My husband was born and raised in Wales, and was a grad student in Los Angeles when we met. I must admit that one of the things I found most attractive about him then was his sexy British accent, and I loved the idea of traveling to the UK to meet his family.
Twelve years later, I barely notice the accent any more, and have made the trip so many times that I played tour guide recently for friends who joined us. As romantic as Britain sounded to me back then, I had not counted upon what happens when you add kids to the equation. Whereby you can "wing it" when you are carefree and single, taking your family along requires some extra planning. So here are my tips for taking a London vacation with your kids:
SAVING MONEY ON AIRFARE
Your biggest expenses will be lodging, transportation and airfare. You can save up to 70% on the latter by planning ahead and traveling in the 'low season' -- November to April (excluding the holiday periods). There are several disadvantages to this approach:
1. Your school age children will miss their classes for a couple of weeks. (You may be able to talk their teachers into assigning a report they can work on over the course of the trip -- after all, visiting another country is an educational experience, too.)
2. Britain is known for its wet weather and cold, blustery winds (and that's in the summer!) This is the time of year when both are at their peak. (Pack warm clothes and plenty of cold medication!)
3. If winter days are short in the U.S., they are even shorter in the UK (thanks to the location of the British Isles -- at a latitude of about 50 degrees N). On our recent January visit, the sun did not rise each morning until around 8:00 a.m. -- and set again at 4:00! (Plan your days wisely).
However, if cost is your biggest concern, you can't beat winter prices. Round trip economy flights from L.A. to London sell for about $950 in July. You can take the same trip in February for just $480.
Save more money by joining your favorite airline's frequent flyer program. We like Virgin Atlantic because the food is good and each seat has its own entertainment center, with programming just for kids. Although we only make the trip every 18 months or so, we are able to rack up miles quickly by using their partner companies for things like car rentals. Virgin is currently giving their 'Freeway' members a discount that can bring the cost of that February round trip ticket down to around $280.
You can add to your frequent flyer miles by using a credit card with a mileage program. We like the Membership Rewards program offered by American Express, because you can transfer your points into any of 12 different airline programs, five hotel chains and four car rental agencies. Best of all, the points never expire -- making it easier to accumulate enough to pay for the trip of your dreams -- or just airline tickets for the family. We use our Amex card for everything we can: Groceries, gasoline, our telephone carrier -- and my husband uses it for all his business expenses. Since these are all things we're buying anyway, it is no problem to pay the bill in full each month, and we don't carry extra finance charges.
If one of your children is an infant under one year old, you have the option of carrying the baby on your lap without having to pay for a ticket. Virgin and other airlines offer 'bassinettes' on built-in pull-down shelves, allowing baby to sleep peacefully during the flight. However, this is not the safest option for your child. You are better off buying a ticket (often discounted for children) and either bringing your own infant car seat or using one that belongs to the airline.
When booking your flight, do let the airline know that you are traveling with children. Families with infants are often assigned bulkhead seats, which offer more legroom than other aisles in the economy section. This is also a good time to order your child's kid meal, if the airline offers one.
If any of your children is three years or younger, you may wish to take along an umbrella stroller as a carry-on item. This will make it much easier to get around Heathrow Airport once you land.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
The U.S. State Department requires that all citizens carry a valid passport -- even infants. So the first thing you need to think about is obtaining one for every member of your family.
While adults with existing passports are able to renew by mail, you are required to apply in person when applying for or renewing one for your child (however, children under the age of 13 do not have to be present -- only you). You need to bring your completed application form, proof of your child's identity and U.S. residency (usually a birth certificate issued by the city, county, or state), proof of your own identity (your passport, drivers license, green card, etc.) and two photos that comply with the State Department's rules for passports. You need to allow six weeks for your new passports to be delivered, so it pays to plan ahead.
Complete details and requirements for U.S. passports -- as well as printable forms -- are available here:
STAYING HEALTHY ON YOUR VACATION
The State Department issues plenty of warnings about health hazards for world travelers. Luckily, the British Isles are not a hotbed of diseases like malaria or yellow fever, and no special immunizations are required for entry to the UK or back to the United States. But you still may have a reason to visit a doctor while abroad.
I never fail to come down with something the first week we're away. (Probably because of the recycled air in the plane cabin, which a friend describes as a "flying Petri dish.") What's more, my daughter usually gets it, too. While British residents enjoy free medical care through the country's National Health Service, that does not apply to Americans -- and your health insurance may not cover you outside the country. So it is wise for international travelers to take out additional insurance for their trip.
You'll find an easy-to-order policy over at MedicinePlanet.com, which also features some nifty customized health plans for travelers:
Travelers medical insurance is also offered by the folks at American Express. This is a great option if you do a lot of traveling; you can purchase insurance for your entire family on a yearly basis which keeps you covered each time you go away. Plus, if you are enrolled in the Member Rewards program, you'll earn miles for your next trip.
Luckily, our family is usually only plagued by colds (especially when making the trip in the winter), so we get by with over-the-counter medication. However, a familiar brand like Tylenol is not easy to find in Britain, nor by its generic version, acetaminophen. That's because in the UK, the same drug is known as 'paracetamol.' I now pack our favorite cold remedies and any prescription medications we are using in a carry-on bag.
Be sure to include your thermometer. We forgot to do that one time and had to buy a new one there -- which registered temperatures in Centigrade. Translating 32 degrees C into Fahrenheit is not an exercise I recommend when you're worried about your child (although it might be a good math or science exercise for one of your older kids).
If your child is running a fever and you've run out of Children's Tylenol, go to the nearest Boots (a drug store chain founded back in the 1700's) and pick up something called Calpol. It accomplishes the same thing.
Should you run out of decongestant and need to buy more, you may be surprised when you get to the store: You won't find any! To get that package of Sudafed, you will need to get assistance from a pharmacist.
Most stores we visited had two lines at the pharmacy counter -- one for prescriptions and another for those seeking advice. Don't be shy; just get into the latter and tell the clerk what you are looking for. If you know exactly what is in the remedy you need (the main ingredient of Sudafed is pseudoepinephrin), let them know. If they suggest something that is unfamiliar, ask questions about what its ingredients and any side effects you might expect. On our last trip, I made the mistake of keeping quiet, and the remedy they gave me was so disorienting, I had to discard it.
PACKING YOUR KIDS' CARRY-ON BAGS
Carry-on bags for Economy passengers are often limited to one per person, so you need to pack wisely. Luckily, each of your kids is entitled to a bag, so this makes it possible to include items that will make the flight easier.
Make sure your kids have some activities to keep them busy. If your school-age children were given some assignments to do, the long flight is a great place to start. Younger children will be grateful for some coloring books, notepads, colored pens and crayons.
Include comfort items for your young children. Our daughter's bag held her pillow from home, her favorite blanket and one of the dolls she sleeps with (we limited her to just three toys from home; explaining how difficult it would be to get back anything we left in another country).
Tell your children how jet lag works and that they will feel much better when they arrive if they get a little sleep on the plane. Our 4-year-old agreed to turn off her little TV after just one showing of Pokemon 2000. With her comfy pillow and blanket, she had no problems sleeping and was probably the best rested member of our family.
SPEAKING OF JET LAG:
As miraculous as it is to travel thousands of miles in hours instead of days, you and your family are bound to suffer from jet lag. It isn't only the fact that you will have lost five to eight hours of sleep just by flying overseas -- but crossing all those time zones messes with the body's circadian rhythms, resulting in more sleep loss, as well as disorientation, dehydration and low immunity levels.
When I first started "crossing the pond," those symptoms kept me from enjoying the first week of my visit. Aside from the long, uncomfortable flight, it was the thing I dreaded most about international travel.
But before our last trip, a friend told me about an herbal, homeopathic remedy she tried that alleviated almost all her jet lag symptoms (everything but the ones associated with lack of sleep). It's called No Jet Lag, costs about $10 and is available at health food stores all over the country.
I'm skeptical of the claims of most herbal remedies, but decided to give it a try... and it worked! I have never had such an easy time adjusting to the new time zone. My husband, on the other hand, is a scientist -- and even more of a skeptic than I. He did not try it on the trip over... and he was miserable (especially since I kept bragging about how good I felt). That convinced him to try it on the return trip... and it worked for him, too. We will never go to Europe without this stuff again, and next time I will consult our pediatrician to see if it is OK for our daughter to take it, too.
You can read more about No Jet Lag and additional ways to combat the syndrome here:
LODGING IN LONDON
Here are some sites we found that specialize in finding bargain hotel rooms in Europe:
London is a big city, so you want take care not to pick a hotel on the outskirts of town. Narrow your search to areas of Central London close to popular destinations, like:
Southwest London (encompassing Buckingham Palace and the shopping district) West London (Piccadilly, Mayfair and the theatre district) West Central London (Madame Tussaud's and the London Planetarium)
When checking prices, be sure to note if you are being quoted in US dollars (USD) or Great Britain Pounds (GBP). Remember that a pound is worth approximately $1.50. Some hotel websites offer pound-to-dollar conversion calculators, which can be a great help in estimating what your actual cost may be (of course, the value of each country's currency changes from day to day, so this serves as an estimate only).
You must also note whether the hotels you are looking at are charging on a per-person basis and if you need to pay a full adult price for each child.
You should also find out if the price you are quoted includes VAT (Value Added Tax). If it does not, expect to add an additional 17.5% to your total.
Once you've narrowed down your choices, you can check their ratings in the UK's Automobile Association guide:
One of the highlights of our recent trip was joining up with friends who also have a 4-year-old. We ended up staying in their favorite hotel, an exclusive boutique establishment in fashionable South Kensington (not far from Kensington Palace, which was the home of Princess Diana).
There were plenty of chic bistros and trendy restaurants about... but it was pretty apparent that London families do not do a lot of dining out together - at least, not in that neighborhood.
We eventually found a friendly Italian joint that served more than just pizza.
If you enjoy dining out, you may not get to do a lot of that with your young children in London. Plan on spending time at Burger King and Pizza Hut and McDonald's (there's a lovely one right across the street from Marble Arch).
If you're feeling adventurous and just have to sample the local cuisine, you might want to check out one of the many pubs (you'll find at least one on just about every street in London). They tend to be noisy, have pretty extensive menus and allow kids -- at lunchtime.
You may want to steer away (no pun intended) from dishes containing beef. Although BSE (more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease) appears to have been eradicated from the British herds, it continues to be a problem throughout Europe (and I have my doubts about the safety of the beef we buy in America). You will still have plenty of dishes to choose from among lamb, pork, and poultry selections -- plus you'll find two or three vegetarian choices at just about every restaurant in Britain.
Unlike my home town of Los Angeles, London has a terrific public transportation system. If you're not near a tube (subway) station, you can easily find a cab or bus to take you where you want to go. If you're up to it after your flight and your kids can handle it, you can even take the tube from Heathrow to your destination in Central London. However, you'll be tired, you'll have luggage -- and you'll most likely prefer to ride in a cab. Expect to spend about $60 on the trip to the city.
Do plan on using the tube or riding the famous double-decker buses once you're there -- the kids will love them. (You should be aware that the top tier of the bus tends to be full of smokers).
One of your best bets for getting around on your first full day is a guided sightseeing tour. You may have scoffed at these when you were an adventurous single, but let me tell you -- walking several miles in an unfamiliar city with kids in tow is no picnic. Take the bus and relax while a knowledgeable tour guide points out all the interesting stuff along the way.
The "Original Tour" company utilizes open top double-decker buses on four different lines, with over 90 stops. Your ticket is good for 24 hours and you get to hop on and hop off wherever you choose. You may also gain priority entry, reduced admission charges or both at several popular tourist attractions.
If you are visiting London in the cold "low season," you will be more comfortable sitting on the enclosed lower deck. Unfortunately, the view of Big Ben and the Tower Bridge will not be as spectacular, but you will definitely be cozier down below.
You can save one pound per ticket by ordering them in advance online at:
WHAT TO SEE
There is so much to see and do in London that you could write a whole book about it (and several people have). You'll witness so many historic landmarks that your kids will have absolutely no problems writing that report for their teachers. Here are some suggestions:
The Tower of London has attractions that will satisfy every member of the family -- from the Jewel House where you can see the Hope Diamond, various crowns and other artifacts of the Royal Family -- to its infamous torture chamber. Admission is pricey but well worth it.
Your kids will probably enjoy the drive over London Bridge (even if they are disappointed at its ordinariness next to its picturesque sister, the Tower Bridge):
The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace takes place daily in the summer, but only every other day in the winter, at 11:30 a.m. While tours of the Palace are in August and September, they do have an exceptionally nice gift shop open year-round (and which of your friends *wouldn't* like a nice souvenir with 'Buckingham Palace' stamped upon it?)
London has some of the most respected museums in the world. One that is a winner with kids is the Natural History Museum:
Find more information on British sights and attractions here:
London is one the world's great cities and while not known as a budget destination, it does not have to bankrupt your family. With so much to see and do, it's a great place for a special vacation.
© 2001 by Donna Schwartz Mills
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