The Illusionist escape room, Escape Basildon

Unusually we managed to catch both boys at home and in a good mood, so we arranged another family trip – The Illusionist escape room hosted by Escape Basildon. Because of the relatively short notice, we had to book by phone (not a problem) and pay over the phone (big problem).

The escape room itself is located close to the pedestrianised city centre of Basildon opposite one of the more run-down looking buildings. Once inside however, the shop itself is fine, looking very much like any of the other games arenas we have visited over the years. 

After a shortened introduction and safety briefing, we were led into the room and given an analogue countdown clock and the background story: 

The curtains close, the cheering stops, yet you still await the appearance of the Illusionist. Having volunteered to take part in the grand finale it turns out there is a more sinister edge to the Magicians final trick. In order to escape you will need to defeat the magical challenges ahead!

Then we were set loose. 

It took us a little while to get into gear but once the first few puzzles were solved, we found our groove. There are quite a few padlocks in this particular game, some easier than others. On the few occasions we did get stuck, it was usually down to miscommunication rather than the difficulty of the puzzle itself. 

Experienced gamers will recognise many of the puzzle principles used in The Illusionist. But we still had fun and enjoyed the challenge, escaping from the room in just 45 minutes. The theming and condition of the room is also pretty good.

A picture of the family inside The Illusionist escape room in Basildon
As you can see, we had 15 minutes left on the clock

With four people playing, the room did feel a bit cramped at times. With six (max capacity) I can see fellow players becoming a hindrance – especially if one of you is less mobile than the others. There is no crawling, climbing or uneven floors in this room, which makes it relatively accessible.

Back in the Escape Basildon foyer, there are plenty of comfortable seats and a collection of 80s style arcade games. There is also a milkshake bar selling Shakeaway style drinks which is pretty cool.

There are two other rooms to play at Escape Basildon (a horror room and a wizard-themed room) which we may come back and play at some point in the future.

Did we escape? Yes
Did we have fun? Yes
Mobility rating: 4.5 out of 5 (the whole game operates in one room on one level)
Price: £88.00
Would we recommend? Yes
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Other important stats for The Illusionist escape room:

Number of players: 4
Time limit: 60 minutes
Time remaining: 15 minutes
Number of clues: 0
Live actors: No
Escape Basildon difficulty rating: 4 out of 5

It’s worth noting that there is no parking at the Escape Basildon escape rooms, although there are plenty of car parks nearby. After 6pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays, it costs just £0.75 to park. There is no free parking for Blue Badge holders.

Twilight Manor escape room, Cluetopia Ipswich

What’s the best way to celebrate Mother’s Day? Chocolates? Breakfast in bed? Flowers? Meal out? No. It’s a trip to Twilight Manor.

As Linda’s recovery from her hip replacement operation continues apace, we decided to have a family day out to try a new escape room – Twilight Manor. Hosted by Cluetopia, this is a ‘haunted house’ style room housed in an old building down near Ipswich Marina.

From the blurb:

You managed to buy Twilight Manor at a fraction of its true cost. You knew it needed some work. However, you didn’t know it was HAUNTED! A local urban legend states the only way to rid the house of its unwanted guests is to find the ancient Talisman, hidden somewhere deep within the manor. No one who has entered has survived longer than an hour. Can you find the Talisman and rid the Manor of its nasty spirits?

Obviously I can’t say much about the specifics, but this is a quite large, multi-room affair. There is a good mix of simple and difficult puzzles and many of them require good teamwork and timing to solve.

The theming itself isn’t too bad and the room is clean and well-maintained. The horror theme means that you will encounter some blood and body parts, but they are relatively tame compared to what you encounter on the European mainland!

Twilight Manor is reputed to be one of the hardest rooms at Cluetopia Ipswich so less experienced teams may want to take a fourth member (you can have up to eight).

There are also a few ‘scary’ moments but I was so focused on the puzzles I missed them all!

Did we escape? Yes
Did we have fun? Yes
Mobility rating: 2.5 out of 5 (there are a few stairs in this multi-room game)
Price: £72.00
Would we recommend? Yes
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Linda and I have done a few rooms at another Cluetopia location (Clacton on Sea) and enjoyed them both. The games masters are always very friendly and helpful and take great pride in doing a good job for the players.

Other important Twilight Manor stats
Number of players: 3
Time limit: 60 minutes
Time remaining: 3 minutes
Number of clues: 1
Live actors: No
Cluetopia difficulty rating: 4 out of 5

It’s also worth noting that there is no parking at the Cluetopia escape rooms, although there are two car parks nearby. Just be warned that it’s not cheap (£3.20 for two hours).

National Express to Southampton Cruise Terminal Guide

Everything you need to know about catching a National Express Coach to Southampton Cruise Terminal.

Can I catch a coach to Southampton Cruise Terminal?

No, not directly. National Express coaches stop at the bus station in Southampton town centre.

How far is Southampton Coach Station from the cruise terminal?

It is possible to walk to all five cruise terminals, but you must consider the distances involved before setting off:

  • Mayflower Cruise Terminal – 1.4 miles
  • Horizon Cruise Terminal – 0.7 miles
  • City Cruise Terminal – 0.7 miles
  • Ocean Cruise Terminal – 1.2 miles
  • QE II Terminal – 1.9 miles

A taxi transfer to the docks is probably the smarter choice when dealing with large suitcases (see below).

Which is the nearest hotel to Southampton Coach Station?

Both the Premier Inn and the Moxy are a short walk away.

And no, you don’t have to walk around the second roundabout shown in the map above, saving some time and distance.

Can I get a taxi from Southampton National Express Coach Station?

Without pre-booking, probably not. There is a taxi rank just out the front of the coach station (see map below) but there is rarely a queue of waiting vehicles. 

You could call an Uber or book a West Quay Cars taxi by calling +44 (0)2380 999 999.

Can I catch a regular bus to the cruise terminal at Southampton?

No. None of the cruise terminals is served directly by a public bus route. Even if you do manage to struggle onboard with your suitcases, you will still have to walk quite some distance from the nearest bus stop to your ship.

What facilities are there at Southampton Coach Station?

You will find toilets and a small shop at the Coach Station – if it is open. There is a roof to shelter under if the weather is bad. There is also a small coffee shop, payphone and an automated ticket machine.

Is there a toilet at Southampton Coach Station?

Yes. But it is only accessible when the bus station is open. And if it is like the toilet at Victoria Coach Station, wear a mask – the stench is probably quite bad.

When is the coach station open?

The current opening hours are:

Monday – Thursday: 08:00 – 17:30 (8:00am – 5:30pm)

Friday: 06:45 – 17:30 (6:45am – 5:30pm)

Saturday – Sunday: 07:15 – 17:30 (7:15am – 5:30pm)

Note that coaches do arrive and depart outside these hours, but you will not be able to access any of the facilities inside the station – including the toilets. So if you need to go, use the toilet on the coach before disembarking.

Can I buy National Express tickets at the bus station?

Yes, there is an automated ticket machine – but you can only use it when Southampton Coach Station is open. Buying tickets online may be a smarter move though – that way you can guarantee your seat on the coach to London.

National Express also accept telephone bookings – but they will apply an additional £3 booking fee for doing so.

Is the coach station accessible?

Access from street to coach is completely step-free. But you will need to climb several steps once you are on the bus.

Is there a left luggage office at Southampton Bus Station?

No. And there are no luggage storage options at the nearby railway station either.

Instead you will need to consider using a service like CitySpareSpace to book baggage storage – prices start at £7 per bag. The nearest option appears to be the Maynards Store, a six minute walk away. We’ve not used this service, so cannot provide a personal recommendation.

UK hotels tend to store luggage free of charge which may be a better option if you are staying in Southampton overnight.

What about coaches from London Heathrow Airport to Southampton?

National Express operate several coaches daily between Southampton and London Heathrow Airport. The bus is a viable transfer option if you are doing a fly-cruise trip.

And National Express coaches from Gatwick to Southampton?

Travelling between Gatwick Airport and Southampton Cruise Terminal is a two-leg trip. Ironically you must first catch a bus to Heathrow Airport, then change to reach your final destination. The same is true if you are hoping to connect with London Stansted Airport.

Probably not the best option if you’re already tired and jet-lagged.

Can you travel by coach to Southampton on the same day you sail?

If your cruise leaves in the afternoon or evening, you could arrive in Southampton in the morning. Just remember that coaches are subject to the same traffic conditions as cars, so if there is a traffic jam anywhere along the route, it will affect arrival times.

And don’t forget – you must also factor in the time required to get from the coach station to your cruise terminal too.

What is the phone number for the National Express Southampton Coach Station?

You cannot call the Southampton bus station direct. However, you can contact customer services for more information on 08717 81 81 81. Calls cost an eye-watering 13p per minute however.

BONUS TIP: You can avoid sky high call charges by using the local-rate number instead: +44 (0)371 781 8181

Is there anything else I should know?

  • Southampton Central railway station is a short walk away, as is the Westquay Shopping Centre
  • There are three coach bays – make sure you board the correct bus if travelling away from the cruise terminal.
  • Speak to the agent at the gate if you have mobility issues. They may be able to board you first, saving a lot of the hassle and discomfort of boarding with the other passengers.

Read our review of the London to Southampton National Express journey.

Would we recommend catching National Express to Southampton Cruise Terminal?

Yes, absolutely. There are several reasons to consider catching a coach to Southampton: 

  • National Express coach tickets are much cheaper than port parking. 
  • You don’t have to worry about where to leave your car on a one-way cruise.
  • Coach travel is also much cheaper than train travel.
  • Speed limits, one-way systems and traffic are all someone else’s problem – much more relaxing than driving yourself!

Do you have another question? Leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to find an answer.

The Warsaw Gambit – Have You Read It Yet?

Journey into Darkness is a travel blog. However, I am also a professional writer – I even have to work on the road sometimes. But that’s just part of having the best job in the world.

In between family life, customer projects and this blog, I have also managed to complete my first ever novel, The Warsaw Gambit.

It only took 45 years.

From the blurb:

Russia has invaded Ukraine. Europe is in chaos. NATO refuses to get involved. 

Faced by overwhelming military might and dwindling support from its allies, Ukraine is about to fall. And the rest of Eastern Europe could be next. 

Then a long-dead Cold War era double agent makes contact with his CIA handler, sharing a secret that could end the war. So why does no one want to act?

Taking the initiative, the Polish government arranges a simple mission with a team of five volunteers. All they have to do is find – and kidnap – the Russian president.

But time is running out…

It’s a thrilling action adventure novel – even Linda enjoyed it.

The Warsaw Gambit is available now exclusively on Amazon. And if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you can download and read for free.

Order your copy of The Warsaw Gambit here.

And please don’t forget to leave a rating and review – it really helps us indie publishers.

British Airways Executive Club Changes Tier Point Earning Period

An email from British Airways this morning announces a genuinely useful change to the Executive Club frequent flyer program. From 1st April 2025 all club members will operate according to the same tier point earning period dates.

So what?

With British Airways, frequent flyer status is earned by collecting ‘Tier Points’ (not to be confused with Avios). Tier Points are awarded based on the flights flown with British Airways and essentially, the more you spend on your flight, the more points you earn. Flying long haul first class from London to Sydney earns more Tier Points than a short haul economy hop from London to Paris for instance.

If you earn enough Tier Points during your annual collection period, you qualify for frequent flyer status and all the benefits that brings.

Simple enough, right? The only problem is that the Tier Point earning period varies wildly depending on when you joined the BA Executive Club. Currently my earning period begins and ends on the 8th September whereas Linda’s runs until June.

Having failed to complete enough flights during my Tier Point earning period, I have been bumped down to Bronze status. Linda on the other is still sitting pretty in Silver, despite having flown no more times than I – she just got lucky with the timing of our trips, meeting the earnings threshold at a more opportune time than I did.

BA simplifies the Tier Point Earning Period

The news that the Tier Point Earning Period is being standardised is good news for travellers like us. Previously, achieving and retaining status meant carefully calculating when to fly to maximise Tier Point earning potential – and to ensure we got full value from our frequent flyer status. In future we know that our collection periods are the same – and our membership levels.

Usually an email from an airline about changes to the frequent flyer program contains bad news (such as the value of miles being downgraded again). However, this is one change I think will benefit us – especially as the Executive Club will apply ‘Tier Point adjustments’ to address the shortening of the collection window.

You can learn more about the changes in BA’s FAQs.

What is the nearest airport for Sunny Beach?

Which is the nearest airport for Sunny Beach? It’s a common question asked by visitors to the Journey into Darkness blog.

TLDR; it’s Burgas.

Also known as Slynchev Bryag, Sunny Beach is a Magaluf-like resort on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. It is a popular destination for bargain hunters who want to enjoy nice, warm weather without the negative connotations of the Balearics or Costa Brava.

And because Bulgaria has retained the Lev, your holiday money goes a lot further than in other Eurozone destinations.

Top tip: You can read our multi-day review of Sunny Beach and surrounding areas here.

Most package holidays include transfers to Sunny Beach from the airport. But if you’re arranging a budget break, you may have to make your own arrangements. Here’s what you need to know:

Burgas is the closest airport to Sunny Beach

Just 17 miles away, the nearest airport to Sunny Beach is Burgas. A private transfer in a taxi takes about 30 minutes. A resort transfer bus takes a lot longer as it loops around the various hotels, dropping off other holidaymakers.

Airlines serving Burgas include: WizzAir, Jet2, Ryanair, EasyJet, Eurowings, LOT and Smartwings, usually according to seasonal schedules.

Varna is an alternative airport for Sunny Beach

Varna Airport is sometimes billed as an alternative for Sunny Beach but it is much further away (62 miles!). Expect to pay £50 – £120 for a transfer (taxi, minibus etc).

Having not tried Varna Airport, we cannot recommend it.

Airlines serving Varna include: WizzAir, Tui, Turkish and Austrian. Again, seasonal schedules may apply.

Istanbul is closer than Sofia (as the crow flies)

Tempted to fly to the Bulgarian capital and travel cross-country? It takes more than four hours to drive the 250+ miles to the coast. If you are willing to make that kind of journey, you could also consider flying to Istanbul in Turkey…

BONUS: Useless Sunny Beach airport trivia

Technically, Sunny Beach has its own airport, just seven miles outside the town. However, there are no international flights – because it is little more than a grass airstrip in a field.

If you hold a private pilot licence and fancy taking your chances, the ‘airport’ is located here. And if you can read Bulgarian, check out the website. Good luck finding a taxi though!

Packing cubes – why this travel hack may be a massive mistake

Visit any travel advice website and you will find dozens of articles extolling the virtues of packing cubes. But the reality is that these luggage organising contraptions may be a very expensive mistake.

What are packing cubes?

Packing cubes are a way to organise and compress your clothes so that they fit more neatly into your suitcase. Typically they are a collection of small, zippered bags into which you roll (or neatly fold) clothing.

There are two reasons why packing cubes are useful:

  1. You can arrange your belongings however you like, making them easier to unpack.
  2. They provide additional compression, ensuring your belongings are not scattered all over your suitcase during transit.

Once the packing cubes are filled, they slot neatly into your suitcase. Anything which doesn’t fit, can be nestled between or around cubes, maximising available luggage space.

Packing cubes for suitcases

This is the set of cubes I bought from Amazon. At less than £10 for a complete set of 13 organisers (include some refillable liquid pouches and drawstring bags), it seemed a reasonable price for my travel hack experiment

Did packing cubes change my life?

Yes. I found that packing cubes made it really easy to fit 17 days worth of clothing neatly into a large suitcase.

The cubes also dramatically simplified unpacking – at least for smaller items like t-shirts and underwear. You just take the cube out of your suitcase and place it into a drawer.

Repacking is also much easier. As you take off your dirty clothes, they can be placed straight back into a cube. So when it comes time to disembark, reloading packing cubes takes a matter of seconds.

So what is the problem?

When going on a cruise, my suitcase is generally jam-packed. Using packing organisers dramatically reduced wasted space. In fact, almost a quarter of my case was still empty once my clothes were packed.

Great. But…

That extra space means you can quickly overestimate your luggage allowance. And if your suitcase is too heavy, airlines will not hesitate to charge you an astronomical excess baggage fee (£65 per bag on British Airways).

When I arrived at Miami International, my suitcase weighed more than 30kg – well over the 23kg limit. Thankfully our BA Executive Club Silver status entitles us to 2 x 23kg suitcases each. So I got away with it this time.

I suggest you exercise extreme caution when using cubes. Weigh your suitcases before leaving home to avoid embarrassment at check-in.

Bargain basement packing cube travel hack

There is one way to test out the packing concept for free – plastic shopping bags.

Simply roll/fold your clothing into a plastic carrier bag. Once full, use the handles to tie the neck closed. Boom! You’ve contained and compressed your luggage ready to be fitted neatly into your suitcase.

It’s not as pretty as ‘real’ packing organisers, but it is effective. The same caveats about over-packing still apply.

Travel plans for 2024…

It’s January 1st and normally we would have some kind of travel plans for 2024 in place already. A gig abroad, a city break with our boys etc etc.

However, 2024 is set to be a little more unpredictable. Linda’s hip replacement is scheduled for mid-February which is great news. But it also means we won’t be travelling before then – or for some weeks after either.

We do have a Princess cruise booked for July, sailing from New York to Southampton via Greenland and Iceland. Hopefully we will be able to fit in a few more trips once mobility is restored. Like seeing Krampus at the Salzburg Christmas Market for instance. Or doing some escape rooms in Poland.

In the meantime, we’ll be keeping the blog updated with other travel-related news, advice and anecdotes. Maybe you’ll soon see an advert for an unwanted travel mobility scooter too.

How to reduce airport stress (when travelling) – 3 top tips

How to reduce stress when travelling? It’s an important question. Travel should be fun, inspiring, exciting and, to some degree, relaxing.

But for many people, including Linda, the airport is an incredibly stressful place.

So it was quite interesting to see Condé Nast Traveller publish a top 10 list of ‘Least Stressful Airports in Europe’. More interesting still is what their choices tell us about choosing less stressful destinations. Here are three factors which could help to reduce airport stress and anxiety:

1. How to reduce stress – Choose your destination

The first observation is choice of destination. Eight out of ten airports listed could be considered ‘regional’; they do not serve a capital city. So if you want a less stressful airport experience, don’t visit a capital.


2. Reducing travel stress – Choose a “small” country

The two capital cities which do make the ‘least stressful’ list are both situated in relatively small countries – Luxembourg and Lithuania. They boast small populations and geographical footprints – so think small for your next stress-free trip.

3. Stress-free airports – Choose unpopular

None of the ten airports listed serves more than 4.4 million passengers each year. Compare this to Luton Airport, London’s third, which had 13.3 million in 2022…

It seems that those airports which don’t have to handle tens of thousands of passengers every day tend to be more relaxed. Who would have thought it?

Are these three tips guaranteed to help reduce stress? Sadly not. We have visited plenty of smaller, unpopular, regional airports over the years with mixed results. Gdansk and Wrocław (Poland) and Karlsruhe-Baden (Germany) have all been excellent. Tuzla (Bosnia) was chaotic and quaint, queuing out onto the tarmac to go through immigration. Munich (Germany) is a total disaster and should be avoided by even the most laid back travellers.

And if you’re interested, the Top 10 Least Stressful Airports in Europe as identified by and Condé Nast Traveller are:

  1. Billund Airport, Denmark
  2. Luxembourg Airport, Luxembourg
  3. Vilnius International Airport, Lithuania
  4. Menorca Airport, Spain
  5. Hannover Airport, Germany
  6. Newcastle Airport, UK
  7. Corfu International Airport, Greece
  8. Trondheim Airport, Norway
  9. Turin Airport, Italy
  10. Cagliari Elmas Airport, Italy

I should point out that we have visited none of these airports, so cannot personally verify whether they really are stress-free or not. It’s perhaps also worth noting that Ryanair fly to eight of the ten listed, so airline choice may have less to do with airport stress than people think.

British Airways Brings Business Class Back To Stansted Airport

Stansted Airport has received a boost this week with two big announcements – which is great for those of us who use the Essex airport regularly.

British Airways Makes A Return

First, British Airways has announced they are returning to Stansted Airport in 2024. The short haul subsidiary BA CityFlyer will be offering flights to Florence (Italy), Nice (France) and Ibiza (Spain).

Although these destinations are already well-served, I am hopeful that BA uses this as a launchpad to expand their network from Essex. Given that British Airways fares aren’t that different to Ryanair‘s (once you add on ‘extras’ like luggage and seat selection), it will be good to see some competition back at Stansted. Plus the opportunity to earn some Executive Club tier points from our local airport.

Notably, British Airways is was the only airline offering business class services from Stansted Airport, until…

Royal Jordanian Touches Down At Stansted

In something of a surprise move, Royal Jordanian has announced they will be operating 4x weekly flights between Stansted and Amman (Jordan). How popular this route will be remains to be seen, but if the fares are low enough, it might be tempting to hop on a city break to visit Petra.

Royal Jordanian also offer ‘Crown Class’ on all their aircraft too. Which puts a dent into BA’s claim to be the only business class offering at Stansted.

What About Lounges?

Although BA is pitching their Stansted service at the budget market, their planes will still have a Club Europe section. And one of the perks of business class is lounge access before a flight.

Currently Stansted Airport only has one lounge, The Escape Lounge, which costs (a frankly ridiculous) £31.99 per person for a very basic offering. The lounge will certainly not impress anyone travelling Crown Class on Royal Jordanian – or Club Europe. It doesn’t even impress us when we manage to score free access through a credit card offer or similar.

Top tip: You can get access to the Escape Lounge for £20 per person if you are a member of Priority Pass. If you have an AmEx Gold card or a Revolut Metal plan, you already have free Priority Pass membership (worth $99 USD).

Bonus tip: £20 is probably still over priced for the Escape Lounge at Stansted.

WARNING! The Escape Lounge is quite small and frequently full. The only way to guarantee entry is to pre-book – which means you won’t be able to get a discount rate or use your Priority Pass membership.

Personally, I hope BA sees enough success in their Stansted offering to encourage further investment. A BA/oneworld co-branded lounge would be great – but they would need to significantly expand their flight schedule to justify that outlay.

However, Stansted Airport recently received planning permission to extend the terminal building by 30%. So there is always potential should BA and Royal Jordanian services take off (sorry, awful pun).

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