My British friend, Sue, summed up my impending trip to London for the Summer Olympic Games best. “It’s like planning a wedding,” she told me. “You have so much time, and then it’s next bloody week!” I couldn’t agree more.
My trip to London has been more than two years in the making. It seemed like a fantasy that would never happen. But these days, each time I look at the calendar, I realize my dream is about to become reality. In a matter of days, I’ll walk off the plane and into a three-week immersion of all things London. I’ll re-teach myself how to navigate around London, get to know the charming town of Kent, maybe run into some athletes at Olympic Park, and spend two full weeks performing the duties of a London 2012 GamesMaker (the fancy work for volunteer). Oh, and there will be lots of sightseeing, memory making and hopefully, some new friends.
I’m excited beyond belief and nervous at the same time.
I never realized how much work went into planning a three-week European volunteer-vacation. Notwithstanding the year-plus application process to become a GamesMaker, there are a lot of details to sort out. Setting up automatic withdrawals to pay my bills, reading London travel books, creating a blogging calendar, planning an itinerary (with room for spontaneity!) – that was the easy stuff. What I’ve racked my brain over the last few weeks are things like, whether to get a disposable cell phone in London, learning ways to avoid having a heart attack when I open up my American cell phone bill next month, debating the best pre-paid debit card plan and packing for the great possibility of rain. Just like where I live in Florida, London is experiencing some torrential thunderstorms. Except in London, I think it’s a cold rain, not like here in Florida where an afternoon shower can feel like a sauna.
After hours of researching, here are some decisions I hope will make life a little easier for me during my trip, and I hope it saves you some time when you plan your next trip to London, too. (By the way, these aren’t endorsement, and I haven’t been asked to write about any of the companies.)
Pre-paid Debit Cards
This has been the biggest headache for me. When I purchased my plane ticket to London and got socked with a 3% international transaction fee from my bank, I decided there had to be a way to avoid all those excessive fees banks charge because they can. I also thought a pre-paid debit card would keep me on budget, and protect my primary banking accounts. For me, using a credit card isn’t an option (it’s complicated!), so I started my online search for a pre-paid debit card to use mostly for ATM withdrawals – one that won’t steal all my hard-earned money on international transaction fees, currency conversion fees, and the like. My top choice is a checking account with Charles Schwab which entitles me to a Visa debit card. For starters, it’s free. No monthly fees, ATM fees, no conversion fees and you get a free brokerage account to boot. The Schwab recommendation was backed up by multiple websites and blogs that I’ve found useful in my search, like the ones from Nomadic Matt, Clark Howard and travel guru Peter Greenberg. Signing up is easy and I did it all online. Allow yourself two to three weeks for the sign up process, though.
My second choice was a pre-paid American Express Card. Each ATM transaction you make with the card is $2, plus whatever additional fees you might encounter using an ATM machine in the UK. Although I’m not a fan of the extra fee, AmEx is known for exceptional customer service, and having the pre-paid card gives you access to their Global Travel Network. For that reason alone, I thought a minimum of $2 fee for each ATM withdrawal would be acceptable. But in the end, I couldn’t see paying a fee to take out my own money.
Bank of America charges just $1 for withdrawals when you use a Barclay’s Bank ATM. Not a bad option if you’re already a customer, and I briefly considered opening an account. Bank of America does not have pre-paid debit cards, though.
I investigated a pre-paid travel card called TravelEx, which you can purchase online or at locations around the U.S. Cards are available in different currencies, including British Sterling. This sounded like a great idea when I first heard of it, but after researching, the biggest complaint I read about was the poor currency rate you get using the card.
The last time I traveled to Europe a decade ago, traveler’s checks were still the tried and true way to go. Not anymore. Credit and debit cards dominate the market. If you’re really partial to them, consider getting a small amount – not more than $300.
I’m still a bit up in the air about this one. A Brit I met recently strongly suggested I rent or buy a disposable cell phone and then purchase some pre-paid minutes. His pick was Car Phone Warehouse, which has locations throughout London. This recommendation was backed up by the Frommer’s London Guide so I feel pretty good about it. Many of the cell phones I saw on the website cost less than $25 US, which seems pretty reasonable. My cell phone carrier also has some reasonable mobile and data plans which I plan to sign up for a few days before I leave. I’ve signed up for Skype too. In the end, I think I’ll use a combination of all three options.
I fancy myself a pretty savvy packer. I have packed 2 weeks worth of clothes in a 21-inch carry-on suitcase before, and I plan on doing it again for my London trip. London’s unpredictable weather is making packing a bit challenging. I have to plan for temperatures ranging from 50- degrees to 70-degrees Fahrenheit. And for rain (think Queen’s Jubilee rain!). On the plus side, it’s not like I can’t purchase a sweater or a pair of rain boots in London if needed. So, my suitcase will include: four pairs of pants – including a pair of jeans and the pants I’ll wear on the plane, three tee-shirts, two long-sleeve tee-shirts, two dressy tops (one long-sleeve, one short-sleeve), two sundresses, two pairs of shorts, a multi-purpose black dress, a cardigan sweater, some belts and three pairs of shoes (2 flats and a pair of 1 inch heels). Yes, it’s probably too much. Yes, I’ve done a test pack and it all fits, including my toiletries (although that’ll be the first to go if I can’t close my suitcase!), and I can lift it up and down stairs with relative ease.
So there you have it. I can’t wait to get started on my adventure.