Swiss Rail Pass Evaluation: Extensive Benefits Justify Price

Swiss PassOur upcoming journey to Switzerland will be our first Europe trip since our first international trip together in 2009 in which buying a rail pass makes sense relative to purchasing individual tickets.  In our last train-intensive trip to Europe (Portugal/Spain 2012), we actually determined that planning ahead and buying tickets directly from the operator lead to greater savings than a rail pass.  This same rule applies to our planned travel in Germany and Austria during this trip, however the comprehensive benefits of the Swiss Rail Pass make it the clear choice for funding our transit within Switzerland.

The Swiss Pass is different from the passes offered by Eurail that are the standard in most countries.  Although Eurail offers regional or global passes that include Switzerland, the Swiss Pass, with its associated benefits, is only available from Swiss Travel System.  Also unlike the Eurail passes, the Swiss Pass offers free fare on local transit options, free admission to many of Switzerland’s best museums and attractions (link to master list), and free rides on many of the mountain cablecars and railroads.  Our first analysis, without considering these benefits, indicated individual tickets would actually be very comparable to a pass at around 305 CHF for our total train travel cost in Switzerland (cost of a 3-day flexi pass, 20 CHF shipping, and one ticket not included on the pass vs. 5 individual rail tickets and Mt. Rigi Majestic Round Trip).

Once we started looking at are other planned activities in Switzerland, however, we began to realize the benefit of the Swiss Pass.  The “flexi pass” we originally evaluated (which does not require the pass days to be consecutive), only offers the benefits on travel days.  Most of our planned activities will not occur on the same days we travel, so to take advantage of the Swiss Pass benefits, we needed to instead evaluate buying a normal 8-day Swiss Pass, which would cover travel and activities for our entire stay in Switzerland.  For a couple, this pass costs 365 CHF per traveler (including the 10% saver discount and 20 CHF total shipping for 2 passes).  Here are the expected benefits we expect to accrue with the pass per person (organized from largest value to smallest):

With this list, we value the Swiss Pass at 437.90 CHF, giving us 73 CHF relative to the individual cost.  Not spectacular savings, but combined with the convenience of avoiding ticket lines, it is a clear choice for us.  We really like how Swiss Travel Systems has put together a product that integrates sightseeing priorities, train travel, and local transit.

For others, its important to do an analysis to understand the value of a pass, and perhaps more importantly, whether a flexi pass or regular pass works best for their situation.  It is possible a multi-country Eurail pass makes more sense, if the sightseeing priorities don’t provide enough savings, and there are also other passes available that give you half price on train travel that may be worth consideration.

Act Like A Local: Rent an Apartment in Paris

I was not surprised when Arthur Frommer included “renting an apartment” in his talk about travel trends.  It’s becoming easier and easier with websites dedicated to just that (many of them were mentioned in Frommer’s talk).

Renting apartments while on a trip is becoming more and more popular.  In many cases, regular hotels or B&Bs work perfectly for us, but when we were planning our September 2009 trip, Ryan and I were having a difficult time finding a place to stay in Paris.  It was a combination of the location, the price, and the feel of the hotel.

SuitcaseJournal: Act Like a Local - Rent an Apartment in Paris!

The key to our apartment was sent to use prior to our departure from the United States.

After looking through the possibilities, we stumbled upon a couple of sites on which you could rent an apartment for your stay in Paris.

Paris Perfect has a beautiful site with a lot of information.  The company is based in Paris, which means someone will meet you at the apartment, open the door for you, show you around, provide recommendations for places to eat and things to do, and help you with anything else you need like Health & Safety services Wilmslow. However, the minimum stay is 7 nights, and we were only staying 3, so Paris Perfect was out for us. (Note: There is also an Italy Perfect and a London Perfect)

Vacation in Paris is the second website we started looking through.  We focused on the studios and one bedroom apartments, and quickly found a long list of apartments that allowed a 3 night stay (note: many required an additional cleaning fee for shorter stays) and were in neighborhoods that interested us.  This company is based in the United States, which worked well for us – I called to make a reservation and was sent a key in the mail prior to our departure.  The apartment we rented is no longer available to rent, but here are a few pictures (taken from the Vacation in Paris site – the apartment looked exactly like the pictures):

SuitcaseJournal: Act Like a Local - Rent an Apartment in Paris!

What are some of the advantages of staying in an apartment instead of a hotel?  For us, it was more of a novelty, but for a traveler staying for a longer period of time and/or with a family, an apartment can be a huge money-saver.  Many hotel rooms in Europe are made for two guests.  Adding additional guests, booking larger rooms, or booking several rooms will definitely increase the cost.  However, when booking an apartment, there are different sizes to choose from, and some are very reasonable!

For our 3 day stay, we went out to restaurants for most meals.  However, had we decided to stay for longer, it would have been tempting to cook our own meals.  Apartments are great for this!  Buy fresh ingredients at one of the local markets, use the kitchen in your apartment to prepare the food, and enjoy the results with a bottle of wine in your very own private dining area.

Of course there are so many different companies and website that offer apartment rentals.  Try vrbo, which will allow you to contact the owner directly. Staying for longer? Paristay has several apartments available if you plan on staying for over 3 months (there are also some available for weekly rentals).


Travel Trends from Frommer

As I mentioned in my last post, Arthur Frommer gave one of the talks at the LA Travel Conference last weekend. The topic was travel trends and hot destinations, which are two topics that often change year after year, so we were excited to see what he had to say. Some things came as a surprise or were new to us, while others were expected but nonetheless interesting to hear about.

 Travel Trends:

  • Substitution of apartments and homes for hotel rooms.  Not only can you save some money, but often apartments and homes will be more spacious (with extra amenities such as kitchens) and you might be able to score a great location.  Some sites to check out include vrbo, airbnb, and Endless Vacation Rentals.  While we have yet to use one of those sites, we did choose to rent an apartment in Paris, and loved the experience!
  • Nickel-and-diming of airline passengers.  While this isn’t necessarily new information, it does serve as a reminder to check for hidden fees when booking flights.  
  • Rise in operation of cheap intercity buses.  BoltBus (operates in the northeastern US) and Megabus (operates in US and Canada, as well the UK) offer an alternative to driving, taking the train and flying between big cities.  The best part – prices are very competitive and as low as $1 for a trip!
  • Rise in popularity of European river cruises.  They stop right in the heart of each city, but can be a bit pricey.  Frommer has been on several and noted that the majority of travelers were older (and those that were young appeared to be bored).  I’ve always wanted to try out a river cruise, so I’ll keep this in mind before booking.
  • Walking tours.  But not just any walking tour – book a tour by specialists or someone in academics to ensure accurate information.  Some of the recommended sites: Vayable, Urban Adventures, and Context Travel.  Many of the walking tours guarantee small groups, which usually means a much more enjoyable experience.
  • Rise in popularity of “learning vacations.”  For a different type of vacation, check out summer programs at top universities that are open to more than just the students.  Not only can you take classes with interesting subject matter, but the packages include accommodations and dining – both at the college.  Frommer mentioned courses at the following universities:  Oxford, Cambridge, and St. John’s College.  
  • Increase in free accommodations.  Stay for free on someone’s couch!  Couchsurfing,   Global Freeloaders, and US Servas offer similar services – connect online through the site and find a host in the desired city.  This isn’t for everyone, and not something I would try on my own, but for some people in certain situations, this is a great way to cut down on travel costs. 

Hottest Destinations:

  • China.  Frommer revealed the unbelievably low prices for week-long tours of China through China Spree – as low as $899, all inclusive (flights, too!), during the winter months – and we were shocked!  Asia, and specifically China, has officially been added to our list of places to visit in the near future.  (We looked through the China Spree site, and while we couldn’t find any of the rock-bottom pricing mentioned by Frommer, there were several different tour options with very attractive pricing.)
  • Ireland.  Cheap airfares and even vouchers for transportation and accommodations through Aer Lingus make Ireland a hot destination this year. 
  • India.  The currency conversion between the US dollar and the rupee is advantageous at this time.  While the flight there may be expensive, staying in India will be cheap!
  • Dubai.  This is the perfect location for luxury, but possibly not much else.  Frommer brought up the lack of culture, so this may not be the top destination for all travelers. 
  • Miami and Miami Beach.  Always a hot destination, with plenty of authentic South American restaurants without leaving the country!
  • Colorado and Washington.  In all honesty, I’m not sure if these two actually made the list, or if Frommer was making a joke.  The reason they made the list is the recent legalization of marijuana in the two states.

So there is it – the list of trends and hot destinations straight from Arthur Frommer.  My favorite bits of information from the talk include the learning vacations and China as a cheap destination.  Frommer was very lively and clearly enjoys travel – it gives me hope for when we are older and still want to travel the world!

7 London Experiences for a First-Time Visit

Most of these probably won’t come as a surprise (we’ve even written about some of them extensively), but I’ve compiled my list of the top 7 things to do and see in London for a first-time visit.  It wasn’t easy and I’m sure not everyone would agree with all of the items, but here is what I would recommend for a first trip to London:

1. Tower of London

Crown Jewels, Tower of London

It may be expensive and crowded, but the Tower of London is worth a few hours of your time.  The Crown Jewels are a must-see and do be sure to take a (free!) tour with one of the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters).  The tours are popular and may be large, but our Yeoman Warder had a booming voice and was full of stories and jokes about the Tower of London.  Other than that, see anything that sounds interesting – we visited the White Tower (it houses the Royal Armories’ collections), walked a portion of the wall surrounding the Tower of London, and spent some time looking at torture devices in the Lower Wakefield Tower.  Don’t forget: depending on when (time of year) you’re visiting, you may be able to take advantage of the 2-for-1 tickets – we only paid £20.90 for the two of us.

2. British Museum

An extensive collection of artifacts spanning human civilization, the British Museum is a perfect escape from a dreary London day (and it’s free!).  For a quick trip, I recommend following Rick Steves’ guide (found in his London book or here, where you can download an audio version).  He goes through the essentials – Egypt, Assyria, and Greece – and provides information about the key items in each section.  With more time, explore exhibits focusing on cultures from all over the world: Ancient and Imperial China, Ancient Rome, Incas, and Aztecs, to name a few.  In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum has temporary exhibitions that may be worth a visit (flowers and plants from North America were being featured while we were there). 

3. Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral

College Garden, Westminster Abbey, LondonThe entrance fee (£18) to Westminster Abbey includes an audioguide with 20 listening points throughout the interior.  As you walk in through the north transept, you have a view of the breathtaking nave – the ornate vaulted ceiling was the show-stealer of Westminster Abbey. It was very impressive and something that has to be seen in person (the pictures don’t do it justice).  A substantial portion of the tour took us to various tombs, including that of Queen Elizabeth I and Kind Edward the Confessor (he built the original Westminster Abbey).  We finished our visit outside in the Cloisters, and then continued to the Little Cloister and College Garden (pictured above – according to Rick Steves it is only open Tuesday-Thursday).  

The entrance fee (£15) to St. Paul’s Cathedral also includes a free audioguide and access to both the dome and the crypt.  We started out in the nave, made our way around the spacious church, and then started up the stairs leading to the dome.  If you are physically able, there are about 500 or so stairs that lead up to the top of the dome and I highly recommend the trip.  The first level (about 250 steps up) brings you to a walkway around the inside of the dome, overlooking the church interior.  The second and third stops are outside of the dome, with sweeping (and windy) views of London.  We finished our visit down in the crypt.  We started in a room with the Oculus, 270° film that shows the history of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and finished by admiring the numerous tombs of famous people.  A visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral is definitely worth 1.5 hours during your trip!

4. Borough Market and Portobello Market

I wrote about the markets in more detail here, but they were so enjoyable that they deserve another mention.  Even if you don’t plan to purchase any souvenirs, bring your appetite and plan to have lunch or a snack while browsing the offerings.  Remember to visit Borough Market on Thursday-Saturday and Portobello Market on a Saturday to enjoy the full-blown markets.

5. Indian Food

Ryan wrote aboutvegetable masala, Woodlands Restaurant, London the two Indian restaurants we tried in London and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have minded trying more.  I wasn’t familiar with the vegetarian dishes found in southern India, so I welcomed the chance to taste something new (the picture to the right shows my appetizer from the dinner – vegetable masala idli: steamed rice and lentils with mixed vegetables) .  Next time I visit, I plan to expand my palate even more – either by choosing more adventurous dishes from the menu or trying a new cuisine (such as Pakistani).  Don’t miss a spicy meal in the land known for bland food!

6. Afternoon Tea

Cream Tea, The Wolseley, LondonWhether it’s cream tea (just tea and scones) or a full-blown afternoon tea (tea, scones, pastries, sandwiches, and champagne, if you wish), an afternoon tea break to unwind is a must! Not only is it fun to take part in an English tradition, but sitting down to tea is a great break from walking around and serves as a snack to tide you over until dinner.  The picture on the left is from our cream tea at The Wolseley.  Some of the well-known tea rooms include those at The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason, and Claridge’s, but tea rooms can be found almost anywhere (including department stores and book stores), ranging in prices.

7. See a show

Along with Broadway shows in New York, musicals in London are another must-see. Known for it’s great theater district, London has several famous shows to choose from each night.  We planned to see Les Misérables and purchased tickets ahead of time, but for another trip I would consider getting half-price tickets the day of the show.  Ryan provided information for anyone considering a show (whether you choose to book ahead or try out the half-price tickets, his post will be helpful).  Plan a fancy night out, with a pre-show drink and a late-night post-show dinner!

This list is a great start for a first visit to London.  And the good news is, these can all be done on a short 3-4 day trip!  The days will be long, but a sample plan could go as follows:

Day 1 – Borough Market (plan to eat lunch there!), Westminster Abbey (1.5-2 hours), and Indian food for dinner (if your first day is a full day, the morning will be clear for any other must-see sites on your list!)

Day 2 – The Tower of London (3-4 hours), lunch break, St. Paul’s Cathedral (1.5-2 hours), a show in London’s West End (with dinner either before or after)

Day 3 – Portobello Market in the morning (eat an early snack/lunch there), British Museum in the early afternoon (~2 hours), and an afternoon tea break to rejuvenate before the rest of the night

This plan leaves some time to wander around, stop at a pub or two, and add extra sites as you see fit.  Enjoy your trip to London!

The Park Lane Hotel – London, England, United Kingdom

My pre-trip worrying was pointless.  We arrived at the Park Lane Hotel a little before noon and we were given a choice: did we want the free upgrade that we qualified for (finally!) that was not quite ready or did we want the original room now?  The upgrade, please!  We had planned to just drop our luggage and venture out to find lunch anyway, so this worked perfectly.  And thus began our weeklong stay at the Park Lane Hotel.

Price.  Prices will vary depending on when you are visiting and whether you do the prepaid rate (with no refund) or a flexible rate.  From what I’ve seen, the cheapest room ranged from about £230-£330.  We were lucky enough to have enough starpoints to stay for free.  I was pleasantly surprised when we checked out and owed absolutely nothing.  For 72,000 points, we stayed here for a week, and it was definitely worth it!  I’m saving my points again for when we make a return trip to London.

Beautiful Green Park, right across from the Park Lane Hotel

Location.  The location was perfect.  As long as you stay at a hotel near one of the tube lines, you can get anywhere very easily.  Our hotel was right across the street from Green Park and a short walk to Piccadilly Circus.  It was also very close to Buckingham Palace, which we visited our last morning just before our flight back home.  

Room.  As mentioned above, we were upgraded (we booked the lowest level room)!  We didn’t have a view and we were only on the first floor (one level up from the ground floor), but the room was spacious with an extra large bathroom with a shower and a bath tub.  We were very comfortable the entire stay.  The room also had a large TV that swiveled and a desk (which I used to store my makeup and cold-weather accessories).

Dining.  We didn’t take advantage of the restaurant and bar at the hotel, but they had both.  The bar was large and open late, but we spent our time at different bars around London instead of sipping beer at the expensive hotel.  Still, it’s nice that the option was there, in case we wanted to stay in for a night.  Their Italian restaurant, Citrus, receives favorable reviews, and we did almost decided to eat there one night. 

Amenities.  A gym (which we didn’t use) and wireless internet for a hefty fee (if you are gold or platinum with SPG, you can select free wifi as your check-in gift).  Nothing too special, but it worked well for us.  The room did not include breakfast, so we went to Pret A Manger most mornings (just a couple of blocks away) for a cheap, quick, and satisfying breakfast.  

I am very happy with our choice to stay at the Park Lane Hotel in London.  It worked well as our base for exploring London for a week and, best of all, it was free.  I would highly recommend this hotel if paying with starpoints, and we plan to stay here again in the future.  I will say that if we were planning to pay for a hotel, I would opt for a cheaper hotel.  London is a city that is best enjoyed out and about, so not much time is spent in the hotel.  Choose your hotel accordingly!