The Great British Adventure

We visited the United Kingdom, specifically London and Scotland, in May 2016 for 10 days as a stop over on our way back from the US. This, combined with our 3 weeks in US covering New York, Austin, San Francisco and Las Vegas made for one hell of a travel experience lasting for more than a month. More on the US experience in a separate blog.

This was our second visit to Europe, our previous visit being in Sept 2015 covering Paris, Switzerland and Italy. April to October is the season of good weather just like the rest of the Europe.

Overall cost of this trip: Rs. 1,60,000 for 2 people (excluding flights).

Things to prepare before you board the flight:

  • Itinerary
  • Flight tickets
  • Train tickets
  • Accommodation
  • Visa
  • Car rental
  • Forex

Itinerary

This is the high level itinerary we followed. More details on each day’s excursions later in the blog:

Day 1: Land in London. Stay at London
Day 2: London to Edinburgh by early morning train. Rent a car and drive to Fort William. Stay at Fort William.
Day 3: Fort William to Isle of Skye. Stay at Skye.
Day 4: Drive around all of Skye. Stay at Skye.
Day 5: Skye to Inverness. Stay at Inverness.
Day 6: Inverness to Edinburgh. Stay at Edinburgh.
Day 7: Edinburgh sight seeing. Stay at Edinburgh.
Day 8: Edinburgh to London by early morning train. London sight seeing. Stay at London.
Day 9: London sight seeing. Stay at London.
Day 10: Fly back to Bangalore.

Flight tickets

Since we visited UK on our way back from US, we saved on the flight cost to UK. Otherwise, it would cost around 45-50k per person round trip from Bangalore.

Train tickets

UK has an extensive network of high speed rail connectivity with different private operators operating under the umbrella of National Rail. London to Edinburgh link is operated by the Virgin Trains East Coast. The normal tickets open up around 12 weeks in advance with prices starting at 30 pounds one way. Make sure to book as soon as it opens to avail the cheap tickets. There is also the extended period booking window letting you book tickets 24 weeks in advance for weekdays excluding national/public holidays. These are priced at 25 pounds.

Accommodation

For accommodation, you are always torn between choosing Airbnb and hotels. Airbnb offers slightly cheaper choices with access to kitchen which could save you money in an expensive country. Hotels on the other hand offer the advantage of location with faster commute options to places of interest and generally easier if you are planning to stay for just 1 night.We did a mix of both, listing below our bookings:

Place No of Nights Airbnb/Hotel link Cost (pounds)
London 1  Tune hotel Kings Cross 67
 Fort William 1 Best Western Imperial Hotel  41
 Skye 2 https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/7830414  92
 Inverness  1 Inverness hotel 57
 Edinburgh 2 https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/7166355 78
London  2 https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2500187 118

Visa

Applying for a UK visa is fairly straight forward. We did it on our own. You need to fill up an application form, pay the fee online (~8700 Rs per application) and schedule an appointment for your visit. You should apply for a standard visitor visa (6 months single or multiple entry). More information can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/standard-visitor-visa

You are then supposed to personally submit your application at the scheduled time along with supporting documents. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to have the flights and accommodation booked before applying for the visa, but having one does strengthen the application. The whole process at the vfs center takes about a couple of hours. You can re-schedule an appointment for free if you can’t make it to the one scheduled. You can get an appointment 1 week in advance at most times and visa processing itself takes about a week.

Car rental

Best way to cover Scotland (except for city sightseeing like Edinburgh) is through a rental car. We booked an economy car from a Hertz store near Edinburgh train station using the visa signature discount offer. Aim for weekly rates compared to normal rates as they turn out much cheaper. We needed the car only for 5 days since we didn’t plan to use it in Edinburgh. Still, we went ahead and booked for 6 days and returned the car an hour into the 6th day. It cost us 130 pounds for 6 days (v/s 180 for 5 days). We even got a free upgrade to an SUV (lucky! :)). They did not ask for an international drivers permit.

Forex

As usual, we bought our forex from http://www.buyforex.in in the form of travel card. They even had free home delivery.

Misc

Scotland can get a bit breezy and cold, so bring layers. Having a sim card with data is a must. You can buy a sim when you land in London. The network connectivity is flaky in many parts of Scotland and so, getting a GPS device with UK maps on it helps a lot. Additionally, you can also install other navigation apps like Sygic on your phone before leaving India.

London Experience

London is a vibrant city with lots of history associated with it. It has numerous landmarks which are world class. We spent 3 days in London split into 2 halves before and after Scotland visit. The itinerary we followed is as below:

Day 1: Arrived in London in afternoon. Visited Harry Potter’s shop and Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross station. Saw London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster’s Abbey from outside. Went to Soho St. for dinner. After dinner, went back to see London Eye lit up in the night.
Day 8: Arrive in London from Edinburgh. Visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sherlock Holmes house, Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
Day 9: Lords cricket tour, Wimbledon Museum including visit to the Center Court, Buckingham Palace and Green park.

Before proceeding to other details, I want to quickly cover few interesting things upfront.

Oyster vs Travelcard

London offers multiple modes of transport to commute within the city: Bus, Tube, London overground, National Rail services, tram etc. It is divided into different zones. Buying single journey tickets at each station can turn out to be very expensive and time consuming. Most people choose between Oyster and Travelcard, both of them can be obtained at the airport.

Oyster is a plastic touch-less smart card which can hold pay as you go credit. The spending is capped per day for different zones you cover. You need to pay a refundable deposit of 5 pounds to get the card and top it up with some currency for your travel. Travelcard is valid for a particular date for which is was obtained and comes at a fixed cost of 12.1 pounds. Comparison of fares between travelcard and oyster can be found here: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/adult-fares.pdf

We found oyster to be better choice since it turns out cheaper on most cases. If you end up not taking too many journeys, oyster will save you a lot compared to fixed cost of a travelcard. We took the oyster card from the airport and returned them at the same place while coming back.

Airport transfers: Taxi vs Tube vs Heathrow express

A taxi ride from Heathrow to city center costs around 70 pounds. Unless you have too many bags and are worried about handling them in the train, it is an expensive option and best avoided.

Heathrow express is a super fast train connecting the airport to the Paddington station. It covers the journey in 15 minutes and costs around 22 pounds. The major drawback of this is the steep price compared to normal tube. Also, you will most likely would have to use the tube to connect from Paddington to your hotel so it won’t save you much of the pain.

The Piccadilly line terminates at Heathrow airport (zone 6). The tube takes around 50 minutes to reach Kings Cross with around 25 stops in-between. Since the train is empty to begin with, you will find enough space for storing your bags when you board. There are trains every 2-4 minutes and costs the normal tube prices (zone 6). Since our hotel was close to Kings Cross, we took the tube and got off at the Kings Cross station.

London 2for1 offer

The National Rail services runs a 2 for 1 offer for London experiences for most part of the year. You can find more information about it here: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/times_fares/2334.aspx

The basic theory behind this offer is for 2 people who have travelled on National Rail from other parts of UK to London, they can avail tickets to London Eye, St.Pauls Cathedral, Wimbledon, Lords and many other experiences listed on the page above at half the cost. You are required to produce a print out of the offer along with your train ticket from National Rail to avail the offer. If you want to avail the offer on other days, you can get a daily travelcard from one of the manned counters at National Rail stations (not from machines at London Underground). These carry National Rail services symbol and can be produced in place of train tickets. They too cost 12.1 pounds for single day commute across multiple modes. Last option (and not strictly legal :)) is to edit your ticket from Edinburgh to London to the date you want. This is what we did. Just make sure to take a printout of it from India since it is hard to get it in London.

London Pass

Entry to London landmarks is expensive. London Pass offers entry to almost all of them (except London Eye) at a reasonable cost (80 pounds for a 2 day pass). You can visit the website for more information: www.londonpass.com

Most landmarks in London have rather short visiting hours (around 9 am to 4 pm) with last entry an hour before close. Visiting a point of interest will take atleast 1.5 to 2 hours to do justice to the place. Realistically speaking, you can cover not more than 3 per day. We did not find the London pass to be too useful for its price. The London 2for1 offers are still the best bet to save money, provided you are lucky enough to be in London during the offer time.

Places we visited

Place Operating Hours Cost (pounds) Comments
London Eye NA  NA Saw from outside (day and night shots)
Big Ben NA NA Saw from outside (day and night shots)
Westminster Abbey NA NA Saw from outside
 Soho St. NA NA Saw from outside
 St Pauls Cathedral 8:30 am to 4:30 pm 18 Last entry at 4 pm. Requires around 1.5 hours.

Eligible for 2for1

 Tower of London 10 am to 5:30 pm 25 Last entry at 4.30 pm. Crown Jewels are awesome, rest is average.

Eligible for 2for1

Tower Bridge NA NA  

Saw from outside (near Tower of London)

Buckingham Palace NA NA Saw from outside. Beautiful gardens outside the palace.
Lords Tour  10 am to 4 pm 20 Tours every hour starting at 10. Last tour at 3 pm.Requires advanced reservation of slot by phone call. Requires around 1.5 -2 hours.

Eligible for 2for1

221 B, Baker street
(Sherlock)
 9:30 am to 6 pm 15 Didn’t visit the museum

Not Eligible for 2for1

Wimbledon Tour  10 am to 5:30 pm 13 for Museum
24 for full tour
Tours need to be booked in advance.

Museum ticket allows you to see Center court for 15 mins.

Requires around 1.5 -2 hours.

Museum ticket eligible for 2for1

Harry Potter Shop  9 am to 9 pm NA Platform 9 3/4 is always open

Food and Dining

London or UK in general is not as multicultural as US. There are unusually high number of Indian eateries in UK, most of them being bad. Your best choices for vegetarian non Indian food are pizzas, pastas and wraps. Average cost for 2 people per day for food is around 50 pounds. It is perfectly alright to not tip in London since they have a minimum wage policy.

London In Pics

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Scotland Experience

Scotland is probably the best place we have visited so far in the world. Its beauty is truly unmatched. The good roads with not much traffic, scenic routes with lake or ocean on one side and cliffs on the other, drives through the national parks, beautiful castles situated at spectacular waterfront locations – all make for a breathtaking experience. I would strongly suggest people to visit this beautiful country sometime during their lifetime. If you are short on time, you can even fly directly to Glasgow and do a 1 week trip of Scotland.

Our itinerary in Scotland:

Day 2: Reached Edinburgh by early morning train from London. Picked up the rental car from Edinburgh and drove to Loch Lomond. From there, we went to Fort William through the beautiful Glencoe. Stay at Fort William.
Day 3: Stalker Castle, Neptune’s staircase, Glenfinnan Viaduct, Isle of Skye (through ferry from Malaig). Stay at Bernisdale in Skye.
Day 4: In the morning, we did a scenic route beside the sea covering Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock view point, Quirang view, a coral beach nearby, Skye Museum of Island Life and Portee for Lunch. After lunch, we went to Dunvegan castle, coral beach at Claigan and Neist Point Lighthouse for sunset.
Day 5: We went to Fairy Pools in the morning. Since it was raining in the morning, we could not reach the pools. From there, we went to Eilean Donan castle, Urquhart castle  and then drove straight to Inverness. Inverness city sight seeing. Stay at Inverness.
Day 6: In the morning, we did the distillery tours at Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. After lunch, we drove through the Cairngorms National Park to reach Stirling. Visited Stirling Castle and drove to Edinburgh. Stay at Edinburgh.
Day 7: Edinburgh city sight seeing – Arthur’s seat, Scottish museum, Scott Monument, Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, St. Giles Cathedral. Stay at Edinburgh.
Day 8: Return to London by early morning train.

Our Route Map

ScotlandDriveMap
Scotland route map
SkyeDriveMap
Skye route map

Driving guide and tips

Here are a few interesting things and tips about driving in Scotland:

  1. You drive on the left side of the road, just like in India.
  2. Most of the cars are diesel and manual transmission.
  3. Fuel is expensive in UK, cost around 1.1 pounds per litre for us. Expect a significant fuel bill. It cost us 100 pounds in total (for about 1000 miles in an SUV).
  4. Most of the road rules are fairly straightforward and nothing to research on, except the roundabouts.
  5. The National Speed Limit for cars and motorcycles is 60mph on single-carriageway roads and 70mph on dual-carriageways and motorways. It reduces further when you approach city limits and built areas.
  6. The days are long in Scotland during summer with daylight lasting till 9 pm
  7. The journey itself is an experience so don’t be in a hurry to reach your destination. Keep time aside to make stopovers and take photos. There are designated spots to pull the car over.
  8. You will come across single track roads with extra space to allow passing at frequent intervals.
  9. Parking in city limits can be tough. Coins can come in handy for parking payment
  10. Mobile network is unreliable at many places in Scotland, especially in Skye. GPS devices are quite handy in such situations. Also, be sure to note down the zip codes of places of interest to feed to the GPS. Road signs are not always reliable.
  11. Fuel stations are pretty sparse so make sure to plan for your fuel refill. At the stations, you fill the fuel first and then go inside to pay for it.

Best stretches to drive

Our top 3 picks are:

  1. Glencoe – from Loch Lomond to Fort William
  2. Eilean Donan Castle to Inverness
  3. Drive through the Cairngorms National Park from Glenlivet distillery to Stirling

Besides the above ones, all of the roads in Skye are absolute pleasure to drive.

Castles in Scotland

Scotland has numerous castles, all having their own charm and situated at wonderful locations besides the water. We bought the 3 day explorer pass for 30 pounds which gave us entry to 3 castles of our choice  within a 3 day window. We went inside the Urquhart, Stirling and Edinburgh castles. We saw the Stalker, Dunvegan and Eilean Donan castles from outside. Make sure to drive around the Castle to get the best views of them.

Other notes on Scotland

  1. When you park your car at the Neist Point, to get the postcard view of the light house, take a right (not follow the path that leads to Lighthouse)
  2. If you are planning to hike to the Old Man of Storr, the path splits into 2 after a short walk. Follow the one on the right to reach the rock.
  3. To get the best view of Dunvegan castle, drive past the parking lot towards the coral beach at Claigan
  4. Best view of Eilean Donan castle is from the bridge besides the castle.
  5. Ferry from Malaig to Armade (Skye) needs to be booked in advance to guarantee spot on the ferry for your car. Visit this website for booking and information: https://www.calmac.co.uk/
  6. Distillery tours take about 1.5 hours including tasting. We did a full tour of Glenfiddich distillery for 10 pounds per person and only tasting at Glenlivet (free)
  7. Even though the days are long, be mindful of closing hours of Castles
  8. Lambswool is pretty famous and one of the potential souvenirs from Scotland (scarves, gloves)
  9. For taxi in Edinburgh, use computercabs
  10. Like I mentioned somewhere above, UK has a minimum wage policy and so restaurants don’t expect tip. In fact, most places in Scotland don’t even provide you an option to tip when you swipe card (they would have printed zero in the tip section).

Scotland In Pics

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