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Travel Guide: UK
Getting all your ducks in a row
By Jennifer Miller
Traveling in the UK is a little different than traveling in the US. Not to mention driving on the left! Everyone has their own best way to do things, but here's one way to think about and organize your trip.
Who are You
Obviously the first things you've considered are your capabilities - are you an ardent hiker or a creaky traveler. (Note, see the book, The Creaky Traveler by Warren Rovetch, for excellent and practical advice on traveling in northern Scotland.) There are such a wide range of things to do and see - both for those who like crowds and those who can't stand several other companions. Lots of guidebooks in your local library will walk you through this phase if you want help.
Organizing your trip
Once you've gotten past where to go, decide whether you want lots of company or not. July - August is high season in the UK. Even waiting until after Labor Day in early September causes a substantial reduction in car rentals and accomodation rentals, not mention long lines if you have popular destinations in mind.
Being of a "road-less-traveled" frame of mind, we've always traveled in the UK in September. While we don't mind rain, we've experienced mostly great weather. October can be fantastic, but the odds shift as you continue into the fall. On the other hand, if you don't mind the coolness and rainy mist of spring time, the Rhodendrens and Azaleas of the UK are legendary.
Similarly, we've always chosen the areas where crowds of tourists are less likely to be. We avoid the popular tourist destinations, such as the Blarney Stone in Ireland, or Edinburgh in August during Music Festival. To find our the popular tourist spots just look at several itineraries for bus tours -- Scotland in 6 days! And go elsewhere.
If you plan to visit cities, you should take care of airfare and rental cars first and look to accommodations last, but if, like us, you prefer "self-catered" cottages, off the beaten track, you find the accomodations first and do the getting there once you have a general feel for location and time schedule.
Valuable things to do ahead of time:
- Order maps from the UK Ordnance Survey. These are not standard road maps, but beautiful detailed maps that give you a great idea of the topography, relationships, roads, raillines, ferries, etc. You might start with the 8 1:250,000 scale road maps in the series for England, Wales & Scotland. Once you know the area you wish to go to, you might graduate to the 1:50,000 scale maps which include footpaths, phone booths, historic sites, and a fascinating array of names.
- Read reviews of restaurants in any major cities you plan to visit. It's nice to arrive and not have to wander around wondering who's got great food.
- If you plan to cook most of your own food and you like organic food, it's readily available. Again, let your fingers do the walking on the internet and locate organic food producers. Otherwise, most towns have a Coop, the equivalent to our Safeway.
- Theater? Again, you can and should get tickets ahead of time on the internet. Don't forget that you can specific seat locations. Almost every theater website has a map of the seating and there are lots of reviews of theater seating. Its worth the slight extra cost to phone the theater of your choice and get the seats you want at the price you want. You may save money on discount theater ticket sites, but you may be sitting behind a post.
- Get a general feeling for the types of rental cars available. In the UK, an "estate car" is a small station wagon, which is much less expensive than the SUVs and very comfortable. Remember that you'll get better gas mileage with a stick shift (if you can drive a stick) and you'll get better mileage with diesel fuel. (On the downside, diesel is more air polluting than gas, but it sure saves money.)
- Bicycles, cycles? Again, locate them ahead of time and possibly reserve them. Emails are a cheap why to avoid the "I wish I had ..."
- Internet access is available all over the place - in internet cafes, in many pubs - easy to find it.
- Remember that most everything is closed or might be closed on Sundays. Especially in Scotland.
The UK has a great rail system. Consider using it for part of your trip. If you book in advance over the internet you can get some fantastic deals. We found a special family ticket (for 4 adults) for about $75 to go round trip from Edinburgh to Inverness - the normal price is about 4 times that. You get an entirely different look at the country by not being on the road system. Plus, I know of no better way to adjust from jet lag on arrival than getting on a train for the first phase of your trip.
Which is more comfortable (and safe!) ?
- Flying into Edinburgh, exhausted with jet lag, picking up your rental car and trying to figure how to drive on the left without getting killed and how to get out of the airport. (It's amazing how hard it is to get out of a strange airport when you're tired.)
- Flying into Edinburgh, taking a taxi to the train station, snoozing, snacking and strolling on the 3 1/2 hour train up to Inverness and picking up your rental car the next day in Inverness after a great night's sleep and a good meal.
If you are visiting any of the medium-sized or larger cities see the tips and techniques for getting great deals at good hotels via Priceline.
Click on the following and then enter the city:
See Winning Hotel bids in Top Cities from $28 per night!
Bed and breakfasts are another great alternative to hotels. They are smaller, more intimate, and often in quieter neighborhoods. If you are traveling in the off season you can generally be confident of just going where your nose leads you and you'll find a B&B at the end of the day.
We enjoy the self catered cottages. By doing an internet search for "self catered cottage" and the region, town, national park or other destination, you'll readily come up with possibilities in a wide range of prices. Here's how.
Since we prefer exploring one region to the England-in-10-days approach, this type of accomodation makes for a great home base - where you are not living out of a suitcase and where you can spread out and be really really comfortable. Again, each cottage has a unique flavor.
- The earlier you begin your search the better choice you'll find. In 2001 and 2002, we did our cottage work in January and February and pretty much had our choice. In 2003 we didn't start until May or June, and got mostly no's but still came up with awesome locations.
- Search for "self catered cottage cuillins" or "self catered cottage trotternish." You'll have an ample starting list.
- In 2003, August-September, the prices for at least 4 bedrooms were a range from 300 to 500 pounds for a week, Saturday to Saturday. (about $480 to $800).
- Find one or two sites that seem to list a lot of cottages, and which open quickly to allow you to review each cottage. A long download here will be a pain in the neck as you look at a 100 cottages.
- As you scroll through, screen for your price range and number of bedrooms - they should be evident on the initial listing
- Each time you find one you like, note the location - whether in-town or in the country - depending on your druthers
- Make a list in your computer's notepad of the name, url, contact email, town its near, and price
- Now you'll be able to cluster them by local area and get a better feel of things. You've got all your info in one place.
- See if you can reduce your list to about 20 locations (depending on how long you've procrastinated).
Start firing off emails to inquire about availability in your range of dates. Ask about the cost and whether it is smoking or non-smoking. (You can come back for details later).
- Reduce your list to the yes's. Give them a very tentitive yes while you make up your mind.
- Now go to streetmap.co.uk and look up the exact address of the cottage. If you zoom in, you'll be able to see whether it's on a busy street, or how close to the road it is located. Looking at the topography, you'll be able to tell whether you are on a hillside looking out or not, and by noting the elevation and elevation of points opposite the cottage, how long your view is. You'll be able to tell whether your cottage is on the main drag between main towns, the only road between main towns, etc.
- Ask the detailed questions below, make your decision, confirm your reservation(s), send them a deposit.
Here are some things to be aware of about self catered cottages, these are things you should ask about, or find out by looking at the cottage on an online map such as www.streetmap.co.uk.
- Cottages are rented ("let") from Saturday to Saturday.
- They'll need a deposit about 1/4 to 1/3 of the rental amount, and the remainder about 6 weeks before you come.
- Who cleans the cottage - you at the end of your stay, or someone else? (We found one self-cleaned cottage to be pretty dirty, but that's the fault of the agent who didn't inspect it properly and regularly.)
- Is linen provided, or does it cost extra? Note: you will need to bring your own wash cloths.
- Is electricity included, or is it extra? Many cottages have meters and charge you accordingly
- Electricity in the UK is either "peak" or "off-peak" and is priced accordingly. In 2003, in Scotland, peak electricity was .09/unit while off-peak was .05/unit. Major appliances take advantage of this. (The USA is way behind in this regard.
Hot water heaters are either immersion heaters and turn on at the flick of a switch, taking not too long to heat water for a shower, or turn on automatically during "off-peak" so that hot water is there when you get up. You can boost the water heat for later needs.
Electric heat also turns on during "off-peak" times to store heat for the following day. So it can be brisk the first evening if your heat hasn't been turned on earlier. Many cottages have coal burning stoves in addition.
- Most cottages provide washing machines, but sometimes the dryer is out on the clothesline. Many washers and dryers can be programmed to turn on during "off-peak." Having a washer and dryer means that you can travel really light, needing only a couple of changes of clothing since you can do a laundry as often as you please.
- Be sure to ask whether there will be more than a few strips of toilet paper at the cottage when you arrive.
- Ask where the nearest stores and farmers selling produce are. The rental agent probably won't know, but there will be a local person who lives nearby who does know.