Friday, 19 April 2013

Know before you go

As promised this post is the next installment of my travel tips for you. As you'll have learned from my last post I love to research, and if I was to only give one tip, it would be, "know before you go".

Booking methods
We have plenty of options in the 21st century and for some people this is precisely the problem. Where do you start? There seems to be a myth circulating that if you shop around online you can get the cheapest deal but this isn't always the case. Travel agents or tour operators buy their room and flight allocations in bulk and sometimes it is more a case of when you book rather than who you book with that can make the most difference. Book early with a tour operator and you can take advantage of early bird discounts that promote a lot of sales early on in the season. Book late and if the season has been slow you may find the agents are trying to sell off their allocations and you also get a good deal. However if you book at a peak time when demand is steady then you may end up spending more than the person in the room next door.

On the whole I don't have a preference between booking in person in a dedicated travel shop and booking a trip myself. The benefit of using a tour operator is that if you choose a good one you may get the opportunity to speak to a good advisor who has actually been to your destination and maybe even the accommodation you are researching. First hand accounts can be really helpful, but more on this later. The other benefit of booking with a tour operator is the protection of ATOL. I won't go into the nitty gritty of this organisation but most, if not all of the UK's tour operators are required to hold an ATOL License to sell air travel. The purpose of this organisation is to provide refunds to travellers who find themselves affected by an event that results in the airline being unable provide travel to passengers. Sometimes they are called upon to arrange flights home and also accommodation to those who may otherwise be stranded abroad if a company goes out of business for example. If you buy a package from an ATOL licenced agent then you will be protected. Find out more about ATOL and the CAA here

It is a large generalisation but most of us now have smart phones or tablets that allow us to easily access information on the go. I am a bit of an app hoarder (if you follow me on Twitter you may have seen my frustration at backing up my full iPhone last week)and I love looking for travel apps.

Like most women I have a tendency to pack twice as many clothes as I need. They say that you should pack what you want, then only take half...I find packing the most stressful bit of the pre-holiday build up if I'm honest. Luckily I love lists and the Packing app allows you to add "bags" and items you want or need to take and check them off as you have packed them. Ok, so I am making it sound a little nerdy but it's actually very helpful as you can save different "bags" for different trips and use it for reference next time you go away to save the packing angst. It also has a handy calculator to tell you what you should pack based on how long you are away for. I use it as a bit of a reality check!

Seat Guru
This website allows you to check the layout of aircrafts to suss out the best seat position. If you're not a plane spotter and don't happen to know the model of aircraft you'll be flying in (trust me, some people do!)you can search by airline or flight number to find the cabin type. Again, this may seem a little excessive to some but have you ever been on one of those nightmare flights, stuck at the back in the corner with no window? If you check with Seat Guru before you complete online check in you can guarantee a decent seat and ensure a more comfortable journey.

Airline Apps
Most airlines now have their own apps which allow you to check in, store boarding passes and check live arrivals and departures data. These apps can be useful with eliminating the amount of paper you have to carry with you and mean that you can check you flight data at a moments notice. Here's EastJet's as an example.

Other websites and resources

Trip Advisor
This particluar resource has people divided. I think it's a great website to use, if you take what you read at face value. I use it as another reality check, to compare brochure lingo with real visitors experiences. The brochure may say, " panoramic ocean views", when in reality the hotel is located on a cliff top and its a 15 minute hike to the beach. Not so bad on the way down but not so fun at the end of the day. Sadly a lot of people use it as a way to vent when things go wrong, and they hope that by posting a scathing review it may well force the hotel or tour operator into action at best and at worst show the place up and potentially lose them custom as a, "serves you right". It's worth reading these reviews though, as if the reviewer is complaining about seemingly petty gripes that resonate with you, then maybe it isn't the hotel for you... I also use the forums to ask questions and got some great help before a med cruise I took last year and found a dune safari company for my trip to Dubai and discovered Prague on Segway. My top tip with TA is to read every review with a pinch of salt, take into account where the reviewer is from as standards differ all over the world, and ask questions to local experts to find out what you really want to know.

This weather website is a staple of mine all year round and not just for when I go abroad. It provides detailed statistics, 7 day forecasts and even logs historic data. Definitely well worth a look if the weather will affect your enjoyment or your plans whilst you are away. currency exchange offers currency conversion tools and a handy calculator for all the world currencies. On the main website page is a conversion table for at a glance comparisons. I use it to compare the rates against the high street retailers where you can exchange currency and believe it or not I find Marks & Spencer to offer the best rates most often. Exchanging your money back after your trip can be a bit of a sting in the tail, so do your research, look at how much activities, food and transport are likely to cost you and use XE to work out how much cash you need to take. Its always better to give yourself a bit of a buffer but most shops worldwide will accept recognised credit cards and often these get you the best rate of exchange.

I hope you have found these little pointers useful, what are your top pre-trip tips? Do you have a favourite travel website or app?

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

"To journey is better than to arrive"

A quote by Robert Louis you agree with it? One of my great loves is to travel around. I have never yet been brave enough to "go travelling" but every year I try and save some time and money to go on a jaunt or two. I love the anticipation and the deliberating over where to go, when, where to stay? I know some people actually find the arranging part quite fraught and a friend of mine posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that she was struggling to find a hotel for a trip to London. This is totally my bag!

I sat down at my computer, got my brain into the zone and began to search for her. After about 10 minutes I had narrowed down a selection and messaged her with my findings. Shortly she came back to me having booked one of them- a happy customer! Not only is it a great feeling to have helped a friend but the best bit is that I actually had a great time searching out the best fit for her criteria. I like the challenge and the research, which I suppose, makes me a bit of a hotel geek! My family, friends and boyfriend all say that I have a knack for picking a good hotel, so shall I let you into my secrets?

The truth is, there is no secret. I treat each search the same way- know the criteria and doing some decent research. If I am lucky enough to know my destination well, it makes life much easier. my golden rules are:

Know where you're going
Find out more about your chosen destination. Where are the points of interest? What do you want to see? Are some areas easier to stay than others due to transport links? Is the area as safe as any other to stay?

If you're like me and like books, then buy one on your destination and indulge your passion. I tend to favour Lonely Planet or Dorling Kindersly books but each to their own. If you're on a budget then scour the internet, look on forums or simply do what my friend did and ask around. Trip Advisor can be a great resource if you use your common sense and are willing to take what you read with a pinch of salt. I'll save more on this topic for another post.

This is important for a few long are you staying for, 1 night or 1 week? What time of year are you going? This can effect the price and the desirability of your location dramatically. Do you want a jam-packed trip or are you going away to relax? You don't want to stay miles away from everything and spend precious sightseeing time travelling back and forth. If you have the time, plot your desired points of interest on the map and try and pick accommodation in the middle of them all, or nearest to a cluster to maximise your time.

Know your budget but be reasonable. You may need to make compromises or may want to sacrifice an extra night's stay if it means you can afford nicer accommodation.

So those are the main points, fairly straightforward, it just takes a bit of forethought!

Other points to consider are, who you are going with- is it a family trip or an adventure with friends? How will you and when will you book your trip? Do you need a visa? Is your accommodation just a bed for the night or does it make or break your trip?

If you find booking trips stressful then look out for my next travel post when I'll be giving you more advice on booking methods, translating brochure and website language designed to lure you in and how to get the best value for money. I'll give you a list of my favourite websites and apps too, so you can look forward to your next trip being stress free and savvy.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

First Trip of 2013- Prague

* I wrote this post on Saturday but have only got around to posting this evening as my laptop power supply broke and I have been waiting for a new one!

I just got back yesterday from a 4 day city break to Prague. I have been a couple of times before but it's somewhere that I feel a real pull towards, it has lots of nooks and crannies to explore and I see something new every time. In this post I want to share with you my passion for Bohemian Prague...I hope you get a sense of my enjoyment and why I love it so much.

The Alchymist Grand Hotel & Spa

This was an amazing hotel in Mala Strana, in the little quarter. The hotel is in a fairly quiet street just a few hundred yards from St Charles Bridge and is one of the safest streets in the city, owing to it being the home of the US Embassy. This means there is a police presence 24/7 but I can't say I felt watched or that their presence was overbearing. The Hotel dates back to 1517 and has a glorious spa and fitness centre in the basement. The decor is baroque and then some. I'm sure it wouldn't be to everyone's liking but it is in character with the building and it's history. The rooms were a good size with all the amenities that you could want.

On site was a fantastic and popular restaurant called Aquarius and a cute Venietian inspired cafe called Cafe Barocco which served the most delicious hot chocolate and apple strudels. Perfect as a pick me up from all the walking in the cold. I noticed thoughout my trip that there are a lot of Italian influences around which makes me love the place even more as I have loved all things Italian since my first visit as a teenager.

The Castle (Prazky Hrad)

The Castle was our first outing and its a bit of an uphill treck, but so worth it for the view. The castle is not just one building, but a collection of historical buildings, that house an old convent, a basilica,offices, living quarters and the St Vitus Cathedral. The whole area is dominated by the castle and as such the area of Prague is called Hradcany. Inside the castle grounds is a small street called Golden Lane. As my visit was just before the Easter weekend each of the little houses that have been turned into shops were full of Easter decorations, like the gorgeous wreath that you can see. I also bought some leather and tin bookmarks, one of which is going to be a gift for my friends daughter's Christening (shown in the pictures below).

Easter Markets in Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) and Wenceslas Square

The following day we went to Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square over the St Charles Bridge to look at the Easter markets. The last time I was in Prague was just before Christmas and the square was filled with little wooden huts covered in decorations, selling traditional food and gifts. This time it was a riot of colour as everwhere you look was covered in sweet little ribbons. I bought some little painted eggs to remind me of this trip, hopefully I'll be able to use them as decorations in my flat. As it was snowing and -6 degrees we stopped to have a tradtional fastry called Trdelnik and a hot chocolate to warm up.


One of my favourite activities wherever I am in the world! I got to visit two of my favourite shops, Pylones which is a french shop selling all sorts of giddy coloured homewares and accessories and Tezenis which sells mainly underwear but some clothes as well. These are international brands so not specific to Prague, but I love them all the same. One of my new Czech finds was Manufaktura- they sell bath products, homewares, linens, decorations and wooden toys. I bought some wine and beer and shampoo and conditioner which smells divine. I'm so glad they have a website as when I run out I hope I can get some more! As well as buying Easter decorations, I also bought some wooden Christmas decorations in Manufaktura that worked out to be about 30p each which was a bargain. A more traditional purchase of mine was wafers. What's so special about wafers? Well these wafers were historically given out at spa's and were made from iron moulds to emboss their unique pattern. Between each thin and crispy layer is a flavoured filling, hazelnut being the most "authentic" but they come in a myriad of tasty varieties including tiramisu, chocolate, vanilla to name just a few.

Mucha Museum

One morning we set off early and took a walk over the bridge and went to find the Mucha Museum. I have always loved the Art Deco style and much of Mucha's work reflects this. Sadly no photography is allowed inside the museum but I bought a few small tokens to remind me of the visit. The blue coaster is called "Dance" and is one of my favourites. The exhibitions showed a lot of his works through various periods, including his time spent in Paris and America. One of the most moving parts showed drawings he did during childhood and the timeline of his life was shown in a short film. His love for his home country was evident throughout a lot of his work, so I'd recommend any art lovers to pay this small museum a visit. It's only a short stroll from Wenceslas square too, so a great place to stop and grab a coffee and a bite to eat afterwards.

Food and Drink

I love to eat, and that is evident as I'm currently 24 lbs heavier that I should's coming off gradually though! There are plenty of places to visit in Prague if you are in any way a foodie. Again there is even an Italian influence in a lot of the food and we ate out at Restaurant Carmelita on 2 nights. They have a wood oven in the basement which makes the best pizza's, my favourite was covered with tomato, basil, pesto and olives. My fellow diner had a gloriously creamy looking topping of mozzarella, studded with chicken, blue cheese and asparagus.

I have mentioned them above but one of my treats in Prague is the Trdelnik pastries. Dough is rolled into a little snake and then wound round a metal roller, covered in sugar and put on a rolling spit of sorts over a flame until brown and sticky, and sort of like a doughnut. Some stands also swipe a layer of Nutella on the inside which is really decadent. There is plenty of chocolate in Prague and I always try and stop by Bon Bon which sells the most attractive individual chocolates I have seen...and I used to work in a chocolate shop! The nougat roof is always one of my choices as it has a crunchy snap on the top and bottom and in between is filled with soft and smooth milk and white praline. As the Czech Republic is land locked there are lots of influences from its neighbours, especially in the food. There are a lot of German nuances, particularly noticeable with all the cafes serving sachertorte and all manner of gateaux's and scrummy biscuits and cakes. I really wanted to visit Cafe Imperial but sadly I didn't manage it this time, I'll have to save it for next time. On our last night we had a lovely meal in U Cerneho Orla which is attached to a hotel on Mostecka Street. We had the beef tende which is served with a traditional casserole come gravy sauce with potato and bread dumplings and topped off seemingly bizarrely, with whipped cream and a redcurrant sauce. It sounds odd but tastes so good. The first time I had this was after a "pub crawl" of sorts on my first visit to Prague and it certainly helped to calm the spinning head after the "man pints" of pilsner. This meal however was much more civilised and I could fully appreciate the flavours. The beef melted and the dumplings helped to soak up the slick of sweet and savoury gravy. It's very warming and filling too, and cost only the equivalent of £3.50...not bad after a day of shopping! As an added bonus, the hotel put on a cheese and wine tasting every evening (you can see in one of the pictures). This meant I got to sample some Czech red wine that I wouldn't have tried otherwise and I discovered a very tasty cheese, a bit like emmenthal but with the addition of whole peppercorns.

Have you ever been to Prague? What would you recommend to do? I'd love to answer any questions about my trip, I've definitely got post holiday blues!