Tag Archives: London

Experience: Flying Solo

"The Lonely Planet" - Southwark, London

“The Lonely Planet” – Southwark, London

A year ago today, I was wrapping up a trip to Munich that started and concluded in London.  It was the second trip overseas by myself, or as I like to refer to it:  flying solo.

I have to admit that I’m split 50/50 when it comes to my level of enjoyment when traveling by myself or with other people.  I’ve found there are benefits and drawbacks to both.

A short while ago, I read an article that gave seven keys to traveling alone.  It was a pretty insightful article, although a little too spiritual for my tastes.

Since I like to strike a balance between my practical side and my adventurous side, I decided to add a few more “keys to traveling alone” based on personal experience.

#1 Learn a Few Phrases if Traveling to a Country that Doesn’t Speak Your Language.  

Getting around by yourself can be a little frightening especially if you aren’t with someone who is fluent in the language spoken in the country you are visiting.

It’s important to learn a few phrases before you go even if it’s “please”, “thank you”, or “pardon me, my (insert language here) isn’t too good, can you help me?”.  Don’t be afraid of “toddler-speak”;  it will help you get your point across.

For example, when I visited The Hague in September, I tried my hand at a few Dutch phrases and was met with surprise.  I would apologize for not knowing much of the language, but I was commended for trying.  Ask how to say or pronounce something.  You’ll be surprised at what you’ll start recognizing.

Chances are, you’ll also feel a bit more confident that you’ve attempted something new.

#2 Ask a Local.  

As a solo traveler, you will find yourself alone at a market, restaurant, bar, or somewhere else where people congregate.  Don’t be afraid to ask for tips on fun things to do and see that may be “off the guidebook grid”, so to speak.  Obviously, safety is key and should never be discounted.

I struck up a conversation with someone who lived in The Hague and was introduced to Jenever and the best broodjes anyone could ever experience.  Was I little weirded out eating a cow’s udder?  Sure. However, it was something new to experience and travel is all about experience.

#3 Research and Plan, but Be Flexible.  

I’m notorious for booking a trip to a certain destination months ahead only to tweak my itinerary a little to accommodate my desire to see and do something else.  As a solo traveler, you have the flexibility to do so.

My experience has taught me that you can enter and depart in one country, and experience other destinations in between by train and plane.  Likewise, if you’re in the states, you can usually fly to a certain destination and drive, hop on a train, or take a short flight to see something else not too far away.

For example, my trip this time last year originally involved flying into and out of London with a train ride to Edinburgh, Scotland for a few days.  I scratched the trip to Edinburgh not because I didn’t want to go; rather, I wanted to visit Munich because I had heard so much about it and learned that Salzburg was a short train ride away.  Therefore, I weighed my refundable train cost to Edinburgh versus my flight to Munich and it was about the same.

How do you remain flexible?  Many Websites such as Orbitz and Booking.com have deals that allow for hotel cancellations up to a specific date before your arrival.  You will need to review the restrictions when you book, but if you book a refundable stay, chances are, you’ll be able to make a change if you need to according to the hotel’s policies.  However, it’s important to note that changing flights can be tricky, and many airlines impose a hefty fee to change in addition to the fare difference.  Weigh your options if you want to remain flexible.

Renting an apartment for your stay?  Be sure you speak with the owner and confirm his or her refund guidelines.  I’ve often found that a downpayment for a reservation is not refundable.

#4 Save, Spend Wisely, and Just Take It In.  

You may be traveling to a place where your currency is crap, to put it bluntly.  Furthermore, traveling alone can be costly because you aren’t splitting expenses.  Check out apartment rentals if you have identified a specific place to stay and don’t think you’ll make changes.

Travel is all about experience, right?  Budget for your trip ahead of time, but plan for unexpected expenses.  If you live by yourself, you’re probably already used to doing this.

Chances are, you can go a whole day just seeing and exploring for free and only spend a little money on inexpensive meals and snacks you’ve thrown in your bag.

Do you have positive and negative experiences to share regarding “flying solo”?  Please share in the comments section.

Sleep: Bow Apartment in London’s East End

Bow Road - Underground

Bow Road – Underground

In my last post, I discussed some of the advantages of renting an apartment or house over staying in a hotel while on vacation.

A rental can be advantageous if you:  want creature comforts such as a kitchen or in-unit laundry; need more space if traveling with others; or are arranging a trip where you want to stay in a fixed location with opportunities to take day trips to nearby destinations.

Sometimes, you just want to stay in an unfamiliar part of a city to get away from the bustle and experience something new that the average tourist wouldn’t see.

All of the above defined our experience in Bow, in London’s East End.

The Bow district, where the Bow Apartment is located, is in the culturally rich Tower Hamlets borough of East London.  Suffering extensive damage from bombings in World War II and having a history of crime and poverty, the borough has been reinventing itself over the years and has become an attractive area to visit or call home.  In fact, nearby Stratford was selected to house Olympic Park, where the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were held.

Bow shares the borough with nearby Canary Wharf, the redeveloped financial district of shimmering glass buildings; Whitechapel, home of the infamous “Whitechapel Murders” that took place in the late 19th century; and Mile End, to name a few.  The lush and expansive Victoria Park is also located in Tower Hamlets and offers plenty of green space for sports and relaxation.

The Bow Apartment is located less than a block from the Bow Road Underground Station on the District and Hammersmith & City lines.  It’s also a 10-minute walk from the Mile End Underground Station offering the fastest transportation to Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Oxford Circus.  The Bow Church DLR station, located minutes east of the Bow Apartment  offers transportation to Canary Wharf and Greenwich.  Interested in enjoying late night London while riding a double-decker bus?  The 25 bus stops in front of the Bow Apartment, runs 24 hours a day, and will drop you off in Central London.

The secure apartment is on the first floor of a historic residence with only a few steps to climb, making it perfect for those who have difficulty climbing stairs.  The main entrance and unit are secured and are accessed with separate keys.

Inside, the apartment contains two chic and well-appointed bedrooms with ample dresser and wardrobe space, a small but functional bathroom, modern kitchen, and a comfortable sofa to stretch out on after a long day of exploring.  Interested in cooking?  The apartment has a range, oven, microwave, and dishwasher.  Plates, cups, and utensils are also provided.

Nowadays, customers are demanding Wi-Fi in every rental.  Wi-Fi is included in the Bow Apartment rental and I found the signal to be strong.

One important selling point not found in many of the apartments we researched was the in-unit washer/dryer located in the kitchen.  Use of the washer/dryer is included in the rental and helps to lighten your load, so to speak, creating more room in your suitcase for souvenirs.

Finally, what made our stay particularly enjoyable was the welcome we received from the owner Babs.  Our flight arrived early on a Saturday and we were weary from our journey, not to mention exhausted from dragging our baggage halfway across the city from the airport on the Underground.

Babs accommodated our earlier check-in and gave us a detailed tour of the apartment with instructions on how to use all of the gadgets and appliances.  He also gave us his cell phone number in case of an emergency.

We only had two complaints.  While the neighborhood is plentiful with restaurants and pubs, it lacks a decent market.  We had our choice between a neglected Tesco and a mini-mart connected to a gas station.  However, we took advantage of the Tesco and Sainsbury’s in and around places we were sightseeing and brought back fruit and snacks.  We also visited the Borough Market near the Southwark Cathedral where we bought paella with chorizo and homemade meat pies to take back to the apartment.  (They also traveled well on the Underground.)

The other complaint (which is more of a suggestion) is that the owner requires the tenants to wash and dry all of the towels and linens, clean the kitchen and bathroom, and sweep the floors prior to departure.  Given the stress involved in repacking for an early flight the following day while wanting to enjoy the last night at the Bow Apartment, I’d suggest hiring a cleaning crew and either include it in the rental or give the tenant the option to choose if he or she wants to add the service or clean the apartment.

All things considered, our stay at Bow Apartment in the quirky and out-of-the way borough of Tower Hamlets provided us with an opportunity to live like a local, knock around a side of London not usually experienced by tourists, and bounce west within the city by tube and bus and even farther west by train to Wales.

Booking details can be found here.

Interested in snaps from London?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Your Home Away in London Town

Bow Apartment - London

Bow Apartment – London

A few years back, pop star Gwen Stefani’s song “Rich Girl” featured a line that talked about booking a first-class ticket to a fancy house in London town.  (I’m paraphrasing.)

Chances are, Gwen Stefani is neither reading this post, nor does she have to worry about money.  However, if you’re like me, are on a budget, and traveling with parents, you may be wondering how to maximize your experience without worrying about spending a lot.

Let’s put it out there.  The British pound’s exchange rate has been worse for Americans than the Euro’s. London is also an expensive city to visit.

Should that dissuade you from visiting and taking advantage of the history, culture, sights, and diverse gastronomy?  I’m biased because I love to travel, so I’ll say no; don’t let higher expenses stop you.

Aside from getting to London, your biggest expense will probably be sleeping in London.  You have several choices:  friends, hostels, hotels, guesthouses, or apartments.  Since I was traveling with parents, and none of us had ever been to the U.K., I wanted to set up house, so to speak, somewhere that offered space, good transportation, safety, and local flair.

Web sites like VRBO, Airbnb, and HomeAway, and Booking.com, to name a few, have exploded in popularity, offering several, often cheaper alternatives to hotels and hostels.  The sites offer anything from full-service aparthotels and studio apartments for one person, to larger apartments and homes for several.  To date, I’ve had positive experiences going the non-hotel route when staying in Brussels, Rome, Montréal, and London.

If you don’t mind doing a little research and asking questions, you can find your perfect vacation rental in London town or anywhere else you decide to visit.

Here are some tips:

  • Read reviews and cross-reference them.  If you are on one site such as Home Away, visit another like Trip Advisor to see what people are saying about the property that interests you.  Chances are, if it’s an apartment or house, reviewers tend to be honest and detailed about the location, check in/out process, and amenities.  Large hotels, on the other hand, can receive a smattering of positive and negative reviews simply because people have different experiences based on the room they’re in.
  • Use a reputable rental site such as VRBO or Home Away.  Both provide rental protection in case you need to cancel or if you arrive and the property is not as advertised.  I steer clear of Craigslist for rentals since many have been known to be scams.  You don’t want to arrive in another city halfway around the world with no place to stay.
  • Contact the owner with your questions first before booking.  Sites such as VRBO and Holiday Lettings, among others, have a contact form where you can ask a few simple questions and get a response by e-mail.
  • Be mindful of the check-in/check-out guidelines for each rental.  If your flight, for example, arrives at 7 a.m. and check-in is at 3 p.m., ask for an earlier check-in or if there’s a place to store baggage while the apartment or house is being prepared.
  • Most rentals I’ve used require a deposit for booking.  Never send cash or wire money that can’t be traced or re-claimed (e.g., money order, MoneyGram, Western Union etc.). Many proprietors in Europe, for example, ask for money to be wired to them through a bank transfer.  This process is safer because your money can be traced and you can take action to try to get a refund if you suspect fraud.  Always check with your bank first on their guidelines and ask questions about “what ifs” if you are using a wire transfer for the first time.  My experience is that transfers can cost up to $35.  It’s worth looking into to send money safely.  Other options are Paypal and Google Wallet.
  • Finally, be aware of your online “social presence”.  Airbnb, for example, asks you to create a simple profile when you register.  Property owners can get a glimpse of who you are and your interests.  Like any social media-related site you may use, impressions can be indelible.  Make sure you have an appropriate photo and description that shows you’re responsible and would be a good caretaker of a property rental.

There are certainly more and if you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments.

London town, or wherever you land doesn’t have to break the bank.  Your accommodations can even provide you with creature comforts of home if you want to just kick back and relax.  Isn’t that what vacation is for?

Up next, I’ll review our apartment rental in East London.