Monthly Archives: October 2011

Doing a budget for our London/Paris trip

As we began planning our trip to London and Paris I created an Excel spreadsheet to use in estimating our expenses.  I created lines for each day of the trip, including what we intended to do that day.  Then I added columns for the entry of various types of expenditures.  Some were prepaid: Travel, Lodging, and a couple of Sightseeing items.  They were charged to the credit card and were paid before we ever left home.  Other columns listed items with amounts I either had researched or were just educated guesses: Food, Travel (local), and Sightseeing (again).  I filled in these amounts the best I could.
All told, then, I had a budget for our trip.
During the trip we used a debit card to get cash and only used the credit card for our final night’s lodging.  We carried cash (plus a little) for each day and paid for everything as we went.  I didn’t bother to hang on to receipts for things paid for by cash.  Of course, we knew how much we had withdrawn with the debit card, so we knew where we were so far as the big picture was concerned.
In other words, I knew I’d taken, say, $500 cash with the debit card, so when I was running out of money I knew we’d spent $500 – I just didn’t bother trying to keep up with how much we’d spent on food or on public transportation or sightseeing.
I’ve just finished revisiting the spreadsheet, now working with actual dollar amounts. 
The bottom line: we spent $55.39 more than I budgeted!
Obviously, my research and educated guesses were pretty good.  One thing, I think, that kept us on track was that we planned to put about as much effort into each day as we could physically do so there wasn’t much chance that we’d suddenly decide to visit an extra attraction.  Our plate was full enough as it was.  Speaking of “plates” – the food budget would have been the easiest one to blow.  Since we were in an apartment most of the time we planned to eat pretty much what we always eat for breakfast.  We then planned on having a light (sandwich type) lunch each day and then eat out that evening unless we just wanted to hang out at the apartment and fix something easy for supper.  We did that a few times, but also enjoyed some good meals in the nearby restaurants.  Let me add that we generally like finding places where the locals eat rather than going to a more up-scale restaurant.  One person could have spent our entire day’s food budget in a lot of very nice establishments.  I’m not against that, but that’s just not our thing.
Anyway, if a person spends some time looking into things and is realistic, there’s a good chance that they can set a trip budget and stick to it.

At least, let’s say, missing it by no more than $55.39.

Planning our London/Paris trip using Google Maps

One of the most helpful things I did was create a Google Map of our trip.  I found all the major places we wanted to visit and added place markers for them.  Under “traffic” I clicked on “transit” and it showed me all the tube lines and stops.  That helped me visualize where one place was in relation to another and also where the tube stops were.

The neatest thing, though, was that I could zoom into street view and “walk” down the streets I was going to visit.  More than once, as we literally walked along a street I had a sense of Déjà vu because I had taken virtual walks via my Google Map.

There was also a practical side to this.  When we were debating doing the London Walks Cotswolds tour I got on Trip Advisor and found out what towns were would likely visit.  I was able to virtually walk around the towns to see if the tour was our cup of tea (it was, very much so).

Up till now, I kept our map as private, but now that the trip is over, I’ve removed a couple of things and have switched it to public.  Here’s the link – see what you think.

You can see lots of photos from our trip in my photo album.

London and Paris on the Tube and Metro

More “after the trip” thoughts…

If you’re going to London or Paris and like to explore on your own, I suggest you make a list of places you want to visit, centering each day around one major event but throwing in some more or less “day’s off” along the way.

Then, as you plan, make serious use of the London Journey Planner and the Paris Recherche avancée. You can specify quickest – bus – train – etc. for the journey. Do a copy/paste into a document, one page for each day.

Then, as you travel around use the information you’ve gathered.

I surprised myself in Paris as we left the Eiffel Tower, wanting to take the bus (to see Paris as we went) to the Louvre. Per my own instructions we walked along an avenue, turned at the right place, and there sat two busses with the correct route number on them. When we approached the front bus, the driver pointed across the street to yet another bus, just loading. My self-made instructions were almost perfect, just not pointing to the correct side of the street.

We did stuff like that as we found our way around London and Paris, not quite moving around as locals, but independently flowing from one place to another in a satisfying way.

On both the Tube and Metro (subway and bus alike) you need to know the train or bus’ ultimate destination plus your stop along the way. Having a pre-printed page of instructions (to and from) makes a huge difference as you stand in an underground station deciding which platform is the right one. Of course, you have big maps in every station and, of course, you have a pocket map – but things feel rather confusing when there are thousands of rushing commuters all around you.

There’s no chance people will think you’re a local, but having the piece of paper in your hand that says, in your own words: “At Green Park station, take the Jubilee Line towards Stratford Underground Station or West Ham – get off at Canary Wharf” gives you more confidence than just knowing you need to “take the tube to Canary Wharf.”

You can see lots of photos from our trip in my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 15

Our night at Lampton Guest House was a short one. The fellows working there were quite helpful. One of the guys caught me carrying my bags down the several flights of stairs and seemed genuinely concerned. He not only carried the bags on downstairs but, after breakfast, carried the bags down the outside stairs, setting them down at the entry gate to the property. Again, this isn’t high end accommodations, but had the bed not moaned and groaned with every move it would have been a somewhat acceptable, low dollar place to stay.

After a quick breakfast we headed for Heathrow on the tube. People had warned me about Heathrow security, but it was much the same as anywhere else we’ve been. Within 30 minutes of arriving at the airport we were through check in, bag check, security, and headed for our gate. Our gate was out of Terminal 5/C – so we had to take a subway out to our gate and the plane was loaded right on time. Then we sat and sat some more, apparently waiting for a take off slot. Fifty-five minutes later we were finally underway.

So, now that we’re on our way home, I have some random thoughts, mostly just observations.

In both London and Paris, using the restroom/loo/WC/toilet is a privilege more than a right. Businesses with restrooms hide them way down at the far end of the basement to be sure non-customers don’t sneak in and use the facilities. If it’s a public restroom you’ll either pay to use it or at the very least you should have brought your own tissue. Just remember, when you find one, use it!

The reverse is also true. Water fountains are quite rare and then, only within the confines of paid venues, like the Tower of London. We bought some “distilled” water and then refilled the plastic bottles and carried them every day. At least for the first part of the day we had water. It’s about as expensive to buy bottled water as to buy a soda. Of course, if you allow yourself to become dehydrated you’ll save money on both bought water and restrooms! Apparently, it’s the London/Paris way!

Two weeks in London and Paris has nearly broken me of my coffee drinking habit. Believe it or not, the best coffee I had on the trip (and that’s not saying much) was while we were up on the Eiffel Tower! Most of the coffee was fixed on some kind of automatic machine (glorified instant if you ask me) – too black and bitter. I somehow managed to get tiny cups of syrupy coffee a couple of times. Why I kept ordering is a mystery to me. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. One thing about it, the no-refills policy on everything saved me from myself so far as trying “one more cup.”

As we planned this trip we kept in mind how easy it would be to over schedule and just wear ourselves out. It’s a real challenge to get the most “bang for your buck” and not come home exhausted. Well, we tried, but we ended a lot of days worn out. For us, aside from getting over jet lag and “travel lag” the biggest problem has been tired legs and backs. At home we walk a lot. I do about three miles a day but that 45 minutes of steady, fast walking does almost nothing to prepare you for 6 hours of walking up and down stairs on public transportation, walking around museums, standing around museums, hunting places to sit in museums, and walking to and from the public transportation. The Tower of London, British Museum, Cotswolds tour (operated by London Walks – what else could we expect?), and Louvre were hard on us. In each of these places there came a time when the aching legs and backs diminished the experience. No solution here – just an observation.

Let’s see…what else? Londoners are in a bigger hurry than Parisians who, I think, enjoy life more. It feels safe in many areas of either city to be out, on foot, after dark. The tube feels more modern (Londoners will laugh) than the Metro. Commuter trains are terrific ways to get around in either city. Book tickets to famous places as early as possible to save standing (remember, “tired legs”) in long lines. You’ll enjoy eating in Paris more than in London. Bakeries in Paris are a delight. In London, eat ethnic foods for the best meals. Our best London meal was at a local Turkish restaurant, not fancy at all, but really good food.

We spent a lot of money (for us) on this trip of a lifetime. It’s money we could use for other things but with retirement, howbeit a ways off, out there on the horizon we knew that if we were ever going to make such a trip, it was now or never. At this point, I say it was money well spent. There’s something enriching about seeing a different place, visiting some famous spots, and seeing how other people live. Jackie and I enjoyed having this special time together. Will we do it again? Probably not, at least unless someone loves my travel writing so much that they want to give me a generous advance on a travel book or something like that.

So, there you have it. If you’ve traveled with us, thanks. I hope you’ve enjoyed our dream London/Paris trip.

You can see lots of photos from our trip in my photo album.

London/Paris 2011 trip report–part 14

I write this portion of this post as we cruise along on the Eurostar traveling from Paris to London. (Now there’s a sentence I’ll likely never write again!) Shortly, we’re going to eat the picnic lunch we carried on board: cheese bought in a Parisian open air market, bread, bought in a Parisian local bakery, and chocolate, bought in a Parisian store – all while riding along at well over 100 mph on Eurostar (eat your heart out!). We finished our short visit to Paris with our pleasant evening with our friends Alex and Karla. Since our train was scheduled for 1:00pm on Saturday we were able to sleep in and have plenty of time to pack and then take the Metro to Paris Nord for our return to London.

When I first began researching this trip I intended to fly “open jaw” – arriving in Paris, taking Eurostar to London, and then leaving from there. However, the price was much higher. Thus we ended up doing a round trip from Houston to London by air and a round trip from London to Paris via train. Jackie likes high speed train travel so much that she wishes Eurostar offered service to Houston!

We enjoyed Paris very much and found it to be quite tourist friendly. Anywhere tourists go there are people who speak English. We used our French “hello” and “thank you” accompanied by lots of smiles and got along very well. The Metro is easy enough to use although it can be hot and crowded. Some of the trains feel quite worn, but others are modern. My only known brush with pickpockets came just as we arrived, on our first trip on the Metro. A group of girls acted as though they were uncertain of their stop. With lots of noise, one got off the train and others said, “no, this isn’t the stop.” Then they had second thoughts just as the doors were about to close and one brushed by me. They came up empty because I wasn’t carrying anything in my pants pockets. As we departed, one kind lady asked me if I had my wallet. The answer was “no” – but because I didn’t have a wallet where they could get to it that way. Later I thought someone tried to lift my cell phone from by cargo pants pockets, but the next time I carried a suitcase up a flight of stairs I realized it brushed against my leg in just the right way to “lift” the phone.

My “security” approach on the trip was only partially successful. I wore a money belt for passports and other important papers. My plan was to wear a tee-shirt with a pocket under my button down shirt. I would keep my money in a small wallet in the tee-shirt pocket with my shirt buttoned up. However, the wonderful weather messed me up! It was just too warm to wear two shirts like that. I ended up carrying my money, etc. in one of my cargo pants lower pockets, buttoned in. In Paris, I went to security level two and added a safety pin under the flap of that same pocket. I then forgot about it and enjoyed my sightseeing. The last two days in Paris it cooled off quite a bit and I was able to move my money to the tee-shirt pocket, securing it under my shirt plus light jacket. That was my plan “A” and it worked very well.

Alex and Karla were more than gracious and we enjoyed their company and appreciated their kindness very much. Because we were with them we went a few places I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go, especially at night. If they had a tour business I’d heartily recommend their business to you!

Paris is a beautiful city and a great place to visit. I enjoyed finding my way around and a few smile filled encounters with “locals” who patiently tried to understand what I wanted. One trip to the bakery was especially fun for us, and I think the baker got a bit of a kick out of it too.

Our hotel in Paris, the Citea Hotel in Charenton was outside what most people think of as the tourist area. I picked it because it had a good price, good reviews on Trip Advisor, and was close to the Metro. From there, it was around 40 minutes, for instance, to the Eiffel Tower. The neighborhood felt safe after dark, and we passed several more local restaurants and other shops as we waked to and from the Liberte Metro station.

I have to admit that returning to London has with it a small feeling of relief. No doubt a tourist can get into plenty of trouble there, but the common language (more or less) makes me feel I can better get myself out of whatever pickle I’ve gotten myself into. Returning to London also has, of course, a feeling of sadness as our adventure is drawing to a close.

Tonight we’re at a place called Lampton Guest House, chosen for price and proximity to the London Underground and Heathrow airport. We arrived here in the middle of the afternoon. Frankly, it’s a bit of a disappointment. I expected the small room, but in spite of asking for the fewest possible stairs we ended up on the fourth floor with a noisy bed and not enough light.

However, we walked a few blocks to a lively and interesting High Street with lots of shops and venders, including a shopping mall. Then, we decided to try the Pop Inn Café for supper. We stumbled onto the best meal we’ve had in London. It’s a Turkish restaurant with good food, huge portions, and low prices. We only managed to eat half our food. The waitress offered us take-away boxes but we told her they would have to travel to Houston, Texas in the morning. She laughed and asked about our trip.

In the morning it’s back on the tube for a quick hop to Heathrow followed by a long hop across the “pond.”

You can see lots of photos from our trip in my photo album.