Tag Archives: london

The London Eye Ferris Wheel

The August Vacation Value You’ve Been Looking For

Summer has a way of sneaking up on you. Suddenly it’s the end of June.  If you haven’t made your summer vacation plans yet, we can suggest a world-class trip that won’t require traveling too far or spending too much. August is an ideal time of year to visit one of our favorite cities: London.  It’s a short flight (relatively speaking), it’s not too hot or crowded in August, you’ll find reduced prices for airfare and hotels (and many museums are free), and of course there’s so much to see and do, not only in the city itself but in the plethora of historic villages and sights in the countryside that you can make easy day trips to (which we recommend doing either independently by train or with a private driver-guide). London in August is such a smart move that that’s when Wendy took her own family there—and you can read what each of her young sons had to say about it in Do’s and Don’ts For Your Trip To London and How and Where to  Spot Supercars in London (late summer is the optimal time for that).  Here’s more from Jonathan Epstein, Trusted Travel Expert for Britain, as to why London in August makes so much sense:

The Marylebone hotel London bedroom

Business travel to London dries up in August, which means more room and better deals in hotels, like The Marylebone. (Photo: The Marylebone)


Hotels are less expensive.

That’s because business travel to London dries up in August. “Corporate travel is the bedrock of higher rates in major cities,” says Jonathan. “In late summer, these bookings vanish in London.” What does this mean for you?  Deals.  Jonathan negotiates exclusive August offers for his travelers at top four- and five-star hotels.  Depending on the location, he might secure discounts on stays over three or four nights, upgrades, complimentary meals, or free cocktails. Ask him about his connections at prime hotels such as One Aldwych, Rosewood London, the Corinthia, the Marylebone, the Milestone and the Egerton. An apartment rental is another way to maximize value, especially if you’re a family or large group; learn more about that option in our London Vacation Rentals: Insider’s Guide.

The weather is better.

Unlike in many cities in Europe, August temperatures are mild in London.  Highs are between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit—and who doesn’t want weather like that for sightseeing?

Everything is open, but the crowds are much smaller.

“In many cities like Paris and Rome, attractions and restaurants close in August,” Jonathan says, “but in London everything is still open!”  Because August is one of the slowest months of the year in London—with fewer tourists and fewer locals—you’re less likely to have to wait in lines or battle big crowds as you explore.

Buckingham Palace with guards London

Buckingham Palace opens to visitors only a few months each year—during the late summer. Photo: Pawel Libera/London and Partners

Late summer brings special events.

Buckingham Palace is only open to visitors for a short time each year. Guess when? During the late summer. This year, admission includes entry to “Royal Gifts,” an exhibition of official gifts presented to the Queen over the past 65 years.

Old Vic theatre exterior at night London

The Old Vic is one of London’s most famous theaters. Photo: Pawel Libera/London and Partners

It is easier to get great seats to London’s plays and musicals.

When tourists numbers go down—as they do in late summer—opportunities to see some of the West End’s famous theater productions open up. (You can see what’s playing at LondonTheatre.co.uk and find last-minute deals at TKTS.co.uk.)

This article has been updated; it was originally published in 2016.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Tangalle Sri Lanka ocean view with palm trees

7 Keys to Traveling Without Fear Despite Terror Attacks

The past few years have underscored that we’re living in a world where anything can happen anywhere at any time—at hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, at a country music festival in Las Vegas, on a bridge in London, at a celebration on the French Riviera, at a Christmas market in Berlin, in a theater in Paris, at the airport in Istanbul, at a shrine in Bangkok, in a hotel in Mumbai, at a nightclub in Orlando, at a marathon in Boston, in a skyscraper in Manhattan….

The answer is not to stop traveling, or to avoid huge swaths of the globe out of a misperception that your risk is greater there than anyplace else.  The answer is to keep traveling, to make friends around the world, and to be a thoughtful ambassador for your country.

Of course, while your head may agree with me, your gut may be apprehensive. You may be making travel plans—or trying to—and you can’t help but wonder: If I go, what is the risk that I will get caught in a terror incident? How do I minimize that risk? If I can’t minimize it, how do I get over my fear?

I believe the solution is to put your risk in perspective.  Here’s how:

1. Grasp how minuscule the statistical probability is of getting caught in a terror attack abroad.

According to the U.S. State Department, the number of U.S. citizens killed overseas by incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369; compare that number with the 3,043 killed inside the U.S. by terrorism during the same period.  In terms of street crime and gun violence, most of the U.S. cities we live in are statistically more dangerous than the places we visit abroad.   Your risk of being killed in a car crash (one in 19,000), drowning in your bathtub (one in 800,000), or being killed by lightning (one in 10 million) far exceed your risk of dying from terrorism (one in 20 million).

2. Don’t confuse the probability of a terrorist attack with the probability of becoming the victim of a terrorist attack.  

Is it virtually certain that there will be another terrorist attack in Europe in the next 12 months? Yes. Does that translate into a high degree of risk for the individual traveler to Europe? No.

3. Know where the real dangers lie.

When planning a vacation, we tend to worry more about spectacular risks—whether a terrorist attack or an epidemic of norovirus on a cruise ship—than about boring risks like, say, overexposure to the sun, even though one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.  Remember that the single biggest cause of death for Americans traveling overseas is motor vehicle accidents. (Terrorism is #7, after incidents such as suicide and drowning.)

4. Understand the reasons why your fear of a terrorist attack is out of proportion to the risk.

There are psychological reasons why we are more afraid of terrorist attacks than logic would dictate. We’re more afraid of risks that are new and unfamiliar than of those we’ve lived with for a long time (e.g., heart disease, which accounts for one in every four deaths in America each year).  We’re more afraid of risks that kill us in particularly gruesome ways—say, a plane crash, a shark attack, or the Ebola virus—than in mundane ways. We’re less afraid of risks we feel we have some control over, such as skiing and driving, even if it’s only the illusion of control. (Most people think their driving is safer than it actually is. We’re all one text message away from death on the road.)  We’re more afraid of human-made dangers than of those with natural causes, such as solar radiation or earthquakes. We’re more afraid of risks that are highly publicized, especially on television, and those that involve spectacular events. One incident with multiple deaths has a much greater impact than many incidents each involving a single death. That is one reason why we fear plane crashes more than car crashes (even though the latter are far more likely).

5. Don’t focus so much on unlikely risks that you ignore common risks that are far more likely to hurt you.

Frightened people make dangerous choices. As an example, after 9-11, people chose to drive rather than to fly.  As another example, cruisegoers may be so focused on washing their hands frequently in order to avoid norovirus that they forget to reapply their sunscreen.  Or, here’s a personal example: When I was in Istanbul shortly after 9-11, I opted for a small, locally owned hotel in a quiet part of town far from the U.S. Consulate. I figured a Western chain near the main square, or a hotel next to the Consulate, was more likely to be a terrorist target. But every night I kept having to hail a taxi to that small hotel, and the drivers kept getting lost en route–one even got a flat tire and left me on the side of the road—and it was dark on that inconspicuous street in a quiet part of town. My point is: The miles it took to reach my hotel every night raised my risk more than the likelihood of a terrorist attack at a Western chain near the Consulate would have.

6. Appreciate that what’s bothering you is not risk itself but your uncertainty as to the degree of it.

The problem you face as you try to plan a vacation is that you don’t know what your risk is or how safe one country (or concert venue) is versus another. We try to weigh the risk of one destination over another by looking at the historical record of violent incidents there. What’s tricky right now is that we don’t know how relevant the historical record is. Will the future be different than the past?  We don’t know.  Even when you can’t know the degree of risk, though, you can…

7. Lessen those risks you do have some control over.

You can say to yourself: “What is the likelihood of the situation affecting my trip? Pretty tiny.” And you can lessen those risks you do have some control over.  You can drive very carefully on your way to the airport.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

How to Never Wait in Line at a Tourist Attraction Again

Why waste your precious vacation time battling crowds and waiting in lines? Popular tourist sites the world over grow more congested every year and, sadly, the typical fixes—reserving an entry time, booking a “skip-the-line tour”—are not always a good solution. So I thought I’d share the best fixes I’ve found.

Reserving a time slot might make sense at an indoor museum (I wouldn’t show up at Rome’s Borghese Gallery or Florence’s Uffizi without one), but not necessarily at an outdoor monument. When I go to Paris, for instance, I want to hit the Eiffel Tower on a sunny, clear day; what if my entry time, reserved weeks in advance, coincides with rain and fog? Furthermore, I want to take my kids to the Louvre on a rainy day; what if I book skip-the-line tickets for what turns out to be a gorgeous day that we’d rather spend in the Jardin du Luxembourg? As for “skip-the-line tours,” aside from the fact that you can end up herded around in a big group with an annoying guide, they’re often not what they claim to be. A skip-the-line tour of the Vatican might get you past the ticket-buying line but not the security line. I’d rather be one of the handful of travelers who gets to eat breakfast at the Vatican and see it before it opens to the public.

By far the best way I’ve found to avoid crowds and bypass lines is to book your trip through the right travel fixer—someone who knows every insider trick at your destination and can leverage his/her superlative relationships there on your behalf. Such destination specialists can get you into sites at off-hours when they are empty and even into places that are off-limits to the public. The right person can get you past the mobs at Angkor Wat or ensure a crowd-free sunset at the Taj Mahal. You can even have Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia all to yourself. These Trusted Travel Experts can, in fact, arrange an entire trip that spares you from every line. And all you need to do is show up.

But if you prefer to D.I.Y. your trip, here are strategies that have worked well for me:

Find out if there’s a side or back entrance.

Rose Center for Earth and Science at the American Museum of Natural History

To avoid long lines, try an alternative entrance, like through the Rose Center for Earth and Science at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: ©AMNH/D

Sometimes there is an alternate entrance with a shorter line or none at all. In Paris, my family entered the Louvre via the Porte des Lions and saved ourselves from an hour-long line at the Pyramid entrance. At the Museum of Natural History in New York City, if there’s a line at the Central Park West entrance, you can enter via the Rose Center for Earth and Space or via the 81st Street subway station.

Go at sunrise.

A lot of people assume sunset is best, but at many outdoor iconic monuments—Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Mount Sinai in Egypt, Petra in Jordan—sunrise is better. You get equally great light for photos but fewer crowds to spoil them. Sunrise is better for seeing neighborhoods too. In popular destinations that are touristy from 9 am till midnight, it’s from 6 to 9 am that you can see the locals living their everyday lives—green grocers opening their stalls, kids going to school, fishermen delivering their catch to the fish market, etc.

crowd in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Paris France

Visit museums on a night they’re open late and you’ll likely avoid mobs like this one, in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Photo: Wendy Perrin

Go at night.

Not all landmarks are accessible at night, but those that are are usually worth seeing at that time. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for instance, is beautifully lit and especially poignant at night. Park rangers are actually there to answer your questions until 10 pm. Remember that world-class museums are usually open on at least one night of the week. London’s Tate Modern, as just one example, stays open till 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The Eiffel Tower admits visitors until midnight in summertime—and sparkles at night too.

night skyline of Washington DC with Lincoln Memorial Washington Monument and Capitol building

Some famous attractions, like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. are more beautiful at night—and less crowded. Photo: Pixabay

Take the stairs.

A two-hour line at the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy Tim Baker.

A two-hour line at the Eiffel Tower elevators—which we skipped by taking the stairs. Photo: Tim Baker.

I’m no athlete, but I’ve climbed to the tops of dozens of bell towers, fortresses, palaces, and cathedrals, and I am here to tell you that the effort has always been well worth it, not just because of the views but because the great majority of visitors don’t make it there. Sometimes the journey itself is a highlight. If you’ve ever followed the circuitous, increasingly narrow route into the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you know what I mean. My family saved at least two hours at the Eiffel Tower by climbing the 670 steps to the second floor and taking the elevator from there to the top, rather than waiting in the scary elevator line at the base.

Buy the right pass.

aerial view of Venice Italy and surrounding water

Venice, Italy. Photo: Pixabay

Some cities sell city museum passes that let you bypass the line. For instance, the Paris Museum Pass and the Vienna Pass let you skip the line at dozens of museums and monuments in those cities. If you don’t need a multi-day museum pass because there’s really only one museum you want to see, sometimes you can buy a combination ticket for just three or four related museums (the world-famous one you want to see, plus other lesser museums you’re not interested in). Buy the combo ticket at one of the lesser museums with no line, then use it to skip the line at the museum you want. For example, in Venice, a ticket to the four Museums of St. Mark’s Square allowed me to skip the line at the Doge’s Palace.

Arrive at the visitor center before it opens.

World-famous sites with visitor centers tend to attract a lot of tour buses. You want to arrive long before they do. At Gettysburg, for instance, be the first inside the Museum and Visitor Center when it opens at 8:00 am (April 1 – Oct 31). If you have no reservation for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, get there before it opens at 7:00 am because that’s when tickets for that day are available on a first-come first-served basis.

 

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The Milestone Hotel, London

WOW Moment: A Surprise Pastry Class and Picnic in London

The best trips are packed with unique, memorable experiences that you couldn’t have anticipated or that turned out even better than what they sounded like in your itinerary. That’s the magic we all hope for when we travel, and it’s the magic that Wendy’s recommended travel specialists have up their sleeves—it’s part of the reason she names them to her list of the world’s best trip designers in the first place.

To thank all of you loyal users of Wendy’s WOW trip-planning system, we launched a reward program a while back: Wendy’s WOW Moments. Readers who’ve used our trip-request forms to contact one of our Trusted Travel Experts, and who have contributed reviews of those trips afterward, receive a complimentary gift from Wendy herself on their third trip. And we’re not talking fruit baskets or late checkouts. We’re talking about a personalized insider-access experience, hand-picked to suit your itinerary and arranged by the Trusted Travel Expert. Read eligibility requirements and program details here.

This loyalty program is now in full swing, and the first WendyPerrin.com traveler to earn a WOW Moment got to experience it on a trip to London. We wanted to find out from the traveler how this first-ever WOW Moment went, so we spoke to her by telephone to get the scoop.

family picnic in Hyde Park London

Paula da Rosa and her family enjoyed a picnic in Hyde Park. Photo: Celebrated Experiences

The travelers:

Paula da Rosa, her husband John, and her three children live in Vancouver, and as Paula told us over the phone, they are not big travelers. “We keep things pretty tight between Vancouver and Whistler. We ski,” she said. But this summer, her husband had a sabbatical and the family wanted to plan a special trip for their eight weeks off. They started with time in Hawaii (planned by Jay Johnson), followed by a villa rental in France (planned by Annie Flogaus) and then London, where they used to live. The London portion is where we provided their WOW Moment, working with Jonathan Epstein, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for England.

The WOW Moment:

For the WOW Moment, Jonathan arranged a special afternoon at London’s Milestone Hotel, where the grown-ups would try their hands at the art of Sabrage and sip Champagne, and the kids would dive into the art of pastry decoration. The family of five was then whisked away to a luxurious picnic in Hyde Park, with the Champagne they had sabered, the macarons and cupcakes they had adorned, and a cornucopia of other treats.

kids pastry class London

The kids got to decorate pastries while the grown-ups got to sip Champagne. Photo: Celebrated Experiences

The traveler’s review:

“Did the experience meet my expectations? It was expertly executed, it was super smooth,” Paula reported back to us over the phone. “It was definitely more than I thought it was going to be. I guess I was hoping it wasn’t going to be super cheesy, you know what I mean? We just don’t do cheesy. We’re not the family in Disneyland with the ears—that’s just not us.”

“When we arrived and there was a whole line of staff to greet us—the hotel manager through the pastry chef through the young woman who led it all, and she was quite exceptional—I did have what I like to call a ‘Canadian moment’, where I thought, ‘Really? All this fuss just for us?’ We sort of looked at each other thinking we should be sharing some of this bounty.’ [Paula laughs] It was very, very memorable, that’s for sure.”

“We go into a conservatory within the hotel and they were giving us history about the hotel and location, which was interesting, and they had John sabre a bottle of Champagne. That was pretty funny. [Laughs] He put on this cape and hat, and we both looked at each other and thought we were stepping into cheesy, but it was for the fun of it.”

The Conservatory restaurant at the Milestone Hotel, London

The Conservatory restaurant at the Milestone Hotel, London

Afterward, Paula and John enjoyed some of the Champagne they’d opened while the kids were taken to the Oratory dining room to decorate macarons and cupcakes. “That was very nice, because the five of us had been traveling together for weeks at that point, so it was lovely for mom and dad to have a minute to be husband and wife,” she says. “And it was nice for the kids to meet the pastry chef, and have the lady who was organizing it snap pictures.”

When tea was announced a short while later, Paula says she expected to be walked right into the next room. “But they said, ‘Oh no, we’ll do it outside.’” Packing up baskets of tea treats plus the kids’ macarons and John’s Champagne, the staff led the family across the street to Hyde Park, where they’d already set up a picnic site. “We sat back and enjoyed the afternoon,” Paula recalls. “When we finished, we called over, and they came over and packed it all up, and then as parting gifts they gave us gift bags of teddy bears and things from the hotel and had made a framed photo of our family, and then we were driven back to our hotel.”

“This was nowhere near what we were expecting. But I had been thinking in the back of my mind, Wouldn’t it be neat to have a picnic? So this wasn’t that far off from something we would do—but it felt very posh.” Then she adds with a laugh, “But I think I might start doing that.”

The traveler’s review of the WOW trip-planning system:

Paula had heard about Wendy Perrin through a friend and checked out our website. “I thought it looked straightforward and easy to deal with,” she says. “And the people I chatted with—it all seemed pretty tight. And someone else does the planning.” That appealed to her greatly, she says: “I don’t have that expertise, and I don’t want to spend the time building that expertise. I’d rather just hand it over to someone else who does know—and that worked well because it’s not just booking a flight, it’s booking different places.” Thinking back to before she found WendyPerrin.com, Paula laughs and says, “We were trying to plan what to do with eight weeks, and almost needed a divorce lawyer, because we had to work though a lot of stuff, prioritizing people’s wants and needs, and working through a lot of logistics, with three children.”

“People asked me why didn’t you just use VRBO. I don’t want to land and be surprised, and if there is a surprise, I want someone else to deal with it. This wasn’t meant to be cost-effective. We don’t get sabbaticals often, so I didn’t want to get into a situation of I took a less expensive route and then I’m paying for it on my holiday.”

 

Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

On every third qualifying trip, Wendy will add to your itinerary a surprise WOW Moment. A WOW Moment is an exclusive insider experience that helps make a trip extraordinary. Each WOW Moment is totally different. They vary depending on a huge range of factors, including the country you’re headed to, the timing of your trip, logistics, availability, and more. You can read a sampling of the more over-the-top WOW Moments (those most conducive to editorial coverage) here. Learn which trips qualify, and how the process works, here: Wendy Wants To Amp Up Your Trip!

A rib ride on the Thames River is a fun way to see waterfront sights such as the London Eye.

Do’s and Don’ts for Your Trip to London

Note from Wendy:  I’m just back from a trip to London with teen and tween boys, and out of 12 days’ worth of family-friendly activities—including a cricket match, the Science Museum, the H.M.S. Belfast, and Kensington Gardens—these are the experiences that my 14-year-old son, Charlie, enjoyed most, as well as those he feels are overrated.  Here, Charlie tells it in his words:

My mom took me to London over the summer and it ended up being an amazing experience. However, there were some times when I just wanted to leave whatever it was that we were doing. So, in this article, I will be sharing do’s and don’ts for London: where to go right away, and what to hold off on.

 

DO take a rib ride on the Thames.

This ride was both simply thrilling and thrillingly simple, as all it is is a high-speed boat ride. Your kids will love it, and you will probably love it too. It’s basically a tour of London, just much faster. With James Bond music playing, you feel like you’re in a movie. In addition, it isn’t too much of a bumpy ride, and I highly doubt that someone would feel sick after. I recommend getting there early so you can grab one of the front-row seats.

Thames Rib

I recommend sitting in the front row on the London rib ride.

 

DON’T prioritize the London Eye.

Everyone traveling to London has this on their agenda. But this really wouldn’t be too bad a thing to miss. The views aren’t as great as you’d think, and it’s sometimes hard to see because you’re packed in a cell with 25 others. There is also a very long line to get tickets; however, there is a big playground for the kids right next to it. You should still go here, but don’t overhype it or make it a priority to the other sights you’d like to see. If you have time, go for it.

The views from the London Eye are good, but you get better views from other places in London.

The views from the London Eye are good, but you get better views from other places in London.

 

DO pay a visit to the Churchill War Rooms.

This place surely exceeded my expectations. It is an exhibit about how Britain was run during the war and Winston Churchill’s life. They had a humongous interactive computer that had a timeline of world history during Churchill’s life. I spent a long time there. They only take groups of 5 or 7 at a time, so try to come when it first opens in the morning.

At the Churchill War Rooms you see the World War 2 bunker that shows how Britain was run during the war.

At the Churchill War Rooms you see the World War 2 bunker that shows how Britain was run during the war.

They have a humongous interactive computer that displays a visual timeline of world history during Churchill’s life.

They have a humongous interactive computer that displays a visual timeline of world history during Churchill’s life.

 

DON’T randomly visit the inside of Tower Bridge.

You should only go to the exhibition inside Tower Bridge if the drawbridge is scheduled to go up. We got lucky and got there 15 minutes before the drawbridge lift. We watched the bridge draw from the glass bottom floors at the top, when it really might have been better to watch from the wings at bridge level. But I only did one, so I can’t tell you which is best. Besides that, there isn’t really too much to see inside the bridge. It’s a worthy destination, but only if you get to see it in action.

Tower Bridge as seen from the H.M.S. Belfast.

Tower Bridge as seen from the H.M.S. Belfast.

From one of the bridge’s glass-bottomed floors we watched the drawbridge lift.

From one of the bridge’s glass-bottomed floors we watched the drawbridge lift.

 

DO climb St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The view from the top of St. Paul’s is phenomenal, undoubtedly better than that from the London Eye. But instead of a line to get there, there was a climb. And some climb it was. To get just to the second floor, there is what seems like a never-ending spiral to the top. But when you get to the fourth floor, you get the great payoff of going outside and feeling the breeze on your hair, the entire city of London in front of you. This is why I feel that St. Paul’s does the London Eye’s job better. There are even a lot of seniors making the climb for the top, which I thought was great. If you truly can’t make it, I would recommend just going up to the third floor, as the view isn’t that different and you aren’t forced to keep moving like you are at the top.

The view from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The view from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

These are the stairs you climb to get to the top of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

These are the stairs you climb to get to the top of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

 

DO take some time at the British Museum.

The name is misleading because nothing in this museum is British. Kept here are all of the artifacts and spoils of war that the British have won, stolen, or recovered. You will find things in this museum from every country, including mainly ancient Rome, China, Greece, and Egypt, as well as Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Assyria. You can also find things from the Americas, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Your kids would have very likely learned about some of this stuff in school, so they can tie what they’ve learned to what they’re seeing in person. No one will come out of this museum unsatisfied or unimpressed.

An Egyptian mummy in the British Museum.

An Egyptian mummy in the British Museum.

 

DO hire a Blue Badge guide for a day or two.

Without our guide, Sean, there would be many more things I would’ve wanted to skip. Our guide had insight on nearly everything in the city, he made the Tower of London come alive, and in Stonehenge we would have been lost without him. If you asked him a random question about London, his answer would never be “I don’t know.” We only had him for two days in London, but the amount of things we were able to see with him in that span was exceptional. I recommend hiring one, even if just for a day, as you won’t need one for an entire week. Try making it on the first day because your guide will have insight on what to do for the remainder of your stay. [Note from Wendy: We hired an exceptionally kid-friendly guide—one who can’t be hired via the Blue Badge site—through Jonathan Epstein, an England specialist on my WOW List of local fixers.) 

In the Tower of London our guide, Sean Moran, showed us “graffiti” carved by prisoners centuries ago.

In the Tower of London, Sean showed us “graffiti” carved by prisoners centuries ago.

 

DON’T wait in a crowd to see the changing of the guard.

Some people will get to Buckingham Palace two hours before the changing of the guard starts to get a prime spot. If this is truly something you want to do, I won’t stop you. However, our guide knew where to go and got us a spot just outside the gate to the Wellington Barracks about 10 minutes before the change started. What’s more is that here, the guards walk right by your face, maybe three feet away. You also get to see the band playing before they start. Make sure you snag a spot in time on the sidewalk and hold your ground. Some people will go onto the cobblestones that they force you off of when the guards start and try to stand in front of you. Kindly ask them to move.

Here’s the band marching out of Wellington Barracks toward Buckingham Palace. My mom and brother and I all videotaped it.

Here’s the band marching out of Wellington Barracks toward Buckingham Palace. My mom and brother and I all videotaped it.

 

DO spend some time at Borough Market.

Borough Market has been in business for more than 1,000 years. Schedule lunch there for one day, whether you have a bite in one of the restaurants or sample the many booths. There is some very interesting food there. The closest stand to where we ate sold ice cream from goats. Saturday is rush hour there, so if you want something less hectic, aim for a weekday.

Our guide Sean taught me the geography of London during Roman times over lunch at Borough Market.

Our guide Sean taught me the geography of London during Roman times over lunch at Borough Market.

 

DON’T bring your wallet to Harrods.

Harrods was probably one of the most overrated places we visited. There’s not a lot to really see that you can’t see anywhere else. If you can drop in for a visit, go for it, but don’t prioritize it over something else. On top of that, the prices are marked up way too far. There was a toy there that in Hamley’s—which is definitely a place not to miss if you have kids—cost £3 for 2. In Harrods, the same exact toy cost £15 for 1, which is a 900% markup from Hamley’s. As for the food halls, there are 2 places within 10 minutes of our house that have better sushi than what we tried. However, if you buy anything at Harrods, the food is the way to go.

My mom and brother ordering sushi in the food halls at Harrods.

My mom and brother ordering sushi in the food halls at Harrods.

At Hamley’s, testing out the toy that ends up grossly overpriced at Harrods.

At Hamley’s, testing out the toy that ends up grossly overpriced at Harrods.

 

DO spend an evening at Covent Garden.

Come here with no plans but maybe a dinner reservation, and you’ll leave happy. There are lots of shops and restaurants to spend your time in, but the best part was the performances in the square. I saw this pantomime starting his act while I was waiting for my brother and mom to get out of a shop, and we all ended up watching his show until the end, laughing the whole time. Spend an evening here and it won’t go wrong.

A Charlie Chaplin impersonator at Covent Garden.

A Charlie Chaplin impersonator at Covent Garden.

At the end of the show he gave a hug to his sidekick plucked from the audience.

At the end of the show he gave a hug to his sidekick plucked from the audience.

 

Photos by Timothy Baker

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Ferrari 458, a modded Range Rover

How and Where to Spot Supercars in London

Ferrari 458, a modded Range Rover
Spotted on Sloane Street: A Mercedes Gullwing in front of a Ferrari 458 and a modded Range Rover
The Dorchester hotel's parking lot
The Dorchester hotel's parking lot on a Monday morning in August
The Dorchester parking lot
The Dorchester parking lot
Lamborghini, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Rolls-Royce
Right to left: a Lamborghini, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Rolls-Royce....
Ferrari 458 wrapped in chrome blue
A Ferrari 458 wrapped in chrome blue, at the Dorchester
concierge at The Dorchester
Me and Stuart, the extremely nice and knowledgeable concierge at The Dorchester
The Dorchester
Me and more new friends at The Dorchester
carbon-fiber Pagani Huayra, Lamborghini Aventador
A carbon-fiber Pagani Huayra (right) and a Lamborghini Aventador (left) outside 45 Park Lane, next to The Dorchester
modded Mercedes G-Wagens
3 modded Mercedes G-Wagens outside 45 Park Lane
Lamborghinis and three Rolls-Royces
Two Lamborghinis and three Rolls-Royces at The Dorchester
Rolls-Royce
A Rolls-Royce with a stainless steel hood and modded headlights, at The Dorchester
Lamborghini Aventador
A Lamborghini Aventador on Piccadilly Circus
Lamborghinis, Buckingham Palace
Two Lamborghinis in front of Buckingham Palace
crystal-encrusted Mercedes
A crystal-encrusted Mercedes in Sloane Square
McLaren P1 in Notting Hill
A McLaren P1 in Notting Hill. I was speechless.
Ferrari F12 Berlinetta Coupe
Here's a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta Coupe with the coolest wrap job I have ever seen in real life.
Ferrari F12
That same Ferrari F12 as viewed from the front
rare Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat
A rare Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat with a KSA license plate
Aston Martin, Piccadilly Street
A DB9 Aston Martin on Piccadilly Street
Maybach 62 Zeppelin just off Sloane Street.
A Maybach 62 Zeppelin just off Sloane Street
Brabus Mercedes
A crazy-nice Brabus Mercedes
Ferrari F12 Berlinetta Coupe
A Ferrari F12 Berlinetta Coupe with a modded hood
Lamborghini Gallardo
A Lamborghini Gallardo with a rare type of back window
McLaren 750LT
A McLaren 750LT at the McLaren dealership on Knightsbridge Road
BMW M6
A modded BMW M6
Pagani Zonda
A Pagani Zonda, extremely rare and fast
Porsche 918 Spyder
A Porsche 918 Spyder, the only electric supercar
Rolls-Royce Wraith
A rare Rolls-Royce Wraith
Ford GT in Notting Hill
A very loud Ford GT in Notting Hill
British-made TVR sportscar
British-made TVR sportscar, with super-interesting exhaust pipes
Lamborghini Aventador interior
Lamborghini Aventador interior
Pagani Huayra interior
Pagani Huayra interior

 

Photos by Doug Baker and Timothy Baker

Hi. I’m Doug and I’m 12 years old. My mom just took me to London, and one of my favorite activities was spotting supercars. The craziest car I saw was a rainbow-diamond-encrusted Mini Cooper inside Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, but there were other rare supercars driving around London all the time. I saw a Mercedes plated with gold and black Swarovski crystals on Sloane Street, and a gray W Motors Lykan HyperSport in Knightsbridge. It was one of four ever made! If you want to see cars like this too when you go to London, here’s my advice:

  • Go in summertime. That’s when all the wealthy Middle Easterners come to town for cooler weather and they ship their supercars from home.
  • Go to The Dorchester hotel’s parking lot. Stuart, a concierge at the Dorchester, told me that if I wanted to see the most and best cars, I should come in the morning before 11 a.m. That’s when the cars’ owners are sleeping, so their cars are parked. Don’t go after noon because that’s when they’re driving the cars. If you have questions about the cars, the concierge can answer them. (The concierges were super-nice even though we weren’t staying at the hotel.) The streets and other fancy hotels near The Dorchester can have nice cars too.
  • The best time to see the cars driving around is after 5 p.m. and late at night. The best places to see them are Knightsbridge, Mayfair, and Notting Hill, and especially on Sloane Street and Brompton Road. They are on the streets around fancy department stores like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason because many of the car owners shop there so you can see their cars.
  • Go to supercar dealerships like Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Lotus. The Lotus dealership in Piccadilly Circus actually has no Lotuses in it, but you’ll see Lotuses driving past it. The McLaren dealership is near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at the Knightsbridge Tube stop. The employees were friendly and nice both times I went in.
  • When you photograph the cars, don’t forget to photograph their license plates. You’ll see license plates from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE. Some have both English and Arabic numbers.

Tips for photographing cars

  1. Always have your camera ready.
  2. Take the bus. Sit at the front row of the top of the double-decker bus.
  3. Listen for the cars. Sometimes we heard them coming before we saw them.
  4. Look inside to see what the interior looks like.
  5. Never spend too much time on one car. A cooler car might come by.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Ascot horse races

How to Hang Out with Royalty When You Travel to England: A WOW Experience

British royalty fever has been running rampant ever since there was British royalty. But these days, all the fuss over marriages and babies has made monarchy-watching even more of an international hobby.

Of course, there’s more to the monarchy than just cute kids, hats, and weddings, and if you’re traveling to England, you can actually have the opportunity to be part of royal traditions yourself. As you’d expect, you need to know someone to make this happen. Lucky you—you do. When you arrange a trip through a Trusted Travel Expert on Wendy’s WOW List, you get access to insider activities and private events. (Such special access is one of the factors that earns a trip designer a spot on The WOW List in the first place.)

In this series of articles on “WOW Experiences,” we spotlight the special experiences you can look forward to when you book a trip via a WOW List expert. Below, see what Jane McCrum, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for the United Kingdom, can make happen. If you’ve taken a trip arranged by Jane, please add your review to help other travelers.

The What: Hanging out with the British Royal family.

The Where and When: In and around London from late May through early July.

The WOW:  Every year back-to-back royal ceremonies and events are held in late spring and early summer all over the British capital, starting with the Chelsea Flower Show and wrapping up with the Henley Royal Regatta. Anyone can attend the events, but tickets often sell out quickly, and general admission tends to be for sections far from the action. Enter Jane McCrum, your ticket to British high society. Jane can arrange for V.I.P. access to all the events, including the Royal Ascot horse races and Trooping the Colour—the royal spectacle to beat all spectacles, part military parade and part elaborate birthday party for the Queen.

hats at the royal ascot horse races in england

Looking down towards well dressed spectators at Royal Ascot, held at York Racecourse in 2005, York, York, England. Photo: Visit Britain

Slightly lesser known, but full of pageantry all its own, is the Order of the Garter Ceremony, held at Windsor Castle every June. There, thanks to Jane’s connections, from front-row seats you’ll see much of the royal family (including the Queen herself), dressed in their full regalia (black-velvet capes, white-feathered hats), in a trumpet-led procession. You might even get the chance, before the ceremony, to have a terrifically entertaining lunch with one of the Knights of the Military who lives on the grounds of Windsor Castle. (There are just 13 Knights of the Military, all appointed by the Queen, and all of them live in a row of 16th-century homes just opposite the castle.) If you weren’t caught up in royal mania before, you certainly will be after spending an afternoon amid the pageantry and being treated to first-hand accounts of life in the royal realm.

Queen Elizabeth II at the Garter Ceremony with Lord Chamberlain in 1976, Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, UK. Photo: Visit Britain

Queen Elizabeth II at the Garter Ceremony with Lord Chamberlain in 1976, Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, UK. Photo: Visit Britain

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Evening View, London, England

The Impact of Brexit on Travel to the United Kingdom

It’s too early to tell all the complex ways that Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, a.k.a. Brexit, will affect travelers. But those who were thinking of a trip to the U.K. this summer might be particularly motivated, now that the British pound has dropped significantly in value.  The pound is at $1.32 today, which is a 31-year-low.  “In the very short term, travel to the U.K. will be an incredible bargain,” says Joe Brancatelli, business travel expert and founder of JoeSentMe. “For travelers, the exchange rate translates to an immediate 10 percent discount on hotels, restaurant meals, train tickets, Uber and cab rides, or whatever you pay for in pounds.” He adds that we are likely to see bargains elsewhere in Europe in the short-term as well, since the euro has fallen too.

In case you want to seize the day and head to the U.K. this summer, here are FAQs covering what you should know.

Q: Should I buy my airline ticket now, or wait?

A: There are deals right now. “Just today I wrote about sub-$450 round-trips to Europe,” says Gary Leff of View From The Wing. “I’ve been seeing plenty of great deals recently, including frequent business-class sales of $1,500 –$2,000.  Whenever you see a deal like that, jump on it—but only when your plans are firm because those sales are going to be non-refundable and carry hefty change penalties of $300 to $500 per ticket.”

Q: Should I use reward points to pay for airline tickets?

A: Probably not. “Frequent-flier awards are best used when airfares are high,” says Gary, a specialist in points and miles.

Q: Should I pay for accommodations now, or wait?

A: If that’s the way to guarantee you get the hotel, room type, or rental apartment you want, pay now.  If you aren’t required to pay now, you might as well wait. “I’m not usually a fan of prepaying,” Joe points out, “because I don’t think travelers can be short-term forex experts. The pound was at $1.49 before the Brexit vote came in. It is selling at $1.31 today. You’d have to be betting on a global recession to think it’ll decline much further. You’d also have to be a cockeyed optimist to think it’ll run up a lot in the weeks ahead.  So, if we are at or near the floor, I suppose it makes sense to lock in rates in advance. But I think the pound will be historically low for months and months. So I don’t see, for July-August, any need to lock in.”

Q: Should I pay in pounds or in my home currency?

A: “Always pay in pounds,” says Joe, “if for no other reason than if a hotel or an airline bills you in dollars, you get a bad currency exchange rate and, if you use the wrong credit card, you could get hit with forex fees anyway.” As always, use a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees; it will save you about 3% on every overseas purchase.

“If you use a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee,” says Gary.  “then you’re going to be more or less indifferent to the currency you’re buying in, because you’re going to get a favorable rate and you won’t get a surcharge.” (Gary regularly reports on the best credit cards for travelers, along with current sign-up bonuses and offers).

Q: Should I be using hotel points to pay for my hotel?

A: Probably not. “Hotel points are best used when hotel rates are high,” says Gary. When the exchange rate is in your favor, it usually doesn’t make sense to use points. Instead, take advantage of hotel deals and save your points for destinations where rooms are expensive.

As Gary explains further, “Most hotel programs assign their properties to categories and charge a fixed number of points throughout the year (Hilton is an exception, varying the number of points a hotel costs even within its category, and making it difficult to get outsized value from their points).  Hotel rates tend to be seasonal, or to vary by day of week.  Use your points when prices are higher than average, and spend cash when they’re lower than average.”

Q: If I’m in the U.K., and a shop or restaurant gives me the choice of paying in pounds or dollars, which do I choose?

A: “Always pay in the local currency,” says Gary. “If you’re given the option of paying in dollars, the merchant is generally going to convert prices from the local currency to dollars at an exchange rate that’s unfavorable to you. And if your credit card charges a foreign transaction fee, they’re going to charge you the fee anyway—even if the bill is in U.S. dollars—because the transaction originated outside the U.S.”

Q: If I’m in the U.K., and I have a choice of paying by credit card or in cash, which do I use?

A: If the British pound is fluctuating every day, travelers should probably check the exchange rate every day (go to XE.com or use the XE app) because that might affect their daily decisions as to how to pay for things. On a day when the value of the pound is particularly low, it may make sense to pay in cash because credit cards may use an exchange rate that applies a day or two later, when the transaction is billed.

Even before last week’s Brexit vote, London represented a great value this August in particular. Here’s why.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

A selection of pastries at one of London's best markets

The 5 Best Street Markets in London

This article originally ran on Luxe City Guides


 

By Chloe Jessica Payne

The Big Smoke is big on street markets, with hundreds of stalls criss-crossing the city selling everything from blooms to burgers to faffy bric-a-brac. And sure, heavyweights like Borough, Portobello and Camden have their charms, but if you want to avoid the fanny-packed hordes, we suggest you pack an appetite and pootle along to these…

Heavens to Betsy! Is that the sun you see peeping through the perennial blanket of clouds?! Well there’s no happier way to pass a sunny Sunday morning than by wandering through the historic Columbia Road Flower Market in London’s East End. You might not think much of a posy of flowers, but Columbia Road is about much more than just bouquets, Babs. Going like spit since 1869, the now up-and-coming area is dotted with gourmet stores, indie boutiques and lovely cafes – a rarity in a city that seems to be gripped in the throes of chainstore-itis. And after that (if you’ve still got some wind in your whistle), why not give the nearby, style-packed LUXE London Shoreditch itinerary a whirl?

Columbia Road Flower Market, Columbia Rd, E2, Tower Hamlets, London

The Columbia Road Flower Market

The Columbia Road Flower Market. Photo courtesy LUXE City Guides.

Let’s make this clear from the outset: we love Borough Market – and have yet to find a finer chorizo burger – but unless you want to spend a morning milling around with the world and his wife, venture one stop further on the Jubilee Line to Bermondsey, where only Londoners-in-the-know go. Here be Maltby Street Market, peddling all manner of tum-rumbling fare every Saturday and Sunday, with highlights including mead, fresh-steamed mussels, award-winning brownies, antique bits n’ bobs, handmade soaps, and take-home gourmet goodies.

Maltby Street Market, Maltby St, SE1, Bermondsey, London

Street market food, London

Some of the best food in London can be found at street markets. Photo courtesy LUXE City Guides.

London is a vast city to navigate, however, so depending on where you’re based, it’s a smart idea to check out the umbrella farmers market website which will guide you to your nearest organic food odyssey. Our particular faves include southern belle Oval, sleb-spotter Marylebone and the darling little Pimlico (the latter two feature in the LUXE London shopping itins too, natch). And so, off to the market you go!

London Farmers Markets, lfm.org.uk

More from Luxe City Guides

LUXE London guide
8 of Tokyo’s Top Fine Diners
Gin Lover’s Tour of the World
5 Stunning Spa Sanctuaries in Asia
Shopping on Rome’s Via dell’Oca

 

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Fireworks over London's Tower Bridge on New Year's Eve

The Rewards of Spending the Winter Holidays in London

London is magical during the holiday season. There’s a festive atmosphere everywhere you go, and the city is lively and vibrant with seasonal events, cultural goings-on and, of course, world-class shopping.

And, when you’ve got family in tow, there’s no better way to experience the holidays in London than by renting the right apartment. You can simultaneously feel at home and on vacation. You get more space for your dollar (remember that most London hotel rooms are tiny), a communal living area for family gatherings, and even a kitchen for preparing your own holiday feast.

To help you pull together a London winter getaway, here are ideas for things to do and where to stay, whether you’re bringing the whole family or just escaping for a romantic weekend alone.

What to Do

• Take a twirl around the Natural History Museum’s ice rink and then warm up with a hot cocoa. There are ice rinks across London, but this one is popular, as it’s only a short stroll from South Kensington.

• Check off a few people on your holiday shopping list with a visit to the beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum gift shop. They have an excellent Christmas display for a bit of artistic gift-giving inspiration.

• Join the crowds for holiday shopping on Oxford Street and Regent Street. The hustle and bustle combined with the glittering Christmas lights makes this a classic London experience during the holidays. Covent Garden and Carnaby Street are also extremely festive for shopping leading up to Christmas.

• Don’t forget the department stores! Get into the holiday spirit by visiting the holiday displays at Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, Liberty and Harrods.

• November through the end of December, take a stroll along the Thames at the Southbank Winter Market. Get a glass of mulled wine and explore the wooden chalets selling gifts, sweets, and festive food and drinks.

Where to Stay

South Kensington is a top choice during the winter holidays, thanks to central location, excellent transport options, and great sights and dining. Walk to the ice rink at the Natural History Museum and spend a day visiting the sights along Museum Row. Shopping and the West End are just a hop, skip and jump away on the Tube or a bus. It’s a wonderful area for feeling like a local and enjoying cozy evenings in a comfortable home setting.

To find the right travel specialist for London apartments, reach out to Ask Wendy.

Be a smarter traveler: Follow Wendy Perrin on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

The infinity pool at the back of the ship.

Viking Star: The Ship That Downton Abbey Built

Viking Ocean Cruise line isn’t for everyone. But it doesn’t want to be. At a press conference last week—held aboard the two-month-old Viking Star in her home port of Bergen, Norway—the company’s chairman and one of its founders, Torstein Hagen, said that his ocean liners, like his fleet of wildly successful European river ships, are meant to appeal to travelers much like him: older (55-plus), intellectually curious, interested in the world, and somewhat demanding.

“If they [cruise passengers] want to be in the sun, get drunk, or hang out in casinos, then they’re in the wrong place,” said Hagen. Viking Cruises are for the “thinking man,” he added, “not the drinking man.” The focus will be on the destination first, rather than the ship, he announced, pointing out that their sailings, which are currently in the Baltics and the Mediterranean, will allow for much longer port visits than the competition. In other words, Torstein Hagen is bringing river cruises to oceans.

Setting sail on the Viking Star. Photo from Viking Cruises.

The Viking Star at its christening ceremony, May 2015. Photo from Viking Cruises.

I boarded the Viking Star, the company’s first ocean-going vessel, in London (Greenwich, technically) and sailed it up to Bergen (long-ago settlement of the ancient Vikings, appropriately enough), on one of the last legs of her 50-day maiden voyage from Istanbul to Stockholm.  She carries 930 passengers, making it one of the smaller big ships around.  (By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, which debuted around the same time, carries more than 4,000 passengers). Two sister ships, the Viking Sea and Viking Sky, are scheduled to roll out of the shipyard in spring 2016 and winter 2017, respectively. Hagen says he’s planning on ten ships in total over the next several years. Ambitious, yes, especially when you consider that Viking is the first ocean cruise line to launch with newly built ships in 17 years, since Disney went to sea, in 1998. Ordinarily, that’d be big news in itself, but what really has travel industry insiders abuzz is that Hagen is looking to revolutionize ocean cruises much the same way he did with river cruises—by giving sophisticated travelers a sophisticated cruise at a reasonable price.

The Wintergarden and tea salon.

The Wintergarden and tea salon. Photo from Viking Cruises.

We have Lord and Lady Grantham to thank. Viking River Cruises has been around since 1997, but it wasn’t until 2011, when the company became the one-and-only sponsor of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and its breakout hit, Downton Abbey—by strokes of luck and genius—that the cruise line shifted into rapid expansion mode. “We realized that the people who watch Masterpiece Theatre are our kind of passengers,” said Richard Marnell, Viking’s Senior Vice President of Marketing. Viking had been chugging along with some 20 fairly standard river ships up until then, but after millions of Downton Abbey fans were exposed to the Viking ads, bookings soared, and the company sped up construction of its “longships,” a roomier, sleeker, and more modern take on the old river-ship model. Since 2012, Viking has built more than 40 new longships, establishing itself as the biggest player in the field, by far.

Capitalizing on the high demand for their river cruises, Hagen and his team plunged into the ocean-cruise market, applying their same winning formula to the new venture. Along with more time in ports, they offer a more streamlined approach to cruising (no onboard casinos, no sushi bars, no rock walls). They also offer remarkable value: The base cruise fare includes one shore excursion in every port, as well as wine, beer, and soft drinks with meals, and WiFi access. All passengers also have access to the (very nice) onboard spa, and if you’re in one of the higher cruise categories, you get complimentary dry cleaning and laundry. What might cost you hundreds of dollars extra per day on most other cruise lines is essentially free on Viking.

Norwegian-style waffles, fluffier than Swedish ones, are up for grabs morning and afternoon in the little Norwegian deli on deck 7.

Norwegian-style waffles, fluffier than Swedish ones, are up for grabs morning and afternoon in the little Norwegian deli on deck 7.

Despite the fact that Hagen is careful not to bill his ships as luxury vessels (“You will just disappoint people,” he said), the onboard experience is hardly bare bones. The Viking Star has only outside staterooms, all with balconies, and the décor throughout is so refreshingly modern that I found myself constantly (window) shopping for furniture—something I never thought I’d do on a cruise ship. A fabulously curated selection of books are found in every nook and cranny, many tied to the destinations, others about great explorers throughout history.

Then there are the delightful Scandinavian-themed touches, in keeping with Torstein Hagen’s Norwegian heritage.  A Norwegian deli serves three kinds of herring, gravlax on rye bread, and traditional apple and almond cakes. The artwork displayed throughout the ship is almost predominately Norwegian, including an Edvard Munch lithograph. The onboard spa, which impressed even the most jaded cruise-ship connoisseurs, staffs only Swedish masseuses, offers a “luxury beard treatment,” and has an onboard snow room, to be visited in between sauna sessions in true Nordic tradition. The owner’s suite, which is up for grabs on most sailings, has its own sauna, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea.

The onboard spa, which all passengers are free to use without paying an additional fee. Along with a heated pool and whirlpool, the spa also has saunas, plunge pools, and a snow room.

The onboard spa, which all passengers are free to use without paying an additional fee. Along with a heated pool and whirlpool, the spa also has saunas, plunge pools, and a snow room. The treatments, which costa extra and are typically pricey, have a Scandinavian theme (Swedish massages only!). Photo from Viking Cruises.

Not everything onboard was so innovative. Muzak plays not-too-softly on the otherwise pleasant pool deck, and the nighttime entertainment was less Scandinavian than good-old-American-cruise-ship cliché—the “Rat Pack Revisited” cabaret show and a Broadway-style Mamma Mia medley may have been designed for the older demographic, but passengers of all ages seemed bored stiff. Luckily, at the Explorer’s Lounge—a beautiful space at the front of the ship, with cozy faux-fur pelts on the sofas and the night sky’s constellations lit up on the ceiling after dark—you can sip on Aquavit until the wee hours. The Viking Star may not be for everyone—kids under 16 aren’t allowed, for one thing, and it isn’t small enough to sail into the off-the-beaten-path ports that 200-passenger ships can access—but for a high-quality, high-value cruise with some wonderfully idiosyncratic elements, it seems hard to beat.

*Disclosure: Viking Cruises provided me with a six-night stay free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking Cruises’ part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and Viking Cruises here.

Barcelona - Park Guell, Spain

European Cities that are Surprisingly Kid-Friendly

You’d be amazed how many of our frequent-traveling families prefer European capitals of culture to the beach.  So we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite European cities for vacations that are exceptionally kid-friendly yet also sophisticated enough for culture-vulture parents:

Berlin

The fantastic public transportation network is what puts Berlin over the top as a family-friendly destination. “Every place of note in the city is well served by public transportation,” says Gwen Kozlowski, who is one of the Eastern Europe travel specialists on Wendy’s WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts and who frequently takes her young son on European scouting trips.  “Getting around as a family is easy and a good value. The Berlin Welcome card provides from 48 hours to 6 days of unlimited transportation on the metro, S-Bahn (elevated train), and city buses, and each card covers one adult and three kids 6 to 14 years old; children under 6 are free.”  For families Gwen recommends the Adina Hackescher Markt hotel, where a two-bedroom suite costs less than a standard room in many of the city’s five-stars. Expose your kids to history at the Checkpoint Charlie House—but only later in the day, she advises, after all the tour buses have left.

For the best possible family-friendly trip to Berlin and to be marked as a VIP, contact Gwen through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Gwen’s trips here.  

Paris

child playing with toy boats in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris France

Paris is filled with parks and playgrounds. That’s Wendy’s son Doug in the Jardin du Luxembourg when he was eight.

When you’re traveling with kids, you want engaging activities, easy transportation, and great spaces for downtime, and the City of Light ticks all of these boxes. Paris also has an increasing number of pedestrian zones and neighborhoods closed to traffic on certain days, and strollers, scooters, and various bike set-ups can easily be rented to get around. Many Paris museums have kid-friendly spaces and self-guided tours; make sure to download the children’s activity book before tackling the Eiffel Tower. If you’re seeking special private experiences, nobody is more plugged in than Jennifer Virgilio, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for France, who can arrange hands-on activities such as an éclair-making class or an out-of-the-box tour that focuses on the city’s street art.  Renting an apartment in the right arrondissement can be a smart move for families too. Finally, when all you need is to burn off some energy, head to one of the many neighborhood parks and playgrounds, all well maintained and fenced in for safety.

Read Jennifer’s Insider’s Guide to Paris with Perks and, for the best possible family-friendly trip to Paris and to be marked as a VIP, contact Jennifer through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Jennifer’s trips here.

Dijon

Burgundy might be best known for its wine, but there’s plenty else to keep the underage set happy in the region’s capital. Dijon, you see, was the capital of the Valois Dukes—who were once more powerful than the king—so the old center is full of well-preserved medieval architecture. At the farmer’s market, France Trusted Travel Expert Michael Eloy arranges for kids to help an organic farmer run his stall. He also sends families to the Parc de la Colombière, where young and old can tackle a treetop ropes course, and to the Place de la Libération, where parents sit and enjoy a respite at a café while the kids play in the fountains.

Read Michael’s Insider’s Guide to Burgundy, and for the best possible family-friendly trip to Burgundy and to be marked as a VIP, contact Michael through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Michael’s trips here

Florence

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

Florence, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“At first glance, Florence is intimidating for families because many of the famous attractions are museums and monuments that seem grandiose and overwhelming, even to adults,” says Maria Landers, Trusted Travel Expert for Italy. “But with a little research and planning, Florence—and by extension, Italy’s Renaissance history—can be made vibrant and interesting for younger visitors. Several of the city’s museums, including the Palazzo Vecchio and the Museo Galileo, offer guided itineraries for children, and the Bardini and Boboli gardens are perfect outdoor spots for romping and picnicking. Don’t forget to reward yourselves with healthy doses of gelato as you go!”

Read Maria’s Insider’s Guide to Florence, and for the best possible family-friendly trip to Florence and to be marked as a VIP, contact Maria through Wendy’s questionnaire. Read reviews of Maria’s trips here

Istanbul

Galata Tower and the street in the Old Town of Istanbul, Turkey

Galata Tower and the street in the Old Town of Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Shutterstock

Many of the city’s sites naturally appeal to youngsters: “The Rahmi M Koç Industrial Museum’s interactive displays are great for kids, who also love going underground to the Byzantine Cistern and spying fish in the water,” says Earl Starkey, Trusted Travel Expert for Turkey. Earl uses art as a kid-friendly window into Turkish culture, arranging private classes on pottery and ebru (the Ottoman technique of paper marbling), as well as cooking. Even the pickiest palates will be satisfied with pide—best described as Turkish pizza—and Istanbul’s ubiquitous fresh-squeezed juices. To escape the city’s hustle and bustle, take a ferry to the car-free island of Buyukada, where you can rent bikes or hire a horse-drawn carriage.

Read Earl’s Insider’s Guide to Istanbul, and contact him through Wendy’s “Start a Trip” questionnaire to be marked as a VIP and get the best trip possible.

London

National Gallery in Trafalgar Square London England

Many museums in London are free, including the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Michael Heffernan/London and Partners

Free museums make London a great choice for families.  The Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery,  the National Maritime Museum, the National Gallery, and the Museum of London are only the start.  “Anywhere else, visiting even half of these would ring up costs of at least $100 per person,” notes Jonathan Epstein, Trusted Travel Expert for the British Isles. He adds that traveling to London removes the language barrier that can trip up some kids—especially on their first adventure abroad. Epstein’s young son is a devotee of the pirate-ship climbing structure at the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground. And then, of course, there’s Harry Potter: Families can visit sites featured in the books, or even tour the studios where the movies were filmed. Don’t miss this London advice from Wendy’s 14-year-old son: Dos and Don’ts For Your Trip to London.

Contact Jonathan through Wendy’s “Start a Trip” questionnaire to be marked as a VIP and get the best trip possible.

Barcelona

Sagrada Familia Barcelona Spain

Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia looks to some like a child’s masterpiece in sand. Photo: Pixabay

The Mediterranean climate makes it almost always pleasant to be outdoors (who wants to be cooped up inside with kids?), and there’s a fantastic beach area where can spend your afternoons after mornings spent exploring the city. Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia looks to some like a child’s masterpiece in sand—maybe that’s why kids are so drawn to his buildings and to the other Catalan Modernist structures sprinkled throughout the city. You could spend an entire day exploring how nature and architecture are woven together at Parc Guell.  And did you know that chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spanish?  There’s a chocolate factory in Barcelona that will have your kids begging for a second trip.

Contact Spain expert Pablo Calvo through Wendy’s “Start a Trip” questionnaire to be marked as a VIP and get the best trip possible.

What European cities would you add to this list?

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Private Villa, Transcoso, Brazil

Five Expensive Destinations That Will Be Cheaper in 2015

The dollar is once again king: Since the Great Recession, the Unites States’ economy has recovered better than any other major country’s: At the start of 2015, our currency was at an eleven-year high compared to those of other major countries, while the euro was at a nine-year low. Local currencies are down at least 10% against the January 2014 dollar in many popular travel destinations, including Mexico, Argentina, the euro zone, Sweden, Norway, and much of Africa. Parts of the world that not long ago were unaffordable for many are now within closer reach. Here are five places where the strong dollar will carry you surprisingly far in 2015:

 

Temple monks in Wakayama, Japan

Temple monks in Wakayama, Japan. Courtesy Paco

Japan
Since 2012, the yen has decreased in value by a whopping 43%. Hotels have raised their rates a bit, says Duff Trimble, our Trusted Travel Expert for Japan, but not nearly enough to keep up. This makes the country a bargain compared to what it cost to travel there a few years ago. You’ll find the best deals outside the peak periods for cherry blossoms (early April) and fall foliage (late November). Game for a last-minute getaway? Why not try skiing in Japan this winter.

To get the best possible trip, Ask Wendy.

 

Sossusvlei Dunes, Namibia

Sossusvlei Dunes, Namibia. Courtesy Cherri Briggs

South Africa & Namibia
A weakening rand and strong U.S. dollar mean that these two African nations are a steal for American travelers right now (the Namibian dollar is tied to the South African rand). Two years ago, $1 bought you about 8 rand; today, the rate is above 11.50. Over the course of a five-night safari, that difference could save a couple more than $3,500 at Royal Malewane, a luxury lodge situated on a private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park.

Read Insider’s Guides from some of our Trusted Travel Experts for Africa: Nina Wennersten and Dan Saperstein’s Insider’s Guide to South Africa Safaris, and Cherri Briggs’s Insider’s Guide to Namibia

To get the best possible trip, use Wendy’s trip-request forms to contact Nina and Dan, or Cherri.

 

Evening View, London, England

The view from Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament, the River Thames, Westminster and Westminster Bridge, towards the East as dusk is falling. Courtesy Visit Britain

London
Yes, the dollar buys more British pounds than it has in over a year. But that’s not the only reason that there’s value to be found in this perennially expensive city, says our Trusted Travel Expert for the United Kingdom, Jonathan Epstein. Several new five-star hotels have opened recently, and the competition has driven prices down: At the Milestone Hotel overlooking Kensington Palace, for instance, your fourth night is free (in a suite, the third night comes at no charge); at the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair, Epstein’s clients get 50% off a second room during certain times of year.

Read Jonathan’s Insider advice for London Heathrow overnight layovers.

To get the best possible trip, use Wendy’s trip-request form to contact Jonathan.

 

Gardens of Peter, St. Petersburg, Russia

Gardens of Peter, St. Petersburg, Russia. Courtesy Greg Tepper

Russia
With “diminished crowds and dramatically lower prices,” reports our Trusted Travel Expert for Russia, Greg Tepper, “now is the best time to visit Russia in many, many years.” Despite the current political climate, urban Russians are generally pro-Western, and personal safety is no more a concern than in Rome or Paris. If you want the best value, advises Tepper, start booking now: Hotels are at a huge discount, but many have already warned Tepper that they may soon start quoting rates in dollars or euros. Dance lovers would be wise to plan a trip during the Mariinsky International Ballet Festival in mid-March, when acclaimed dancers from around the world perform together in St. Petersburg. Tepper’s three-night programs to Moscow and St. Petersburg are the perfect introductions to these legendary cities; for WendyPerrin.com readers, the packages (including luxury hotel accommodations with breakfast, airport transfers, and one day’s private guided touring) start at $1,675 per person in Moscow and $1,200 per person in St. Petersburg—about 25% off what the same would have cost last year.

Read Greg’s Insider’s Guides to Moscow and to St. Petersburg.

To get the best possible trip, use Wendy’s trip-request form to contact Greg.

 

Brazil
Even in the quiet year shoehorned between hosting duties for the World Cup and the Olympics, Brazil is a hot destination—but also a more affordable one for Americans, thanks to the most favorable exchange rate in almost a decade. From the megalopolis of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon, prices are about 20% lower than even last year, and the Brazilian real isn’t predicted to strengthen until 2016.

Read our Trusted Travel Expert Paul Irvine’s Insider’s Guides to Rio de Janeiro and to Trancoso, Brazil.

To get the best possible trip, use Wendy’s trip-request form to contact Paul.

 

Where are you headed this year?

Cliveden House Hotel London

London Heathrow Layover: Great Hotels for a Stopover at LHR

Question:

Hi Wendy,

We’ve got a 20-hour layover at Heathrow in spring 2015. We’ll be landing at 7 p.m. London time, and we fly out the next day at 3 p.m. We’ll be staying overnight and would love a good rest and possibly to see Windsor Castle. Do you think there would be time for this?  If not, what would you recommend near Heathrow for an enjoyable stay?

Thanks,

Taffy

Answer:

There are several historic manor-house hotels near Heathrow. I’d recommend you dine and sleep at one of them, then the next morning head to Windsor Castle—you might even stop to see Eton College and the Magna Carta Memorial as well—en route back to Heathrow.  That’s my kind of airport layover!

The expert on London Heathrow layovers is Jonathan Epstein of Celebrated Experiences, one of my Trusted Travel Experts for the United Kingdom. Jonathan lays out these options at various price points (with all rates inclusive of breakfast and taxes):

$$$$
Cliveden House: This estate dating from the 1600s is the former home of Lady Astor. You’ll feel like you’re sleeping in Downton Abbey. It’s got 376 acres of extraordinary formal gardens and woodlands, including a maze. If you book through Jonathan, you get a guaranteed upgrade at time of booking, as well as an historic tour of the house. Rates start at about $625/night.

$$$
Pennyhill Park. This has a world-class spa and a two-Michelin-star restaurant, Latymer, that’s considered one of the best dining experiences in the U.K. Rooms are large and full of character. Rates start at about $450/night.

$$
Great Fosters. This country house dating from 1550 was one of Elizabeth I’s hunting lodges and comes with exceptional Tudor gardens. Rates start at about $300/night, but if you book one of Jonathan’s preferred rooms in the Main House for about $400/night, you get a complimentary transfer to Heathrow.

$
The Runnymede-on-Thames. This is a contemporary riverfront four-star hotel with a spa and both an outdoor and indoor pool. You can even rent an electronic riverboat and drive yourself down the Thames. Rates start at about $200/night.

If you really want to get to Windsor Castle, I might suggest opting for Great Fosters. That’s because if you choose Cliveden you’ll want to spend your morning exploring the gardens, and at Pennyhill Park you’ll want to spend it in the spa. Wherever you stay, though, Jonathan can have a driver pick you up in the morning and take you to Windsor Castle and Eton College en route back to Heathrow. Beats staying at the airport Hilton or Sofitel, eh?

If you connect with Jonathan via the black CONTACT button below his photo on his Insider’s Guide here, you’ll be marked as a WendyPerrin.com V.I.P. traveler, and you’ll get the priority status and trip-monitoring service that go with that. Enjoy your layover!