I have the perfect job! - planning tours which I also get to accompany should I feel the urge to head home to England. I'm not really sure which came first - the urge or the job, (or maybe the urge to have a job). But a job I enjoy? - what a luxury!

Now of course, nobody believes you when you say that planning a tour is a lot of work - why should they? Researching an itinerary is fun and you're always on vacation. Don't expect any sympathy as you describe the days when you arrived too late to catch the main event, wrestled with train schedules, sat for endless hours waiting for planes, dealt with surly hotel owners who have a special aversion to accommodating single travelers, and even the person in the neighboring airplane seat who confides that she was: "sent by God to go to London and help the Royal Family in their time of trouble" - well I suspect she may have been too late.....but I didn't get any sleep that night as she also was seeking advice on where to stay, what to see - and where to find a good hairdresser! Yes, I have the perfect job - I must have, people are always telling me what a great time I'm having.

"To travel hopefully is better than to arrive"? Let's hope not! In this first travel tips article I would like to offer some planning suggestions which should help to make for a successful trip to the British Isles.

sk yourself a few simple questions: What kind of traveler am I? Do I want to have all the comforts of home?- the same food, the same plumbing, the air conditioning, a bed just like I sleep in at home, ice with all my drinks etc. or am I seeking a new experience which may mean doing without some of those comforts? but recognising that the trade-off is worth it to me because Iíll be finding out what itís like to live in a different culture.

Maybe you can have it all! There is every kind of opportunity out there to travel the way that is right for you. First time visitors are offered many comprehensive tours of the British Isles, usually by bus. These tours do what is known in the trade as 'the milk run'. Fly to London, head north via Stratford upon Avon, York, Edinburgh, then over to Ireland, back into Wales, across to Bath, Stonehenge and return to London. If you want to "do" the British Isles in two weeks then they are a great way to see a lot in a short time. However.....

Bear in mind : You will be escorted with somewhere between 30 and 60 other tourists; you will spend an enormous number of hours on a bus. Your scheduled stops en route will show you the main tourist sights. You will have time for photo opportunities and to do some shopping.

These are not tours for the faint-hearted! You are up early each morning with your suitcase packed, ready for a full dayís traveling. Some companies do stay two nights at each place, most stay only one. You will be given a great deal of information and form an overall impression of the country - but it may all be a bit of a blur at the end from sheer overload! and it is unlikely that you will have much opportunity to meet or chat with British people. Unless you travel with a British tour company, you will have your fellow-countrymen and women as your traveling companions.

Going it alone.
If you are looking to organize a first time trip on your own, then you will probably have done a lot of research on the areas that most interest you. Regional guide books are published by the British Tourist Authority and you may want to consult a travel specialist. Friends may recommend places they have enjoyed.

If you are interested in Historic Homes and Gardens and areas of natural beauty owned by England's prestigious "National Trust" organization, it would pay you to join "The Royal Oak" in America (details from the BTA). Membership privileges include free entry to all properties owned by the National Trust and the annual fee is modest. By the time you have visited six properties your membership fee will have paid for itself.

Did you know that the National Trust also has properties to rent? We spent many great holidays in NT cottages way out in the countryside from where we explored the area in detail. We cooked our own meals, or ate at the local pub and of course always made sure that we were in the vicinity of a NT property in time for tea! (their tea room and restaurants serve wonderful, home-cooked food and are excellent value).

Driving Yourself
If you decide to drive yourself then car rental will be cheaper if you organize it in the States and pay for it before you leave in dollars. Stick shift cars are the norm in England, and you will have to pay extra for an automatic. When they say "small" car, they do mean small - most Americans I know would not be happy in anything less than a "medium sized family car" - even for 2 people, so if you are going to be traveling any long distances on small, twisty roads, a larger car may be more comfortable. It also uses more gas, which is currently priced at around $4.00 a gallon.

Driving on "the wrong side" does not cause that many problems - you only need to be extra careful when setting off first thing in the morning and you can always alert the local populace by sticking a "Help! Don't follow me - I'm a tourist" sign on the car).

Dealing with "Roundabouts"( traffic circles): The rule is that traffic ON the roundabout always has right of way. So, approach slowly and wait until you can filter safely onto the roundabout, first checking which exit you will want to take. Donít worry if you miss it, just go round again, and as they say "practice makes perfect"!

Pedestrian, or Zebra crossings are designed to allow pedestrians to cross the road safely. The crossings are wide black and white stripes painted alternately the width of the street. If you are driving you must stop for pedestrians who are on the crossing. In Britain people are able to step off the pavement (i.e. sidewalk) onto the Zebra crossing in the knowledge that cars etc. will stop for them. You should be aware of this when driving in towns and villages and be especially alert for children crossing the street. When you are a pedestrian you too can exercise this right, but donít leap out in front of fast oncoming traffic and expect a miracle to occur - motorists must have reasonable warning in order to be able to stop!

Distances? Don't be fooled by the mileage! Many first time visitors are too ambitious. If you look at a map of Britain, in terms of distance it would seem perfectly reasonable to drive from say Canterbury in the south east across to Penzance, Cornwall in the south west (some 354 miles) in one day. However, suggest this to any British person and they will look at you as if you are quite mad. You have to allow for delays, high traffic flow on popular routes, and not just in summer. Watch out for Bank Holidays - (several Mondays during the year when an extra day is added to a weekend and the British turn out in force to go to the coastal resorts or to special events). If you plan to use the M25 ring road around London to get you to your destination, be prepared for longer delays (itís known as the biggest car park in Europe). Monday mornings and Friday nights are particularly bad times, and everyone has a horror story to tell. It is not uncommon to see people sharing flasks of tea and sandwiches as they stand around waiting for the traffic to move - probably a good way to make new friends - "well, we met on the M25 between Junctions 5 & 6..." If you're looking for an excuse as to why you are late for an appointment almost anywhere in southern England, you need only say "I was on the M25..." - it will be enough.

Don't be put off, but it would be unrealistic to expect to achieve the sort of distances that can be traveled in a day in America. There are trains, and buses, but they may not take you exactly where you want to go. When you arrive you have to get your bearings, and of course most places (including stores) close at 5.30p.m. Did you check if the place you wanted to visit is open that day? (opening times are often scheduled round the availability of extremely knowledgeable, but voluntary local guides).

"Take it slow, Go with the flow"
Planning is time-consuming and things won't always go exactly as you expect, but maybe they'll be even better because of a wrong turning, or a missed train. I saw a sign once that said "if you're going to laugh about this later, why not do it now?" Seems like good advice.

Coming Next Month - Other Options
If you don't like the idea of being part of a large group, but don't want to either plan all the details or do the driving yourself, I'll have some suggestions for you in my next article.

Comments or group travel questions can be directed to Sylvia at the English Experience.

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