Saturday, February 18, 2023

Visiting the British Isles

This year, we decided to travel to the British Isles, an area made up of the Great Britain, Ireland, and a few outlying islands. This was largely due to the recent formation of Play Airlines and the resulting cheap airfares. For those familiar with our previous experience with WOW airlines, they’re basically identical, except Play’s planes are red (as are the flight attendants’ outfits). Super cheap, no frills, budget airline, with stopovers in Iceland. Joe had a few reservations when he saw that the only support they offered was through social media and there was no phone number to call if you had an issue. I told him not to worry about it, as there wasn’t likely to be a problem serious where we would need to speak with support (foreshadowing).

This would be our largest group trip, with eleven of us total (all friends from GAP at Northstar Church), two of which would be joining partway through the week. It’s difficult to keep track of that many individuals, so, with some help, I developed a few groupings. I had the toddlers (Keren, Abbie, and Livi), happy to go wherever and to do whatever; the intellectuals (Sam, John, and Adam), here for the experience, but also cultural immersion and exchange of ideas; the troublemakers (Joe, Tanner, and Theo), the individuals most likely to cause an international incident; wife (Gabby); and myself.

This would also be our most logistically involved trip, with a plan to travel through or see six separate countries, necessitating three independently booked roundtrip flights, six passes through airport security, three different lodging locations, and numerous bus and train rides. I tried to encourage everyone to, “pack light, travel fast.” The airlines we were flying allow only one personal item (like a small backpack) for free and sticking to that limit made us much more quick and nimble checking in for our flights, getting through security, and using public transportation.

The good news is, this trip was made more manageable by the travel trifecta: currency, smartphones, and language. If these three items are easily manageable in any particular location we’re traveling to, it makes the logistics massively easier. If any two work, not having the third is manageable, but, in my experience, if at any time you lose access to two out of the three, you start to get into trouble.

For currency, the British Isles are made easier by the fact that almost everywhere takes contactless credit card payments (although Discover and Amex support can be lacking). Even the buskers on the street took contactless tips. In fact, contactless seemed to be so broadly accepted that, in some places, swipe, or even chip, payments were no longer accepted. Having contactless payment methods also made the London Underground (or Tube) uncommonly simple, as there is no longer a need for a Tube specific “Oyster Card.” Instead, your contactless credit card, phone, Apple Watch, or other compatible device serves as your card which you use to tap in and out at each station.

For smartphone connectivity, I was able to get an eSIM from Vodafone Ireland online before we arrived in the UK. This SIM allowed 10 GB of data and unlimited talk and text with a local Irish phone number. The benefit of purchasing a plan from Vodafone Ireland was that they are required to roam throughout the EU, and, due to agreements in place with the UK, would easily roam there as well. Best part? It was less than $25 for a 30 day pay as you go SIM plan, as compared to the upwards of $10/day that most US carriers charge for roaming mobile data overseas. Add to this the convenience of not having to acquire and swap in a physical SIM and this was definitely the way to go. Just having access to live digital maps made this trip, which, 15 or 20 years ago, would have been much more difficult logistically, actually feasible.

Lastly, language. Initially, I think we assumed that, since we spoke English, this part would be simple. But, as we discovered throughout the trip, the numerous accents and uniquely British English phrases made this piece of the trifecta more fun and interesting to sort out. You stand in a queue instead of a line. You park in the car park rather than the parking lot. You go to the toilet instead of the bathroom. You get takeaway instead of carryout. You look for “way out” signs instead of an exit. You might be referred to as mate, love, or lad. One Irish lady told us to go over the wee footbridge and take a wee walk down the wee path. And if someone tells you to expect them at “half eleven” you should be looking for their arrival at half an hour past eleven.

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