Links of the Week

Sorry for the light posting lately!  More coming soon, but for the meantime, check out these links:

1.  Make the most of Google Maps for travel (hotel finder features and sightseeing features!)

2.  Sure, seat recliners can be annoying, but would you do this?

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Pulling the Trigger: A Cautionary Tale

For those of us who are always looking for a good deal, a better deal- no, the best possible deal!- buying travel can be scary. I have often have customers ask me about the best time to purchase travel, as though there may be some golden 15 minute window each week when travel operators drop their prices. While there are numerous theories and articles about said window, I believe that the concept is akin to a unicorn or sasquatch. Fun to think about, but not something worth pursuing because you’ll spend a lot of time searching for something you probably won’t find. Most people simply get nervous at the thought of suddenly spending a lot of money all at once and (understandably) want to make sure they’re spending it wisely.

Let’s take Matt and Katie, for example. The young couple came to me asking that I help them plan their Curaçao honeymoon. We worked to find the perfect hotel, flights, rental car, and more. We finally had everything lined up. Then I discovered an interesting opportunity- if they stayed seven days, it would actually cost them less than if they stayed six. However, instead of having a buffer day in between the trip and their return to work, they would return on a red eye flight and have to go into work within a few hours of landing. So they pondered. And pondered. And pondered some more.

Over a week later, they finally got back to me, mentally ready to make the big purchase: Seven days of honeymoon was worth the lack of sleep! But wait just one second. You see, hotel and airfares are fickle things. Suddenly their hotel of choice was $155 more per night! Multiply that by 6-7 nights and suddenly their budget was thrown into a tizzy, as they couldn’t possibly afford the new rate. And just like that, a key aspect of their honeymoon was in question. Where were they going to stay?

So, here’s how you can avoid the chaos that Matt and Katie experienced:

1. Do your research. Get on the internet and figure out what the average rates are for the caliber of hotel you’re looking for or get your friendly neighborhood travel consultant to do the work for you. Be sure to use your actual travel dates when you search, as rates vary drastically depending on seasons of travel. Once you know the average, you can confidently understand what is a good deal and what is not.

2. Keep things in perspective. Obviously, you want the best deal possible. However, sometimes a trip may be coming up quickly, in which case waiting for a bargain day after day can become a stressful exercise. There’s always a chance that rates will go up instead of down. Likewise, there’s a chance that your hotel will fill up. How crucial is it for you to go to a specific hotel? If it’s high, you may want to just alleviate your stress by booking a hotel early and ease the pressure of being unsure of whether you’ll get a room, checking websites numerous times a day, and combing the internet for a deal. How much is peace of mind worth to you?

3. Pull the trigger. You’ve done the research. You’ve weighed the mental cost of booking now vs. later. You’re ready. No, really. You are. Purchase that vacation/hotel/airfare. You’ve done all you can do to be an educated buyer.

4. Stop researching. It’s tempting to keep looking at prices after your purchase in order to see if you could have possibly saved some money on your trip. However, what does that really accomplish? It just adds angst to your life and regret to your trip. Who needs that? You’re trying to get away! Start getting excited for your trip! Don’t fret in the past of what-ifs. If the inner Type-A in you comes out, put your energy into packing lists, looking into fun things you can do at your destination, etc. Don’t look back, just look forward to the fantastic time you’re going to have!

Fortunately, there was a happy ending to Matt and Katie’s story. With my help, the two found a Curacao suite complete with semi-private swimming pool, private patio, and an on-call butler, all of which fell within their original budget. However, they could have avoided all the stress of suddenly being without honeymoon lodging had they been mentally prepared to pull the trigger.

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Eating in London

 

Here at Magical Mystery Tours we’re very excited to be helping Nikki, Bobbin, and Jennine plan their first trip abroad!  They’re going to London!  They mentioned that they were eager to try some good food in London. While the MMT team has spent some time in London, we thought that this was a question best handled by MMT friend and customer Allison (find her online here and here).  She studied abroad in London, has been back multiple times, and may possibly be Chelsea Football Club’s most enthusiastic fan on this side of the Atlantic.  She’s also quite opinionated about food!  Here’s what she had to say:
-If you get food at a pub, you don’t tip anything.  If you get food at a restaurant you leave a small tip if the service is good.  I’d recommend picking a pub near your hotel/not right in the center of town.  If you go to a bar in a place like Piccadilly Circus there won’t be a single British person in the whole place. It’s all tourists. But if you get a little further out, you’ll be with locals in a much more chill environment. -Pubs close at 11pm, so plan accordingly.  If you want to go out after that you need a club or a late night bar.

-Other than fish and chips, British food isn’t that good, so I’d recommend sticking to international cuisine to the extent you like it.  London is such an international city that if you see a Italian or Lebanese or Indian restaurant, it’s probably authentic and good.  I’m too much of a picky eater for it, but they say that London has the best Indian food in the world.

-In my experience, amazing fish and chips don’t come from a pub or restaurant.  You’ll see (especially as you move away from touristy areas) little tiny restaurants that only sell fish and chips.  Go there.  It’s like a takeout/fast food type set up where they only have a counter and a few stools for people to sit on.  The fish and chips from such places will knock the socks off any pub or restaurant. Locals love these places.

-I didn’t eat out a lot because I had a kitchen in my apartment, but when I did I was partial to Wagamama.  It’s a noodle-bar and they have locations all over the city:
-Here are some more places recommended by my old boss from London.  High-end, traditional: Rules in Covent Garden; Porters in Covent Garden; Boisdale in Belgravia.

-If you’re in the Trafalgar Square area around lunch time, the Chando Pub has pretty tasty food for a pub.

-Also near Trafalgar Square is a restaurant called The Texas Embassy (it’s where the embassy used to be when Texas was independent). It’s not any better Tex Mex than you’ll find in America, but I appreciate the ridiculousness of going to a Tex Mex place in England. It was very popular among all the American students. (Note from Denise: yes, it was fun, but I question their definition of “guacamole”)

-Most Londoners will be in/out for lunch as they are eager to get on with business. As such, you’ll see a lot of places like Pret-a-Manger that sell mostly pre-made sandwiches that you can just grab and go. Most people enjoy them. And the food is cheap, reliable, and they have a ton of locations so it tends to be very convenient for the tourist on the go.

-Candy bars. The assortment is totally different than what you’ll find in America, complete with flavors like honeycomb that we don’t get. Stop by a convenient store or (better) a grocery store and grab a variety to snack on while you do touristy things. Must tries include a Yorkie Bar and an mint-chocolate Aero bar. Also, “smarties” are not the same crappy American candy — they are like an M&M but with a thicker shell and they are delicious. (Note from Denise: I’m the last person to recommend a McDonald’s, but in London they use usesCadbury chocolate in their Flurries!  At Easter they even have Cadbury Egg flurries!)

-Fun British Drinks to Try: A snake-bit is half beer (pick a lighter color one like Fosters or Carling), half dry cider (Strongbow or Blackthorn), and a splash of black currant syrup.  A cider black is a dry cider with a splash of black currant syrup. Most pubs will also have a lime syrup that goes well with Stella Artois (think Corona with a lime, but different). Proper pubs will feature at least one real cask ale. It will be served warm, have a strong flavor, and generally be different from any beer you’ll find in America. It’s worth a try. Mixed drinks will be measured out exactly and their version of a shot is smaller than the American measurement. Lesson: order a double if mixed drinks are your thing, otherwise you’ll be disappointed in how weak the drink is.

-You should also try a traditional afternoon British tea!  If you want to combine it with some touristy activities, you can a decently priced tea on at the Court Restaurant one of the upper floors of the British Museum.  Be sure to try to scones with clotted cream or some of their other cakes and pastries!  The Ritz-Carelton also has a great tea, but it will be a bit more pricey.

Ok, MMT readers.  It’s your turn now.  Have you been to London?  What else do you think Nikki, Jennine, and Bob should try?

 

 

 

 

 

Best Stops on a Cross-Country Road Trip?

I just got an email from my friend Sandy asking for suggestions on where to stop on a summer road trip from California to Pennsylvania.  I’ve never driven across the country, but I’ve spent a lot of time in fly-over country (only have 5 states left to hit!), so this was a fun question to answer.  Below you’ll see my email to Sandy on some of the more random places I’ve enjoyed.  Anyone else have advice?

Utah is beautiful.  No matter how much time I spend out West, I’m still amazed by mountains.  Salt Lake City is easy to get around, has a number of good restaurants, and Temple Square is fascinating.  Park City also isn’t too far from there and is a cute, fun ski town!
This may be out of your way, but I love South Dakota!  It’s one state that I wasn’t excited about visiting, but ended up being on of my favorites in terms of random touristy stuff.  Mount Rushmore and the Badlands are on the Western side, and there’s so many random, silly tourist attractions as you drive through (think World’s Largest Ball of Twine…)  I loved seeing the Mitchell Corn Palace, and wish I had time to visit some of the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesteads.
Kentucky’s another state that I love, that could be easy to miss.  It’s so pretty, and lots of great horse things to see and learn about.  Also lots of bourbon distilleries around Lexington.
Montana and Yellowstone are also favorites, but may be out of the way for that trip.  Chicago, Denver, and Vegas could also be great stops, but that’s probably no surprise!

On the merits of trains…

I showed up at Penn Station in NYC at about 5:15, saw there was a 5:17 train to Philly.  Bought the ticket, ran through the station, and am going to be in Philly in an hour!  No taking my shoes off, no taking my computer out, no questioning of whether I had over 3 oz of toothpaste…  If only TSA could work on making airports half this easy.

(A combination of lots of work and a trip to Oklahoma left me with a cold, causing the impulse decision to cut my weekend in NYC a little short in favor of hanging out on my parents’ couch with some cold meds and soup in Philly before heading back to DC and work.  Hopefully you’ll see a blog post on my fun NYC weekend which included some great food, a great show, and the zoo!)

A picture of the Wilmington Train station that's been in my phone for a while


Anyone else have comments on why it’s nice to take a train instead of a plane every once in a while?

A short trip to Munich, Germany

My wife and I decided to do this short trip to Germany for a few reasons: My wife’s brother Matt is studying in nearby Salzburg, Austria and it was his birthday weekend; I had a few vacation days I needed to use; Germany is awesome.

We have been to Europe multiple times before, and it is starting to become apparent to us that the best way to see things is to get a hotel in the middle of the city within walking distance of attractions and transit. We have stayed in hotels that were less expensive but farther outside of the city, and in the end it was very inconvenient to have to take a metro back to the hotel at night, adding a lot of extra time and expense to the trip.

For this trip to Munich, we picked a hotel called “Va Vidi Hotel” that we got for around $90 a night with tax. It was about a 5 minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof or “central station” in Munich. Very convenient.

From the airport we purchased a ticket that would let us get into the city, use any of the trains for 3 days, and get back to the airport again. This cost about 52 euro. It is a good idea because just the tickets to and from the airport are 40 euro, and for the extra 12 euro you can use the trains as much as possible.

 

We only had a few days because my wife couldn’t take a lot of time off of work, so we tried to do things that we could walk to or were close to the city.

The first night after we got there we went to the Hofbrauhaus, which is a very famous beer hall. The atmosphere here is really unique, very loud and rowdy, lots of yelling and singing, and of course great German food and beer! We also enjoyed walking around in the old town area and seeing some of the large retail areas featured here.

The next day we went to the Dachau concentration camp. This is located in the small town of Dachau, about a 20 minute train ride on the S2 line. Once you get off the train, you can take a bus to the camp, or walk. It is probably a half hour walk one way, but the weather was very pleasant, so we didn’t mind. There is a trail with information about the concentration camp and photos along the way.

You could easily spend 5 hours at Dachau. There is just a lot to see, and a museum with tons of information. We didn’t want to be there all day, so we were only there for maybe 2 hrs. It is a sobering experience, but a must see for any history buff. This is probably the most famous concentration camp, and an extremely important and significant place in the world in the last century.

After we went back to the city, we walked around the Viktualien Markt area for a while. This is a large market with lots of fresh food and restaurants. We ate at a small restaurant in that area for dinner.

The next day we went on a walking tour of the city that was pretty informative and gave us a good idea of the old history of the city, as well as some of the significant moments in the Third Reich that happened here. It took about 3 hrs, but was worth it.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around and visiting small cafes, eating pretzels and drinking some beer, checking out a local St. Patrick’s day festival, and eating dinner at another restaurant.

 

 

 

 

In conclusion, we had a great time in Munich even though it was only for a few days. This was my second time going to Germany, and I can heartily recommend it as a great destination. The cities are very clean, organized and efficient. The people are friendly and helpful. The food is fantastic and the beer is legendary. Germany is a must visit for anyone interested in a European vacation.

 

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A weekend in Austin

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive Austin guide, but just a list of some of the fun things I saw and did there this past weekend.

1.  SXSW – I was already in Fort Worth last week, so why not go visit Austin during South by SouthWest?  As a gal who’s mostly just been to political conferences, I was impressed.  Really impressed!  Sure, there were organizers, but it just seemed like a delightful spontaneous order of hipsters, tech-geek-types, and corporate sponsors. I didn’t have a pass to attend the actual sessions ($750 for the 1.5 days I was there?  no thanks), but just being there and seeing the atmosphere was pretty great.  Everyone was so friendly and low-key and it was socially acceptable to have your iPhone and laptop out at all times.

2.  Food – some highlights of this trip were: the Hey Cupcake truck (how can you not love a mobile cupcake-mobile with a huge rotating cupcake on top?), excellent cocktails at Haddington’s, and my personal favorite, Austin’s famous Amy’s Ice Cream.  Unfortunately, I was so full of ice cream and cupcakes, that I didn’t have an opportunity to visit Guero’s taco bar.  Having amazing cupcakes, tacos, and ice cream all on the same street is almost too much of a good thing.

3.  Weirdness – Sure, the motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” but I don’t even know where to begin explaining the weirdness.  When you think Texas, you think cowboys, Mexican food, maybe even a George Bush or two, but Austin is just different.  I’m sure SXSW brought lots of it’s own weirdness, but my biggest surprise came during an evening out on 6th Street.  I thought I saw a guy  wearing sequin briefs and nothing else.  Given the other outfits, it was a little surprising, but no major shock.  But upon getting closer, I realized that no, it wasn’t a guy, but a woman.  And she wasn’t the only one I saw.  Apparently, it’s legal to to be topless in Austin.

4.  Cowboy boots – as a Pennsylvanian, I feel like a total poser in cowboy boots, but Allen’s Boots on South Congress is enough to make anyone feel like cowboy boots are a total necessity.  They have everything from boots that are a little over $100 to boots that cost more than any furniture I own (or even ever expect to own).

5.  State Capitol – Call me a dork, but I love visiting state capitols, and the Texas Capitol is a great one!  It’s taller than the national capitol (by about 7 feet), and made of pink granite.  I didn’t think it seemed particularly pink, but it was a great place to hang out on the lawn, watch people taking engagement pictures, and just enjoy the lovely weather.

In conclusion, Austin’s a fantastic, welcoming, interesting city that I’d happily recommend to anyone!

Hello! Welcome to Magical Mystery Tours and our new blog!

We’re still getting things up and running around here, but hope to use this blog to update you on all things travel related: stories about great trips, travel advice, product reviews, and links to various other travel articles and sites (umm…yeah, expect a lot of links while we get things going, but eventually we should have some brilliant original content!).

Is there anything else you’d like to see on here? Any advice or comments for Magical Mystery Tours? If so, feel free to use the comments to let us know!