Our bear-book winner. Also: 7 things I learned on the U.K. trip.

Melinda is the winner of “Shooting Bears: The Adventures of a Wildlife Photographer.” And here’s a hint about this Friday’s giveaway: It’s also a book, one with a personal-finance/frugality theme — and the author is willing to personalize it.

I haven’t been posting as much as I usually do because, well, I’m bushed. It’s taking a surprising amount of time to shake off the fatigue that followed my three-week trip, during which I pushed myself pretty hard.

One more mention of the U.K. and then I’ll get back to my usual mix of PF/lifeitsownself. Here are 7 things I learned across the pond:

1. Always check the math. When I got to the hostel I realized I didn’t actually need a pod bed, which was the most expensive lodging. (Also, sometimes, the hardest to climb into.) So I went back down to the office and asked if I could switch to an 8- or 10-bed dorm. They weren’t available every day, so on a few nights I was stuck with the pod bed; the rest of my stay would be a series of check-ins and check-outs.

As the desk clerk reported the fees I scribbled a running tab. The line got long behind me so he asked if I would mind coming back in an hour, which would let him check in all those weary travelers. I didn’t mind a bit; being a weary traveler myself, I went upstairs and took a 40-minute nap.

When I went back the desk guy said, “So that works out to 271 pounds.”

Um, I made it 189 pounds.

The guy added, re-added, scratched his head and announced, “Yes, 189 pounds.”

If I hadn’t added it up as I went along I might have just signed for it. Whew.

2. Look for free stuff. One company offered free walking tours out of the hostel, encompassing sights such as Buckingham Palace (from the outside), St. James Park, Trafalgar Square, Green Park and the Pall Mall (a thoroughfare, not the cigarette).

The guide mentioned that it cost more than $26 to tour Westminster Abbey, but that we could see it for free by attending services. A couple of weeks later I did just that, and and got a free organ recital thrown in for good measure.

Obviously the city is full of free museums (although it’s considered good form to contribute, and I did). The people-watching is primo, and so is the building-watching. I spent so much time staring that I began referring to my trip as the “walk and gawk” tour of London.

I wonder what it’s like to live in a city that’s so crammed with beautiful architecture? Probably like living in Alaska: People save up for years to come there and point and sigh over the stuff you take completely for granted.

3. Adjust your expectations. I ate many meals from supermarkets, walked whenever possible instead of taking the Underground (which tried to eat me when I did), brought a bunch of snacks from home and almost always drank water instead of soft drinks (more on that later). The biggest saver, though, was using the hostel instead of a hotel, which allowed me to stay for three weeks instead of one.

Of course, that meant having to walk down the hall to shower or use the toilet, and it also meant sharing a room. On the first day I discovered one of my roommates had just been arrested for importing machetes. Later that day I woke up from a nap to find three more roommates, whose names I promptly forgot. A few years ago, sleeping in a room with people I didn’t know would have freaked me out. These days it just made me hope that the police kept the machetes.

4. Wisdom lurks in the oddest places. This was written on the wall inside my pod bed on Monday, March 7: “Bad art is more tragically beautiful than good art because it documents human failure.” – Tristan Reveur (who apparently is not a real person)

5. Diet Coke addiction can be fought. A lousy exchange rate helps. After I realized I was paying up to $2.40 per bottle for just under 17 ounces, I stopped buying it. Well, except for the small ones I bought in order to use the free wi-fi at McDonalds.

6. Take hand sanitizer. And use it. In the shared hostel bathroom I saw a lot of young women leave the rest room without washing their hands. Eeewww.

7. Some people throw up more genteelly than others. I was brushing my teeth when I heard a young woman murmur, “Oh, no” and then cough. At least I thought it was a cough, until it was followed by the sound of water splashing. At least I thought it was water, until I realized the young woman was vomiting. Another murmur, some more splashing.

The young woman brushing her teeth next to me had been chatting with the ladylike little barfer just a moment earlier. She seemed unconcerned. “Is she OK?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the tooth-brusher.

“But she’s getting sick?”

“Oh, yes.”

The door opened and a slightly pale young woman came out, her eyes wet but her face composed. “Are you all right?” I asked.

“I get sick a lot,” she said. “But I’d hoped I wouldn’t on this trip.”

At least she washed her hands.


17 Comments

  1. Ro in San Diego

    Hi Donna and welcome back. My husband and I are getting ready to cross the pond ourselves on Wednesday when we visit the Netherlands and Belgium for 10 days. We are taking a cruise with a line that offers “2 for 1″ pricing. We’ve checked and their prices are really that much cheaper than the competition. We’ve been on this line’s cruise before and are looking forward to it. Our trip can’t match yours for low cost , but the attractiveness of a pre-paid European trip cannot be overstated with the fluctuating dollar.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ro: I hope you have as good a time as I did, and with fewer machetes and gigolos. :-D

  2. I think I could do as you did except for the hostel. Snoring would drive me nuts and keep me up all night. Plus, anyone getting up to go to the bathroom would wake me. You certainly handle it well. Are you never afraid, sleeping with that many strangers? We go to a hotel and lock the door, yet in a hostel, everyone is accessible. It’s puzzling and frightening to me.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Practical Parsimony: I thought I would be afraid when I first did this, in Chicago, but I wasn’t. My belongings were locked away, so no worry about theft. I suppose one of my roommates could be a homicidal maniac, but I never felt anxious or threatened.
      It was kind of like summer camp, only for grownups: Sharing a room with people you would never see again.

  3. I can handle everything about traveling the way you did to London except the hostel. I frequently choose places that let me cook and bring lots of my own food. But I simply cannot sleep with strangers. I would be fairly insane from lack of sleep within just a few nights. I’d rather save up a bit more and get peace of mind and my own bathroom!

  4. Thank you for sharing your life with me! It is much more interesting than my celery.
    Have a great and refreshing week!

  5. The Diet Coke monkey is a stubborn one! I have tried over and over to no avail. I’ve had maybe 2 or 3 since the beginning of 2011 so maybe this time it will stick.

  6. @Ro in San Diego-

    I cruise a lot and am always on the lookout for deals. We are also doing the Baltic cruise this summer. But I have never seen a 2 for 1 offer. Could you tell me what cruise line that is?

    Thanks

  7. Thank you for sharing your travel adventures. For now I’ll just have to read about your adventures….but someday perhaps I’ll have my own.

  8. Catseye

    Donna, you’re a stronger woman than me! I HATED summer camp the one year I made the mistake of attending. Glad your experiences were mostly positive and rewarding.

  9. average guy

    If you want lots more “Eeewww” spend some weeks traveling in Asia.

  10. jestjack

    Tooo funny Donna about the “machete”. I too have found it interesting as well as comforting as I get older to …”not sweat the small stuff”. Of course a lot depends on what you consider…”the smal stuff”.

  11. @Practical Parsimony – a lot of hostels will let you upgrade to a single or double room.. it’s still cheaper then a hotel, and about 1/2 of them have a private bath.. I chose to upgrade at every hostel I stayed at in Australia..
    My sister lives in London, so everytime I go there I crash on her couch for FREE!! And international flights from there to the rest of Europe are fairly cheap.. making friends in other countries is the best/cheapest way to see the world..

  12. What a great article. I feel like a savy traveller before I even get to London! Thanks for the great tips on walking tours.

  13. Hi Donna,
    When are you going back to Europe?? Can I come??

  14. When we went to London the third time, we rented a flat in Chelsea for a month. We went grocery shopping almost every day and picked up things like tikka masala, eggs, pasta, cooked chicken and easy stuff to prepare. Lunches were eaten out and dinners in except for an evening in Chinatown and a dinner at Rules.

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