My regular travel companion of recent years had hoped to come here this summer for another international adventure. He lives in Texas, a state that was on a Chicago quarantine list from July 6 to September 15 and then again in early October. Chicago’s Emergency Travel order requires anyone arriving from a state on the list to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. This is not unlike the restriction on Americans in many countries. Since we could not make a trip this year, we can recall for you one of our recent sojourns to England.
Our London Trip, by RICH PASCHALL
One of the things that my younger friends get to enjoy when we travel together is the discount I can get using my AARP membership. There is actually value to being over 50 and a member of the organization. I use the AARP travel site, powered by Expedia, several times a year. Not everything gets a senior discount, but I have uncovered some good deals there. I do take the time to check around on other sites.
For London, I relied on a flight and hotel package from Chicago. Many hotels are suggested and unless you opt for the higher-priced well-known names, I find the selection to be hit and miss. The hotels all have reviews, but they seem to me to be of limited value. You can find good and bad comments for each one.
We were lucky to get a direct flight on British Airways from Chicago O’Hare to London Heathrow airport. The service was better than other flights I have taken across the Atlantic and the unlimited drinks were certainly a plus for a few travelers. The entertainment options were amazing, but I chose to try to sleep a while each way. If you can not sleep on the plane, try to stay awake all day when you arrive.
It is always good to research your destination in advance, especially how to get around your destination city. Trust me, you do not want to drive in London. Aside from driving on a different side of the street, the roads tend to be quite crowded at almost any hour. We decided to get into town on the Heathrow Express train from the airport to Paddington station. We bought the round trip tickets online before leaving home. This gave us a small discount on the train station price. We printed out the vouchers and exchanged them for real tickets when we arrived at Heathrow. Don’t worry about finding the train. There are plenty of signs in your native tongue if you read English.
By car and by bus it is estimated to take about an hour and 20 minutes to get from Heathrow to Paddington. The Heathrow Express will get you there in about 15 minutes. The few extra dollars are more than worth it, especially for tired travelers who may have been up all night.
As Paddington is a large train station and a convenient stop for tourists, you can find many pubs, hotels, souvenir shops, and currency exchanges in the area. Do not use the first currency exchange you see. There are likely two more on the same block. Go in each and ask for the rate, then go back to the best one. We found exchange for 1.25 USD for one British pound. Down the street, we could have paid 1.35. Those dimes add up if you exchange a lot of cash. It is better to change cash than pay your credit card’s foreign transaction fees unless you have a card that does not charge it – lucky you!
Since the street is littered with souvenir shops, and some are the currency exchanges too, you should check the prices in several before you buy. I saved 3 pounds on a soccer scarf by pricing the exact same item several times over a couple of days. There is no hurry to buy souvenirs if you will be in the same spot for 5 nights, 6 days as we were. If you really need a Paddington bear, you can find all sizes up and down Craven street and surrounding areas.
Our hotel was picked off the online site. Unless you are going to pay for the much more costly package deal, your room choice may be just luck of the draw. We selected one based on website pictures and location. The relative location to the train, the tube, the buses, the pubs, and restaurants made it a good stop. In reality, it was barely adequate and a disappointment. I have generally had good luck with hotels and hostels, but was disappointed a few times as well.
When you leave the train station, there are many hotels within walking distance. Fortunately, my travel companion has a good sense of direction and researched the walk in advance. I may have gone off in the other direction. We were pleased with the surrounding areas and all it had to offer. After three days in a room too small for two and somewhat uncomfortable, we got a better room for the asking. I was prepared to use my laptop to find something else if they had not changed our room. Do not be afraid to complain or ask for a change if it is truly warranted.
We explored the area on foot on the Sunday we arrived. We were surprised at the spots that were closed or opened up very late. London is not Chicago (or San Antonio) and the local customs are much different. We walked extensively through the area, down to Hyde Park and across to Kensington Gardens and back through the neighborhood using a paper map. Yes, we know it is the era of phone apps, but we did not have phone service, nor wish to pay international rates to get it.
The homes and apartments of the area all seemed to have a similar style. In fact, on some streets, all the houses looked the same to me. I guess there are streets like that here. We enjoyed our walks in Paddington, and the days ahead would take us to the famous sites around town. We got an “Oyster Card,” rode the tube, and got the pictures I guess every tourist gets.
We learned to “mind the door,” “mind the train,” and “mind the gap.” Keeping all of this in mind, we also learned to “mind our cameras” on future stops. These pictures came from my phone.
Related: “London Calling,” Sunday Night Blog