It’s been a while since I cooked up a juicy blog post, but with a small gallery of iPhone images sitting in the hopper on my desktop, a complete dearth of diving over the past many months, and a rainy day outside, I thought I would share a day in the life of a London tourist.
I traveled to Berlin at the beginning of May to hang out with Mr. G while he conducted some business there. I have shared before that I am fortunate to get to do this a couple of times a year, thanks to the big bag of frequent flyer points that Mr. G accumulates in his work life. He travels quite a bit for business – and this past year he outdid himself. All that travel is pretty tough on his bod, but the big benefit is the ability to bag Business Class seats on points for long haul flights (and it’s a double gain – flight bonuses plus points gained by paying with our points awarding credit card). Unfortunately, although the points are redeemable on the Star Alliance network (which includes Lufthansa – the most direct way to get to Berlin from Vancouver via Frankfurt, and Mr. G’s usual routing), only Air Canada recognizes his über-elite status (well over 100k miles traveled per year!). On the partners, we have to book pretty close to a year away to get the seats – almost impossible to define the dates that far out. But Air Canada, bless their customer retentive little hearts, will usually give him/me a seat on his points at short notice.
Anyhoo, I shall continue to digress. It’s a bummer that Air Canada doesn’t operate flights to Germany – the closest hub that works for us is London Heathrow. I’ve been less than complimentary about this airport in the past, but I have to confess that these days, with the new terminals up and running, and despite the rats’ nests of tunnels and mad mouse bus connections between these terminals, it all works pretty fine. In the past, I was able to fly from London to Berlin on British Midlands, also Star Alliance, so doable as part of the international ticket points redemption. But Lufthansa dumped B.M. (ar ar – ;^) due to continual losses on the balance sheet, and then started up a little subsidiary airline (German Wings) – with which they have sneakily avoided joining the Star Alliance. So now I have to fly to London to get to Europe in anything less than a year’s notice, and then pay to get from London to Berlin. And on the way out, you can’t get out of Berlin early enough to make the connection to the Vancouver flight in London. Basturds. London has the current distinction of having (by far) the most exorbitant Air Passenger Duty in Europe. The taxes and fees that Aeroplan tacks on to my so-called ‘free’ Business Class ticket are pretty much what I would pay to fly full fare in Economy. Grrrrrrr.
But despite the crazy taxes, a layover in London is not such a terrible thing. And as we set out to prove, you can see a whole lotta London in six hours if you’ve got good walking shoes, a map, and reasonable stamina. The fact that there are lots of places to stop along the way for a cleansing ale doesn’t hurt either ;^) Being fairly frequent frequent points travelers, we’ve learned to get creative with these extra layovers (they often happen when we travel to Asia as well, and we’ve enjoyed spending layover days in Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore). I’ve been to London several times – starting way back in 1978. It took a week I was lucky enough to spend there in 2007 to really get a feel for the city – it is huge, and not on a grid, which can make navigation tricky (and I can still get easily lost in Soho). The colour-coded Underground is super easy (and a pretty inexpensive way to get to Heathrow from downtown), but zipping around that way means you never really get a sense of the layout of this wonderful city.
So Mr. G and I popped over from Berlin on a early Saturday morning German Wings flight, and checked ourselves and our bags into a very nice airport hotel – the Sofitel in Terminal 5 – which is an easy (and free) commute by train from all other terminals, via the Heathrow Express. The Heathrow Express also speeds downtown non-stop to Paddington Station – £34 round trip (about US$57), and it takes a mere 15 minutes to do it. You can also get downtown via the Piccadilly Line (part of the London Underground system), which runs out of Terminals 1 through 5. Cost is £5.70 (about US$9.50), and the train stops at all stations, so to get downtown it takes close to an hour. Great people watching, and for quite a lot of the distance through the outskirts of London it is at ground level, so there’s lots of scenery to take in. On this trip, we chose the Piccadilly Line over the Heathrow Express, both to save moolah, and also because we wanted to start what was to be a fairly epic walk at Covent Garden, which is a stop on the Piccadilly Line. We bought an all day pass for the Underground, which would give us the flexibility to move about in the city if our tootsies got tired.
It was a truly fine warm spring Saturday morning when we climbed out of Covent Garden station and into the sunshine. All of London seemed to be out enjoying the day, and this already huge population was swollen by herds of tourists – it was May Day in some countries in Europe, and so a long weekend for many. I had never seen London this congested before – scads of people on the sidewalks and in the parks and on the bridges and waiting for somewhere to sidle up to a bar for a cold one. A walk that we should have been able to do in a few hours on a quiet rainy day took significantly longer than that, due to the huge number of people standing, gawking and talking. I actually lost Mr. G on the Westminster Bridge in the sea of humanity, and had a few anxious moments being pushed along by the crowd before we managed to reconnect.
I thought it would be fun to document the day in pictures. So here goes, in order of operations. I didn’t want to schlep a big camera, so all pix taken with an iPhone. Imo, it’s a pretty nifty little camera…
After that, we really hoped we would be able to find a spot to rest our weary selves, have a drink and a bite to eat. But on a sunny Saturday evening, on a holiday weekend, in downtown London? We were dreaming. So we hopped back on the Tube, and headed back to the hotel at the airport, where, in its spacious, quiet bar, we noshed on Mediterranean nibblies and quaffed a cold one before hitting the sack.