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heathrow airportSome of us love crowds. We can be found catching beads at Mardi Gras, hurling tomatoes at Tomatina and, at the London Games, ogling the athletes at the Horse Guards Parade — the venue for beach volleyball.

Not me. Ever since I spent a horrific New Year’s Eve in Times Square, I’ve been a bit crowd-phobic. The cheer isn’t enough to override the crowds and the commotion at the London Games. For the executive editor of our sister site, Cruise Critic, it’s the increased security at Heathrow that keeps her from London, even as a layover to Europe.

“The increased security is sure to add even more chaos to an already chaotic airport — and I still won’t feel completely safe,” Carolyn Spencer Brown told us.

Are You a Travel Olympian?

She’d like to avoid Heathrow this summer, but some airfare deals are making that difficult. “British Airways is offering cheap fares to Europe this summer,” Brown said. “I wonder if people are avoiding Heathrow.”

If they are shunning Heathrow and London, it’s a typical tendency to avoid visiting cities that host the Olympic Games. The Telegraph recently reported that Terry Williamson, chief operating officer of JacTravel, said “normal tourism” in past Olympic host cities post-Games dropped significantly during the events and “took some time to recover.”

Will the traffic, the crowds, the amped-up security, the missiles on rooftops keep you away from London this summer — even as a layover? Or will you be there — in the midst of it all? Vote in our poll below.

— written by Jodi Thompson

suitcase handleOn a recent trip to London, I bought a newspaper and sat on the train reading about the mounting worries surrounding the Olympic Games — with the U.K.’s transport infrastructure already struggling to cope with the influx of extra people.

Athletes visiting the U.K. have had to compete with slow-moving airport security and long queues, while a coach-load of Olympians was recently stuck for four hours in London traffic on its way to the Olympic Village. Onboard was American hurdler Kerron Clement, who tweeted, “Athletes are sleepy, hungry and need to pee.” It seems that, where travel’s concerned, we all have to deal with the same problems, no matter who we are.

This got me thinking of the trials we all face while traveling and made me wonder, could travel be a sport that I could actually compete in? Consider the potential events:

First up, weight lifting. Whether lugging a heavy suitcase from the car to the airport check-in or making the final heave into the overhead bin, we’ve all competed in this event before. It’s familiar territory for the Olympic traveler, and the key is in the preparation. Packing light is one of the hardest things to do, but as the old adage goes, “You never use what you don’t take.”

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Next, the 100-meter sprint to meet check-in. Most airlines require passengers to be at the airport a couple of hours before take-off, which can sometimes catch travelers out, particularly early in the morning. The most successful competitors will have already mapped their route and will diligently avoid all fast food and souvenir concessions, passport and tickets in hand, to get to the desk on time. Some will need to slalom between other vacationers or even indulge in some light wrestling in order to get their times down. You’ve got to want it!

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Synchronised swimming could be my stumbling block. I hate overcrowded swimming pools! Sometimes it’s nice when arriving at a destination, even before unpacking, to cool down with a dip. Faced with a jam-packed pool, though, I’d likely slink off with my towel to see if there were a quiet beach nearby. Synchronised swimming? Not for me.

10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip

The relay is tough. I’ve been on trips where I’ve had to transfer trains six times. My budget “saver” tickets meant I had to make every transfer (with very narrow time margins) or risk not getting to my destination at all. The period between trains is always the most stressful, frantically checking platform displays, with one eye on your watch. This can be bad in huge international airports too, with terminals sometimes being up to 15 minutes’ walk away from each other. Smooth transitions make for a smooth journey — it takes an expert traveler to score highly in the relay.

As is traditional, we should end with the marathon. I’ll put my hand up and say that long-haul traveling’s not something I enjoy. My longest trip started with 10 hours in a car, followed by 6 hours on a bus and another hour on a plane. The ultimate long-haul trip is Singapore Airlines’ nonstop flight between Newark Airport and Singapore, which takes a whopping 18.5 hours. I just don’t think I have the stamina.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

How do you compare? Are there any facets of travel at which you are a true Olympian?

— written by Josh Thomas

london heathrow lineHere’s hoping passengers flying into Heathrow Airport last week packed a good book. The lines for immigration at the London airport stretched for half a mile at times, leaving some travelers waiting for nearly two and a half hours, reports Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

The delays — mostly caused by inadequate staffing — are nothing new for London’s largest airport, which has been suffering from lengthy immigration queues for months. (See this April 2012 report from NBC News.) The problem is increasingly worrisome with the Olympics starting in just a few weeks; the Telegraph notes that the Games are expected to bring an extra 650,000 travelers through Heathrow. The immigration minister, Damian Green, has promised to increase the number of workers on duty in time for the Games.

Best Spots to Stay in London

Long immigration lines can happen anywhere, of course, especially with the recent economic recession forcing cuts in budget and staff. In 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster, our own Traveler’s Ed writes, “I recently stood in a line I estimated at more than 1,000 people at Newark airport, oof.” And don’t forget those dreaded airport security lines, which can stretch out just as long as the queues at customs. Just about every experienced traveler can tell a tale of sweating it out as their flight time loomed and their line inched agonizingly along.

What’s the longest airport line you’ve ever had to suffer through?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

big ben londonGet a group of politicians together and they often skip right over the important issues and on to agenda items that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Remember the U.S. House of Representatives and the “action” that called for French fries served in the restaurants and snack bars run by the House to be renamed freedom fries?

Another equally important proposal was recently put forth by the British Parliament: changing the name of London‘s famous clock tower — known throughout the world as Big Ben — to Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

According to the BBC, the proposal is now fait accompli.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in London

Okay, yes, Big Ben is simply a nickname that originally referred to the bell inside the tower (though few people distinguish between bell, clock and tower these days). And yes, it was even once known as Victoria Tower and is now officially recognized as the Clock Tower. But really, billions of people the world over know the entire tower as Big Ben. Why mess with brand name recognition?

It’s simply not as sexy to snap a photo of oneself in front of the tower and tell friends, “Here’s me in front of Elizabeth Tower.” Though as one writer here said, maybe people will just call it Big Beth.

— written by Dori Saltzman

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

— written by John Deiner

I’m from Wales and I’m used to people not knowing where we are. We’re the geographical equivalent of your car keys. They’re around somewhere — in your trouser pocket? Down the side of the sofa?

So often, I’ve heard Wales described as being that bit in between England and Ireland or — worse still — just a part of England itself.

Ireland, England and Scotland are all popular destinations for travelers and have a lot of very different things to offer. But here are some reasons I think you should consider doing something different by visiting Wales instead. It’s not just the U.K.’s smaller brother — it has a lot of unique things to show you of its own!

snowdonia national park wales hiker

Culture: The National Eisteddfod
March 1st is Saint David’s Day. Not many people outside Wales know that. Saint David (or Dewi Sant in Welsh) is our patron saint, and we like to celebrate him by wearing leeks and daffodils pinned to our clothes. It is a traditional day for holding Eisteddfods (cultural festivals and talent competitions), with Welsh poetry, literature, music and arts being exhibited.

A larger, National Eisteddfod is usually held in the summer, showcasing talent from the country that brought the world Dylan Thomas, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Roald Dahl and, erm … Tom Jones.

History: The Castle Capital of the World
Wales has a rich history that’s reflected in some of the architecture that remains. Sometimes referred to as the “castle capital of the world,” Wales had, at one point, more than 400 castles. The Welsh’s reputation as a bit of a handful for occupying forces led to fortifications being put up by everybody from the Norman invaders in the 11th century to the English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Copying this trend, Victorian businessmen commissioned their own “castles” such as the beautiful Castell Coch (the Red Castle) to impress their friends.

The World’s Coolest Castles

Wales was also home to the Romans for a time, and it has the ancient architecture to prove it — such as the 2,000-year-old amphitheaters, baths and barracks in Caerleon, South Wales.

caernarfon castle wales

Sports: Surfing the Severn Bore
Every year, a tidal wave sweeps up the river Severn, attracting surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders and other lunatics from all over the world, who attempt to pit themselves against the river’s tidal range (often cited as being the second largest in the world).

But if that isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of unrivaled hiking routes through the Brecon Beacon mountains or Snowdonia National Park, as well as some of the best rock climbing and abseiling in the U.K., to get visitors closer to the dramatic landscape.

Have a Welsh Cake!
And, while you’re over, have a Welsh cake. You won’t regret it! (They’re similar to scones.) And tucking into a bowl of lamb cawl (stew), a plate of lava bread (seaweed) or some fresh seafood might provide you with an excuse to tackle Mount Snowdon head on.

welsh cakes

Scenery: Land of Contrasts
And the landscape itself? Wales offers mountains and waterfalls in the north and famous valleys in the South, carved out by thousands of years of glacial activity, with pristine beaches, forests and reservoirs in between.

12 Spots to Fall in Love with Travel

Even aside from the noted spots of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Pembrokeshire coast, Snowdonia National Park and the Lleyn Peninsula, Wales is a place where you are never too far away from something to see, do, eat or listen to.

three cliffs bay wales

Have you been to Wales?

— written by Josh Thomas

museum of celebrity leftoversIt doesn’t exactly have the “ooh” factor of a Lucille Ball caricature hanging on Sardi’s wall. It does, however, inch toward the “eww” factor of, say, a faded 34C underwire tacked up on the ceiling of a dive bar. What is it? Just a wee crumb of a toastie eaten by the Libertines co-frontman Pete Doherty.

That’s right. There’s a museum where you can view the dried-out crust of a British pop star’s cheese, tomato and pesto panini that he ate at a cafe in a Cornish seaside village. Owners Michael and Francesca Bennett wanted to commemorate the visit of celebrities to their seafront cafe, the Old Boatstore. When photographer David Bailey visited, the couple told the BBC, they were so excited they decided to keep a bit of the sandwich he’d consumed. The Museum of Celebrity Leftovers grew from there.

Now, when you visit Kingsand in the U.K., you can view about 20 “artifacts” sealed under tiny glass domes and kept on a bright blue shelf hanging on the cafe wall — the museum’s entire collection. Ogle actress Mia Wasikowska’s wedge of zucchini. Examine the end of comedian Hugh Dennis’ ice cream cone. Ruminate over retired BBC weatherman Craig Rich’s pasty crust.

No preservatives have been added to the remains, and Michael Bennett assured the BBC that none of the exhibits seem to be getting moldy, just dried and shriveled.

The Bennetts have owned the cafe for nine years and serve mainly vegetarian fare with locally sourced seafood when available. So don’t expect to see a bite of Prince Harry’s burger anytime soon. However, Charles and Camilla have paid a visit. The Museum of Celebrity Leftovers has a tiny silver crown adorning the glass dome protecting Charles’ relic: a teensy crust of bread pudding.

It’s unlikely that the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall came just to see the odd exhibit, as the display of food waste is more kitschy than captivating. It may, however, have some competition for the world’s most underwhelming excuse for a museum. Consider the Asphalt Museum with its chunks of tar at Sacramento State College in California. Or the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas. And you might just get “sucked in” — their pun — at the Vacuum Museum along Route 66 in Missouri. (For more, see our list of the world’s weirdest museums.)

No reason to cross the Hermitage or Smithsonian off your must-see list just yet. En route between the two, you might want to stop in the Old Boatstore for a bite to eat. Who knows who may be seated next to you.

What’s the stupidest museum you’ve ever visited?

— written by Jodi Thompson

Tewkesbury, EnglandIf you’re planning on visiting the U.K., you and your fellow travelers might be torn between the bright lights of London, the highlands of Scotland, the sheer beauty of Cornwall or the castles of Wales. But with some careful planning, you will be able to keep everyone happy.

If you book a self-catering cottage, you can save some money too. Many holiday property owners in the U.K .rent their properties independently, thereby avoiding agency fees (typically 20 – 25 percent), and the savings are passed on to you. Sites like Independent Cottages have hundreds of independently owned holiday cottages for rent and cover all of the U.K.’s most popular destinations, including the Cotswolds, the Lake District, New Forest, Cornwall, Devon and the Scottish Highlands (to name just a few).

25 Ways to Save in Europe

For a first trip to the U.K., consider a central location in the English countryside such as the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds encompass parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. Many view the Cotswolds as quintessentially English, with very pretty “chocolate box” villages, near perfect pubs and a beautiful rolling countryside (“wold” means hill). The history of the Cotswolds dates back to the medieval days of the 13th century. Lots of local buildings were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, so they’re very old and full of character. Many structures have oak beams, stone floors and original fireplaces. Some even boast thatched roofs. It’s a very clean, pretty and well-maintained area, and, of course, the locals speak English!

The airports of London Heathrow and Birmingham are suitable hubs for traveling to the Cotswolds (both being a leisurely one- or two-hour drive away). The Cotswolds’ central location in England makes the region a very convenient base from which to explore the country. London is also close (about 90 minutes by train from Moreton-in-Marsh), so you can plan some days in the city and return to the peace and seclusion of the English countryside, or, more importantly, the English pub. Places like Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) are also accessible by car. There are many very pretty towns and villages in the Cotswolds, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Broadway and Burford, as well as the dubious-sounding Lower Slaughter. Visit Independent Cottages for a selection of privately owned holiday cottages in the Cotswolds.

If you do take a day trip to London, some advanced planning could help you save money. The train stations at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham both serve London Paddington. Make sure that any train tickets you purchase include the London Underground (London’s subway), also called “the tube.” Discounts are available for young people and senior travelers.

Here are some more tips on booking a holiday cottage in the U.K.:

– First of all, the term “self-catering cottage” means just that: a cottage where you cater for yourself. This means that no food is provided. But you can expect the kitchen to be fully equipped with cooking utensils. Some owners provide a welcome hamper (milk, eggs, etc.), while others don’t, so always check with the owner.

– Make your enquiries via e-mail at first, but when you find a cottage that you like, consider phoning and speaking to the owner (be aware of the time difference or you might hear some quaint old English words that could easily offend the less worldly!). Arranging flights and coordinating arrival times can be difficult, so be sure to ask any questions that you might have.

– Check to see if your cottage has laundry facilities. Nobody goes on holiday to do laundry, but the ability to freshen up travel-weary clothes will allow you to pack lighter.

– If you’ll be driving with a GPS unit, ask the owner for the property’s postcode (the U.K. equivalent to zip code), as this can help guide you to the door.

– Make sure that all towels, linen, heating, cleaning services, etc. are included. Agree upon all costs up front.

– Independent cottage owners will often want to receive payment in advance of arrival (usually six weeks or so). Do not worry; this is quite normal. However, if you do have any concerns, consider speaking to or e-mailing a customer service representative at the holiday rental site with which you’re booking. Ask how long the property owners have been with the rental site and if there have been any complaints about the property.

– Many independent rental owners cannot take credit card payments. If this is a concern to you, ask the owners if they accept PayPal (many do).

– Check and double check the arrangements for picking up the key — especially if you are arriving late at night.

– There are many different types and styles of accommodations in the U.K. If you are staying in a period property, remember that people were a lot shorter back in the 1600’s! Again, check with the owner about suitability and accessibility.

— written by Steve Jarvis. Jarvis manages holiday cottages in the U.K. as well as running Independent Cottages.

new inn pub hotel london Here’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog (top right).

We have a winner — er, actually, two winners. The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $139.49 a night (based on the July 29 exchange rate) or 85 GBP. Susan Frye, who issued the first correct answer in GBP, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. But we’re also giving a T-shirt to Marcia, whose guess in U.S. dollars was closest based on the July 29 exchange rate.

The room pictured was a twin room at the New Inn, located in the St. John’s Wood neighborhood of London. The inn is best known for its friendly pub, which serves a mix of English and Thai cuisine, but it also offers five rooms (three double and two twin) for overnight guests. All rooms cost a flat rate of 85 pounds, regardless of the season — an extremely affordable rate for London. Read more about the New Inn in London Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is St. Andrews, Scotland! Prince William and and his new bride, Kate Middleton, met as students at the 600-year-old St. Andrews University. This beautiful seaside town is also known as the home of golf; there are 11 places to hit the links here, including the world-renowned Old Course. Non-golfing visitors can enjoy the town’s historic sites, including the magnificent cathedral ruins pictured in Friday’s photo. Want to visit? Learn how to save money on flights to Europe this summer.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

–written by Sarah Schlichter