Thursday, June 6, 2013

tips for traveling to London with toddlers

First, I have to admit that I was really nervous about traveling to London with a barely one-year-old and an almost four-year-old. I thought I was insane for attempting such a feat ... but then we did more than just survive the trip--we had fun! Things went smooth! It was an amazing experience that I would repeat in a heartbeat. So if you are in the same position I was, debating whether or not to bring the whole family to London, my advice is ... do it! Yes, London is a big city. But the public transportation is amazing, and there are a surprisingly large number of touristy things to do that are totally kid-friendly (see list below).

On this trip, I discovered two household items that have now become invaluable tools I will use on every trip in the future. The first? Patterned duct tape! My daughter is in a total Hello Kitty phase right now, so I originally purchased this roll for her ... but as I got packing for our trip, it dawned on me that a strip of Hello Kitty duck tape would take my boring, black, easily-confused-with-everyone-else's luggage and make it much more identifiable on the luggage carousel. As you can see below, I previously had relied on a big bow of pink and white tulle for identification purposes. Which worked, except that you couldn't see the bow until it was right in front of you. That meant I would get excited, thinking I'd spotted my bag as it slowly made its way around the carousel to only have my hopes dashed once I could inspect the bag up close. I was always secretly terrified that someone would grab my bag and not even notice the bow until they were a long way from the airport as well ... the beauty of applying a strip of bright duck tape to your bag is that you know you've spotted your bag, even from a great distance! And hey, I doubt many people are going to confuse bright pink Hello Kitty tape for their bag!

The other household item? Wide width blue painter's tape! My son is still crawling and inspecting everything, so I knew that I needed some kind of option for baby-proofing the outlets in our hotel. But I really had no desire to pay for European-style outlet covers I could never use again once we returned to the U.S. .... Painter's tape to the rescue! The wide width tape easily covered the entire outlet, and took absolutely zero space in our bags. In fact, I will use this tape again when traveling domestically as well. The beauty of packing a roll of painter's tape is that you don't have to anticipate how many outlets there may be, either!

Other tips for traveling to London with little ones: 
  • Take public transportation! Kids under five ride free when accompanied by an adult, and 5-10 ride at a reduced rate. If you do take the tube, I recommend leaving the large, heavy stroller at home. Stick with small umbrella strollers that you can easily fold and unfold. Some underground stations have lifts (elevators), but you'll typically find escalators and stairs. Lots of stairs. So we always carried the kids and had the stroller folded up after we entered the tube station. Also, there is a gap between the trains and the platforms, and sometimes you are stepping up to get onto the train. So don't expect to easily wheel your stroller onto the train. If you really, really want to use your stroller in the station stick with the stops that are indicated as handi-cap accessible on the underground map (you'll see that there aren't very many of them ...). We folded up our stroller to ride on the buses as well, but I did see some local moms roll their strollers on board--just expect to ride standing up next to your stroller. (oh, and if you plan to use public transportation, get an Oyster card--significant rate reduction! You can add more money as you go, so if you travel more than you expect it's not a problem. We took the tube to and from Heathrow airport, and it was a total breeze! Very safe, well-staffed. Really didn't see any sketchy characters at all!)
  • If you don't want to spend an arm and a leg on tickets for one of the open-air double-decker tourist buses, I recommend taking a public transportation double decker bus for less than 3 pounds (tourist double-decker bus fare? More than 20 pounds per person). It won't be open air, but you'll stay drier and warmer and still have just as good of a view! Route 11 takes you right past Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Parliament, and St. Paul's Cathedral. You won't see Buckingham Palace from it though, although it gets pretty close ... although we used the tube a ton, the buses were even better because you actually got to see more of London while you traveled. The tube is faster though, with less stops and not needing to deal with other traffic. So if you just want to "see" London and are tired of walking around, I definitely recommend hopping onto a bus!
  • We skipped the London Eye for a couple of reasons ... first, the line itself was nearly two hours on the nice, sunny day we considered it. We figured the kids would be at melt-down point just from the wait alone (you can pay extra to skip the line, but the base ticket is exorbitant as it is!). Two, a ticket is 20 pounds per person, regardless of age. It just seemed silly to pay that much for a one-year-old baby who may sleep through it! And third, the ride is 40+ minutes, and I feared being trapped with no escape if one of the kiddos had a melt-down or were just done with the whole thing. And then we would ruin the other passengers' experience as well ... so no London Eye for us!
  • Check out the museums! Most of London's museums are free. That's right, free! We loved the Natural Science Museum (great dinosaur exhibit, tons of fossils, and tons of animal specimens!) and the Science Museum (lots of cool interactive exhibits, and a fun bubble show for the pre-school set! the basement has a ton of play areas/interactive household item exhibits that are perfect for the little kids).
  • Visit the parks! There are so many beautiful parks in central London, with tons of space for the kiddos to burn off some energy. Kensington Gardens has the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, and another more basic playground called Buckhill. 
  • We didn't time things right to see the actual changing of the guards ... you need to arrive ridiculously early to get a spot near the gates to actually see anything (easily two hours early). But we did see the guards marching down the street to Buckingham Palace, which was plenty exciting for our kiddos. Then we came back later when the crowds had thinned a little to actually see the palace and take pictures ... so keep the packed/craziness factor in mind if you want to see the changing of the guards. It was almost impossible to get a stroller through the crowd. We discovered the Royal Mews hidden on the backside of the palace, and it was really neat. It's where they keep the royal horses, carriages, and cars used by the royal family. Not crowded at all, and totally kid-friendly place. I highly recommend dropping by, as it gave us the feeling like we had actually seen more/been inside Buckingham Palace! It doesn't open until 2:00 p.m. each day. 
  • What about food? Obviously, there are tons of restaurant options in London. But what do you do if you've got exhausted kids that are hungry and basically at melt-down point? Luckily, you'll find tons of "take-away" sandwich chains (Pret-a-Manger, EAT are just two). It seemed that these delis are basically the London equivalent of fast food ... we saw them everywhere, but only saw American fast-food chains at some (not all) of the larger undergound/train/bus stations (and we only saw McDonalds and Burger King). At the delis you can get sandwiches, soups, wraps, fruit, yogurt, all kinds of healthy meal options. We also found a Sainsbury grocery store and Waitrose (a very nice smaller urban grocery store) near our hotel, and that provided even more options. I actually packed a bunch of baby food in my luggage, and never needed to look for more while in London, so I don't really know how difficult it would be to find Gerber baby food in London. Or formula either. Finally, if possible, I highly recommend booking a hotel room with a fridge so that you can store milk/food and have more options for the days when eating at a sit-down place really just aren't feasible.
  • Speaking of hotels ... if you take a red-eye to cross the pond like we did, you will not believe how exhausted and out-of-your-mind you will be once you land ... we landed at 8 am in London, and it was torture waiting until we could check in to our hotel room around 1 pm. We walked around in a daze, rode some buses like zombies, and ate a loooong lunch to bide our time. I really wished I had reserved the night before we arrived and let the hotel know that we wouldn't arrive until the next morning. Or, booked a flight that landed closer to check in time. I had no idea how out of it we would be with the combination of no sleep on the plane plus jet lag ... luckily the kids slept on the plane and were in better condition. But if they were crying/miserable it would have been awful.
  • And finally, a few notes on flying ... I didn't realize how large Heathrow was ... one terminal is pretty much the size of an entire American city's airport. It literally took about 15 minutes to walk from where we got off the plane to the luggage carousels! So plan extra time for just traversing Heathrow and getting through security, etc. It's huge. Similarly, if you need to connect to another flight after landing in the U.S. include extra time there as well. You get off the plane, show an immigration agent your passport to prove you are a U.S. citizen, then wait for your luggage to get off the plane. Which takes just as long as it normally does when de-planing any flight! Then you pass through customs, which doesn't take long as long as you don't bring back more than $800 of items or anything not allowed (e.g. fruit/agricultural products). Then your bag gets checked and you go through security like you would for any flight (except you don't have to stand in line at the counter). So basically, you want at least two hours between landing and your connecting flight, because you are doing everything you normally would do (plus more) to board a normal domestic flight. I had no idea what that process would be like, and just lucked out that we picked an itinerary that had built in that much time between flights!
In short ... would I do this again? Oh yeah!

1 comment:

  1. Ah, international travel. So many little details and challenges, but ultimately, so many memories that make it worth it!