What to Expect on Your European Road Trip

European Road Trip

European Road Trip

If you want to make the most of your European vacation, you can live like a local by renting a car.

Still, traveling somewhere new can always be a bit stressful, so we created this helpful resource to get a better idea of what to expect driving in Europe for the first time. This will afford you the freedom to go where you want to go, when you want to go.

How much time should you factor in for road travel?

With 44 countries packed into a landmass that’s similar to the US, you can immerse yourself into a number of different and fascinating cultures in a very short amount of time. While Europe is comprised of many countries, most of these countries will actually compare more directly in terms of size to individual states.

For example, the major highways going from west to east in France total 590 miles, while the major highways going from west to east in Texas total 790 miles. The key difference, however, is that it would take 3 days to drive across France, while the trip across Texas could safely be done in 1 day. This is due to road systems being much more direct in the US, rather than slower and winding through much of Europe.

Keep this in mind as you plan out your trip. Always factor in extra stops along the way to fit in time for pictures, site-seeing, shopping, amazing food and other surprises (good and bad).

What are the rules of the road?

  • Expect to drive on the right side of the road except in the UK.
  • There are no right turns on red unless a sign specifies otherwise.
  • On turnabouts, give yourself a full loop before taking your exit to avoid any snap decisions.
  • It is unlawful to pass in the slow lane.
  • Some countries will require the use of headlights (even in broad daylight).
  • Speeding is often enforced via a camera system, so don’t just watch for police vehicles if you want to avoid getting a ticket.

What can I expect in terms of regulations, safety and costs?

Don’t drink and drive! Outside of the UK, expect all countries to have a lower blood alcohol tolerance than our standard .08. Most European countries will enforce a .05 blood alcohol limit, while some will require drivers to have .00 alcohol in their systems to operate a vehicle.

Expect tolls, especially along the Mediterranean coast. Some countries will require the purchase of a sticker (many rentals will have an up-to-date sticker). Toll roads may seem inconvenient but factoring in the time and gas of the more scenic routes, it’s a fair price to pay.

Certain cities may require a congestion charge in an effort to limit traffic within the city. It may be wisest to park outside of the city limits and take public transportation into the city.

Some cities have banned car traffic altogether. Watch for zones that indicate that parking is not permitted, as tickets can swiftly be enforced without your knowledge until you receive the bill at home a month or two later.

It’s best to enter your European road trip with an open mind. Some areas can be strict towards its drivers, while other areas can be very loose (in Italy, drivers can sometimes view red lights as optional, if they do not see any cars coming). Speak with your car rental agency for further driving details and understand that the overall experience is absolutely worth making a few adjustments to your expectations.

When parking, understand the differences of each city/country. In the UK, drivers expect plenty of space in between vehicles, while in France, drivers are encouraged to leave off the parking brake to allow other drivers to nudge (seriously) neighboring vehicles back and forth until they can fit in. Make sure you cover your rental with the appropriate insurance to avoid costly fines.

Assume that each country has its own set of colored lines with different meanings for parking, passing lanes, etc. Get to know the specific details of each country you will be driving in ahead of time to avoid the potential for fines or accidents.

How do I rent a car in Europe?

Just as with domestic travel, you can rent a car for European use on most travel booking websites. You can also add options like GPS, car seats, luggage racks and more.

Make the most of your European travels by collecting valuable travel points on your car rentals and hotel stays. Turn your points into a free flight, hotel stay or fun gift card if you are a Bonwi member. Find out more about Bonwi’s membership program here.

European Swim Etiquette for Summer Trips

european-swim-etiquette
european-swim-etiquette
Travel Tueday: European Swim Etiquette

If you’re a casual swim enthusiast, you have likely not run into many rules or restrictions about what you can or cannot wear while swimming. Most of your swimming experiences have likely been a fun free-for-all. 

If you’re planning a European getaway this summer, you may run into some unique rules regarding swimming pool and beach usage. In order to minimize the inconvenience of arriving at a swimming pool or beach ill-prepared, we’ve put together this helpful resource that covers the dos and don’ts of European swim etiquette and why some swimming venues enforce these strict rules.

An emphasis on cleanliness

At the root of European pool restrictions is the goal of maintaining a healthy environment for pool guests. Ideally, this empowers guests to enjoy their time swimming, splashing and sunbathing, with a significantly reduced risk of spreading germs. The World Health Organization released its guidelines for safe recreational water environments Volume 2, which focuses on swimming pools and similar environments. In this report, you’ll find a number of bacterial and viral infections that are commonly spread in public pools. Utilizing this knowledge, many European countries and cities have established best practices for limiting the potential for outbreaks.

The result is still a very similar pool going experience to how things are in the states, but with heavier up-front requirements. One main theme that is universal across Europe is the expectation, if not requirement, that all swimmers will shower before entering the pool, rather than only showering after you are done swimming. The key benefit to this is that it eliminates many of the surface level germs and dirt from the swimmers before they enter the pool. Swimmers then have the option to rinse off after the fact if they so desire. This can significantly reduce the potential for outbreaks of rashes and other illnesses.

Another effort that some European areas enforce to keep their pools clean is to restrict swimmers from entering the pool area with “street clothing”. This can include longer swim trunks, which are sometimes considered “streetwear” by lifeguards. Some pools even sell appropriate swimwear in vending machines so that unprepared visitors can still swim. Yes, this means Speedos and bikinis! 

Can this be a bit annoying for US tourists? Of course. However, going in with the right expectation and understanding the reasoning behind cultural customs and local practices can mitigate your frustrations. You may actually find it encouraging that you are entering a cleaner public pool than the one back home.

The typical European pool experience

  1. Leave your shoes at the door – Right from the start, you may be asked to leave your outdoor shoes on the designated “shoe bench” before even entering the locker room. Guests are encouraged to either put on a separate pair of swim-specific shoes, place plastic coverings over their shoes or go barefoot. This allows those that are barefoot to go in and out of the locker room without tracking dirt to the pool area and/or inside the pool.
  2. Pre-swim bathing – A heavy use pool could be filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of guests at a given time. Guests will be expected to clean themselves before entering the pool. 
  3. Wearing the proper swimwear – While tiny racing trunks (“Speedos”) aren’t required swimwear for all European pools, some will require a much more tiny garment for men and boys than popularly worn in the US. Most facilities will restrict guests from wearing t-shirts, dresses or bottoms that aren’t specifically designated for swim-use.

All of the above are designed to limit the number of dirt, contaminants and germs carried into the pool space.

What to expect at the beach

No European trip is complete without a trip to the beach! Whether you’re in the UK, Spain, France, Italy or Greece, there are any number of idyllic beach locations to spend a day that you won’t soon forget. Here are a few notes to help you maximize your European beach retreat:

  1. Not all European beaches are sans clothing – There may be a higher percentage of nude beaches in Europe than there are in the US, but it is unwise to assume that a given beach is nude-friendly. 
  2. Expect women of all ages and sizes to be wearing bikinis – One thing that is very common in European beaches is for women to wear two-piece bikinis rather than one-piece swimsuits. So, regardless of your age or comfort with your body, understand that the beaches in Europe are judgment-free zones.
  3. Clothing restrictions are less prevalent – In the ocean, the water is so massive and ever-changing that the risk for the spread of germs is less likely than a public pool. That being said, you will still likely see more tiny racing pants than in the states. Many men are already comfortable wearing shorter trunks, making it less necessary to own a different style of swimwear for the beach.

No matter where your travels take you this summer, traveling with Bonwi can help you find the best deals and accumulate points that can be redeemed for free flights, hotel stays or gift cards to make future travels that much more seamless. Find out more about our memberships here.

Don’t Ignore the Independent Hotel Chains

Explora hotel Atacama

Inkaterra hotel in Peru, part of a local chain

You know a lot of the international chains when you pull up a list of what to book in a city, but sometimes the independent hotel chains are a better option in a specific location.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of the big international hotel chains. Just as you gravitate to a familiar food chain logo when you pull off an interstate highway exit, it’s easy to book a logo you know for hotels as well.

The hotel developers know this, which is why they would often rather be a Hilton, Holiday Inn Express, or Wyndham. That way they have far fewer decisions to make in the building (blueprints are ready), the furniture purchasing (it’s all in the catalog), and the staffing (hiring and training manual, check). They they can tap into a giant marketing and reservation machine that keeps the bookings coming. Even though there are around 30 brands just under Marriott, being one of them makes guests feel like they’re taking less of a chance.

There are plenty of smaller hotels chains that are not part of the big conglomerate system, however. This is especially true outside the USA, where guests don’t normally like the cookie-cutter approach as much as we Americans do. Maybe the people who gave birth to McDonald’s, Walmart, and Starbucks are just more comfortable with spending money on conformity, despite that whole “land of the free” sloganeering.

Keep your eye out for regional chains, especially when you travel outside of the states and Canada. Don’t forget that many of today’s best-known names, like Fairmont, Kimpton, and Swissotel, were once regional independent chains before selling out to a larger corporation. Orient-Express became Belmond and got bought up, but not by a typical hospitality company: they’re part of LVMH luxury brands instead.

There are still a few (for now) independent chains based in the USA as well, so let’s start there.

USA Independent Hotel Options

This batch of scrappy independents surely has suitors swirling around them this very minute, but as this post goes to press you can book a room at these  and be outside the conglomerate sphere.

– Thompson Hotels
– Joie de Vivre
– Rosewood
– Viceroy
– Montage
– Auberge Resorts

It’s probably no coincidence that these are all luxury brands catering to independent-minded globetrotters and style mavens.

At the other end of the scale, there are some regional motel chains that probably won’t get you too excited, but Graduate Hotels are located in college towns and the Drury Inn chain regularly rates at the top in its rate class for comfort and service.

Mexican and Caribbean Independent Hotel Chains

One of the largest hotels groups in the world that has remained independent is Grupo Posadas of Mexico, which is best known for the Fiesta Americana and Live Aqua brands. It also runs several others, like Explorean, and mid-range options.

Independent hotel chains include luxury resorts like Le Blanc Los Cabos

AM Resorts is based in Mexico but has other resorts in the Caribbean, all-inclusive beach spots mostly under the brands Secrets, Now, Breathless, Dreams, Zoetry, and more.

Palace Resorts is a big player in Mexican resort destinations as well, with 10 properties under several brands, including the high-end Le Blanc.

With fewer beds but often the top choice in some Mexican cities are Quinta Real, Grupo Habita, and Velas Resorts.

In the Caribbean, Jamaica-based Sandals Resorts is a major force in the resort world, with 16 all-inclusive beachfront places to stay.

Find the best rates and point returns in Mexico and the Caribbean.

South American Regional Lodging Groups

Across South America, it hasn’t been until the last two decades that foreign chains have really come on strong. More often than not, the independent hotels outnumber the chain ones. A few regional groups that stayed independent have some of the prime locations in some cities and often have competitive rates. Check into these when exploring the countries of South America.

Colombia: Estelar and GLH Hotels
Peru: Inkaterra, Libertador, Aranwa, and Casa Andina.
Chile: Vik Retreats (also in Uruguay), Explora, Tierra Hotels, and Singular Hotels.
Argentina: Alvear and Casa Sur for Buenos Aires, Design Suites in four locations.
Brazil: Fasano, Louvre (most has Tulip in the name), Nobile, Blue Tree, Transamerica

See more details on some of them on this list.

Explora hotel Atacama

Europe Regional Hotel Chains

Europe has plenty of regional hotel chainsThere’s an assumption that Europe has fewer chain hotels than North America and in some markets there are indeed a large number of independent properties. Chain hotels tend to have about a third to one half of the room count in many countries though since they are the largest properties. Those with the biggest percentage are the UK, France, and Spain, which not coincidentally have their own international chains based in the country.

Many of Spain and France’s biggest groups are international names you’ve heard of, under the Accor, Melia, Riu, and NH various brands. Here are some independent hotels chains on the scene though.

Britannia, MacDonald, Old English Inns, easyHotel, and Red Carnation in England
Valamar Riviera in Croatia
Louvre Hotels Group, B&B Hotels, and Apart City in France
Motel One, Steigenberger Hotels, and Maritim in Germany
Dinubius, Hunguest, and Mellow Mood in Hungary
Clayton, Maldron, and Tifco in Ireland
Valtur, Aeroviaggi, TH Resorts, and many more in Italy (country has 137 total)
Van der Valk, Fletcher, Bilderberg, and Bastion in the Netherlands
Colonia, H10, Hipotels, and Vincci Seleccion in Spain

Independent Hotel Chains in Asia

Some Asian brands have spread far and wide across the world but still have the most properties in their homelands, like Banyan Tree, Aman Resorts, Shangri-La, and Peninsula. Some of these listed below have just a few here and there abroad.

India: Taj, Oberoi, ITC, and Royal Orchid
Indonesia: Aston, Amaris, Favehotel, and Santika
Japan: APA, Tokyo Inn, Route-Inn, and Super Hotel
Thailand: Centara, Hop Inn, B2
Malaysia: Sunway, Tune, Hotel Seri
Vietnam: Muong Thanh, Vinpearl, A25
Philippines: Sogo, Hotel Go, GV
Singapore: Hotel 81, Fragrance, Village

So with all these choices out there, on top of the big international chains, how do you decide?

Well one way might be to look at how much of a payback you get from booking. Sometimes these independent hotel chains will earn you far more points on Bonwi than the international chains. Other times the big boys will come out on top. If you play the game right, you could earn a free night’s stay or an airline ticket from the points scored on your trip.

Search here for the best rates and payback.

Tim Leffel has been reviewing hotels across the world since the mid-90s and is the editor of Hotel Scoop.

Rome Offers Many Unique Hotels

Rome Hassler Hotel
Elizabeth Unique Hotel, Rome.
Elizabeth Unique Hotel, Rome.

New places are always popping up around the city of Rome, but two new and improved options, both near the famous Spanish Steps in the city center, are great options for your next stop in the Eternal City.

Elizabeth Unique Hotel

As of January 2018, the Elizabeth Unique Hotel of Rome has reaped as a newly restored 17th-century palace. Inside the centuries-old palazzo, the boutique hotel is located just a few minutes walk from the famous Spanish Steps in the pedestrianized Via del Corso neighborhood. With thirty-three freshly renovated guest rooms, Elizabeth’s quarters are perfect for savvy travelers with antique wallpaper, couture, one-of-a-kind textiles, and incredibly varnished floors.

The guest rooms’ canopy beds welcome visitors as they sip espresso while taking in the breathtaking views from outside their window. The living room offers guests a relaxing atmosphere to wind down in after their day of sightseeing in the city, complete with a fireplace or their garden terrace.

Centrally located and tragically chic, the Elizabeth Unique Hotel’s contemporary style, innovative use of technology, trendy bar, and international team offer guests an unforgettable stay in the city on seven hills.

Rome Hassler Hotel
Rome Hassler hotel

Roma Hassler Hotel

If you’re looking for a more historic accommodation, a notable Roman property, and another uniquely non-chain lodging option, the Hassler is a fan favorite. Owned and operated by the same family since the early twentieth century, perched atop the Spanish Steps, the Hassler is overridden by Roman style and personality.

Three newly renovated suites were recently revealed, adding more appeal to this timeless classic. At their in-house bistro, Italian fusion cuisine is served to guests, dishes like tandoori-style duck and cacio e pepe risotto, all while overlooking beautiful panoramic views of Rome.

Find hotels in Rome and then use the points from Bonwi for another stay.

Bristol, England, Makes a Great City Break

The Bristol Hotel, right near the river and in the heart of the city, is perfect for a City Break.
The SS Great Britain was built in Bristol and is the top attraction in the city. You can tour even the very bottom of the outside of the ship!
The SS Great Britain was built in Bristol and is the top attraction in the city. You can tour even the very bottom of the outside of the ship!

Sometimes, frequent travelers like to avoid the most popular cities, hoping instead to discover an out of the way place that won’t be overrun with tourists.

Yet there are times when it’s fun to visit the most popular tourist cities because they’re set up to provide visitors with fun experiences,  restaurants of all stripes, and more hotels.  Bristol, England falls into this category, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Britain.

Visitors come to Bristol for what people on the Continent like to refer to as ‘City Breaks.’  The advent of City Breaks came mostly after inexpensive flights became widely available from Ryanair and EasyJet made flights to places like London, or Prague, or Faro, Portugal very very affordable.  So today you’ll see many Brits and other Europeans planning their own 3-night city breaks, and Bristol is a perfect place for this.

Either take a cheap flight from Paris, or Rome or just take the train two hours from London.

The Bristol Hotel, right near the river and in the heart of the city, is perfect for a City Break.
The Bristol Hotel, right near the river and in the heart of the city, is perfect for a City Break.

Bristol’s fine Bristol Hotel would be a great choice for anyone visiting the city, with prices from around $135-150 US.  You can find a deal using Bonwi and have around 6000 points to use on a future trip.

What else do visitors enjoy in Bristol?   One new attraction is called Cargo, at Wapping Wharf. This is a collection of shipping containers that have been put together and strapped into two stories where cafes, small shops, a bakery, high-end restaurants and other businesses have opened up.  Building using containers means that you can put two or three together to make it larger, and the rent is low. So all manner of experimental businesses can give it a go.

Cargo is a shopping and dining area built out of shipping containers.
Cargo is a shopping and dining area built out of shipping containers.

Bristol is just one of thousands of cities where you can enjoy a city break, and with Bonwi, you’ll get points you can use for the NEXT one too!

8 Trivia Bits to Know About Stockholm, Sweden

Visit Stockholm old city

Visit Stockholm old city

Stockholm is a gorgeous capital city in Scandinavia and you could take a thousand postcard-perfect photos on a visit here. You get ancient architecture and a long history, plus this is a thriving and electric city with a great food, music, and nightlife scene. Stockholm often shows up on lists of the “most creative cities in the world” and its people often rank themselves as some of the happiest.

You’ll learn a lot from a guidebook or tour guide during your visits to museums and waterways, but here are a few surprises to get you started before you book a hotel and map out your plans.

You Probably Have Something From Here in Your House

Those Swedes aren’t real braggarts, but they’ve got an eye for business opportunities. Here are just a few brands that have rolled through Stockholm on the way to your house or garage: Ikea, Absolut, Volvo, Saab, Abba, Spotify, Electrolux, AstraZeneca, Skype, H&M, Fjällräven, Minecraft, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Abba museum Stockholm
Costumes at the Abba Museum

The Nobel Peace Prize Founder Was a Bomb Maker

Alfred Nobel is now known as the man who left his fortune for the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, including the Peace Prize. The way he made all his money though, was developing explosives. He invented dynamite and held the patent on it. Along the way though, he blew up several of his family’s factories and one blast ended up killing one of his brothers.

More #1 Hits By Anyone Not Named Lennon or McCarthy

You’ve probably never heard the name Max Martin, but unless you’ve been living in a cave for three decades you’ve heard a few of his songs. He has been behind #1 hits recorded by Katy Perry, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, and lately The Weeknd. (If you now can’t get “Oops, I did it again” “Bad Love,” or “I Want It That Way” out of your head, blame him.)

Stockholm is Really a Collection of Islands

There are 14 islands connected by 57 bridges in Stockholm, for a city of 2 million. Roughly one-third of the city is green space and one-third of it is water. While the whole country of Sweden only has 7 million people total, it’s the 5th largest country by land mass in Europe.

King Gustav Was Killed at a Masked Ball

On March 16, 1792, Swedish King Gustav III arrived at a masked ball in costume. While most participants were incognito, he couldn’t help but show off his identity through a large star symbol on his vest. A captain planning a coup could easily tell it was him and shot him in the back. Gustav lived but ended up dying 13 days later from a resulting infection. This story eventually became an opera by Verdi, now known as The Masked Ball.

Boats Have to Come Out of the Water Each Winter

Marina and couple at sundown in StockholmThere are a lot of boats in Stockholm: an estimated 7% of Swedes own a boat and the waterways are lined with marinas. They can’t stay there when the water freezes in winter though, so most get moved to storage facilities up on the land.

The Country’s Most Famous Ship Was a Failure

The Vasa Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Stockholm, a giant wooden ship rescued from the harbor after lying at the bottom of it for hundreds of years. It sailed a little more than a kilometer on its maiden voyage of 1628, then toppled over and sank. It took three years to build and the carvings are grand, but they apparently neglected to budget for an experienced engineer to make the plans. It was poorly designed and top-heavy. If it hadn’t sunk near the shore, it would have sunk at sea.

Royal Palace in Stockholm

The Heir to the Throne Married Her Personal Trainer

Princess Victoria is next in the line of succession for one of the world’s oldest monarchies. In 2010 she married her former personal trainer, giving hope to gym rats around the world as 1,200 attended and half a million watched on TV. He’s gone from pumping iron to being called Prince Daniel of Sweden, Duke of Västergötland. We can only assume he also gets to hear, “Yes your highness” on a regular basis.

Is this capital city on your short list? Get the best Stockholm hotel prices at Bonwi, plus you’ll earn more valuable award points than with any other program.

Article and photos by Tim Leffel, editor of Perceptive Travel online magazine. See his story there on biking the Kattegattleden Trail in Sweden

Tips on Eating in Europe

While in Europe, food is enjoyed as much as art, language, and traditions. From sampling local hidden gems to experiencing farmer’s markets, here are some tips eating in Europe while on your travels.

Do Your Research

Scout out authentic eateries to experience the true local cuisine. Go online and spend some time writing down a list of restaurants that represent the cultural local dishes you are looking for. Most of the time authentic restaurants are not located on the touristy main streets.

Tipping is Optional

Not tipping the usual 15%-20% is okay. Don’t worry, you’re not being rude. The prevailing culture in Europe is to not leave excessive tips. You can leave a few euros if you feel inclined.

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ markets are a good way to find high quality food at a reasonable price and an exciting cultural experience. Farmers’ markets can be found somewhere in any city just about every day of the week.

Drink in Public

Europe has fairly lax laws about drinking in public. This means it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy a beer or bottle of wine in a park or other outdoor spaces.

By using these tips as a guideline, you can better organize and prepare for your trip. Read more Travel Tips for more in-depth information about the best way to travel.

Exploring the Worlds of Harry Potter in London

Harry Potter London Studio tour

The character of Harry Potter, the international book and movie phenomenon, is about as British as it gets. So London offers plenty of Potter-themed attractions. Whether you’re just a casual fan wanting to stop by Platform 9 ¾ during your day trip around the sights of the city, or a more hardcore fan ready to sign up for the all-day Warner Brothers Studio tour, this classic city has something for the wizard in everyone.

Harry Potter London train station

As a Harry Potter fan on my first trip to London, there were a couple things I knew I had to do while I was there. Upon first arriving at Kings Cross Train Station (home of Platform 9 ¾ and The Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter novels and movies) you’re met with crowds of bustling people hurrying about to catch their trains to cities and provinces all over England. The station has been incredibly modernized over the years, and is easy to navigate, so it didn’t take long to find the swarming corner of the station devoted to Platform 9 ¾. Keep in mind it’s not actually on the real platform (in fact, the movie scenes were filmed on platform 1 and 2, because 9 and 10 are in a different section of the station) but is more like a small homage to the Harry Potter story in a significant landmark in modern London.

Once you get to the “platform” there are two options: a photo op and a gift shop. The gift shop is fairly large, with multiple rooms filled with every Harry Potter trinket you could imagine, from t-shirts and posters to wands and replica props. You can even find an array of Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts merchandise as well as all the books in the series in various editions. The employees are helpful and friendly and will attend to all your merchandise needs.

If you choose to wait in the photo op cue for a good 20 minutes or so, you’ll have the opportunity to take a picture with a Hogwarts cart (halfway through the wall, of course) with a wand and scarf of choice. The “scarf fluffer” on duty will first give you the option of choosing a house scarf to wear (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin). The fluffer will then proceed to toss the ends of the scarf into the air as the photo is snapped to give an illusion of it flowing in the wind. It’s an awfully simple gag that looks great on camera, as well as the mid-jump shots you can choose to take.

As far as the photos itself go, you have the choice to either have a friend or family member take them with a phone or personal camera, or buy a physical photo taken by the photographer. Either way they’re lenient and won’t push you to buy one, so it’s worth waiting in line to snap a quick Instagram photo to show off to your friends, even if you were only a technically a wizard for a couple minutes.

Harry Potter tour double decker bus London

On a Double Decker to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour

If you want the full London Harry Potter experience, a fantastic fan opportunity that you’ll never forget, the Warner Brothers Studio Tour is the thing for you. If you’ve ever wanted to see some of the authentic sets, props and costumes from the Harry Potter films, this tour is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. After pre-booking the tour, you’ll meet at an assigned pick-up spot in the city to be swept away by a large double decker bus, the exterior decorated like the Hogwarts Express. From there it’ll be about an hour bus ride to the studio, but don’t worry, they show The Philosopher’s Stone (The first Harry Potter film) on little overhead TVs on the way there.

Once you get to the studio, after wait in the queue and scanning your tickets multiple times, you’re in! After a couple brief presentations (one by an employee and one pre-filmed by the stars of the films) you enter the Great Hall and your adventure begins.

Harry Potter London Studio tour

Strewn throughout the rooms of the enormous property where many iconic Harry Potter scenes were filmed are sets, costumes, props, puppets, sketches, photos, and just about anything else you would ever want to see as a fan of Harry Potter—or even just as a fan of film. You start indoors with the interior-use objects and sets such as the Gryffindor Common Room, The Ministry of Magic, and the hundreds of costumes. Then you proceed to the new Forbidden Forest expansion, the train station, the outdoor sets, and the concept art and model rooms. It’s a lot to take in and takes a good 3-4 hours. There’s a halfway point cafeteria, however, where you can stop for a bite to eat or the iconic Butterbeer (imagine cream soda but more magical), feasting on your treats next to Privet Drive and The Knight Bus.

Exit Through the Harry Potter Gift Shop

Once you reach the end of the tour, past the rooms of prosthetics and drawings from the early stages of the films, you get to see the scale model of Hogwarts (the one they used for outdoor shots, it’s about 9 feet tall) before ending in the massive gift shop. Along with all the usual Harry Potter merchandise you can buy elsewhere—such as at the Universal Studios parks in Orlando and Los Angeles, or the Platform 9 ¾ store in London—they have an incredible selection of more authentic prop replicas in a glass case display in one of the shop’s corners. There you can get realistic-looking horcruxes as well as boxes of paper props which contain assortments of replica tickets, Azkaban posters, letters, maps, etc. But of course, if that’s not your thing and you would rather have your favorite character’s wand and a house scarf, they’ve got you covered for those as well. The studio is absolutely breathtaking, it’s really something that must be experienced in person to fully appreciate, so if you’ve got a morning free, don’t miss the opportunity to book a spot.

Overall, both these attractions are fun experiences to take advantage of, a little modern sightseeing break to differ from the classic London must-dos. Whether you have kids with you who are avid fans, or are one yourself, Platform 9 ¾ and The Warner Brothers Studio Tour are exciting for all ages, anyone who simply wants to go back to the magical world of Harry Potter, or even for those who never left in the first place.

IF YOU GO

Search Bonwi.com to find the best rates on London Hotels and earn points you can use for a future trip. Follow these links to see more info on Platform 9-3/4 and the Harry Potter studio tour.

Story and photos by guest contributor Alina Leffel, young adult author of the  novel Demon High, available at Amazon.

Rome: When is the Best Time to Go, and Which Hotel to Choose?

Look at the giant line waiting to enter Rome's Colisseum during the summer. A better choice would be to go off season if you can.
Look at the giant line waiting to enter Rome’s Colosseum during the summer. A better choice would be to go off-season if you can.

When is the best time to visit Rome?  April to June and late September to October are the best months for a visit to the Eternal City — temperatures are usually mild and the crowds aren’t quite so intense.

Starting in mid-June, the summer rush really picks up, and from July to mid-September, the country teems with visitors. I can attest to this first hand, having spent a few weeks in and around Rome in September when I thought all would be clear.

But Italy, when it’s crowded in the summer, can be pretty unbearable since everything isn’t air conditioned and people need a lot of personal space just to gesticulate their feelings with their hands, as we all know Italians are famous for doing.

But in Italy, when it’s crowded, it can be pretty unbearable since everything isn’t air conditioned and people need a lot of personal space just to gesticulate their feelings with their hands, as we all know Italians are famous for doing.

Think about visiting Rome completely offseason–since much of what you want to do there isn’t weather dependent anyway.  These hotels are highlights that were chosen by the Espresso Blog, published by Select Italy, a tour operator specializing in all things Italy.

The Fortyseven Hotel is described like this, by blog author Elizabeth Salthouse:

“Nestled between the historic Roman Forum, Circus Maximus and the fast flowing Tiber River, the Fortyseven is an elegant haven of luxury in the center of Rome. Each floor is styled in tribute to one of Italy’s great contemporary artists with Modigliani, Mastroianni, and Greco just three of the masters acknowledged. And the artistic theme continues to the rooms, where chic Art Deco detailing and contemporary art make each one unique.

The Inn at the Roman Forum gets another thumbs up from Elizabeth, as it’s just steps from the ancient forum, a huge tourist draw for the ages. This hotel has views, unforgettable views, over the Forum, Palatine and Capitoline Hills.

Not only can you bask in view of the more modern “wedding cake” building that towers over the ancient forum, the imposing Altare della Patria, a memorial to the city’s first King, but there is another surprise. Inside the hotel itself are more ancient ruins below the floors. Guests can follow down a small passageway to see a stone gallery adorned with artwork from ancient Romans, right below the hotel!

Book hotels in Rome like this, offseason, using Bonwi Points!

Romantic, Budget-Friendly European Getaways

Looking to plan a romantic getaway? Check out some of our favorite romantic locations in Europe which won’t break the bank. Below are our top destination choices to wind down and connect with your significant other.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

The cobbled streets and narrow alleys of Amsterdam are perfect for strolling around and cozying up in a quaint spot to wine and dine. For a truly romantic experience, be sure to rent a houseboat to soak up the city’s ambiance and charm from the canals.

Valencia, Spain

Valencia, Spain

Valencia is Spain’s third-largest city and among its most popular tourist destinations. Fantastic architecture, interesting history, unforgettable sunsets, and out-of-this-world food are just a few of the contributing factors to its massive popularity.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is a great city for lovers. Indulge in a night-time cruise on a Bosphorus ferry. Catch the boat from Karaköy to Kadıköy at dusk and watch as the city skyline lights up. Find here a wealth of terraces and gardens in which to enjoy one another’s company.

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic

Considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world since the Middle Ages, Prague is perhaps the best city in Europe for couples in search of romance. There’s music in the air, beautiful art and architecture throughout, and numerous romantic activities available, such as walks along the Vltava river in winter.

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

While it isn’t quite the same as Paris, Berlin is likely to be far easier on the wallet and certainly has its fair share of romantic spots. The Tiergarten is one of the most beautiful parks in all of Europe, and Pfaueninsel Park (Peacock Island) is the perfect spot for a private picnic.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Romance embraces you on every street corner here in Lisbon. Stroll hand-in-hand through backstreets twisting up to hilltop veranda, hidden courtyards, and vintage funiculars. You’ll soon fall head over hills with the Portuguese capital.

 

Save some cash (use it for a date night) and head to Bonwi.com to start planning that romantic rendezvous.

 

Sarah Kim Gets 36% Back in Bonwi Points

Sarah never had time for the rewards points game…until she met Bonwi. We love to change hearts and minds with travel, so we offered to send Sarah on a trip.

“Since I’m a skeptic of rewards programs, the team at Bonwi invited me to try out their site by booking hotels in Bruges, Berlin, Barcelona, and Cannes. From only these four trips, I got enough rewards to cover a FREE 7 night trip to Athens and Santorini in May! Keep reading to learn more about Bonwi, why you should use them, and exactly how I got a free flight and hotel stay in Greece.”

You can read Sarah’s story here, and learn exactly how she earned her free 7-night trip to Athens and Santorini. Take notes, then try a search at Bonwi.com and do what Sarah did…earn fast and redeem for free travel.