Archive for the ‘Steals & Deals’ Category

Edinburgh: In Hindsight

I’m delayed in the airport by an hour… somehow I’m not surprised. After a couple of flight cancellations and snow ravaging all UK airports, an hour delay seems like the least of my problems.

With my short jaunt in Edinburgh, hotel stays in the Old and New Towns, loads of sightseeing and a day trip to the Highlands, I crammed a lot into five short days and there are some things I would have done differently, had I known before-hand. Don’t get me wrong – everything was amazing and Edinburgh really is a fantastic city, but cities this beautiful come with loads of tourist traps! Here are a few tid bits I’ve gained from my recent excursion:

Getting to Edinburgh

Ohhh… Lord. After so many flight cancellations and delays, I would now opt for taking the train from London! Obviously your plan of attack for getting to Edinburgh is going to vary based on your current location, but be aware that there are a number of ways to get to the city.

1. Fly. Something I’m not fond of anymore, but it’s quick if you’re going from London (1 hour, 20 minutes). With EasyJet, BMI and other discount airlines, you can get some seriously good deals, too!

2. Take the Train! Virgin Trains, East Coast… they’ll all get you there, and most for under £40 – £50 if you book in advance! Sometimes they have some really great deals! Expect it to take 4-1/2 to 6 hours depending on the number of stops, but you’ll get to take in some of the English countryside and some trains (East Coast) even have wi-fi!

3. Jump on the Coach. With National Express, you can get funfares for as low as £12 – £15 if you book at the right time… they’re definitely good for the budget traveler, but be ready to spend a loooonnng time on board. 7 – 10 hours is a good estimate depending on the weather.

New Town vs. Old Town

My first temporary home, the Royal British Hotel, was in the New Town on Princes Street directly across from Waverly Station. Looking down the road, the street was very reminiscent of Oxford Street in London: loads of shopping mixed with a bit of culture (Royal Scottish Academy, National Gallery, etc.). A few minutes walk into the New Town, you hit St. Andrew’s Square where you can catch a bus to Rosslyn Chapel and visit the likes of Louis Vuitton and Harvey Nichols. Definitely a modern shopper’s paradise! [The picture below is of me on Princes Street in front of the Christmas markets.]

My second stop was Jury’s Inn in the  Old Town of Edinburgh, right off of the Royal Mile. Like I had mentioned right after my jaunt over, there is a palpable difference between the Old and New Towns. Instead of Harvey Nichols and H&M, you’ll run into St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle and loads of kilt makers and Celtic jewelry stores. The roads are less perfectly paved and have more of the cobblestone and narrow alleys that you would expect of the old world.

[This shot was taken from the St. Giles area, looking down the Royal Mile in Old Town.]

Although it’s a matter of preference, I found the Old Town a lot more charming. Keep in mind, the invisible line that separates New from Old in Edinburgh is the rail station, essentially. If you cross through Waverly Station or cross over North Bridge, you can move easily from one area to another. If you’re on Princes Street or the Royal Mile, you’re pretty central!

Hotel Recommendations

Our two-day, unplanned stay at the Royal British Hotel was actually a pleasant surprise. Due to its proximity to the rail station, I wasn’t expecting much, but was quite surprised by the size and comfort of the rooms, the free wi-fi (never to be underestimated!) and cute café downstairs (Princes Street Café) where you can get a morning coffee plus a morning treat for £1.75. The prices were more than reasonable considering the last-second booking and the holiday season. You’re looking at between £51 – £65 per night and a comfortable size for two people.

Jury's Inn Room

The Jury’s Inn in the Old Town is also great, but for different reasons. My room was huge and my view was incredible. With three massive windows peering out into the snow-capped city, I really felt like I ended up with someone’s suite! The bathroom was also huge, with a full-sized bathtub for actually taking a bath (something I haven’t done in months)! It’s proximity to Old Town (the Royal Mile is in the hotel’s backyard) make it a prime location, plus it’s around one-third of a mile from the train station! The downside? Wi-fi is far from free. I had to rely on the web on my iPhone and the free wi-fi from the pub down the way [The Mitre] for most of my online needs. I would recommend this place for its comfort and spaciousness, but be aware of the internet situation – that was almost disappointing enough to nullify my love for this place. I got a great deal when I booked with Expedia (£200 for R/T tickets + 3 nights at this hotel), but a room here normally goes for £99+ a night.

Also, if you’re super budgeting, there are loads of hostels along the Royal Mile that would be worth checking out… do a bit of homework though, sometimes the £10 per night saved isn’t worth sharing a bathroom with 8 strangers!

Tourist Attractions

There are loads of attractions nearby: Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura and world of illusions, Haunted Tours, Rosslyn Chapel, Christmas Markets, Lyceum Theatre, Highlands tours, the National Gallery… the list goes on and on. So, if you’re here for a few days, what was worth the money? Well, that’s a matter of preference of course, but let me give you the down low on where I spent my money and where I would take it back, if possible. Keep in mind, in the winter the days are incredibly short with the sun disappearing entirely by 4P or 430P. With only a few hours of sunlight, you probably want to make the most out of every minute!

Freebies to Note:

There were a few freebies that I wasn’t aware of before heading to Edinburgh. I wish I would have known about them before my adventures, but they’re worth noting:

  1. A free tour of Edinburgh on foot! Although I didn’t partake in the tour, it leaves from the Starbucks in Old Town and it’s about 2 hours of sightseeing around Edinburgh. It’s definitely something that would be worth checking out early on in your excursion; good way to get acquainted with the area before undertaking your own adventures.
  2. National Galleries of Scotland. If this is anything like the National Gallery in London, it’s worth checking out. Plus, it’s free so even if it’s not exactly what you’re expecting, your only loss is a few minutes of time.
  3. Free ghost tour from Deacon Brodie’s Pub. Edinburgh is widely considered to be one of the most haunted cities in the world, so why not check out a ghost tour? There are tours like this that you can pay for (£5 – £10 depending on the company and length of tour), but there’s also this freebie! I probably would have checked it out if I were with someone… I didn’t want to scare myself silly while traveling alone. :)

Edinburgh Castle

£11 for entry with discounts for children & seniors but no discounts for students! If I had to go back and do it again, I probably would have saved the £11 and spent it elsewhere. You can walk up to the Castle and take some amazing pictures from the ticketing area without having to pay the entry fee. The views from the top are seriously gorgeous and worth the trek, but the money to get into the castle is only worth it if you’re with someone who loves the history that you’ll find within the castle. If I were with my dad, I would have been 100% more satisfied with the entirety of the situation. The pictures of the façade are what you want anyway, so only go in if you’re wanting to check out old chapels, museums, etc. See the amazing picture above? No entry fee required & it’s my favorite one of the bunch!

Camera Obscura

[If I were tall & had crazy cankles?]

If you have kids, this is a super fun little place! You’re looking at £8.50 for adults, £6.75 for students and seniors, £5.75 for kiddos (5 – 15) and under 5’s go in free! The building is comprised of five floors of illusions (holograms, crazy mirrors, optical illusions, etc.) with the top floor containing the ‘camera obscura’ where you can get a visual tour of Edinburgh in 15 minutes! It’s actually really cool and the views from top floor are superb! Some of the best pictures that I got of the city were from the rooftop. Check these out:

I mean seriously? How great are these pictures? I have a lot more where that came from — the views are really unsurpassed. I had more fun in this building & ended up with cooler pictures than I did at the Castle!

Highlands Tour

As your recall from my recent post, I undertook the longest day tour available in all of Britain a few days ago! From Edinburgh, we traveled all the way up to Loch Ness and Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. The tour was £34 (£36 for non-students) and comprised 400+ miles and 13 hours of tour time. The tour showed me a completely different side of Scotland, plus I got to do a Loch Ness cruise! How many people get to say that? I would say that the tour was definitely worth the money considering how much was covered and the quality of the tour guide. My only recommendation though would be taking Timberbush up on their 2 or 3-day Highlands tour, instead! I thought we covered a little too much in one short day — for a bit more money you can have a much more full experience.

Lyceum Theatre

I must say, just a few days ago I was so proud of myself for snagging my Peter Pan tickets for £11 with my student ID card! It seems like a great deal at the time considering adult tickets normally go for £22. Sadly, the play was not only a waste of £11, it was also a waste of three good hours that I could have spent elsewhere, taking in the sights. I don’t know if I had particularly high expectations or if the show was just a bit of a let down, but there are definitely better ways to spend your money. Some locally made Scotch, perhaps (Dalwhinnie)?

Christmas Markets

Who doesn’t love to feel like a kid during Christmastime? Ice skating, a German market, loads of fun Christmas goodies, a ferris wheel and mulled wine… Mmm… The whole area can be accessed from Princes Street (at The Mound) and it’s 100% free to meander! Bring some cash for mulled wine and Christmas treats, though!

Rosslyn Chapel

Ahhh… Rosslyn Chapel. Who has read the DaVinci Code and not wanted to visit this place? I had planned on visiting (you can easily access it by hopping on Bus 15/15A from St. Andrew’s Square in the New Town), but decided to save that for my next journey to Scotland. With my dad and Chris visiting within the next few months, Edinburgh Round II will definitely be in order and I would like to see something new! You’re looking at £7.50 for adult entry, £6 for students and seniors and free for under 16s! Not sure if it’s worth the money, but pictures of the outside at least are worth the £1 – 2 bus fee!

Hope some of that helps someone out there somewhere who’s interested in hitting up magnificent Edinburgh. It’s truly an amazing city…

Lots of love & Merry Christmas Eve!

Solo in Scotland

So, after much deliberation about Paris versus London for Christmas, I have decided (much to my surprise) to head up to Edinburgh, Scotland for my pre-Christmas solo adventure. I actually hadn’t given Edinburgh much consideration, but after looking at the costs of Paris from the 20th to the 23rd, I decided to explore other options. Had I booked Paris a few weeks back, I probably could have snatched a pretty decent bargain on the trip, but having had waited until just a few weeks before departure, the prices have gone up. Although it wasn’t exorbitant, it would have cost around £350 – £400 for the four-day jaunt. Edinburgh’s running me just under £210 including roundtrip flight (on British Airways) and three nights in a 3-star hotel within a half mile of all major sites [courtesy of Expedia]! I know that I’ll visit Paris at some point during the year, and due to the fact that it’s much pricier than Edinburgh, I’d rather split those costs with a traveling buddy and put my euros to better use elsewhere.

So, as of this morning, it’s all officially booked. My wallet is £210 lighter, but I think it’s a worthy investment. Edinburgh has some great Christmas markets during that period, so it’ll make for a nice setting for sightseeing and having some alone time. I’m super excited to be able to travel on my own for the first time. Being in a country that shares my native tongue and my primary currency is also a bonus. Plus, since I have four full days (getting in at 930A the morning of the 20th and leaving for London the evening of the 23rd) of exploring at my disposal, I’m planning on using one of those days to head up to the Highlands on a tour to do some extra sightseeing. From all of the literature that I’ve run across, Edinburgh is a pretty small/compact area that can be seen in a couple of days, so I’m going to do my best to make the most out of my Scottish soirée and see as much of the country as possible.

Looks like my room isn’t going to see much of me in the latter part of December: Malta from the 13th – 18th and Edinburgh from the 20th through 23rd. Gotta love Europe!

For anyone that’s been to Scotland –
Any must-sees to put on my list?

Your neighborhood traveler,

.leaving on a jet plane.

Trevi

Trevi Fountain -- near our hotel!

Ahhh, yes. I have just finished three article outlines, readings for an essay and nearly completed a second essay. Despite being holed up in my room all day (literally have not stepped foot outside), the day has been rather productive by most standards. And, fortunately, I still have a few hours of productivity in me before I get to sleep so I can wake up at 415A to head to the airport! Normally being up at such an ungodly hour would be unacceptable, but when one has to arise for the reason of heading to Italy, it doesn’t seem quite so bad.

So, being that our flight leaves at 730A, Lindsay and I agreed that getting to the airport a bit before 6A would probably be ideal. We’re leaving from Heathrow, a busier airport considering the big time international flights, so cutting it close is not on the agenda. Due to the fact that we live so close to Holborn station (home of the Piccadilly line), we had planned on tubing it directly from the station to Heathrow until we realized that the tube doesn’t open until 530A and doesn’t hit Holborn until 542A, which means getting to Heathrow before 6A would be impossible. Although there’s a pretty decent chance we would still make our flights, it wasn’t worth the headache. In lieu, we have reserved a cab at 4:45A to take us to Paddington Station where we can jump on the Heathrow Express (which starts outbound journeys at 510A) for 15 or so pounds. Although it’s a bit more expensive than tubing, our options were rather limited and missing our Roman holiday would have been a huge disappointment.

Also, we’re flying British Airways which works out well. Instead of the discount airlines (EasyJet, Ryan Air, etc.) where you are limited to one piece of hold luggage, we are allowed one checked bag, a carry-on and a personal item. Although we’ll likely forgo the checked bag, the carry-on + personal item bit is pretty nice. I’ll be able to take my laptop to upload pics and stay connected to the world!

All in all, I cannot wait to cross Rome off of my list of places to see! It hasn’t fully hit me yet, since I’ve been so engulfed in getting work done, but I know that I’ll feel that kid-in-Disneyland sensation when my alarm wakes me up in the morning! This time tomorrow, I’ll be sitting in a ristorante near the Trevi Fountain practicing my Italian, eating authentic Italian food and drinking Italian coffee. Meglio del sesso. That’s what I have to say about that.

Ciao,

Signature Stamp - Shannon

Also, if I didn’t mention: through Expedia’s UK site, we were able to snag round-trip tickets and two nights in a 3* hotel for 215 pounds each including all taxes! Pretty sweet deal, and we’re flying with a legit airline!

‘Wicked’ & Wine!

Wicked

Considering the fact that I have been diligently holed up for the past week, working voraciously on my presentations, papers, etc., I felt (semi)justified in going out a few evenings this week! After Wednesday’s Arsenal match, I needed another amazing event to top off Thursday night! I organized a trip to see ‘Wicked’ at the Apollo Victoria theatre (which is conveniently a stone’s throw away from the Victoria tube station) for my Social Policy & Development group. In total there were 16 of us and it was a blast! I happen to be a lover of musicals/plays/general live performances and Wicked definitely exceeded my expectations. The set, the lighting, the singing, the music — it was all amazing! Plus, because we were a large group of students, I managed to snag superb tickets for £17.50 per person (versus £45-£60 that they would normally be)!

Andy & I at the TheatreLadies
We all had such a blast, we’re hoping to plan Round 2 at the Gielgud Theatre in Soho to catch a showing of Avenue Q! If Wicked is playing at a theatre near you, I highly recommend it. It’s almost tied with the Lion King for amazingness!

Last night, after having too much fun on Wednesday and Thursday, my flatmate and I wanted to keep it low key with date three at Mildred’s in Soho. For the record: the risotto cake was out of this world! Whether you’re a veggie or a carnivore, it is definitely something that can be appreciated by all. After a few glasses of wine there, we met up with a group of folks at Gordon’s Wine Bar, apparently the oldest wine bar in London. Rudyard Kipling actually lived in the building back in the day! The place has a very cool vibe; it’s underground in what could best be described as a cave. It’s dimly lit, reasonably priced and a great place to mingle with a slew of different people! A must visit if you enjoy wine.

Gordon's Wine Bar

After three nights of fun, today is dedicated to finishing up my presentation for Monday and working on my paper for the coming week. Only a few more weeks of crazy intensity and then back to having a semi-normal schedule!

Hope everyone’s weekend is fantastic!

Signature Stamp - Shannon

Viva Roma!

RomeFor as long as I can remember, I have created my mental ‘European Dream Destination’ checklists and Italy and Greece have always graced the top of the list. I have been dying to see the Colosseum and the Pantheon, eat authentic bruschetta and sip wine (or maybe bellinis, since I’m not the hugest of wine fans) in front of the Trevi fountain.

As luck would have it, my flatmate was also interested in hitting up Florence or Rome at some point this year, so we decided to put our money where are mouths were and booked our Roman excursion for November! We’re making it a fun-filled three-day weekend (early Friday morning through Sunday evening), loaded with sight-seeing.

We’ve booked a room at a place called Hotel d’Este in the Historic Center near the Trevi Fountain. It’s near loads of historic sights and in a really cute area! We snagged the entire trip including roundtrip airfare and two nights of accommodation for £215 each, courtesy of Expedia! Another thing that makes this great? We leave from Heathrow instead of Gatwick and thus can catch the Tube from Holborn (5 minutes from our flat) all the way to Heathrow Terminal 5 — no bus booking or Dot2Dot service required! To make things even better, I still have around 50 euros from my German trip that will be perfect for a few meals in Roma.

I can’t wait! Only 17 days away!

Does anyone know of any places that we should be checking out when in Rome?

Signature Stamp - Shannon

The Canterbury Tales

After a bit of an AM fiasco yesterday (missed the 930A bus that we had booked), Rita, Austin, H., Cosima and I managed to get on the 1030A coach to Canterbury to get the proverbial ball rolling. Let me just say, I secretly wished that my high school English teacher (Mrs. Thompson, if you’re reading this, you’ll be proud!) could see me jetting off on the coach to see the site of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and, more importantly, the site of the beheading/martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket (c.1170). We ended up snagging tickets for £14.20 round trip from London Victoria Station to Canterbury (although we ended up paying a premium for missing our first bus, but I digress); definitely a good deal for all the fun that ensued on our historical excursion. Yesterday also marked Austin’s 25th birthday so it was doubly amazing!

Kentish Countryside
Being that I live in London, we don’t get much of the British countryside during our escapades. Traveling through Kent was definitely a cool experience — we finally got to see some quintessentially British homes, land and architecture.

On our way to the bus stop in Canterbury, we passed by a pretty sweet Castle-esque structure. I think it’s ruins of an old castle (Norman Castle, perhaps?) but I only got a glimpse of it on the way in so I didn’t get to investigate. Still, pretty cool:

Castle

Our main objective was to see the Canterbury Cathedral, which dates back to 597AD. I think part of my desire to see the town was from reading Chaucer’s work in high school, but there is something pretty amazing about walking through a Cathedral that was constructed 1000+ years ago. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get to do that every day.

Shannon & Rita at the Canterbury Cathedral
Rita and I were pretty pumped about checking out the Cathedral — even the entrance was amazing! They, of course, charge an admission fee. £6.50 if you’re a student, £7.50 for adults. We tried to pass for a ‘family’ wherein we could all enter for £21.50, but none of us could pass for under 16s and H had a particularly hard time passing as my 24 year-old Asian father (it was worth a shot). Even having to pay the fee, the place was worth it. Simply spectacular. The outside of it (see below) was astounding and the inside housed some amazing history.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral Inside
About 10 minutes in, we ran across the famous martyrdom site. Apparently we’re not the only ones interested, because it’s clearly marked.

Martyrdom
Martyrdom Site
This vicious looking piece was erected to recognize where Thomas Becket was beheaded… or at least where they tell us he was beheaded. I’m gonna take their word for it because I would have no idea based on historical fact.

Martyrdom Sign

Tomb of King Henry IV{King Henry IV}

After enjoying the Cathedral and checking out the Tombs of Archbishop William Courtenay and King Henry IV and his wifey, we headed to check out the grounds — so pretty!

Cathedral Grounds

As luck (and my planning skills) would have it, Kent’s International Arts Festival started yesterday, so we were able to check out some cool art and some fun little stands dotting the streets — paella by the bucketful, cupcakes bigger than my head and homemade fudge! Plus, we ran into a number of old restaurants and shops that have been around since 1500 (some from earlier). The doors and ceilings are so low!

Old Weaver

Fortress?
We also randomly stumbled upon amazingness like this castle-ish structure above. In the words of Rita, “Hey guys, just FYI, we’re coming upon a fortress.” No biggie.

After enjoying Canterbury, we ended up at a little pub called the City Arms Inn where we found pitchers of cocktails for £9! Rita and I shared a pitcher of Sex on the Beach while we waited for our bus, and H & Austin shared a pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea!

Pitchers at the Pub!

All in all, it was a super fun day trip and a fun way to celebrate Austin’s birthday (hopefully he felt the same way)! After having such a good time, we’ve decided that day trips to Bath & Stonehenge, Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton are in order! National Express makes getting there so cheap with their ‘fun fares’ that it makes staying indoors seem like such a waste of a perfectly good weekend!

Hope everyone else’s weekend was eventful!

Lots of love,

Signature Stamp - Shannon

If you wanna see the rest of the album (there are nearly 100 pictures posted!), check out my facebook album here.

On Board with the Skype Subscription!

Skype I’m pretty obsessed with staying connected; I don’t think that’s much of a secret to anyone. I think that technology is an amazing thing and I am so grateful for the internet, email and facebook! I have been able to meet so many LSEers through facebook forums and make friends before even setting foot on British soil. Now that I’m only a week or so out from the big move, staying connected to my family is number one on my mind. As a going away gift, my awesome sister got me (amongst other very cool things) a web cam with built-in audio to use with my Skype account! I’ve been using Skype for about a year now and have used it primarily in an instant messaging capacity. While I was in England this past February visiting London and Manchester, I was actually able to use Skype as a phone service to talk with my sister and Chris while overseas and I was thoroughly amazed with the sound quality — it was better than a normal phone!

Since Skype is 100% free for PC-to-PC use, I figured that the basic (free) Skype would be the main form of communication between myself and my family in the US. Today, however, I signed up for a US/Canada subscription with Skype and I am obsessed! For anyone that doesn’t know about this yet, you can get a “subscription” for $2.95 per month or $30 per year that allows you to call any landline or cell phone in the US or Canada from your PC! You get unlimited calls plus you get a number of other affiliated features and a discount on a Skype “phone number”. Since my grandma is unlikely to actually use Skype or a webcam at any point, I can now call her house at any time from my PC without having to purchase a calling card or pay ridiculous international fees. Although I purchased the US/Canada subscription since my roots are in California, there are a number of subscriptions available including an Unlimited Country subscription that runs $5.95 per month and allows you unlimited calls to a country of your choice (there are loads of countries that are a part of this scheme — everyone from Argentina to Thailand!), an Unlimited Mexico subscription that runs $5.95 per month,  and an Unlimited World subscription that runs $12.95 per month and allows unlimited calls in 40 different countries! Also, for iPhone users, there’s a Skype app for iPhone that is totally free and incredibly handy!

Equipped with my handy web cam and a Skype subscription, I am definitely ready to rule the world. Or at least the internet.

If you’re a Skyper, too, leave me a comment with your Skype info and I’ll add you to my account!

Happy Skyping!

Signature Stamp - Shannon