Monday, 5 March 2012

Cosmos European Masterpiece tour

I have had a number of people email me asking questions about the particular tour we did, so I'm answering the FAQ that I am getting on this tour and hope it helps! If you have any other questions, post a comment below and I will try to answer it.

1. What sight seeing is included on the tour?

Our travel agent said the golden rule when looking at brochures is the terms 'see, view and visit'. See means you will drive past it, view means you will stop and have a look and visit means its included as sight seeing and will be prepaid. On this particular tour this includes the likes of the Colosseum and Pompeii.

2. How much free time do we get in each city?

Depends on the day. Most cities you will get a couple of free hours. Also if you don't do the optional tours then you will get a lot more free time. The balance is pretty good and we never felt like we were missing out, we saw all the major sights that each city had to offer.

3. What are the hotels like? Are they far out of the cities?

Most hotels are standard chain 3 star hotels, clean and tidy and functional, but not luxury. You may get the occasional one which is not so flash, but this is due to Cosmos having long contracts with hotels, its a cost thing. However there are some which are amazing, San Marino and Montecatinni are stunning.

The hotels are often quite far out of the city, especially in the major cities, this is what makes the tour so much cheaper than its counterparts in other companies. There are always plenty of trains and public transport to get you places and you will generally find you don't need to go out anyway. The tour bus will take you into the city every day and will either leave you there if your not doing optional's or take you to the optional trip. The bus will then come back and pick you up.

4. Do I need to prebook the optional tours? When do I pay for them?

No you dont prebook the optionals. They are booked on tour, the tour guide will tell you more about them and recommend ones to do. If paying by credit card you wont actually pay for the optional's till after your trip.

5. What optional tours are worth doing?

The only optionals that you really must do to see extra attractions are the day in Capri (there isn't much to do in Sorrento and Capri is wonderful), The dutch dinner and drive (you dont have a choice with this one), Montecarlo by night (amazing place, not a lot around the hotel in Nice), The vienna palace one (especially if your in Vienna on a sunday, nothing opens on a sunday), Treasures of rome by night (to see some more famous sites otherwise you wont see them the next day), Welcome dinner at montemarte (will see the church and the moulin rouge), A taste of athens (not much around the hotel and its all in greek!)

There are also some optionals that I would definitely reccommend, the paris caberet, venetian night out (not much around the hotel), Sorrento flavours (most amazing dinner and restaurant ever), the greek Aegean cruise unless you would rather go shopping, you can also get to one of the island by ferry and spend the whole day there instead of island hopping.

6. What should I pack?

Not a lot! Clothes that are easy to wash as there isn't a lot of washing facilities around you will end up doing hand washing the most. As an example, we travelled in June/July and it was pretty warm in the southern areas, but a bit colder north, This is what we took or found useful.

1 warm polar fleece jumper and a pair of jeans and it was fine. Most of the time we wore shorts and t-shirts. 3/4 pants would also be good. 3 or 4 t shirts would be fine and 2 to 3 pairs of shorts or 3/4 pants.
A rain coat and and umbrella are necessary items. If its hot when you go to pompeii, take an umbrella! There is no shade there!
Take comfortable walking shoes and a pair of nice flats, don't worry to much about heels as you will be walking to much to wear them out.
2 nice outfits, casual but slightly dresser to wear to dinner, such as nice pants and a top.
Also bring and wear a watch. You day is dictated by being places on time or you will be left behind.

Something to do on the bus to like an ipod or an e-reader (I took my kindle, it was great). If you bring a neck pillow take a good quality comfortable one. Dont bother with cheap blow up ones.
Take a camera and several SD cards and back up your photos often! We had one couple that lost their camera and hadn't backed up anything, stupid! We took a netbook which was really hand for doing that.
You wont need a towel unless you plan to go swimming, the hotels have them.

7. What are the ages of the other people on the bus?

Generally the age range is 30-60, but mostly made up of retired couples. Mostly from Australia to!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Things I've learnt

I realize I have been a bit slack on the blogging front recently, probably because we are back home now and I have nothing interesting to write about. However I have talked to several people who are keen to travel and have asked for advice. So I thought I would write a blog on things I have learn't while traveling, specifically in Europe.

1. I hate Athens
I realize I have ranted about this before, but seriously, if I was going back to Greece, or going to Greece the first time, I would spend only 1 day in Athens. Plenty of time to see the Parthenon and get out. There is very little to see and do in Athens and its a very dirty city. You can catch a ferry from Athens to most of the other islands. You will enjoy Greece more by traveling round the islands rather than staying on the mainland. Also I think the lack of english or even non greek signs lead to my hate of the area.

2. You don't need to speak the local language.
With international travel these days being so easy, you will find most Western European people will speak some English. However don't be a rude prat and learn to at least say hello, thank you, good bye and yes and no in the local language. Its not that hard and it really goes a long way.

3. Avoid people with maps
A common pickpocket scam is people posing as tourists with maps asking if you speak english. The map is there to hide what their hands are doing. They could be genuine tourists but don't risk it and play dumb if they ask if you speak english. Also the same rules apply to people selling stuff on matt's and people trying to give you things for free. Avoid at all costs and say no. Remember you can be prosecuted for buying illegal goods if you buy from illegal street sellers.

4. Get lost
A lot of times you will find you will be wandering around a city with your nose stuck to a map. All very well if you are genuinely lost but if you know where you are forgo the map and take a wander rather than taking transport. Venice is a great place to do this. You will see a lot more things on the way than you would have if you take transport and often things you never expect you stumble upon.

5. Plan but don't over plan
A rough idea of what you want to do in an area is a good idea, it saves a lot of time wasting, especially if you don't have access to the internet when you are there. In big cities like London a lot of attractions are in the same area so planning to see things close to each other saves a lot of traveling time. A degree of flexibility is needed though, sometimes your feet will just give up and you wont be able to walk any more. 

Friday, 15 July 2011

To tour or not to tour

As many of you will be aware, and if you have been reading my blogs you certainly will be, that we did an organised tour of Europe rather than going it alone. This was not an easy decision to make by any means, so I thought I would pen a blog on organised tours. Are they a good thing or a bad thing?

First timers
If your a first time traveller to a foreign country then an organised tour would definitely be the way to go, especially if it is to non english speaking countries. A tour takes the stress out of travel and is a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time. Often when you are first going to a new place such as Europe you will only have a vague idea of what you want to see and do, the Eiffel tower in paris, the Colosseum in Rome. A lot of tours will only spend a couple of days in each city so you don't get a lot of time to explore but it gives you a taste of things, and will give you a better idea of what you would like to come back to see next time. Our tour director said at the beginning of the tour, write down the places that you booked the tour to see, often at the end of the tour you will find that those places were not the ones you enjoyed the most.

Free time
A particular grumble with organised tours a lot of people have, and are why a lot of people are so anti tours, is because of the lack of free time to explore. Like I mentioned before, most tours will only spend a couple of days at most in each city, and a lot of that time could be taken up by doing walking tours or optional activities. The key thing to remember with tours is that nothing is compulsory, you don't actually have to do the included tours. This still does not often give you a lot of time to explore, but a full day in most cities is enough to get a feel for it. There will certainly be times though that you wish you had more time and you feel like you are being herded like cattle from one tourist attraction to another and not given enough time to soak up the atmosphere of the area. Alternatively there will be times when you are glad you are leaving the next day.
Its comes down to choice though, do you want to see more places and do less, or see less places and do more?

Tour mates
There are many many tour companies out there and they cover just about every age and price range available. There are the younger booze cruises of Top Deck and Contiki, or the older wealthier retired persons jaunt of Trafalgar or Insight. Who you pick will depend on you budget and you personal choice of bus mates. Your tour mates can either be fantastic people who you get on well with or a bunch of whining old biddies or drunken teenage louts. What ever tour you choose to do, this will always be a risk you will have to take. The other risk you are taking is the length of the tour. If your stuck with horrid people for a month you might want to throw yourself out of the bus, on the other hand, the people can make your trip that much more enjoyable. A two week tour you are just starting to get to know the people you travel with, after a month and they are the people that you sing Tom Jones with on the bus back from dinner and free wine.
Being on a tour is certainly a less lonely experience than traveling by yourself or as a couple but it is always a gamble as to who you will be with.

The cost of doing a tour can seem excessive, but it really depends on who you choose.
For example a 4 week tour of Europe will cost you the following:
Cosmos: $4800
Globus: $6900
Contiki: $5300
Topdeck: $6750
Trafalgar: $7800
The cost will of course depend on the type of accommodation that the tour uses, the cheaper tours will tend to use 3-4 star accommodation outside the city centre, the more expensive will use 5 star accommodation in the city centre. When you look at the per day cost of a tour versus doing it yourself, you really cant compare. You will get decent accommodation for a lot less than if you did it yourself because these companies all have contracts with hotels they use regularly.

Experienced tour directors are a major advantage of organised tours, especially if your a first time traveller. They tell you what to look out for, how to ask for the toilets in the local language and explain how local customs work. Would you know if someone came up to you with a map and asked if you speak English that they are most likely to be a pickpocket? What about buying a handbag off a guy with a rug on the ground could get you arrested for buying fraudulent goods? If someone offers you a rose on the Spanish steps, say no, even if they say its free because they will soon be chasing you down the road for money.

At the end of the day to tour or not tour is still a hard question, personally, if its your first time travelling and you have a limited time and want to see a lot, you really cant go past organised tours. However if you have traveled before (and I'm not talking to Australia) , and know what you want to do, then tours probably aren't the best thing for you. However there are still some countries in the world such as Egypt where going with a tour group is still a good idea.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Blog updates

Well we are back home in Dunedin, I have received so many comments from people saying they have enjoyed reading my blog, so I wanted to say thank you. Also someone told me that they couldn't comment on it, I apologize for this as I realise I had member only comments turned on. This has now been changed to anyone so if you would like to comment on any past blogs you can do so now.
There is also a couple of new features to, as per a request there is now a print button at the bottom of each blog which allows you to print out the blogs if you so wish (I know there was a couple of people wanting to do that).
I have also changed one of the settings to allow people with mobile phones to read it more easily, this being mostly my husband...
So a few updates there, hope you have all enjoyed the blogs so far. Keep tuned in though as there is still more to come.
Happy reading!

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Tips for long distance flying

Having completed two 40 hour flights across the world, I thought I should do a blog dedicated to long distance flying. Here is a list of things to do on a long distance flight

1.     1. Bring young children and babies aboard and let them scream for the entire flight
Fellow travellers will delight in your children as much as you do, thinking them sweet as they scream away an entire 14 hour flight. This will also be a chance to highlight your stellar parenting skills as you ignore their screaming and continue to watch your movies.

2.      2. Recline your chair as far as you can
Reclining your chair back as far as it goes as soon as the seat belt light comes off is a great way to get intimate with the passenger behind you. They won’t mind in the slightest when they find you sitting in their lap and unable to see their inflight entertainment screen

3.      3. Scream during periods of turbulence
Turbulence is a normal part of any flight, but you can make it lots of fun for fellow travellers by screaming every time the plane hits a rough patch. It’s a great way to make everyone feel calm and secure that their plane isn’t going to fall out of the sky.

4.      4. Keep your overhead light on during lights out.
Overhead lights are a great thing to read by, especially when the rest of the plane is dark and everyone else is trying to sleep. It’s especially great for the person next to you being bathed in light while they are trying to nap.

5.    5.   Kick the back of your chair.
Instead of annoying the person in front of you, think of it as a relaxing back massage keeping them awake while they are trying to sleep.

Where's your troosers?

If I ever hear another bagpipe playing, especially when it is played badly by a bonnie wee lad of nine, it will be too soon. Bagpipes are the background track to Edinburgh, on every corner someone is playing, including a fawn, on slits… At first it’s quite nice, it feels very Scottish, after three days of it, Scotland the Brave becomes Scotland your grating on my ears


Edinburgh’s Royal Mile with its steep cobbled streets looks like it has come directly out of the middle ages, that is, if Starbucks was on the corner back then. As we decided we had had enough of walking tours, we decided to do the Edinburgh Dungeons instead. Experiencing history in a dark underground theme park with actors and plenty of scare tactics, was a much more enjoyable way to learn about Sawney Bean and his cannibal family and Burke and Hare the body snatchers.

No visit to Edinburgh is complete without a visit to the Castle that sits atop the hill overlooking the city. A beautiful old castle, it has had a long and bloody history. The Scottish, fiercely independent as they are, have not been particularly successful at trying to overtake the enemy, England, who have taken over the castle several times. The castle even comes complete with kilt wearing soldiers and Mary Queen of Scots. The city of Edinburgh is full of old buildings and fascinating places to see. Hollyrood palace, being one of them, was unfortunately closed because the Queen was having her annual garden party on Wednesday.

A tour of the highlands was also on our agenda. Pouring with rain, the highlands look rather much like you would expect. Very wet. Loch Ness sits by the village of Port Augusta. With no sight of the monster in the lake, it was all a bit dull. Glencoe was much more interesting, with its long bloody history and stunning scenery; it really was the Scottish Highlands we came to see.  

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Sex, Drugs and...bicycles?

Amsterdam, one of the few cities in the world where you can walk down the street and end up stoned without having to smoke a thing. In the main centre of town, the occasional waft greets your nose, but stroll through the red light district past the coffee houses and you very quickly feel the effects of the haze that comes through the door. Oddly enough, on many windows of these houses, 'No Alcohol' signs are present.

Wandering the narrow alleyways of the district you can't help notice the scantily clad women standing behind windows that lead to a small room. The girls are not allowed to be naked but they wear as little as possible. Probably more in fact than the bare breasted girls of the Paris cabaret shows. The girls behind the windows stand suggestively, trying to attract customers. Those obviously bored with standing, sit on stools, texting friends or reading a magazine.
No photos are permitted here, we are warned often, our tour director has seen a client try and had the girl stomp out of her boudoir, snatch the camera and promptly throws it into the canal. The client in question was lucky he didn't follow it.

Walking along the canal that borders the red light district, you start to wonder if the impenetrable air of cannabis smoke has affected your vision. The houses along the canal lean at odd angles, comical tall narrow buildings, thanks to an old tax law that taxed people based on the width of their house. The houses lean though, not as a results of being a bit high, but from boggy marsh land that has caused the piles to sink into the soil. The crooked houses rather reflect the culture in Amsterdam, a little bit left of centre and quirky.

Crossing the road here is akin to an extreme sport, or death defying act. One has to navigate through hordes of tourists, then the dual way cycle path and the thousands of Dutch that cycle everywhere. You have to then avoid the trams going past, then repeat on the other side. Dutch cyclists are an unusual breed, most of the bikes don't have gears or brakes (save cycling backwards) so they happily text or chat of their cellphones and hold an umbrella as they go.

As it rains 200 days of the year, this is apparently not an uncommon sight. No wet weather gear or helmets either, such ugly items would be unfashionable and rumple the hair. Looking at the sea of bicycles that adorn the main square, I do wonder though how they ever manage to their bike whilst high and distracted by naked women.