Category Archives: Travel

My Travels : UK-Europe 2013

We spent almost a month (July 12- Aug 10, 2013) in UK and Europe and in that time, we added a number of experiences we would like to share here. The information may be useful to someone.

Scroll down for my reviews on the Hotels or for my suggestions of useful travel apps.

1. Weight System vs Piece System checked baggage

MAS practises the Weight System for all it’s flights except those to and from the Americas.
That means your check-in total entitlement of 30 kg (economy) can be shared out into as many bags as you wish subject to certain max dimensions. Also note that even if you wish to pay for excess weight, there is a safety consideration of not exceeding 32 kg per bag.
For MAS flights to and from the Americas, the Piece System applies and not more than 2 pieces of check-in baggage are allowed.

If you travel as a family or group, you may be able to spread out your TOTAL weight entitlement among the combined pieces of baggage (MAS allows this).

Be careful on code-share flights. Different airlines practise different checked baggage systems. For example, if you fly KLM (ie. you bought your return tickets entirely through KLM), and say, if the outgoing leg is on a MAS code-shared flight, you will be allowed multiple pieces of checked baggage so long as the combined weight is within your entitlement. However, on the return flight, say it’s now on a KLM flight, KLM practises the Piece System, and you will be charged for extra pieces of checked baggage exceeding your entitled 1-piece of checked baggage (economy), regardless of size. Be warned….if there is a code-share flight, check its baggage policy!

One of the best documents on Baggage is from MAS:
http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/content/dam/mas/master/en/pdf/book-plan/Baggage-Information.pdf

2. Airport transfer to and from Heathrow.

If you have a party of more than 3 people, it may be more convenient, if not more economical, to pre-book a private vehicle (eg. Great Britain Cars http://www.greatbritaincars.co.uk/ ). You can book online and select the date, time and type of vehicle. The GB Cars Co has an online live helper to chat with you and walk you through your requirements, including making your booking. An MPV with driver, for 6 adults (we had 4 adults, 4 cabin bags, 7 large check-in bags) costs GBP60.00 for home pickup to Heathrow T4.

Disclaimer: I have no connection with Great Britain Cars. I merely used them in my last trip and I am happy with the service. You can search online for other similar airport cab services.

3. Budget Airlines easyJet (EJ) vs RyanAir (RA)

From my personal experience:

a. Website and Online Booking
EJ’s website ( http://www.easyjet.com/en/ ) is more user- friendly and certainly looks and feels more modern than RyanAir’s ( http://www.ryanair.com/ ). This was in 2012. The websites may have changed.

EJ requires documentary record of identity at online booking and after that they only check the identity document (eg. Passport) at the check-in gate before boarding. RA requires you to go to a separate counter at airport (if the airport has one) or join the check-in queue (eg. at the Ciampino airport in Rome), to verify your passport/visa before you go past security. Be aware of this!

b. Airports
EJ appears to use the main airports whereas RA seems to use low-cost terminals/airports.
eg. London-Venice
EJ departs Gatwick and arrives Venice Marco Polo.
Venice-Rome
EJ departs Marco Polo and arrives Fiumicino ( Leonardo da Vinci )
Rome-Barcelona
RA departs Ciampino and arrives Barcelona T2
Barcelona-London
RA departs Barcelona T2 and arrives Stansted.

Incidentally, the Ciampino airport does not have a jetway so we still have to board a bus from the gate to the plane.

By the way, there are only 2 sandwich shops after security at Ciampino airport.

c. Seats
EJ pre-assigns seat numbers and kept our party of 6 together even though we did not pre-book our seat numbers. This allows more orderly boarding. RA does not assign any seat number if you do not pre-book your seat number. As such, the boarding for RA is more chaotic.
Since it is free seating on RA, the queue forms very quickly as soon as the gate number is announced or opened.
Incidentally, EJ’s planes and interiors are bright cheery orange-white whereas RA’s planes and interiors are dull black-blue-yellow.

d. Landing Cards
RA did not give out the UK landing cards on board the plane from Barcelona to Stansted, so be prepared to fill in the landing cards as you queue. That gave a bit of inconvenience at Stansted’s immigration.
I do not know if EJ hands out landing cards on their flights.

e. Cabin Baggage
easyJet allows up to the maximum size of 56 x 45 x 25cm including handles and wheels, but on some busy flights your bag may have to go into the hold. But if the bag is no bigger than 50 x 40 x 20cm including handles and wheels, EJ guarantees it will travel with you either in the overhead locker or, if necessary, under the seat in front of you.

RyanAir allows one cabin bag per passenger weighing up to 10kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, plus 1 small bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cms.
Due to cabin space limitations only 90 cabin bags (55 x 40 x 20 cms) can be carried in the cabin, any remainder will be carried free of charge in the aircraft hold.
(Up to August 2013, when we travelled on RyanAir, the cabin baggage allowance was strictly enforced for a single bag of 50x40x20cm. From the new allowance stated above, it looks like RyanAir has changed it to be more competitive.)

The key point to note is that if you are flying mixed carriers (eg. easyJet and RyanAir), you will have to be careful that you take along your cabin bag based on the smaller dimensions allowable. An obvious point but one that could be overlooked.

4. Stansted Airport

Long walk and narrow passage leading to immigration area.
No landing card given on board RyanAir, so be prepared to fill in the landing cards as you queue.

Two hotels nearby; Holiday Inn Express Stansted and Premier Inn Stansted. Both are served by an airport transfer bus, 24-hours, GBP3.00 1-way to either hotel ( they are next to each other ).
Although on the map they are only about 1 km away, it is not possible to walk as there is no pedestrian path from Airport to Hotel.

5. Venice
venice800x600

a. Airport transfer
Basically you can take the AVTO Express bus, ACTV Local bus or Alilaguna boat service which takes you from Airport to a few landing spots in Venice. There are also other modes which you can check online.

b. Travel Card
Buy the TravelCard from the Tourist Information booth or the Helovenizia booth. When you come out of arrival, it is on the right. We reached at 5.30pm and the Information Booth did not have lights on. You can easily miss it and instead end up buying the AVTO Express Coach transfer on the left of the arrival as you exit. The AVTO express costs EUR6.00 1-way and EUR11.00 return. The ACTV local also costs the same, but see the Travel Card below.

We found the Information Booth and bought our travel cards for 48-hours at EUR30.00 (was EUR28.00) which gives unlimited rides on the vaporetto (waterbus) and land buses (with some limitations).
For an extra charge of € 4,00 for one-way journeys only, or of € 8,00 for return journeys, all tourist travel cards (12, 24, 36, 48, 72 hours and 7 days) may be used on the land-bus routes for journeys having Venice Marco Polo Airport as departure or arrival point. We paid the extra for this airport transfer, by the ACTV bus no.5 which took us to the Piazzale Roma (main bus station in Venice). Because this is a “local bus”, it made a number of stops along the way. Students and Senior Citizens may have a discount.

b. Hotels
The bus station and train station are across from each other on the Grand Canal but connected by the Ponte della Costituzione (English: Constitution Bridge) Bridge.
If you arrive by bus, maybe it’s better to get a hotel on the West side whereas if you arrive by train, it may be better to get a hotel on the East side.
We arrived by bus but our hotel was on the East side ( just beside the train station) and it was not exactly an easy walk lugging baggage across the bridge.

Venice’s “streets” are generally very narrow, more like a narrow lane than a street. Keep an eye out for the street name or you can easily miss it.

If your hotel offers “private bathroom”, check to see it is internal (ensuite) and not external.

c. San Marco
Since this is one of the must-see sights, it can be convenient to take a water-taxi there. It will take about 25 minutes by water-taxi. Daytime is better than nightime. It is actually only about 15 minutes walk from San Rialto, so a good idea could be to go here by the water taxi and then to slowly walk towards San Rialto and see the sights along the way.

d. City Guides
Be sure to get the updated latest versions.
I found the TripAdvisor London City Guide to be accurate and useful, but in Venice, one of the recommendations in a suggested walking tour, the Drogheria Mascari (spice shop) appeared to be closed for good. The opening time of the Rialto Fish Market was also not mentioned and we found ourselves there too early (before 7.00am).
A number of establishements (hotels, restaurants) display the TripAdvisor sign. Mention to the service provider that you came on the recommendation of TripAdvisor and you will get noticeably better service and attention.
The restaurant recommendations in Time Out London Guide are also useful.

e. Gondola
The Grand Canal is very busy and crowded with vaporetto (waterbus) and other boats. The slow moving gondolas are in very precarious situations.
On 17-August-2013, just after 2 weeks after we left Venice, a gondola and a vaporetto waterbus collided on Venice’s Grand Canal, killing a 50-year-old German tourist and badly injuring his young daughter, near the Rialto Bridge as the waterbus manoeuvred toward a stop.
There are several other places in the inner city’s less busy canals where one can board a Gondola. You are advised to avoid the gondolas on the busy Grand Canal. I have seen them with passengers at night, hardly visible except for a small lantern. The water buses are passing by them at relatively high speeds and I shudder to think what would happen if the lantern goes out.

6. Rome

rome810x175

a. Airport Transfer
From the Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) Airport, there are basically two ways to get to the Termini (main train and bus stations). The dedicated train service is called the Leonardo Express and costs EUR14.00 1-way, free for children below 12, if accompanied. A cheaper way is by bus. One of the more popular services is TerraVision, which costs EUR4.00 for 1-way. It also goes to the Ciampino airport. We bought our tickets in advance online ( http://www.terravision.eu/ ).
Airport transfer from Termini to Ciamponi airport bought online from RyanAir. Note: TerraVision also has service to Ciamponi airport. TerraVision is by far the bigger and better organized airport transfer service. It is also the only bus service that seems to have a passenger ticketing counter and waiting lounge in the Termini (Terracafe). In contrast, RyanAir’s partner, Autostradale, does not have any counter at Termini except for an alloted bay some distance away from Termini’s main entrance.

b. Roma Pass
Bought Roma Pass from a vendor stall in Termini. Costs EUR34.00 each and gives unlimited bus, metro and some rail lines but no airport transfers for 3 days. Also gives free entrance to two museums or archeological sites. We visited the Colosseum and the Castel Sant Angelo. For sheer convenience (and beating the queues at attractions), a travel pass such as Roma Pass is highly recommended.

c. Vatican
Booked online to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. May still have to queue to exchange voucher for the ticket.
May have to get guided tour which can also sell the Vatican ticket at a discount.
From the Vatican Museum’s website ( http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html ), if we book just the admission tickets, each costs EUR16.00. For a guided tour, it costs EUR32.00 each, inclusive the admission ticket.
If you buy a guided tour service outside the Vatican, eg. Maya Tours ( http://www.mayatoursroma.com/ ), it costs EUR20.00 per person, not including the admission ticket.
From our experience to beat the queues as well as to understand better the sights and artifacts, it is strongly recommended to take a guided tour.

d. Pickpockets and Thieves
We were in London, Venice, Rome and Barcelona. We didn’t feel threatened (pickpocket, thief) in London and even Venice. However, from the moment we reached Termini (main railway and bus stations) in Rome, we felt uncomfortable. The first mistake was to ask a young man ( looked and sounded like a local Italian teenager, not a Gypsy) for directions to our Hotel. He had a beer can in one hand and a handphone in the other. He very willingly (too willingly) asked us to follow him and that he would show us the way. We followed him some way and then decided to ask a waiter at a corner restaurant to verify that we were going in the right direction. He pulled us to one side and whispered not to follow the young man as he was a thief. It was fortunate for us that we could shake off the young man by deciding to eat our dinner first at the restaurant. After dinner, the waiter kindly led us to our Hotel.

Other instances include the common scam of a group of gypsies making a commotion as we were boarding a crowded train and the pushing and squeezing against us. But we were ready for them and prevented them from picking our pockets. Frustrated, they hopped off the train just as it was leaving.

Another time, in the metro station, my group had gone ahead and left only my wife and I on the escalator. No-one else was around. My wife caught a fleeting glance of a young woman standing on the escalator behind me. When we both turned to look, she was crouched a step below me and started to pretend to scratch her legs. When we reached the top, she hurried off to go to another platform, while my wife and I exited the station. We can only surmise that the young woman (in jogging shoes) was getting ready to snatch either my handphone in my hand or my wife’s bag when we reached the top end of the escalator and then would run off. Why was she crouched so near behind me?

We were expecting the worst in Barcelona, but happily we didn’t feel threatened as we were in Rome.

7.  Barcelona

a.  Airport Transfer
The express bus service is called Aerobus ( http://www.aerobusbcn.com/index.php/en/discoveraerobus.html ) and serves both Terminal 1 and 2, to the city centre, Plaça de Catalunya, and takes about 35 minutes per trip.

There is a departure every 5 minutes from 07.30 h to 22.25 h or otherwise every 10 minutes.The fare is 5,90 € one-way and 10,20 € for a return ticket. From Pl. Catalunya, be careful to board the A1 bus for Terminal 1 and the A2 bus for Terminal 2.

b. Barcelona Travel Card
The Hola BCN! travel card ( http://www.tmb.cat/en/barcelona-travel-card ) provides unlimited travel on Barcelona public transport for 2, 3, 4 or 5 days with a single ticket. We should have booked this online in advance and get a 10% discount. We missed this; you shouldn’t miss it. We bought ours from a Tourist Information Kiosk at the Rambla de Catalunya. The 2-day card costs 13.40€ while the 3-day card costs 19.20€ and includes unlimited journeys on Barcelona public transport for one price.

c. Location
If it’s your first visit to Barcelona and you have only limited duration (advisable at least a 4-days, 3-nights visit), I recommend that you stay at the La Rambla, a tree-lined pedestrian mall, which stretches for 1.2 km, connecting Plaça de Catalunya at one end and the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell, at the other end. It’s a street that never sleeps and has easy Metro connections to anywhere else in Barcelona. There are many hotels along the street, but my recommendation is the Hotel Husa Oriente ( read my review in TripAdvisor).  (update 14-Apr-2016: Hotel Husa Oriente is now renamed Hotel Oriente Atiram) Ernest Hemingway was reputed to consider this his preferred hotel whenever he visited Barcelona.

8.  Hotels

Read my reviews at TripAdvisor  for the hotels here:

Venice,  Hotel Alloggi Agli Artisti

Rome, Hotel Contilia

Barcelona, Hotel Husa Oriente   (update 14-Apr-2016: Hotel Husa Oriente is now renamed Hotel Oriente Atiram )

Stansted, Hotel Holiday Inn Express

9.  Useful Travel Apps

a.  TripIt
I use this app to organise my complete ( and rather complicated ) trip itinerary automatically. A must-have.

TripIt organizes travel plans into an itinerary that has all of your trip details in one place.

Simply forward confirmation emails toplans@tripit.com and TripIt will automatically build an itinerary for your trip that you can access anytime, either online or from a mobile device.

b.  TripAdvisor
I find the reviews in TripAdvisor useful to narrow down my choices of hotels when I’m planning  my trip online. Moreover, the mobile app also has free city guides with suggested self-guided tours.

TripAdvisor® is the world’s largest travel site*, enabling travelers to plan and have the perfect trip. TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travelers and a wide variety of travel choices and planning features with seamless links to booking tools. TripAdvisor branded sites make up the largest travel community in the world, with more than 260 million unique monthly visitors**, and over 125 million reviews and opinions covering more than 3.1 million accommodations, restaurants and attractions.

c.  Expedia
Booking hotels through Expedia is relatively easy and fuss-free. While I prefer to read the TripAdvisor reviews to narrow my choices, I use Expedia to book the hotels. Usually there is a choice to pay immediately through Expedia, or to pay the Hotel directly upon checking in. Call it my paranoia if you like, but I prefer to pay immediately to Expedia to lock in my booking, rather than risk turning up at the hotel and find that there is no room booked for me.

Expedia, Inc. is the world’s leading online travel company and operates localized websites for travellers in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, China (through a controlling investment in eLong) and Malaysia!

d. MapQuest Travel Blogs
And to keep a record of your trip, check out the Travel Blogs function of MapQuest. Install the app on your smartphone,and you’re good to go, but don’tforget to update your travel blogs everyday of the trip.

Create a personal travel blog to remember all of your favorite travel experiences. MapQuest Travel Blogs lets you upload photos, capture your memories and share your adventures anytime, anywhere.