First Trip to Europe, Day 11 – London

For the last full day of our vacation, we booked a day trip to London with Golden Tours. The tour included roundtrip transportation on the Eurostar train and a fully guided tour of London. The description said we would visit St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, witness the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, plus get a whirl-wind tour of the city by motor coach and a Thames River cruise. From the pictures below you can see that we got most of that.

The positive things I can say about the tour are that London is lovely and I really enjoyed getting to see a little bit of the city. I’m definitely planning to go back and stay for much longer to really see the sights.

Unfortunately everything else I have to say about the tour is negative. I have a feeling this is going to be a long winded description of our day, so I won’t blame you if you just flip through the pictures and stop here. =)

We had to be at the Gare du Nord train station by 6:15am for a 7:13am Eurostar to London. We arrived in plenty of time and found the tour representative easily to get our tickets. Although we booked 4 adult tickets together, they split our train tickets into two pairs and we were in two different train cars (not even remotely close to each other). I was a little irritated at this, and the representative said it was probably because we had different last names. I didn’t think I needed to specify that all four of us who booked together would want to be seated together, but oh well. Moving on. Our first experience on a train in France was the TGV, so we were pretty disappointed with the Eurostar. The train was filthy and the seats were extremely cramped. Our row had no window and had less legroom than any airplane I’ve ever been on. Luckily our car to London wasn’t full and we were able to move seats to be next to a window and have more legroom.

Side note for anyone renting a MiFi device: I had to switch MiFi devices between France and England, though on the way there the France device worked until we went into the Chunnel. On the way back we didn’t get signal for France again until we entered Paris (not really sure why?).

When we arrived in London, we easily found our tour representative, as he was holding a sign with my name on it as we exited the terminal. He barely spoke English. We were given an envelope with our tour description, subway passes, and a map. Then we were whisked away to meet up with our tour. The driver took us to a small taxi and drove us to St. John’s Cathedral. He said our tour would meet here, so to wait on the steps near the entrance. Those were the only instructions we were given, and he drove away. We waited for about 15 minutes but no groups ever arrived, so we went inside to see what to do. The lady at the desk said no tours had come in yet this morning, so we went back outside to wait. At the 30 minute mark, we called the tour company, who told us to wait near the entrance. To make a long story shorter, we ended up calling three times before we finally found out from the lady at the church entrance that a tour had come in about 30 minutes into our hour long wait and the tour was probably down in the crypt by now.

We waited outside on the steps near the entrance for over an hour in January in the FREEZING (literally) cold only to find out our tour entered through a different door and missed us all together, the tour guide didn’t stop to look for us although he knew we were there waiting somewhere, and the tour had started about the time we arrived at the train station and they had already had an hour long tour through London in the motor coach to see some of the sights. We found our tour group and guide in the crypt just as the guide was finishing up the tour of the church and allowing for a bathroom break. The guide had no idea we had come in on the train that morning. He had a note on his roster that we would be meeting the group at the church, but he didn’t know why or what time we were supposed to arrive.

After the bathroom break, the tour guide led us “back” to the motor coach for the continuation of the tour. We had a little bit of time to kill before the changing of the guard, so he pointed out buildings as we drove towards Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. Since we were ahead of schedule, we were able to jump out and spend about 5 minutes taking pictures here before getting back on the bus and heading to Buckingham Palace. We left the bus again near the palace and walked together to a spot where we could see the changing of the guard. The guide did have a good recommendation of where to stand, and he explained a little about what we would see. After the guard had been changed, we went back to the bus and headed for our lunch stop. Apparently if you book this tour in London (without the Eurostar) there is an option to include your lunch in your ticket price. For all of those who booked lunch, the pub had a large reserved table. Anyone who didn’t book the lunch option was welcome to eat, but had to find their own table and order from the bar. We were ok with this arrangement and had a great lunch of fish and chips. In fact this sparked a bit of an obsession with fish and chips for me, and though I’d never ordered it anywhere in my life up until that point, I’ve eaten it several times since!

From the pub we walked to the Tower of London, where we would spend the rest of our day in London. Our group gathered near the entrance, where our guide explained our options for our time at the Tower. We entered as a group and spent a few minutes talking to a Yeoman Warder before being dismissed to see the Tower on our own for several hours. The four of us decided to go inside the White Tower to see the exhibits, then to the Bloody Tower and Beauchamp Tower. The line for the Bloody Tower ended up being too long, but the White Tower was nice and I liked seeing the carvings made by prisoners in the Beauchamp Tower. The line to see the crown jewels would have taken our entire three hours, so we did not see them this trip.

When our time at the Tower was up, we met at the exit and walked down to board a ferry on the River Thames. The ferry was a quick 15 minutes to the Eye of London, apparently another pre-paid option for those booking in London. It was dark by the time we boarded, so we got a nice quick view of the buildings along the river all lit up. When we exited the ferry, our guide said we should find the underground station to take us back to the train station. He didn’t know where the underground station was, but assured us it was nearby. How we found the underground entrance, I still don’t know. Our England MiFi device did not work very well. It was not 3G speed as our France Mifi was, so my phone browser usually timed out before the website loaded. The square around the London Eye was very crowded, and it was dark, so it was difficult to get our bearings to use the map, but we eventually found the escalator down into the subway. We used our passes that were provided in the tour envelope and asked the ticket taker how to get to the train station. Luckily we got good instructions and found our way to the train station for our Eurostar back to Paris.

We were in different cars again, but this time only one apart so we were able to get up and talk to each other a bit during the ride back to Paris. The train was full, so we weren’t able to move from our cramped seats with no windows, but it was late and I was exhausted so I just took a nap. We arrived back in Paris a little after 11pm and went promptly back to the hotel to finish packing.

Overall it was a very exhausting, very disappointing day. We missed seeing most of London on the bus tour through no fault of our own, but we really shouldn’t have expected so much from this tour. If I had it to do over again, I would stay in Paris and have an extra day to go back and see Notre Dame instead of trying to see London in one day. I wrote to Golden Tours as soon as we got home to ask for a partial refund due to the terrible communication and our being left on the curb in the freezing cold for over an hour with little to no information about how to meet our tour. We missed the motor coach tour of London (which unless the coach had met us at the train terminal we were never going to get) and the guided tour of St. John’s (because the tour guide didn’t look for us at the entrance to the church). The tour was advertised as completely escorted, but we were left to find our own way back to the train station with nothing but an underground pass and a map. Thankfully we are savvy travelers and managed to figure it out, but don’t advertise something as fully escorted when it’s most definitely NOT. We spent 2 hours of our 8 in London without any kind of “escort”. My mom also racked up a pretty large charge on her phone since she had to call the company three times at $1 per minute, so I was interested in getting a refund for her to cover her costs there. The company gave us $15 per person, for a total of $60 refunded. I definitely was not satisfied since we spent over $1600 on this tour. The only thing I can do now is write this blog and urge you to not book this tour. If you’re visiting Paris and dead set on a day trip to London, book the Eurostar yourself, find a nice hop-on-hop-off bus tour, and save yourself about $200 per person.

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