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#CTLTravels To: Scotland

vacation planning for Scotland

The planning started simple enough. My cousin told me she was getting married and that I better be there. I kid (sort of 😁) I was only too happy to travel back to Scotland to spend more time with my family. So was my husband. I can't tell if he loves my family more or just Scotland in general. I always thought I loved Scotland because it's where my family is and has that quality of feeling like home. After my husband visited for the first time and really (actually immensely) enjoyed himself I realized that Scotland really is just a great country to visit! 

So our planning started knowing that we would have 2-3 days of wedding/family related festivities which left us with quite a few days to fill the rest of our time. We considered renting a car and driving to Wales or London or even cutting our vacation in half and heading somewhere else in Europe. Before we booked anything, we did some research and made a list of things we really wanted to do in Scotland. As is always the case, our list grew long rather quickly. 

AMH and I are huge movie buffs and one of the things we love to do while travelling is visit movie locations. The Daniel Craig Bond movies are some of our favourite movies so we knew that we had to add a trip to the Scottish Highlands to see a few filming locations from Skyfall. I had seen a few people try their hand at driving Land Rovers through the Highlands on Instagram so I added that to the list. 

We added a day trip to Stirling to visit Stirling Castle (which I last visited when I was 12), a visit to the William Wallace Monument and a day trip to Kirkcudbright to visit AMH's family. Other than that we wanted to be able to explore Glasgow on foot and leave some time for exploring the city that The New York Times named one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2018 (in 2017, Scotland was voted the world's most beautiful country!)

Anyone who has booked a trip to Europe, or even just looked at booking one, knows how expensive it is. There's the flight costs, accommodations, food, attractions, car rental and transportation and that's all before shopping and odds and ends. 

Since this was our second European trip in two years and we're not made of money, we had to great creative to make this trip work. 

There isn't a whole lot of wiggle room on booking flights, but I will tell you a little trick that I learned from a fellow blogger/Instagrammer Prepford Wife and her husband - When you're looking at flights online and you walk away from a flight, say you're just looking and not ready to book, each time you go back to that booking website, clear the cookies on your computer. The cookies remember you and they actually increase the cost of the flight on your next website visit, designed to make you think the price keeps going up so you'll book right away (I hate when companies/marketers use physiological factors against the public. It should be illegal, IMHO) A few dollars saved doing that. 

We opted for a nighttime flight, we left at 11pm. Doing that saved us having to get a hotel at the airport, which we usually do for any early morning flights since we live an hour away from the airport. That saved us about $300 but we still had to pay for 11 days of parking. We actually pre booked our parking fees but we ended up hit with an additional fee as we exited. What happened was our parking was paid up until a certain time, let's say 4pm. Our flight was delayed slightly and when we finally left the parking lot it was 6pm, so we were charged for an additional full day of parking. When pre booking parking, pay close attention to the times and book an extra day if your flight is close to check out time, just in case. 

A big savings for us was our accommodations, which I will cover fully in "The Hotel" below. We opted to try Airbnb for the first time and not only did we save ourselves over $1000 Canadian, we were able to save by buying groceries and snacks for the house so that we could have our breakfasts at home and bring a few snacks and drinks with us for our days road tripping. 

The area we stayed in had a lot of shops within walking distance so I was able to visit Tesco (it's a grocery store) and Marks & Spencer to grab some of my favourite Scottish foods for the mornings; potato scones, Scottish bread (yes, their bread is slightly different and it's amazing), tea bags specially formulated for Scottish water and lots and lots of crisps, chocolates and sweets. And Irn-Bru. Can't forget about the Irn-Bru. I swear, you could visit Scotland just for the amazing food! One thing I will mention about grocery shopping in Scotland is where to find the eggs. They are not refrigerated, you find them on the shelves next to pantry items. 

Another large savings for us was our car rental. On our last trip we rented a car for the full 10 days of vacation, this time we planned to only have a car for three days so that's all we booked. We grouped our travel days together to make this work so for three days we were on the road everyday. It was fun and exciting but exhausting. Luckily we did this in the middle of our vacation so we had lots of time to relax. 

We saved on our car rental by only booking for the three days we needed it. The short time frame also meant we could splurge a little on the car so we opted for a 500 series BMW. It's a car that I've been considering as a replacement for my current car (far in the future, I hope to have my current car for another 6 years, at a minimum). I was reluctant as we had rented a 300 series BMW in LA and I was not impressed at all. But the 500 series won me over with the larger interior space and more pleasing design. It was a great car to cruise in, but might have been a little big for driving through the single lane dirt roads into the Highlands. 

What is a trip to the UK without a little shopping? We stayed within walking distance of Buchanan Street which is a long pedestrian friendly road filled with every shop you could want. There's House of Fraser and Prince's Square shopping centre (both have a wide range of brands) brands known the world over like Zara and H&M and British standards like Jack Wills, John Lewis, Joules, and New Look to name a few. I ended up buying a pair of Barbour wellies in the classic green colour and a new yellow raincoat from Joules. Both cost me close to £80 and when you factor in the pound to Canadian exchange, that's pretty costly. For me though, these are two items I had been wanting for a few years and I can't import either to Canada. 

We decided to rent a private chartered safari driving a Land Rover, along with a kilted tour guide, through a mountain driving course. The cost for this was £170, that's over $300 Canadian. It was a two hour trek on rough terrain with stops to enjoy some whisky and shortbread looking at some beautiful Scottish countryside. I also bought two lambswool scarves for AMH and myself and a large blanket, all three in the Black Watch tartan which is pretty close to the Henderson tartan, at the gift shop. Total cost was around £100. 

Our last splurge was some upgrades to our flight to get extra leg room and a few perks like extra luggage allowance and the opportunity to board and deplane first. That cost $200 for two people, both ways. For such a long flight, 7 or so hours, I've found this splurge to be a necessity. 

I'm going to have to update this heading to say "accommodations" because I stayed with an organization you are going to see here a few more times on Celebrating This Life's travels this year, Airbnb. 

Very early in our planning stages AMH and I considered renting from Airbnb. We heard great things from friends that had used the vacation rental sharing service and I'm happy to add that we had a fantastic stay. Our main concern was pricing. We were in Scotland for 10 days and to stay at a traditional hotel would have been cost prohibitive. Let's do a little comparison. 

A four-star hotel in Merchant City would have cost us $200 Canadian a night, plus taxes and fees. There would have been other costs as well such as having to pay for all food, drink and parking but let's just stick with the cost of the room. So we're looking at approximately $2300 Canadian. 

The Airbnb that we eventually booked with was in the same area as that hotel, but only cost us $1200 for our entire stay. That is a huge difference! 

Our flat was wee, as the Scottish say, but it more than enough for just two people. It was a 1-bedroom, 1 bathroom flat with a full kitchen, a storage/laundry room and living room/dining room combo. The decor was simple but the bed was comfortable, complete with heated mattress pad, the wi-fi and satellite tv worked beautifully and the location could not be beat.

The reason for our trip was to visit with family and they said that Merchant City is the perfect spot for us and they were right. We had shops and services right on our doorstep. Marks & Spencer's was barely a five minute walk away and there was lots of public transit nearby. This was a bustling part of town but was still pretty residential meaning that when the hustle and bustle of city life was too much, we were able to retreat to our quiet flat. There was only one time that we heard any loud noise and that was a group of pub goers walking down the street in the early morning hours. If it hadn't been for the jetlag, I never would have heard them. 

Our interactions with Airbnb and our host could not have been better. The Airbnb site was easy to use. There was a lot to choose from in Glasgow and eventually we decided to stay with our host because of the clean and clear photos on the site and the outstanding reviews from previous renters. Our host got in touch with us shortly after booking. We made arrangements for picking up the keys, a temporary parking space (we rented a car for a few days). Our host even checked in with on arrival and part way through to make sure everything was fine (all via email). 

The flat was clean and had everything that we needed for our stay. Lots of extra towels, sheets and blankets in the storage room and the kitchen had a number of pantry items which meant I could have a wee cup of tea on arrival. 

Not only would we use Airbnb again, we plan on staying in this very same rental on our next Scotland vacation (still to be determined). It also got us thinking of all the places we could explore next! I do love staying in hotels, I've long said it's my one and only hobby, but as prices continue to rise, I found myself having to get creative to continue to travel as much as we do. 

Our three travel days saw us heading to Stirling, Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands and Kirkcudbright in the Dumfries area south of Glasgow. 

In Stirling we visited the William Wallace monument and Stirling Castle. Both are great if you're looking to learn a little Scottish history and see a real life castle. We really enjoyed our time there but I will give one warning about the Wallace monument. It's a lot of stairs in a very narrow stairwell, which I covered in this blog post

Stirling Castle is just beautiful. From the old stone work to the beautiful and colourful crests on the walls, a must see for anyone visiting the area. On our way back to Glasgow for the night, we stopped in Grangemouth to see the Kelpies or giant horse head statues just off the highway and made a quick detour into Edinburgh to visit an old church and graveyard. (This blog post covers how we found these places) 

The next day we made a trip to the Highlands to see the famous Skyfall filming locations (you can read that here) We saw some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen and encountered quite a few deer in the wild. After that we headed to Aberfeldy to drive Land Rovers through some mountains and see even more deer! 

While we were preparing to leave the Land Rover tour we used the wi-fi to see what else was in this area. It felt really remote and we didn't expect to be back so we thought we'd make the most of it. We still had a few hours before sunset, and we'd need to find somewhere to stop for dinner. Turns out that the Dewar's Distillery was really close by! 

scotland whisky

It was later in the day and unfortunately we missed the last tour to see how this famous scotch whisky is made, but we managed to entertain ourselves by picking up a sample box at the gift shop to take home and then walking the grounds (which really reminded me of our trip to Maker's Mark in Kentucky). From there we drove to The House of Bruar in Perthshire. 

How to explain The House of Bruar. We have nothing like it in North America so I can't even compare it to anything! It's a beautiful country clothier, food hall, housewares, restaurant, candy shop and museum. Another place we got to a little late in the day, but just in time for me to find the Barbour wellies I wanted. There is a fish and chip stand on site that stays open late that happened to serve some of the best fish & chips we had on our entire trip. Driving from Aberfeldy to Perthshire and then to the A9 and M80 highway to Glasgow was incredible. We passed through so many beautiful small country Scottish towns, we stopped in a few to take bathroom breaks and stretch our legs. If you're looking for that authentic Scottish experience, centuries old towns made with thick stone and pubs as far as the eye can see, I recommend looking to these areas and stay in town in some of the local B&B's.

The last day with our car to ventured south to Kirkcudbright and visited with family, ate at the Selkirk Arms and visited a 16th century castle that is currently being restored (see all that in this blog post). Kirkcudbright is a small artist colony on the River Dee. On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man from the shoreline (this is from my trip back in 2016) It's a lovely coastal Scottish town with a lot to offer and I highly recommend that if you find yourself in the Dumfries area that you visit for a day or two. 

On one of our days walking around Glasgow we ended up at the BBC Scottish Symphony. It was totally unplanned but turned out to be an incredible night, actually my favourite of the trip (besides my cousin's wedding). We were heading back to our flat after dinner (pretty sure it was fish & chips, again!) and we saw people on the street hustling towards this building that was all lit up. We walked inside, asked what was happening, it was a live taping of the Scottish Symphony, and immediately bought two tickets. It was incredible, indescribable to hear such talented musicians performing music designed to make you feel something deep inside your soul (which I think is the purpose of all music). Do me a favour and even for just one night, go see a symphony. You won't regret it. 

Another cousin took us for the afternoon to an outlet shop in Loch Lomond, called Loch Lomond Shores. It's only a 30 minute drive from Glasgow and makes for a fun afternoon. The water front alone outside the mall is worth the drive. 

Last item that I won't (actually, can't) go too in depth about is a beer brewery visit to Tennant's. I can't cover much about it because I myself didn't go, AMH did and he loved it! I opted to spend an hour or two at the shopping centre on Buchanan Street where I did an Instagram live and shared all the UK clothing brands that my North American friends may not have heard of. I'll do the Tennant's tour on the next visit but just know that if you do enjoy beer and touring their facilities, AMH says you will love this one!

On our previous trip to the UK we regretted not getting to spend more time on foot exploring Glasgow which we corrected on this trip. We walked from Merchant City (our home base) to Dennistoun to Kelvinbridge, and everywhere in between. I don't think there's a spot we missed. I also learned from my last trip that we needed a day or two with no plans so that we could keep ourselves open to last minute things. That worked in our favour this time and we ended up at the BBC Symphony which turned out to be an amazing night! 

I corrected a few lessons learned from a previous trip, so what did I learn on this trip that I would change? 

I would skip the Land Rover tours. I found the tour to be very expensive and not as exciting as I had hoped. After driving two hours to get to the site of the safari that last thing anyone wanted to do was start driving some more. It was muddy and cold, and while yes there were some nice views, we found better just visiting Glen Coe on our own. I had read a few blogs of others who had visited this particular facility and some other Land Rover tour places and honestly, I think it all came down to the driver we had. We stressed that we were looking for photographic spots and didn't feel like driving much ourselves. I never really found that "perfect" photo op and between AMH and I, we did most of the driving. We felt rushed through the tour and well, we didn't really have a great time. 

I pushed to add this excursion to our trip so I felt pretty bad that it didn't live up to the hype. I said as much to AMH who in true good guy fashion just said oh well, life's an adventure but not always perfect. We did it, it's over, move on. But I will add that the trip did change his stance on wanting a Land Rover. I've been wanting one for years and he wasn't having any of it, until now! Now he reads all about them and loves the look as much as I do. 

That being said, if we hadn't gone on the Land Rover tour we never would have seen the whisky distillery or The House of Bruar, both of which I would have been sad to miss. 

For my next trip to Scotland, because there will be another one, I'd like to explore the northern regions more. I'd love to stay a few nights at Gleneagles, a 5 star country hotel in Perthshire (that would definitely fall under the "splurge" category") and visit Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands. 

Have you visited Scotland? What places or attractions would you recommend? If you've never been, is there something you've always wanted to see? Let me know in the comments below!

#CTLTravels To: Weekend in Detroit


Last weekend I spent a little over 24 hours in Detroit. While it was a quick trip, I still managed to get quite a bit done in the city. Shopping, dining, experiencing the holiday market and ticking off a stay from my 'hotel bucket list' I accomplished everything that I set out to do.

#CTLTravels To: Chicago

Chicago travel guide

Chi-Town, The Windy City, City in a Garden, whatever you call Chicago, I call it the best city to visit over the holidays. While I had anticipated lots of wind and cooler weather, I did not realize that this city takes Thanksgiving and Christmas so seriously! Whether it was a conscious effort on the city's part, or just blind luck, I found that I left Chicago in the proper Christmas spirit thanks to the traditional decorations on every building, the Thanksgiving Day parade and the general glee on Chicagoans.