Reason for the Trip
It was a semi-spontaneous trip abroad. Actually, it had been in the back of my mind for a while, but not actually planned until about a month ahead when the planets seemed to be aligning favorably. I went primarily to attend my daughter’s graduation ceremony at which she would receive her Master of Science in Urban Design degree from the Edinburgh College of Art, conferred by the University of Edinburgh. Because the graduation was on the day after Thanksgiving (NOT a holiday in the UK), I was able to squeeze in a nine-day vacation by taking only four days off from work. I also knew that it would be “low season” in Edinburgh and I might be able to catch a low airfare and a reasonably priced holiday flat rental.
The reason why it was last-minute? Because my husband and I had just been to Scotland in August and our daughter was home in October and planning to come home for Christmas. So it was frivolous for me to head back across the pond in November. But I wanted to see her get her degree in the ornate semi-circular McEwan Hall with its two levels of balconies, enormous pipe organ, and all the top brass of the university in Harry Potter-esque flowing robes with colorful trim and hoods. I also love an excuse to be in Edinburgh, one of the best cities in the world.
Planning for the Trip
Following the steps in my recent How to be Your Own Travel Agent article, I began by researching air fares. This took several days of scanning websites and I enlisted my daughter (expert at the “bargain fare” websites) to help. If I had been willing to fly from Baltimore to Scotland with layovers in Denver, Stockholm, and Ankhara, I could have gotten a fabulous bargain fare. The best we found that was actually feasible was to fly from Philadelphia to Manchester, England on US Air for $566 all fees included. I would catch a ride up to PHL (about 90 miles from home) and take the train from Manchester to Edinburgh, which was only about 37 GBPs (fifty-ish dollars) each way.
I had originally hoped to stay with my daughter in her flat (ultra-economical lodging, or put differently, housing we were already paying for!). However, she was going to be in transition between flats and it became clear that I would need my own place. Once again, she looked for student-style bargain housing for me on the “Gumtree” website (kind of a UK Craigslist) while I looked at the more conventional holiday flat rentals on line. I found a “last minute deal” (actually a “late renter discount”) for a flat on Chapel Wynd, just below Edinburgh Castle in the Grassmarket area. Given the fabulous location, 360 GBPs (about $500) for 8 nights seemed worth it. We were even able to save by not paying the credit card surcharge-my daughter had the cost debited from her Royal Bank of Scotland account. (This is a common way of paying for things in Scotland.)
And the third part of the planning was activities. We lined up tickets for a concert at Usher Hall with Scottish Marine Band and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society (chorus). We also booked tickets at Traverse Theatre for the Scottish Dance Theatre performance. And we booked our seats at the cinema to see the Harry Potter film just released. That, plus the graduation ceremony and post-graduation lunch with friends, was just about enough pre-planned activity.
What Worked, What Did not Work, and What I Learned
The part about “catching a ride” to Philadelphia was problematic.
My husband drove me and it was an endless rush hour traffic jam. And on the return trip I booked a flight from PHL to BWI for $127, just to save him another difficult driving trip in post-Thanksgiving traffic.
Flying from Philadelphia to Manchester worked fine, except for delays at the Manchester Airport.
US Airways did a superb job gathering us into the plane and transporting us swiftly and safely to Manchester. Our flight was early until the Manchester air traffic controllers put us into a holding pattern around the airport due to traffic congestion. Then, once we finally landed, our plane sat on the tarmac, far from the airport, waiting to be allowed to taxi into the airport. Again, there was an airplane traffic jam. Instead of being early, we were a good 45 minutes late due to plane congestion at the airport.
Running to catch the train from Manchester to Edinburgh was stupid.
I literally jogged through the airport to the train station (with my luggage dragging along behind me) because my late flight made the connection almost impossible. Once I caught sight of my train, still there, at 10:01 (scheduled to leave at 10:00), my passion/desperation to make it onto the train caused me to trip and fall right there on the platform next to the train. I leapt up, dusted myself off, and kept moving right onto the train, with the conductor helping with my bags. I cleaned up my scraped knee and put a bandage on it and strangely thought how my fall actually helped me to make the train.
This was a stupid line of thought because I was actually a lot more injured than I realized. Over the next hours and days, my left knee, lower leg, and foot turned many shades of purple and swelled up like a balloon. Amazingly, this did not actually affect my ability to walk. So I carried on with the trip and ignored my leg to the extent possible.
Ten days later I am now home and my leg still looks terrible. I should not have run to make that train. I should have had the self-control to watch it pull away and then re-booked on a later train, even if it was not direct and would take a lot longer.
The flat in Chapel Wynd near Edinburgh Castle was delightful.
The location, ambience, space, layout, quiet, view of Edinburgh Castle were all great. We were a block from a Sainsbury’s grocery store. We were a block from my daughter’s new flat. (I helped her move her stuff while I was there.) We were within easy walking distance of all our planned activities. We only took bus or cab to the train station and on a mission to IKEA way out in the suburbs. The flat had TV, internet, laundry machine and all worked like a charm. Through a combination of good planning, good research, and good luck, this part of the trip was extremely successful.
Flying all the way to Scotland to see a child graduate from university is worth it.
The ceremony was majestic, preceded by an organ concert on a huge traditional pipe organ, and many of the male students (graduands) were in full highland dress-kilt, sporran, Scottish-style jacket, knee socks-the works. The cut of the academic robe reveals the outfit beneath more so than at U.S. graduations. Further, each graduand not only had his or her name and degree pronounced and received a diploma, but was also tapped on the head by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh with an ancient academic “bonnet”! Anyone who has read Harry Potter books will recognize this as the likely origin of the “sorting hat” at Hogwarts. This has to be what gave J.K. Rowling the idea. I was very, very glad to be there to see my daughter in her distinctive academic costume receiving her bonk on the head and to applaud for her.
The planned activities were all fun, logistically quite easy, and not expensive.
The dance program was very thought-provoking and enjoyable in an edgy, modern sort of way. The band and G & S concert was stirring, very traditional, and yet included some surprises, such as the theme from Hawaii Five-O and music from West Side Story. But the high point was Hail Britannia, no question about that. Seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One in Edinburgh (where J.K. Rowling commenced writing the series in a coffee shop) was a real treat. The graduation and post-graduation lunch were memorable.
As for spontaneous activities, we put together a Thanksgiving dinner and included an American friend; I went to volleyball practice with my daughter and met her coach; and we bought some essentials for her new flat at IKEA. The planned vs. spontaneous mix was just about perfect. And there was also time for just relaxing in the flat.
It is very cold and wet in Edinburgh in late November and one should be prepared for full out winter conditions. The days are also quite short.
I had been warned and therefore packed full winter gear-except boots. I inherited some boots from my daughter that proved to be just right to fill that gap (and also worked well with the swollen foot). The first three days of my visit it just poured with rain, but our theatre outings were unaffected. The day of the graduation was sunny but cold. And just before I left there was a big snow.
As it turned out, that big snow in Scotland slowed down the trains, making me miss my connection in Darlington, and extending my travel day by several hours. However, I later learned that all flights were cancelled out of Edinburgh airport for several days. This means that my strategy of taking the train to Manchester and flying from that city in Northern England was brilliant! Ah, hindsight.
The flights home were relatively uneventful, other than my suitcase disappearing from the carousel. A woman with an identical suitcase took it and was halfway home when the US Air baggage rep called her and pointed out her error.
All in all, it was a successful trip despite the bumps and bruises. But I am very glad to be home and not traveling again for a while.