Travel Series: Top Five Tips

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It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three months since we got back from our trip. Sometimes now it feels like a dream, but a really great one. There are a few things I wish I had known before we went, so hopefully these can help someone planning their own first trip to Europe!

Tip #1: Don’t Worry About Money

It was so much easier than I expected to spend our money in Europe, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. 🙂 I went back and forth about getting local currency before we left, and I’m glad I didn’t. The best thing we had was our credit card with no foreign transaction fees. I called them ahead of time to make sure there wouldn’t be any fees and to let them know we would be traveling so they wouldn’t put a fraud alert on my card. I also called to put a travel notice on my debit card just in case we needed it. Nearly everywhere we went accepted cards, and most of them accepted ApplePay, so all we needed were our phones. If you pay in dollars using your card rather than local currency, your bank will charge you the best available exchange rate. This was by far the best way to spend money and keep track of what we were spending, as well as have the option of disputing the charges if we really needed to (we never did). We used an ATM once in Dublin and once in Edinburgh. We got 100 euros in Dublin and 100 pounds in Edinburgh for emergency use. We wanted to take money out of an ATM as infrequently as possible because Chase charges a fee each time. We didn’t spend all of that before leaving Dublin or Edinburgh, but we were able to spend it by using our pounds again in London and euros again in Paris. We had to go buy lots of snacks to get rid of our last few pounds in London because it wasn’t enough to be worth exchanging it back. I did keep a pound coin with Queen Elizabeth on it just for a keepsake. #GodSavetheQueen

Tip #2: Be Prepared for No WiFi

The last time I was abroad was Argentina in 2012. Things have changed in the world since then. WiFi is so much more readily available, but I wasn’t sure how available it would be in all the places we were going. I’m really glad I planned ahead on finding things like train routes, because it was really spotty in some places. We put a travel plan on our phones before leaving. Verizon charges $10/day/line in Europe for phone service and using your data plan, but it doesn’t charge you for that day unless you use cellular data. We wanted the option in case of emergency, but were trying to keep it off as much as possible. In Dublin and Edinburgh, we were able to find Wi-fi nearly everywhere. It was available for free in the city centers, in our hotel in Dublin, and in nearly every restaurant or shop we went into. It was also pretty reliable and easy to connect to. In New York, WiFi is available in train stations and on trains, so I expected the same in London and Paris. We were shocked at how hard it was to find WiFi in London. Our connection in our AirBnb was spotty at best, it was not available in train stations or on trains, and it was hard to find networks you could connect to in shops and restaurants. In London, I was so glad I had researched everything ahead of time and it wasn’t really necessary for us to be able to look things up on our phones. We found the same thing in Paris. Again, we were really surprised how hard it was to find in a major city, although the WiFi in our hotel was much more reliable. The trains we were on between cities also offered WiFi, but it was also spotty. We were glad to have the option of using cellular data if we really needed it, and that we had figured so much out ahead of time. We also downloaded maps of the areas were visiting on our phones before we left so we could access those without WiFi or cellular data.

Tip #3: Use Public Transportation

Public transportation is so easy to use, and we saved so much money using it. We did try to walk whenever possible, because we like to walk and think that’s the best way to really get to know a place. Dublin and Edinburgh were small enough that we were able to walk nearly anywhere we wanted to go, but in London and Paris things are just too spread out.  The rail system in Dublin looked very convenient and easy to use too, but we just didn’t need it. Riding the trains in London and Paris helped us to get to know the city better by traveling like the locals do and figuring out where things were in relation to each other. It’s also very fast and reliable. If you’re going to use the Tube in London, buy an Oyster card. In Paris we just bought packs of tickets, and it’s worth noting that sometimes you have to scan the same ticket more than once on a journey. A couple of times, we decided to take Ubers or taxis. Uber was available in most places, but not in Dublin. In Dublin we had to download the app MyTaxi to get a car. It worked the same way as Uber or Lyft and we had good experiences.

Tip #4: Pack Light

By pack light, I mean pack as light as you possibly can. We got everything into a carry on and backpack each, and I was thankful for it so many times throughout our trip. We stayed in one place that had an elevator, and everywhere we stayed was somewhere between the third and fifth floor of the building it was in. We spent a lot of time dragging our bags up and down stairs and around city streets. It was pretty chilly in Edinburgh and pretty warm in London, so we packed layers and things that would work in different climates. David has a jacket that is both waterproof and keeps him warm, but I had to pack three different jackets to meet the needs of our trip. I ended up wearing all three of them multiple times, but they took up quite a bit of room in my bag. I took duck boots that were really great for rainy Scotland, but they didn’t fit in my bag either and I had to wear them each time we were traveling. Since we knew all the activities we were doing, it was easy to make sure I had everything I needed while packing as little as possible. I wore the same two pairs of jeans the whole trip. We were able to do laundry while we were staying with Meagan in Edinburgh, but David also washed some of his clothes in our hotel rooms and that worked out just fine. We had laundry available to us at our AirBnb in London too, but never ended up using it. Look into all the places you’re staying and see if laundry is available at any of them. Sometimes hotels will do it for you.

Tip #5: Start Walking

This is David’s top tip from our trip. You will be walking. So much. If you aren’t used to walking a lot, start now. Get on a treadmill and work your way up to at least five miles every day with an incline. The smallest amount we walked any day of our trip was six miles, and some days were between ten-fifteen. In Edinburgh, everything was so hilly too. If you aren’t used to being on your feet all day, you could be pretty sore and it could affect your plans. It also helps to make sure you have shoes that are comfortable all day and broken in before your trip. If you can start walking in the shoes you’re bringing before you leave, so much the better. Having sore feet, hips, and calves can really detract from your enjoyment of all the beautiful and wonderful things you’re seeing and experiencing.

 

There they are, folks! If you’ve been to Europe, what tips would you add?

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Travel Series: The Plan

I enjoy having a plan.

I usually enjoy the process of creating a plan too, but planning for a two-week trip to Europe seemed a little daunting to me. I had never planned a vacation of that scale before. When I studied abroad, it was with a decent-size group, and everything was organized for us. Most of the vacations we went on growing up were cruises, so again, minimal planning involved. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to figure everything out on my own, but I decided to try. David is allergic to planning things ahead of time, so I knew it would mostly be up to me. I did reach out to a European travel agent early on in the process, but they never responded to me. This is how I went about it.

  • Step One: Dreaming/Budgeting

Long before we settled on any details for our trip, we talked about going on a big vacation together. We both love to travel, and the last time we did a big trip together was for our honeymoon in Hawaii in 2013. I studied abroad in Argentina in 2012, and David went to Greece for work trips in 2015 and 2016. Because of that, I really wanted to go to Europe, and David really wanted to go to South America. We decided that we would go to Europe for this trip since a South American trip would include Argentina, and that way we could go to places neither of us had ever been. We’re both Anglophiles, so of course the UK had to be one of our destinations, but we weren’t sure after that. Once we started talking about it, we put a separate travel line in our budget every month and started setting aside money. We wanted to have a wonderful, memorable time, but not wipe out our savings, so it was important to us to plan with a budget. This stage is also when we made sure our passports were renewed!

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  • Step Two: Crowdsourcing

Although we had never done a trip like this before, we have lots of friends who have. I started asking around for input from people who have been to Europe and have planned their own trips. This is how we found out that Dublin is the cheapest place to fly into, and were convinced that we needed to add Paris onto our trip. It’s also how I got the idea to use Southwest points to fly to New York first, which saved us hundreds of dollars on our transatlantic flights. A lot of people confirmed what we were thinking, that it’s better to just pick a few destinations and see them well, than to try to visit everywhere in one two-week span. We decided we didn’t want to spend a ton of time traveling between cities, so we narrowed our focus for this trip to just Dublin, Edinburgh, London, and Paris. That still felt like a lot, and we didn’t have a ton of time anywhere, but I’m glad we didn’t try to do any more than that. We had a few friends who have lived in those places, and their input was invaluable. Of course, staying with friends in Edinburgh was the best possible scenario. A few friends who had been on similar trips sent me their detailed itineraries, and that helped me figure out what details needed to be settled before we left.

  • Step Three: Securing Dates 

Once we had an idea of where exactly we wanted to go, it was time to nail down dates. We were pretty flexible because I don’t work in the summers, so really anytime from June to early August would work. We knew two weeks was about the maximum of what we could afford for this trip, so I just started looking for flights with all kinds of different dates to see if I could find a good deal. I used the app Hopper to help me keep track of flight prices. You put in your destination and when you want to go, and Hopper will help you find the best price and advise you when prices are likely as low as they will get.

I found a website called European Destinations through a Facebook group I’m a part of. There were several people who said they had booked a trip through the website and it worked out well for them. I was a little wary of it at first because the website doesn’t look really professional. I hadn’t heard of them previously and wasn’t sure if they were a reputable company, but I looked up lots of reviews and it all sounded good. European Destinations allows you to design your own trip, and they take care of booking it for you. You choose your dates and what cities you want to go to, and they will help you find flights, accommodations, and ways to travel between cities. It allowed me to create several different itineraries and save them so I could price compare different dates and order of travel. One of my itineraries I created ended up being a really great deal, and cheaper than it would have been for me to book it all separately. I was able to organize our flights to Dublin, hotel in Dublin, flight to Edinburgh, train to Paris, hotel in Paris, and flights back home all through their website. It was so easy, and everything worked out perfectly. They sent us vouchers for everything we would need on our trip ahead of time, and it was wonderful to have it all in one place. They were really helpful and quick to respond when I had questions. I highly recommend them if you’re booking travel on your own.

As we started getting things booked, I made a Google Doc with a detailed itinerary with a page for each day, including times, addresses of where we were staying, confirmation numbers for flights or train travel, and directions to get to the next place. I also kept a to-do list as the first page of the document with things to get, print, book, and do before leaving. Once everything was settled, I printed off a copy of the itinerary and brought it in a folder, each page in chronological order with copies of tickets and anything else needed for the day. It really helped to have it in a Google Doc because I could also access it on my phone when we were out and about and the folder wasn’t handy.

  • Step Four: Where to Stay and Travel Between Cities

I did some of this through European Destinations and some of it on my own, all based on the price. I tried adding several different things to our European Destinations package, and then priced it myself separately to see if they were getting us a better deal or not.

For accommodations through European Destinations, you can choose what level hotel you want to stay in and then choose from several options they give you, all with reviews available. We found a hotel we liked in Dublin in a great location. Since we were staying with friends in Edinburgh, I could opt out of a hotel there. I looked into other places to stay in London and found a better deal through AirBnb, so I opted out of that on our itinerary too. Side note: London is EXPENSIVE. It was by far the most expensive place we stayed on our trip, even though our room was teeny-tiny. I booked our hotel room in Paris directly through the website as well. For each city, I checked the options to European Destinations, googled hotels and hostels, and checked AirBnb.

I looked up train tickets from Edinburgh to London through a rail line that a friend had recommended and found them to be cheaper than what European Destinations was offering, so I booked those on my own. The EuroStar from London to Paris was cheaper through European Destinations, so I booked that directly with them. For me, it was worth checking on all of those things because it ended up saving us a pretty decent chunk of money to do the research and pick and choose what we wanted included in the package.

The train travel between Edinburgh and London, and then London and Paris, was so easy, simple, and comfortable. I highly recommend traveling by train whenever possible.

  • Step Five: Activities

Once our days were set in each city, it was time to start breaking down what we wanted to do with our time in each place.

I sat down with David and made a list of what our priorities were in each place. Once we had ideas of what we wanted, I looked them up on a map and looked for things that were close to each other and made sense to do on the same day. I settled on an itinerary for each day in each city, starting with Dublin since we were going there first, and working my way through to Paris. Most cities offer some kind of museum pass that allows you to skip the line at different attractions. I priced out the pass vs. admission prices at each of the places we wanted to go. For all the cities we went to, it wasn’t worth it for us to buy the pass. If we were in each place longer or spent more time at museums, it would have been a great idea. Since it didn’t work out to do it that way, I just bought our admission tickets to each place online and printed them out. For most of the places we visited, buying tickets ahead of time allowed us to skip the line or join a shorter line when we got there. Some things, like the Harry Potter studio tour, required us to purchase tickets ahead of time. I looked for tickets to that about four months before our trip, and by then there was only one time slot left during the whole time we were in London. I ended up having to rework our whole itinerary for London to make it fit since we really wanted to to do the studio tour. If you’re going to try to do that, make sure you book it early!

The fine print on the tickets told us if we could just show them on our phones or needed to print them out, and where to go on arrival. It was different for everywhere we went, but I printed them all out just in case our WiFi wasn’t working on our phones.

Once we had our itinerary set, I also started working out how to get to each place. We walked and used public transportation whenever possible. I downloaded apps for the Subway in New York, Tube in London, and Metro in Paris. Each of those are super helpful, and allow you to plan your route. They’ll tell you which trains to get on and which stops to get off, and where you need to change trains. I was so glad I had downloaded all of those, and ended up using them multiple times before we left and while we were there.

 

I tried to do some research on places to eat, and it was hard for me to find places on Yelp or Google. I found a few places through Facebook groups that people recommended, like White Mulberries in London, but for the most part we just found stuff around us and it worked out great. In Edinburgh, it was really great to have Meagan there to eat with us or recommend places she liked.

The most scheduled thing we planned was our tour with Rabbie’s in the Scottish Highlands (see Scotland Part 2 for details). It was so much better than we expected, and we would really highly recommend it.

  • Step Six: Just Go

I spent a lot of time researching and planning. There were a couple of weekends in the late winter and early spring where I really did nothing except work out details. It was totally worth it. We didn’t have to spend any time while we were there figuring out what we wanted to do or how to go about it. Now that it’s over, I’m so glad I invested the time to do that before we left so we could maximize the time we had there. However, there came a point when it was time to stop planning and just let it be. There were all kinds of things we couldn’t plan for or had to be flexible in, and one of the days we had a super loose schedule for the day ended up being one of our favorite days on the trip. I’m glad we left room for spontaneity and making decisions on the fly. It was the best of both worlds for David and me to have days when there was a loose plan, but freedom to linger where we wanted or break off and do something else that looked interesting. Eventually, it’s time to just go and enjoy it!

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our most spontaneous, happiest day in Ireland 🙂

Travel Series: New York

The bookends to our Europe trip: The Big Apple!

We were able to spend a night in New York with my friend Grace at the beginning of our trip and at the end. It was wonderful to get to see a good friend who I don’t get to see often, and have time to explore one of our favorite cities at the same time.

We left Dallas on a Monday afternoon and arrived at La Guardia Monday evening. La Guardia is maybe the grossest airport I’ve ever been in. They’ve changed their ride share pick up location since the last time I was there, so it was a little confusing to figure out where we could get a Lyft, but once we figured it out it was much easier than it was previously. We went straight to Grace’s apartment, and got to spend some time with her and then have dinner at Anella in Brooklyn with her and her boyfriend. It was delicious and a wonderful start to our trip.

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Tuesday morning, Grace went to work and we went out on our own in the City. We walked to Bagel Smith in Brooklyn for breakfast and had some bacon, egg, and cheese bagels. I took David to True North, a coffee shop I visited last time I was in New York visiting Grace.

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After we were fueled with bagels and coffee, we embarked on the Day of Walking. We walked to the Williamsburg Bridge and across to Manhattan, then all the way up to Levain Bakery on 74th. Along the way, we made stops in Washington Square Park, Central Park, and several other places. Once we were finished eating delicious chocolate chip cookies at Levain, we were pretty exhausted and took a Lyft back to Grace’s apartment. Our flight to Dublin left Tuesday evening, and we got stuck in some traffic on the way to airport and were a little worried about missing our flight. Spoiler alert: we made it, and we were on our way to Europe!

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At the end of our trip, we arrived at Grace’s apartment at 2:30 am (see the Paris post for details). We crashed as soon as we arrived, but then woke up early thanks to jet lag. We went to a bagel place down the street, Baker’s Dozen, that was delicious – I’m still thinking about that sesame bagel with lox spread. They even had my favorite Chameleon cold brew.

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We went back and once we finished showering, we were off on a food tour of Manhattan. We took the train there and started on the High Line. We had some fabulous empanadas from La Sonrisa, and then headed to Chelsea Market. I had never been there before and it was such a fun experience. I wanted to try something from every vendor in there, but we ended up at Los Tacos No. 1 and had some incredible quesadillas, and some iced tea from the place next to them. We walked to Milk Bar in Chelsea to try some of the things we saw on their episode of Chef’s Table, and it did not disappoint.

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After that, we were really tired and ready to head home. We got confused on the train, but some very nice people helped us, contrary to the stereotype of New Yorkers being rude and unfriendly. Honestly, I think the New York subway system is significantly more confusing than the one in London or Paris, even with the language difference. We eventually got back, and spent the rest of our afternoon just relaxing at Grace’s apartment. Our flight back to Dallas got delayed a few times, so we grabbed some pizza from the place down the street and just waited there until it was time to head back to the airport. Because we got in so late and then she was at work, we never actually got to see Grace on our second night there. Luckily I got to see her very soon after that anyway (see Travel Series: Michigan). After that, it was back to Home Sweet Texas.

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Travel Series: Paris

Much like London, our first impression of Paris was a little stressful. We arrived at the Gare du Nord train station, which was full of people everywhere and it was difficult to figure out where to go.

This was my first experience in a country where I couldn’t speak the language. Everywhere else I’ve ever been is either English-speaking or Spanish-speaking, and it was more disorienting to not understand the language than I expected. It gave me a new perspective on how exhausting and alienating it must be to live in a place where the language is unfamiliar.

Luckily for me, David took French in high school and can understand enough to get around. He asked an employee in the train station (in French) how to find the metro line we needed, and the guy pretended like he couldn’t understand him. That was our first experience of the culture difference in Paris. The general feeling everywhere else we went in Europe was that people were friendly or at least just not concerned about us at all, but in Paris they seemed more actively annoyed that we were there.

Eventually we figured out where we were supposed to go and made it to our hotel, Hotel Champerret Elysees. It was one of the nicest places we stayed in Europe. There was even a little tiny elevator! Some things we thought were interesting were that our room had two beds that were just pushed together, and the toilet and shower were in separate places of the room.

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Two beds!
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View from our room

Once we settled in, we walked over to the Arc de Triomphe. On our way, a lady stopped us on the sidewalk to ask us the time in French, so we must have looked local. The Arc de Triomphe was impressive, but difficult to explore. You have to walk underground to get to it because it’s surrounded by a giant roundabout with no lanes marked. We kept seeing military people walking around the big sites carrying large guns. It was a little alarming and made us wonder if that was normal procedure or if there was something going on.

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From far away, the Eiffel Tower looked smaller than we expected. As we got closer, we realized it actually is enormous and really very impressive. We grabbed some ham and cheese crepes from a place on the street and walked closer. We sat in the park right by the Eiffel Tower for a while and just looked at it and took some pictures. It was kind of surreal to actually be sitting in front of it, but the effect was thrown off by all the people walking around constantly trying to sell you souvenirs or alcohol.

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We headed back to our hotel and stopped to have dinner at a restaurant right across the street from it. We sat outside on the patio and had some really great French wine with burrata and a salad. By the time we were eating there, it was pretty late, and there were still all kinds of people out walking around. We discovered that our waiter was Venezuelan, so he spoke French with David, Spanish with me, and we all spoke English together. It was a fun, unique experience.

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The next morning, we slept in a little and took the metro to the Sainte-Chapelle area. We found a boulangerie over there and ordered a croque monsieur, croissant, pan au chocolat, apple tart, and cafe cremes. Once we had our food, we walked back over to Sainte-Chapelle and ate on a bench. We went into the lower chapel first, and were surprised to see there was a gift shop inside of it. The upper chapel was the place with the beautiful, intricate windows. They were incredible, and 70% of them are original from the 13th century.

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When we finished there, we walked over to Notre Dame and explored there. The line was quite long to get in because of security checking bags, but it moved fairly quickly. It also had beautiful windows, and I was surprised how dark it was inside. Once again, there were lots of police with big guns walking around, and another gift shop inside the church.

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After Notre Dame, we walked over to the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries. We decided not to go into the Louvre because we were short on time, but planned to find some iced coffee and relax in the gardens for a bit. We got some street crepes on the way again, sugar and lemon for me and Nutella for David. Finding iced coffee turned out to be more difficult than we expected. We tried several different places and finally found some – for 6 Euro each! We walked around the first English bookstore on the continent and got some of the famed macarons at LadurĂ©e. Truthfully, I think macarons from Joy in Dallas are even better!

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6 Euro coffee deserved its own picture.

After finding our coffee, we walked over through the gardens to the MusĂ©e de l’Orangerie. There were two rooms with big panels of Monet’s Water Lilies and lots of other Impressionist paintings. They were so beautiful. It was one of my favorite things we saw in Paris. When we finished exploring the museum, we walked back to the gardens and David took a nap in one of the reclining chairs and I read my book. Once he woke up, we started walking over to the Latin Quarter to find a restaurant for dinner. We tried to eat at an Italian place, but they said they would come outside to take our order and never did, so we left. We ended up at a French brasserie called le Petit Cluny, ate dinner there, and then headed back to our hotel.

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On our last morning in Paris, we got to have breakfast with some friends who are currently living there. We took the metro to their apartment with our suitcases, as we would have to head to the airport after eating with them. It was hard to find a place that was open on a Sunday morning. We found a place that looked cute and was open, and we were nearly the only people in it. We had coffee, orange juice, bread, and omelettes for breakfast. It was great to spend time with them, and a fun experience to see friendly faces in a far-away place.

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Once we retrieved our bags from their apartment, we took the metro back to Gare du Nord, and then the RER to the airport. It was really hard to figure out where to check in at the airport. There was a hallway with a ton of different airline counters, and then a tiny sign we finally found telling us to go down an escalator into the basement for the British Airways counter. They made me check my carry on bag because it was too big, even though I had taken the same carry on bag on three planes already that trip. By that time, I was not feeling thrilled with the Paris airport. Another strange thing there was that we had to have our boarding passes scanned to buy anything at the airport.

To be frank, Paris was my least favorite place we visited on our trip. I’m glad we got to see it, but I’m not in a hurry to go back. Every experience we had seemed to be just slightly colored by unfriendly people, and it felt especially dirty there after being in Ireland and the UK.

We had a quick flight back to London, long layover at Heathrow, and then got on a giant plane to New York. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a plane that large before. Our attendant was Scottish, and David bonded with him by complaining about English temperaments. We were in the first row of the back section of the plane, so we ended up with lots of extra leg room for the long flight. Everything went smoothly until close to the end, when there were storms up and down the East Coast and we had to reroute. We landed 45 minutes later than scheduled, which was already fairly late New York time, then sat on the plane for an hour while we waited for a gate. The bridge to the jetway was broken, so we had to wait for them to repair that. We came through customs and then had to wait for our bags that they made us check at the Paris airport, and found out that the bag loader broke down and they had to wait for a new one. Once we finally had them, we discovered that my Uber app was not working, and we had to wait for a taxi. The girl in front of us took the last one, and we had to wait for a new round to show up. By the time we finally got to Grace’s apartment in Brooklyn, it was 2:30 am and we were exhausted. Our landing experience was quite a welcome back to the United States!

Travel Series: London Part 3

Unpopular opinion: if I had been alive in the 1770s, I would have been a Loyalist. I love the royal family. God Save the Queen and all that. (I love America too, okay? But Princess Charlotte is the cutest.)

Our second full day in London was our British Royalty Day, and I loved every minute of it.

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We started with coffee and breakfast at an adorable Aussie coffee shop right by Queensway Station, Urban Baristas. They had a v60 for 2 on the menu, so we happily ordered that along with our food. IMG_4964IMG_4965IMG_4967

We were right by Kensington Palace Gardens, and we walked through them to get to Kensington Palace for our tour. This was our day to go visit our friends Will, Kate, Harry, and Meghan at their home. We were a bit early, so we sat outside and enjoyed the gardens for a bit before our tour began. When we visited it was Prince William’s birthday, and we saw a helicopter fly right over us and land just by the Palace before we went in. Kensington Palace was home to Queen Victoria when she was growing up, so we got to see several rooms that she lived in and learn about her life. Her childhood doll house was one of my favorite parts. We also toured the King’s and Queen’s state apartments in the palace, and saw a Princess Di fashion exhibit.

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Next, we went to explore the Sunken Garden, a favorite of Princess Diana and the location where Harry and Meghan were photographed to announce their engagement.

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Our afternoon tea at the pavilion overlooking the Sunken Garden was one of the things I was most excited about on the trip, and it did not disappoint. We each had our own pot of tea, as well as a selection of finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and desserts.

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We walked around the palace and then along the street right beside it with all the embassies. As we were walking around the side of the palace, we saw a truck coming out that had just delivered their groceries. It was a strange feeling to know that while we were touring the front portion of the Palace, there were members of the royal family at home just on the other side.

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We headed home to rest for a bit, and then took the Underground to Westminster to attend Evensong at Westminster Abbey. The building itself is absolutely beautiful, and I was excited to see the place where Will & Kate’s wedding took place. The choir was lovely, but we agreed that the service didn’t feel worshipful. It was strange to be in a place that was so full of beauty and not feel inspired to worship. For dinner, we headed to the local pub, the Westminster Arms, and shared a very British dinner. We had steak and ale pie, some cider (for me) and whiskey (for David), and a lemon tart before heading back to our home in London.

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We were both pretty tired at that point, but we decided that we couldn’t just lounge at home for our last evening in London. We ventured out to a craft cocktail place called Old Mary’s, tucked away in a basement that used to be servant’s quarters for the house above. It was a very cool place and the drinks were fantastic. There was only one guy working, and he was also the one who created the menu of drinks. There were only a few other people in there, and we spoke to some of them before we left. They were from Waxhaw, North Carolina, the same town where David’s parents live, and one girl went to the same high school as David’s brother. It’s a small world, after all.

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For our last morning in London, we went straight back to Urban Baristas for more coffee and breakfast. This time, I convinced David to sit on the upper level I had been eyeing the day before. Once we finished, we walked back to our AirBnb to collect our things and took the Underground back to St. Pancras. Since we bought Oyster Cards, we were able to return them and get a refund on what we hadn’t spent. Our change was dispensed in pounds, so we spent it all on snacks and water at a Marks and Spencer before we headed back to the land of the Euro. We were glad we arrived a bit early, because the process to get on our train to Paris was much more involved than our journey from Edinburgh-London. On our first journey, our bags weren’t scanned and nobody actually checked our tickets until the train was moving. We just walked onto the train. On the EuroStar from London to Paris, we had to have our bags scanned and passports checked. It was still a much simpler process than getting on a plane and much more comfortable. I thought going underneath the English Channel would be a little scary, but honestly we weren’t even really aware it was happening. We were in open countryside for a while after leaving London, then it was dark and enclosed, and before we knew it, we were in open countryside again, although French this time. Next stop: Paris!

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Travel Series: London Part 2

I read a lot of historical fiction.

If that fiction involves England and/or monarchs, so much the better. The Tower of London was something I knew I had to see, and we heard the same from several friends who had been there. That was our first stop on our first full day in London.

We woke up and went straight to the Tube station to go to the Tower. We thought it would be pretty interesting and a good experience to see it. David has read a lot about Henry VIII and his wives in his studies of Anglicanism, so he was excited to see some of it in person. It ended up being one of our favorite sites on the whole trip.

We got to the Tower just as it opened to the public and made a beeline to the Crown Jewels. We read somewhere that the line to see them gets quite long during the day, and like a popular ride at Disney World, its best to go straight there before the crowds arrive. There were already quite a lot of people in there, but we didn’t have to wait long. Photography was not allowed, but I don’t think our phones would have done it justice anyway. It was such a cool experience to see the actual crowns and scepters and orbs that have been used by English monarchs for centuries. When you get to that part with the crowns, you step on a little moving sidewalk that carries you down the line, I assume to prevent people from crowding around the displays. Since we got there early, we were able to walk back and ride past the crowns a couple times to see them better. There are all kinds of other things in the display, including items used at banquets, coronations, and baptisms. We saw the Lily Font that has been used at the baptisms of (almost) all of Queen Elizabeth’s children and grandchildren. There were a few things missing from the display because they were currently in use.

Once we had gawked to our (my) hearts’ content, we headed back to the moat area to take a tour led by one of the guards at the Tower, known as Yeoman Warders or Beefeaters. I’m glad someone recommended this to us, because there were so many people gathered to take the tour we probably would have skipped it otherwise. We were in a huge group, but the man who led our tour was exceptional. If you ever go, please do the tour. It’s included with the price of admission and you learn so much about the history of it, plus they’re all very funny. The tour ended in the chapel where both Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey are buried. We had a snack in the cafe there and then explored some more. We were able to go in the White Tower, originally built in the late 11th century, and see lots of interesting displays. It was such a surreal feeling to walk in a building that people have been walking in for nearly a thousand years. One of my favorite things was St. John’s Chapel. We also walked through the battlements. We kept seeing huge ravens everywhere, and it increased the feeling of being in a storybook. We learned during the tour that ravens are purposely kept there to guard the Crown and Tower, and it is believed that if they leave the Crown will fall, and Britain with it.

When we were through with exploring the Tower, we headed to the St. Katharine Docks. We had lunch and coffee at a very cute little place called White Mulberries with a view of the boats. Tower Bridge is right there, so we walked across it, down along the banks of the Thames a bit, and back across London Bridge. Our Yeoman Warder made a big deal during our tour of the difference between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. Since Tower Bridge is the more impressive one and London Bridge is more famous, people get them mixed up quite often.

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Once we crossed back over the river, we wandered a bit, poking our heads into interesting looking buildings and generally just getting to know the city. We headed toward St. Paul’s cathedral and were shocked by how spectacular it was. It was far bigger and grander than what we expected. It cost 18 pounds each just to get in and look, so we decided to forgo that option and just go into a side chapel that was open for prayer.

After that, we walked to a nearby Underground station and went to the Westminster station. It’s close to lots of famous sites, so we walked around to see Westminster Abbey, the Parliament buildings, and Big Ben, which unfortunately was under construction and not really visible. We continued our walk through St. James’s Park to Buckingham Palace, then through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens back to our little square of the city. The gardens were all quite impressive. We were shocked at how much green space there was in such a huge metropolitan area. We stopped for some ice cream and watched the cygnets for a while. In Hyde Park, we walked through a beautiful rose garden and stopped for a while so David could take some pictures. We found one spot where you can see Kensington Palace from all the way across the gardens. There were lots of lovely spots to rest and look around.

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We were right back by our AirBnb, so we stopped at Moor & Hitch for dinner. We were the only ones in the restaurant, which was surprising because it was really good. David had a burger and I had fish and chips, and both were great. It was probably my fifth time eating fish and chips that week, and I finally reached my limit. After our full day of exploring, we were both pretty exhausted and we went home and went to bed.

Travel Series: Michigan

Michigan…is not in Europe.

You’re welcome. However, it is the other place I went on vacation this summer, and it was really great, so it earned its own post. Some of my favorite vacations I’ve ever had were spring breaks in college with great friends. Spring break 2010 (SB10), SB11, and SB12 are trips we still talk about. My friends Erika and Jess decided it was time to go on a trip together again, so we had SB18. In July. It turns out it’s harder to go on spring break when you’re adults with jobs living in different cities, so flexibility is important.

We discussed several different destinations, and eventually settled on northern Michigan. We picked it because I would be in Columbus in early July for my niece’s birthday anyway, so we could all drive up together, and it still provided a place where we could have a beach day. We weren’t familiar with many places up there, but our friend Grace has spent a lot of time in the area and recommended we stay in Harbor Springs. We took her advice and found a super cute little chalet right by Nub’s Nob ski area on VRBO. By “we found,” I of course mean “Erika found.”

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We left on a Thursday morning, and Grayson was kind enough to help me pack up my bag and then dragged it from my room into the kitchen. My parents were having their driveway worked on, so I put my bag on the golf cart and Kaelyn drove it out to the car for me. Such helpful little people.

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From Columbus, it was about a seven hour drive. Erika was a champ and drove the whole way. When we arrived at our cute little chalet, we discovered that there was one bedroom downstairs, one bedroom upstairs, and then another bed in the loft. We promptly decided that arrangement was not going to work for us. The downstairs bedroom, right across from the bathroom, was converted into a dressing room. We dragged the mattress from the upstairs bedroom into the loft so that we weren’t so separated. After rearranging the space to our liking, we headed into the little town of Harbor Springs to explore and have dinner.

Harbor Springs is right on Little Traverse Bay, part of Lake Michigan. It is a really cute town, and we were all amazed at how beautiful the water was. We walked around looking at some of the boats and admiring the view, and then tried to find somewhere to eat. As it was Fourth of July weekend, everywhere was pretty busy. We waited inside one restaurant for a while without being greeted by any employees, and then gave up and tried the place next door. We were able to find a table at Bar Harbor right away, so we stayed there and had some great burgers. Erika and I tried the olive burger – essentially a burger topped with mayo and green olives – and it was fantastic. We walked down to the beach after dinner and enjoyed watching a mama duck and her ducklings. Jess and I accidentally matched that evening, but I would like to state for the record that I was dressed first.

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Friday morning, we woke up and headed north to Mackinac Island. It sits just off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in Lake Huron. There are no cars allowed on the island; all travel is by horse or bicycle. We took a Shepler’s ferry over to the island, and while the ferry journey itself was quick, the whole process took much longer than expected. We discovered later that the other main ferry company had some issues that day, so that’s why the company we used was busier than normal. We waited in line to board a ferry for quite a while. Once we got over to the island, we were on a mission to have as much ice cream as possible. That was very easy because there was an ice cream shop everywhere we turned. We stopped in one just to get some coffee for me, and then wandered farther down the main street to have lunch. We had a great meal at Millie’s on Main, and then it was time for our first ice cream of the day. Mackinac Island has a state park with some walking trails and a few different attractions. We walked up to Arch Rock, and the view and the walk through the woods to get there ended up being one of our favorite parts of the whole trip. Once again, we were amazed at the beauty of the water. It honestly felt like being in the Caribbean, although with cooler temperatures.

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By a wonderful coincidence, our friend Grace was spending time with her family in Michigan at the same time we were there, and we were able to meet up with her, her sister, boyfriend, and cousins on the Island. We walked around with them for a while, got some iced coffee and tea at Lucky Bean, and did some shopping. Once they left, we walked over to a large grassy area in front of the fort and rested for a while. When we were ready to move on, we walked on the bike path down by the water. The path goes all the way around the island, but since we didn’t have bikes we just walked a little way around. Jess taught us some rock skipping techniques on the way and I successfully skipped a rock for the first time in my life. Once we got tired, we headed back to Main Street and had some really good pizza for dinner at Island Slice Pizzeria. We decided we could manage another serving of ice cream and tried Moomers, right by the pizza place. I have to tell y’all, it was some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and even gives Graeter’s a run for its money. They even offer ice cream flights if you want to try multiple flavors. I got raspberry truffle, which was vanilla ice cream with a raspberry swirl and raspberry filled chocolate truffles. If you’re going to visit Mackinac Island, please do not leave without trying some Moomers.

We were pretty cold on the ferry ride over to the island, and knew it would be even colder on the ride back. We looked in some souvenir shops for sweatshirts. Erika found one first, and then I decided to buy the same one, and then we persuaded Jess she needed one too. She was particularly excited about the row of bicycles along the bottom on the back of the sweatshirt. Once we bought them, we proceeded to wear them pretty much nonstop for the rest of the trip. We were very popular after that. We took the ferry back to Mackinaw City with a lovely view of the sunset over the bridge. Walking back to our car from the ferry, we made a new friend who gave us some tips of places nearby to try while we were visiting.

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On Saturday, we ventured into the nearby town of Petoskey to try some of the places our new friend recommended. Our first stop was Dripworks Coffee. It was very ‘grammable, and the coffee was great too. Erika and I ordered some iced coffees to go, and they gave her this adorable setup of single-serve cream and simple syrup.

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On our way to find a parking spot for the coffee shop, we passed by Petoskey Pretzel Co., so we knew that had to be our next stop. It turned out to be among our best decisions of the weekend. I got an original pretzel with jalapeño popper dip. 13/10 would recommend.

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After these two great finds, we were ready for the beach. We headed to Petoskey State Park. There was a fee to get into the park, but it was well worth it. Again, we were amazed at how nice the sandy beach was. We planned to get in the water, but discovered the first few feet beyond the edge appeared to be full of mulch. It looked clear once you got past the first couple feet, but we knew we would have to come through it again on our way out and would have no way to get cleaned off, so we didn’t go in. There were lots of people who didn’t seem to mind it.

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After several hours of enjoying the sunshine, we packed up and headed back to our VRBO. Once we were showered and changed, we went back up north to the UP. Just over the bridge is a town called St. Ignace. We had dinner at The Gangplank, an all-outdoor restaurant right on the water. The food was really good, and we had time to go for a walk to a little lighthouse while we were waiting for our table. After dinner, we moved over closer to the water and watched the fireworks show that they have every Saturday night during the summer. Jessica had a very patriotic playlist for us to enjoy during the fireworks.

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On Sunday, we decided to try one of the wineries in the area. I’m the only one of the group who actually enjoys wine, so we picked one that had some other attractions to offer as well. Pond Hill Farm has a winery, brewery, hiking trails, animals to feed, cafe, market, playground, and other activities for kids. We were looking to have lunch, do a wine tasting, and hike some of the trails, so none of us had very high expectations. We thought it was going to be a little corny and not of the best quality, but we were all very pleasantly surprised. The hiking trails were not especially great, but the wines we tried were very good and the food we had for lunch was excellent. We all got the spicy peanut noodles as a side dish and they were fantastic. Our server during lunch was also one of the highlights of the trip.

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After our experience at Pond Hill, we went back into Harbor Springs. Our first stop was at the dog beach, Erika’s most favorite place in the world. We had (some more) ice cream and wandered around in the cute shops. American Spoon was a jam store that offered samples of nearly all of its products. We heard from nearly everyone that we needed to try Tom’s Mom’s Cookies, so we stopped in and got some to eat after dinner that night. They lived up to the hype. We were all pretty tired at that point, so we walked back to the water and sat down by the beach to just rest. We got to see some more duck families, and one of the ducklings tried to eat Jess’s shoe.

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We decided to go back to Petoskey for our last dinner. Beard’s Brewery offered some very good pizza, a great view of the sunset, and a live music experience that left something to be desired.

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Monday morning, it was time to go home. We cleaned up our little chalet, put the beds back in their proper places, and headed back down south. Erika was once again a champion road trip driver. It was a fantastic trip with two fantastic friends, even though we’re still from O-HI-O…you know the rest of the song. Go Bucks.