ENGLAND, London Vacation Tips – There’s nothing worse than arriving in a new city with no game plan—trust me, I grew up with an anti-planning family and still have nightmares of arriving in Bombay in the middle of the night with no transit or hotel planned. Yes, it’s scarring. Yet to even the best planners among us, traveling to a large city like London with your family can still seem daunting. Here are my ten tips to help you make the most of your time there and fully enjoy all the culture and history you’ve come to see.
1. Plan your (express) arrival in London.
Getting into London from the airport is relatively quick and easy. You will most likely be flying into Heathrow or Gatwick. From Gatwick, you will want to take the Gatwick Express Train into Victoria Station. While it’s a bit more expensive than the Southern Rail, it is fifteen minutes quicker and will not get as crowded. Note that the walk to the train station is a bit of a haul. Similarly, when you arrive at Heathrow, just follow the signs for the Heathrow Express, which will get you into central London in comfort in just fifteen minutes.
2. Use “Airportr” to get your luggage from the airport to London.
If you’re flying into London from the U.S., chances are you’ll be taking a red-eye. This means you may be arriving in London at the crack of dawn and may not be able to check into your hotel until the usual 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. AirPortr is a service that will grab your luggage at the airport, wrap it up in plastic wrap, and transport it to your hotel for you, leaving you free to go take a much lighter jaunt into town, grab some breakfast, and still be the first in line when the museum opens. Genius! Find out more at: www.airportr.com.
3. Use the Tube—unless you have a stroller!
The London tube is a great, convenient, and cost-effective way to get around—unless you are traveling with a little one in a stroller. In fact, elevators are so rare and hard-to-find that it makes you wonder how people in wheelchairs get around. If you’re traveling with a stroller, you’ll want to use the bus system, which can be a real treat for little ones, especially if they can sit on the top level of double-decker buses. The one drawback, of course, is the London traffic, so try to avoid rush hour if you can. Find out more: Click here for info about taking London buses and follow this link for info on the London Underground (Tube).
4. Take the Thames Clipper.
I love to mix up our transportation while on vacation. And if we can include a boat, I know it will make everyone—especially the member of the family with crowd anxiety—much, much happier. The Thames Clipper is a river bus service that caters to both commuters and tourists. You’ll get fantastic daytime or nighttime views of London’s famous sites, especially on the route between the London Eye and Greenwich (where the Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory are located). Find out more: Official site for the Thames Clippers
5. See a play or musical.
Theater (or theatre) is the thing in London. And scoring theater tickets (Hamilton aside) can be both easier and cheaper than in New York. While you’ll find many American musical productions that have skipped across the pond to the West End, I would highly recommend seeing a show you wouldn’t see at home. Horrible Histories, for example, is a series of shows geared towards children. Based on a popular book series, they have new productions every year of so. And who knows, you may even “discover” a show before it moves to New York. Find out more: Click here for some great tips for scoring cheap theatre tickets.
6. Consider getting the London Pass.
In order to save money and maximize you time, you may be tempted to buy the London Pass. The card covers dozens of museums and attractions. But is it worth it? Keep in mind that many museums, such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, are actually free, and that some of the more obscure museums included in the Pass (e.g., The Fan Museum, which is dedicated to…fans) may not be on anyone’s top ten list. So if you’re planning on doing several of the high-ticket items in one day—The Tower of London and Kensington Palace, for example—it certainly makes sense, but if you want a more leisurely itinerary, just plan to pay as you go. Find out more: Official site for the London Pass
7. Go deeper.
Even for an independent family, a good guided tour can give you insight into the history and culture of a place that you just won’t get from a guidebook or brochure. And as an added bonus, tours in popular sites often include skip-the-line tickets, saving you possible hours of whining, I mean winding, ticket lines. The Tower of London Tour, offered by Context Travel, is an example of a great historian-led tour that will take you inside the history of the Tower through the lens of both commoners and royalty. If you’re traveling with teens, check out the Rock and Roll Walking Tour offered by Viator, which explores London’s rich rock history from the Beatles to Amy Winehouse.
8. Do some advance reading and viewing to get the family excited.
A favorite way for my family to get ready for a trip is to read books and watch movies set in our destination. For a trip to London with younger kids, you really can’t do better than the charming Paddington Bear books and the recent movies.
For older children, the book series Horrible Histories is a great way to learn about British history. Check out Horrible Histories’ Gruesome Guide to London. And don’t forget to check if any of their theatrical productions are playing during your visit. Our favorite middle-school writer, David Walliams, set most of his books in London. They are hilarious and addictive.
9. Speak the language.
One of the great things about traveling to London is that everyone speaks your language. Except when they don’t. You’d be surprised at the many linguistic differences you’ll encounter. It might help you and the family to do a little prep work to avoid any spot of bother. Here are a few to get you going:
Boot – Trunk
Crisps – Chips
Chips – French Fries
Lorry – Truck
Loo – Bathroom
Queue – Line
Lift – Elevator
Flat – Apartment
Ground Floor – First Floor
Cheers – Thanks
Tip: When you’re traveling with babies or toddlers, there’s even more vocabulary to consider. Don’t miss this post at Travels with Baby for help: At Least They’ll Speak “English”: A Parent’s Guide to Babytalk Abroad.
10. Supermarkets are a great place for a quick meal (really).
Sometimes you just need to get food into your children stat and you don’t have time for messing around with tables, menus, or any of the nonsense that comes with dining out. Supermarket meals are just the thing. You’ll find smaller supermarkets sprinkled throughout London. The major chains, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, offer inexpensive quick meals, usually a sandwich with chips and a drink, for around three pounds. Prawn mayonnaise and eggs mayonnaise with watercress are popular options. These are great for taking to the park on a sunny day or just fueling up on the go.
Friendly Bonus Tip: Relax and have a pint.
You’ve been sight-seeing all morning and your people are getting hungry and restless and, let’s face it, starting to drive you and your sweetie a bit bonkers. It’s time to squeeze in a little grown-up time. Lunch at a friendly pub is just the thing. Traditional pub food also happens to be very child-friendly (e.g., fish and chips, bangers and mash). Here is a list of pubs that cater to families.
For more help planning your London vacation with kids, see:
The 411 on London with Kids
How to take a London taxi cab with your stroller (and your child still in it)
Tips for visiting London’s Natural History Museum with young children
At Least They’ll Speak “English”: A Parent’s Guide to Babytalk Abroad