safety, public transit, and what attractions and restaurants are nearby. In the end, we found a great little studio on the lower level of a building near Victoria Station. This worked out great for us. We had a helpful host, who was happy to answer any questions and give us recommendations, and it was nice to have a home base near Victoria Station, which is a hub for trains and the Tube. On top of that, it was so much more affordable than staying in a hotel room for the duration, plus way more space! Side note: if you do stay in a hotel, be sure you don’t need to bring any personal items you might otherwise leave at home, like washcloths. Hotels outside the US don’t always provide some of these things.
The neighborhood didn’t have much tourist traffic, so it was relatively quiet and near restaurants that catered more to locals, giving us the feel of really living the London life. Since Victoria Station was a quick 5 minute walk away, and the Tube services so many of the attractions we wanted to see, getting around was super easy and convenient. In addition to the convenience of public transit, we also liked that the studio had a small kitchenette, fully stocked with plates and cutlery etc. We were able to save money by eating out less and, instead, grabbing some snacks and quick breakfast foods at the nearby grocery store, or reheating leftovers from dinner the night before.
Researching What To See And Do
I don’t know about you, but when I prepare for a trip, my Type A personality goes into overdrive. I like to plan to see and do as much as I can possibly cram into a window of time and part of that is determining what I want to see, where it is located, how much public transit can I rely on, and what some of the off the beaten path curiosities and restaurants are. So I went to the bookstore to look at travel books.
I know, I know, travel books seem kind of old school, but I prefer one for multiple reasons. First, there’s just something about being able to have a physical book that I can highlight, dog-ear, and refer back to. Second, I find that travel books give you lots of great information, enough to whet your appetite but not so much as to make it a history lesson. I use it as a jumping-off point for possible excursions. And lastly, I can bring it with me when I travel. When you’re abroad, data rates can be expensive, so I try to minimize how much I need to use it. Generally, you can purchase international plans with your service provider, which I do, but often there is a cap on data for those plans, and if you go over…..well, you don’t want to go over. So bringing a travel book, which always comes with maps in them, can come in handy.
For this trip, I used the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide London 2016. Information and tips are updated yearly, so you can find the 2019 guide on Amazon. I picked the DK Eyewitness guide because I loved how it was broken down. Inside the front cover is a map of London with color-coded areas that are covered in the book. The book is then broken up by sightseeing area, with their respective colors tabbed on the edge of the page, so you can easily jump right to the area you want. The beginning of each new color section displays a map of that specific area with various attractions and recommended restaurants noted on it. Next is a two-page spread of a more up-close view of the heart of that particular sightseeing area called the Street by Street Map. The numbered attractions align with those from the area map as well as fuller descriptions given later in the section. The book also gives practical advice and recommendations regarding food, hotels, shopping, entertainment, and getting around.
Next, I hit the internet! I pinned TONS of ideas to my London board, chock-full of tips and things to see. Between the book and the internet, my list of what to see and do was getting longer and longer. I started making a spreadsheet, researching the average amount of time it takes to see something and the estimated transit time as well. I organized my chart by area, similar to how the book did, but added in other pertinent info like Address/Tube Station, Hours, Admission Fee, and a column for priority. I know, Type A, remember? Once I had that down, it was simple division. Take the amount of time we had to spend in London (3 full days + partial first day), divvy up what to do on which day in what order to maximize what we are able to see in a single day. I did this knowing that some things, I didn’t particularly care to tour, I just wanted to see them, snap a picture, and move on (Houses of Parliament, The Monument, and others), and others that I was particularly interested in that I might take my time with (like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey). My spreadsheet looked something like this.
As a result, I was able to jam-pack our days, often up and out the door in the early morning hours and not back until late. It sounds stressful, and not very vacation-like, but it really wasn’t. I always had buffer time included, and there were some things that if we were able to see, then great, but if not, that’s okay too. Part of the process is identifying which areas were a priority and the other part is being flexible on the go.
There are a few tips I would give to anyone traveling to London. First, once you have an idea of things you want to see and do, look online to see if you can find any coupons or discounted rates. Often there are sites that bundle certain attractions for a discount, like LondonPass. Remember to check the website for the attraction too, as sometimes purchasing admission ahead of time can save you money.
Second, the subway system (The Tube) is a well-oiled machine in London. It is really your best bet to get around quickly and efficiently. We didn’t utilize the city buses at all, so I can’t speak to them, but once you get a feel for the Tube, it’s really very straightforward. I recommend purchasing an Oyster Card a month or so in advance, as mail service can take a while. It is a pre-paid, rechargeable travel card good for any public transit in and around the city any time and any day. Learn more here.
Third, if you don’t have an international cell phone plan, I would recommend purchasing a month-long version for the month in which you are traveling. Be sure to read the data, roaming, and fine print carefully though so you don’t incur any surprise fees and charges. Use wifi wherever possible, and remember that texts use data too.
Lastly, let’s talk health, safety, and security, the just-in-case stuff. As I mentioned, this was a celebratory trip to commemorate beating cancer, but at the time, I was still under a physician’s care for multiple things, so for me, it was even more important that should a medical emergency occur, I knew where my insurance would be accepted internationally. Contact your insurance provider or look on their website for a list of hospitals available to you abroad.
In the event that your wallet or purse is stolen, it’s a good idea to have photocopies of the credit cards you are taking with you, as well as your passport. Keep a copy at home and take a copy with you that you keep separate from your wallet. It may also be helpful to know the phone number of your country’s embassy, in the event your passport is stolen. Also, it’s recommended to carry your money and credit cards in a travel purse that can hang around your neck or otherwise close to your body and be inaccessible to prying fingers. Something like this or this or this (again, I’m not earning anything here, just trying to give examples for your convenience). If you need to carry a purse, try to make sure it is a cross-body style and keep a hand on it while wearing it.
Speaking of credit cards, you may want to alert your credit card company that you will be traveling and give them the dates, that way your purchases made outside your normal patterns do not trigger fraud alerts. And generally speaking, MasterCard and Visa are accepted almost everywhere and in some places American Express. Discover and others are not as common or not accepted at all.
As I mentioned, I used Airbnb and CheapoAir for my travel arrangements. Both of these, and other companies offering similar services, almost always have a mobile app for on-the-go convenience. Downloading their apps and creating an account will put all the information you need right there in the palm of your hand, which is super handy when you’re keeping an eye out for cheap flights or when you need to message your host on Airbnb or board your plane.
The most helpful app for getting around the Tube was Tube Map – London Underground, which provided an overall Tube map, a Route Planner, wait times for the next train, and any service alerts. If we looked like pros, it’s because of this app.
I hope you found this helpful and aren’t judging my planning methods too harshly, I know I go a bit overboard when it comes to planning, but to each their own, right? =) Also, if you have any tips to share, I’d love to hear them! Comment below with your tried and true tips to share with the community!
Thank you for following along with me during this series! I hope you’re inspired to get out and visit this beautiful, historic, and unique city and country.
Until next time, happy travels!
See the other posts in this series.
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