TRAVEL TIPS

First, a bit of blog of my trip to Great Britain in 2014, then general tips for easy reading. Finally I provide a link to my ongoing study of the Exodus and Holy Land.

I’m a senior now and the way I travel has had to change a lot over the years. When I planned my vacation to Great Britain in April 2014, I decided to pamper myself, and let others haul me around England, Scotland and Ireland on a tour bus, while staying in 5 star hotels.  I paid for the trip in January, but got a nasty jolt the in early March that the trip was cancelled by Trafalgar Bus Tours because of a lack of interest in Ireland. I could find no one else for my dates of travel, so I had to start from scratch and plan it myself.

Since my goal was to see as much of the countryside as possible, I bought a train pass and spent eight glorious days rolling through England and Scotland, on and off at will. When I wanted a city tour of London, after watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (and a trip into the Mews to see the horses and carriages), I climbed to the top of a tour bus and enjoyed a few hours going everywhere with a taped explanation of all the main attractions. But, way south another day in Torquay (summer home of Agatha Christie, my favourite murder mystery authoress), I used a simple local bus to do exactly the same thing. Let it wander at will for a pittance. Delightful time and a rest for weary legs.

I never travel in May because I am an avid gardener, and that is the peak of tulip time here in Ontario. I set this trip according to gardening, to enjoy Britain’s early spring blooms while my own flower beds were drying out and still dormant,  but needing raking when I got home. So think about those things that matter to you before you set the dates of any travel. Remember, too, that trips are more expensive in the summer, and cheaper in early spring or late fall. Sometimes it may mean less activities available to enjoy. Plan a big vacation starting six months before you plan to go, unless you are just going for a weekend jaunt. For me, I enjoy the planning almost as much as the actual travel, and I’m already working on a big one for next fall, over a year away. And costs always go up in the mean time, so save, save, save.

Lesson #1, always have a back-up plan if things go wrong.  And they did, although it ended up a great trip anyway. More about this one later. It doesn’t have to be a full plan but do look at the layout of the trip, what roads, what railways, what airlines service an area, and so on.  The first day in Dublin, my Visa was stolen, and there went all plans to rent a car. So, because I had already familiarized myself with transportation in Ireland, I got on a train to Belfast, then on to Londonderry. After a night there, I bought a bus pass to head south as I circled the island, getting off to enjoy the places where my own family had originated.

It wasn’t easy hauling that heavy suitcase. In the underground railroad system in London, I struggled up and down all those endless stairs. No elevators. No escalators. I couldn’t believe it. And you had to buy a card and put money on it,  then swipe it at a terminal entrance when entering, then do it again when leaving. Hours and hours sitting there to get between stations, and sometimes you ride backwards if you don’t notice the way the seats are laid out.

Major train routes in and out of the city are from different terminals. The trip to Scotland was only four hours away from London, but 16/17 hours if I tried to go straight up the west side of England from the bottom. It was faster returning to London in 3 hours, changing stations again, and hurrying to find that train for Glasgow. Trains in England have a first class car, then second where people like me end up, a longggggg walk down the concrete platform. And hoping there is an empty seat without a reservation ticket above it.  The trip to Inverness, Scotland from Glasgow had few seats that weren’t already reserved. I always grab a seat with a table, so I can write, work on my laptop and glance out the window from time to time. It’s a great spot to watch people coming and going, and many responded to my friendliness. I love trains.  Travel in comfort.

In Ireland, when I finally got to Galway Bus Station, I asked the station master if I could leave my suitcase  in a corner so I could go exploring. Not a problem. I later saw places in Ireland you could do that for a small fee. But that suitcase and no car ended my plans to visit castles and the great gardens. Instead I visited with the local folk, chatting away about life in Eire as the bus wound its way from village to village. I learned a lot travelling with locals. In Londonderry, the Catholics live in one section and the Protestants another, and meet in the middle for shopping. The Irish woman on the train asked me where I was staying, and told me this as we talked. And Irish seniors never have to pay for a bus ride, as I did. They just get on and off at will in the North.

When I got to Sligo, the taxi driver I hired couldn’t find my accommodation in the countryside, so he took me to a pub and had the locals helping him call around to figure out what to do.  What a jolly group of people. A pub!! and I’m a tea totaller. I discovered nice meals in pubs in Ireland and nary a sniff of the booze anywhere.  Turns out being Easter, the Catholics were at church, so no one was at the original hostel to take our repeated phone calls. Instead I ended up in another hostel in town,  totally shocked that the man who carried my suitcase upstairs  said he’d be a bit late into the room we apparently were to share that night (with a couple of other girls) . Yikes.   Another private room fee soon paid, and a tidy tip for that friendly taxi driver.

That Easter weekend caused me more problems, as bus service stopped working. I wanted to head from Cork to Wicklow and return to Dublin. After a two-day break at a wonderful Bed and Breakfast next door to the Blarney Castle (where all of us were Canadians that weekend, and the host’s husband was one too), I headed back to Dublin on a train, and got so engrossed in a conversation, I missed seeing the middle of Ireland.

Lots of people are posting online about their experiences in the very places you want to visit.  That can alert you to many things, as it did me, especially what to avoid. Use Google Earth to see some of the places of your interest. Doing so may change that interest.  I’m hoping these notes will help someone, even if just to have the courage to strike out as you get older. Yes, we do need that, something that probably young folk cannot understand.  With so many plane crashes lately, and refugees fleeing the Middle East, I am not the only one getting nervous of travel as of the end of 2016.  We have a spate of suicide pilots, deliberate missile attacks on commercial jets, and deliberate bombing of innocent passengers to create fear. I have to fight that fear sometimes, and I’m getting weaker. That bothers me the most as I age. Now I am trying to figure out how to leave a suitcase behind,  as I want more freedom to move about.

I’m a detailed planner, while many folk are not.  I established a budget for my Great Britain trip, and felt that $150 a day seemed reasonable. I planned to stay in bed and breakfast or private rooms in hostels for an average of $60 a night CD (Canadian). No sharing bunk bed rooms anymore with others, who often arrive all night long and/or jerk the lights on when one is dead asleep. The last girl who did that hardly spoke English, but I found out she had just arrived from Russia, where she had taken the northern train across Siberia from Japan. And I met a man and his student spending the summer walking across Ireland. Really puts life into perspective.  We need to get away sometimes just to appreciate life in its fullness. We limit ourselves so much.

I still tend to rough it a bit sometimes to stretch funds, like sleeping in the Dublin Airport the last night before my flight returned me to Canada. But I remember those private rooms in hostels in Great Britain which are terrific, far better than many b and b’s I stayed in.  I prepaid for several of them over the Internet, and never had a problem with payment when I arrived. Scotland in particular I remember for two of the best hostels.

However, I found Scotland depressing with its dampness and many grey buildings. Old cemeteries were fascinating, as were the churches  I visited. I sat in a very old Presbyterian pew for a Sunday service, thinking of others long ago.  It was wild and lonely out on the Highlands with its barren hills. And a major route I wanted to take even further north was only served by bus that would take days to reach my destination. So I rode the train from Inverness along the northern coastline,  turning south to stop at places like Aberdeen and Edinburgh,  and then caught my flight to Ireland.

What a shock at food prices in Great Britain, double what we pay at home. Considering I paid two CD dollars for every British pound, I found out what that meant when I decided to treat myself to a buffet breakfast. Sounded okay, a touch high at $11.95 I thought, until I realized later I actually paid close to $25 for that food.  So I immediately upped my food budget and moved my daily limit to $200 with another $50 in reserve in case I needed it. Yikes that is small fortune, I thought to myself. Multiply that by 30 days in a month, and you will see what I mean.  Forgot going for any less money unless you are young and a backpacker who can volunteer to work for your stay across the world.  I’ve travelled a lot of the world over a life-time, most of it when I was young. I am as eager to go as I ever was. Only now being eager isn’t enough.

Also be very alert in airports. Having spent the night in the one in Dublin, I was up early and sitting in the waiting room for the return flight to Toronto. As time got closer to departure, I wondered why there were only 30 or so of us waiting together. Shouldn’t there be about 200 people?  I rechecked the departure board, and discovered that our flight gate had been changed without any notice over the announcement speakers.  I hurried to tell the others, and yes, what relief to find the main group for our flight in the second departure gate.  No explanation at all. But great relief for me.

Lesson #2. Always take more money than you think you will need, or have it in reserve.  But don’t let money dictate your life. Believe in yourself, and believe in your dreams, then break the difficult parts down into small pieces to find new direction. Sift your thinking a bit.

I set the search engine on my computer to watch flights for me to all the major airports in each of the countries of where I planned to go, and learned what the average costs were fairly quickly. When a sudden notice arrived that a flight to London, England return Dublin, Ireland only cost $640 complete, I grabbed it and booked with West Jet, my favourite airline. There were many flights heading across the Atlantic in the $850 range to over $1,000, but that’s too high for me.  My pastor and wife got a great deal to London via Iceland return (one stopover each way), when a new airlines began. That Iceland trip they took in the summer of 2015 for $250 return per person, all taxes included. I think this one is still available. Take time to get a good flight and think about important things like sleeping most of the flight, as I did going to London. I have to be near a washroom on a flight now, drat that bladder, so that means an aisle seat for me. I usually choose my seat carefully when booking, even though it costs a bit. The return flight was very boring 7 hours coming back in the daylight. I have to choose departure and arrival times to work around rush hour traffic in Toronto,  coming and going. I get picked up by a small bus service that takes me the two hours to and from Collingwood and the International Airport.  I have given my son in York Region my vehicle a few times to use while I am away, but he has his own now, so I prefer not to take a vehicle to airport parking.

So, learn to know what things cost for an average flight to the destination of choice, so you know a deal when it arrives.

Lesson #3 – The unexpected can happen

I want to turn to my trip to Belise via Cancun, Mexico in the spring of 2015 because I saw things happen that were unusual. I planned to get Belise currency at the airport in Cancun, but there was none to be had which was quite a shock. They didn’t sell it. I should have ordered some from the bank before I left, as I usually do with all foreign currency I might need.  I like exchanging currency in airports as it is so easy, as I did in Shannon, Ireland when there wasn’t a bank open anywhere. I always check currency rates on line to know what to expect, with slight adjustments cause they are a business wanting to make money.  They all do.

I was carrying a large supply of prescription medications on this trip for a friend who was in Belise, and somehow the pills were stolen on the trip. When I found the bag missing as I headed out into Cancun, I turned back to report the loss to the authorities, both at customs and with the airlines. Nothing came of doing so. Later, when I got back to Toronto, I discovered that no one in Cancun had filed a report. The airlines knew nothing of the reported loss. I never figured out how the loss had occurred.The only time the meds were out of my sight occurred in the airplane to Cancun, when I put the bag in the overhead bin in the aircraft.  So be careful what you put up there, and keep important  personal items with you instead.

At both the Belise and the Mexican borders, especially when returning at night, two individuals were refused entry, and they walked away into the darkness, as we reloaded on the bus.  Not long later, they rejoined us to carry on.When I asked the one guy sitting behind me what had happened, he told me he had turned back after we were gone, put $100 USA bills into his passport, and rehanded it to the official. The passport was stamped, and the man allowed to leave.  Now why should I be surprised, I said to myself.  I would never have thought to do so, let alone deciding morally how I would have dealt with a similar situation.

TRAVEL TIPS

Planning A Trip to Great Britain

  • I use a travel book for major trips to take with me. Fodors or Frommers. My daughter got sick in Mexico and we had to rush her to the hospital at night in a strange place. Foders showed me the nearest hospital. The books get heavy, so find one that blends several countries in one volume. Gives maps, weather, currency, and tons of great hints. Great for first time travellers, less important for those who know the ropes and research a lot before leaving.
  • Self drive on left hand side highways is intimidating. You have to pay to go into some major centres, such as London, England. Consider hiring a driver, or using public transit in cities, then renting vehicle once you are out of cities. Airports are often outside the traffic region.
  • In Dublin, the bus into the city is easy to find at the airport. Check online for its route before you leave to know the stop you need when you are near your destination.
  • Rail & bus service is very good in Ireland. First & second class carriages.If you have a rail pass get it stamped initially when you arrive at the airport, then just show it at the gate in the train station and you will be waved onward.
  • Take the sight seeing bus in Dublin from O’Connell Street and if you see something you like, you can always return and visit it later. You can find locations online for this.
  • If you want to be near the main genealogy research centres in Dublin, consider the Buswells on Molesworth Street for accommodation. Buswells is a bit pricey, but its within a half block of the National Library on Kildare Street (for Church Records and Census) where you should begin. Always take their orientation. Buswells is also close to the National Museum, and an easy walk to the General Register Office (for birth, marriage & death records) The Evaluation Office (for land records), and the Pearse Railway Station. Consider Foley’s Restaurant above Riley’s Pub on Mario Row just around the corner from Buswell’s Hotel for a meal.
  • When doing reserach at the National Library, go across the court and into the National Museum for a cafeteria  lunch.
  • In Northern Ireland consider Clandeboye Lodge near Bangor, County Down as a base for visiting that region. In Belfast, there is Jury’s Hotel, right near the Grand Opera House, and just a short walk from the Convention Centre.  If your taste is Queen’s University, try Wellington Park Hotel. Just make sure these hotels and restaurants are still viable, since things change without notice.
  • Don’t drive a rented vehicle in the North into Republic areas, or a car rented in the South into Loyalist areas, says my friend Jim.  I never thought about this on my trip but was a touch nervous in Belfast. PRONI  is in the city for research, but it has a wonderful website of records. I planned to take my vehicle all around the perimeter of Ireland, and tour buses do it all the time, so not sure just how relevant this suggestion is.  All addresses you can find online.
  • Records for Northern Ireland after 1922 should be found in Belfast.
  • If you are lucky enough to have a grandparent born in the Republic, and can provide a paper trail, you may be eligible to become a dual citizen. The required papers are available at any Irish Consultate, and you don’t pay for a kit. As a foreign born citizen, you can also obtain your own Irish passport. Once you have that, after five years, your non-Irish spouse can also apply.