The ramp less chosen

Our expert advises readers on alternative, non-walking fun in London, credit card purchases in China, historic battle site tours and hotel integrity.

Published July 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I'm considering a trip to London. Is there a good source for information on London sights off the beaten path? (I'm 26, single and I like experiencing neighborhood flavor.) I have a minor disability where I sometimes use a wheelchair for long distances (street tours, going through a park). Do you know of any resources for accessibility in London?

Richard Branson & Co., the same jolly people who brought us Virgin Atlantic airways and Virgin Megastores, have just leaped into the publishing fray with a guidebook to London that's packed with details on sites, pubs, restaurants, galleries and other attractions, arranged by neighborhood. It's easy to use and has a hip edge to it, as you might expect from a publication whose parent company is a favorite among the glitterati. You can find the book, entitled simply "London: A Virgin Guide" and published by Virgin Publishing Ltd., in stores or order it through U.S. distributor Globe Pequot, phone (800) 962-0973. is the official site of the London Tourist Board.

Another book to check out is the London installment of the Frommer's Irreverent Guides series, which bills itself as "a wickedly honest guide for sophisticated travelers, and those who want to be." It also mentions an accessibility hot line for arts events.

Many publications and Web sites can help you with accessibility questions, including Access-Able Travel Source.

Another source is the Travelin' Talk Network, an information network providing assistance to travelers with disabilities.

A key organization is the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped, whose site offers many links.

For mobility-impaired travelers looking for a company to help them plan a trip to the United Kingdom, there's Undiscovered Britain, which specializes in creating packages for wheelchair travelers and their partners. The company's phone number is (215) 969-0542, and its Web site includes accessibility information.

For a trip to China, will we be able to use credit cards?

Credit cards are increasingly accepted in China's larger cities, especially for hotels and big-ticket shopping, but don't expect to use them as reliably as in industrialized countries. More likely you'll be spending in yuan (aka the renminbi or RMB).

The Lonely Planet guide to China has a thorough description of money routines. For an abbreviated look, visit the Lonely Planet site and click on "money and costs." It includes a section that says:

Foreign currency and travellers' cheques can be changed at the main branches of the Bank of China, the tourist hotels, Friendship Stores and some department stores. Hotels usually charge the official rate. You will need to keep your exchange receipts if you want to change any of your remaining RMB at the end of your trip. Travellers' cheques are useful because the exchange rate is more favourable than that for cash; Thomas Cook, American Express and Bank of America are most commonly accepted.

Credit cards are gaining ground in China, with Visa, MasterCard, American Express (branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen), JCB and Diners Club the most common. Cards can be used in most mid- to top-range hotels, Friendship and department stores, but cannot be used to finance your transportation costs. Cash advances can be made at head branches of the Bank of China (for 4 percent commission).

The official Web site of the China National Tourism Administration has a short section on money under "money and credit card," as well as sections on shopping, costs and traveling independently.

There are several branches of the China National Tourist Office, including one at 333 West Broadway, Suite 201, Glendale CA 91204, phone (818) 545-7505; another is at 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 6413, Empire State Building, New York, NY 10118; phone (212) 760-9700.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing's Web site has a link through which U.S. citizens can register their presence in China and provide emergency contact information that would be helpful to U.S. officials, should you run into trouble.

Where can I locate tour companies that specialize in tours of historic military battle sites?

Several military tour companies plan regular package tours or can help arrange an independent trip with a battlefield theme. Among them:

  • Valor Tours of Sausalito, Calif., specializes in Pacific and Asian military tours. Its address is 10 Liberty Ship Way, Sausalito, Calif. 94965; phone (800) 842-4504 or (415) 332-7850.

  • Galaxy Tours of Wayne, Pa., which has a long history of sponsoring trips to battlefields, invasion beachheads, military stations and other sites related to U.S. veterans and the places they've served. Its address is Box 234, Wayne, PA 19087, phone (800) 523-7287.

  • Holts Tours Ltd. offers dozens of tours in Europe. Its address 15 Market St., Sandwich, Kent CT13 9DA, United Kingdom; phone (from the U.S.) 011-44-1-304-612-248; fax 011-44-1-304-614-930.

  • A list of cultural military tour operators can be found via a French Government Tourist Office site.

    Revisiting a previous Travel Advisor Q&A

    A recent column with separate items about nonsmoking hotel rooms and hotels near San Francisco's Union Square prompted this note from a reader:

    In my misspent middle-age I worked at a hotel off Union Square for about a month.

    All but one floor of the hotel was nonsmoking. When somebody had a nonsmoking reservation and we only had rooms on the smoking floor, we sent a bellhop up first to clear out the ashtrays and told the guest it was a nonsmoking room on a smoking floor.

    Hotels, especially off Union Square, routinely overbook just like airlines. The rule was first come, first served. What the salesmen told customers bore little relationship to reality.

    While we wouldn't really hold a reservation for anyone, we would really charge their credit card for a no-show if they didn't arrive.

    The hotels rely on their guests being nice people and understanding that the front line staff -- including bellhops, front desk, and room service -- were not the ones that screwed them.

    While some would occasionally become loud and obnoxious, others would smile meekly and accept their fate graciously. Whether or not they got what they wanted was entirely out of our hands.

    Which is only one of the reasons I no longer work for hotels.

  • By Donald D. Groff

    Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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