Friday, September 4, 2015

It's been a week...

It's been over a week since my last post - SORRY!  I hope you all have taken that to mean that I've been busy having fun and adventuring around England.

Because I have been having fun and adventuring around England!

Here's a brief overview of the past week:

 - Giant spider under my bed has been slain.
 - Did a walking tour of Cambridge with Paul and saw a bunch of colleges on Friday
 - Went to Audley End House and London for a BBC Prom on Saturday
 - Sunday I did another half-day in London
 - Monday I went to London and saw Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch, then returned to Cambridge Tuesday afternoon to help move into a new flat
 - I went to Brighton on Wednesday
 - Thursday I met with a friend in London for breakfast/brunch, then returned to Cambridge for a showing of Avenue Q

And today I'm kicking back and catching up while simultaneously doing laundry.  Also recovering a bit because I haven't walked less than ten miles a day since I started going out and about.  Ow my feet.

I'll start cranking out blog posts over the next day to review the stuff above in greater detail.  I can tell you about the spider now though, since that's short and won't take much time.

The spider, as noted above, had been slain.  The flatmate who let me borrow the duvet came down and looked everywhere for a spider, found one, and then killed it.  I didn't see which one they had killed so I was a little suspicious but I was still happy the flat had one less spider in it.

My best guess is that the spider had moved to a little gap between the stairs and the carpet and had been hiding there while I was looking through the bedding.  When I came back down the stairs later the original spider was startled and then scuttled across the room to hide under my luggage.  Delightful.

I called down Paul who was able to actually kill it for real with one of my shoes and I could safely sleep downstairs again.

My best guess, after researching different kinds of common house spiders, is that it was probably a cardinal spider:

The website that I found this info on (although I'm having trouble finding it now - sorry) said that "Although they are mainly thought to be harmless to humans, these arachnids get a bad reputation because of their huge size, incredible speed and their nocturnal habits."

Given that this giant thing practically flew around the kitchen at 2am, I'm gonna say that this is a pretty safe guess.

That's all for this post - I'll keep posting updates throughout the rest of my day off.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

First few days

After having been up for 26 hours straight by the time I got to Cambridge, I was anxious to get cleaned up!  The flat that I'm staying in has a living room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom on the ground floor; the kitchen and dining space are downstairs.  Paul inflated an air mattress in the corner of the dining space for me, and I got to shower.

That's another thing guys - California is in the worst drought ever recorded.  I'm used to taking showers every three or so days.  England isn't in a drought (well, they say they are but I call BS), so I'm able to shower every day again!  What a luxury.  I also nearly cried when it started to rain while I was in London.  Seriously guys, water is amazing!

Anyway, by the time I'm done getting cleaned up and settled it's about time to leave for the pub quiz night at The Empress!

Yup.  Went out drinking and quizzing on about 30 hours of sleep.  Good thinking me!

The bartender and the few locals I met were genuinely gracious and happy that I had come to the pub on my first night in Cambridge.  They all stood up and gave me handshakes and asked if I was that polite all the time (um.....yes?  I'm sorry if other tourists aren't D: )

I also got to meet Paul's friends there!  Together the five of us made up Team Face Sandwich (don't ask), and did pretty well during the quizzes.  I started nodding off and taking micro-naps against my will during the music portion (I was at hour 33 at that point), but I had a soda and woke right back up again.  Eventually we made it back to the flat and I got to sleep.

Well, I slept as hard as I could, but being underground means it is very cold.  I kept waking up every two hours or so and having to add layers.  By the time I had to get up for food the next morning I was wearing socks, two shirts, a beanie, and a jacket that was zipped up and the hood over my head.  Paul and his flatmate are moving next week, and Paul had already packed up his extra sheets and duvet.  I basically had slept with a throw.

Anyway, it was my first full day in Cambridge!  And I didn't do much actually - but that's okay for a first day.  I woke up around 9:30, and then left the house for some food around 11:30 after showering.  I went to the deli just a few doors down and got a Mediterranean tuna sandwich and a bag of crisps for <£5 which was great.  Then after eating I read some more, and then took a nap from 2-4ish.

Around 5pm I left to go to meet up with Paul and a friend for dinner at the Churchill college campus.  It was about two miles to walk there, but I wanted to leave a little early in case I got lost or got distracted by some shops.  I arrived around 6, then we all met up for a tour and dinner on campus around 6:30.

I had to climb up a lot of stairs to get that view.

a lot

of stairs

This was the top of the tower - the building itself is actually a conference center.

Campus food was pretty decent!  And very affordable.  I had salmon, potatoes, broccoli, and I split a dessert with Paul - it was only about £4!

Also, fun fact, the Churchill campus has two bars.  What?!

Credit to RLP Surveyors for the photo

On the way back Paul took me on a preview tour of the backs of the colleges.  It was getting dark so it was harder to see, but he'll give me the full tour come Friday.

It was dark and we were far away from the buildings.

Bonus picture: The Jerwood Library
I just thought the architecture was cool.

We also stopped at a grocery store called Waitrose to buy some tea and dessert once we got closer to the flat.  I bought some earl grey and tiramisu!

Credit to RetailWeek for the photo of the exact Waitrose I went to

Once Paul and I got back, we had some tea with his flatmate.  She went back to packing up the apartment shortly after, and I stayed up online for longer than I really really should have.  Not sure if it was the jet lag, how cold I was, or the caffeine from the tea, but I was up until about 4am.  It also didn't help that around 2am I witnessed a giant spider crawl over me and then hide between my mattress and the wall.  I was literally paranoid for two hours.  Spiders are easily in my top 5 fears (maybe even top 3).

I did manage to get to sleep around 4am and then on through about 8am when Paul's flatmate made her way down to the kitchen.  She saw how bundled up I was and then she offered to give me one of her duvets!  Oh dear lord I was finally cozy in bed.

I got up around 10am today, did some more reading, took a shower, and then decided to do battle with the giant spider.  I flipped the air mattress over and holy crap that thing was a giant nope-monster.  I thought it was the size of my thumb when I briefly saw it last night.  NOPE.  More like half the size of my hand.  (I'm thinking that Australia inherited some of England's creepy crawlies, and then they just got worse over time.) I tried getting the spider with a shoe, but it made its way over to the stack of bedding I had removed and now it's lost forever and I'm terrified of going to sleep tonight.  UGH.

To take my mind off of the giant spider I went out for food.  There is a Tesco Express across the corner that I decided to hit up.  Tesco is like a super 7-11.  It has your basic 7-11 items like soda and sandwiches and milk, but it's bigger and you can actually do some actual grocery shopping.  I wanted to buy ingredients for a meal, but instead I just bought a few sandwiches, bags of crisps, a salad, and then scotch eggs.  That's what happens when you go buy food with your stomach instead of your brain.  Stupid stomach.

Got back to the flat, heated up a scotch egg, and then ate it with a hoisin duck wrap and a bag of crisps.  Finally worked up the nerve to shake out some of the bedding and the spider hasn't reappeared yet.

Let it be known - if I die it was that stupid spiders fault.

Tonight I'll be going out for dumplings and then tomorrow is my full daytime Cambridge tour!  Saturday we'll be going to Audley End and then London for a prom at 7:30!  (Prom, read: concert) Royal Albert Hall, I'm coming for you!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Hello hello hello from the other side of the pond!  Sorry I haven't updated sooner - the last two days have gone by extremely quickly.

Monday was the day I flew out from San Francisco International Airport, nonstop to London Heathrow.  The flight was about ten hours long, and I arrived in London around noon.

Few quick things about the flight:
 - I arrived at SFO pretty quickly (thanks Ellie!) and got through security within fifteen minutes.  No fuss, very straightforward.  Did a few laps around terminal 3 and then planted my butt at the gate and started reading The Martian (WHICH IS SO GOOD).
 - Premium economy was very good, and for me it was worth the price tag.  I fit into the seats snug but fine, and I very much appreciated the free booze and actual silverware with my meals.  (Seriously, I got two small drinks before takeoff, another before dinner, a small bottle of wine with dinner, and then some brandy as a nightcap.  Not bad.)

Pre-flight sparkling wine 
(It's not from Champagne France, so it's not champagne!)

Virgin Atlantic tweeted at me too!

I also took a time-lapse of most of our descent into London!

- Luggage was a bit of a pain.  I had to take a few extra things in my carry-on because my checked bag was just a few pounds overweight from when I originally packed it.  Carry-on backpack ended up being around 20lbs, which took me back to my lug-textbooks-from-class-to-class days.  Thankfully I didn't have to lug it around much.
 - I did not sleep at all.  Zero sleep.  ZERO.  Not because I couldn't get comfortable - I just had really poor timing.  I read more of The Martian, played a few sudoku puzzles, and my seat mate recommended The Imitation Game from their in-flight on-demand movies.  By the time I had finished, I decided to take a peek out the window to see what Greenland looked like and it was SUPER bright outside.  My brain took that to mean HEY IT'S DAYTIME YOU CAN'T SLEEP NOW.  I tried for about ten minutes but couldn't sleep.  Then I went and read some more, tried again, finally started sinking into my seat and then the cabin lights came on because it was breakfast time.

When getting into London, the plan was to use my old iPhone 4s with my prepaid SIM card to message my host that I had arrived.  Of course the prepaid SIM card plan fell though (there was no network whatsoever it could connect to) and I could not find wi-fi ANYWHERE at the airport.  (Seriously, I even checked the coffee shops.  You'd think Starbucks at the airport would have wi-fi!)  Thankfully the signs at the airport were pretty helpful, so I decided to just hop on the tube and hopefully catch a signal at King's Cross.

Sorry, that was the only picture I got of the underground signage at the airport station.

I felt really awkward on the tube with so many bags, but everyone understood.  The guy sitting next to me even wished me a good trip as I was getting off at Kings Cross.

Well, no luck finding wi-fi at King's Cross either.  At this point I was thinking my phone was just straight up broken.  Luckily, signage at King's Cross is also very well displayed so I was able to navigate pretty easily.  I got doubly lucky with the timing too!  I only had to wait about two minutes on the platform before the train opened up.

Just over an hour later I got off in Cambridge and decided that my host wouldn't know to meet me there, so I should take a cab.  The cab ride was a little scary because this was my first time in a car in the UK so everything is reversed.  Right turns are suddenly a feat.

I got dropped off on the correct street but I couldn't find the address.  I spent about 20 minutes asking people that were out and about where to find that specific flat, but nobody had an idea other than "try those apartments over there" or "the numbers are out of order, just keep looking around".

On one of the corners was a cafe with internet, so I decided to try and message my friend using their wi-fi while sipping a Baileys milkshake that I bought for four quid.  (I'm on holiday, I can drink if I want!)


The wi-fi there wasn't great unfortunately.  It seemed like every message I tried to send wasn't able to be sent successfully.  I messaged my friend on facebook messenger, iMessage, I tried regular texting them.  I was even loading up my work's VOIP service so I could try calling them when he walked in the door.  Turns out that I had walked past the flat about five times earlier!  Oh well.

I'll update again soon with actual stuff I've been doing here.  Until then!

Friday, August 21, 2015

3 Days to go and...wait, what's up with this suitcase?

Hooooooooooooly crap I'm nearly there

Hey all - sorry for fewer updates this week.  I've been picking up some items here and there but otherwise I haven't done a whole lot else related to the trip.  (I did however meet one of my idols last night, Felicia Day, during her book tour.  Still freaking out about that.  Go read her book, it's awesome.)

The one thing I'm happy to report is that my suitcase and duffle bag have made it to my house!  If you remember from a few blog posts back, luggage shopping was pretty awful so I opted to just buy something economical online.  I ended up buying this hard case from Amazon:

It's nice and sturdy, it's purple so it's easily identifiable, and it came at a good price!  Great, right?

Well there's nothing horribly wrong with the suitcase I got, but there were some...interesting errors? Issues?  Features?  The first of which comes from the outside of the bag.


˙˙˙uǝǝq ǝʌɐɥ ʎɐɯ noʎ ʇɐɥʇ pɹɐǝɥ ı

¿¡ǝɯ ʇnoqɐ ʇıɥs buıʞןɐʇ

Hahaha, sorry, couldn't help myself. 

So yes, the label on the outside is upside down.  (The original item image shows the label facing the other way - I checked.) Not a huge deal, and I think it's actually pretty hilarious.  The label can now be used as a conversation piece, AND if by any chance someone else has the same bag I'll be able to pick out my bag as the derpy one.

The inside gets a smidge weirder though.

To be fair, there was a description of the inside on Amazon but there wasn't a picture.  This means that even though I had a vague idea of what to expect, there were still a few unknown elements.

It's a nice-ish sorta silky gray lining.  There is a zipper that separates the two halves of the bag, which is great for the return trip when you don't want to mix the dirty and clean laundry together.  There is also a small, but long, zippered pocket that would be good for smaller important items like charging cables, medications, toiletries, etc.

At the base of both halves there is a zipper that goes all the way across the bottom (shown above).  Here's the weird thing about that zipper:

Still not seeing it?  ENHANCE:

See it now?

There's no pull tab on that zipper.  Well, either of those zippers.  I'm not sure if that was intentional because you're not supposed to open it up, but then why have it there?  When you eventually open it up, you get the interior of the plastic hardshell:


Still not sure why those zippers are there, but I'm thinking I'll throw my shoes in one of those pockets so they don't muck up the rest of my clothes.  Gotta make the best of a weird situation!  (If you know what those zippers are actually there for, drop me a comment below - I'm super curious.)

Other than that, the suitcase appears to be fine.  I was able to roll it around on carpet, so I'm sure that rolling it around on concrete and tile at the airport will be fine.

The duffle bag, in related news, is totally perfect.  I'm going to keep it folded up and wrapped in plastic until I need it for the return trip home.

Anyway, that's all for now folks!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Food Allergies?

One week to go - oy!

This weekend I didn't do a whole lot of planning or prepping for my trip to Britain because I was prepping for my trip to Hawaii immediately following.  (I'll only have a day in between trips, so I need to prep for that trip too!)

I did manage to get my passport out of the safe and give that information to Virgin Atlantic.  After you fill out that information, it asks you a few other questions so that they can be as accommodating as possible.  One of the questions had to do with dietary requirements.

For those of you who don't know me or have gone out to eat with me, I like food! (My last post about my size is proof enough of that.)  However, I do have a lot of food allergies.

Like...a lot of food allergies.  And weird ones too.  Apples, pears, carrots, goes on.  Some of my friends will poke fun at me and say that I'm allergic to basically everything except water.  (But they don't say air - there's pollen and dust in the air and I'm super allergic to those too.)

The flight dietary requirements has almost everything you'd ever hope to see offered for in-flight menus:

I don't even know what some of those options would consist of, but hats off to Virgin for being so accommodating.

BUT the one thing missing from this form though is a place to list allergens.

I looked online to see if I could find the menu that they'll be using next week, but no luck there.  I did however find a sample menu on their website:
  • Starter: 
    • White radish and mixed leaf salad - Crunchy, nutty salad leaves with the light pepper punch of white radish. With a herb dressing.
      • Radishes are okay, but I'm allergic to nuts.  Do you mean to say that the leaves naturally taste nutty, or are you using nuts in the salad?  And are you using tarragon in the dressing?  I'm allergic to that too.
  • Main Course
    • Seasonal beef stew - Full of fresh seasonal vegetables and juicy beef chunks, this is a hearty family favourite. With green beans and horseradish dumplings.
      • Seasonal vegetables?  I'm allergic to carrots.  I'm also slightly allergic to green beans.
    • Fragrant chicken noodles - Tender chicken pieces mixed with egg noodles infused with a creamy coconut and lime sauce.
      • That one sounds doable, even if I'm not sold on the coconut and lime sauce.
    • Roasted squash risotto (V) - Butternut squash roasted with sage, blended with a silky cheese risotto.
      • I feel like in most butternut squash dishes, they include pine nuts to invoke a richer and nuttier taste.  Any way to get a confirmation on that?
  • Bread: Your choice of oven-baked bread rolls.
      • YES!  I like bread.  Just no nuts or sesame.
  • Pudding: Cappuccino mousse. Indulgent coffee and chocolate mousse on a light sponge base.
      • Also doable, just can't overdo the dairy (or the coffee) otherwise I'll spend an hour in the lavatory.  (I am of the 20% of people that has to poop after drinking coffee.)
  • Liqueur service to end your meal perfectly.
      • Yes.  This is what I signed up for. 
Anyway, so you get the idea.

Since there was no form to list allergens, I went to see if I could talk with a representative about my options, or see if there was a menu available somewhere. It was an international number, so I decided against calling.  Then I saw an option to email a representative, so I figured that would be the most cost effective way to go.

After composing a message through a form on their website, I hit "submit" and was presented with a confirmation screen.  The fine print under the confirmation said: “We do get a lot of messages, so please bear with us.  We'll make sure we get back to you within 28 days, if not before”.

Twenty-eight days?  My host has mentioned to me on multiple occasions that British customer service leaves a lot to be desired, but twenty-eight days?  Four weeks?  Holy cow!  I'll be back in the States by then.

None of my allergies are super severe (except for maybe soy products like tofu or soybeans - my throat swells and I have a hard time talking for hours after), but I still carry Benadryl and an epi-pen on my person at all times when I'm out.  Usually I'm okay with picking a menu item and then picking around the stuff I'm allergic to (as long as it's not fully integrated into the meal), so I think that's just what I'm gonna have to do.

If I do hear back from the airline about my options I'll let you know!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Flight Deets & Insecurities

On Friday, with ten days to go, I decided that it would probably be a good time to pick out my flight seats to ensure I wasn't in the middle of a row.  Thankfully, for both of my flights I was able to do so!

 To the left is my outbound flight - I opted for an aisle seat so I could cheat over a bit into the aisle if need be.  There was no middle row for row 31, so I might even be able to cheat over a bit more.

To the right is my inbound flight - again, another aisle seat with no neighbor across the aisle.  If I'm lucky, the middle seat will be left open.

Here's the deal folks - I won't sugarcoat it (although I'll try because I like sugar) - I've got a lot of fat on my body.  This means that plane rides are just as uncomfortable for me as it probably is for the person sitting next to me, if not more so.  I'm SUPER conscious about it, so if it comes down to my comfort level vs the comfort level of the person next to me, I'd rather be the uncomfortable one.

I am that person that will crane my neck in a weird position so you can sleep better.  I'm okay with walking up and down aisles so that way you get some extra time to stretch out without having to worry about bumping into me (unless the aisles are cramped, in which case I usually hang out with the crew by the bathrooms).  I recognize that my body can make people uncomfortable, particularly in small spaces, so I try and be as amicable and empathetic as possible.

I am also definitely not the only obese person who finds that booking a ticket, flying, and even boarding/disembarking planes can be stressful and sometimes embarrassing.  The graph below shows the results from a survey that asked obese fliers on a scale of 1-10 what are the most stressful parts of the flight?  (Take it with a grain of salt though, I couldn't find a control group or a number of participants surveyed.)

Aircraft Interiors International posted this graph in their article "Too Fat to Fly"

That was originally why I wanted to fly first class.  Yes, there were a zillion extra awesome perks, but I was most looking forward to having my own little cubby where I wouldn't disturb other passengers.  The seat portion would still be snug, but it converts into a bed that is 33" wide - which is more than enough for my wide hips.  It would literally be the most comfortable option for me and the other people on the plane.

For comparison, on Virgin Atlantic international flights:
  • Economy seats are 17-18" wide
  • Premium Economy seats are 21" wide
  • Upper Class seats are 22" wide; in bed-form they are 33" wide
I have an overflowing hourglass figure.  My hips, as of about four weeks ago when I started becoming concerned about this problem, were 56" around (so half that and it's 28 inches wide).  I've literally been dieting for a month with the hopes I'd lose an inch or two (which I just checked and I have - I'm down to about 54" now), and then I could wear some Spanx to trim down a few more inches after that.  (PS - I hate wearing Spanx.  I'm dreading the thought of wearing them on an 11-hour flight.  Going to the bathroom will be an absolute nightmare.)

With that being said, at present, my greatest fear is not being able to fit on a flight and then they won't let me stay on the plane.  I don't know if they're even legally allowed to do that, but it's still a fear, irrational or otherwise.

In hindsight, because the premium economy seat was almost twice as expensive as the regular economy seat, maybe next time I should just buy two economy seats.  I'll have 34" between the two so I can cheat as much over into another seat as possible, and I could even just keep a bag in the chair next to me.

Good news is that if I do fit (albeit snugly), there are a number of awesome perks to being in Premium Economy.

Either way, I'm still going to be sticking to my 1 cup of quinoa, spinach/mushroom mix, and 4oz of chicken every other meal to try and squeeze into those seats a bit better.  Wish me luck!


EDIT: I had someone suggest to try sitting in between two objects that were 21" apart, or to measure the armchairs I have at home and use that for comparison.  Yes, my hips are wide, but I'm not two-dimensional so estimating my side-to-side width by halving the total hip measurement isn't going to be accurate.

And THANK YOU person for reminding me of this.  Because:

  • I have an old antique armchair, 19" wide (armrest to armrest), and I fit.

  • The recliners in our front room are 22" wide and I'm super comfortable in those.  

I am MUCH less scared and stressed out now.  And I am doubly excited to have purchased premium economy because now I'm more confident that I'll be probably be comfortable, and my size probably won't affect my seat neighbor as much.

19" is okay (and 21" will be awesome), but I can't imagine being comfortable in economy at 17".  Yikes.  Premium Economy was the way to go.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Luggage Woes

After the money exchange (re: one previous blog entry) I went looking for luggage options.  What I learned from that experience is to never buy luggage at a luggage store; good lord they're expensive.  Like, $600 for a single bag expensive - no thank you.

What I went and did instead was check out Home Goods, TJ Max, and then Ross!  This sounds like a great idea in theory, but I was unprepared for what awaited me in the stores.

For those of you not familiar with TJ Max or Ross, here's the deal as I understand it: these stores get hand-me-down inventory when department stores can't sell it at the higher prices.  That means that those Nine West stilettos that normally go for $120 are now closer to $23, and that Jessica Simpson carry-on bag that normally goes for $350 is now only $58.

To make a long story short - I basically spent 3 hours looking at bags and didn't buy anything.  Neither of the stores that had luggage actually gave dimensions for their luggage.  TJ Max had a better selection of luggage pieces and even had a few luggage sets, but I couldn't tell by eyeballing it if a bag was too big to be a carry-on, or if it would have been a small checked bag.  Most of the tags with information about the bags had been removed and replaced with the store tag, telling you what the original pricing was and what the new store pricing is currently.  I would have needed to bring a tape measure into the store to be sure of the sizing.

SOOOO, the following morning I went and bought luggage on Amazon.  Because they actually list the bag dimensions.  Thank you, internet.

I bought the purple bag above - it's a Kenneth Cole hard case made with ABS.  It's also one of those suitcases that you can spin around in any direction.  Both are features I've never had in a suitcase before, so that's exciting!  (Our family luggage is pretty old.) Yes, it is very purple, but the black and blue ones were $10-15 more expensive.  The pricing for this suitcase was under $100, which was comparable to Ross and TJ Max pricing.

I'm flying premium economy so I technically get two checked bags for free.  Since I'm definitely prone to overpacking, this was a welcome perk when booking my flights.  But Stephanie! you cry out, If you get two checked bags, don't you need another suitcase? Well friend, I've planned for that! (And thank you for your concern.)

I also bought a collapsible duffle bag that I can store in my suitcase for my trip out, and then if I need the extra luggage room on the way back home I can bust it out.

Snagged this bag for about $20 on Amazon too, which was perfect.  And it too came in a delightful purple color, so I can sorta pretend in my head that it's matching.  

I decided to go with a duffle bag because I could fold it up, which would be much less room than a nesting suitcase.  They're also really lightweight, and it's easier to stack a duffle bag on top of my checked bag than it is to stack one wheeled bag on top of another.  

That's all for now - in my next post I'll talk a bit about my flights and insecurities while flying (oh noes!)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Progress update - 10 days to go!

Ten more days until take-off!

I have made a bit more progress!

Yesterday I decided to go down to the Stanford Mall to have some money exchanged.  I remember my dad taking me to Travelex to swap out our USD for yuan for my high school's music trip to China, so I figured I'd go back there to swap some cash for Great British Pounds.

Let me preface this by saying: I want some cash in my pocket in case there are vendors that don't take credit cards, or if it's just a small transaction. (I mean, who wants to bust out a credit card for something that costs a dollar?) I've also gotta pay my host back for a few items they've purchased for me, and cash seems to be the easiest way to do that.  (For everything else, I'm planning on using my BofA travel rewards credit card because there are no foreign transaction fees - heyooo.)

When looking up the price difference throughout the week, the pricing was averaging $1 USD to approximately £0.64 GBP.  The pricing I got at the Travelex was closer to $1 USD to £0.55.  I ended up paying $361.34 (plus a $9.99 transaction fee) for £200.  It was a little bit of a shocker, but I've gotta just suck it up and stick with it.  Hopefully that'll last me for a while, and then I can just use ATMs while I'm there to pull out more if need be.

FAST FACT: ATM's are called "cashpoints", or sometimes referred to as a "hole in the wall" in England.  Or at least according to Toni Summers Hargis in her book, Rules, Brittania.  Definitely bringing this book with me when I go.

I didn't get a good look at the money until I was home again, but British banknotes are really cool!  All the denominations are differently sized and colored.  My guess would be that it makes money easier to sort (and by extension, count), and it also enables people who are hard of seeing to better determine how much money is being exchanged during a transaction.

The front side of all of the banknotes depicts Queen Elizabeth II (God save the queen!), but all of the backs have different artwork.  Here are some notes on the art, as described by Project Britain:
  • £5 banknote - "The current £5 note features Elizabeth Fry, who made her name fighting for improved living conditions for women in European jails."

  • £10 banknote - "The current £10 note features Charles Darwin, the Victorian naturalist who developed the theory of evolution. Also pictured is an illustration of Darwin 's own magnifying lens and the flora and fauna that he may have come across on his travels."

  • £20 banknote - "The current £20 note features Sir Edward Elgar, a British composer whose orchestral works include Enigma Variations(1896) and five Pomp and Circumstance marches (1901–1930)." Turns out that the website is not totally up-to-date.  The Elgar note has been demoted and cannot be used as legal tender anymore.  The new note has Adam Smith depicted on it.  According to Wikipedia, "Smith is cited as the 'father of modern economics' and is still among the most influential thinkers in the field of economics today".

  • £50 banknote - "The current £50 note features Sir John Houblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England." Again, outdated.  The two men depicted on the back of the £50 note are Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who were in the business of making marine and steam engines.  They're credited with founding a firm which had a major role during the Industrial Revolution.

I'm only planning on carrying about £30-40 in cash on me at any given time while I'm out and about, so if I'm stupid and lose my wallet (or heaven forbid I get mugged or something) I'll still have some cash left over.

That's all for this post - next one will probably be about my headache trying to find proper luggage!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Britain Trip Planning - Less than two weeks out!

Is this even real life?!

I bought my plane tickets back in April thinking that I'd have all the time in the world to plan, but holy cow did that sneak up on me!

There are two kinds of people when it comes to planning vacations - people who take it a day at a time, and people who want to have every day planned out weeks ahead of time.

I studied event planning, so it's usually pretty safe to say I hang out with the latter camp more often.  But with this trip, I don't know what happened.  I think I kept on procrastinating because this trip is the "dream trip", and perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand.  You want everything to go as perfect as it does in your head, but the thought that something might go differently stunts the whole planning process.

Needless to say, if I'm going to start booking stuff I should probably start doing it soon!

Planning aside, there are a number of things that need to happen before I can even set foot on an airplane.  Today I took some time to start working on those pieces.  Things like:

  • Checking to see if my health insurance would cover me if I got hurt while abroad 
    • It does!  I'm covered for ER visits.  I'd have to pay up front and then fill out a claim form, but I'd be reimbursed later.  The goal is not to have to use the ER.  
  • Reviewing things I've bought or already own that will be needed
    • I bought space bags and XL/XXL Ziploc bags for my clothes (look how happy the model is to be able to organize those items!)

    • I bought neoprene draw-string bags for my various camera lenses, which will go in my recently purchased camera bag
    • I unlocked my old mobile phone and bought a prepaid SIM card, which should last me until I can grab an international SIM card in England for cheaper
    • I found my old power adapter and all of the attachments
  • Making a list of things I need to buy
    • I should probably get new luggage, considering the zippers on the family luggage pieces are being held together with paperclips (seriously, not even kidding)

    • The host has requested two bottles of California wine (one white, one red), a selection of See's Candies, and a number of over-the-counter drugs that aren't easily purchased in England
    • I need to exchange some USD for some GBP.  Right now the conversion is $1 USD = £0.64 GBP - yikes.
  • Managing my flight booking
    • My passport is valid, but it is currently locked in a (practically) indestructible safe.  This means I have to wait for the owner of the safe to open it up for me before I can submit that information to the airline.
    • I originally wanted to upgrade from premium economy to first class.  (It's the dream trip - go big or go home, right?) In April, and up through June I was able to purchase that extra upgrade for $1k each way.  I checked to see if the price had gown down at all and my jaw dropped - it's nearly $8k to upgrade now!  No clubhouse, flat-lying bed, or bottomless drinks for StephCa.
  • Reviewing transportation options
    • I was formerly a ZipCar member, which I recently discovered is operating in England too!  I'm still weighing renewing my ZipCar membership against a regular car rental, and  even longer train rides.
    • There are SO MANY TRAIN LINES just in London!  I've been studying the map every day and been practicing identifying which stations are in which zones.  

And these are all things off the top off my head from today alone!

I think later this week I'll start putting together plans of what I want to do once I'm there.  I know my first two or so days while I'm jet lagged I'll want to hang out in Cambridge where I'll be staying.  The friend I'm staying with has been going to the university there so they'll know all the ins and outs by now.  I've got a ticket for a show on August 31st, and I'm helping my host move into a different apartment the following morning.  Other than that, my schedule is pretty wide open!

I'll be in Britain for just about two weeks, so I'm hoping that I'll have enough time to see everything I want to see - I just need to figure out what it is I want to see first!

Note: I say "Britain" because the idea is to travel to Scotland and (maybe, hopefully) Wales as well.  No Ireland this time ):