Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Top 25 Daily Itineraries in London

This list was compiled by my friends, Kevin and Seda living in Turkey, who spent a month in London. I think it's a good list with lots of things that I would love to do in London too.

Top 25 Daily Itineraries in London

After spending a month in London with two young children, here is a compilation of our daily itineraries and our own “Best-of-London” list – in no particular order:
  1. Walk around Holland Park, Chelsea, and embassy row at Hyde Park
  2. Go to Princess Diana Memorial Childrens Park at Hyde (Kensington) Park for the kids to play and the Diana Memorial Fountain for the kids to walk around in the water with the adults. There’s also a smaller park playground on the south side of Hyde Park near the Knightsbridge tube stop
  3. Go to Kew Gardens, which has a Kids play area and a Tree top walk high above the ground
  4. Go to M&M World in Soho- very colorful and fun for kids to look around – and get some M&Ms
  5. See the Changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, walk by Westminster abbey, Big Ben and the houses of parliament
  6. Visit the Natural History museum and the Dinosaurs exhibit, visit the Creepy crawlies exhibit
  7. Visit Harrods to see the bottom floor – the food courts and then walk around Kensington and Chelsea
  8. Go to Tate Modern and see the exhibits (in our case – Miro). Then walk across the nearby Millennium Bridge towards St Paul’s cathedral
  9. Go to Hamley’s toy store near Oxford Circus/Soho has 7 floors of kid craziness
  10. Go to Notting Hill to walk down Portobella Road Market for all its shops and vendors
  11. Go by the London bridge, walk to Embankment from there via the Bankside
  12. Go to the Museum of London and check out the maps made by London residents (check out the London Loos map!)
  13. Go to the Borough Market near the London Bridge tube station for its large outdoor food market.
  14. Go to the O2 Arena – enjoyable place with outside music, free exhibitions, and restaurants inside.
  15. Go to Richmond Green, and walk along the river in Richmond
  16. Have an afternoon tea as part of the tradition – enjoy the cucumber and salmon sandwiches, scones, cookies, jam and cream and a pot of tea
  17. Visit Hampton Court palace on a Monday when they have free family activities (Kaya and Alara made Knight’s helmets) and go through the maze
  18. Visit Windsor castle and see the Changing of the guard, climb the tower, go through the Doll and state houses, and see Georges church
  19. Go to Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum, stroll in Kensington, walk through Hyde Park and to the Marble Arch and the Speakers corner
  20. Visit Richmond Park to see the Deer, view of London, Pembroke Lodge, King Henry’s Mound – view of St Paul’s Cathedral
  21. Ride the London Eye and take a short (two stop) boat ride along the river. Visit St Paul’s Cathedral and walk all the way up St Paul’s dome
  22. Go to Covent Garden to walk around and see the Market and street performers. Visit Trafalgar square to see the statutes.
  23. Go to Cambridge for an afternoon to see this Town of colleges and walk along the river there
  24. Go to Camden Town market for shopping and then walk along the Camden Lock and up the hill to see the magnificent views of London from Primrose Hill
  25. Pack a picnic and enjoy the vast parks, greenery and serene August beauty of London and find a list of pubs for where you will be and enjoy a pint in each of them

Monday, September 26, 2011

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

View Larger MapI went to Lake Abant in Turkey for a math and technology conference where I gave a presentation about math software and how to use it in teaching calculus. Abant is about 20 minutes from the city of Bolu, which was about a 2 hour drive from the capital Ankara.

I was also able to have dinner in Ankara where I reconnected with an old friend and met his family. I also spent an afternoon in Istanbul as a stopover on my way back home. (I am going to write more on my reflections on Turkey in a later post.) Besides the professional benefits of presenting a session at such an informative conference, the most meaningful and memorable thing for me outside the conference was walking into the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia). I have wanted to see this amazing structure since I was in high school art history class. This building which is now a museum is truly breathtaking. The Hagia Sofia is one of the oldest churches in the world and existed as such for about 1000 years before it was turned into a mosque. It's amazing to see it with both the Christian and Islamic images. I know it's naive to think this, but being there and seeing so many different people there of different faiths makes me wonder why all religions in general can't coexist. Seeing such a magnificent architectural wonder after wanting to for 20+ years was such a gratifying experience for me. I was practically giddy. She did not disappoint. I could've stayed there for hours marveling at all of the detail and artistry in that building. I have never been so enamored by a building/museum. I truly didn't want to leave, but I knew I had little time to see some other parts of the old city.

I have no idea how long I was there, but I left there to walk across the way to the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque). I knew that this was another building that is on everyone's "not-to-be-missed" list, but I really had no idea what to expect. It is a working mosque so tourists can only walk in certain areas. You must remove your shoes and place them in a plastic bag and bring them with you because you enter and exit through different doors. When I found the door to enter, I removed my shoes and walked in. I looked around and unexpectedly blurted out "Oh my god!" I was not prepared for the exquisit beauty and detail of the adornments. It is unbelievable because the place is gigantic. I do not consider myself a religious person...more spiritual if anything, but I have always been so intrigued by Islam and one can't help but feel the power and serenity of being there. I am also deeply moved by the Muslim call to prayer that can be heard throughout the city. I find it enchanting and haunting at the same time.

The pictures don't do it justice because there is just so much little detail throughout and there are hundreds of lines coming down from the ceiling holding the lights which obscures everything. It is still amazing. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to go see these two incredible wonders.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Travel Day Debacle

I was supposed to fly from LAX to Istanbul on Sunday morning at 6:14 am on United Airlines via JFK. Unfortunately, that did not happen. I checked in online and when I arrived at LAX , the United kiosk couldn't find my reservation and made me see an agent. I moved to a different line and waited for about 25 minutes before an agent helped me. By this time, I had 30 minutes to catch my flight. Well, they wouldn't let me check my bag at that point. I was pissed and the supervisor was arguing with me that I wasn't in line in time. Had it not been 5:45am, I think I would've been more combative. At that point I just wanted to get on the plane. That did not happen. They couldn't change my ticket because it was a Turkish Airlines ticket with United code-share. After waiting in another line for another 20 minutes, they said they couldn't help. So I called Turkish to change the flight. This took a very short time. I was then booked on a flight later that evening at 5:55 pm. So I went home because I wasn't going to stay there for another 12 hours.

At 3:00pm, I arrived at the intenational terminal to check-in and get my new flights. I soon ran into more problems. The Turkish Airlines people couldn't change my ticket from the original even though they had done it over the phone. I had to call the travel agent who booked my flights and they said that only Turkish could change my flights. I was getting the run around and I was on the phone and in line talking with supervisors for close to 2 hours. It was insane. After some work, I was finally assigned a seat and given boarding passes for that flight and the connecting one. When I got on the plane I realized that I was given a middle seat in the middle section of the plane, but at least it was a bulkhead seat with tons of legroom. But then a woman came on the plane with the same seat assignment. She asked one of the ground crew about it and he said that he could move me to an aisle some rows back. It was actually a much better seat, so I didn't mind. It was the last row in the section so there wasn't anyone behind me to grab or kick my seat.

Even though I had the awful experience at check-in, which wasn't entirely Turkish's fault (it was United's), Turkish is my new favorite airline. The 777-300ER was brand new and even the lavatory has motion sensors for the sink so you don't have to touch it. The food was really good and the entertainment system was awesome. The flight was a short 12 hours and 20 minutes and it was 5:00pm when I landed in Istanbul. It's so funny to me that European airports have a certain smell. I don't know what it is, but they all smell the same. I had to stand in line for a visa-on-arrival with the rest of the plane, but it went quickly. Then another queue to get through passport control. After that it was off to the domestic terminal which is connected to the international one by a covered walkway. Changing planes here was very easy.

Once I was through security in the domestic terminal, I waited by a Burger King for my flight to board. This time I was on a small 737-800. We were bussed from the terminal to the jet, which is fun because I got to walk up stairs to the plane. The flight to Ankara was 45 minutes and they served a full meal and drink service. It was crazy...that would never happen in the U.S. I had my turkey sandwich over the air of Turkey. I thought it was hilarious. I found Hertz at the airport and signed papers. I was given a Hyundai Getz, which is ironic because it Getz nothing. It's a piece of junk with a terrible radio. I had to navigate the Turkish highways and tollroads for 2.5 hours to get up in the mountains near the city of Bolu. The conference is at the Buyuk Abant Oteli, which I think means Big Abant Hotel. It's not that big but it's the only thing out here besides Lake Abant. The road to here from the highway is 2 lanes and is pitch black. It felt like I couldn't possibly be going the correct way. But sure enough after 22km and no sign of human or other life, I arrived at the hotel around midnight. I got my tiny room, showered, and passed out.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Booking hotels

With a seemingly infinite choice of possibilities of where to stay for your trip, choosing a place to stay can be quite overwhelming. I realize that not everyone is as OCD as I am about getting deals and booking the cheapest, but nicest hotel I can. Before you even think about booking, do some searching first. I always go to to look up reviews and see where the hotels are located. You can also see pictures that real travelers take of the rooms and grounds of the hotel. This is one of my absolute favorite websites (not just because I contribute reviews to it) and sometimes I read through reviews in my spare time, especially if I hear of a really nice hotel that I could never afford, it's still fun to see pictures and dream. They also rank their hotels according to reviews, so it's very reliable. You can also search using a lot of different filters.

So once you locate your hotel, use a site like to search your dates because that site will show you the prices that various sites have. Here is a search I did for the Royal Hawaiian for a date at the end of this month.

  • Hotel Chains: If you have chosen a hotel chain for your loyalty, then your hotel searches are already narrowed for you. Each hotel family's website (i.e. Hilton, Starwood, Hyatt, etc.) has the ability to search for all of the hotel brands within the chain. So it's up to you where you would want to stay and what your budget level is. Many of the hotel chains has brands that range from budget, to long-stay hotels, to luxury brands. Also, other websites such as and have the ability to search a hotel by brand or by name. Remember to sign up for deals from the hotel family website if you don't have an account with them already.
  • Other hotels: Just do a search on one of the travel sites and you can usually find deals, especially if you aren't picky. Even if the hotel you want to stay at isn't part of a chain, do a google search for the actual hotel's website because more often than not, it will have a "specials" page or have advanced purchase rates that aren't offered on sites like expedia and others. And many of those sites will have an email list, so sign up for it and they may email you a promo that coincides with your travel dates.
  • Pre-paid rates: Be careful when you book these because they aren't changeable. They are often a very good deal, but unless you absolutely know you will travel on those dates I would be careful. I never book pre-paid rates until the very latest I can. Here's an example, Hilton usually offers advanced purchase rates at up to 40% off the regular rate, but it has to be done at least 2 weeks in advance. I will wait until the very last day to book a pre-paid just in case my plans change. Also, sometimes I've been able to find rates that are slightly higher than the advanced purchase rate but are completely changeable or cancelable. I'd rather pay $10 extra to know that I have flexibility. 
  • Check rates periodically even after you book: Hotel rates do change, so if you book a hotel rate, it doesn't mean that the price won't go down. I would check once a week or so to make sure the rate hasn't changed. In the event the rate goes down, you'll be happy that you didn't book an advanced purchase non-refundable rate.
  • Check the "all in" rate: This refers to the total price you'll pay per night (i.e. the actual rate). So just because you find a $99/night rate, doesn't mean that's what you actually pay. Go through the booking pages even if you aren't going to book right then just so you can see what the price is with tax. Also, if you plan to go to Las Vegas, know that almost every hotel charges a "resort fee" which is a bogus way for the hotel to charge you an extra $5 to $25 per night. Check out this site for which Las Vegas hotels have the dreaded resort fee.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Planning your flights

Planning your flights is one of the most complex things to do in planning your travels. If you are lucky enough that cost is not an issue, then there is probably no need to read any further. However, if you are like me and are out to find that deal, then keep reading. From the August 21st post, I mentioned some things that help in finding good prices for airfare. Now "good" is a relative term because it really depends on where you are flying to and how convenient you want things to be. Travel between certain cities where there is little to no competition can have ridiculously high fares especially if you live in a hub city for an airline. It's not fair, but that is how the airlines make their money when they sell $200 roundtrips between the west coast and east coast on a regular basis. The time of year you are wanting to fly also affects the prices. Do some searching on the high and low seasons for vacation destinations.

Back to the August 21st post. I recommended that you sign up for airlines' email lists and facebook pages. Many of the airlines including United and American have weekly deals that are released on Tuesday (usually) and the fares are good for the next few weekends. Some of these can be really great deals. I've seen deals from LAX to HNL (Honolulu) for less than $300. Of course these are for last minute travel so it might not be so helpful. I also recommended that if you see airfare that you know is a deal/steal, then book it immediately. It could be a mistake by the website or airline or a genuine rock bottom sale. Who cares why it's so low, just book it. In order to avoid losing any fare that you see as acceptable, I would do some planning before you seriously start looking for airfare especially international travel. I think the best thing you can do is to make a chart or matrix or a list of several different possible travel dates. For every big vacation I ever plan I have many pieces of paper with airline codes, dates, and prices all over the place. I do this so that I can explore all my options and there will be lots of the them if you have a choice of airports to fly in/out of for instance in Southern California there is a choice of at least 5 different airports with lots of air service. Many cities across the US and the world have multiple airports for their city. Usually one will be the major international one and then others will be domestic, but not always. Lots of travelers have no idea about this. Just do a general google search for a city and an airport. Surprisingly wikipedia or wikitravel can be very helpful for this. The latter choice is  one that I use all the time.

For your initial searching, I would look at several different sites like: kayak, vayama, yapta, expedia, and orbitz. I rarely ever book from these sites but it's a place to start. Many of them will also let you set up "airfare watches" and it will look up prices on a route that you specify and watch to see if the price changes then email you. I rarely find good deals this way, but you never know. I really like right now because there lots of ways to search. There was an article on msnbc about kayak and that it will "hack" a price by finding one-way prices that result in a lower roundtrip total price. It may require two bookings, but if the savings is substantial, then it is worth it. I think that having all of your flights on one nice itinerary is a thing of the past especially now that everything is electronic. Once I find options that I like on some of the above searching sites, I go to the specific airline's site to see that I can find the same fares. Sometimes they are even better on the airline's own website. On a few occasions I have booked flights on expedia because the fares weren't available on the airline's website or they were able to put together itineraries that included different legs on different airlines that aren't alliance partners. Another good thing that many people like about sites like expedia is that you can add hotel rooms to your flights and usually save money. I don't like to do this because by booking hotels through sites other than their own company's website, you won't get points/credit for your stay. If that's not a concern for you, then by all means book your hotel along with airfare.

One of the tricks in finding good airfare is looking for open-jaw itineraries. For example you fly SNA (Orange County) to EWR (Newark) and return JFK (New York) back to SNA (Orange County). Another open-jaw itinerary could be SNA (Orange County) to CMH (Columbus) but return to ONT (Ontario, CA).