Travel Review: England and Scotland 2017 with Education First Tours (EF)

Let me begin by stating the obvious: it’s been a while since I’ve blogged.  Like… years? Whoops. A lot has happened since then – Jeremy and I bought a house and began an endless stream of DIY projects and remodels, I taught high school English for a couple more years, and we are now about to have our first baby. I’ve decided to stay at home with my little one this year, and before baby comes, I wanted to try to catch up on a little blogging. I still hope to post here more regularly someday, whether that be about our home, our travels, or our family.

So in today’s long and detailed travel-focused post, I’ll be looking back on a trip that was truly a bucket list experience for me. In August of 2016, my friend and fellow English department member, Heathyr, told me that she was interested in arranging a trip abroad with some of our students. This was something that I had always desperately wanted to do, but I’d never really looked into myself. Heathyr kindly asked me to join her as a trip leader and chaperone (technically, she was the official leader, but I helped!). She had already selected a tour from the educational travel company EF (Education First) – a nine-day journey around England and Scotland.  As a true anglophile, I thought it sounded great – and, since we were both young teachers and this would be our first experience taking students abroad, it would be more manageable to travel to a familiar English-speaking country that we would explore at length than to do too much globe-trotting or fast-paced touring.

Fair warning, this post is long. But if you’re an educator thinking about traveling abroad with students, with EF or with another organization, I thought it might be helpful to do an in-depth review of our experience, from the initial organization to the last flight home. So let’s get started at the beginning!

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The Prep Work: With our itinerary selected, we decided to dive right in to planning, since we wanted to travel in the summer of 2017 and that summer was only 10 months away.  Let me state the obvious – these trips are pricey, so we weren’t sure how much serious interest we would be able to drum up.  But our school was an affluent one, so we thought we would just offer the trip and see what happened. Why give up before we even tried?  First we ran the idea by our principal – while the EF trip is not technically a school-sponsored experience, we knew we’d be representing our school in an unofficial fashion and wanted his support.  With him on board, we began by setting some parameters for who we would accept as traveling companions (the kids had to have a certain GPA, no discipline referrals, be in good standing with the school, etc.) and chose a date range (late May through early June).  We sent invitational letters to the students on the A/B honor roll to increase interest in the trip and put a blurb in the afternoon announcements. With shiny new posters saying “come with us to the United Kingdom!” on our classroom doors, we scheduled an interest meeting during seminar in my classroom.

We had over 60 kids come to the initial interest meeting.  We were a little overwhelmed, but really excited. As eager as we were to take the trip at all, there was a benefit to a larger group: the EF policy allows for a free chaperone to travel with the group for every six student places filled, and that meant we needed 24 travelers to be able to both go as chaperones… AND bring our husbands as our third and fourth chaperones, too.

Once we provided more information about expectations, cost, and scheduling, the group quickly dwindled, of course, but we ended up with 27 travelers – 24 students and three adults.  At first, we were uncertain about allowing adult travelers (parents or other family members of the students themselves), but it worked out fine. We had plenty of space for them, and we had no problems with parents being difficult travel partners – they let us lead the trip, and we were happy to have them. Plus, we got to go to the UK with our husbands and have an amazing time with a great group of kids for basically the cost of food and travel insurance. Not a bad teacher perk, if you ask me.

The approved list of students flexed and changed over the course of the school year, but we were able to get enough signed up right away that we could proceed with the planning process.  Since Heathyr was our official leader, she did quite a bit more work than me. This involved staying in regular contact with our trip representative from EF. While I was mostly involved with the planning on our school’s side of things, I know that Heathyr’s experience with EF was a positive one. They were always readily available to answer our questions, and they provided us with plenty of materials to share with our students and their families, including power points for info sessions, forms for the students to fill out, and suggestions for behavior expectations.

This, I think, is where it pays off to pay more to travel with an organized tour group like EF.  While it may have been cheaper, it would have been exceedingly difficult to plan the logistics of this trip ourselves. Ultimately, I consider myself to be pretty well-traveled and organized, but planning a trip for 30 people is a totally different ballgame than planning a private adventure. This is what EF provides for the higher cost – the logistical details are sorted out for you. And for this, I would give them five out of five stars. Heathyr even got to go to France for a three-day training session as a first-time trip leader, which is pretty cool. Their communication and knowledge made the planning process a smooth one. For this reason alone, I’d recommend choosing to travel with EF (or a similar organization) over trying to plan a trip of your own as a educator.

Getting There: Fortunately, we had no problems with our actual transport to and from the UK. Flying out of Kansas City, I was worried that we would have to deal with extra flights to cut down cost, but EF came through with some great travel agendas. We departed Kansas City at 2pm and only had one three-hour stop in Atlanta before continuing on to Heathrow.  On the way home, we had one extra leg – probably because we flew from Edinburgh instead of Heathrow – and had a few hours to kill in Amsterdam before flying to Atlanta and then Kansas City.

Getting through customs and check in with our kids went pretty smoothly. It was cute to see the kids who had no travel experience struggle with the process – it was fun as their teacher to guide them through these new experiences, even at the check in gate. I was grateful to EF for arranging flights that were easy and manageable with no punishing time table!

The Itinerary: So obviously, if you go the EF website, you can see a general itinerary of where we went. One thing to note – our trip was supposed to begin in Scotland and end in London, but they ended up reversing it because of a festival in Edinburgh that was limiting our hotel reservation options.  I think some of the kids who hadn’t traveled as much found London to be a bit of a shock to the system – starting there meant mastering a lot of tube navigating and big-city hustle, and perhaps beginning in Scotland would have eased them in a little more smoothly. Overall, though, I had no complaints with the reordering.

Day By Day: This section might get a bit lengthy, but I want to briefly review our itinerary from each day and share some highlights, as well as a few photos, to help those considering this particular trip!

Note: On the EF website, you’ll notice that a two-day extension to Paris is an optional add-on to this particular itinerary. We decided to opt out of this to keep the costs down, so I can’t comment on that part of the experience. I’d say our trip was still really enjoyable and fulfilling without it, but I could have happily done two more days in a new country and location, so adding it certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if cost is not a concern for your travelers.

Days One and Two: Arrival and London: We arrived on time at Heathrow at 10am. Our group from KC was combined with a small group from Tulsa – six students and one adult – so we had closer to forty in our total group, chaperones included. The Tulsa group was delayed, so we met our EF tour guide – Katherine – at the gate and waited around for a bit to meet up with the Tulsa group. Once we were all together, we grabbed lunch and took a bus to the hotel, which was southwest of London and just a short walk from the Sunbury train station. We checked into our rooms and gave everyone thirty minutes to clean up before heading out again. We boarded the train and rode like commuters into the heart of London – it took about 40 minutes to get all the way into the city.

We then did a general walking tour with Katherine. She took us around some of the key London sights, including Big Ben, the Downing Street and Whitehall area, Trafalgar Square, etc. and then we had some down time in Covent Garden where we were able to shop around and browse the market. Then we had dinner in a nearby pub restaurant before heading back to the hotel.

Here’s a shot of us four chaperones in front of a truly classic London backdrop.

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Overall, this day went more smoothly than I expected.  I am a terrible plane-sleeper, and I was anxious about feeling so so exhausted and having to go, go, go all day with 24 high school kids after a sleepless night. I did doze a little on the plane, but not much, and I really felt okay for the entire day. Any time we stopped and sat down I would become overwhelmingly sleepy, but as long as we kept moving, it was fine. And hey, we were in London, my favorite place in the world, so it was easy to be energetic and excited. We also lucked out on the weather – it was sunny and in the upper 70s the whole time we were in London. The kids were accusing us of misleading them by telling them to pack for rain and cooler weather (don’t worry – they soon realized we were right after all!).

I also loved taking the kids on the underground and helping them around the city. I was so proud of them for learning to navigate the public transit systems, especially the students who didn’t have much experience with that kind of thing. Once our group was accidentally split up because the kids weren’t quite aggressive enough in boarding the tube – I will never forget the hilarious, horrified looks they gave me as the door closed with half of us still standing on the platform. Luckily nobody was without a chaperone, so I gave them a pep talk about being aggressive and we shoved our way onto the next train successfully!

Day Two: London and Windsor: This was one of two of my favorite days of the entire trip. We had a “local guide” for this day’s itinerary – though our tour guide was actually a Londoner herself – who took over for the day. His name was Stuart, and he was hilarious. He had us rolling in the first few minutes, and I thought to myself, this is going to be a good day. And it was. The weather was beautiful, the day was busy, and we saw so much of London.

We started by boarding a bus and heading out to Windsor. On the way out, Stuart filled us in on the history of the royal family, Windsor itself, and British pop culture. He taught us to wave and smile like the queen (the advice? pretend your shoes are a size too small as you smile).  We arrived in Windsor before the gates even opened, so we really made the most of our day. We toured the castle grounds with Stuart, and then saw some of the interior areas too. Stuart taught us how to tell if the queen was home (and she was, which was very exciting for us as fans of The Crown!).  We saw the changing of the guard at Windsor (is that what they call it there?) and then headed into the town of Windsor for some free time.

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The kids were able to roam a few blocks of shops and restaurants on their own with the understanding that we would meet up together in a couple hours. We ate at Wagamama’s with several of the kids and had a great time browsing the alleyways. Then we headed back through the classic Windsor Station to board the bus and head back into the city to see more of London.

We then took a bus tour of the city. As a traveler, I’m a pretty prolific walker and I was worried the bus tour would be boring, but it wasn’t. We were able to cover so much ground – we visited the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the banks of the Thames, the Globe Theater, the London Bridge and the Borough Market. Stuart entertained us with good humor and interesting facts the whole time, and then we said goodbye to him and had a fish and chips dinner near Borough Market.

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That night, we saw a play, as is included with in the EF itinerary. EF gave us a list of shows we could possibly see (though no particular show was guaranteed) and we let the students vote on their top three choices – we wanted to be as democratic as possible. I wanted to see An American in Paris or Wicked or 42nd Street, but the winning vote? The Woman in Black – NOT a musical. It was a two-man play in a small theater, and it was a thriller.  I guess I have to hand it to our students for voting on something a little more off the beaten path. As fun as it would have been to see a big flashy musical in the West End, we still really enjoyed the show, and I guess it was more of a true “London” experience. The kids jumped and squealed in all the right places, and one of the lines of the play became a running inside joke among them for months. (“It was nine thirty on Christmas Eve…”)

Day Four: A “free day” in London: On the itinerary, this day was designated as either a free day in London OR a day trip to Stonehenge and Salisbury. I’ve been to Stonehenge and Salisbury, and they are lovely, but we told the kids that we could either come up with things to do on our own in London, or we could sign up for this excursion at an additional cost. Ultimately, they wanted to stay in London. This day was a fun one because we were really able to take the reins and come up with a cool itinerary for the kids. We told Katherine that we weren’t really comfortable turning them loose in one of the biggest cities in the world, and I was proud of the schedule we planned for them. I’ll expand a bit more on what we did this day to give our fellow travelers some ideas for how you could spend a free day in London with 24 teenagers.

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We started with a morning on the Thames – most of the group took a ride on the London Eye. Of the four chaperones, I was the only one who had already ridden the Eye, so I volunteered to take the kids who did not sign up for Eye to do something else. Katherine was largely off-duty this day, but she did help with the logistics of getting tickets and reservations.  My group ultimately just walked along the Thames taking in the sights and soaking in the beautiful weather. Then we met up with the Eye riders and had lunch in the Burough Market area before splitting up into groups. We offered them three supervised options for the afternoon: Heathyr took a handful of students to an art museum, Andrew (Heathyr’s husband) took a group to the Globe Theater to explore it in-depth, and Jeremy and I teamed up to tackle the bigger group who wanted to do some shopping and took them up to Camden Market.

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I’ll admit, this journey was a little daunting at first. The closest tube stop to Camden Market was a bit sketchy – when we came out of the exit, an addict staggered right through our group and across the street before collapsing in a doorway. We kept moving, and the area quickly became more touristy. The Camden Loch and Camden Market area itself was really cool, and holy cow, it was CROWDED. We gave the kids a designated meeting point in the market and let them browse the stalls and restaurants.  Miraculously, nobody got pick pocketed! Jeremy and I enjoyed ourselves too – he bought a cool leather duffel bag and I bought a photo print that we now have as a souvenir in our home. The kids handled the crowds really well and said they enjoyed shopping among the market stalls. Heathyr’s group loved the museum and Andrew’s group was REALLY pumped about their experience at the Globe, too, so I think we successfully covered a wide range of interests in our scheduled activities!

We met up with Heathyr, Andrew, and the rest of the gang in Hyde Park, which we explored for an hour or so. Then we went over to the British Museum, but by the time we got there it was nearly closed – we were able to dash in and glimpse the Rosetta Stone!2017-06-03 16.06.36

That evening, we were offered an optional Harry Potter tour with a local guide, and Jeremy and I chaperoned that group while Heathyr and Andrew took the other students to the Tower Bridge.  I adore the Harry Potter series, and the tour was fantastic. Not only was our guide warm and funny, like a cool and hilarious grandmother who complained she had a bad leg but walked faster than most of us could keep up with, but she actually KNEW JK ROWLING (let me repeat, she personally knew J.K. Rowling) and had worked on some of the props for the movies too – she was well-connected to the Potterverse. We rode a double-decker bus and the tube to get to some of these locations, and we had a wonderful time, arriving back at the hotel after midnight. Pictured here is the area used for Diagon Alley – we saw Olivander’s Wand Shop and the Leaky Cauldron up close too – they aren’t sets, but actual locations in the city. Pretty cool.

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One scary, sad thing – the 2017 London Bridge terrorist attack happened while we were on this tour. Mercifully, we were nowhere near there, and neither was Heathyr and Andrew’s group. We had no idea it had even happened until we were on the train back to the hotel and somebody checked Twitter. Thankfully, we were able to contact our families at home and let them know we were just fine before they even were aware the attack had happened.

Day Five: Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon: We checked out of our hotel, hopped on the coach bus, and headed onward to Oxford, where we toured the school grounds and town with Katherine.  Oxford, of course, is beautiful – both the town and the school itself. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to attend such a school, and our students seemed to enjoy exploring the area a little more than I expected.  The weather was beautiful and sunny and cool, and we had a nice stroll through the town and lunch on our own after checking out the campus.

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Then we were back on the bus and headed to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the birthplace of William Shakespeare. As an English teacher, I like Shakespeare, but I’m not really a diehard fan. Still, I really enjoyed this day. First we visited the childhood home of Anne Hathaway (as we had to clarify to our students, Anne Hathaway Shakespeare, not the current actress). The cottage was styled as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day, and the gardens were filled with big English flowers and greenery.

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From Anne Hathaway’s cottage, we headed into the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, where we saw Shakespeare’s grave, his birthplace, and the town itself, which was one of the more darling and quaint English towns I’ve been to. We had cream tea and scones in the upstairs room of a cozy tea house, which I really enjoyed. Then the kids did some shopping and exploring on their own (sensing a theme here yet?) until late afternoon, when we took the bus back to our hotel in Birmingham.

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Day Six: Warwick Castle: When I saw this day on the itinerary, I was convinced it would be my least favorite day of the trip – Warwick Castle is part historical attraction, part amusement park, and it just didn’t sound quite like my cup of tea. However, I ended up having a great time, and so did everyone else!

We arrived at the castle grounds in the morning and immediately turned the kids loose. Warwick Castle (pronounced like “warrick”) was originally built in 1068 and was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. Since then it served as a military stronghold in the 17th century, then as a country house for an aristocratic family until 1978, when it was purchased by the group that turned it into a tourist attraction and historic site.

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There is a LOT to do there for a wide range of interests.  The adult chaperones spent much of the day exploring the apartments styled after the family that lived there (think Downton Abbey in wax figure form) – this was fascinating to me. Some of the kids went to the medieval dungeons exhibit, and we all spent time climbing the castle towers and checking out the views of the rolling green English countryside (the photos above were taken from those towers and walls, looking out over the castle and grounds). We also watched a trebuchet launch and a falcon diving show – I’m an animal lover and particularly enjoyed seeing those magnificent birds fly.  All in all, it was a unique stop that let the kids get up-close to some history and some gimmicky fun, so I think it was a successful day.

After we left the castle, we spent some time in the town of Warwick and then continued on to our hotel in Barnsley, where we had some down time in the evening after dinner at the hotel. I worried the kids would be bored, but they really enjoyed having some time to just chill and hang out. And so did the adults – we all met up for a pint in the hotel bar and chatted with Katherine and our bus driver, Ritchie, for a few hours. Some of the kids shot pool at the bar with Ritchie too, and Jeremy and I got to meet up with our cousins who live in the area for a quick visit!

Side note – I just want to mention how we dealt with the alcohol issue on our trip.  We used a lot of threatening language when we had students sign up for this trip, as we did NOT want to deal with drunken teenage messes and really wanted them to represent our school with dignity.  That being said, the drinking age in the UK for beer, wine, and cider is eighteen, and we felt that if it was legal and their parents were comfortable with it, we did not mind if the students who were old enough tried a drink or two here and there. We gave permission slips to the parents of students who were of age and let them decide what they were comfortable with. Their parents all consented, and they handled it like pros. Their nervous questions about what to order showed me that they didn’t have much experience (yay!), and we never had a single issue with students drinking when they weren’t supposed to or to excess.

Day Seven: York and Traveling to Scotland: I’ve been to York before, and I adore it. It’s such a lovely little city that is so quintessentially English – I hope to spend some time living in the UK someday, and while my first choice would be London, I could also love a quiet life in York. That said, this was probably my least favorite day of the trip. I think we were a bit rushed as far as scheduling goes, and this was the only day of the trip where the weather really didn’t cooperate. Our day in Warwick was brisk with some drizzle, but in York, it was downright wet, windy, and cold – but hey, what would a trip to England be without a day of rain, right?

When we arrived in York, we toured the walls and The Shambles (one of the oldest shopping districts in England) with Katherine, and then we went inside the Minster and spent some time exploring there. While we were in the Minster, they held a moment of silence for the victims of the London Bridge attack, which was sobering. Strangely enough, there was a news crew there to cover it, and they interviewed Jeremy and me about our experiences in the UK as a tourist after the Manchester and London Bridge terrorist attacks. We told them that we were not to be daunted by extremist attacks and that we believed in the utmost importance of travel, and apparently our comments earned us a brief appearance on the local news that was spotted by some of Jeremy’s English relatives!

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After seeing the Minster, the kids were given some free time – some of them stayed in the Minster, but some of them headed right out into the town. We all spent some more time exploring, dining, and shopping – Jeremy and I had a cozy little lunch just the two of us near the Minster, which was an unexpected treat!  We had about three or four hours total in York, but I think we could have made good use of a couple more hours. We had a long bus ride ahead of us, but I would have preferred to arrive in Scotland a couple hours later and had more time to explore.

This was our longest travel stretch of the trip – we took about a five hour bus ride into Scotland. We stopped in Gretna Green, which was a unique little place I’d never heard of before – Scotland has historically looser marriage laws than England, so over the past few centuries, young lovers would elope to Gretna Green to be married… typically without their parents’ permission.  Now Gretna Green is a bit like Vegas in that it serves as a popular place for elopement, and we witnessed a “wedding” by one of the local blacksmiths (who traditionally presided over these hasty ceremonies) – Heathyr and Andrew were celebrating their anniversary, so they got to play bride and groom. After the ceremony, we all stocked up on shortbread cookies to bring home to our loved ones – and bought extras to polish off on the bus ride too. Yum.

2017-06-06 20.39.11Our accommodations in Scotland were a bit different – we spent two nights at the University of Stirling in student housing (the picture above features the campus just beyond our dormitory – it was quite peaceful!). EF told us that we were the guinea pigs for these particular dorms, and we thought it went really well. Each kid got their own room, which was nice, and they got to experience the Spartan lifestyle that is living in a college dorm for a couple of nights – pretty cool for high school kids. The chaperones still got to room together with our spouses, but otherwise, everyone got a little extra space and freedom. That evening, the kids explored the campus, and we discovered a few of the girls taste-testing all the various flavors of all the English “crisps” they could buy out of a campus vending machine, which we thought was a pretty creative way to spend their evening!

Day Eight: Edinburgh: I told you that our day with Stuart in London tied for first place as my favorite day – the other favorite day was this one, an unusually warm, sunny, gorgeous day in Edinburgh. The highlight of the day was definitely our hike to Arthur’s Seat, which was not part of the EF itinerary but I would say is a for-sure can’t-miss activity. It was spectacular.

Before that, though, we started with a bus tour through some of the historic sights of Edinburgh. This was not as good as Stuart’s tour of London. The guide was knowledgable but a bit dry – a year later, I couldn’t tell you a single thing she said. The tour was short, and we began our day on foot at the Edinburgh Castle. We had to wait just a little while to get in, and then we were able to explore the grounds of this unique historic castle that absolutely towered above the rest of the city. This tour was much less guided than some of the others – for better or worse, we were mostly on our own as we visited the various buildings. The castle is a lovely spot for some panoramic photos, and kids were sure the views were well documented.

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After that, we had free time in the castle and on the Royal Mile, a famous old street that runs from the castle down to the palace and is overrun with fun restaurants, touristy shops, and tea houses. Heathyr and I paid a few pounds to hold an owl (yes, a big, beautiful, live owl on our arm) at one shop, and we spent some time shopping for gifts for our families on the Royal Mile before meeting the kids who wanted to hike at the head of the Arthur’s Seat trail.

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This hike was easily accessed on foot, as it began at the palace end of the Royal Mile, in Holyrood Park. I don’t remember exactly how long it was – some googling suggests it was about three miles round trip, which seems about right. It was short, but fairly strenuous and steep. Everyone could manage it – our varsity athletes powered straight to the top – but some of the less physically fit in our group moved a bit slower. I think any able-bodied person could mange it just fine, but be sure you are wearing athletic shoes, Chacos, or something sturdy. Also, it is WINDY up there. Like, oh-my-gosh-is-my-phone-going-to-blow-out-of-my-hand-while-I-take-this-picture?! level windy.  Bring a jacket and a hair tie!

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Once we got to the top, we all spent way too long taking photos of the incredible views over all of Edinburgh out to the waters and of each other, and we got a great group shot there as well. It was one of the better views I’ve ever seen on a hike, and it was surprisingly accessible. It was probably my favorite single experience of the trip and I’m so glad we made the time for it!

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After the hike, we met back up with the rest of the crew for another optional EF activity – a ghost tour of Edinburgh. Specifically, of the underground tunnels and old storage rooms beneath Edinburgh, which once housed a population of vagrants in addition to stored goods for local merchants. It was fun, if a bit gimmicky – not really a highlight for me, but some of the kids really enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, some of them got really freaked out – be it from claustrophobia or just the power of spooky suggestion – and Andrew and Jeremy ended up escorting a few of them out early, leaving Heathyr and I there to bravely finish up the tour with the rest of the group! (Spoiler alert: we saw no ghosts and nobody came home possessed by the devil. Whew!) I could have lived without it, but it was a fun atmospheric way to spend the early evening.

Our final activity that day was… a strange one. One of the optional excursions for the trip was a Scottish Ceilidh (pronounced like the girl’s name “Kayleigh”).  We decided to have our whole group go, largely because of Jeremy and me, which I’ll admit was a mistake. We went to a family wedding in England a few years back, and the reception was called a “ceilidh.” During the reception, the ceilidh band taught the guests ridiculously fun and over-the-top square dance-like step sequences that we then performed to their fiddles and violins – as my father-in-law said, it was “more fun than adults should be allowed to have.” So when I saw “ceilidh” on the itinerary, I told Heathyr we had to do it.

Fast forward to our last night, and the ceilidh wasn’t quite what we were expecting. It was more like a corny variety show than a dance, and I felt really bad for hyping up everyone’s expectations. Apparently, the variety show was more of a true “ceilidh” than the dance I attended, and it was about 1/100 of the good time that I was expecting. We were served dinner (we did get to try haggis, so that was a cultural plus!) and watched the show, and most of it was hokey to the point of being painful.  The highlight of the experience for our kids was the handsome guy playing the fiddle – a twenty-something scotsman that all our high school girls soon had a crush on (and rushed to get a photo with at the end of the show).

Even though I was disappointed, the kids were incredibly good sports about it. In fact, they were all in hysterical giggles nearly the whole way back to the Stirling dorms that night, and the ceilidh experience became another enduring inside joke. I appreciated their flexibility and good humor, but if you are considering the EF tour with this particular ceilidh excursion, I’d certainly encourage you to skip it!

Day Nine: Homeward Bound! And just like that, it was time to pack up and go home. Some of the kids were ready, but I think most of us could have done a few more days.

We got packed up and out the door for an early send off pretty easily – only a couple of kids overslept and had to be hurried along. Our bus driver said goodbye at the Edinburgh airport, and Katherine brought us to the gate and helped us get on our way before saying farewell. We were all sad to see her go – she was a fantastic guide and really felt like a friend by the end of the trip. We took a group photo and then we were checking in and boarding the plane home.

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Our travel home was easy and smooth, with no major delays. When we arrived in Kansas City, we were able to look back fondly on a trip of fantastic memories and few problems. The only bad thing that happened to any of our kids was that one of the girls left her wallet in the West End theater in London, but Jeremy was able to recover it for her the next day. Our kids were polite, fun, enthusiastic, and responsible, and we didn’t have any behavioral issues at all. We didn’t exactly check up on them like sticklers, either – we kept an eye on them and trusted them to behave well, and they did.

What We Loved: Looking at the trip as a whole, I would say it was certainly an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I will look back fondly on it for the rest of my life. I really didn’t think that I would get to travel abroad with students so early in my teaching career, and I owe Heathyr and EF for making that happen. Beyond the stand-out experiences I discussed above, there were a few other highlights too. First of all, our guide, Katherine, was really wonderful. She was kind and knowledgable, but also firm and confident, and I felt totally comfortable with her as our fearless leader. By the end of the trip, our students had grown attached to her and so had we – we have kept in touch on social media since and I feel really glad to have gotten to know her through the EF experience. Stuart was also amazing, and so was our Harry Potter guide. The general quality of the EF employees we encountered were top-notch.

Logistically, everything was so smooth and easy. We rarely wasted time waiting to go places, waiting in line, or waiting to be picked up. The private bus made transportation comfortable and low-stress, but we also got a chance to try out some of the public transportation in London, so we weren’t totally removed from that, either. EF really made the experience a great one for the chaperones – we mostly just did head counts at each location and got to enjoy the activities right alongside our student and parent travelers.

Another unexpected perk were the hotels – at first, I was disappointed to see that they were in quiet locations with nothing accessible around them. Then I realized that this is a pretty genius move on EF’s part – not only does it make things more affordable, but it keeps the kids from being motivated to sneak out at night – there is literally NOTHING for them to sneak out to do. Our hotels were always perfectly comfortable and quiet, and while we occasionally went around and knocked on doors before bed just to make the students feel like we were checking in on them, we never had any issues related to hotels or rooms. One co-ed group of our travelers even asked us for permission before watching a movie together in their room during our quiet night in Barnsley, which was adorable and thoughtful and made me love my kids just a little more.

What We’d Change: I’ll start by saying that it’s obvious that I had few complaints. One that we chaperones all shared was that we felt that the food that was provided could have been a little bit better. Most of it was fine and the kids did not really complain, but the portions were pretty small and some of the meals were a bit lacking in flavor or quality – for the amount that each student paid to travel, I think they could make the dining more of a featured experience of the trip.  Breakfasts were fine overall (and particularly good in London, where the hotel let us each pay a pound or two extra for access to their full hot buffet), and we were on our own for lunches, but the dinners could have been better.

Itinerary-wise, I’d say the only day that felt disappointingly slow was the day in York – we could have easily fit in a couple more hours of sightseeing and still have made the drive up to Stirling. But one day out of seven really isn’t a bad average. I’d also say that the ceilidh excursion is kind of lame and could be swapped out for something else – surely in the whole fabulous city of Edinburgh, there are other activities that EF could offer as a cultural experience in its place. Ultimately, though, those are the only things that jumped out as weaknesses.  Of course, including the Paris excursion in the price we paid or maybe just making the overall trip ten days instead of nine would be nice too – again, the price is a bit steep for what you get as a traveler, and I think EF could possibly work to make groups get a little more bang for their buck in that sense.

Overall, I will wrap up this post by saying that I loved this trip, and I loved sharing it with my students, my friends, and my husband! For fellow teachers who travel, I would really recommend EF’s services, and would say that the positives of our experience and the ease of it all definitely outweighed the negatives. 

Thinking about this EF itinerary, or have a general question about our experience? Need advice for traveling with high school students, perhaps particularly as a young teacher? Leave a comment below!

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One thought on “Travel Review: England and Scotland 2017 with Education First Tours (EF)

  1. What an adventure for both you and your students! Sounds like you guys had a whirlwind trip, doing and seeing so much in just over a week. I really enjoyed reading this. Great photos!

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