How to beat the crowds at the Tower of London

Since its construction in 1097, the infamous Tower of London has served as a palace, fortress, prison, execution site, home of the Royal Mint and Royal Jewel House, and has even held a zoo. Because of all the history and the allure of seeing the Crown Jewels in person, it’s one of London’s most popular attractions, with over three million visitors a year. There can be long lines to buy tickets and overwhelming crowds once inside. The wait to see the Crown Jewels can stretch for hours, and you can’t make a reservation to skip the line.

So how do you beat the crowds while visiting this incredible sight ? I’ll tell you!

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The Tower is least crowded first thing in the morning on weekdays (unless it’s a school holiday – check the calendar before you go). My biggest tip is to arrive when it opens (9:00 Tuesday – Saturday, 10:00 Sunday – Monday) and go straight to the Crown Jewels. As I mentioned, the line for the Crown Jewels during peak times can be extremely long. The first time I visited the Tower, I didn’t time my visit correctly and ended up skipping the jewels because I didn’t want to wait in the horrendous line. On our most recent trip, my husband and I arrived at the Tower at 9:00 and were at the building housing the Crown Jewels by 9:15. We had the place to ourselves, and were able to gape at the magnificent gems for as long as we pleased.

After you’ve seen the Crown Jewels, take the first Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) tour of the day, offered at 10:00. Free, hilarious, informative, kid-friendly tours are given by the Yeoman Warders every 30 minutes. Tours leave from just inside the entrance gate, last one hour, and give a great overview of the grounds, it’s various functions throughout the centuries, and the Tower’s gorey history.

If you can’t get to the Tower by 10:00, try to time your visit so you arrive for one of the last Yeoman Warder tours of the day, at 15:00 (or 14:00 November – February). After the tour, you’ll have time to visit the White Tower and its armory museum and see the Crown Jewels before the Tower closes at 17:30 (16:30 November – February).

To save time in the long ticket-buying line, buy your tickets ahead of time. The best and easiest option is to buy your tickets from the Trader’s Gate gift shop, just down the steps from the Tower Hill Tube stop. While you can buy tickets online, you have to use the tickets within seven days of purchase. This is a great option if you’re staying in a hotel where you can print out your tickets. If you don’t have access to a printer in London, you can still purchase online, then pick up tickets from the Group Tickets line (though be aware that this can also be crowded).

I hope if you’re visiting the Tower of London, these crowd-beating tips come in handy!

 

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Best money-saving tips for visiting Europe

If you’re anything like me, you wish you could travel more than you do. There are a lot of reasons that keep me from traveling several times a year (like having a kid and a job), but one of the biggest reasons is financial constraints. If I ever win the lottery, a chunk of my money will go to responsible things (paying off our house, funding my retirement account, setting aside the hundreds of thousands of dollars it will cost to send my son to college in 2035), and the rest of my money will be spent on traveling (and adopting as many shelter dogs as possible).

While a vacation to Europe certainly can be expensive, it is absolutely possible to travel on a budget. My husband and I have done a two week trip to Iceland, London, and Paris (three pretty expensive cities) for under $6,200 total. As in, including airfare, hotels, transportation, food, attractions, everything, for both of us. We saw all the sights, ate great food, slept in nice hotels (my hosteling days are far behind me!), and didn’t feel like we were on a budget at all. A great trip doesn’t need to break the bank! Here are my best money-saving trips that won’t compromise your incredible vacation.

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Follow my money-saving tips to save those euros!
  • Travel during off season. If at all possible, avoid travel during the peak periods. “Off Season” can differ by destination, but in general this means the fall, winter, and early spring. Not only will traveling during the off season result in fewer crowds, but airfare and hotel costs will be substantially lower. Sure, you might have a little less sunshine, a little more rain, and fewer hours of daylight, but I think the trade-off is worth it, especially when visiting a big city where you’ll likely spend a lot of time in museums, where the weather outside doesn’t matter at all.
  • Fly during a weekday. Generally, flights are much cheaper if you avoid flying on the weekend. By shifting your plans just a little bit, you can save hundreds of dollars. We prefer to leave on a Thursday and return on a Friday. Even though returning on a Friday rather than a Sunday means cutting our vacation a few days short, we save money and have the rest of the weekend to unpack, do laundry, grocery shop, generally get the house in order, and adjust to the time change (it always hits me harder coming home than it does going) before having to go back to work (ugh).
  • Stay outside of the city core. Even though getting a hotel “in the mix” can be tempting, it’s always cheaper to stay a little bit outside a city’s tourist center, and in a city with great public transportation, it’s not really a compromise at all. For example, when we were in Munich for Oktoberfest, hotel rooms in the the city center were going for over $400 a night. Definitely above our budget! Instead, we found an Airbnb a 10-minute U-bahn ride away for the very reasonable price of $150 a night. When looking for a place to stay outside of the city center, I make sure it is near a public transportation line with direct connection to the tourist core (no transfers necessary) and has a variety of restaurants nearby so we don’t have to go too far for dinner after a long day of sightseeing.
  • Picnic. One of the biggest ways to save money in Europe without sacrificing anything is to eat picnic-style for the majority of your meals, and save restaurants for a few special occasions. Assembling a picnic is easy to do, and lets you experience life like a local. Grocery stores sell delicious ready-made dishes (complete with plastic utensils), or you can visit a market for a truly immersive event. Public wine consumption isn’t illegal or frowned upon like it is in the US. Grab some cheese, bread, olives, fruit, a bottle of wine (most stores will uncork it for you, or you can buy a cheap wine opener), and you have a feast fit for a king, on a pauper’s budget. Some of my favorite places to picnic include the Piazzale Michelango in Florence, Jardin du Palais Royal in Paris, and the San Nicolás viewpoint in Granada.
  • Balance stays in cities with stays in smaller cities. I think this is an important tip for any European vacation, even if you’re not incredibly concerned with the budget. A country is much more than it’s largest city (imagine if someone judged all of the United States by their visit to New York City!), and getting out of the big cities will let you get a truer sense of the country’s culture. It can also save you money. For example, the cost of a moderately priced hotel in Munich runs between €100 – 140 a night. But in Füssen, just a two-hour train ride from Munich and close to the famous “King’s Castles” of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, a moderately priced hotel ranges from just €80 – 100 a night. The cost of food is less expensive, too.
  • Look into sightseeing passes. Most cities have some form of a sightseeing pass that includes admission to multiple museums over a specified number of days for one fixed price. Usually, when you purchase the pass, you’ll also be able to skip the lines, which will save you time in addition to money. However, it’s important to do your research before purchasing a pass. In some cities, like Paris, Rome, and Berlin, the pass is a great value and can be an integral part of having a great trip. But in other cities, notably London and Prague, the sightseeing pass doesn’t provide real value to any but the most ambitious and busy travelers. Look up the cost of the pass and compare that to the cost of each individual sight you plan on visiting to see whether the pass is a good deal for your trip.

Planning a vacation to Europe can seem daunting and overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to stay within a budget, so don’t hesitate to contact me if you want help! Do you have any other favorite money-saving tips? Tell me about them in the comments!

Top 10 Tips for making the most of your European vacation

Over the past 10 years, I’ve taken several European vacations, as well as planned trips for countless friends and family members. Through that experience, and reading more than my fair share of guidebooks, blog posts, and online trip reviews, I’ve compiled a list of my Top 10 tips for making the most of your European vacation. Check out the list below, and let me know your favorite tips in the comments section!

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Big Ben, London

 

  1. Do your research. I read guidebooks like they’re bestselling novels, so of course this is going to be my number one tip. But even if you’re not super weird like me an avid reader of guidebooks, there are tons of resources you can utilize. Check out blogs (some of my favorites are Helene In BetweenRick Steves, and Two Feet One World), visit the city’s tourism website, do some general Googling, or ask for recommendations from friends and family. At a minimum, you should know the major attractions for your destination and have a general plan for which ones you definitely want to visit. (Or, if the thought of sifting through guidebooks and websites makes you want to break out in hives, I can help! Contact me for more details.)
  2. Prioritize. If you’re visiting a major city like Rome, London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Madrid, realize that you likely won’t be able to see everything. My preference for when I travel is to visit one or two key sights a day, but no more. I want to still have time to vacation, after all! Pick a handful of attractions that you have to see (your A list), and fill in the rest of your time with second- and third-tier sights.
  3. Plan to return. Building off the tip above, plan every visit as if it’s one of many, rather than as if it’s your one and only. I totally understand the pressure to SEE ALL THE THINGS because who knows when or if you’ll be back. I’ve found, though, that this is a recipe for disaster. It leads to overscheduling, which leads to exhaustion, frustration, and a lack of quality experiences. I’m going back to London in May for my fourth one-week visit, and I’ll STILL be seeing new things. It’s ok not to do everything this trip! Give yourself a reason to return.

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    The Alhambra, Granada
  4. Don’t feel like you have to see something just because a guidebook/friend/the internet said so. Visiting Paris but not into royal palaces? Skip Versailles. In Berlin but old furniture isn’t your jam? Avoid the Pergamon Museum. This is your trip and with so many things to see or do, don’t waste your time on something that doesn’t make you happy. Give yourself permission to slow down and take a break if you need it.
  5. Buy tickets ahead of time for major attractions. This is especially important in big cities and absolutely crucial for blockbuster sights like the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, or Alhambra, or if you’re traveling with kids or older persons who have difficulty standing for long periods of time. Advance tickets usually lock you into a specific day or even a specific time, but the loss of flexibility is infinitely worth it when you bypass everyone standing miserably in the hours-long line, or the disappointment that comes with arriving at a highly-anticipated sight only to find out that tickets aren’t even available.
  6. Prepare to be uncomfortable. Whether it’s the stumbling over the language barrier, figuring out public transportation, navigating busy foreign markets, or encountering different cultural norms, at some point during your trip, you will be inevitably be outside of your comfort zone. This is completely normal and, I think, one of the most valuable parts of travel! Go into your trip with an open mind and a hefty dose of patience and be prepared to have your boundaries expanded.

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    Staufen beer cart from Oktoberfest. Munich, Germany.
  7. Plan to visit your must-see attractions at the beginning of your trip, but not on the first day. Union strikes, weather, unexpected restoration, or other factors may cause attractions to be closed suddenly and without warning. Although most strikes are planned and publicized well in advance, some are not and this could lead to major frustration. Visit your must-see sights early on so you can rearrange the rest of your itinerary if necessary, but don’t go on the very first day when you’ll assuredly be disoriented and jet-lagged.
  8. Learn a few key words before you go. This is not saying you need to be a linguistics wizard or fully fluent in the language before you travel. In general, most people you encounter in big cities (especially those in service industries) will be completely fluent in English or at least know enough so you can get by. But just knowing a few foreign phrases (“hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, “yes”, “no”, and “a glass of red wine”) will get you far. I’ve found that people are far more receptive and willing to help you when you can demonstrate that you’ve made an effort too. Guidebooks, Google translate, and the free app Duolinguo are my favorite resources for picking up a bit of the language before I travel.
  9. Immerse yourself in your destination before you go. This is another great tip if you’ll be visiting with kids, but I always find that reading a book or watching a movie set in my destination gets me even more excited for my upcoming trip. On Goodreads, you can easily search for your destination city to get book recommendations, and Googling for “movies set in _____” will yield you some great viewing recommendations. Recently, I’ve been reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and other Brontë books before we visit Haworth in West Yorkshire on our upcoming trip, and I’ve added Notting Hill, which was set in London, to my Netflix queue.
  10. Check the calendar for major holidays and festivals. One of the most famous holidays in Europe is Oktoberfest, held in Munich every fall, but other major events like religious holidays (Carnival, Easter, All Saint’s Day, Christmas, and Epiphany) or secular festivals (St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, Amsterdam Gay Pride in the Netherlands, or Paris Fashion Week in France) can bring increased crowds and higher hotel prices. If your dates are flexible, a few minutes of internet research before you book flights can save you hassles and headaches later.
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Riverboat tour in Bacharach, Germany

Now it’s your turn to tell me – what is your favorite European travel tip?