Thursday, September 19, 2013

Winter is most definitely here

You might have noticed that winter is most definitely arrived. The bed has been turned into a shrine to the God of duvets, blankets and hot water bottles, and we are extremely grateful for the semi-finished-but-still-functioning curtains, which are very noticeably and substantially aiding the insulation of the house.

Work has become super-super busy. 8.30am to 7.30pm or later. Add to that the client drinks and other networking events I am expected to attend, and my free time shrinks to almost zero. Hence why I'm so behind-hand on blogging - and on my emails, messages etc. Balance? The scales are totally to one side. I can be there for my work but not my boyfriend, for my family but not my friends... Does anyone have any magic beans that give you the ability to balance all the things you want to do with and for the people you love, the things that make you who you are and the things that can take you to who you want to become?

No? Well, at least I've got a pair of socks that are comfy and warm. Baby steps, yes? I might not feel in control of my life but at least I'm in control of what I wear under my shoes. (Erm. Yes. Very profound.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Nine tips for cheap(ish) city holidays

Back from ten days' holiday to beautiful, grey, rainy Belgium. We went to Sweden which you'd have thought would be quite expensive, but we found many ways to save money and have wonderful trip. So I thought I'd share our top tips for not blowing your holiday budget on day 1. (Mostly city-based).

1. Book in advance. Duh.

2. Stay in a hostel. Or, if your budget is more generous and you're staying for long enough, a self-catering place. I prefer staying in hostels to hotels for several reasons: free wifi and computers in pretty much every hostel; a kitchen for self-catering; and a chance to chat with the staff and get some tips on where to go, what to do. Most hostels have private double/twin rooms these days, although you usually still share a bathroom (but not always). Check out for reviews and prices. (Check the facilities - sometimes you pay extra to hire towels.)

3. Check travel costs from the airport. For travel from airport to city centre, check out public transport links - but don't always assume it's the cheapest rate. If you're a group, one taxi may be cheaper than four train tickets. Compare train and bus - Stockholm central to Arlanda by train is twice the price of the bus - but only four minutes faster.

4. Avoid eating out. A major advantage of staying in a hostel is access to communal kitchens. Most hostels I have stayed in have provided excellent and modern facilities, with cooking implements, and will often also provide basics like salt, or tea and coffee. Ask hostel staff about the local budget supermarket, and take yourself on down there to stock up. The local specialties, which are often only available in tourist trap restaurants, are also often cheapest in the supermarket. If your budget stretches to it, find a local bakery and treat yourself to fresh bread or the local flavour bun/pastry for breakfast. For lunch, prepare sandwiches to eat on the go, bring fruit, and fill up your own water bottles. For supper, revisit student days (or A Girl Called Jack's website) for quick and easy recipes. (Tip: check the kitchen implements first, so you don't find yourself without a tin opener.)

5. Start with a free walking tour. Most cities I have visited in the last four years or so have a free walking tour. (Another advantage of staying in a hostel is that tour guides often stop by the hostel before the tour starts to collect anyone who wants to join.) Free walking tours are exactly what they say - usually once a day during tourist season, and sometimes lasting up to three hours, local guides walk you around the city giving details of the city's history and current culture. You often see unusual parts of the city not covered by professional tours, you can ask for recommendations of places to go, you quickly get a sense of how the city fits together, and - of course - it's free. The tour guides are usually volunteers who are not paid, so at the end of the tour they will ask for tips. Essentially, you pay what you can or what you feel the tour was worth.

6. Look for free entry to exhibits/activities. In many cities, museums and art galleries will be free entry at some point. In the UK, national museums are always free but in many other European countries, museums will be free one day (or one evening) a week. Ask at the local tourist office - they might even have a map of all the museums with entry times and admission detailed on the back. Otherwise, take a little time with the free hostel internet to check them out. In Stockholm, we found no less than nine museums with free entry during our stay.

7. Explore on foot. One of my favourite things to do is just walk around the city, checking out side streets, browsing through antique shops and checking out the local parks. Holidays should be relaxing, and stopping in a beautiful park hidden off the beaten track, or finding a bench alongside a river or lake, is about as relaxing as it gets. We are avid readers and often bring books or just sit and soak up the atmosphere. Treat journeys between activities as opportunities to explore a new area of the city, and shun the local public transport system whenever possible. (Hint: bring comfortable shoes and a jumper for cool evenings.)

8. For souvenirs or gifts, shop at the flea market. Flea markets are AWESOME and you can find some really lovely things. Keep your camera in your bag - many stallholders do not like to be photographed - and keep an eye out for pickpocketing. Alternatively, bring back a sample of the local tipple from the supermarket. 

9. Seek out small, simple pleasures. One of the highlights of my holiday in Stockholm was sitting in the centre of the old town, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping hot chocolate as the light faded and the candles twinkled. Closely followed by a glass of mead served by barstaff dressed as Vikings in an underground bar, seated on wooden benches and animal pelts, by candlelight.


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