Sleeping In London At $400+ Per Night — For Free

On February 2, 2013, in England, Europe, London, United Kingdom, by Ralph Grizzle

This weekend, my head is hitting the pillow at the Hilton London Park Lane. It’s a nice, centrally located hotel where rooms go for more than $400 per night. How do I afford such rates for the nearly two weeks that I am in London? Points. A few years ago I sold my home in […]

London, Notting Hill

Charlie (Chaplin) was just part of the show on Portobello Road yesterday in Notting Hill. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

This weekend, my head is hitting the pillow at the Hilton London Park Lane. It’s a nice, centrally located hotel where rooms go for more than $400 per night. How do I afford such rates for the nearly two weeks that I am in London? Points.

A few years ago I sold my home in Asheville, North Carolina, banked the proceeds, and began living at the local Hilton Biltmore Park. Typically, I was “home” for only one week a month, and with a negotiated corporate rate, my monthly outlay was less than my mortgage and expenses had been.

The icing on the cake was the rapid accumulation of points. I wasn’t exactly the George Clooney inspired character in “Up In The Air,” pursuing points ruthlessly, but by simply living in a hotel rather than elsewhere, I was earning a currency that I have been using for the past few years to pay for pricey hotels in Europe.

Most people who hear my story want to know if I miss having a home, and they also want to know where I keep my stuff. I do miss having a home, but on the flip side, I enjoy the freedom that comes with no mortgage or upkeep. I keep my “stuff” in a storage unit, and that works just fine for me. One thing I have learned is that I don’t need all that stuff that is in the storage unit.

So that is how your Avid Traveler lives.

Simply, I love travel and to experience new places. My nature seems to demand that I am in motion. True to that, yesterday, I laced up my running shoes and ran through Hyde Park to Notting Hill. It was a run that lifted the soul and vivified the joy of being alive. You can read about it and see photos on the Avid Cruiser blog, Running Through London: A Beautiful Day Through Hyde Park To Notting Hill.

Midway through my run, I stopped at a café for lunch on Portobello Road in Notting Hill. Noting my non-British accent, one of the owners asked me where I was from. He was stunned at my response, because he too had lived for a few years in Asheville. What part of Asheville did I live in? That was a little more difficult to answer. Home is where the heart is, as the saying goes, or in my case, “Home is where the Hilton is.”

 

Train vs. Plane To Stockholm: A No-Brainer For Me

On April 12, 2012, in Europe, Stockholm, Sweden, Train Travel, by Ralph Grizzle

Today, I am traveling by train from the south of Sweden, Helsingborg, to the capital, Stockholm. The journey, all tallied, takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes, which is comparable in duration to it would take me to get to one of two airports near home — Angelholm, about 40 minutes away, or Copenhagen, about […]

Sjinternet

Digitally addicted, first-class travelers can rejoice: Swedish rail offers internet onboard, free for first-class passengers and reasonably priced for 2nd-class.

Today, I am traveling by train from the south of Sweden, Helsingborg, to the capital, Stockholm.

The journey, all tallied, takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes, which is comparable in duration to it would take me to get to one of two airports near home — Angelholm, about 40 minutes away, or Copenhagen, about an hour away — undress for security and, of course, dispense of any liquids, collect my bags in Stockholm and transfer to the city center (20 minutes by Arlanda Express and up to 40 minutes by bus or taxi).

Plus, a first-class seat on SJ (the Swedish rail system) set me back only about US$100, about the same price as the flight. Second-class seats were going for US$90. What did I get for US$10 extra? Free internet for starters. I’m using it to post this story. I’m also in a larger seat and in a less-crowded car than those seated in second class. For first-class railroaders, there’s coffee, tea, water, apples, oranges and some other small snacks — free for the taking. And if I had been departing from Stockholm, I could have used the SJ Lounge.

NewImage

The X2000 bulleting through typical Swedish spring weather : )

I’m traveling on the X2000, capable of zipping along at up to 200 kilometers per hour. Check out schedules and prices for Swedish trains at sj.se. There is an English-version of the site, though, disappointingly, I’ve never been able to use my US credit cards to book travel at the site, which seems incapable of processing them.

 

Airline Baggage Delivery Service: Your Luggage Delivered To Your Destination For Only $9.95, Plus A $500 Spending Credit

On December 28, 2010, in Live from The Road, by Ralph Grizzle

Suppose when you were booking your flight, the airlines told you this: We have a special service that may interest you. When you arrive at the airport, skip the baggage claim and go directly to your destination. We’ll deliver your luggage to you within 24 hours. And we’ll also reimburse you up to $500 for […]

More Suitcases.jpg

Suppose when you were booking your flight, the airlines told you this:

We have a special service that may interest you. When you arrive at the airport, skip the baggage claim and go directly to your destination. We’ll deliver your luggage to you within 24 hours. And we’ll also reimburse you up to $500 for necessary items that you purchase until your luggage arrives. The cost of this service is only $9.95 per trip ($7.50 for residents of Florida and Washington).

Wouldn’t you use this service every time you flew? I would, and in fact, I do.

The service described is not a fictional one, but a real one, with a few caveats.

First, the service is offered by American Express, not the airlines. Second, there’s no guarantee that your baggage will arrive within 24 hours. It may never arrive (in that case, you get up to $1,000 per checked bag). To qualify for the $500 spending credit, however, your baggage need only be delayed three hours after your arrival at your destination.

My baggage has been delayed more than three hours twice in the past two months, and I’ve used the service both times.

In the first instance, the refund for a winter coat that I needed when I arrived in Europe without my luggage was credited to my American Express card within two weeks. My luggage was delivered the day after my arrival at my hotel, meaning that I traveled without the burden of having to carry my luggage aboard a bus that took me from Nice to Cannes, France. It was like having a delivery service.

I am experiencing the second instance now. My daughter is traveling with me. She’s also covered on my $9.95 per trip policy. My luggage was delivered a day after I arrived in Wurzburg, where I am departing on a river cruise today and where I spent a fun day shopping yesterday. My daughter’s luggage is another story.

It is likely that in a hotel room in Malaga, Spain, a disappointed Swede has opened the suitcase in his room to find it packed full of teenage girl’s clothing. I say this, because in Wurzburg, aboard AMAWATERWAYS’ Amabella, my daughter has opened the suitcase in her stateroom to find a Swedish man’s bathing suit, Dolce & Gabbana underwear and other men’s clothing.

Looks like it’s time to go shopping – again.

 

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Chaos At Kastrup, An Ordeal With SAS & Some Advice For Dealing With Delayed Flights, Lost Luggage & Other Frustrations Of Travel

On December 27, 2010, in Europe, by Ralph Grizzle

The Situation At the check-in counter at Copenhagen’s International Airport, an SAS agent informed us that we had missed our flight to Frankfurt and that we would need to rebook. In order to rebook, he added, we would need to go to a counter across the terminal.   Our response? No way! We had been […]

The Situation

At the check-in counter at Copenhagen’s International Airport, an SAS agent informed us that we had missed our flight to Frankfurt and that we would need to rebook. In order to rebook, he added, we would need to go to a counter across the terminal.

 

Our response? No way! We had been standing in line for two hours to get to the counter simply to hand our bags to the agent. They were already tagged. If we left our position without getting our boarding passes, we would miss our river cruise. Here’s how we fought and won.

What Went Wrong

When we arrived at Copenhagen’s International Airport two hours before our flight to Frankfurt, the terminal was jammed pack. An exceptionally long line of passengers snaked through the terminal.

 

As a frequent flyer to and from Kastrup, I knew something was wrong. Within a few minutes, I learned that the mechanism that moves the luggage from the counters to the airplanes was broken. The situation at Kastrup was chaos.

Even though we had checked in and tagged our luggage, we had to wait until we could hand the bags over to an agent, and with the luggage mechanism broken, handing the bags over took hours, instead of minutes. It took so long, in fact, that we missed our flight.

And so after enduring snowstorms that crippled air traffic in much of Northern Europe in the days prior, holiday travelers would once again miss their flights or be delayed getting to their destinations.

There must have been 1,000 or more people in the terminal all stuck in the same predicament. Making matters worse was that neither the airport authorities nor SAS communicated what was going on and how it would be handled.

How It Should Have Been Handled

Airport authorities should have taken charge to make announcements telling passengers what was going on and updating us frequently. Information not only would have provided some comfort but also would have allowed us to assess our situations and plan accordingly.

 

SAS also should have taken charge, telling passengers how the airline was dealing with the situation.

Maybe it’s because the Scandinavians are characteristically shy that neither the airport authorities nor SAS made any announcements, except for a recording that told passengers that the airport regretted the delay. An explanation would have been much more useful than an apology. We were left in a vacuum of uncertainty.

We also were left on our own to figure out what to do. Because I hold a Eurobonus Silver Card (the middle tier in SAS’s frequent-flyer program), we were allowed to use Business Class check-in. After standing in that line for an hour and not moving an inch, we moved to the Economy Class check-in, which was inching forward.

The clocked ticked. Would we make it? There was no way to know. Our 9:05 a.m. flight to Frankfurt was not even listed on the board, and it was only 8:30 a.m. Was our flight delayed? Cancelled? After muscling my way to a counter, I learned that the flight was delayed. Why didn’t SAS use its text messaging system to inform us and others of the delays that morning?

People clearly were frustrated by the lack of information. If I had possessed a megaphone, I would have stood on the counter and shouted: “Because neither SAS nor the airport authorities will take charge and tell you what’s going on, I will tell you what I know.” I would have explained the situation to the best of my knowledge and added: “Say goodbye to your luggage once you do get to check it in. Your bags will never make it to your destination with you, so plan accordingly.”

What You Can Do In Similar Situations

  • Take Charge. Because the authorities won’t take charge, it’s up to you to do so. Be pushy and demanding. I know it’s not ideal to be a nuisance, but, as the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Don’t be afraid to break line and go to the counter to ask about your flight, what’s going on and how it’s being handled. Of course, this would not be necessary if the airport authorities and airlines took it upon themselves to keep us informed using the various forms of technology available to them: public address systems, flight boards, text messages, emails, etc.
  • Be Persistent. As previously noted, when we finally got to the counter to check our bags, the agent told us we had missed our flight and would need to rebook. That presented a problem: If we left the line, we would surely miss our river cruise. We had stood in line two hours to get to this point. Rebooking and rechecking our luggage could mean an additional two or more hours. Before giving up, I went to another agent, who, remarkably, got us on a flight departing in 15 minutes. Don’t take no for an answer.
  • Pack An Overnight Bag. Don’t assume that your luggage won’t make it to your destination with you. Know that it won’t. With that knowledge, open your suitcase right there in the airport and shift over what you’ll need for the next couple of days. Arriving in Frankfurt to no bags, we were glad we packed clothes for a couple of days in our makeshift carry-on bags.

Shining Stars

Two of the SAS agents I spoke with during the ordeal said they were embarrassed by the situation at Kastrup. They certainly seemed sincere.

 

One of the agents, however, proceeded to shift blame and point fingers. In contrast, the other tried to help. In business, as in life, it’s often the response to a problem that ultimately defines the person or brand.

After being refused a new boarding pass from one agent, I went to another. He got us on the flight to make it in time for the river cruise departure. “Extra service,” he said, handing over the boarding tickets, indicating that he had gone above and beyond the call of duty.

As we ran to the gate for our flight for Frankfurt, I noticed a billboard, “Problems can be complicated,” it read. “Solutions shouldn’t be.” That’s a message that Kastrup and SAS, and in fact, all who serve travelers, should take to heart.

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I inhaled

On June 8, 2009, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, by Ralph Grizzle

Unlike our dear former president, I inhaled. And while I did so intentionally and without apology, I also did so, as I do many things in life, with some degree of discomfort. Please, stay with me a moment. I promise I am not stoned as I write these words. Obliged by journalistic duty to explore […]

Unlike our dear former president, I inhaled. And while I did so intentionally and without apology, I also did so, as I do many things in life, with some degree of discomfort. Please, stay with me a moment. I promise I am not stoned as I write these words.

Obliged by journalistic duty to explore one of the reasons that some travelers visit Amsterdam, I set out one afternoon in search of a coffee house. Not the type of establishment where you buy coffee (wink, wink), but the type where you can “Bogart” a joint. Chalk it up to curiosity.

My quest, however, was not without a couple of false starts. The barista at the first coffee shop I walked into gave me a puzzled look, when I cowered up to the counter and asked for marijuana.

I half expected a SWAT team to descend on me after I had intoned the words. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “This is not the kind of coffee shop you’re looking for.” I gathered my composure and said brightly, “Then, I’ll just have a cappuccino.” I was somewhat relieved of the worry of guns pointed on me while I was handcuffed and hauled away.

Caffeinated, not stoned, I continued my quest, and I was soon to be rewarded. Not far from Amsterdam’s red light district was my Shangri-La. I knew well that the leaf emblazoned on the window was not basil or cilantro or parsley. That leaf, I recognized, was the holy grail of my quest.

Crossing the threshold of the establishment sheepishly, I walked up to the counter and eyed the clerk behind the counter with a conspiratorial look. “Marijuana,” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “What type of seed would you like?” Eureka! “Whatever you recommend,” I said, with a bring-it-on look. He reached under the counter and returned with, well, seeds.

“How do you smoke it,” I asked, dazed and confused. “Well, you have to grow it first,” he replied, explaining that I had stumbled into a seed shop. He had no license for consumption on premises.

Happily, he informed me that I could go to the Bulldog Cafe for what I was seeking. And boy was he right. The moment I opened the door to the Bulldog, I knew I had hit the jackpot. The air was thick with smoke, and everyone appeared carefree and happy. For a moment, I thought I saw Jimmy Hendrix through the purple haze.

At the counter, I was presented a menu. There were two columns of weed, categorized, as the clerk explained, from mild to heavy. Seeing all this intimidated me a bit, and then something happened. I am not sure if it was the vision of the SWAT team, my Southern Baptist upbringing, or Jimmy Hendrix in the corner, but I lost my courage. “Thank you,” I replied. “Just looking.” And I turned on my heel to leave.

It took an eternity to reach the front door. The smoke was so thick that I could have cut it with a knife. The aroma was pleasant, and I began to enjoy it as I continued the long, long walk to the front door.

People were smiling at me. I smiled back. I thought I heard Hendrix ask if he might be excused to kiss the sky.

I finally reached the front door, but before exiting, I turned to take in the happy scene of people legally toking. And then I did something that I had wanted to do from the beginning. I took a long and deep breath. I inhaled.

 

Two Perfect Days: Finding Sanctuary In The Romantic South

On May 31, 2009, in Family Travel, Kiawah, North America, South Carolina, United States, by Ralph Grizzle

I fell in love in Kiawah — twice. The first object of my affection was the island itself. To experience the euphoria I felt, you need only imagine yourself behind the wheel. You have just turned off the main highway and are traveling through South Carolina’s Low Country on a narrow ribbon of road framed […]

The Sanctuary

I fell in love in Kiawah — twice.

The first object of my affection was the island itself. To experience the euphoria I felt, you need only imagine yourself behind the wheel. You have just turned off the main highway and are traveling through South Carolina’s Low Country on a narrow ribbon of road framed by live oaks with spindly limbs draped in Spanish Moss.

The stately trees form a natural tunnel that eventually gives way to vast patches of Spartina grass set among picturesque marshes. Roll down your window, and you can smell the piquant odor of pluff mud, the rich, soft soil that produced some of North America’s best varieties of rice prior to the Civil War.

The romantic road continues to wend its way toward the blue Atlantic. Circle the roundabout, cross a bridge, and you have arrived on Kiawah, a barrier island 21 miles south of the romantic Old South city of Charleston that served as the magical backdrop for what turned out to be two perfect days in paradise.

Love At First Sight
While the name of this island may sound Hawaiian, Kiawah takes its name, in fact, from Kiawah Indians whose chieftain led English colonists in 1670 to settle at what became Charleston. And while it would be a stretch to say that the Kiawah’s first inhabitants would still recognize their island, developers have been extremely kind, and Kiawah’s natural habitat, by and large, has been preserved over the centuries.

Kiawah enjoys sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean framed by oaks, palmetto trees, wild grasses and the dunes that are home to sea turtles and coastal wildlife. To imagine yourself in Kiawah, think of an African safari. Wildlife is so abundant, and so important to the island ecology, that Kiawah Island Golf Resort employs naturalists year-round. Here, you’ll see bobcat, alligators (numbering more than 600) and other animals. On one morning during my stay, I saw a buck, with a stately rack of antlers, on the beach. Kiawah never fails to surprise with its awe-inspiring beauty.

“Because Kiawah was developed with the ecology in mind, we’ve been able to have an island that can protect our wildlife and provide luxury accommodations for our guests,” says Elisabeth King, director of outdoor programs for Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

Hidden among the oaks and palmettos and bobcats and alligators are five championship golf courses, world-class tennis facilities, villas, privately owned homes and The Sanctuary, a 255-room luxury resort that looks as if it has been maintained since the antebellum days of the Old South.

Kiawah’s natural beauty serves as the magical backdrop to the enchantment of The Sanctuary. Some of that beauty, however, has been improvised to good effect. The approach road, for example, is lined with majestic live oaks, transplanted at a cost of $2 million.

The resort that comes into view is a modern version of a grand 19th century Southern seaside home. The effect is so convincing that it would hardly be surprising if Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler were to greet you as you pull up your car under the covered reception area.

Inside, the grand lobby is furnished with oriental carpets and antiques, but lobby’s best feature perhaps is the oversized windows that look across an immaculately maintained lawn, sloping downward slightly to provide sweeping views of the dunes and the ocean beyond. You can immediately picture yourself in one of the rocking chairs on the lobby terrace, sipping a tall, cool Mint Julep, contemplating nothing more than the ceaseless rhythm of the sea.

Yes, it was love at first sight.

Earlier, I said that I had fallen in love twice on Kiawah. The second object of my affection was a blue-eyed blonde. She stood there in the lobby of The Sanctuary, a statuesque beauty, poised and confident when our eyes met. She smiled at me, and I smiled back. I know her affection for me will endure long after the few days we spent together at Kiawah. I know, because she is my 13-year-old daughter.

I fell in love with her and my 11-year-old son, as I do each time I get to spend time with them, partly because of the place. Though The Sanctuary provides every comfort you can think of, it is free of petty distractions.

One evening, the three of us enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Ocean Room, which offers luxurious oceanfront dining with a menu designed by nationally acclaimed Chef Kevin Ives. And though we were tempted by the desserts on the menu, we decided instead to walk to the nearby Market at Town Center to share a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

Three spoons dipping into a carton of Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream, while sitting in rockers overlooking the pond where we had seen an alligator earlier in the day, makes for an amazing bonding experience. The romance of a Southern night was at work too. The crickets chirped loudly, frogs croaked, and the sky appeared as if artists were painting pastels in broad strokes on a blue canvas. I thought to myself, “This is as good as it gets.”

I was wrong.

It Got Even Better
My son suggested that we go to beach to “wade into the waves” at night. The Sanctuary’s shoreline is broad, with a mixture of sand, from hard-packed, which is why you can bike along the 10-miles of coastline, to powdery. Renowned “Beachologist,” Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, has named Kiawah one of America’s Top 10 Beaches several times.

When the kids and I walked out onto the beach, we could see the first stars overhead. On the horizon, out in the Atlantic, were shrimp boats, with nets spread wide and lights cast upon the ocean.

Enveloped in darkness, with a gentle breeze blowing and the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, we walked and contemplated some of life’s most perplexing questions: “Dad,” my son began, “why do people move their arms when they walk?” I searched my mind for a plausible answer, “For balance, I suppose.” Satisfied, he continued, “Well, why does the right arm go forward when the left leg goes forward? Have you ever tried putting your right arm and your right leg forward at the same time?” He wanted his limbs to be in unison with one another, and so he began to walk the talk. We never laughed so hard as we laughed in Kiawah.

We stopped to look at sand castles, majestic palaces that had been washed away by high tide earlier in the day, and after an hour or so, we returned to our own castle.

The Sanctuary features some of the largest and most luxurious guest rooms in America, averaging more than 540 square feet each, and quite a few connect, which is a good thing for trips involving the extended family. The spacious balconies overlooking the ocean are particularly glorious at night or in the morning. I enjoyed sitting on the balcony with a cup of coffee to watch the sunrise.

The five-star, five-diamond Sanctuary rapidly established itself as one of the top-rated American resorts since opening in 2004. The resort’s facilities are all first rate, with a fitness center and a spa whose combined efforts will leave you feeling toned, scrubbed, rubbed and thoroughly pampered. In fact, the spa at The Sanctuary is one of only three in the United States to earn a five-star rating.

The Sanctuary has two oceanfront restaurants, plus other dining choices. Jasmine Porch is the more casual of the hotel’s two year-round restaurants, designed to look like an old-time stable.

With walls built from authentic Charleston brick, oak-plank floors and windows that overlook the ocean, Jasmine Porch creates a lovely setting for traditional Lowcountry cuisine composed of fresh native ingredients with a nod to seafood. Dine on the terrace and breathe in the ocean air while enjoying chef’s specialties.

Jasmine Porch features a grand buffet breakfast, which includes made-to-order omelets, hot breakfast specialties, fresh pastries, fruits, cereals and such Southern specialties as grits and gravy.

Time To Get Active
With a fully belly, the active-minded may enjoy bike riding on more than 30 miles of trails, kayaking or all the golf and tennis they can handle. As would be expected of any resort in the Carolinas, Kiawah offers several challenging golf courses, including one designed by Jack Nicklaus at Turtle Point that Golf Digest has rated among the top 10 courses in South Carolina.

Guests at The Sanctuary get priority tee times at Turtle Point and other Kiawah courses. These include the Ocean Course designed by golf architect Pete Dye. The Ocean Course features more seaside holes than any course in the northern hemisphere. Recognized as one of America’s premier golf destinations, Kiawah hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 2007 Senior PGA Championship and the upcoming 2012 PGA Championship.

And if you prefer to chase balls that bounce more, Tennis magazine rates Kiawah as one of the nation’s top tennis resorts, with its 28 hard-surface or Har-Tru clay courts.

To avoid any complaints about nothing to do in the evening, the Kiawah community and The Sanctuary go to great lengths to organize activities, with a special event on tap nearly every night. Live music performances take place on the lawn at The Sanctuary, and there are lots of family friendly activities at nearby Night Heron Park. We spent one evening with 100 or so others watching a comedic magician, while kids dipped into ice cream.

On The Water
On our last morning, we headed out to Mingo Point for kayaking. It is also here, on Monday nights, where the weekly oyster roast takes place. The Sanctuary provides free shuttle service to the oyster roast or to anything else we wanted to see or do on Kiawah, eliminating the navigating and parking hassles that cars create.

The shuttle drivers gladly carried us into the nearby Freshfields Village, which offers dining and shopping. Visitors can browse through local produce and crafts, linger over a meal at one of the lovely restaurants or visit shops featuring national brands. Beautifully landscaped, Freshfields also schedules daily events, ranging from live bands to festivals for kids.

An eco-sensitive resort community sprawling across 10,000 acres, Kiawah is characterized by magnolias, live oaks, pine forests, and many acres of marsh. Recognizing the fragile nature of beautiful Kiawah, The Sanctuary has taken steps to preserve the flora, fauna and wildlife there. The resort is certified by The Audobon Society for its efforts on behalf of the island’s birds, and the restaurants there have taken the initiative of emphasizing sustainable seafood on their menus. Many guests appreciate the effort, making a $2 per night contribution to The Nature Conservancy in the hopes that more natural paradises such as Kiawah can be spared excessive development.

There’s no better place to appreciate Kiawah’s natural beauty than from the water, and so we set out on open kayaks to explore the tidal marshes. The paddling was easy, even against the gentle current. We stopped to admire oyster beds and listen to the melodies of Marsh Wren, who made their nests in the Spartina grass.

Paddling down narrow inlets we often were at eye level with the pluff mud. Residents and longtime visitors joke that you know you’ve returned home when you can smell the pluff mud. No doubt, we were home.

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