Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

Five Awesome Free Things to do in London

London is a difficult place to keep on a budget. It’s really a buffet of things to do, history to understand, and information to absorb. In the madness and chaos that it is, there’s remarkably wonderful free things. After scouring the city for ourselves, we found the following attractions the best way to spend free time (as they can consume a lot of it) and keep your money in your wallet.

1. Imperial War Museum

Making bullets as the voice overhead observes Mark's job
Making bullets as the voice overhead observes Mark’s job

This is not any ordinary war/ history dull experience museum. There are voice overs, interactive whiteboards where you can touch and manipulate things as it shows you how long it took to create artillery, make bread or assemble shoes. There is gunfire and men and women shouting overhead. Lights are strategically positioned to make you feel like a time capsule has transported you back to The Great War. Incredible facts abound. We spent nearly three hours at the museum and didn’t finish the ground floor (there’s five of them). We learned:

  • Britain received gifts from all of her territories during World War I, including sheep, money, and food from Canada; rum from Jamaica; food and cocoa from Africa; and an assortment of goats.
  • Each participating military had its own unique outfit: colors, designs, emblems, embellishments, even if they were on the same side.
  • Germany’s army pushed Russia back an impressive 300 miles in one invasion! But it was not enough to defeat the Russians.

The museum is free of charge to enter; a map will cost a pound. There is also an entire floor devoted appropriately to the Holocaust.

2. The British Museum

Well done, Britain, this is an extraordinary place to visit. It’s also extraordinarily crowded, though people typically move about at a good pace. To avoid crowds, go on a Wednesday afternoon. I won’t tell you all the reasons you should go, because you’ve probably already put it on your list. But here’s the coolest parts:

  • Holding a 2,500 year old silver Greek coin, and learning that the symbol on that coin is on the Greek euro.
  • Seeing clocks from the 1500s. I watched the interactive video multiple times and I’m still convinced it’s part mechanics, part magic.
  • Seeing this poster which shows it’s cheaper to print on this currency than paper.DSC_0191
  • One of the first cash registers, created aptly by Tiffany and Co
  • The largest paper money denomination is 20 ‘million billion’ Hungarian. Wow.

3. The National Gallery

Simply wonderful. If you took your time through it you couldn’t cover the gallery. It’s simply stunning. People are milling about from the time it opens to the time that it closes. These pieces of art are so varied in size, emotion and structure. There’s one in particular, a painting of a horse that stretches from floor to ceiling. The walls are 20-30 feet high? The painting is so phenomenally large you’re captivated by the thought that one hand of one person painted this enormous horse. It’s held by chains that come down from the ceiling. 

The Gallery is best broken up into two afternoons if you want to really feel like you’ve experienced it. Suggested itinerary, do something paid in the morning then head over to the gallery for the later part of the afternoon. 

Van Goh's Most Famous: Chair, Sunflowers and Two Crabs
Van Gogh’s: Chair, Sunflowers and Two Crabs

Pro-tip: want to know what the fuss is about over an artist or a painting? Plenty of educated art enthusiasts at the entrance and exit of each gallery room to tell you about those works. Chat em up. 

BONUS: The buskers outside the National Gallery are extremely talented. There’s one gentleman, The Homeless Bard, who writes exceptional poetry detailing his highs and lows and major mistakes. Everything he writes is impromptu, spoken from the heart. Talk to him, he’s got a sweet drawl and tired blue eyes. He is optimistic, despite losing everything, and is currently rebuilding his life through his gift of penmanship.

Homeless Bard prays before writing his fourth poem of the day.
Homeless Bard prays before writing his fourth poem of the day.

Finally, here’s a separate list of interesting places that are also free, but unfortunately we’re missed because of time:

4. Geffrye Museum – quirky and fun facts about the evolution of furniture throughout centuries. Even shag carpet has its genetic roots somewhere. And it’s always amazing to me how much SMALLER all the furniture is. An adult chair would maybe fit today’s child.

5. King George V Park evidently has alpacas, which are my favorite animal. If I ever had the opportunity to have land, I would certainly get a herd of alpacas. And feed them apples. Because they don’t have incisors that allow them to cut up food and all that.

Travelling to London and looking for more helpful hints? Click here to learn how to travel around London efficiently and cheaply.

MarkandMelody

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody

London on a Budget: Don’t Forget This! 

When looking to travel in a big city like London, it’s easy to be seduced into picking the lowest price for hotels/ lodging. We found out the hard way that the cheapest place actually ends up costing more…

Big Ben.

How? Because time is valuable too. 

Our 100+ day journey (no return ticket!) started with a week in London, so this is sage advice for long journey travelers and ambitious tourists who believe they can absorb London in a week.

It’s hard to find a way around London being pricey: bargain hotels start at $130 USD near the main attractions and hostels are mostly dorm style. AirBnB is typically the best way to get quality lodging at a deeply discounted rate. Unless you’re the worlds greatest hotel rewards points collector of course, in which case, don’t be afraid to share.

After looking into our options, we found a beautiful little place ‘just outside of London City Center’ for a modest $38 per night. That’s just $19 per person, per night. We had a nice little kitchen to cook in and a living room – excellent!

We flew ‘Into London’ (rolls eyes) and began working our way toward the house. Color me surprised to find that it would take us nearly an hour and a half via train and underground to get there.

Geograph-2430114-by-Malc-McDonald

Transit into London came at a steep cost of $77 via train on the express, taking about 45 minutes. Buy your ticket in advance and you might not get taken advantage of like we did. After another two transfers, we ended up on the train that would take us 45 minutes outside of London City Center ($4). We then walked / climbed the hill that brought us to the house we would call home for the next week.

Side note: This hill did not mess around. It puts San Francisco to shame. I’ve been on trail hikes less exerting than this. I felt like a winded mountaineer. What’s worse is these delightful little British kids are running all up and down this hill like it’s the easiest thing they’ve done all day. Ah.  Good ol days.

EVERY day we went into London to visit the Tower of London, or Tower Bridge, or the Beefeater Gin Distillery, or to visit a random park to have lunch, we were literally travelling uphill both ways. So that’s what my grandparents meant.


We took the bait for the cheapest place and paid a lot in time; over 18 hours was spent traveling to and from London city center which was $148 in fare over seven days for two people. The underground, overground and Thameslink train are surprisingly inexpensive, but we definitely could have used that 18 hours to spend another day at the Imperial War Museum, the National Gallery or the British Museum. 

Taking into account travel costs, the weighted cost of lodging became $415 – not taking into account our time (which of course everyone values differently). That brought the nightly rate to $59.29 or $29.65 per person.

We may have been able to find something that was more accessible and end up spending the same amount (or less), by opting for something a little higher in initial cost.

Pro-tips:

London’ is broken up into six zones. Zones one and two are where most of the popular attractions are. We were technically staying in London, but zone six, which was an hour away from the center. A trip to the Jewish Museum, a little further afield, was over 90 minutes away and back.

If you are staying at an airbnb (which we totally recommend) please ask them what zone they are in and what station they are near. Give us a shout if you need help deciphering the infamous London Underground map. 🙂

Think about how much time you want to spend getting to your points of interest each day, and always account for potential delays when you are further away. Remember – time is money!

Cheaper accommodation usually sacrifices: Convenience, Amenities, and/or Access to Transit. Even if you do not mind spending more time in transit, always take the everyday travel cost into account when making your decision.

AirBnB London

Consider a slightly more expensive accommodation to save yourself time or money overall. Looking back now, we could have spent $40-50 per night at a different AirBnB and found ourselves at a spot near London City Center, which would have saved us $65-135 – not to mention the time we spent and the stress incurred by the longer transit.


Whether you are on a mission to visit every country in the world as we are, or you’re just looking for a quick getaway to a world city, we hope that the information here might prove enlightening whilst you are planning.

Please send us a note of the travels you wish to embark on, and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Mark & Melody

The Oystercard Doesn’t Get You to London Airports, and other London Travel Tips

More about the benefits of an Oystercard and why you should by one in London here, but it’s a little known fact that it doesn’t cover transport all the way to ANY of London’s major tourist airports: Gatwick, Heathrow or Standsted. Instead, each airport offers its own express train. 

For flying into London Gatwick, please note, it’s about two hours from London City Center, so please calculate an additional $70 USD/ £40 for two people for the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station. From there you can buy an Oystercard and get just about anywhere in London via the tube/ underground. 

For flying into London Heathrow, it’s about an hour from London City Center. The Heathrow Express travels to Paddington station in 15 minutes for about $30 / £21 if you purchase in advance. To buy the Express ticket upon arrival into an airport it’s an additional $8 / £5 per ticket. 

For flying into London Stansted, there are two public transport options to get near city center. For $14/ £9, a 55 minute bus ride will take you from the airport to Liverpool Street. For $27/ £18, a 45 minute Stansted Express train will get you from the airport to Liverpool Street. 

NOTE: once you get to Liverpool street, you can use your Oystercard to get anywhere else on the tube, the overground, or the bus system. 

If you’re traveling with a group or you don’t want to deal with inevitable crowds, a third option is a taxi from Stansted which costs between $120-150 (£80-£100), though I’ve never taken it. You’re better off downloading the Gett app and hailing a taxicab that way. 

This is important so I’m saying it twice: buy your Oystercard in London. Do not get a travel card. Do not buy one-way tickets.  And please look hard at the London Pass before subscribing. The Oystercard lets you travel like a Londoner through nearly all the zones and you can refill/ top up the card as you go. 

Happy travels! 

How A Missed London Flight Became the Best Day Ever

We had a flight from London-Gatwick to Oslo scheduled to depart at 6am. Following the guidelines of international flights, we decided to be there about 90 minutes early: 4:30. We were staying at Masslink Guesthouse so across the street from the airport. The alarm is set for 4am.

It doesn’t go off. Something wakes me up around 4am, but it’s not the alarm. I go back to sleep.

I wake up about an hour later, suspicious of how rested I feel. Light is peeking through the curtains. I know it’s not 4am. My eyes glaze over to the clock and in big red letters it proudly displays… Continue reading

Don’t Rush into the London Pass

We almost bought them. It seemed like a great deal, which is reason to be all the more suspicious of it. In short, it gives you access to 60 attractions for one, two, three or six days, including things like Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, a Tower Bridge Experience, Windsor Castle, Globe Theatre, and a Thames River Cruise. The price for the pass goes up naturally with the number of days you plan on using it. It all sounds perfect, right?

Here’s why I didn’t get it. You have to see a whole lot of attractions in order for the pass to save you money. For example, I wanted to see:

Tower of London: 22
Westminster Abbey: 20
Beefeater Gin Distillery Tour: 12
Chislehurst Caves: 6
Jewish Museum: 8

Equalling 68 pounds. In order for the pass to save me any money, I would have to do these things in one day with the one-day London Pass, which costs 52 for an adult, which is frankly insane for the following reasons:

  1. We were at the Tower of London (where the Crown Jewels are) for over three hours and made it through the history of currency and mint exhibition, the White Tower, the Crown Jewels, and the Bloody Tower. There’s no way to see the entire Tower in less than half of a day.
  2. The Beefeater Gin Distillery is across town and takes another two hours in itself.

We took pictures of Westminster Abbey (not all that interested in the lineage of the royal families) and haven’t made it to the other attractions but the point of this is:

You would have to be hustling through major points of interest to save any money with the pass.

What would you prefer – spend a little more money for a lot more leisure, or save a little money for a lot more stress (and possibly pain?)

BUT, If you insist on purchasing the London Pass, please pick it up from a vendor in London. Buying it online will cost you an additional 10 pounds or more. (We saw rates much cheaper in London in person).

Leave comments with questions. We’re happy to elaborate.

Cheers.

xx