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Published: January 11th 2010
The usual cast of characters would make this trip but one had to be left behind. Gen's new job required her services throughout the Christmas season. I lost my best helper but ended-up with my own room throughout the trip.
Planning for the big family Christmas Trip of 2009 began almost the minute after we disembarked from our Christmas 2008 Caribbean Cruise. Not one of my favorite vacation memories. In fact, I was pretty well bored to death the whole week at sea. I hadn't minded the Greek cruises we had taken in the past. On them we made a stop or two every day. This Carnival cruise was more about eating and drinking rather than actually going anywhere to see something. Onboard the ship the entertainment was shopping seminars for jewelry purchasing, bingo, watching third-rate Vegas-style entertainment, quiz games, more bingo, disco dancing lessons and far too many stage performances where there was far too much audience participation than I was comfortable with. Thank God for the TV in our cabin. I spent most of my days watching college football and bad movies while the rest of the family sat up on deck in the howling wind trying to tan and read. While I was ready to climb the walls the rest of the family had a great time and couldn't wait to do it again.
Not in 2009 I swore. As soon as we got back home and I could sit in front of my computer again, I started planning and booking our trip 11 months ahead of time. I had an entire 2 week itinerary from Berlin to Dresden to Budapest to Vienna to Munich worked-up. By the end of January, I had booked a rental van and confirmed 75%!o(MISSING)f our hotels. I was basically re-doing the same trip we had done in 2007 but allowing for more time in Vienna at the expense of a visit to Prague. Tyler's newfound love for beer and Cassie's coming of age convinced me to spend some time in Bamberg, Germany where there are more breweries per capita than anywhere else on earth. I was hoping to arrange a brewery tour or two as well as spending more time at the baths of Budapest.
By early February, instead of working on our tax return, I was putting the finishing touches on the trip.
What I didn't take into account however, was everyone else's opinion. Tyler was agreeable to anything I came up with, but Gen was in the process of switching jobs and wasn't confident about getting any time off at Christmas, let alone two weeks. Gail was lukewarm to the idea partly because we had just done the same thing the previous year and because the expense for that long a trip seemed daunting. When I finally asked Cassie her opinion, she said she wanted to go to London. My first reaction was "We go to London for a few days almost every year on EF trips, why go again?" Then she said (whined) "I never get to pick where we go". She had a point. When Gail and I started checking flight schedules and calculating our frequent flyer mileage options it seemed going to London would work out rather nicely due to the availability of non-stop flights and reasonable departure times.
Because I had had such a great time on our EF trip through Scotland in 2006 I started to explore the possibility of reconstructing that trip on our own. Hours upon days of fiddling with train schedules, Britrail passes, budget airline fares, and even bus timetables eventually convinced me that the best course would involve us renting a car and driving to the tiny Scottish and Yorkshire villages we had toured with EF. Driving was my last choice because up until now I had avoided the idea of driving on the wrong side of the car and road like the plague. Even though I often operate a right side drive postal vehicle I still stay on the right side of the road here in the States. I have driven thousands of miles on the roads of Germany, France, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Hungary but they all drive on the normal side of the asphalt. I might not be able to decipher the signs over there but at least I know to bear right at a traffic circle and look to my left first when I pull onto a main road. In the UK everything would be backwards. But Gail convinced me that dumber people than myself had been able to operate a car in the UK and even Clark Griswold survived his ordeal. So I set up a reservation with Avis requesting an automatic transmission. Working a clutch and shifting left-handed would have simply blown my mind. My friend Harry told me that driving on the left wasn't all that difficult once you left the rental car area. He said one of the rental car folks he spoke to told him that you could always tell when a Yank had rented a particular car - the left side tires and hubcaps were scuffed-up by drivers over-compensating toward the left shoulder.
I initially wanted to fly into London where we could take the Underground into town, spend a few days there in comfortable surroundings, then take the Tube back out to the airport where we would rent a car then proceed up North. But because the flight schedule worked so much better when I reversed the trip, we opted to fly into Edinburgh first. To save money on the car rental we would spend 3 days in Edinburgh where we could find plenty of sights to see without a car, then return to the airport and pick up a rental. From there we would head into the Highlands where we could do some Scotch tasting, see a few battlefields and take photos of some of the wildlife we had zipped past on our EF bus tour. Then we would go South into Yorkshire to see York city and Hadrian's Wall before making our way to London. Again we would drop off the car at the airport then find our way into town utilizing the excellent subway system.
When booking hotels I was finding it very difficult to keep to my usual credo of staying under $100 per room per night. I used Booking.com
and Trip Advisor
to locate the cheapest rooms I could find at places that weren't out and out dumps. In the first few weeks of working on the itinerary I think I changed our Edinburgh accomodations 5 times. Finally one day Gail and I sat down and went through a long list of hotels on Kayak
and found a relatively reasonable rate at the Ibis Edinburgh Center
that required immediate payment. Once we hemmed and hawed about it we decided to put out $400 on our non-refundable rooms. We were committed.
The rest of the accomodations that I booked were through Booking.com, but required no advance payment. Most of them were bed and breakfasts. This would be a new experience for us since we usually prefer the anonymity of staying in an impersonal hotel. There you rarely see the desk clerk after you check in and you can bop in and out at your own leisure. We were a little leery of the possible restrictions a B&B might impose. The idea of trying to feel comfortable in someone else's house sounded scary. But the prices were competitive with the best hotel rates plus they included large breakfasts. We took the plunge. The responses I got back from all three places I booked were so welcoming and friendly that I never even considered changing them after I booked them.
Finding someplace to stay in London was proving to be a different story. I was unable to find anything for less the $125 a night. I tried bidding sites like Priceline and Hotels.com but couldn't come up with anything in our price range. Having stayed in a couple somewhat shabby establishments of London back in my youth I didn't want to gamble on a B&B in London. I just kept checking the websites every few days and checked reviews on Trip Advisor. Then one day I found a really exceptional rate of 38 British Pounds (about $60) per night for a hotel in Knightsbridge - right in the most exclusive shopping district of London. I looked for reviews of the hotel but couldn't find any. I couldn't imagine why not unless it was a brand new hotel. A Google search picture of the hotel indicated a big majestic, but very old building. Again Gail and I deliberated all day about booking it. Finally I said "Let's book it for now and then continually try Priceline in hopes of finding something better later". When I went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's website later that day, that 38 pound rate was still being offered but then I noticed it was for "turret suites". Breakfast was included as was internet and concierge services. Still thinking this could be the London Fawlty Towers I booked three rooms for 3 nights. The next day I got a very formal e-mail reply confirming the rooms but with a note that a major mistake had been made. Someone had loaded these rates improperly onto the website. The rooms that they had confirmed for us normally listed at 800 pounds per night! I took special care to make numerous copies of that e-mail. Over the following months I received a number of very friendly yet professional e-mail from the hotel group making sure we were still coming, asking about our special needs and our rooming lists. I think the lack of reviews might have been because "normal" people can't afford to stay there.
Once booked we actually kept the entire itinerary intact with no changes except for adding a day at the front end of the trip. Continental Airlines cancelled our flight from Newark over to Edinburgh and rebooked us a day earlier without ever telling us. We discovered it accidently and had to scramble to add one more day to our Ibis non-refundable reservation in Edinburgh.
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