Adventures in (relatively) value-priced travel continue! Relocating from Chicago to the UK in 2014 was not cheap. So I have been on a travel moratorium. Cash flow has improved in 2015 though, enough that I was able to get away to Helsinki last month. With the four-day weekend in April looming, I thought long and hard. Where did I want to go and where could I go for a good value?
I really wanted to go to Athens. I am having a Greek Renaissance! All things Greek appeal to me. Greek wine, tzatziki, olive oil, feta cheese, all things white and blue, marble…all things Greek. The last time I was in Athens was 21 years ago! 21 years! So I did it. My new favorite page on the Internet is the BA Holidays page. All the packaged holidays! After a bit of playing around, I settled on a flight and a 3 night stay at the Crowne Plaza Athens City Centre. Done.
The things we do to save money. The cheapest flight meant landing at 3 am. My taxi driver drove 100 miles an hour into town, which turned me green at the time but in hindsight, got me into bed by 3:30 am. Five hours later, I was up and at ’em. Here’s what I did and where I ate and drank in Athens.
Food tour: Through Viator, I signed up for this lovely and compact little food tour of Athens. It was a great way to see the city. Highlights included a shop dedicated to products from Lesvos and a walk through the crazy busy meat and the fish markets. I had a good time on this tour, although I had skipped breakfast and was starving three hours in. (Tastes were a bit on the lighter side.) No fear though, the tour dropped us at Aischylos where we ended with pork GYROS. I love gyros. The Greeks have a way with the pita.
Heteroclito. After my food tour, I took a wander around town. Multiple newspapers had suggested a stop at Heteroclito so I dropped in for an early afternoon glass of white or two. Heteroclito is very tiny and very sweet. My server brought me little chunks of dry garlicky bread and was lovely in her recommendations. I understand that Heteroclito is heaving in the evenings, but for a Saturday afternoon, it’s a lovely spot.
Athens Walking Tour: Another tour I booked through Viator, this 3.5 hour tour took in all the key sights in Athens. The tomb of the unknown soldier, the temple to Zeus and of course, the Acropolis. Our tour guide, Aristotle (not kidding) was awesome. This was a great way to see Athens.
Kafeneio. I’ve written this before…the more I travel, the less I want to see things. I had the option of doing the Acropolis Museum after my Athens tour but I needed a break. I needed sustenance. I triangulated TripAdvisor and Foursquare and selected Kafenio for lunch and boy did I get lucky. I got a cozy table in the corner and as soon as I sat down, the gruff Greek proprietor approached me and said — definitively, like I like them to do — “I have cod today. It is very good.” So I had the cod and the wine that he recommended and enough Greek salad for four people. I liked it here. Popular with the tourist crowd but I don’t care.
Brettos. Lots of recommendations for this lively little drinking hole in the Plaka. And while the wine list looked pretty fantastic and interesting and the decor was super-photogenic — lots of colorful glass bottles lining the walls — the smoking and the crowds and the feeling that I would get my purse snatched any second drove me out. I would try this again if I could do it when it was quiet. I could tell that my server, while obviously Greek, had some attachment to my part of America. (New Yawk. Maybe New Jersey.)
Winepoint. Salvation in wine! After running away from Brettos, I headed towards Winepoint, and it was the best decision I made the entire trip. The lovely Amalie set up a little Greek wine tasting for me, each glass accompanied by delicious, delicious meats and cheeses and breads. Heaven! And there were electric outlets under the bar! And free wifi! I almost didn’t leave. But after two hours there by myself, I thought it best to go.
So there you go. That’s all I did in Athens over the course of 2.5 days, although I don’t count the .5 day because technically, I left for the airport at 11 am on my last day so really only enjoyed a lie-in. In hindsight, I wish I had organized this trip for three days. Lots more to see and do and eat.
Over the Christmas holidays, I read my friend Matt Kepnes’ book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. I first met Matt back in 2009 in Chicago at a mini travel-blogging conference after BlogHer. He was — and is — living the life that most of us can only dream of, traveling the world and running a successful website all at the same time. Matt, if you ever need a personal assistant, you just let me know.
You should definitely check out Matt’s book if you have a chance. It made me think a bit differently about the things I spend money on when traveling, and that alone made it worth the £9.74 investment. So when I was looking for a hotel in Helsinki, rather than my usual large business-class hotel that earns me points or the luxury boutique hotel with expensive soap and iPhone chargers and bluetooth speakers, I went with the design-led-but-still-cheap Hotel Helka at £59 a night. And while that’s certainly not the $50 a day that Matt gets away with, it was a lot better than the £150 a night I probably would have spent otherwise. Matt, it only took me six years to adopt your principles, but I’m getting there!
I also experimented with a new booking site in making my reservation. It’s called Kaligo.com and their (very good) gimmick is that you can earn additional frequent flyer miles with your booking. This was my compromise with myself…cheaper hotel, but get more miles. Plus, I booked my stay using my BA Amex so I got even more miles there. I have the BA Amex Premium Plus Card, which gets you 1.5 Avios for every £1 you spend and 3 Avios for every £1 you spend direct with British Airways or BA Holidays.
Back to Kaligo…here is how they describe themselves on their About page…
A brand you can trust and enjoy, Kaligo.com is a leading global hotel booking platform that rewards customers with incredible miles & points across a wide range of favourite loyalty programs.Launched in 2014, Kaligo offers great rates and a large selection of 300,000 properties across more than 200 countries.
While I saw lots of attractive offers on Kaligo.com for my Helsinki stay — two nights at the Hilton Helsinki boasted 3200 British Airways Avios — per previous, I chose the much more moderate Helka Hotel, which included a bonus of 700 Avios. I was very focused on saving money this trip and The Helka cost me just 59 quid a night. Kaligo’s confirmation noted that I should receive my Avios within six weeks after my stay. I just checked my Executive Club statement and the 700 Avios arrived five business days after I checked out of the hotel.
I can’t think of a reason for not using Kaligo for all my hotel bookings now. If I can get extra miles…why not??? (Although please note that booking through Kaligo may mean you can’t otherwise earn points on your stay.) Sure, I am also a member of Expedia’s Reward Program in the U.S. but to be honest, I have totally no idea how it works. (Fodder for further investigation, of course.)
I liked the Helka overall, but I will admit…I missed my luxury bath products. Also, the bed was not the most comfortable one I’ve ever slept in. That being said, the hotel breakfast was awesome — why is it that tourist class hotels include breakfast but luxury hotels do not? The bar area was also pretty cool. I basically tried to spend as little time as possible in my hotel room.
Here’s my little video tour of The Helka…
So in summary…I would definitely use Kaligo.com again for sure. And, thanks to Matt and his book, I will definitely be more price-sensitive when choosing hotels in the future. More money to spend on me!! And all the Marimekko and Iittala in Finland…
Check out these other articles for more details on Kaligo.com:
Here is the truth: I was 40 tier points away from Silver status on British Airways. Silver Status gets you Fast Track Security access and lounge access. I couldn’t not book a flight to put me over the edge. Plus, I haven’t really gone anywhere for fun in ages. Not since Karen & Bob were here in August and I met them in Paris. I have been trying to be very good about debt lately and managing it down and down and down. Only $16,000 USD in MBA loans left, my friends! (That number was once $120,000 USD, so really, this is progress.) Understandably, spending has been at a minimum. But just 40 tier points to Silver…I wanted it. I wanted it bad. And Helsinki and Athens are the two best flights from London to get you — me — those 40 points.
I’m going to write about my hotel booking experience and hotel stay in another post. In the interim, here are some of my top tips for Helsinki:
Eat at Chef & Sommelier: Thanks to the magic of Twitter and Hermano Primero, I was able to book a last minute table at one of Helsinki’s best restaurants, Chef & Sommelier. It couldn’t have been lovelier. The staff were sweet, funny and above all, lovingly informative when it came time to explain each dish that was set down in front of me. Chef Sasu Laukkonen himself personally presented many of the visually compelling dishes. But as he reminded me, it’s not about how it looks! The restaurant has its own farm so they know where everything comes from. And while I didn’t see it, Sasu explained that there’s a Big Green Egg out back that they use for smoking.
Do a Visit Helsinki Design Walk: I am a lover of all things Scandinavian so I did one of the self-guided walks of Helsinki’s design district. (I did Classics are Forever.) It probably took me about two hours with stops at the shops along the way. It was a great way to see the city and all in all, it’s not a long walk. It’s the shopping stops that make it long.
Shop at Marimekko and Iittala. No visit to Helsinki is complete without visits to these two temples of Finnish design. All the money I saved on my hotel stay (more about that in another post) got spent at Marimekko. I managed to restrain myself at Ittala, although I did want to buy all the Klaus Haapaniemi. (Hi Klaus!) If you don’t know Klaus’ work, drop into an Iitala or check out his shop on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch. Tell him I say hi!
Do a Beer Tasting at Bryggeri Helsinki: I had some time to kill after lunch on Saturday afternoon, and the ever-handy Foursquare sent me to this Finnish brewery, right by the waterfront. Who said Helsinki was expensive? I tried two different IPAs for 3.20 euros and mooched off the free wifi. (I find myself relying more and more on Foursquare when I travel. It seems to be the only service besides TripAdvisor that works pretty much everywhere.)
Check out the Design Museum: Are you sensing a theme here? I love Finnish design! All the Scandinavian chairs are mine! I spent about an hour in this compact temple to Finnish design and restrained myself from buying everything in the giftshop. Proudly, I did not steal the beautiful water glasses. Even though I wanted to.
Visit the Mannerheim Museum: For a change of pace, I went on a tour of the former home of the Finnish military leader, Gustaf Mannerheim. And while it wasn’t the most compelling tour I’ve ever been on, it was a pretty house and a nice change of pace from all the Scandinavian chairs I had been staring at the day before. If you are into history, this one is for you.
Have Lunch at Sundmans Krog: I needed lunch down by the waterfront in Helsinki and both TripAdvisor and Foursquare sent me here. It’s a quaint little space popular with tourists, but I enjoyed my salmon and potatoes and was able to use the wifi from the steak restaurant next door, so it worked for me.
Drink All the Beer at Ravintola Savel: My friend John took me out to Ravintola Savel on Saturday evening where we drank a lot of Finnish beer. It was funny because after having dinner at Chef & Sommelier the night before and learning about Malmgard Brewery, I was able to introduce John to Malmgard beers and John has lived in Helsinki for 14 years!
So I think you’re getting it…in Helsinki, I drank a lot of beer and looked at a lot of chairs. I had a good time and really enjoyed my quick weekend trip. So will you! Go now, my US and UK friends, while the Euro is in your favor!
Remember that time on this here blog when I said I hadn’t had a bad meal in London in ages and I was like “WOW! What is going on in this world?” Well, I have paid the price for that. Recently, London’s restaurants have disappointed me, saddened me, made me mad. I’ve had more than a few decidedly average meals in London lately. The sun is out now though so let’s hope that spring has truly sprung and the best is still to come. Here’s where I’ve been eating lately, roughly in order of deliciousness.
Koya Bar, Soho: You cannot go wrong with Koya Bar or Koya. You really can’t. My tempura prawns were PERFECT. They were amazing. They were HUGE. How do they do it?? Also…one cup sake. Gotta love it. I love Koya Bar! The Verdict: Go!
The Delauney, Aldwych: Shnitzel as big as my head. Veal Holstein, actually. (I am still mad that Bob Bob Ricard stopped doing their Veal Holstein.) That and a green salad came to an eye-watering £32 quid or thereabouts. I took half of my Holstein home in a box, expecting to eat it later. I ate it as soon as I got home. Bad Krista. Very bad. I liked the spacious room, the floor tiles and the polished service. The loos were strangely a mess when I visited though. The Verdict: Go!
Merchants Tavern, Hoxton: Have I written about Merchants Tavern yet? I forget. I have been eating her a lot lately. Particularly all the bar snacks. I have been eating a lot of bar snacks at Merchants Tavern. Last night, they had the most delicious of potato skins with aioli for £1! £1!! Amazing. I’m still mad at them for getting rid of the Sunday afternoon DJ — the DJ only starts at 4 pm now — but it’s still a fab place to hang. The Aesop in the loos also makes me want to wash my hands all the time. And the parquet floors! Delightful. The Verdict: Go!
J. Sheekey, Covent Garden: Is there anything not to love about J. Sheekey? Sit in the bar and order some oysters and hang out. (And contemplate the dwindling balance in your bank account.) That’s what I like to do. The Verdict: Go and go again.
Jackson & Rye, Soho: Sunday brunch at Jackson & Rye was a popular affair. The place was jam-packed to an almost annoying degree, particularly right by the front door. Oh, to be that person who assumes that any popular restaurant in town will have a table for six people free if they just wander in with their friends at lunchtime on a Sunday! (In the rain no less.) Cheap cocktails, decent grub. Very personable service. The Verdict: I’d go back for a good time but I’d steer clear of the tables in the front by the door and the people with no reservations.
Bonnie Gull, Exmouth Market: I really wanted to like Bonnie Gull because I do love seafood more than most things. However, the stools by the window were precariously high. Who designs these things? Don’t people know that there are bar-height and counter-height stools for a reason? Anything else does not make sense. And while my croquettes were good, I did not enjoy my baby gem and salted anchovy salad. I think they tried to burn the lettuce? I am not sure. But it was a failure. Also affecting the experience but completely out of their control was the young mother who repeated her infant son’s name every two seconds repeatedly throughout my meal as she tried to stuff food in his gob. (Seriously, I counted.) The Verdict: I feel like I should give this place another try and get a table and not order the salad.
Morito, Exmouth Market: Another place I really wanted to like but didn’t. They drenched my pork belly with raw cumin. Have you ever eaten a lot of raw cumin before? I don’t recommend it. The crispy aubergine was great, but I wasn’t dying over the sweetness of the date molasses. Picky, aren’t I? Note I was in a cranky jet-lagged state during this lunch. I had decided not to sleep at all after arriving back from the US. Maybe that was a bad idea. The Verdict: Unsure.
Hoi An, Off Brick Lane: Another place I really wanted to like but didn’t! My bowl of pho was too heavy on the spring onions for my tastes. A good value overall though. And a pleasant, peaceful homey atmosphere with sweet service. The Verdict: Unsure.
We Grill, Leadenhall Market: Another place I really wanted to like but didn’t! (Are you sensing a theme here?) I was initially attracted to We Grill by its graphic design. All white space and nice fonts. However, once I got in for a closer look, I really had to question their information design. I wish I had taken a picture of the menu. Yes, let’s list out all the daily specials from other days of the week THAT YOU CAN’T HAVE in 500 point font. Also, I am tired of quinoa. The Verdict: Meh.
Tune in next time when I return to Morito and try to get the taste of raw cumin out of my mouth. Also, maybe I go someplace that’s not between Soho and Shoreditch.