We traveled to London, England with two children under the age of ten and a preteen. It went off marvelously. There were several hitches, because travel and also because children. Also, because airline schedule.
London was the first overseas destination for our children – we wanted to start them off easily. They spoke the language, the food was familiar, and I’ll admit it – Harry Potter.
HOW I PREPARED THE KIDS:
Travel is not nearly as interesting for kids when they don’t know what the heck is going on. As avid as they were at watching the Harry Potter movies, most of those don’t take place in London. A bit, but not enough to really cover a week. And besides, I wanted the kids to have some history with their entertainment. To that end, the Horrible Histories series of books was the best investment I ever made. EVER. And that includes the drawer full of Spanx I wear when I need to be socially acceptable (side note: don’t try to wear Spanx while traveling. There’s this series of steps you have to climb to get to the funicular for Mt Lycabettus of Athens – Spanx could cause some severe health issues if you attempt to climb them while so encased. Just go for the yoga pants on that one. Trust me).
At one point during our tour of Hampton Court Palace (DO NOT MISS THIS!), my then 9 year old daughter delighted one of the period-costumed actors by reciting, “Divorced, beheaded, and died. Divorced, beheaded, survived!” Americans, you see, are not normally well-versed in British ditties used to remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII.
My kids read several Horrible Histories books, and they read each of those several books several times, took the several books with us and re-read them after we visited each site.
Things my kids will never forget: London during the Blitz, Henry VIII, Richard III’s wife is buried at Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge was not built by druids.
Also, that there are no beverage refills in London, but that wasn’t in the Horrible Histories series. And the lovely British voice which says, “Mind the gap,” when you are on the Tube. Again, not in the books, though.
Horrible Histories also has videos online, and my kids loved those as well.
My two daughters also really like several of the diary format books about princesses. The Tudors run strong in historical fiction, and Elizabeth: Red Rose of the House of Tudor was also on the reading list (as well as two other books in the same series, one about Eleanor of Aquitaine and one about Mary, Queen of Scots).
HOW I PREPARED ME:
Aside from the ridiculous amounts of reading on travel websites, travel books, etc., of course. I wanted to be good and versed in what I was seeing as well, and lucky for my I’ve had a love affair with the Sharon Kay Penman novels since I was… Well, a long time. You don’t need to know how long.
I found my first SKP book, When Christ and His Saints Slept, by chance in an overstock sale. From then on out I did something truly unusual for me – I paid full price for the rest of her novels. And when I got a Kindle, I continued to pay the ridiculously high Kindle prices for her books as soon as they were released.
In any case, between Sharon Kay Penman and Alison Weir, I felt well prepared to understand what I was going to see.
On a side note, although there are men who enjoy Penman and Weir, my husband’s tastes run a little different. Bernard Cornwell was perfect to get him in the visiting London mood. And he and I both enjoyed the historical fiction novels of Edward Rutherford.
QUICK THINGS TO KNOW
Money: The UK uses the pound. It’s worth more than the dollar, so don’t freak out when you change money and only get 60 pounds for 100 dollars. There’s also a lot more change involved – the coin portion of my purse felt ridiculously heavy.
You can pay for a most things with your credit card (and you’ll probably get a better exchange rate than exchanging paper money that way), but you will need some pocket cash. There are a few ways you can do this: (1) Use your ATM card and suck up the fees – again the exchange rate might be better than exchanging cash. (2) Change money at one of the money change windows. They are super easy to recognize and are located all over the touristy areas. DO NOT change money with someone outside the money change booth, even if they offer you a lovely rate. It’s a very, very bad idea. Also – the rates at the airport are terrible, so change as little money as possible there
Check the dollar-to-pound exchange rate here: X-Rates
Airports: The two main airports servicing London that take international flights are Heathrow and Gatwick. I’ve flown into both of them. Gatwick was easier to maneuver than Heathrow, but it also smelled like an Ikea cafeteria and I can’t tell you why.
Heathrow has all the bells and whistles you would imagine from the main airport in a First World Country. It’s not hardship to have to spend a few hours there either waiting for a flight, or connecting to a new flight. It’s also the second highest taxed airport in the world (second only to Chad, which apparently doesn’t want any visitors).
Security isn’t too horrid to get through, you will have to take everything electronic out of your bag – and this includes Kindles and other e-readers. I also had to take them out of their cases, and when traveling with kids this gets quite time consuming.
In general, I found it easier to go through security at Heathrow than most US airports, and MUCH easier and less unpleasant than going through security at Chicago O’Hare (hands down worst security experience ever, with the exception of that time the staff at LAX told me I had to leave my dog in California).
Official Heathrow Security FAQ’s here.
Visas and permission to travel: Nope! Not if you have an American passport! You have six months of visit allowed without a visa. Awesome, isn’t it? And super easy!
You DO need your passport, however. And it’s best if your passport doesn’t expire within the next year. It is essential that your passport not expire within the next six months.
More visa information here.
Healthcare: You might need it! Things happen! Make sure your insurance covers you overseas, and if not, take out travel insurance. See here.
Prices: Prepare yourself – London is expensive. It is expensive to eat, expensive to drink (no beverage refills!), expensive to do tours, expensive to take cabs… Although the Tube is actually fairly well priced.
Regardless, if you plan on eating out every day, you will be throwing money out the window like a ticker-tape parade.
Don’t scoff at McDonalds – I’m serious. Look at the lines, you want to eat like a local? There you go.
Wagamama. Trust me, good stuff.
I mean, do have a Sunday Roast, because it’s not to be missed. But you don’t have to spend that much every day. Besides, sometimes kids just want a banana.
Don’t drive. I know you’ve seen European Vacation and it was funny. Don’t drive in London. There’s no need. I promise. There are Tube stations everywhere, and they are handicap and exhausted child accessible. The bus is a little more difficult to figure out, but it’s very do-able as well, and SAFE. And public transportation in London is cheap – unlike Washington, D.C.
Electronics: I do totally understand the need to curl your hair. Really – you should see the horrors that DNA inflicted on me without some sort of taming ritual. BUT – be aware that your curling iron and hair dryer may not work on the power system in the UK and most certainly will not have the same plug.
I’m going to recommend something radical here: even if your hair dryer is tagged to operate on both 110 AND 220 (which a lot of things do these days), don’t bother to take it. It really doesn’t. I have burned out seven – SEVEN!- hair dryers that are supposed to work in both power systems. If it has an American plug, I only use it in American sockets. Hopefully your hotel/apartment will come hair-dryer equipped. If not and you cannot under any circumstances live without a hairdryer (if, for instance, you need it to dry swampy armpits because you use roll on deodorant), invest in a US to UK converter.
With the basics of pre-planning out of the way, I’ll leave you with one more picture to ponder: