Monday, August 1, 2016

General thoughts about traveling to Britain

Before I get into a real trip report of my Trafalgar tour of England and Scotland, I'd like to bring up a few points that might be of interest to people thinking about traveling in that direction.

First of all: plane ticket classifications


I signed up for economy class, of course. Imagine a city bus seat with higher seat back. Now make those seats about two inches closer together, front to back. If you're on American and have an aisle seat, imagine the foot room under the seat in front of you: half of it is now taken up by a wooden box. This is for future electronic connections that will allow TV screens on the back of each seat. As of now, there are no screens, other than the two or three that hang from the cabin ceiling. What this box also means is that, if you have two feet, there is only room to place one of them.

You will be forced to twist your body into the shape of a pretzel if you want to sleep during the 8 hours it takes to fly from NC to the UK. Or 10 and a half if there are thunderstorms in NC that prevent the plane from taking off. Because of the position, don't expect much sleep. It will take your body approximately 2 days afterward to straighten back to normal.

Two hours before landing, you're silently screaming, "Lord, take me now!" You don't even want to think about the return trip.

So when the screen at the airport greets you on that return trip and asks you if you want to upgrade, you dare to ask, "How much will it cost?" You stagger backward from the response but sign up anyway. "It's an experiment," you tell yourself. "I need to do this just once in my life to know what it entails." You are now Business Class Preferred, I think the designation is. This means that not only do you get to board first, but you can go to Lounge H in Heathrow to wait. Of course, Lounge H is about a mile from your boarding gate, but…

Your seat can recline without bothering the person behind you. You can recline all the way to a flat position to sleep with cozy quilt and pillow to coddle you. Your row mate will never hear you snore. Your seat has a tablet on which you can watch movies, TV, play games, etc. You have TWO arm rests that are yours alone, as well as a wide tray. You can stretch out your legs and then some.


(Note: I had bought a TRTL neck rest for this trip, and it worked out fairly well, especially on the return trip. The nicest thing is that you can slip the material up to just under your nose so that if you drool and/or hang your mouth open when you sleep, no one will notice.)

Instead of the (surprisingly okay) economy-class meal-on-a-dispenser-tray, you get tasty three-course meals presented on real plates. Your attendant comes around every 20 minutes or so to ask how things are going and would you like some more champagne? Maybe cheese and fruit? Did I mention those Bose earphones that blank out ALL cabin noise?

You feel loved. You feel pampered. Ahh. I am NEVER going economy class again on a flight that lasts more than four hours at a time.

More travel info


Let's go back to that Heathrow mention. In the entire American Airlines section, there are only TWO sets of bathrooms. One is behind a gated door which was not open when I looked, and the other was approximately a quarter-mile from my gate, and downstairs to boot. It held four stalls. Back at RDU, there are bathrooms about every 200 feet or so, filled with stalls. And yes, Heathrow's handicapped stall is on the same level as its gates so there are no stairs. But when your ticket says the plane starts to board at 9:10, and the plane's not set to lift off until 10:30, you hit that bathroom hard while you can. Then you discover that no, the gate opens at 9:10 (actually more like 9:15), and you go through all kinds of security crap and then you sit in the waiting room. Need to go once more before boarding? You are Out Of Luck.

Back to the original trip across: After a long delay and being pretzel-fied, you arrive in London! At the same time as three other major flights, which means there are approximately 1500 people in line at Customs who slowly shuffle forward. Finally! Through! You are to meet your driver, whom your travel agency has assured you has checked your arrival time and will be there waiting.

But he didn't, and he wasn't. He'd waited 2 hours from the original scheduled landing time, which eight hours before had been upgraded to include the delay. Luckily, there's someone at the desk who says, "No prob!" and packs you into a lush car to take you to the hotel. That car has proximity alarms and they go off every ten seconds or so as the driver weaves through London traffic. He's a hoot, though, and points out the local sights, of which none are historic.

Hotels in Britain


A few hotels are much like their American counterparts. When I say "a few," I mean the Hilton Kensington in London. The others we went to… weren't. Well, there was that one golf resort that was luscious, but even that had no A/C.

Air conditioning seems to be a luxury in GB. I went during a heat wave, and the nights were QUITE warm. Without A/C, you had to open windows (often over a busy street or at ground level, etc.), beg the front desk for a fan -- if they had any left -- and ask for a top sheet.

One thing that has really gotten me in recent years of travel is that hotels now only dress their beds with sheets and duvets. Duvets are fine if you're in a blizzard and the heat's not working well. But there should be something in between. Some hotels have a blanket in the closet, and that's great.

But GB hotels don't even seem to go in for top sheets. When you crawl into bed, you have a bottom sheet and then on top of you is the duvet. What's up with that? Are you going to tell me they launder a full duvet every time they change guests?

So you call down for a top sheet, and if they can get over their shock at that, it works well. As for the windows, they come with chains so that (theoretically) no one can break in from outside. If you're housed across the street from, say, Edinburgh's train station, you are also treated to loudspeaker announcements every few minutes as well as traffic noises and shouts from drunks passing below.

The windows also have no screens. I was assured that England has no mosquitos or rabid bats. So far I have resisted Googling the veracity of this.

The second night in England I couldn't understand why none of my lights worked. It seems that when you're issued a room key (in this case I'd been issued two), you immediately put one in a box next to the door. This turns on the electricity for the room to keep costs down. If you only have one key, this means that if you're recharging your electronics, they will not be recharging while you're away from the room with your key in hand. Some hotels will give you an extra key to avoid this situation.

Rooms also have minimal wall outlets. You have to unplug, say, your TV in order to plug in your iPad for recharging. Then your power adapter won't work. After buying a new set of adapters, I finally worked out a method of wedging the hair dryer (and sometimes the room phone as well) on top of the adapter that allowed it to hang OUT of the outlet far enough that connections were finally properly made. Some hotels I didn't have to do this, but in the majority I did.

British hotels have electric tea kettles. Hooray! These are not those nasty things they have in the US where people put in a thing of coffee on top and it brews and spits out (ugh) coffee, and if you want a cup of tea even though you ask the desk for a CLEAN pot, it still makes your tea taste like (ugh) coffee. These are pots that take water and water only, and your room is provided with lots of tea bags, packets of powdered coffee, sealed dollops of milk, and various sweeteners. There's usually a couple of shortbread cookies as well. (Shortbread is EVERYWHERE.)

Only the Hilton had washcloths. I am told this is the new thing: no washcloths. "Oh, but you don't know where they've been!" one of my fellow travelers told me with a wink. If hotels aren't washing everything in scalding bleach water, why am I trusting myself to sleep on their sheets? She told me that since she travels first class, she steals a washcloth (which are provided free to her) from the airlines and has quite a collection, which she uses in hotels. Other travelers told me just to use my hands, which provide all the abrasion I need to get the job done, right?

You may or may not find bar soap. Don't count on it. Now there's a tendency to use push-top bottles in both shower and by the bathroom sink. One hotel didn't even have separate bottles for body wash and shampoo/conditioner; it was all combined into one soapy concoction.

At the golf resort my luxury room had both a tub on one side of the large bathroom and a spacious shower on the other side. At another place we had circular showers (no tub) in our teeny bathrooms that were about 3/4 the diameter of a transporter pad on Star Trek. One guy said he dropped the bar soap while showering and had to give up. I know I couldn't bend over to attend to my lower legs.

Think like a hotel owner: How cheap can I make this and still advertise on the Internet? That's the idea behind many British hotels, or at least those the bus tours use.

Hotel bank machines


At the Hilton Kensington early one Monday morning, I used their ATM to get some money. Did I want a receipt? I said yes, and it said that the printer wasn't working and then… nothing. Wha? I tried again, this time saying no receipt, and again… nothing. The concierge said that likely the machine was out of money and my account hadn't been charged.

"Likely."

I broke my own rule of never checking my bank balance when on hotel wifi. Sure enough, the machine had charged me, both times. Luckily, neither had gone through. Why? BECAUSE SOME JERK HAD HACKED MY BANK CARD in Florida two days before, and now my account was frozen!

So because my bank card had the international phone number in 2-point type on it, I spent about 40 minutes calling regular internationally to get things straightened out. Six days later, my new card arrived. Unfortunately, I can't use it in a machine because my new PIN is being sent separately, and no, the bank can't tell me what my new PIN is.

Argh.

Food


It's true about British food. For the most part it's tasteless. (I'll discuss the exceptions later.) If you're a diabetic, you are S.O.L. because everything is white bread. Even Yorkshire pudding is a big hunk of white bread. Meals are usually: protein, starch, bread, potatoes, starch, sugar, five peas, starchy sugar, bread with cheese, sugar.

I had a shrimp dish one night that the menu warned was extra spicy. It was shrimp and diced tomatoes. That was it. As far as I could tell, salt and pepper had not been involved, much less any other spices.

Another night I dined with a group of friends, eating at a tapas-kind of restaurant with non-tapas kinds of food. All I really wanted was a salad (see below). They actually had a nice tuna salad with some greens, but instead of keeping it to myself (mine! mine!) I had to share it with everyone else because that's what kind of dinner it was. Come to think of it, only one person reached over to grab a tomato.

At that same meal they served a bowl of melted cheese that supposedly had eggplant in it (there was a tiny sliver at the very bottom), and also another dish that consisted of unseasoned boiled potato cubes with a large garnish of mayo. (Mayo is very popular in the UK. Like shortbread, it is everywhere.) Me, I wanted to gag just looking at it. (Keep in mind this was near the very end of my vacation and my body was in full rebellion mode. For everyone else, this was a one-up affair; for me, it was just Day 11 of the Great British Non-Nutritional Baking Show.)

Vegetables? In England? Everyone assured me that they did indeed have veg: potatoes. Peas. An occasional tomato. Maybe a green leaf for garnish. I did see a few green beans here and there. But that was it. My final night in London at Jamie Oliver's place, I had to special order a "market salad" so it would be an actual salad. The waiter looked at me like I was nuts. And oh yes, my first night in London at a Moroccan place, I had a lovely, lovely salad with mint and stuff. Very nice. Thank you, Moroccans!

We'll cover this later...

We had "bus tour" buffet breakfasts every day that always had scrambled eggs, ham (which they referred to as "bacon"), grainy black pudding, grilled mushy tomatoes, beans, juice, tea/coffee, different kinds of bread… Sometimes there is fresh fruit and sausage links. Sometimes there is oatmeal. Sometimes, yogurt ("yoghurt").

So do take your fiber pills and vitamins along!

Drinks


I don't like alcohol unless it's a wine sauce. Therefore I had probs in the UK.

You have tea. Hot tea. That's standard enough. Sometimes there's coffee (ugh). And water, still or fizzy, which will cost $$ and isn't free. There's the entire gamut of alcoholic drinks available in most spots. "Soft drinks" usually consist of Coke and Diet Coke. Sometimes there is Sprite and sometimes something called ginger beer. "Is it like ginger ale? Or root beer?" "Oh yes." It's not. Ugh.

And then there is lemonade. Lemonade to me means either chemicals or sugar on top of sugar with a dash of lemon juice. In England there's sugar stuff being pushed on you from every direction already. The idea of more sugar…

But sometimes you get tired of water. Okay, gimme lemonade. It's either: (1) watered-down Sprite. Or, when you ask if it's watered-down Sprite and they vehemently tell you no, it's (2) watered-down Sprite with some gakky herb aftertaste.

You ask for iced tea. "Oh no," they laugh. "Iced tea? The idea!" One place assured me they'd make me some iced tea. It took 20-plus minutes to get the drink, and then it was about 4 ounces, served with a packet of sugar. "Sugar doesn't dissolve in cold water," I grumbled under my breath. But I drank it.

Starbucks pointed out that their new menu contains iced tea. I just never found a branch that actually served that item so I could try it.

When you don't drink alcohol and you're out with a group, someone(s) will often DEMAND, "Why don't you drink alcohol???!" like it was some kind of crime or something. Once a group I was with knew that one of us was a Muslim, so they didn't give me any flak about my drink choices. But every other time: "Why don't you drink alcohol???" Once when we were at a dinner that was included in our tour, we were allowed two drinks before we had to pay for ourselves. The gentleman to my right went through his first two wines like water and then pointed at me. "She's not drinking," he declared. "I'll take her two drinks!" And yes, he was QUITE serious, just as he'd been serious about not giving up his front seat on the bus when it was clearly explained at all points of the tour that we rotated seats daily. He was just a jerk.

At another group dinner, again I was the only one not drinking and it had been a strenuous day. After the servers saw I wasn't having alcohol, they left me alone. I had to flag one down and beg them for water. "COLD water!" I pleaded. Soon a bottle of ice-cold water appeared and I grabbed it... only to have my fellow table mates take it from me, and with a great deal of laughing, serve themselves. I was left with (and I had to again flag someone for it) tepid water for the rest of the meal, or at least half the meal, as I ran out quickly and couldn't get another server to stop by. Ugh.

Next time: The good stuff:


England. Scotland.

2 comments:

BadWolf219 said...

Wow! I had arguments with my husband about English food, he insisted it was all bland and tasteless while I said not. Seeing as how he had never been to England and I grew up there, I'd say I knew better! It really does depend on where you go, just like any other country. I mean, in America it's all burgers and hot dogs if you don't know any better! So I took him to the small and easily overlooked village cafe and the local Indian takeaway and the better local pubs and he was quite pleasantly surprised. And now he smugly informs everyone that you have to be "in the know" to eat well in England!

Carol A. Strickland said...

Absolutely! When I went out on my own I found some very nice meals.