News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.
I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.
But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?
In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.
Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.
While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.
Happy New Year, fellow travellers. As we embark on 2019, thoughts inevitably turn to the year ahead and for me, that means thinking about where I’d like to travel in the coming year. One of the questions I’m inevitably asked is how I decide where to go. The answer’s not a simple one, but here’s how I choose my next destination.
As an independent traveller who likes to pay her own way, the biggest outlay for many of my trips, particularly long haul ones, is the cost of my flights. I’m always on the lookout for a good deal, so I sign up for airline newsletters and that way, I’m the first to know of any special offers. That’s how, on Black Friday 2017, I snagged Air New Zealand’s £399 flight deal to Auckland via LAX. There were only 50 seats on offer at that price, so had I been surfing the net, I’d almost certainly have missed out. Similarly, to make the most of Ryanair’s flash sales it’s important to be ahead of the pack. But with a bit of creativity, it’s possible to save on flight costs by searching for error fares and utilise reward schemes as I did for my recent trip to Barbados.
My Twitter feed is full of photographs of exotic locations and every now and again, something stands out from the pack. Georgia (the country) first entered my radar in this way, as did those cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas, and I wasn’t disappointed with either. On Facebook, members of the My Wanderlusters group provide inspiration for destinations through their own holidays snaps. Some are friends in real life and I have the double privilege of seeing their travels via their personal accounts too. I maintain a file of e-clippings (the old-fashioned way, in a folder, rather than via something more creative like Pinterest). This April, Brexit-permitting, I’m off to Alberobello in Italy to stay in a trullo after seeing it on someone’s timeline. I expect Santorini will also feature at some point for the same reason.
I love watching TV documentaries and travelling without leaving the sofa. Joanna Lumley’s Japan series has been bookmarked for a return trip one day. It’s been over a decade since I visited but seeing the country through her eyes has made me yearn to go back. Levison Wood’s adventures also give me inspiration; I especially enjoyed his Nile walk though it’s way too energetic for this traveller. Chris Tarrant has, in the past, done some incredible rail trips, from the Trans-Sib to some distinctly more adventurous destinations. Sometimes, though, even a venerated presenter can’t entice me: Michael Palin’s recent foray into North Korea was a charm to watch, but the country itself doesn’t appeal to me.
Magazines and other tourist literature
Whether it’s via a magazine that plops through the letter box or a tourist leaflet picked up at a trade show, there’s always something to tempt me to investigate a place a bit further. During a visit to World Travel Market in autumn 2017, I got chatting to a lady manning the Uganda stall. I’d previously visited other parts of East Africa, notably Kenya and Tanzania, but Uganda is a new one for me. When I mentioned it in passing to a couple of fellow villagers here at home, I discovered they ran a school out there, so I’m now looking forward to a trip in February when I’ll combine a visit to their school with a couple of safaris. No gorillas, but look out for tree-climbing lions if I’m lucky enough to spot them.
Festivals and other special events
Sometimes it’s not only the destination that’s the attraction, but a particular event that requires a visit at a particular time of year. I visited Mexico long before I managed to schedule a trip to coincide with the Day of the Dead celebrations. That was several years ago now, but it remains one of my favourite trips of all times. Cusco’s Inti Raymi festival was also on my radar long before I was able to time a visit to Peru to experience it. The colourful costumes, dancers and theatrical spectacle made this a memorable holiday too. Most recently, I headed off to Moldova to join Chisinau’s residents for their National Wine Day, which was fun.
As a relative newbie to travel writing with an expanding portfolio, I’ve yet to be inundated with press trips, though I do get offered one now and again. Every so often, an offer comes along that’s too good to resist and that’s how I found myself in the Faroe Islands in May 2018. It was a beautiful country and I’d love to return one day to explore a little further. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I do struggle with a prescribed itinerary which can be a little stifling, as I’m so used to travelling solo and doing as I please. That said, I’m always delighted to be offered such visits even when I choose not to go.
How do you choose where to visit? Like me, do you have an ever-growing wish list? I’d love to hear what motivates your travel choices.
An email popped up into my inbox the other day touting an article that promised a selection of holidays this summer for under £600 per person. Intrigued, I clicked – the dreaded click bait! Though there were a couple of holidays that fell within the price range, most required a group of six people to share a villa to achieve the deal. I prefer to travel alone – yes, it’s a choice! – so the thought of spending a week with five other people is not my bag. But it got me thinking and here’s the result – how to travel solo without the hefty price tag.
Singles holidays are often a no when it comes to budget solo travel as they usually slap on a significant single supplement. Even when they don’t, the price of that single supplement has usually been absorbed into the package cost which bumps the price up. Ditch the tour operator (but not the insurance!) and go it alone. You’ll be more in control of what you pay and who you pay it to. If you’re a bit worried about travelling solo, why not read my post about travel hacks for solo travellers which contains tips and tricks learned from years of going it alone.
Consider a hostel
The cheapest option for a solo traveller is a bed in a dorm room, but that’s not going to cut it if you need quiet to sleep and you like to shut the door on the world when you turn in. Instead, consider a private room in a hostel. Check out the cleanliness ratings on a reliable website and if it scores well, don’t rule out a shared bathroom. Try the Acco Hostel in Stockholm’s Södermalm district. £18 will get you a bed in a four-person dorm room but double the budget to £39 and you can have a room of your own. I can also recommend the excellent Adventure Queenstown Hostel in New Zealand. They only have one private double (book well ahead!) but it has a balcony and starts at a budget friendly £59 a night. If that’s too dear, their 6 bed dorm rooms will cost you £17.50 per night.
Seek out accommodation that’s designed for one
The best way to avoid a single supplement is to find somewhere that isn’t big enough for two. There’s plenty of budget accommodation out there that will keep your costs down. I stayed in the central but basic Pension Vergara in the heart of Seville’s old town for £18 a night. If you think you have to travel off season, you don’t – that price is available this August. It wasn’t a room I intended to use other than to sleep, so the lack of space didn’t bother me, and I really couldn’t have found a more convenient location. Turkey’s also a good option. I travelled to Cappadocia and stayed at the Kelebek Cave Hotel. Their most expensive suites come in at 180 euros per night but stay in one of their atmospheric cave rooms to keep the cost down. The cheapest double is currently £39 per night, including a 20% discount for single occupancy. Yes – you read that right – a discount, not a supplement.
Save money by self-catering
Renting an apartment doesn’t have to break the bank and if you can find one with a kitchen, you can save money on eating out too. I’m off to Barbados as soon as rainy season ends and have found a studio apartment for just £45 a night by using Airbnb. It’s part of a complex on a golf course near the beach which means I have access to a shared pool too, and the apartment is configured so that the bed is on a mezzanine, leaving the ground floor free for a living room and kitchen. It’s a short stroll to the bus stop so I can get around easily and just 15 minutes’ walk from the beach. On paper it sounds perfect: check back later in the year to read my review.
Grab a flight deal while it lasts
Unless you’re holidaying close to home, it’s often the cost of travel that represents the biggest outlay. I try to keep an open mind about where I might travel to next and keep my dates flexible. If you’re tied to school holidays, plan well in advance and take full advantage of February and October half terms as they often throw up the best deals. Sign up for email alerts from airlines so you don’t miss out on any flash sales and also from deal spotters such as Secret Flying as they will hunt out the bargains for you. If a bargain flight crops up, grab it while it’s available and worry about booking accommodation later. But don’t believe all you read: I once saw a post from a respected blogger promoting a fare of almost £1000 as a cheap flight to Seattle yet a couple of weeks ago, Secret Flying advertised the same route for £290. Both were on scheduled airlines. Keep an eye on these comparison sites and you’ll soon learn what’s a good price.
Do you have tips for saving money as a solo traveller? Why not share them by leaving a comment?
If you’re looking for an alternative to Germany’s excellent Christmas markets, then why not head over the border to Austria? Salzburg is one of Europe’s most elegant cities, and during the run up to Christmas, it’s bedecked with festive lights and crammed full of stalls. I spent the weekend exploring its Christmas markets and experienced Advent Austrian-style. Here are my tips for getting the best out of a pre-Christmas trip.
Make the most of public transport with a day pass
An extensive network of buses and trolley buses makes getting around easy. Day passes are available, as is the more expensive Salzburg Card which includes free admission to visitor attractions as well as free transport. It does cost 24 euros for the day, however, so you need to be sure you’re going to get your money’s worth for the extra 20 euros you’ll be spending per person. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the markets it’s unlikely the Salzburg Card will represent good value for money.
But if you buy regular, transport-only day passes from a machine they cost just 4 euros a day, compared to 5,70 euros if you purchase them from the driver of the bus. If you’re arriving in Salzburg by train or plane, you’ll find these machines in the main bus station or at the airport. They are valid for a complete 24 hour period rather than by calendar days, so you’ll most likely be able to use them the following morning too – good to know if you’re going to be starting your day somewhere there’s no machine. Print off or download maps before you go to make sense of the network; there’s also an app featuring timetables and mobile ticketing.
There’s an English option available, but if not these are the maps you’ll find most useful:
City: Liniennetzplan Stadt Salzburg Region: SVV Zonenplan
Wrap up warm
You might not get a dumping of snow as I did, but if you’re visiting Salzburg in December, it is likely to be very cold. Temperatures during my visit hovered just below freezing, but if like me you’re tempted out onto the Wolfgangsee, the wind that blows across the lake is a chill one. Pack accordingly, and layer up with hat, scarf, gloves and thermal underlayers. If all else fails, drink gluhwein!
Plan your market trips
As you might expect, there’s more than just one market in the city, as well as some delightful markets in the surrounding towns and villages. I took a trip out to St Gilgen and Strobl on the shores of the Wolfgangsee. Strobl’s market featured livestock in the form of sheep, goats and reindeer and boat trips were possible too between the lakeshore villages. St Gilgen’s market was bigger and had a lot of character. A day pass on the #150 bus meant I could hop on and hop off all day for a fare of 17,60 euros.
In the city itself, the largest market is the Christkindlmarkt in Domplatz. As the name suggests, it’s right by the cathedral in the Old Town. It has its origins in a market that started in the 15th century, though in its present incarnation it’s been going since 1974. Just around the corner you’ll find an ice rink. The Christkindlmarkt had a huge concentration of stalls but as a result was packed; if you’re not so keen on crowds, I’d recommend visiting this one during the day.
There is also a smaller market at Mirabellplatz, which is handy if you need to kill time or grab a hot drink before your bus leaves as it’s right by the stops. This year the market up at the Hohensalzburg fortress is closed due to renovation work, but well worth checking out next year.
My favourite of all the city markets was that at Hellbrunn, a short ride away by #25 bus and included in the 4 euros day pass. Nestled in the courtyard of this attractive palace, there are plenty of artisan stalls so a lot of choice if you plan to do some gift-shopping. The inclusion of hundreds of trees festooned with red baubles and the use of the palace shutters to turn the palace into a huge Advent calendar makes this one extra special.
There is a 3 euros entrance charge at the weekend (it’s free on weekdays) but this is redeemable for a mug of Gluhwein which would have cost 3,50 euros. If you have kids with you, it’s good to know that this is the place where they have the trick fountains and although they used to be a summer-only attraction, for the last couple of years these have been opened during Advent too.
To check opening times and other details, this is the link you’ll need:
Don’t just visit the markets
Space them out and punctuate your visits with other activities. There are carol concerts and muscial recitals at many of the markets; you’ll find schedules online, though not all sites are in English. For something completely different, I caught a train out to Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit the Silent Night chapel, a memorial chapel in the village where schoolmaster Franz Gruber and pastor Josef Mohr composed and performed the popular carol for the first time. In the company of a band of actors and local dignitaries, I participated in a themed walk that crossed the Salzach River into Laufen, Germany. there, at the Salzachhalle, watched a play which recounted the tale of the history of those twin villages as well as the story of how Silent Night came to be. I won’t pretend I understood a lot with my schoolgirl German, but the music was heavenly.
Attending a Krampus run is also good fun and it’s worth checking out where the nearest is during your visit. If you haven’t already seen the blog I wrote about Gnigl’s Krampus festivities, check out the post here where you’ll also find some useful links if you plan to go yourself:
If you’ve already been to Salzburg’s Christmas markets and they’ve given you a taste for more, why not try these alternatives? Last year I blogged about Copenhagen and Regensburg, both of which can be visited in a day from London:
Wherever you are this Advent, have a safe and happy time!
The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.
You don’t have to walk all the way
Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.
Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.
Allow time to enjoy the hike
Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.
You won’t get lost
A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.
The uphill bits were a bit of a slog
Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.
The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.
You have to cross a boulder field
About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.
You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier
Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.
Is it worth it?
That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.