Category Archives: England

Heavy Snows Paralyze Travel in the U.K.

Santa’s sleigh might be the only aircraft capable of landing in Britain right now. London’s Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Standsted and City Airports were completely, or at least partially shut down over some of the weekend as heavy snow fell on an area not equipped to handle it. Flights were cancelled. Passengers are stranded. It’s not the happiest of all peak travel seasons.

Highways, bus service and even train service were impacted as well. On the Continent, airports in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands were among those with flight delays and cancellations. It will take days for everything to sort itself out — and there’s the potential flooding problem when it all melts.

London Hotels with Michelin Starred Dining

Guest post about London by an expert on London

The last time I was in London was three or four years ago, just crossing by bus the city between two railroad stations. Everybody who knows me knows that I love to travel and to eat well (simple and ethnic, or fancy and creative). I also am a big fan of public transportation. But in my own schitzy way, I’m happy to take public transportation to and from a  luxurious hotel. So when Paul Joseph, a London-based author and writer, offered to write a guest post for Travel Babel, I was delighted to accept. He is currently penning a nostalgic book called Vanishing London on his home city. He also works for a website called Tube Hotels, where you can find and book London hotels near theaters, tube stations and train stations. I leave his British spelling intact

London hotels with Michelin star restaurants

There’s something eminently civilised about strolling down from a hotel room and settling down for something to eat without even leaving the premises. But whilst most high-end hotels have on-site restaurants, only a select few go the extra mile and offer fine dining.

In recent years London has seen a steady proliferation of Michelin starred restaurants opening in the city’s hotels. And whilst it is true that the Michelin accreditation has become somewhat devalued, with stars seemingly handed out like confetti, it is still a pretty reliable barometer for the quality of food you can expect.

This will certainly be the case at The Dorchester, one of London’s most prestigious hotels, located in the exclusive Mayfair district. The hotel is home to Alain Ducasse (left) at The Dorchester which boasts an impressive three Michelin stars to its name. Indeed, it was only the second restaurant in London to receive this accolade. The restaurant offers contemporary French cuisine in a modern and elegant décor.

Out in chic west London is The Capital, whose restaurant is lagging behind the Dorchester with a mere 2 stars to its name. The Knightsbridge establishment is just a stone’s throw from the famous Harrods department store, meaning you could do some pathological damage to your credit card in just a few hours if so willing.

Another historical London hotel with a Michelin starred restaurant is the Connaught. Also located in Mayfair, this hotel offers a platform for esteemed French chef Hélène Darroze to flaunt her gastronomic talents. The restaurant – called Hélène Darroze at the Connaught (incidently, I do love these restaurant names that depicts the chef as some kind of headline act. More evidence that cooking has crossed the realm into show business) – has been bestowed with one Michelin star.

Finally there is The Bingham, located some way out of the city centre in Richmond-upon-Thames, but well worth the trip. Led by highly acclaimed chef Shay Cooper, the hotel’s restaurant also owns possesses one Michelin star.

And there you have it. So if you ever find yourself in London, with a healthy appetite and an even healthier bank balance, you know where to head.

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Click on the London hotel names for reservations links: The ConnaughtThe Capital, The Dorchester and the Bingham Hotel.

"Overrated" Travel Sites Still on My Bucket List

Graduate-degreed people dis world sites that I still want to see

I live in Boulder, Colorado, which has again been named the “smartest city in America” — most recently by The DailyBeast and previously by Forbes. I sometimes think that I am virtually only person in town over the age of 25 without a master’s degree — or more. Now a website called OnlineMasters has come up with the six most overrated historical sites in the world.

Click on the link above to read their reasons, but meanwhile, here’s the list:

1. Stonehenge
2. The Colosseum
3. The Alamo
4. Machu Picchu
5. Petra
6. Angkor

The only one I’ve ever seen is the Colsseum, and that was during a long-ago, post-college European tour that featured a lot of capitals, including Rome. I’ve seen other, smaller more remote stone circles in the British Isle but never Stonehenge. I would like to visit San Antonio, and if/when I do, I will certainly go to the Alamo.

Boulder’s token dolt that I am, without a master’s degree — online or otherwise — Machu Picchu, Petra and Angkor are still I my bucket list.

British Airways Cabin Crew Strike, Cont.

Airline withdraws flight benefits from stiking cabin crews

Some people take airline jobs because they can bid hours and try to schedule their work around the rest of their lives, but I’ll wager that most do so for the travel benefits. So it seems especially harsh that British Airways chose to punish cabin crews who went on strike to protect their working conditions and, I think, their very jobs. Click here for my earlier post and here for the Unite union’s website including a backgrounder that they refer to as “The Truth About the BA Dispute,” and BA’s online outreach message to passengers. The latter, of course, will go away from the website when the issue is resolved. The union is also issuing Twitter updates. The Guardian, the well-respected newspaper that used to be called the Manchester Guardian and is anchored in a historic manufacturing, mercantile and shipping city and is traditionally sympathetic to unions, is currently conducting a poll about whether pulling flight benefits was too harsh. When I clicked on it, more than one-third of the respondents believed that it is.

I am in North America, far from the strike action and perhaps in no position to judge, but the union points out that cabin crew members are the airline’s major point of contact between the company and the passengers, and from these thousands of miles, it seems that BA’s choice of punitive measures might, in the end, be counterproductive.

British Airways Cabin Crew Stages Three-Day Strike

If you’re flying British Airways in the next couple of days, be prepared for chaos, and even if you’re flying another carrier on BA-served routes or airport, it might not be much better.So far, the airline has reportedly canceled more than 1,000 flights out of the nearly 2,000 scheduled during the strike period that began earlier today. There is also a possibility of an additional four-day strike beginning on March 27. This might mean a protracted period of flight cancellations, delays and crowded terminals and aircraft that could extend to the busy pre-Easter travel time.

The union workers are striking against cost-cutting changes to working conditions that the union says result in a “second-tier workforce on poorer pay and conditions.” BA plans to keep “at least 60 percent of passengers flying,” with planes crewed by people who are not striking (whoever they might be) and also leasing, 22 crewed planes from as many as eight other European airlines.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the strike “a disaster,” and not to get too much into British  politics here, members of the Conservative party believe that the Labour prime minister himself is a disaster. Meanwhile, the phrase “second-tier workforce” might be code for contract workers rather than BA employees. This has already happened in the US. I have checked in for international flights at New York’s JFK at counters staffed by airline service contractors, and James Van Dellen, who blogs as Future Gringo, recently posted a report called “Airserv: Does My Shirt Say United?” on just how negatively contractors can impact on the travel experience. Bottom line, IMHO, is that every time airlines seek to cut costs, the passenger pays in one way or another, whether it’s via add-on fees or the quality of traveling.

QE2 Runs Aground in Home Waters

Ignominious incident mars fabled liner’s last call to home port

The ‘Queen Elizabeth 2’ ran aground just outside the Southhampton harbor. The 39-year-old Cunard flagship was nearing the end of her final voyage before heading for Dubai to become a floating luxury hotel when she hit the Brambles Sandbank around 5:30 GMT this morning. It is her home port, and the sandbank is familiar enough to seaman that it has a name. A combination of the rising tide and tugboat power pulled the ship free. Cunard spokesman Eric Flounders said that no passengers were injured and that the ship was not damaged.

The QE2 crossed the Atlantic more than 800 times and made a dozen round-the-world voyages. Between the QE2’s lengthy farewell and arrival of the ‘Queen Mary 2,’ Cunard’s new flagship, the hail-and-farewell about these Cunard liners and their ports of call seem to have gone on fore years. These last QE2 farewall ceremonies include yet another visit by HRH Prince Philip, fireworks and a military aircraft fly-by.

Mim Swartz, former travel editor of the Rocky Mountain News and then the Denver Post, and a great cruising enthusiast, boarded what she calls her “favorite ship” for the final leg of this farewell voyage. She wrote about the ship in Sunday’s Post Travel Section and will be blogging en route during the 16-day last leg of the farewell voyage.

FOR SALE: Airport (Convenient to London)

British Airports Authority to sell Gatwick

I had no idea that an airport authority could sell an airport until I read the headline, “BAA puts London Gatwick airport up for sale,” on a Reuters dispatch. “Some in the industry have said Gatwick, one of Europe’s busiest airports, serving 35 million passengers a year, could fetch 2 billion to 3 billion pounds ($3.57-$5.35 billion),” according to Reuters. Seems to me like a bargain, considering that Bank of America is paying $50 billion for failing Merrill Lynch and the US government is supporting a bailout of AIG to the tune of $85 million. That may be good business/investment moves — or they might be worth the provervial paper they’re printed on.

But Gatwick Airport, that’s a deal. Thirty-five million passengers travel through Gatwick (airport code, LGW) every year. Twenty charter and schuled airlines, including Delta, currently use its two terminals. The British Airports Authority is not selling Gatwick by choice, according to Reuters, which reported, “The sale is a response to Britain’s Competition Commission, which last month said in a provisional ruling that BAA must sell three of its seven UK airports, including two of London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted and one of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland.

“BAA said it disagreed with the Competition Commission’s analysis, and that it would try to keep all six of its remaining airports after the Gatwick sale, adding that a change of ownership at Stansted to the north of London could interfere with the airport’s expansion.”

Interested parties reportedly include Richard Branson’s Virgin Altlantic as part of a consortium of some sort, a German builder called Hochtief, Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport, Manchester Airports Group and Global Infrastructure Partners, a consortium that already operates London City Airport (LCY).

Big British Tour Operator Goes Belly-Up

Moral: Read the fine print and buy travel insurance before you travel

Percentagewise, British travelers are more likely to book their vacations (or holidays, in UK-speak) through tour operators than are American travelers. Still, it was quite a shock to travel interests on both sides of the Atlantic when XL Leisure Group, reportedly the Britain’s third-largest tour operator, became a casualty of high fuel prices and a looming recession in the UK.

The company canceled all of its flights and stranded what Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority estimated were between 85,000 and 90,000 travelers somewhere on the planet. Of these, some 50,000 travelers were abroad on trips booked through one XL’s tour companies, 10,000 had simply flown on XL Airways and 25,000 had booked though tour operators that used XL Airways flights. XL’s failure also threw into turmoil the plans of something on the order of 200,000 travelers who had booked upcoming trips.

XL Leisure’s operated under such names as Kosmar Holidays, Cruise City, Excel Holidays, The Florida Skytrain, Transatlantic Vacations, Travel City Direct, Travel City Direct, Freedom Flights, Aspire Holidays and medlifehotels.com — and XL Airlways. The company’s home page currently includes instructions on what stranded travelers with various of these companies should do now. Meanwhile, StraumurBurdaras Investment Bank of Iceland acquired XL’s French and German subsidiaries, which will continue to operate.

American travelers planning booking package tours — for value, convenience or both — might want to check the U.S. Tour Operators Association website for some general advice on the protections they should expect if they are traveling with a tour operator that fails. The website states, “From the association’s inception in 1972, chief among USTOA’s goals has been to help protect you, the consumer, against loss arising from bankruptcy, insolvency or cessation of business of an Active Member tour operator. To help provide travelers with a solid financial safety net that protects their vacation investment, the USTOA has always maintained a consumer protection program, in which every USTOA Active Member must participate.” The site details USTOA’s $1 Million Travelers Assistance Program.

And, in these unsure times for travelers, you might consider purchasing travel insurance.

Dollar Gains Strength

International travelers might benefit from stronger dollar

If you’re thinking about traveling to Europe or Great Britain this fall, and you can find an affordable air fare, you might want to jump on it. The dollar closed stronger against the 15-nation euro than any time in the last seven months (closing at $1.00 = .69€) and also rising against the British pound (closing at $1.00 = £.65). When my husband and I visited England earlier this year, the dollar-to-pound ratio was practically two to one. The current exchange rate doesn’t approach the strong dollar that American travelers benefited from several years ago, but it is more favorable to travelers than it was earlier this year. What goes up can go down again, so if you have the time and the budget to go overseas, this might be the time to do it.

International Travel is a Reality Check in the Name of Sanity

Despite past terrorist attacks, Europeans haven’t succumbed to continent-wide paranoia

The Rocky Mountain News’ Mark Brown returned from a two-week vacation overseas, where he appreciated being far removed from incessant, excessive, simplistic media coverage of politics starring “screaming talk-show hosts” and, more important from a traveler’s standpoint, observed the absence of the post-9/11 fear-mongering and paranoia that has engulfed domestic travel. Despite higher air fares, reduced flight schedules and the pathetic dollar, international travel provides a welcome blast of sanity. In his column titled “Believe it or not, there’s a land where cool heads prevail,” he wrote:

“No one seemed to be living in fear. We were allowed to take bottles of
liquids on trains on the continent that saw bloody train bombings in 2004,
killing 191 people. We rode London’s underground with unsearched backpacks and
suitcases less than three years after the July 2005 subway bombings that killed
52 people, the deadliest terrorist attack in London’s history.

“No one made me take off my shoes at the airport on the continent where shoe bomber Richard Reid boarded a plane in 2001 with the intent to blow it up. Had to
take them off over here, though.

“Daily life in London means sitting next to Arabic-looking people on the
subway a couple of times a day, carrying backpacks and other items. Nobody
blinks an eye. The biggest threat to the London Underground that particular week
was a World War II mortar that was found to still be live under a main track.
Commuters were simply rerouted for a few days as it was disarmed and
removed.

“Meanwhile, back here a doughnut advertisement was pulled because the
woman in the commercial was wearing a scarf with tassels. And a fist-bump by a
presidential candidate was characterized as a ‘terrorist fist jab.’

“As we seem to become more paralyzed with fear over here, life goes on over
there. It may be too late (and, let’s face it, naive) to go back to a notion
that our fellow man isn’t a threat but someone we need to cooperate and
communicate with for the good of all of us.”

Thank you, Mark Brown, for your words of sanity. I hope that people will continue to travel beyond our tightened borders and that at least, your column is taken to heart by some of those who continue to be wrapped in fear — but, I am “afraid” that they won’t be.