trip planner

Geneva Motor Show / Snowboarding

So for my Dad’s somewhat belated birthday present last year, we decided to take him to what might be one of the best motor shows in the world – The critically acclaimed Geneva Motor Show.

Often the place where new models are revealed, Geneva Motor show seemed like the obvious choice. Add to that cheap flights and it’s an even more obvious choice!

We decided to head out there for a few nights to see the cars and to experience the charm of the city itself.

Getting Accommodation

The first hurdle was finding accommodation. The flights may have been a bargain, but hotel rooms in the city were eye-wateringly expensive for motor show weekend, at c.£1000 per night for 6 of us in a mediocre set-up! We had only booked  few weeks prior, so I guess it was what you might call ‘last minute’ and availability was poor.

Cue a search within a 30 mile radius, for more reasonably priced accommodation coupled with 2 cars. A short search later (look here for tips) we found a reasonable apartment in France – a 20 minute drive from the convention centre and airport – for less than £400 for the entire duration of the trip. Add to that the cost of two hire cars (around £150 for both) and the cost is suddenly back within a reasonable range for a weekend away!

Getting There

Getting there was easy – the flight from Manchester to Geneva is relatively short at 1 hour 50 mins. When we arrived, we waited nearly 2 hours for our hire cars! I wouldn’t use dollar / thrifty again IN MY LIFE because of this farce. As a gesture of goodwill, they offered us a free upgrade.

Unfortunately due to being under 30, I was allocated a tiny ‘hairdryer’ car for my rental, whilst my dad was ‘upgraded’ to a large Mercedes 4×4. Whilst this initially seemed like a nice treat, it was one we accepted dubiously, when the attendant asked for £5,000 deposit for it, but only a £500 one for mine. 

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Saturday Night – Why Is Everything Closed?!

We arrived on Saturday night, hungry and tired from the car-saga. We drove to the accommodation, freshened up and headed out to find some food.

8:30pm on a Saturday night and even the fuel stations were closed! The only lights we saw were those on the roads, and the CERN.

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All we had to eat that night was a couple of snacks left over from the journey, sloshed down with some sugary tea.

The Main Event (Sunday)

We awoke the next morning, readied ourselves with our fully charged phones and cameras and set off to the exhibition centre. We arrived early, allowing ourselves the opportunity to find a little snack! Hurrah!

The show itself was brilliant. There were new models, customer builds, new technology and plenty of photo opportunities. The only criticism is that you couldn’t get in / close to some of the best models without having VIP tickets of an invitation, which made it all feel a little bit ‘us and them’ when at some of the stands occupied by the more prestigious marques.

The food on site was expensive (as expected), so we had a small lunch and then headed out from the exhibition at around 2pm. We decided to head into Geneva town centre – a 10 minute drive away – for some food and a wander around.

Geneva Centre – Pretty, but pretty dull.

OK so eating out in Geneva on a Sunday is a near impossibility. In any other city I’ve ever visited in the world, there’s at least a small possibility of being able to walk into a restaurant and get a satisfying meal. On this occasion we were surprised that we couldn’t find any open restaurants (even with the help of Google) so we instead found ourselves snacking on chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, washed down with green tea from Starbucks. You can always count on there being a Maccys and a Starbucks open.

The architecture itself is very pretty and there is a ‘fairy-tale’ look about the place. The few people who were milling about in the town centre appeared to be either homeless or at a loss for something to do.

A kind local Gentleman pointed us in the direction of the more ‘lively’ part of the town –a mere 5-10 minute drive from our current central location, so we trusted the young man – who looked very out of place walking through the old square we were occupying – and set off in that direction.

After struggling to find parking in said area, we identified an underground parking garage and I zipped down the ramp and parked the car. A few minutes later, I walked back up the ramp to find my dad awkwardly shuffling between drive and reverse as he tried to un-wedge the car from a tight turn in the ramp without touching the sides. Given the £5k excess on the upgraded vehicle, it was a particularly tense time. A worthwhile note for anyone wishing to drive in Geneva is that the streets and the car parks and relatively tight on space! Whilst initially the complementary ‘upgrade’ seemed like a bit of a ‘win’ we soon came to realise that there are few benefits to having such a large car in such a small place.

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Geneva centre… on a busier day… when there were people. This is from google images, but serves as evidence that there are in fact people in this town.

Finding Food 

It would have been easier to hunt and kill our own food in Geneva that weekend. Never have I found it so difficult to track down a meal!

We walked the streets of the area for 45 minutes before we noticed a small light flickering on the horizon. We shuffled towards it, only to discover a charming little restaurant. The food was beautiful, and very welcome. It was nearly 9:30pm by the time we had found food, so we were pretty hungry!

Snowboarding in Les Gets (Monday) 

On the way out to Geneva, we saw lots of snowboarding and skiing groups. Feeling impulsive, we decided on our ‘spare day’ to drive the 2 hours from our random French accommodation to Les Gets, buy some snowboarding pants and a lift pass, rent a board and catch the lift up the mountain for a day of snow sports.

Given that we’d only ever snowboarded in Manchester’s Chill Factor-e some 4 years previously, the first hour was a little bit hit and miss. Queue embarrassing ourselves on the ski lifts, falling repeatedly and making poor choices with regards to the many layers of clothing we wore and subsequently had to dump when the sun came out.

By the end of the afternoon we were battered and bruised, but we could make it down the slopes with vigour and (might I add) a small amount of style.

After the light began to dip, we ditched the boards and headed to a restaurant for our last meal before the light home the next morning.

 

Would We Go Again? 

I wouldn’t go back to Geneva for a weekend, purely because there was so little to do in the area. I would however, consider flying in to Geneva for the day to visit the motor show.

I know that sounds crazy, but the flight it short and the exhibition centre is a 5 minute walk from the arrivals gate. You could save yourself the cost of a hotel by taking an early flight from the UK and taking a late evening return flight.

As for snowboarding, I’m looking at going next spring! Yay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Travel Must-Haves

Aside from the obvious stuff – like passports and a supply of clean underwear – there’s a collection of items I don’t dare travel without.

Here’s what makes my travel must-have list:

Fit-kit

Although (somewhat unfortunately) you can’t always tell by looking, I’m a bit of a fitness addict. The idea of going away for more than a few days and not being able to keep up some kind of fitness regime makes me sweat for all the wrong reasons.

I always pack my running trainers and several sets of kit. Not only is this useful when I fancy heading out for a morning jog to combat the let-lag, this kit lends itself to doing adventure-type actives on your trip because it’s so easy to wash and get dry in your hotel room. It’s much easier to dry off in your yoga pants and a gym vest than it is to dry off in jeans and a cotton cami when you’ve been on a high-speed jet boat ride or been caught in an Indonesian 2 minute downpour.

Camera

OK, so most phones have a camera in them capable of taking pretty reasonable snaps, but they’re still no match for an SLR. You simply don’t get the crisp detail you see on a photo from a good camera if you use your phone, however good the phone.

I don’t pretend to know much about cameras, and there’s no way I’d want to cart about a huge SLR with a massive lens when I’m exploring new landscapes and city spots. So what camera do I use?

My Dad bought us a Canon Eos M as part of our wedding gift two years ago. They still sell them, but the model has been superseded).

Labelled a ‘bridge camera’ it’s a good step between a compact point-and-shoot and a larger DSLR. It’s light, durable and small enough to be discreet (for those times when you feel like you need to cover your valuables)!

 

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The Canon Eos M – Small, but packs a punch in terms of features!

Make sure you take both a charger and a huge memory card so you can happily snap away! On my last 3 week trip, I took just over 3000 photos. Many of them were garbage, but lots of them made it into the holiday scrapbook and even into some photo frames!

if you really can’t be bothered carrying a camera, perhaps try a snap-on lens for your phone. I’ve had relative success using a fish eye lens which slid onto the corner of my iPhone. Don’t expect massive gains in photo quality but you can expect lots of fun snaps!

New York times square

The bright lights of Times Square at night, through a fish eye lens snapped onto my old iPhone 5

Journal

Even before I started blogging, I always carried a travel journal. I like to keep hold of tickets, receipts, maps and other bits and bobs so that I can make a holiday scrapbook when I get back. In my journal, which I tend to write daily during our evening meal, we bullet point what we did in that day.

it takes only a matter of a few minutes, but means we can tear out the page and stick it in the scrapbook when we get home, amongst the memorabilia we’ve gathered and the photos we’ve chosen to print!

It’s great looking back over the scrapbooks after a few months or years!

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Blank pages require adventures to fill them!

Teabags

Nowhere does tea like Great Britain. I tend to take a selection of teabags, but you still have to awkwardly seek out non-UHT milk to complement your Earl Grey, unless you’re one of those people who believes milk in Earl Grey is akin to Blasphemy.

Document Wallet

When you’re going on a multi-destination trip, you’ll probably have a lot of tickets and booking confirmations. I find that it’s well worth having them all printed off and tucked into an organised document wallet.

Why do that when you have electronic copies? When you arrive at the car hire office after travelling for 36 hours with very little sleep and your phone is flat, the last thing you’ll want to do is explain that you need to charge your phone before you can provide proof of payment and take the keys.

Flexible Luggage

Why anyone would take hard bodied luggage is beyond me! I always take a rucksack (like this Eastpak one) and this Eastpak suitcase / holdall.

Eastpak baggage

I tend to do multi-centre trips, so being able to easily stuff things back into the hold-all is essential. Hard bodied luggage doesn’t really lend itself to disorganised and last minute packing, so having the flexibility of the expandable and flexible case is essential for me!

Kindle

I like to read on holiday – especially if I’m going long-haul. The problem is, I could get through a good fiction book in one flight. Back in the olden days, that would mean carting 5-10 books in my hand luggage or buying books in the airport and leaving them in the hotel when I was done.

In comes the Kindle. Small, backlit and books are normally cheaper on it. The only downside is you lose the ‘feel’ of reading a paper book and you’re a bit screwed if you run out of power. I never travel without it.

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Phone (+ Data!)

We’re so attached to our phones now that you’d be forgiven for wanting to switch it off and leave it behind for a few weeks.

I would argue that the phone is actually one of the best tools you can have when travelling! I usually opt in to the roaming packages so I can use my data (cost effectively) and that allows me to message, blog, instagram, tweet and use google maps as much as I want!

I also use it to check ratings for restaurants I might be about to go into, or to see what’s going on in the area I’m in!

Google’s translation app (which uses the camera on your phone to read and translate text) is great for deciphering menus and making sure you’re ordering chicken breast and not chicken eyeballs. This came in handy in Barcelona, where the menu at Tapas24 was not available in English! If only we had used it back in Hong Kong, we might have avoided the chicken feet incident.

I also use apps to help me navigate public transport and use the sat-nav to make sure the taxi I’m in isn’t ripping me off by taking me around several blocks before we go back to the hotel.

There’s no excuse for not being a savvy traveller when you’ve got the immense power of the internet at your fingertips.

Macbook Air

Not everyone wants to take a laptop on holiday, but when you have a travel blog it’s par for the course! I like to start writing about my experiences whilst I’m still immersed in them, and have also been using travel time (long flights) to write my non-fiction book.

Whats essential is that it’s light, small and quiet to type on (for the sleeping travellers around me)! The Macbook covers all that and more.

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MacBook Air – Typing machine of choice!

First Aid Kit

Not because you might need to stitch yourself up, but because you’ll probably encounter blisters, insect bites and a jiffy belly at some point in the trip. Pack there usual first-aid-kit contents (or buy a travel first aid kit) then top it up with indigestion tablets, Immodium and UK-purchased pain killers and antihistamine tablets.

The last thing you want is your request for paracetamol getting lost in translation and ending up with a laxative.

Credit Card

Nobody wants to be in an emergency situation when you’re on holiday, but the fact of the matter is – it does happen sometimes.

Be it getting bitten my a monkey and needing a rabies shot, falling off a moped in Thailand and needing stitches or getting food poisoning on the last day and missing your flight because you’re on a drip in hospital in Barcelona – it happens. I know it happens, because those things have happened to my friends!

Not everyone is a fan of credit cards, but even if you’re ‘against’ them you would be a fool not to travel with one. If you’re in the back-end-of-nowhere and you need medical assistance then the chances are you’ll need to pledge a form of payment (even if you’re going to claim it back through your travel insurance later).

Not only that, if you’ve followed the principles in my guide on how to get the best hotel deals, then there’s a good chance you secured your booking with a credit card. Present this card on arrival for faster check-in.

What I Leave Behind

Obviously there’s loads of stuff I leave behind. This section is about pointing out the things that people tend to thing they should take, but that you never end up using!

The main thing you might be tempted to take, but should definitely leave behind is your travel guide book. Yes, you read that right.

If you’ve not read the guide books by the time you’re heading off on your trip, it’s probably a bit too late. Don’t send hours of your holiday with your head in a guide book. Leave it at home and just go and get lost in the culture and scenery of the place you’re actually in. That’s much more exciting that reading about it.

Do read travel guides, but make it part of your holiday planning process rather than an afterthought.

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For more tips on packing, read this!

 

Death Valley and Yosemite National Park – 3 Nights

When we decided to take our US road trip, we were well aware that the route we’d chosen was a well trodden path. Luckily for us, some of the feet that had recently trodden it happened to be sat at the same bank of desks I was, and were more than happy to tell me what was a must see and what could be missed.

When we had three weeks to fit in New York, Vegas, Death Valley, Yosemite and the drive from San Francisco to San Diego – it’s quite important to prioritise. It was holiday maximisation in it’s purest form!

With the help of colleagues and our pal Neil at Trailfinders – we decided on 1 night in Death Valley and 2 nights in Yosemite (to allow for one full day hike).

Driving from Vegas to Death Valley (2 hours)

The drive is relatively short and easy and most people do it without stopping. The only added complication for us was that we were racing against a storm in the desert which would ultimately (although we didn’t know this at the time) close all roads in and out of the park!

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The sky before the storm started to gather!

We chose a Dodge Challenger for our car but any car would cope perfectly fine with the terrain. Some people think you might need a 4×4 to take through the National Parks, but from what we saw a scooter would have coped, so don’t be up-sold on your hire car through fear of not getting up some small hills (unless they are expecting snow or something where you need chains,in which case you should listen).

Dodge Challenger

The hire car!

Staying in Death Valley:

We chose the Ranch at Furnace Creek as it was right in the middle of everything and directly on route.

It has it’s own diner, restaurant, pool and even a museum! It’s a stones throw from Death Valley visitor’s centre too, which is good because that’s as far as we could go once the roads were closed – and where the rangers are based.

 

The freak weather:

Death Valley is one of the driest place in the world, but obviously my ability to attract non-afro hair friendly weather isn’t unique to the UK.

The storm we raced past on the way to Furnace creek caught us up after lunch having caused flash floods which washed away significant portions of the park’s roadways. Everyone in the creek was grounded whilst the grey skies blocked most of the sun!

Death Valley floods

Those poor folks were trying to get back from Dante’s View when the mud slide decided to block the road! 

What we missed in Death Valley:

We had planned to go and see Dante’s view and Scotty’s Castle – both a 20 minute drive from the ranch, but both were closed off due to flood damage to the roads!

A Foodie’s Highlight!

We stayed in the ranch for our evening meal – partly because there are few other options. Being a captive audience, my expectations for the evening meal were relatively low!

As it happens, The restaurant at the Ranch is home to possibly the best steak in the world ever (that I have tasted, at least – I’m happy to be proven wrong should someone fancy feeding me even better steak)!

This steak comes on a plate the size of a Christmas turkey plate, still on the bone! Although our waiter advised it would serve two (much to Spence’s scepticism), it could easily have gone three ways! It was cooked to perfection – medium/rare, obviously – and was seasoned beautifully!

Excellent nosh.

Death Valley Steak

 

Driving to Yosemite (5-6 hours)

If it’s open, take the Tioga pass for some epic scenery and amazing views. The drive itself is pretty easy going, with a bit of a winding climb and some steep drops by the side of the road which might cause some vertigo sufferers’s to throw a wobbly.

The road is wide though and well maintained – if you’ve driven over the snake pass in the UK or around the mountain roads in New Zealand then this will be a walk in the park!

 

Tioga Pass snow

Snow on the mountains on Tioga Pass Road

Arriving in Yosemite

If you come in from Death Valley side, you’ll know you’ve properly arrived when you pass through the archway in the rocks – be prepared with your cash or park pass at this point so you don’t hold up the queue!

Yosemite Gate

There are plenty of car parks in the park itself which was handy given we had chosen to stay outside of the main park. Expect to walk 5-10 minutes from the car to the visitor’s centre.

The Hikes

Yosemite is a hikers dream! Much like the Lake District in the UK, there are several popular and well trodden paths you can choose to walk with little to no hiking equipment or experience. We chose the badly-named “4 mile trail” which is actually over 5 miles long and very much a ‘climb’ rather than a wander!

One of my colleagues said he had been up and down this path in around 3 hours, but when it took us 4 hours to reach the summit, we decided to take the tour bus back down to the car. We decided this was useful (rather than lazy) as the tour guide explained some of the traditions of the area and talked about the local wildlife, including mountain lions and bears!

It turns out that ascending the 4 mile trail was the equivalent of climbing over 350 flights of stairs – no wonder my glutes were on fire! The reward at the top is the amazing view of Half Dome and the valley from Glacier Point, which is well worth every step!

Glacier Point View

The view from Glacier Point

 

If you fancy a more leisurely stroll, try getting the bus to the top and walking down like most of the people we passed were doing!

If you’re feeling brave, you could try the 12-hour-round Half Dome hike, but be sure to check accessibility before you travel as the availability and safety of the route changes drastically with the seasons.

Novice Hikers Tips

Yosemite is a National Park and a place for wildlife so you need to be mindful of that fact. If you see a bear, quietly retreat if possible and drop your bag if it contains smelly food. It shouldn’t, because you shouldn’t have any smelly food on you!!! If you see a mountain lion, again retreat if possible but if it approaches the advice is to make yourself as big as possible so as to make yourself look scary. Think Scully from ‘Monster’s Inc.’.

If you’re not sure about anything – ask at the visitor’s centre before you set off for your hike!

Do not feed the squirrels, despite the fact that they brazenly court any human with any type of food. There are signs everywhere explaining why we shouldn’t feed them, but a surprising amount of people ignore them!

Yosemite Squirrel

Don’t be fooled into feeding this cheeky little b***er!

 

Yosemite Food and Drink

There are plenty of food outlets in the park, including a shop and cafe at the top of the 4 mile trail – near Glacier Point. There’s also the ‘Curry Village’ where you can find further food outlets. We didn’t eat there though so I can’t comment on the food!

Where to Stay

Staying within the park is significantly more expensive than staying slightly outside the park, hence why we chose the latter. We were not interested in camping so there was little benefit to being in the park itself for us.

Instead we chose to stay in nearby El Portal, a 15-20 minute drive from the middle of the park and very peaceful! We chose the Yosemite View Lodge which has two restaurants, large rooms, an on-site convenience store, several pools and great balcony views over a stream at the back of the lodges. Whilst not modern or particularly luxurious, the rooms were clean and well-equipped and the staff were great – all in all, pretty good value!

 

Yosemite View Lodge

The view from our balcony at Yosemite View Lodge

Other Top Tips:

Buy a park pass- either separate or multiple-multiple usually better value if you’re doing more than 2 parks. We didn’t realise this until we had been to 3 parks and the guy selling us the third pass thought that it was a good time to highlight the fact we had essentially overpaid.

Had we done our homework, we could have bought the multiple park pass and used it for Yosemite, Death Valley and Muir Woods)

Make sure you check the status of the Tioga pass on the internet or by asking at your hotel (who will receive road information from the park rangers). If the weather is so bad that there is a risk of road closure, they might advise an alternative (but quite a bit longer) route!

Over and out.

That’s a quick round up of what we did, but there’s loads of options when it comes to spending time in the national parks.

Here’s some of the best resources I found when planning our visit:

National Park Site

Good 4 mile trail overview

Dante’s view

Yosemite Hiking

Bye for now!

 

To Tour or Not to Tour?!

When is it worth booking a tour guide?

Visiting a new place can be daunting. You’re putting yourself in a foreign land, with only the knowledge acquired through Google, family, friends and your travel agent.

It’s easy to feel intimated or overwhelmed with the opportunities to explore. Just this morning I bobbed onto TripAdvisor to finalise my Barcelona 3 Night itinerary and  I was met with 558 things I could do as a tourist in Barcelona. That’s a lot to cram into a short city break – so how don we whittle it down?

One way to make sure you see the main sights is to book a tour, but with so many tour options covering so many different interests, it can be very difficult to decide whether to bother at all.

So when is it worth booking a tour? Let’s consider the pros and cons of organised tours… and the I’ll decide whether to bother booking one or not!

The benefits of a booking a guided tour

You don’t miss a thing

If you’re a bit lazy when it comes to pre-holiday research or you have serious FOMO, then booking a tour ensure you’ll see the main tourist hotspots and get an overview of the historical, artistic or natural significance of each site. Easy win!

The tour guides have geographical knowledge 

Being on a tour means you don’t need to concern yourself with the location of the places you’re going to visit. Be it a walking tour or a bus tour, if you’re a crappy navigator you could save yourself a lot of frustration by leaving directions to the experts.

If the places you’re visiting are quite spread out then a tour can actually be a cost effective way to transport yourself between them, so it’s still worth considering a tour even if you got your orienteering badge from the guides when you were 10.

History and Narrative

You get more from being guided by someone who has in depth knowledge of the cultural significance of a tourist attraction than by simply walking to it, looking and snapping pictures.

If you’re less inclined to read tourist information or buy a paper guide, then booking on a tour is a great way to get some background whilst you snap away on your camera and upload pictures to Instagram. Multitasking. Boom.

Exclusive access & Special treatment

Sometimes the tour companies have a deal with the attractions so you can effectively cut the queue and therefore see the attractions faster. Similarly, they might have access ‘behind the scenes’ so you might be able to get closer to some art, artefacts or simply a better view.

Security and safety

I’m not encouraging anyone to visit somewhere which is ‘unsafe’ but there are certainly places I would like to visit where there is economic deprivation and a higher risk of criminal activity. If I wanted to explore these areas I would book a tour because local knowledge and security would be important to my experience and would let me relax a little bit more (which is what I want from a holiday)!

guided tour

Some tours simply need a guide for safety reasons!

It’s efficient, and requires little to no planning!

Book a tour in a few clicks, turn up and let someone else do that hard work for you. It certainly sounds attractive!

When is it best to go it alone?

Irritating People

There are some really annoying people in the world and it’s very possible that you’ll be stuck on a bus with at least one of them for the duration of the tour. I’m a sociable person, but being forced to socialise with random people in a confined space is not everyone’s cup of tea!

Price

There are some tours which are ‘free’ or request only a small donation at the end of the tour. Others are pre-bookable with varying fees depending on the inclusive activities and the size of the group.

Either way,the decision to book a tour is obviously swayed by budget.

Sometimes you don’t want to see everything in the tour

If you only really want to see 50-75% of the places and attractions in the tour, is it really worth it?

When we visited Hong Kong, we took a half day tour and there were some things we weren’t that bothered about seeing (such as a jade showroom). Lesson learned? Only book tours which contain everything you want to see, but not much else.

Want to hang around somewhere longer?

When on a guided tour, you’ll typical jump off the bus and then spend a limited time at each ‘destination’ or ‘hotspot’ meaning you have to whizz round or at least be selective in what you do at each place.

Need a toilet visit? Might want to hold it in, or you could miss a priceless art exhibit.

When you want to ditch the watch

Spontaneity is something we often crave and cannot establish in our day to day lives. The constraints of our work schedules, workout schedules, meal times and fitting in family and friends lends itself to routine.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but when on holiday it can be nice to dance to your own tune. A tour is sort of more like a line dance than a freestyle twerk-in-the-kitchen whilst you’re emptying the dishwasher. I’m much more inclined to do the latter!

Ditching the tour and wandering around a city yourself means you can leave the watch in the hotel room and just wing it, which can be quite liberating in itself!

So what’s the verdict?

For Barcelona, I’ve studied the content of the top 10 tours (per TripAdvisor) and plan to visit them in my own time. The city is small enough to navigate easily myself and I want this break to be leisurely!

That’s not to say I wouldn’t book a tour again – just not this week!

Planning a trip? Head to the holiday planning page for more tips and tricks – or check out what I got up to in the places I’ve visited!

 

What Not to Miss: San Francisco

If you only have a few days in the city by the bay, make sure you spend them in the best possible way. Boom. Poetry.

Here’s a some of the un-missable San Francisco experiences (and an indication of the time we allowed for them when we did them)…

Tree Hugging Anyone? (1-2 hours)

If you’re coming in from Yosemite then it’s a good shout to take a small diversion to Muir Woods on the way to the city. There is free parking, friendly deer and it is home to some pretty big-ass trees. Stop at the visitor’s centre for a small dose of local history and then take the small boardwalk path around the forest and try-but-fail to wrap your hands around a massive tree trunk, like every other tourist before you.

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Bloomin’ Massive Tree – Muir Woods

Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge (2 minutes)

What better way to arrive in the city than by driving over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?

Given that it is one of the city’s most iconic structures, it felt only right to arrive in the city by driving over it, despite the fact that you have to pay for the 2 minute privilege. The view was well worth the toll charge which is around $7 and is payable online or through your car hire company later who will automatically re-charge you when they get the bill (yes, unfortunately they had my credit card details).

Golden Gate Bridge

Oh Heyyyy, Golden Gate bridge!

Shopping. A must-do in any city. (2-4 hours)

We arrived mid afternoon and set out to explore Union Square almost straight away. Whilst the shops in Union Square are good it is worth noting that they are mostly chains, so if you’ve come from New York and/or Vegas (as we did) then you’ve probably seen most of the stock already! That didn’t stop me looking again, much to the joy of my Husband…

Head to Marshalls for significant discounts on brands. I got myself a rather snazzy Michael Kors Leather Jacket for less than $230 and a pair of Michael Kors shoes for around $50. I had to trust that I would lose my ‘America weight’ when I got home and that the jacket would then fasten at the front.

It’s a good idea to end the shopping spree in Macy’s so you can work your way up to the Cheesecake Factory. It lived up to it’s reputation for having a huge menu, as well as a huge array of cheesecakes…and a huge queue for a table! We waited approx 30 mins at around 7pm, which isn’t too tedious when you’re clutching a mojito and taking in the views over the square at night.

shopping san francisco

The Haul, including the one-size-too-small leather jacket.

The Exploratorium (2-4 hours)

Ever wished museums were actually fun? Consider your wish granted. It’s as if The Exploratorium was the brain child of Willy Wonka and Inspector Gadget. Think mind-boggling, touchy-feely interactive exhibits which assault your senses and have you wishing you’d taken science more seriously at school. If geeking-out could ever be cool, this place is a close as it comes.

There are many reasons why a visit to the Exploratorium is a must if you have a couple of hours free – especially if you can get yourself there on a Thursday night for the after dark session, when entry is permitted for adults only and alcoholic drinks are available for purchase!

If you’re lucky, you might find yourself there on a night when one of their ‘Pairings’ events are on. Pairings is an innovative way of bringing science and food together, with guest speakers and free tasters of food and drink! It’s included in the entry price and is well worth checking out! The theme on our pairings night was apples, so we tasted a delicious apple based salad and a variety of Ciders (or ‘Hard Cider’ as it’s referred to stateside).

Alcatraz Island Tour (2-4 hours)

Normally the idea of getting up early, boarding a boat in the cold morning mist and wandering around derelict buildings on an island designed to deter people wouldn’t be my cup-of-tea. Alcatraz is the exception. All of the guide books suggest a visit here and I wouldn’t disagree. The tour is guided with a headset so you can roam freely without having to stop to read things all of the time. That’s great, but in busy spots there was a bit of a wait to see the exhibit (like a specific prison cell) so we did have to pause the tape on occasions.

Unfortunately for me, cups of tea and sweets inside the prison grounds are not permitted. Be prepared to scoff or bin your snack stash when you get off the ferry! Book at least 6 weeks in advance to avoid tickets being sold out.

Pedal Power! (1-8 hours)

I don’t have a bike in the UK because I don’t have anywhere to store it, but that didn’t stop me or my Husband hopping on and touring the bay on two wheels. Once we remembered how ride, we cycled over the bridge and back again. Another option is to cycle over, head to Sausalito and get the ferry back to the city. We chose to cycle back and used the bikes to explore some of that end of the city (we got lost).

Hiring bikes was easy on the pier front despite it being a busy weekend. It was good value and cycle routes are clearly marked and easy to follow.

cycling san francisco

After cycling for a few minutes, I figured I’d earned those nachos.

China Town (20 mins +)

We walked through China town a few times during the morning markets. There were lots of shops offering ‘touristy’ type souvenirs, so we bought a Golden Gate Bridge fridge magnet for around $3 (it might be a bit sad, but we always buy a fridge magnet from the places we visit).

The atmosphere was a little bit chaotic and exhausting with the heat and the hills, so we didn’t stop there for long despite having heard that there were some fantastic buffet restaurants in the area! Despite not sticking around, it’s definitely worth nipping to this part of town for a splash of alternative culture.

Fleet Week (1 week event)

We happened to be in town for San Francisco’s 2015 Fleet Week. This was actually unplanned, but a massive stroke of luck. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere the whole time we were in the city and there were air shows on Saturday and Sunday, including a star appearance from the Blue Angels which we were able to watch from the bridge!

There were live bands on Pier 39 and the whole Fisherman’s Wharf area was filled with military vehicles and personnel. The bay was packed with military vessels and spirits were high! If you’re heading out there in October – it’s well worth checking whether you could align your stay with fleet week!

The Embarcadero & Markets (1-2 hours)

If you’re a fan of food and craft markets, check out what’s going on down at the Embarcadero Centre. It’s the kind of place where you struggle to decide where to grab breakfast from because all of the food stalls and cafés pull you in with aromas of sausages, bacon, artisan breads and cheeses.  Grab a little snack from a few places to-go and wander down the waterfront enjoying the view.

Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf (1-2 hours)

This is the main ‘touristy’ area of the city and where you’ll find a host of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. We ate there twice for lunch.

The first time we went to the Eagle Cafe where we ate AMAZING seafood. When asked what type of oysters we wanted we asked for a surprise because we didn’t know what any of the options were, and given it was only the second time either of us had tried oysters – we quite frankly didn’t care.

The second time, we ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp, where we failed the Forrest Gump quiz in a tremendously bad fashion. Stunning views, seaside smells and good food make it worth a visit.

Oysters at Eagle Cafe, Pier 39, San Francisco

The ‘Surprise Me’ Oysters courtesy of the oyster bar at the Eagle Cafe

 

Palace of Fine Arts (30 mins+)

For it’s sheer beauty, this place is worth more than a passing glance. Tag it on to your cycle trip over the bridge as it’s not far off-route, but be aware that you’ll have to dismount your bike when you arrive as cycling is not permitted. You’ll want to make sure your camera is charged for this one!

Palace of fine arts san francisco

Apparently one of the most romantic places in the world. Wit-woo. 

What about the trams?

We didn’t need to get the tram anywhere, and I think you see more of the trams when you’re outside the carriage so unless you’re desperate to go on one, don’t worry about missing out on the tram experience. You’ll have plenty of photo ops when a crammed carriage passes you in the street!

How could you leave out the famous Lombard Street?

We went. We saw. We were somewhat underwhelmed.

It took us 30 minutes walking up and down hills in the heat to arrive at Lombard Street and although it’s very pretty and very wiggly, I wouldn’t go again unless I happened to be passing. In a taxi.

Considering a late night?

Don’t bother. Unlike Las Vegas and New York, San Francisco is a city which does sleep, and it turns out it goes to bed pretty early. We tried to get dinner reservations at 10pm and the hotel concierge sort of politely chuckled. He came through though, by sending us for one of the best (and best value) meals of the holiday – a curry at Punjab Kabab House, who were more than happy to feed us after a long day exploring the city. Definitely one to check out!!

A quick nod to the less fortunate.

It doesn’t take a detective to realise that homelessness is a real problem in the city. We were surprised by the amount of people ‘begging’ on the streets everywhere we went in the USA but it certainly seemed more prevalent in San Francisco. If you don’t feel comfortable giving people loose change (well, you don’t know what they’re doing with it to be fair) then perhaps a little compassion could be extended in some other way.

Each time we left a restaurant without finishing the meal (pretty much every night), we asked for the leftovers to be packaged as a take-away and then gave them to the next homeless person we came across. Not once was the gesture rejected, and there’s something extremely humbling about hearing a homeless man declare “Oh Yeaahhhhh – fig rolls!!” as you continue the walk back to your 4* hotel.

Are you planning a visit to the city on the bay?

Head over to my travel planning page for hints and tips on how to maximise the benefit of your annual leave!

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

Holiday Maximisation Part 1.0

Sounds like a bullshit term. It probably is, because I made it up and I’m not in marketing – I’m in Finance. In fact it sounds like something fraudulent and if it said anything other than ‘holiday’, I probably wouldn’t read it. And at this point I don’t know whether there will ever be a ‘2.0’…

So what the hell does it mean?

If I have unlimited time to complete a task, typically it will take me much longer to complete than it needed to because I am an excellent procrastinator. If I have a list of chores and a week to complete the tasks then it will take me a week. If you tell me I only have 10 hours then 9.5 hours later I will have finished my chores.

By no means am I likening the trip of a lifetime to household chores, but I am trying to explain how it is that I know I can plan a kick-ass trip and make sure I see everything I want to, despite my limited time-frame!

Of course, it would be great to have several months to spend wandering around, discovering new places – who wouldn’t like to have more time on holiday?! The point here is if – like me- you only have three weeks for each trip, then you need to connect with your inner Monica Geller and put on your organising hat. Holiday maximisation requires advanced planning. You need to become an expert vacation planner!

Aren’t all holidays planned in Advance?

Obviously holidays are planned in advance, but the difference for the 5 week wanderer type is that in order to be able to enjoy more of the things you want to see, the travel planning needs to be a little more involved.

It’s a nice idea to ‘wing it’. I find the idea of just arriving in a place and scoping it out quite romantic, but in reality it often ends up with half a day wasted, tickets being sold-out and a meal in a crap ‘restaurant’ because you simply don’t know that you’re round the corner from the best food in town.

Holiday Planning Bali

That time in Bali when we ‘winged it’ and got in a taxi to a random place for the day, got a Starbucks and went back to the hotel. See confused face.

Holiday Maximisation Steps

The below list is a summary of how I’ve planned my last two 3-week holidays. I’ll be writing some more detailed posts in the travel planning section of this site and the below is not a comprehensive guide on how to plan a trip, but for now consider the following a ‘blueprint’:

  1. Agree timings and budget with fellow travellers (if there are any!). Check whether there are events in the area that you might want to go to (Carnival anyone?!) or avoid (world cup?! No thanks) and be mindful that these events change the price by quite a bit!
  2. Obtain authorisation for annual leave from work (this bit can take a while!)
  3. Get all the brochures, maps and guidebooks you can. Browse them and make notes. Highlight, doodle and sticky-tab the shit out of them
  4. When you have an idea of where you want to go, visit an appropriate travel agent (an expert in your type of trip, regardless of the price) so you can benefit from their knowledge and expertise
  5. Take away the quote and draft a rough holiday itinerary – can you fit in everything you want based on the dates / flight times they suggested and still have some ‘down-time’?
  6. Consider travel blogs and the advice of people you know who have already visited the place you’re travelling to. Remind people that you only have a short time so that they  recommend things in order of priority! Utilise TripAdvisor for travelling tips and reviews.
  7. Research online for price-competitiveness and select the best deal to save on travel. Don’t be afraid to book a trip in chunks, but understand the difference between packed holidays and non-packaged.
  8. BOOK IT! Tip – ask to purchase the flights and at least 2-3 nights accommodation together so it can be packaged so you only need to pay a deposit now instead of the full price for the flights.
  9. Sort out insurance, visas, passports, credit cards and the other boring stuff. You really do need these things to be a safe and legitimate tourist!
  10. Record everything in some kind of ‘trip planner’! I use a spreadsheet to record the total amount payable and what we have already paid, but you could doodle it on a napkin as long as you can refer to it later!
  11. Start booking your activities, especially the type which sell out (e.g. Alcatraz). Be mindful that things like sports events can actually be much cheaper on the day if you’re willing to take a gamble on them being available through a site like StubHub. If you are willing to wait until the day of the event, you could save money!
  12. Update your itinerary for the activities you have booked in advance.
  13. Become uncontrollably excited and begin the countdown to your trip!

Other ways to make the most of your limited time

You need to make sure that impact of the boring parts of the holiday is limited. Moving myself from place to place is the part of the holiday that I typical greet with much distain.

When I’m on the move, I want to make sure I spend the shortest amount of time possible in ‘joy-less transit’. By this I mean I want to take the most direct route possible to my destination (unless a scenic drive is part of the appeal of the trip).

An example is when we visited the Grand Canyon. We went from Vegas with two friends who were in Vegas at the same time we were.  We had two options if we wanted to put our feet down in the canyon itself: a 12 hour round coach trip through the desert or a 3.5 hour round helicopter trip with champagne breakfast in the canyon.

The coach trip was around £150 cheaper but we would have seen much less (no aerial view) and would have been out for 1 of the 4 days we had in Vegas, as opposed to being back by noon ready for a day out-and-about!

Untitled design-2

This was the view as we dropped down into the Grand Canyon in the Helicopter – Yes, the tiny red dots are the other helicopters!

It simply made sense to pay the additional £150 each to benefit from that view, the experience of being in a helicopter for the first time and to have the extra 8-10 hours that we then used to have a few drinks at the pool, visit the shopping malls, go out for food and have a nap before we hit the tables and ended the night in Hakkasan.

The underlying principle of  holiday maximisation is therefore getting the best value for money but also the best value for time…