Getting to London

As this blog has started to develop a following, I’m getting more and more questions about traveling to London with Kids (which is great!  Keep ’em coming!).  In response to those requests, this is the second in a series of posts that focus less on London-based content for kids, and more on practical travel tips for taking your family on a trip to London.

  • Redeye in
    • Most of the flights to London from the US are overnight, due to the 5 hour time change from ET (and 8 hours from PT).  The flight from the east coast is about 7 hours – so the flight time, plus the time change, makes it such that 12 hours of “clock time” will pass during the flight.  Leave at 7PM, get in around 7AM – and so on.  The overnight flights are the most common – but you can also find flights leaving at 7AM, arriving at 7PM – especially if you’re flying out of a major international hub like NYC or Chicago.  So as a family traveling, one of the first decisions that you’ll face is whether to brave the redeye with the kids – or to take a day flight. 
    • If the thought of embarking on a redeye (overnight flight) on your own seems bad, then most likely considering taking one with your kids could be pretty horrifying.  But I’d recommend that you give it a try – for a few reasons.  
      • First, you’ll save time and money: by taking a redeye, you’re spending one night on the plane instead of in a hotel room.  Since you have to take the plane to get there, that’s like a free night as compared to if you take a day flight, arrive in the evening (UK time), and then try to go right to sleep (which you likely won’t be able to do anyway).  So if you have plenty of time (2 weeks or more), maybe you don’t mind sparing the night to avoid the red-eye – but if you’re only going for a week, that extra day that you’ll gain by redeyeing in is precious.
      • Second, being on a plane for 7 hours with sleeping kids (assuming that they sleep), is a lot easier than being on a plane for 7 hours with kids who are wide awake.  Given that most flights will have plenty of movies, our kids are usually pretty low maintenance during the flight, but there’s still a lot to attend to.  So why not let them sleep away the time?
      • Third, if you manage the schedule carefully, you should be able to avoid most of the symptoms of jetlag.  More on that below.
    • Being on a not-so-crowded flight can make all of the difference, because you can let the kids (and maybe you too!) lie down across multiple seats.  Just check to be sure that their feet don’t stick out into the aisle – you don’t want to risk a nasty collission with a beverage cart!  To maximize your likelihood of getting a half-full plane, book flights for mid-week if you have the flexibility to do so (Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the least crowded).  Of course, that’s often not an option for many people – so then the question becomes how to maximize the likelihood of sitting next to (or near) an open seat.  I love this blog post which gives an in-depth game-theory explanation on how to do this.  The short version?  Sit in the back of Economy-plus (if you have airline status and can choose those seats without an additional charge), or in the back of regular economy (aka – the back of the plane). I’ve never really understood why people place so much value on sitting towards the front of the plane, even if they’re still in economy.  On an international flight, there’s certainly something to be said for not sitting right next to the bathroom – but beyond that, sitting towards the back will certainly give you a better chance to have an open seat next to you.  Also, once the door shuts, keep an eye out for open rows that you can move to.  If you’re in the back, you’re much more likely to be able to grab them first!  Don’t be afraid to split your group in half, if necessary, if it means that you can get an open seat!
    • redeye2redeye1Another tip (from the link above) is to arrange your seat selections so that you choose aisle and window seats – leaving an open middle seat.  So if you have two adults and two kids, choose the aisle and window seats in two consecutive rows (instead of choosing three adjacent seats, and then one across the aisle).  This maximizes the chance that no one takes that middle seat, and if they do, you can usually trade either the window or aisle seat so that you can sit next to your family member.
    • Ideally you’ll be on a flight that leaves between 7-10PM, and gets in between 7AM-10AM in London – so that it will be their normal bedtime when you board the plane.  Even if the flight leaves as early as 5 or 6PM, I’d suggest eating dinner before you get on the plane.  If you can, try to get the kids to sleep without watching a movie so that you can maximize sleep time.   Some kids really want to wear PJ’s, so go ahead if that will help.  Bringing a stuffed animal aboard is another good way to make your child feel more comfortable sleeping.  We prefer comfortable clothes (instead of PJs) so that you don’t have to worry about getting dressed when you arrive.  Goal is to have the kids (and if possible the parents, although that’s ambitious!) asleep before the meal is served – usually this is about 1.5 hours in.  For reasons that I cannot understand, the flight attendants turn on all of the lights, and seem to make as much noise as possible during this process.  Try to be fast asleep and hopefully your family won’t be awakened.
    • Don’t be afraid to use pullups if your kid doesn’t mind – this will help you and them sleep better, especially if you use the Benadryl, so that you’re not worried about them peeing in the plane seat.  
    • We give our kids Children’s Benadryl to help them sleep.  Some people are vehemently opposed to doing this (a Google search will yield many surprisingly strong opinions on the question), and of course it’s a personal decision for your family – so do whatever you’re comfortable with, and ask your pediatrician for advice if you’re not sure.  You shouldn’t give Benadryl to kids who are younger than one.  If your kid has never had Benadryl, consider testing it first as some have reported that it can actually make their kids more hyper.
  • Arriving at the airport in London
    • When you arrive at the airport in London, the first stop is customs.  The length of the line for customs is totally hit or miss. I’ve been through in 10 minutes, and I’ve been waiting over an hour.  It just depends how many other flights happen to land when yours does.  To maximize your chances of making it through quickly though, one thing that you can try to do is encourage your family use the restroom about 30 minutes before the plane lands.  This will avoid a restroom stop as soon as you get off the plane – which could add significant time to your customs line wait as the rest of the plane rushes past you.  Don’t stress about this too much though.  At Heathrow there are plenty of restrooms after customs – so you’ll have no trouble finding one if your kids need to change clothes, or brush teeth.
    • Pick up some local currency at the ATMs that are outside of the secured area (past baggage claim, and the small duty free).  Typically the machines that offer multiple currencies do not offer the best exchange rates – so I usually walk past those near baggage claim.  After you exit the secured area you’ll see a set of “regular” bank ATMs that just offer GBP – those will usually give you the standard exchange rate, which is the cheapest way to get local cash.  £200 or £300 is probably a good starting point – depending on your preference or using cash or credit.
    • You can get your Oyster cards either at the Underground ticket window at Heathrow, or at one of the machines or windows at Paddington.
  • Mobile service
    • You want to have local cellular data access that doesn’t cost a ton of money.  Free public wifi is available at many restaurants and coffee shops, just as it is in the US, but you don’t want to be dependent on that.  US-based plans are thankfully starting to offer more reasonable roaming fees for service in London – but be sure to check the terms carefully.  Using your normal cell service is definitely the simplest route – though it’s not going to be the cheapest.  When you’re abroad, you’ll typically pay astronomical rates for voice calls, as well as significant fees for texts (as much as $.50 to send and $.10 to receive – this can get expensive, especially if your kids like to text a lot).  With some carriers they’ll even charge you for minutes when people are leaving you a voicemail, if you’re using your service in the UK!  All that said, these costs seem to be coming down significantly, so check this first, as it is certainly the easiest approach.
    • Cell phone plans in the UK (and most other countries) are FAR cheaper than they are in the US.  So if you have an unlocked phone (do you have an old cell phone that’s over 2 years old?  If so, you should be able to unlock it – just call the carrier), you can get a local SIM card through which you can get plenty of data/text/voice for £15 in Central London, or £30-35 in the airport.  It may be worth paying extra to get it in the airport, so that you don’t have to worry about finding a local vendor when you get into London.  But if you’d prefer to maximize your savings, check in advance to see if there’s a Carphone Warehouse (a name that I find hilariously anachronistic for a technology store!) near where you’re staying.  They offer most of the popular services.  Lebara is also a good option.  Be sure to have the agent helping you activate it for you – as this can be tricky sometimes.  You can also pick up SIM cards at most convenience stores or Tesco – but there there won’t be an agent to help you if you have trouble activating it.  Whatever your solution, getting it worked out before leaving the airport is helpful, especially if you’re taking a car into Central London.  If you do prefer to get a SIM card in London, consider using Heathrow Wifi (free for 45 minutes) to call your driver via Skype, or iMessage/text.

Getting from Heathrow to Central London

  • If you’re staying near Paddington, the Heathrow Express or Heathrow Connect is a great option.  On the Heathrow Express, adult tickets cost £22 and kids under 15 are free (but they still need a ticket).  For the Heathrow Connect, adult tickets cost £10 and kids under 5 are free – and there are discounted child fares for kids 5-15 years old. Express will get you to Paddington in about 20 minutes, and the Connect will take 30-40 minutes.  The Connect doesn’t make many stops, so it’s a good way to save a bit of money (depending on how many kids you have) for only a slightly longer ride.  For both, you can buy tickets at easy-to-use kiosks on the way to the platform – so don’t stress about buying in advance.  However you can save £6 for a 14-day advance purchase, and £8 for a 30-day advance purchase on the Heathrow Express.  The Express trains run every 15 minutes – Connect every 30 minutes.
  • The Piccadilly Line of the Underground also serves Paddington, so if you’re staying near that line then it’s an option.  This is the cheapest route – but with kids and bags, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Especially if you land between 7-9AM, it will be morning rush hour.  A crowded train with no good place for your bags is not a good start to your trip.  Plus if you need to switch trains or take a cab to your final destination it can be quite a hassle.
  • Pre-booked cars are a great option.  Unless you’re staying near Paddington, you’ll likely need to take a taxi or car to get to your final destination anyway, so taking a car from Heathrow is likely not too much more expensive, and will be a whole lot easier.  You can book these in advance – and you should.  We typically took Greenford Cars (http://www.greenfordcar.com/) which always served us well for about £40 to Central London – however they would usually meet you in the parking deck rather than with a sign just past baggage claim, so they may not be ideal for those not familiar with Heathrow.  One that’s recommended frequently on travel forums is Just Airports (www.justairports.com), which you can book online.  They’ll track your flight, and be waiting for you with a sign just past baggage claim.  This is definitely the easiest option – and a welcomed convenience after a redeye flight!  This should run you about £50 for a larger car.  Note that big SUVs are not common, and vans are rare as well.  Most often the larger cars will either be “estate cars” – which is what we Americans call a station wagon.  Or they’ll be small SUVs – usually Ford Galaxy’s – which the British sometimes refer to as “people movers”.  With 4+ people and bags, you’ll likely want a people mover if you can get one, just to be on the safe side.  And one last thing about cars – a significant tip is not expected.  Just give the driver a couple of £’s if you round up to the nearest amount when paying in cash.  You’ll feel awkward as an American who is used to tipping – but trust me that it’s not expected!
  • Uber works from the airport – however it can be difficult to find the car if you don’t know the airport well.  We used Uber all the time in London – but from Heathrow a booked car is better.  Especially if you don’t have a local UK phone number.
  • Last and certainly least is a Black Cab from the taxi line. They serve the airport, but they’ll be about twice as expensive as a pre-booked car.  
  • Though most international flights fly into Heathrow, some will go into Gatwick.  From there you’ll have much the same options, except no Tube.  Gatwick Express or a pre-booked car will be your best bets.  Expect the cars from Gatwick to be slightly more expensive than from Heathrow.

Once you arrive in Central London: Stay awake!

  • Hopefully if you’re staying in a flat you’ll have arranged to get access about 2 hours after your flight lands.  You’ll all be tired since you didn’t get the best night’s sleep on the plane.  The key to avoiding jet lag, is not to nap on the day that you arrive – except for kids who normally nap.  In that case try to have them nap at their “normal” time on London time.  Try to make it to within 2 hours of your normal bedtime before you head to bed.  You’ll hopefully get a full night’s sleep since you’re tired, and you’ll be able to wake up at a “normal” London time in the morning.  Otherwise in the morning you’ll be jet lagged because when it’s 8AM in London, it’s 3AM ET.  If your kids aren’t up by an hour or so after their normal wake up time, wake them up and get started with your day.  Hopefully they’ll be excited about the fun that’s in store for them!
  • The best way to avoid the urge to nap is not to hang out at the flat, or to do anything where you’re sitting for too long – like a movie, or long train ride.  Ideally, do lots of walking, if the weather allows.
  • Scout out a few fun destinations that are walking distance, or an easy tube/cab/Uber trip from where you’re staying.  London has awesome playgrounds, and lots of good coffee.  Those two things should keep your kids, and you (respectively) well energized to keep going throughout Day One.
  • Lunch – once you’re settled in your flat, you’ll probably want to eat.  There will be lots of options, so no need to plan in advance.
  • If you’re staying in the Paddington/Bayswater/Marylebone area, you’re within a 15 minute walk from Hyde Park, and the world’s greatest playground – the Princess Diana Memorial Playground.  Your kids will likely be happy there for a solid hour or two, and you can drink coffee while you watch them play.  After they start to slow down, take a walk past Kensington Palace (featured in Lupo and the Secret of Windsor Castle), the recently-former home of Will, Kate, George and Charlotte.  From there you can walk to the Serpentine.  If the weather is nice, rent a paddleboat.  Watch out for tourists on rental bikes – or if your kids are old enough, consider renting them yourselves!
  • Don’t push it too hard on Day 1.  Just get oriented, and enjoy being in London!

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