Which minibreak are you?

The title feels like one of those silly facebook quizzes only this isn’t chosen randomly. It is a genuine attempt to give you some ideas based on your very own personal requirements, the occasion and who you are with. The weekend break to celebrate a significant birthday or anniversary will be very different to a weekend with a group of friends or your extended business trip. The budget that you set aside will also predetermine what choices you have. A recent survey shows a definite trend towards several short breaks  rather than a traditional 2 week summer break to The Costas. Here are a few possible scenarios and ideas to go on

“The Minimoon”

Increasingly couples don’t want to go on a long honeymoon straightaway usually for reasons of finance or getting the time off,  or because you simply want to enjoy the wedding and enjoying the company of long lost relatives without the additional stress of thinking about a long holiday afterwards. Certainly the days of saying goodbye to the wedding guests as you head to the airport immediately after the first dance is a thing of the past. Of course a minimoon needs to be special and romantic but also cost effective so where can you achieve something like that?

I don’t think you could go too far wrong with something on a lake. If it’s slightly out of season, even better as there are less tourists. There is something about water that is peaceful and romantic so perhaps the Lake District or there are so many to choose from in Central Europe, the Italian Lakes, or Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj in Slovenia, the Austrian or Swiss Lakes, Baden Baden in Germany,  or Lake Balaton in Hungary where you can also enjoy very reasonably priced spa facilities.

You might also want to consider one of Europe’s many islands, there are so many to choose from, you could a classic picture postcard view of whitewashed churches with blue roofs in Santorini, or choose an island that doesn’t have a direct flight such as Paxos or Alonissos but expect the accommodation to be fairly basic without a pool and mod cons, or go for the gardens or lovely walks in Madeira, La Palma or La Gomera in the Canaries, the gorgeous bays in Corsica or Sardinia, one of many islands in Croatia, or really pushing the budget Sveti Stefan in Montenegro. Further afield you could go to the Azores where you can go whale watching.

You could perhaps celebrate over a glass of wine or two in Tuscany, or alternatively another wine and foodie region, perhaps Portugal, Madeira, Bordeaux or Alsace in France or the Palatinate region of Germany.

The stag and hen party

The stag hits a snag. If it is a party of around 8 or more not every hotel wants to accommodate single sex parties so this has to be considered. The larger the hotel or apartment is, the more likely they are to accommodate a single sex party. A small boutique hotel is not suitable for groups as it disturbs other guests and changes the character of the hotel. You shouldn’t have any problems with the classic resort choices, Benidorm, Magaluf, Fuengirola, Ibiza, Ayia Napa, Brighton. Cities are a little more tricky but again generally a fairly large chain hotel or a few apartments will normally accommodate a group without any problems but I always have to politely ask them. Trying to be sneaky about it can result in the hotel refusing the booking on arrival. Popular choices are Amsterdam, Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester, Cologne, Munich and Berlin. Recently more and more are choosing mini cruises as there are some excellent 3 or 4 day breaks on P&O and Cunard, CMV from Tilbury, or a few days in Jersey or Northern France on the ferry from the South Coast.  It may be possible to get a large house either in the UK or somewhere in Europe and these can be very reasonably priced but there is often a hefty deposit to be paid up front in case of damage and you often have to pick up the key from a different address.

Children’s Birthday

Everyone automatically thinks of Disneyland Paris but there are so many other ways to occupy children both in the UK and in Europe. Port Aventura is particularly good value, some holiday companies even include a 3-day ticket with a holiday to Salou. Siam Park in Tenerife has something for children of all ages and even adults. Over 7’s can swim with dolphins in Zoomarine near Albufeira in the Algarve. I really enjoyed Legoland in Billund and the one near Windsor has its own hotel or if you are driving there are some cheaper ones nearby or you could stay in lovely surroundings in nearby Windsor, Marlow, Henley or Denham all also convenient for Heathrow Airport.  Malta has Popeye Village which is fun for the younger ones.

Many hotels have waterparks and excellent children’s programmes an all inclusive hotel based holiday may be enough on its own to amuse your birthday child. There are plenty of hotels in Cyprus that spring to mind or you could go for activity based Club Med, Mark Warner or Neilson or a ski holiday if your child’s birthday is in winter.

Alternatively you could choose a city break. Somewhere like Barcelona visiting Camp Nou football stadium, Valencia with the amazing Arts and Sciences complex. Most older children will enjoy bring history and RE lessons to life in Rome or Greek mythology in Athens. There are also many things to do in Dubai if you want a break further afield.

Birthday or Anniversary Trip

Apart from the dubious novelty of enjoying an ice cold Budweiser at 21, USA is a great way to spend a 21st in New York, Boston, Las Vegas or Chicago. BA have been introducing new routes including New Orleans and next year they are launching Nashville and there are often seat sales so plenty of opportunities there. You can enjoy a freezing cold Coors at the tender age of 19 in Toronto and 18 in Montreal so you can still cross the Atlantic to celebrate a slightly younger birthday.

A young liberal city with interesting arts and music, closer to home include Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Stockholm or look at Eastern European cities Bratislava, Ljubljana, Tallin, Krakow, Budapest or Prague. Closer to home Belfast is a great city with good bars and the Titanic exhibition.

Cruises will suit birthday or celebration trips for all ages as you can dress up and be spoilt with good food and cocktails. Different ships and itineraries will suit different ages, for instance a mid range Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise will generally have a much younger clientele than a Fred Olsen cruise to the Fjords or the Baltics. I enjoyed my first river cruise for my 60th birthday and now I’m hooked. I love river cruising and want to do this for out Ruby Wedding too but the average age, although coming down is still generally higher than for Ocean cruising

Closer to home, there are many good weekend deals to be had in lovely foodie manor houses around the country. Many of these have swimming pools and spa facilities. In London you can get a hotel and show deal or a hotel and dinner deal or Champagne in a pod on the London Eye or afternoon tea at the Ritz or Fortnum & Mason, lunch on the Thames .

The Special Interest Trip

There are many of these and I will think of some examples that clients have asked me for over the years

World War II – Ypres in Belgium and Normandy are the best known and there are quite a lot of organised coach trips with a guide. There are also a number of river cruises along the Seine with a choice of Normandy Beach trips.

Classic cars in Italy – these are possible but very expensive because of the insurance.

Volcanoes – Italy has several, Mount Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius and Iceland of course

Sailing – Croatia is probably the best place to do this

Music Concerts – These are often cheaper in Europe than they are in the UK and a good excuse to snatch a weekend as well as seeing your favourite artist.

Business Trips

I do a lot of business trips, conferences and extended business trips. There are often opportunities to add a night or two extra on to a business trip or to combine it with another destination eg business trip in Milan with a few days on the lakes or perhaps Rome or Venice, perhaps joined in the second destination by a partner or family member, I do quite a few of these too.

The No Fly Trip

I have already mentioned a few of these but I have only briefly touched on rail. Eurostar not only goes to Paris and Brussels but also Lille, Avignon, Lyons and Marseille. There are many through fares to other cities connecting through one of these cities.

There are many coach trips too picking up from home or a nearby location for your trip round UK, Europe, WWII or your river cruise.

I also briefly touched on Jersey and Northern France for a weekend break and these are possible either by self – drive or on a passenger ferry. Guernsey, Isle of Man and Ireland are also doable by fast ferry.

You may think I am only interested in exotic trips but the UK is consistently my number one destination by passenger numbers. London, Edinburgh, Blackpool, Devon and Cornwall, Lake District, Cotswolds, and Brighton are normally the top destinations. Some are business trips, some are family caravans and some are spa and foodie weekends, a whole range.

Note – These are not covered by ATOL but they are covered by Travel Counsellors failure insurance.

The Bucket List Trip

You may not actually think of Europe for a bucket list trip but even somebody as well travelled as I am can still think of many trips in Europe that I need to do and some I have already done.

The top one still on my list is the Northern Lights which can be seen in Iceland, Norway and Lapland.

For some seeing a ballet in Russia would be on their list and a Baltic cruise presents a great opportunity as a visa isn’t required providing the cruise company organises the trip. Some would like to see an opera in Milan, Verona or Vienna.

Another good bucket list trip is the Orient Express. I did an evening trip with my mum about 15 years ago but it is also possible to do combinations with hotels, racing and longer trips, one of those being The Hibernian in Ireland which was introduced to the portfolio a couple of years ago.

https://www.belmond.com/grand-hibernian-train/

Even as a seasoned cruiser, a Cunard cruise is still very special with a nostalgic white glove service, chandeliers and days gone by. I have been on Queen Mary II Transatlantic and Caribbean but I would love to go on Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth in Europe.

Christmas Markets and Santa Breaks

There are many Christmas Markets all across Europe and you can book an organised coach tour or short River Cruise calling at different Christmas Markets along the Rhine or Danube or an an organised rail tour, or else you can simply book a weekend break in December and I will send you details of the Christmas Markets. The best known I believe is Cologne which now has 7 Christmas Markets but there are many all across Europe mostly in central Europe, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Eastern Europe but also worth looking at Barcelona, Madrid and Seville who are also capturing the Christmas Market trends and there are also more and more in the UK too so why not have a weekend break in one of our own cities?

Santa Breaks range from day trips to several days. A couple of the tour operators have now scrapped day trips because the best venues are a long distance from the airport so they were finding that the experience wasn’t as authentic nor as enjoyable as a 1 or 2 night trip. It is also not recommended for small babies as it is of course extremely cold and they won’t remember so best to wait until they are at least 3 or 4, young enough to believe in the experience but old enough to remember when they saw Santa. These are in different locations in Swedish and Finnish Lapland and usually on direct charter flights from various UK airports. Dates are limited so you need to boo early and be very flexible on budget and dates.

The quirky trip

Ones that spring to mind are The Ice Hotel in Sweden sometimes combined with a Northern Lights trip. One night in the Ice Hotel is usually enough

http://www.icehotel.com/

Cave hotels – this concept can be found in Santorini

Botel – This is a budget hotel in Amsterdam. It is very basic but fun, suitable for groups

Design Hotels – many of these are themed with individual rooms.

This is by no means a definitive list, just a few ideas to think about and expand on. I can of course book most of these for you (I can’t always do concert tickets, opera tickets and museum tickets but I can always try). Please feel free to contact me on 020 3432 4740 or email cathie.odea@travelcounsellors.com for any of these and many more!

 

 

 

Business Networking

I was completely unaware of the concept of business networking before I became self employed. I soon became aware that networking was essential to establish contacts.

First of all I had to find a group that I got the right vibe from, where a rapport can be established with at least some of the group straightaway and there is some synergy and interest between various professions and in the right group some can become friends as well as business associates.

It is very rare that you will get business immediately from a group as they have to learn to trust you and you have to show commitment as well but it does help if you are made welcome and that you like the members within the group. If you immediately feel uncomfortable, don’t give up networking, join another group until you find one that suits you. You can normally go twice as a visitor before committing to a group so this gives you an idea if it will work for you, different groups work for different people

Roughly a third of my business comes directly from business networking and indirectly probably closer to half but this concept does work better for some businesses than others.

I found that another benefit of networking groups is that it helped me with public speaking, business skills and to have the confidence and belief in running my own business

In my ten years of networking I have met some very interesting and talented people in all walks of life.

Once you get established in the world of business networking you quickly learn of other opportunities as most of us belong to more than one group

I started off by googling and joined West London Business Network in Ealing and I liked this group which meets once a month at Drayton Arms but it wasn’t easy for me to get there. From this I was introduced to Trevor, a business coach who helped me tremendously in my early days. Another member was the late Brenda Seel of ACN who introduced me to BNI, probably the most well known and most successful worldwide business networking group. They meet weekly at 7am which is not for everybody but now they have introduced lunches as well. I have a few lasting relationships and customers with BNI members and they have remained my most loyal customers. Ten years down the line even though I have not been a member for many years I still have a handful of very loyal clients.

I was quite unlucky that the group I was comfortable with dwindled in numbers and became unviable. BNI only have one of each profession in each group and a group of 20-25 is healthy. Too many, becomes noisy and chaotic, too few means no business passed round the table. BNI has some really useful business courses and because it is costly it is wise to take advantage of these. It is a very formal group, regular referrals are expected and you must provide a substitute if you cannot attend. I did find these commitments very difficult to maintain week in and week out but the right BNI group can prove very fruitful indeed and most people find that the £1000 a year roughly does pay off.

Another group I joined was The Athena Network, a womens’ lunch group which meets once a month. Personally I felt that once a month was enough of a commitment for people to get to know and trust you and I still often recommend people from my Athena days and a handful have remained my loyal clients. I reckon I did and still do get more business from Athena members and they have remained the most loyal. It is quite expensive as they are lunch meetings and you can only visit once before you join. This also has a business exclusivity and a yearly subscription. Athena only has 10 meetings a year

WIBN – Women in Business Network has a very similar concept to Athena but somehow I found that it didn’t work well for me and although a few did book once or twice, none of the people I met remained loyal. A colleague joined them too and stayed with them for a few years and she did gain a few loyal clients so it does prove that what works for one may not work for another.

A couple of networking groups that bridge the gap between formal and informal networking is Fabulous Women which is an expanding network but strongest in London and Surrey. It is is subscription based at different levels and you can only visit twice before joining. It is a very friendly and welcoming group and despite the name they do welcome men too but they do like it to be predominantly women. It does have the advantage of being very flexible with no pressure to refer and it is also cheaper than most and these were the main reasons I stayed with them for so long. There are no business lockouts which is good in one respect because in some professions you can collaborate on projects and share work but for other professions it is more difficult to do that so that may not work so well for you if are part of a franchise. The other drawback is that many members go to several different groups up to 2 or 3 times a week, there is a lot of overlap and often too many of each profession. I found that in this less formal, open environment it was harder for people to remember me personally and to understand how I work, so despite being a member and even a group leader for 4 years, longer than any other of my networking groups, I have retained about the same number of clients as I had from BNI and Athena.

There are a few local groups with no subscription obligation, including KNOTS which I run myself monthly in Notting Hill. It is currently once a month on a Tuesday morning at Dechen, 106 Chepstow Road, London, W2. I run this free with no business lockouts and about half and half men and women, but the venue needs voluntary donations. The other group that I try to attend as regularly as I can is Ealing Connect which is run by Anita Wong of Bommie Media. This is £15 a session once a month and there is also an evening session once every 3 months, both at Charlottes at Dukes Yard, Ealing. A modest fee will also add your details to an online directory. Another group that I try to go to regularly is Askew Business Networking at Orchard Tavern, Askew Road which is lunch once a month which is a very modest £7.50 or thereabouts.

I attend open networking groups as well. Your local chamber is a good one to consider. Some restrict where you live or work but some don’t. These vary considerably in cost. I belonged to Hounslow Chamber  for many years . It is well run and is excellent value at around £95 a year and I believe one of the best. They arrange many regular functions and meetings for little or no cost.  The Best of …. are also worth attending and I have established some useful contacts. Although open networking is generally cheaper, you don’t develop the same level of relationship and trust that you do in regular and more formal networking groups so therefore it doesn’t normally generate business unless you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time

Many of the coffee mornings, lunches and dinners I go to have been spin offs from other groups like Athena and BNI, these include Coffee with Jo in Ealing, excellent value at £5 including a coffee

I hope that I have pointed you in the right direction and that you too will find a profitable and comfortable networking group in your area.  Find Networking Events  will take some of the hard work out of finding a local group

A few lessons I have learned over the years though. If you feel a group isn’t quite right for you or feel uncomfortable, don’t join it and if you have any doubts whatsoever about rejoining, don’t rejoin. Once you have a few loyal and established contacts, they will stay with you because they respect and trust you and you have less to gain by continuing with a group for “just one more year” and feeling as if it is a chore. I have made this mistake too many times. Another lesson I have learned is that business networking contacts are exactly that. Some may be more warm and friendly than others and you may build up some excellent, lasting relationships with them but always keep them as friendly business contacts rather than as friends to socialise with. I have been to a few business networking social evenings, Christmas lunches etc. and I have found myself in some very awkward situations both financially and socially, so I tend to make excuses and avoid them.

Do you know of any other good networking groups, particularly independent ones? Don’t keep it a secret! Please post them on my own KNOTS facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/1247637008581204/

 

Luxembourg

Luxembourg City is close to the airport and it is served well by public transport. They are currently building a tram system from the airport into the city. This should be finished by the end of 2017.

My first impressions were that it is very green even in and around the main city.

The main language spoken is Luxembourgish which is mostly a combination of German and French, but most of the people we met spoke very good English as well as German and French so language isn’t a problem and passable French worked well in shops and restaurants.

Luxembourg City is very walkable as there isn’t a huge amount of traffic but it is hilly and cobbly so the less mobile could have a few issues but there is a good bus network and only 2 euros for 2 hours or 4 euros all day. Of course the bonus of a green and hilly city are the fabulous views to the valleys below.

The city caters very well for tourists as their guides can cater for 28 languages. Elke, our guide was with us for 2 days to show us the sights of the city and Kirchberg Plateau on the outskirts of the city. The city has the nickname Gibraltar of the north because it is rocky and it is a fortified city but apart from the casements which have some similarities with St Michael’s caves, without the apes of course, it really is nothing like Gibraltar. It is unique and didn’t remind me of anywhere else I’ve been. It has a lot more history than I imagined but unsurprising considering it’s strategic position bordering Belgium, Germany and France and the influences from its neighbours. Apart from the casements, there are the Royal Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Courts of Justice, some excellent museums, the fort and some good shopping in the usual plethora of familiar European high street shops and a twice weekly market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There are also some lively bars which open until the early hours of the morning.

Kirchberg showcases the modern part of the city, some fabulous architecture including the architecturally interesting Philharmonic arena, European Courts of Justice, European School of Luxembourg, museum of Modern Art, built on top of the Musee Drai Eechelen to represent how ancient and modern blend well. There is also an open space with trees planted for all the EU Countries and popular with skateboarders.

Our last day took us to the Moselle region and the tiny village of Schengen, made famous by the treaties of 1985 and 1990 where the Schengen agreement was signed on a river ship on the Moselle between Schengen and Germany across the water. The guided tour was very interesting and there is a small museum with a lot of free literature in several languages. Behind Schengen are vineyards and we were soon to visit les caves des St Martin and sample some Cremant, their own sparkling wine and also their Pinot Grigi which was excellent too. We had an absolutely wonderful buffet lunch in the restaurant which would suit even the most fussy eater.

Luxembourg is worth visiting either as a standalone weekend or in combination with Trier in Germany which is only a few kms away or with France or Belgium either by rail or self drive. My advice would be to book well in advance for the best air fares. If you are planning a meeting or conference of course Luxembourg has excellent facilities but if you are a leisure traveller it is best to travel at weekends to avoid these.

If you are interested in a weekend break to Luxembourg or to combine it with neighbouring countries please call me on 020 3432 4740 or email cathie.odea@travlcounsellors.com

What is the true cost of a flight ?

Pricing flights has becoming a bit of a nightmare as they all include different things.

It is reasonable to assume you would need 20kgs for a week’s holiday, so therefore in nearly all cases it is pointless pricing up a flight without all the frills.

The true cost of the flight partly depends on what you need for your individual journey and partly on the airline policy regarding check in.

So what about seats? Surely it isn’t necessary to prebook those. In theory, it isn’t, as you will always get a seat, after all they shouldn’t be selling more seats than than are actually on the aircraft,  but not choosing a seat with most of these airlines will mean you can’t do advance check in and you have to take pot luck. A single traveller will almost certainly get a middle seat  and parties often get split up. There is absolutely no guarantee that families will be able to sit together if you don’t prepay a seat.

For the purposes of this blog, I decided to choose a peak date Sunday 6th August, the cheapest flight from London to Tenerife for 7 nights, which is a very popular route  on a peak date. All of these airlines fly this route at least 5 times a week from either Gatwick or Stansted. This doesn’t factor in the time of day but it is a reasonable comparison to show what each of them includes.

This isn’t an exact science as there are often bundle sales and seat sales and prices are fluid so this may have already changed by the time you read this.

Thomas Cook doesn’t have a flight on Sunday so I priced Saturday 5th. I also looked at Friday for a fairer comparison but it is actually more expensive on that Friday and they are not the most expensive choice of the ones I priced, so it is still a reasonable comparison.

Without frills, here are the cheapest to the most expensive. Thomson, the most expensive is almost double the Easyjet or Jet2 options. Ryanair as expected are one of the cheapest but they also have the most expensive seat and bag options.

  1. Easyjet £269.98
  2. Jet 2 £272.70
  3. Ryanair £296.98
  4. Norwegian £304.50
  5. Thomas Cook £317.98
  6. Monarch £330
  7. BA £393
  8. Thomson £525

In this particular scenario, Norwegian’s upgrade bundle is the cheapest at an additional £46 and Ryanair’s is the most expensive at £90 which is almost double the cost of Norwegian’s bundle. Jet2 also represents reasonable value since their luggage allowance is 22kgs rather than 20.

  1. Norwegian £46
  2. Jet 2 £55
  3. BA £62 (assuming aisle and window are £11 each)
  4. Thomson £64
  5. Easyjet £67.98
  6. Monarch £75.60
  7. Ryanair £90

The bigger picture tells a different story but I will also illustrate what each includes and explain the minefield behind prebooking seats. To be honest I am unsure of Thomas Cook and Thomson policy on boarding passes as I so rarely book flight only with them and policies do change so please feel free to message me if you are aware of their policies regarding and check and I will update accordingly.

It is also worth mentioning here that BA have some great deals on Club Class and some dates are actually cheaper in biz than they are in economy and in that case you are allowed 2 x 23kgs of luggage so on many of these peak dates BA is actually cheaper than some of the low cost airlines and you will have proper food included with the club class option too.

  1. Jet 2 £327.70 – 22kgs luggage. Jet 2 have a tendency to split parties if you don’t prebook seats but their luggage and seat costs are pretty low Boarding passes can be printed in advance
  2. Easyjet £337.96 – 20kgs luggage. Easyjet allow 30 days in advance check in, even without prebooking seats so parties are rarely split, so unless you have booked very late or you don’t have passport details, it isn’t usually necessary to prebook seats
  3. Norwegian £350.50 – 20kgs. Norwegian have an inexpensive bundle which includes luggage and seats so if you have luggage it is worth doing Low Fare Plus and choosing a seat.
  4. Ryanair £386.98 – 20kgs. if you prebook seats you can print boarding passes 30 days in advance. If you don’t prebook seats it’s just 3 days before and they are inclined to split parties. The bundle for Leisure Plus allows you to choose seats near the front and 20kgs luggage. Ryanair’s baggage charges are very high but their seats are cheap, sometimes just £2 and they often have deals on the leisure plus bundle. If you have children, Ryanair prebooking seats is compulsory but children do get a reduced price on bags and seats with an accompanying adult. In this case it is usually better to do them separately rather than as a bundle.
  5. Thomas Cook £393.98 – 20kgs – Thomas Cook have a luggage/seat/meal bundle which is worth looking at if you do want a meal.
  6. Monarch £405.60 – 23kgs – Monarch’s Essential bundle is usually a modest supplement and does mean you can print boarding passes in advance, otherwise check in is only possible at the airport
  7. BA  £455 – 23kgs – I was unable to check the cost of prebooking seats but believe an aisle or window are £11 each way and I worked on this figure. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. If you don’t prebook parties are often split depending how many seats are prebooked by others. If you are a Bronze, Silver or Gold Executive member you can prebook seats 7 or 30 days days in advance. If not or only Blue, seats can only be booked 24 hours prior to departure and if it is a codeshare, not a BA flight it cannot be done at all, only at the airport
  8. Thomson £589 – 20 kgs – At least Thomson is consistently the most expensive. The reason is that they want to sell holidays rather than flight only especially in high season so their prices are artificially high to put people off buying flight only from them. To be fair they do have some very good low season deals and they are not the only ones to do this when demand is high.

To complicate matters further, hand luggage is always included but this can vary from Thomson’s stingy 5kgs to BA’s generous 2 bags, 1 up to 23kgs with restricted measurements and a smaller handbag or laptop bag so if you fly BA with hand luggage only you can manage for a few days. Easyjet also has a generous allowance, no weight limit but there are size restrictions and you must be able to put it in the overhead locker unaided. They do not allow a second bag of any size.

As an independent agent I take the hard work out by doing all this for you and I guesstimate how much luggage I think you would need based on how long you are going for and if there are children in the party. Women normally need more luggage than men and children often don’t need a separate suitcase but this can depend on the hand luggage allowance.

I also try and give you the best rates based on the times you want and often this means using two different airlines out and back.

I also add in seats if I think this is necessary as it is with Ryanair and Monarch in order to print boarding passes in advance, so if I quote a higher price, I would have already factored this in and sorting out the fares jungle is very time consuming. I hope that this blogpost at least gives you a better understanding of what it entails but I do not claim this is 100% accurate as I chose a random date and prices are fluid.

I hope it also gives you a better understanding of how much work it involves to sort out the best fares for you also factoring in suitable times and it isnt just a simple matter of looking at a list of prices. Each trip is individual and different airlines have different prices for each different scenario. It is my job to find the ones that suit you and your particular needs.

cathie.odea@travelcounsellors.com

020 3432 4740

 

 

 

 

Alsace

At the southern end of my recent Rhine cruise, I visited Alsace for the first time but it is also easy to fly straight to Strasbourg for a short weekend break or to hire a car and explore the region. As long as there are no European Government meetings, hotels are actually very reasonably priced.

Because of its history, Alsace has been both German and French and since the end of the war it is French but as it is on the German border the German influence is still very apparent and is what makes the region so unique. The Alsatian language is a German dialect but most speak both French and German. The food and wine from the Alsace region is also unique with French and German influences.

Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace and the biggest city in the region. Strasbourg is very walkable but it is also blessed with canals so the best way to explore the city is a combination of canal boat and walking. Seeing Strasbourg by canal showcases the different facets of the city, new and old. There is a very efficient tram and bus network throughout the city as well.

Strasbourg is the perfect place for the ultra modern European Parliament building being situated on the German border and also not far from the Swiss border but further along the canal are the distinct colourful timbered buildings of the Alsace region and flowers cascading from balconies and bridges.

Strasbourg is also blessed with a beautiful cathedral surrounded by cafes, and souvenir shops. The surrounding streets are mostly pedestrianised and there are more opportunities for shopping for well known brands, market stalls as well as local delicacies so get some good walking shoes and wander round the pretty streets of Strasbourg and along the canal.

Strasbourg does, unfortunately have a problem with beggars and pickpockets so be vigilant especially round the cathedral.

We also stopped at Colmar which is, in many ways, similar to Strasbourg in appearance, with its colourful timbered buildings but it is much smaller and walking is the best way to get around. Colmar is generally more expensive than Strasbourg but with more of a local and smaller feel and better for local crafts and produce, but it does still cater for tourists, there are two Irish pubs both in keeping with the surroundings and there are many shops selling exactly the same tourist tat as Strasbourg. There is a covered food market, perfect for local Alsatian produce and also French and German delicacies. Many of the shops and restaurants are full of character with all sorts of things hanging from the balconies giving it a real fairy tale feel.

If you interested in a short break to Strasbourg, a river cruise or a self-drive holiday taking in the Alsace Region please feel free to give me a call on 020 3432 4740

Amsterdam to Basel River Cruise

Our arrival was very touch and go due to our delayed flight so it is advisable to either go the previous day to make the most of Amsterdam or to get a very early flight just in case. Thankfully as Amsterdam airport is very close to the city we just about made it with less than half an hour to spare

Check in on board was seamless and we were soon enjoying afternoon tea in the lounge on the sundeck enjoying the Amsterdam heatwave over a welcome blue champagne cocktail.

Day 2 – Cologne

We got a good view of Dusseldorf on the way to Cologne

I’ve been to Cologne several times before but this time we did a walking tour and learnt there is far more to Cologne than Chocolate, 4711 and beer. Colonia was originally a Roman city and most of it has been rebuilt. The cathedral was surrounded by scaffolding during our previous visit and the new restoration work is very impressive. There are plenty of museums in Cologne and good shopping to suit all budgets.

Day 3 – Koblenz

We had already been to Koblenz but had not done the cable car up to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. The excursion included both as part of the package. The cable car is the smoothest I have ever been on and the view on the way back down was awesome as you can see where the Rhine and Mosel meet.

We depart in the afternoon for Boppard where we stayed overnight.

Day 4 – Rudesheim

Rudesheim is one of my favourite places, a chocolate box German town with quaint little craft shops, a beautiful Christmas shop, a cable car, a few museums including a Mechanical Music museum, a Toy Museum and a torture museum so it would be easy to spend a few days here. There are plenty of lively bars too.

Day 5 – Speyer

Speyer is a really interesting and historic town with a 11th century UNESCO world heritage cathedral, very simple inside but with some unusual characterics outside including the earliest example of a colonnaded dwarf gallery.

Day 6 – Strasbourg

Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region. We approached it by canal boat so we saw the European Parliament, and learnt of its French and German history giving this city a unique character. It is a really impressive cathedral and some quaint little alleyways with colourful timbered buildings. Flowers cascade from balconies and bridges everywhere. There is a small market and both local and designer shops so it is a good place to shop. Beware of pickpockets though.

Day 7 – Colmar

Colmar, ,also in the Alsace region is not unlike Strasbourg, but it is much smaller. The colourful, timbered shops are full of character as they hang lots of things outside the shop giving it a real Hansel and Gretel feel. There is a covered market, a great place to buy local produce and the town is so quaint and pretty.

Overall I really enjoyed this cruise and would definitely do one with Uniworld again. It may seem expensive compared to other similar cruises but this is because all inclusive does mean precisely that. There is tea, coffee and biscuits available 24/7,  water in the cabin as well as munchies, waiters keep coming up with cocktails to try on the sun deck and in the lounge, measures are generous and served in proper glasses. Most of the excursions are included and include entrance fees. The food is of course plentiful and they cater for all dietary needs and served with different red and white wines each day.  The staff were very efficient and obliging and the excursions were well organised. We literally spent just a few euros on souvenirs and the odd drink on shore.

River empress has no pool and is not suitable for disabled as there is no stair lift to the sundeck

Lake Michigan

Think of Michigan and you think of Detroit and Lake Michigan but as we discovered, during our short stay, there is so much more to Michigan. 
After an overnight in Ann Arbor, the very pleasant and student town for the university of Michigan, which is very close to Detroit, we made our way up to South Haven which is a yacht harbour and a very popular resort mainly with local townies from Chicago and Detroit. Many of the condos are privately owned as holiday homes, so consequently, it gets very busy in the summer. Fishing is also a popular pastime here. South haven has a small museum dedicated to the aircraft which crashed into Lake Michigan. At the time it was the USA’s worst air disaster and there were no survivors. We were lucky enough to have good weather and watched the the most beautiful sunset by the lighthouse.
Saugatuck is a much smaller, sleepy little place with wild sand dunes. After a thrilling ride in a jeep up and down the sand dunes and having spent the afternoon on the submarine and aircraft carrier, we had dinner in Muskegon and watched another beautiful sunset. 
The most memorable things about Lake Michigan are its stunning sandy beaches, the amazing sunsets and some interesting little museums. 

Ann Arbor

You may never have hear of this delightful little town but you may well have heard of University of Michigan, the learning center for many future lawyers and doctors.

Where is Ann Arbor? Just 45 minuted from Detroit but chalk and cheese to its bigger neighbour. Detroit is the city of cars. Ann Arbor is for strolling, studying and socialising.

I tried to google the origin of the name and it is uncertain. Speculation is that it was named after two of the founders’ wives both called Ann who used to sit under a tree (arbor is latin for tree)

At first sight Ann Arbor is a pretty, small American town with lots of trees and quaint old wooden buildings but a short walk brings you to the main street, lots of lively bars and restaurants and it is easy to imagine hundreds of students enjoying a beer or two. There is also a Michigan University shop where sweatshirts and memorabilia go like hotcakes but at a little more than student prices!

Most of these students start their journey with their parents by staying overnight before visiting campus at the wonderfully quirky The Graduate hotel. It is a very tall hotel, but somehow it still has a small and boutiquey feel. It is student themed but very well done, not tacky and with neat little touches like student card room keys, photos of kids on the walls, portrait paintings done by local artists or possibly students, blackboards around the reception area with geometry and equations written on them in chalk. More blackboards used as notice boards and a comfortable outdoor area. The rooms are also student themed and have a lovely view of the city.

The main street has lots of independent shops, restaurants and Nickels Arcade. Michigan are very proud of their old 1928 cinema which still has a booth outside like in the old movies, a popcorn machine in the foyer and a beautiful original interior reminiscent a small London theatre. The developers wanted to demolish it but the locals fought and won.

One independent and really interesting mini chain is Zingerman’s Deli which consists of the deli, the roadhouse, the creamery and the bakehouse. The Deli is no ordinary deli.It is quirky and fun. Not only it has food and cook books from all over the world, a salad counter with dishes like Killer Quinoa, It has a children’s play area, an outdoor cafe, gifts for graduates and notices of local events. It is truly a community meeting place.

The university itself has a beautiful library, the oldest building dates back to 1838 and I could just imagine Hermione plotting up with Ron and Harry, not what you would expect to see in America at all. It was just so quaint.

We spent a good couple of hours walking around the campus and the town itself so while it is small it is far from sleepy and a piece of my heart was left there. I could happily live somewhere like this.

My Kind of Town

Chicago is….

The Windy City wasn’t originally so called because it is windy, although it actually is. It was because the politicians at the time talked a lot of hot air and the politicians elsewhere nicknamed it the Windy City and it stuck.

Chicago is a large city but actually the centre isn’t that big and most of it is quite walkable and it feels relatively safe. Public transport is excellent too so it is perfectly feasible to visit Chicago without being dependent on a car and anyway its really expensive to park. The metro . affectionately known as “The EL” because its elevated, is one of the oldest metro systems in the world and it runs out to the airport. Buses also run  quite frequently round the city.

So why should people visit Chicago rather than New York, Boston, Washington, LA or Miami?

Chicago is plenty to do and see in its own right and it absolutely deserves to be on the itineraries of far more visitors.

I could have easily spent an entire day just walking around Millennium Park. For music lovers, throughout the summer there are free concerts. For art and science lovers, “The Bean” is fascinating. It is a huge installation by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor, originally called Cloud Gate but it looks like a bean so the name stuck. It reflects the city skyline and the people in the park in an interesting way. It isn’t the only weird art installation in the park, there are frames made of shredded tyres and children splashing around in the uniquely designed fountains.

For shoppers the first stop is the Magnificent Mile – officially North Michigan Avenue and less than a mile but this is where you will find all the famous designer names and there are plenty of outlet malls within easy reach of the city.

We took the Big Bus Tour round Chicago. I have been on quite a few of these before in various parts of the world, but I have to say this is the best one I’ve been on. Each one has a guide who is both knowledgeable and entertaining, none of this earphone and naff music while stuck in traffic nonsense. As well as Millennium Park and Navy Pier, the bus stops at some of the city’s best museums, The Art Institute, The Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and Field Museum

I would recommend a riverboat while you are in the city. Ours was run by Chicago Architecture Boat Tour which is more interesting than it sounds. Our guide was very informative and told us all about all the buildings along the river from art deco to ultra modern and it was interesting to hear how the river developed. Chicago river is a bit of an oddity as it was forced to flow in reverse so that Chicago’s raw sewage doesn’t flow into Lake Michigan but instead into the fast flowing Mississippi riv er and out to sea. It also means that most of Chicago’s drinking water comes from Lake Michigan The riverwalk is a really pleasant and important feature of the city. There are different sections, street theatre, a children’s playground and the newer buildings are designed to reflect the city skyline from the river

Another place to while away a few pleasant hours is Navy Pier, walk around, ride on the wheel, visit the shopping mall, the greenhouse, the temporary Rolling Stones exhibitionism, take a boat trip into Lake Michigan (this can be rough) or just sit and watch the world go by in one of the bars or eateries.

Chicago has its fair share of very high buildings so it also possible to get a birds eye view from Willis tower or 360 Chicago. If you are feeling really brave you can experience The Tilt which is a unique way of seeing the city from 1000ft up. It is the only one of its kind in the world.

For foodies, Chicago is for you too. Chicago has some of the top restaurants in the world

If you have time to go further afield you don’t have to go far to find some absolutely stunning beaches or sand dunes around Lake Michigan, many less than an hour away by train. It is difficult to believe that in the middle of America thousands of miles from the sea that some of the loveliest beaches I’ve ever felt or seen, exist, even in Chicago itself, so for a city and beach combo  in the summer months you don’t have to go to Miami or San Diego, you could take advantage of one of the many daily direct flights straight to Chicago and combine it with a short hop to Indiana or Michigan.

We were extremely lucky with the May weather and Chicago can be windy and bitterly cold in the winter so the ideal time to visit is summer, but Spring and fall/autumn is a lot less crowded and there can be some great bargains too.

If you are interested in booking a break to Chic ago or combining this with other destinations please feel free to contact me for the best deals 020 3432 4740 or email cathie.odea@travelcounsellors.com

 

 

Pure Shores Poem

This is a poem I wrote with a little help from my friends for our final presentation by the “Pure Shores” group. I have tweaked it a little so it makes sense in this context. We visited Detroit, Lake Michigan, Indiana and finally Chicago. Here are our experiences in verse

 

Detroit has gone through huge regeneration

That’s certainly changed our prior perception

Henry ford museum was a big surprise

Some fantastic exhibits we couldn’t believe our eyes 

Rosa parks wouldn’t give up her seat

The actual bus exhibit was such a treat

John f Kennedy was shot in 64 

The actual car exhibits there with presidents cars and more

All the raw talent from Detroit streets 

Studio A was where they would meet

Hitsville USA with its Motown roots

Temptations, four tops in 2-tone suits

Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinsons’ stories were told 

From humble beginnings millions were sold 

In Ann Arbor we stayed in The Graduate 

A student themed hotel which was really great

Our tour guides had fantastic stories to tell 

They presented Michigan university ever said well 

There are some great bars in this little place

Great places for students to meet face to face

The golden sand beaches of Michigan Lake

Are really stunning and the sand isn’t fake 

The dunes are real and they’re just like the beach 

And from Chicago they are so easy to reach 

Oval Beach is in the worlds top 25 

And not the caribbean what a surprise 

Indianas national park is the most diverse 

And Pinhook bog is where we went first 

From a floating platform we saw how plants grow

Facts about carnivorous plants fascinating to know 

In Valpo we actually made front page news 

They were really interested in our views 

I’d love to recommend this place

They’re so welcoming, Valpo is ace 

At the broken wagon bison farm there were Bison big and small 

So huge, yet so cute, about 100 all in all 

Daisy the Bison was ever so sweet 

She followed the van for her little treat 

 

By contrast Chicago with its buildings so high

Our eyes keep looking up to the sky

And who can resist the Magnificent Mile?

The bars and restaurants will make you smile

Chicago has shopping bargains galore

Where’s my credit card, I really want more!

At Millennium Park we stopped at The Bean

One of the coolest things I’v e ever seen

No wonder Millennium Park is number one

There’s entertainment here for everyone

They say the best things in life are free

So Chicago is definitely the place to be

Would you believe such a stunning beach

Would be within such easy reach

Of Chicago’s busy enormous city

And nearby small towns are so quiet and pretty

In Chicago even without a car

With good public transport, you can go far

You can get there from the UK and Ireland many times a day

With United, American Airlines and BA