Thursday, January 13, 2011

Great Britain 2010 Chipping Campden, The Cotswolds

About 80 miles west of London is an area of natural beauty called the Cotswolds.  This is where it appears time has stopped. Gorgeous honey colored cottages, thatched roofs, rolling hills, tiny villages and affluent neighbors create an unparalleled charm.  It's here where the Royals, TV personalities and English movie stars have their country homes.  Movies including Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones Diary and the Harry Potter films were shot here.  Henry VIII and Elizabeth I stayed in nearby castles and a host of spectacular manor houses dot the area.

We spent two weeks in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds in May 2010.  My friends Jerry (Jeralyn) and Marsha joined me on a 4 week holiday to Great Britain.  We chose Chipping Campden after staying in the Cotswolds in 2009 and knew it to be one of the prettiest villages.  It also hosts the Chipping Campden Music Festival so we made our trip plans to coincide with this annual event.

We rented a 3 bedroom, 2 bath cottage we just loved.  It was roomy and cozy with a great location.  It was originally built by Charles Ashbee, the famous arts and crafts silversmith whose work can be seen in the British Museum.

The house has a wonderful backyard with a little garden and expansive lawn.

The conservatory was bright and warm and overlooked the garden.

The house had a nice size living room and dining room that could seat 6 people.

We had two queen bedrooms and a twin bedroom and two baths. Best of all it had a washer and dryer!!!

Chipping Campden is a beautiful village with a High St dating back to the 14th Century.  Located in the northern Cotswolds, it is surrounded by idyllic farmland and picturesque cottages.  St. James Church, the largest church in the area hosts the Chipping Campden Music Festival for two weeks in May and it is FANTASTIC!!  Candlelit concerts, a vast array of musicians and the best pianist you will ever hear.  The music is so good that the BBC tapes a few of the concerts for their programming.

Around every corner is a photograph waiting to happen.  Chipping Campden is such a delightful village I plan to stay there again in spring 2011 for 6 weeks!  It's hard to not go back to a place that looks like this!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Private Drivers/My Favorite Sign LEWIS

Okay, I admit I love private drivers and private transfers.  No wasting time trying to find our way around in a rental car.  That is no fun, especially for the driver.  I repeatedly hear how stressed out they are each night worrying about driving the next day on unfamiliar roads in unfamiliar countries.  Some people think that is an adventure.  Many have learned that is a nightmare.

When I step off a transatlantic flight all I want to see is a sign that says LEWIS.  The local driver whisks you away from the airport and directly to your rental.  No muss, no fuss, no stress,  If at least 3 people are traveling together the cost is almost the same as taking the airport train, switching to a cab at the terminal, lugging your luggage, etc., etc., miserable when you are so tired.  Or worse yet, trying to find your way out of the airport terminal and to your accommodations in a rental car when you are exhausted.  Yuck!

We usually hire airport transfer drivers for airports and a private driver guide for sightseeing 2 days out of each week of our stay.  We use the bus and cabs for local transport and a private driver for day trips further afield.  For example while staying in the Cotswolds we used the driver to take us to Wales, Glastonbury, Gloucester, Winchester, Windsor, Bath and several other places. In the Scottish Highlands we used a driver to take us to the Isles of Skye, Mull and up to Applecross with a bunch of places in between. In Italy I have used drivers all over Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Amalfi Coast, in and outside of Rome.   It is usually a 9-10 hour day and the driver plans our route to see as much as possible as comfortably as possible.

PLUS you get to see a lot of places no other tourist sees because you are with a local that knows the area. He wants to be sure you have a good time.  His mission is to take you where you want to go as well as showcase his home country along the way.  And they love showing you little known gems.

Drivers can be pricey if only two people are traveling or the exchange rate is poor, so use them sparingly and make sure the driver knows what it really important to you so he can plan the most expedient route.  Expect to pay 350-450 pounds per day in Great Britain, 400-500 euro in France and Italy. Divided by 3-5 people (since they charge per car not per person) makes it much more affordable and is the perfect way to see a lot in the least amount of time.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Vacation Rentals are a Unique Experience

I love vacation rentals.  They come in all shapes and sizes suited to number of people traveling and I have rented anywhere from one to four bedroom apartments and cottages in several countries.

We have stayed  in an apartment amidst the ancient ruins of central Rome, in a 400 year old cottage in the English Cotswolds,  in a restored 19th century abbey apartment in the Scottish Highlands, in a tiny 18th century French apartment next to the famous Rue Cler and Eiffel Tower, in a 15th century Tuscan house, as well as a myriad of other places.   They are a great way to keep your travel costs down and a lot of fun when traveling with a small group (2-5 people). 

It is a totally unique experience each time (not to mention the learning curve).

Not only do they offer a lot more ambience and living space for a lot less money than conventional hotel rooms but they also allow you to cook your own meals.  That is a HUGE cost savings.  Eating out is a large expense when traveling.  Plus you get to live like the locals.  You visit their stores and open air markets and often end up buying totally unfamiliar  local foods that are delicious!

Another big bonus is renting one with a washer and if possible, dryer.  That is a wonderful thing to have available and cuts down on your packing in a major way.

I always rent places that are near the historical center or within walking distance to town.  That not only gives us access to shopping but also transportation access since we never rent a car opting for private drivers or local transportation.

I always recommend a vacation rental if your stay is at least 4 nights in one place.  Less than that may be easier in a B&B since you don't have to shop for food.  Furthermore, some of the more popular places require a minimum seven night stay but you should always ask.  Sometimes owners or agencies will let you rent for less nights than shown on their website.  And ALWAYS ask for confirmation of the price.  Sometimes during shoulder, low season, pay in advance or in cash when you arrive, you can get a substantial discount off the web price.  Price is governed by season and length of stay.

The best resources for vacation rentals are Slow Travel, Tripadvisor and VRBO.  They have numerous reviews from people who have actually stayed in the rentals to avoid any surprises.  However sometimes there is no rental shown for place you want to stay or the ones listed don't suit your needs.  Then you have to become a search pro searching the internet for the appropriate apartment in the town where you want to be headquartered.  I had to do this when booking our stay in the Scottish Highlands and that 3 bedroom, 3 bath restored abbey apartment was one of the best we have ever rented!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Virgin Atlantic is My Favorite Transatlantic Airline! Award Ticket Heaven!

I love Virgin Atlantic and can see why Branson is so successful.  Customer service, customer service, customer service.  I travel almost exclusively on award tickets and Virgin offers the best frequent flyer program I  know.  Their Amercan Express Black Card aggressively lets you add miles with purchases and  online double dipping (shop through their site for bonus miles on online purchases plus get the AMX purchase miles) and gives you annual bonus miles as well.  Plus you get 20,000 miles just for signing up and up to 5,000 more miles for additional cardholders.

Virgin has lots of award seats and award seat sales BUT you usually need to book early.  Sometimes you can fly roundtrip to London for only 25,000 miles from Orlando or New York and they offer one way reward tickets for half the miles.  Two friends of mine that are going on a transatlantic cruise with me in April got award tickets back from London to Orlando for just 12,500 miles!!!  (Taxes and fees are additional.)

And get this, when you call Virgin Atlantic you get a really nice British person who gives you his/her extension number in case you need to call back.  How great is that!!!!

The first words out of my mouth when shopping are "Do you take American Express?"  I buy groceries, gas, pay bills, pay travel expenses, everything with my Virgin American Express Black card.

To qualify it's best to call as opposed to doing an online application.  Their card processor often handles other cards you may have and they may have to lower credit lines on another to give you this card.  Banks are very nervous these days and want to be sure you are a good credit risk.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Travel Review

I need some practice writing a blog so need to backtrack a little. During 2010 I traveled with friends to England and Scotland in May.  I also took my first transatlantic cruise home to Florida from Europe on the Pacific Princess traveling from Rome to Monaco, Spain, Morocco, Bermuda and the Azores in December.  More about that later.

First, let's talk about how to get an award ticket to London, why I think vacation rentals and private drivers are the way to go, ways to minimize European train and airline ticket costs once we get there and why we book cruises EARLY.

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere!

Here we go!  We're off to see the world!  It's a new year and time to get with the program, blog program that is.  I love independent travel and am often asked many questions about where we go, where we stay, what we do and what's next.  So for my friends, family and new, yet to meet travel friends who may be interested, here are some places we've been, things we've done and future plans we've made!