Now that we were seriously thinking about the trip, we made one brief visit to a AAA office to talk about an arranged tour. We left there with an extensive brochure for a tour company, and a couple of AAA maps of Great Britain (big enough for planning, but not detailed enough to be useful as driving maps). Taking a tour seemed really expensive, so I also began looking into the potential cost of doing it on our own (it’s the way we had always travelled in the States, after all). I tried to determine the actual cost of taking a guided tour vs. going it alone, which was difficult (because the guided tours covered many of the expenses, but not all). I eventually came up with a formula that let me compare the daily cost on a tour to the potential daily cost on our own. In practice it was wildly inaccurate. Ultimately we decided that (while it might be easier to take a tour and let them do everything for us) touring would limit us in a number of ways, primarily by locking us into their schedule and itinerary. We would only get the experience of driving past some things we wanted to see in depth, and the total cost would be greater.
My passport had expired, and Minay didn’t have one, and I had been hearing reports that the government was backed up with passport requests and was having difficulty getting them done in time. It was on my mind a lot, but Minay was feeling so cruddy that we kept putting it off. It was early February before we finally submitted the applications to the State Department. They were processed and arrived by early March, though, so everything worked out fine.
Once we had applied for our passports, I started pre-purchasing some items. First on the list was airfare, of course. Scheduling the time to go was relatively easy. I was retired by this time, and my wife, Minay, taught quilting at a local quilt shop and designed quilt patterns for a national company. She just notified the shop to not schedule her to teach during May. We arranged with Minay’s sister to drive to Houston from Austin a little more often than usual to check on their elderly parents, and to pick up the mail from our neighbors for us.
It was becoming clear that we wouldn’t be able to see more than a fraction of everything we wanted. Wales and Scotland were starting to look too far afield (although we did end up putting Scotland back in the picture later), and the idea of popping over to Paris for a day or two just wasn’t going to work, so we started to think more in the confines of England, and less about the whole UK. So, on February 15th, I charged two round-trip tickets on Continental Airlines, leaving Houston on May 5th, returning from London on May 27th. We were committed. Or maybe we should have been.
During another trip to a bookstore I picked up a book called 30 Great Drives in Great Britain, and a very nice motorist’s atlas published by the AA (no, not that AA, the Automobile Association – Great Britain’s version of the US’s AAA). I used both of those and the Rick Steves books, as well as a 2008 Let’s Go Britain book, over the next few weeks. They helped me get a better understanding of distances between locations, what to expect there, potential costs, etc.
The new game plan was to get from London’s Heathrow airport to Bath (somehow) and spend a few days there recovering and relaxing, using Bath as a base to head out into the countryside – maybe to see Stonehenge or some of the Cotswolds. We were concerned that we would arrive in Bath frustrated and tired and not have a place to stay, so I started Googling phrases like “lodging in Bath,” and used TripAdvisor.com to search for rooms. Knowing we were going to be in Bath for four days, and Bath was close to Stonehenge, I arranged for an all day tour to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds (charming little villages). It was going to leave from the Bath Abbey, so I found a room in Annabelle’s B&B (a couple of blocks away from the abbey), and put down a deposit. We had now sunk $1,700 into plane tickets and $130 dollars into a room reservation, spent $30 for passport photos, probably another $50 or more on books. A few days later I put down a $150 deposit on a five-day rental of a room in London, and we were just getting started.
I’ll cover some of these purchases in a little more detail in the regular posts, but hopefully won’t repeat myself too much.