Our London layover

So many parentheticals in this entry (and tips on award travel).

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London.  

Last year, my BFF and I went to Athens.  When we originally discussed the trip, I asked to add Istanbul to the itinerary due to my interest in medieval Turkish culture.  While this ultimately didn’t happen (we ended up going to Rome for my BFF’s first international travel comfort), the original plan had a long layover in London on the return trip.  Luckily, B and I were able to get that long layover on the way to Ireland.  I have been to London a few times, and I absolutely love the city.  I feel like I haven’t explored it to my full satisfaction, but I knew this layover wouldn’t be about me, as much as what B wanted to do.

We booked our airfare with points that I had earned from one of AA Executive Elite’s rare 100k points if you spend 10k in 3 months.  I planned the approval of this card with the beginning of the semester that I did a three week Study Abroad with my MBA program (this was the trip that reignited my desire for travel!).  I put my entire tuition and Study Abroad fees on the card (around $8k) and paid it off the next month (these were planned expenses, and I don’t think I could have hit the minimum otherwise).  From there, the remaining $2k was easy to spend on my normal credit purchases.  Since you also receive at least one point per dollar spent on the card, hitting the minimum spend meant that I earned 110k miles.  This card didn’t have the annual fee waived, however, so with the annual fee and credit card fees for tuition, I spent about $300 for those miles.  Absolutely worth it, though, considering an international economy class flight is 60k miles.

If you have the credit for this offer (high 700s), and know you can reach the minimum spending, it’s a great way to earn free miles.  I canceled as the year was up, though, since the annual fee wasn’t worth the rest of the perks.  B and I both recently signed up for AA Platinum Select’s 50k miles offer (good with low 700s score) which had a $5k spend minimum in 3 months.  This is within our normal spend/pay off cycle, so we each earned another 55k miles (50k bonus and 5k for the dollar per mile spent), which puts me over the points needed for next year’s flight.  Be sure to practice good credit use, and pay off what you spend at the end of the month (or even before your billing cycle if you have low credit lines).  I get a lot of my info about the amazing credit offers from The Points Guy; he has a lot of information about how to make the most out of credit card perks and finding your comfort levels for playing the credit game.

So, all that being said, the flight I originally booked had us leaving directly after work on the Monday before Memorial Day, a 9.5 hr layover in London, and an overnight in Chicago on the way home the Tuesday after Memorial Day.  Not perfect, but workable and with the holiday only 6.5 days of paid time off.  We knew that we could do one attraction with that amount of time in London (once you factor in customs, travel to/from the city and security, you lose about 5 hours), so we left it open between the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.  Everyone B talked to said the one thing in London was the Tower, of course, and though I had been, I would love to go again with someone who had eyes for history.  If we weren’t feeling up to that amount of excursion for one attraction and a meal, we’d go to Windsor Castle, which is closer to Heathrow and I hadn’t been.

The tricky thing about international award travel is that you have to book about 6 months before your travel (this is true of regular travel to get the best prices, too).  The evening flight on our outbound trip was canceled about 12 weeks before our departure, causing us to have to leave earlier in the day (and add another .5 day to our paid time off).  B didn’t have the extra PTO, since his accrues each pay period, so I had to figure out a way to get a similar itinerary.  I did a few searches, and realized that if we changed flights, we could leave at noon on the Monday before the holiday and return the afternoon of the Tuesday following.  This would still be 6.5 days of PTO, and the layover in London would increase to 11 hours!  I called the AA rep and explained my problem and proposed solution.  It wasn’t within the bracket that I originally booked in (obvi, since we were only 12 weeks to departure there were no saver options), but the rep worked with us to get approval for the changes.  It took 3 weeks of waiting, but the proposed changes were approved.

The guard changing.

This also meant we had extra the time in London!  We were sure we had enough time for the Tower, now, and I did a bit of searching for something small we could also do.  We basically decided to do this agenda backwards.  I don’t even remember the reasons why, but we arrived in London about an hour late.  As always I didn’t get much sleep on the flight (just 45 mins here and there), but Heathrow was amazing to navigate (I had always flown into Gatwick) and we were on our way in no time.  I didn’t take the tour on my first visit to the Tower, and I’m glad we did this time.  The guide was surly and funny in the way only the British can be.  We got to see the guards change, although I’m sure this is more subdued than at Buckingham Palace.  B appreciated the conveyor belt with the crown jewels especially since he hated the stifling feel of greed in the room with the Hope Diamond in Washington, DC.  The reenactment was a nice bonus, and the armory was amazing, as before, and the ravens were more impressionable this time around.

Big Ben

There was a Wagamama next to the tower where we had dinner.  It was, sadly, not as good as I remember, but it’s been 9 years since I’ve been in London.  We got back on the tube to head to Big Ben.  B was a bit stunned upon seeing Big Ben for the first time (he didn’t picture it so large), but didn’t feel anything else marked the city as specifically foreign.  That was the point of choosing Ireland, and even England, as his first international destination – so he wouldn’t get too culture shocked.  The exact quote was something like, “Aside from Big Ben, and the double buses, this could be New Orleans.”  I say mission accomplished, and time for more “exotic” locals.  We were really feeling the jet lag by this time, and I began to have issues navigating.  Unfortunately, my phone decided that it didn’t want to connect to the data, despite having an international plan, and we couldn’t get out bearings.  So we decided to give up the last bit of the agenda (the walk through the park to Buckingham Palace) and just head back to the airport.

I was falling asleep on the tube back to Heathrow.  Even though we didn’t get to all of the items on the agenda, I think it helped reset my clock in only one day.  We had so much to do that I pushed myself to the limits of exhaustion, and I was able to get a bit of a nap of the late flight to Dublin.  By the time we got to our B&B it was midnight, and we both slept the sleep of the exhausted.  If you missed the rest of the trip, you can find it in three parts: Ancient East, Boyne Valley, and Dublin.

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