England Vacation 2010: London (Day 1)

Originally published in July 2010. Now that I have a blog dedicated to travel, the trip is being republished where it belongs.

Today I flew to London.

For years, taking a vacation to Europe has been at the top of my To Do list. But for one reason or another, the trip just never happened. Until today. My friend Pamela and I flew from St. Louis to London for a 8 day trip.

Though this blog is normally all about University City, I decided to take it on the road to chronicle the daily experiences as two Midwestern American gals discover London and the nearby countryside for the first time.

This is also my first vacation traveling with a computer. I bought a netbook a few months ago, and hope that it will transform the way I remember trips from this point forward. Too many little details just get lost over time when you fail to write them down. The goal is to write up the day’s experiences nightly and post them sometime the next day. According to my research before the trip, it’s fairly easy to find free wifi in London…we’ll see. If not, my hotel lobby only charges £1 for 20 minutes (about $1.50).

Getting Here:

Our original itinerary called for us to fly out at 2:45 pm on Tuesday, connecting through New York,  overnighting on the plane and landing in mid-morning (London time). About a week before the trip, we found out that 2 seats opened up on a flight through Chicago which would get is here in one day. Even though it meant arriving at the airport at 4:30 AM for a 6:00 AM departure, we decided it would be better to arrive late at night and tackle our first day relatively rested, rather than spend half of it traveling and then feeling the need to start hitting sightseeing spots the same day.

Our travel day went very smoothly, with both of our flights taking off on time and the flight time going by amazingly quickly. Though there was a baby who cried through much of the 8 hour flight to London, my iPod drowned it out quite well. We even had two relatively good meals on the flight, a cheese omelet & potatoes breakfast and a salad & pizza for dinner.

Transportation Surprises:

We had done our research, and planned to take the Heathrow Express train to our hotel, Corus Hyde Park Hotel. What we didn’t plan for was an hour and a half to get through immigration.

Since the train service had stopped before we could get out of the airport, we had a choice between sharing a taxi with another passenger we met in the immigration line at a cost of about $45 each or taking the night bus for $3.50 each. We decided to go the adventurous route with the bus. A nice off-duty airport employee  walked us across the airport to the bus terminal and made sure we knew where to go. We boarded at 12:30 AM for what we were told could be a 2 hour ride to the City of Winchester/Hyde Park area.

Let me first say that every bus in London is a double-decker bus. This bus was no exception, and the first floor was already filled with passengers when we boarded. We dragged our bulky suitcases up the steps and then tried to follow along a map we brought with us…one that didn’t show the bus stops, let alone the night stops. Since the subway service (called the Tube) stops at midnight, a colorful crowd got on & off the bus at each stop. After only an hour, we found our exit and hopped off the bus at Hydes Park Corner…which is unfortunately on the opposite side of the park from our hotel. Walking at 1:30 in the morning dragging suitcases wasn’t something I was very keen about, though there were plenty of cars and a surprising number of people on the sidewalks with us. It also seemed like a fairly nice party of town, so we weren’t too uncomfortable. Still, we were quite happy that it only took a few blocks before we were able to hail a taxi for the rest of the ride.

To Sleep or Not to Sleep?

By the time we got to the hotel, it was after 2:30 AM. But even with getting only 4 hours of sleep the night before, I just didn’t think I could go to sleep at 8:30 PM St. Louis time. So, we headed to the hotel bar based on the information from the hotel brochure in our room stating that the bar was open for drinks & paninis 24 hours a day.

We walked into a bar with about a dozen party-goers who were winding up their night dressed in tuxes and cocktail dresses. It took us a while to sort it out, but we finally figured out that they had attended a special opera dinner at our hotel. To our surprise, the bartender informed us that they were not serving food, the draft beer was too foamy so she shut the taps down and they were out of bottled beer. We ended up splitting a couple of ciders, Strowbridge and Manger’s.

I think I’ll stick to beer the rest of the trip.

A short while later, the bartender closed down the bar. We would soon discover that just because a London establishment advertises food is served “all day”, it doesn’t mean that you can get something to eat after 10 PM.

Lessons Learned:

  • Take an iPod on your flight. Not only does it help pass the time, but it works amazingly well at drowning out crying babies.
  • Allow for plenty of time to get through immigration…it took us  1 ½ hours and we landed at 10:30 PM.
  • Be prepared to be flexible. No matter how much you research in advance, sometimes things happen and you will end up taking a bus instead of a train. Smile and enjoy the sites.
  • Just like at home, London buses do not stop at every bus stop unless there is someone waiting outside to get on. Make sure you watch for your stop and push the button to let the driver know you need to get off.
  • We had been warned about the small size of London hotel rooms. Set your expectations accordingly, read some reviews before you book, and you might just be as lucky as we were with the Corus Hyde Park Hotel. The A/C, not standard in London, also was very appreciated since it made the room so much less stuffy. If you end up at a hotel without A/C, the windows can be opened to allow a cool breeze.

Coming Up: Day 2 in London including Big Bus Tour, Westminster Abbey, River Thames City Cruise and search of a London Pass.