Exchanging pesos to pounds

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british-pound-coinsFor months, I’ve been telling everyone that they can get the best exchange rate from their home country’s currency to the local currency by simply bringing their ATM card and withdrawing money wherever they are. In Bali, for example, the rate I got through the ATM was nearly equivalent to the actual exchange rate, meaning the banks practically made no money from that transaction.

APPARENTLY, the exception to that rule is when you’re exchanging pesos to pounds in London. On September 4, the official exchange rate was PHP 72 to GBP 1, so I almost choked when I withdrew a few hundred pounds from an ATM at Heathrow, checked my bank balance, and realized their rate was 80.65 pesos to a pound! It wasn’t just that particular ATM too, though it was the worst; at an ATM in the Westminster area, I got a rate of 78.92 to a pound.

One more reason to love Scotland: their exchange rates were better. I got 74.52 at one bank and 74.45 at another. Scottish banks, by the way, issue their own notes, and some shop owners in England might refuse to accept them out of confusion, but by law Scottish notes are supposed to be legal tender throughout the United Kingdom.

Before I left the Philippines, I exchanged a few thousand pesos to GBP at Ayala Center Cebu and I got rates that were just slightly better than Scotland’s. Stuff I paid for with a Citi Visa credit card had exchange rates in the 74.90 – 75.00 range.

So, lesson learned at a considerable price: buy British pounds before leaving the Philippines. Or go to Scotland.

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A day in Bath, the Cotswolds and Stonehenge

A Day in Bath, the Cotswolds and Stonehenge
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It sounded too good to be true: Bath, the Cotswolds, and Stonehenge all in one day. With time always a precious commodity during travel, the City Wonders tour covering all three caught my eye while I was doing my research and I couldn’t get it out of my mind, even though I’m normally one of those people who “don’t do tours.” I had already figured out a DIY Stonehenge itinerary, but it would have taken nearly all day, and I was finding it challenging to explore the Cotswolds without a car. Bath was intriguing and everyone had told me I should check it out, but even advance train tickets weren’t cheap and I had already half made up my mind to skip it. The chance to see all three, therefore, was something that I just couldn’t pass up.
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City Wonders Tour_Bath Cotswolds Stonehenge_01 Gloucester Road Tube station

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Check-in time was naturally early — 7:15 AM just outside the Gloucester Road tube station — but we had a chance to catch up on sleep on the journey to Bath. I have to admit that’s one thing about tours that I could get used to: an opportunity to leave all the planning and staying alert to the guide, just relaxing and allowing myself to be shepherded along the trail. Another plus: my feet were getting much-needed rest after two full days pounding the pavements of London with shoes that didn’t fit me very well. At lunch later on, a retiree from Minnesota revealed that those were the very reasons she had chosen to take the tour in the middle of her week in London — as a strategic break between days and days of walking and exploring all by herself.
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City Wonders’ London tours

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City Wonders Tour_Stonehenge_08

My sister and I recently went on a tour of Bath, the Cotswolds and Stonehenge with City Wonders and had a wonderful time. When my friends see my travel photos, the most common question I’m asked is how I do it, and, well, honestly, the easiest way to do it is to go on a tour with a reliable tour operator. You can read HERE why I decided to go on a coach tour with City Wonders instead of trying to DIY it but the quick answer is: saves time, stress-free, comfortable. I didn’t go on a tour with other London guides so I can’t make comparisons, but we were extremely satisfied with our City Wonders tour so I’m quite happy to recommend them.

City Wonders offers London tours — comprehensive, highlights, or special-interest, you can take your pick — as well as day tours from London to Oxford and Bath/Cotswolds/Stonehenge. Here’s a quick rundown:

Full Day Best of London Combo Saver Walking Tour

  • Price: starting at $169.08 for adults, $153.85 for children
  • Duration: 9 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Entry to the Tower of London (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, includes VIP early access to watch the opening ceremony by the Yeoman Warders)
    • River shuttle up the Thames
    • Walking tour through the Horse Guards to St. James’s Palace
    • Watch the Changing of the Guard – either at Buckingham Palace or at the Horse Guards Parade, with commentary and guidance to prime viewing spots
    • Last stop of the morning at Buckingham Palace
    • Lunch break at own expense
    • Walk through Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Horse Guards, Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey
    • Afternoon tea “in a luxurious London hotel”

Best of Royal London Tour

  • Price: starting at $105.11 for adults, $97.49 for children
  • Duration: 4 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Entry to the Tower of London (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, includes VIP early access to watch the opening ceremony by the Yeoman Warders)
    • River shuttle up the Thames
    • Walking tour through the Horse Guards to St. James’s Palace
    • Watch the Changing of the Guard – either at Buckingham Palace or at the Horse Guards Parade, with commentary and guidance to prime viewing spots
    • Tour ends at Buckingham Palace (I’m not sure if this includes actual entry to the palace)

Buckingham Palace and Changing of the Guard

  • Price: starting at $85.30 for adults, $77.69 for children
  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Timed entry to Buckingham Palace – pre-entry commentary by the City Wonders guide and use of the official audio guide once inside (apparently local guides aren’t allowed to speak inside the Palace)
    • Watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony – commentary and guidance to prime viewing spots

Buckingham Palace Tour with Changing of the Guard and Afternoon Tea

  • Price: starting at $134.05 for adults, $126.43 for children
  • Duration: 4.5 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Changing of the Guard – either at Buckingham Palace or Horse Guards Parade, with commentary and guidance to prime viewing spots
    • Timed entry to Buckingham Palace – including use of the official Palace audio guide
    • Afternoon tea at “a nearby hotel – one of the most prestigious in London”

Buckingham Palace Tour & Afternoon Tea

  • Price: starting at $112.72 for adults, $105.11 for children
  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Timed entry to Buckingham Palace with official audio guide
    • Afternoon tea at “a nearby luxury hotel”

Highlights of London Walking Tour with English Afternoon Tea

  • Price: starting at $79.21 for adults, $71.59 for children
  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Walking tour with commentary by a local guide, stopping at Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Horse Guards, Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey
    • Afternoon tea

Special Interest Tours

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Highlights of British Museum Guided Tour

  • Price: starting at $31.99 for adults, $24.37 for children
  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Inclusions: Guided tour of a route through the museum that includes the Egyptian Room, the Parthenon Frieze, and the Anglo Saxon ship burial found in Sutton Hoo

Churchill War Rooms and Westminister WWII Tour

  • Price: starting at $63.98 for adults, $56.36 for children
  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Walking tour of Westminster, including 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the Cenotaph
    • Admission and audio guide at the Churchill War Rooms

Day Tours Out of London

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Stonehenge and Bath Tour with Authentic English Village Lunch

  • Price: starting at $145.02 for adults, $132.83 for children
  • Duration: 13 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Travel by coach
    • Walking tour of Bath
    • Lunch at Castle Combe in the Cotswolds
    • A stop at Lacock
    • Guided tour through Stonehenge

Oxford Day Tour with Harry Potter Movie Location Visits

  • Price: starting at $84.08 for adults, $77.99 for children
  • Duration: 7 hours
  • Inclusions:
    • Train travel to and from Oxford
    • Walking tour of Oxford, including Christ Church College and the Bridge of Sighs

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Hello from London


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My sister and I have been in London since the evening of the 4th and my feet are now hurting like hell we’ve had a jam-packed three days so far. Our friends have been very kind, taking us around London and feeding us, and it’s been a wonderful introduction to the city. On the first day, we went up to Greenwich then made our way down through South Bank, catching all the familiar sights and some not-so-familiar but fascinating ones…
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…Sunday, we heard Mass at the Westminster Cathedral then started a 400-mile walk (or what seemed like it) from South Kensington tube station, through the museums, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, and a couple of Circuses…
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…and yesterday, we had brunch with old friends at Borough Market, went up to Platform 9 3/4, had apple pie and coffee at Speedy’s in Euston, checked out “221B” Baker Street, popped into the Oxford Primark (though we didn’t buy anything because the queues were too long), and then my sister treated me to Les Misérables.
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We’ve had a truly wonderful time so far, taking in the sounds and sights of Central London, but we’re rather looking forward to tomorrow’s day out — the Stonehenge and Bath Tour with Authentic English Village Lunch with City Wonders. Some people’s beef with coach tours is that a lot of the time is spent sitting on a bus, but honestly, after all the walking we’ve done, I’m quite looking forward to a day of siting for a slightly prolonged period of time, looking out the window, and just sightseeing for a bit.

It’s an exciting itinerary too. The first stop is Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage site which, the moment I started discussing the possibility of going to the UK, everyone told me I should visit. We will then have lunch and a short ramble in the Cotswolds, an area known for its villages that are “quintessentially English” with stone houses, cobblestone streets, and beautiful countryside views. Finally, we will head to Stonehenge, which, well, really needs no description. All that on one day tour from London. Can’t wait!

There’s still so much I’d like to share about our London tour, and a lot of people have been asking for a copy of our London itinerary, which I’ll try to post about sometime, but most of it will have to wait until I get back home. In the meantime, I hope everyone’s having a wonderful week. Cheers. 🙂

Travel Notes: Stonehenge

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Stonehenge | Image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Wigulf~commonswiki | CC BY 2.5

Image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Wigulf~commonswiki | CC BY 2.5

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“I’m perfectly fine with being a typical tourist,” said my sister when I asked her if she wanted to go to Stonehenge (she did).

While I don’t have particularly strong feelings for or against seeing Stonehenge, I do think it’s the type of place where what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. If you go there expecting to see a breathtaking bunch of stones, you’re going to see a bunch of stones alright, but the breathtaking part’s a toss-up. On the other hand, if you dig a bit deeper and try to see beyond the stones, you will surely get more out of the experience.

So…I guess we’re going. 🙂

(Er, that is, if we get a visa. Fingers crossed.)


London to Salisbury

  • The cheapest way to get there is probably by Megatrain, with one-way fares ranging from £1 to £10.
    Megatrain London-SalisburyMegatrain Salisbury-London
  • Trip duration: 1.5 h
  • LON-SAL times (sample date 22/07): 8:20, 9:20, 12:20, 14:20, 21:20
  • SAL-LON times (sample date 22/07): 14:21, 16:21, 19:26, 21:26

Salisbury to Stonehenge

  • The Stonehenge Tour leaves from the rail station, goes to Stonehenge, stops by Old Sarum, then goes back to Salisbury station. (ROUTE)
  • Prices (click here for more info)
    • Bus only – £14
    • Bus + entrance fees to Stonehenge and Old Sarum – £27
    • Bus + entrance fees to Stonehenge, Old Sarum, and Salisbury Cathedral – £33
  • Timetable (sample below, click here for current timetable and more info)
    Screenshot_Stonehenge Tour_Autumn Timetable

Stonehenge

  • Entrance fee – £14.50
  • According to the Stonehenge Wikitravel: “The Stonehenge landscape is one of the best preserved areas of readily accessible chalk downland in the UK. On the edge of Salisbury plain it features several rolling hills and dry river valleys that allow for pleasant walks without too much trouble.”

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Cheapest way to see Stonehenge on a day trip from London

  • London to Salisbury (by Megatrain) – £1
  • Tour (bus + entrance fees) to Stonehenge and Old Sarum – £27
  • Salisbury to London (by Megatrain) – £1
  • Total – £29

 

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Stalking George Smiley

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For the first time, I am utterly unprepared for a visa application.

I have some idea of where I want to go but — aside from the one day I’ll be devoting to using my London Pass, probably on the same day I’m going to the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London (for which I already have tickets), and aside from the day trip I intend to take to Oxford — I still haven’t beaten everything down to an actual itinerary yet, which I’ll need for a visa application.

One thing I’d really like to do, though, for both fan-girl and personal reasons, is go on a George Smiley tour of sorts.

(I actually said to myself, a few minutes ago: surely someone has thought of this before. And I found this — but I’m going to make my own.)

Off the top of my head:

  • Cambridge Circus — of course, and I’d like to take a look at the present-day MI6 as well. (There was a news story months ago about MI6 needing more females. Perhaps I shall apply. I am unobservant and unremarkable, and in the logic that it’s the most unlikely spy that makes the best spy, I’m sure I’ll be a shoo-in.)
  • Bywater Street — home to George and Ann, his “last illusion of an illusionless man.”
  • Hampstead Heath — I was always going to go anyway, but now I have another reason.
  • Oxford — where Smiley had studied, and where apparently he would have gone on to All Souls if he hadn’t detoured to the Circus.

I’d also like to go to Cornwall, but it doesn’t seem so feasible, time- and budget-wise. Though I wouldn’t have minded an excuse to go on the sleeper train to Penzance!

I’ll have to dust off my le Carrés to see where else I could go.

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Stalking George Smiley” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.

United Kingdom

Image by Laszlo Ilyes (CC BY 2-0)

Image by Laszlo Ilyes (CC BY 2-0)

London

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© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains