Planning your trip to London

As you probably know, this site is primarily about books and movies set in particular destinations – starting with London.  But as I’ve started to get subscribers to the blog who are actually planing trips, they’ve invariably asked me for planning tips.  So let’s give people what they want!  This is the first of several posts that touch on some key aspects of planning that I think will make the trip more fun for everyone.  I’m not trying to replicate what you’ll find in a guidebook – instead I’m sharing some tips based on our experience, for some specific things that you might not have thought about.  I hope that it’s helpful!

    • airbnbWhere to stay – If you’re trying to keep the budget reasonable, an apartment in London is the way to go for families with kids.  For the same price as a small-to-medium sized hotel room, you can get a 2-3 bedroom apartment in a nice/central neighborhood.  You’ll have a kitchen for meals (especially breakfast), and you’ll be able to put the kids to bed, or down for a nap, without having to sit in the dark and whisper.  That’s no way to spend a vacation!   AirBnB has a ton of listings in London.  The main criteria should be the neighborhood, access to sights and proximity to Tube stations – ideally on the Central Line.  Turn on the “Where to Stay” layer on this Google Map to see the recommended area.  The farther east you are in this region, the more central you’ll be – but also typically more expensive.  The west side of this region is the Notting Hill / Holland Park area, which is more residential, but a very nice neighborhood.  It’s very charming, but you’ll need to take the tube for 20-30 minutes or so to get to most of the sights.  
    • Family_and_Friends_Railcard_SampleRail Travel – If you’re planning to do more than one train trip outside of London, you should consider getting a Friends & Family Railcard.  The card costs £30 (for a year), and is good for up to four adults and 4 children traveling together.  The card will cut the cost from between ⅓ to as much as ⅔ off of a normal fare.  You can check the discount for specific journeys by selecting (or not selecting) the railcard when researching ticket prices.  You need to have a UK address in order to buy the railcard online, in advance, but you can, however, purchase the railcard in person at a staffed ticket window.   So the simplest thing to do is probably to buy the railcard when you get to Paddington Station on the day that you arrive, straight from Heathrow.  Note that you can purchase train tickets in advance (before your trip) online, and get the railcard rate.  Just make sure that you get the railcard in advance of your trip, and have it with you when you are traveling to show on the train.  Also note that you do have to be traveling with kids to use this railcard.  The card can’t be used on the Tube or Overground – only the rail services that will take you outside of London.
    • Travel in London – London has one of the best public transportation systems in the world.  We lived in outer west London for two years, and didn’t own a car.  You can get pretty much anywhere with the combo of Tube + bus.  Black cabs are an option – and I’d suggest trying one just for the experience… once.  They’re convenient – but expensive – so use one for a short trip when you don’t want to walk.  You’ll be impressed with how well the seats are designed – and your kids will have fun sitting in the “jump seats”. Somehow every ride seems to cost at least £10, and longer rides get expensive fast.  If you prefer a car, Uber is widely used in London – and costs about 50% less than black cabs.  For parents, be aware that Londoners aren’t as into carseats as Americans, so don’t expect to find any.  If you can bear it, just do as the Londoners do, and buckle your kids into regular seatbelts, or put them on your lap for short trips.  Or if you’re not comfortable with that, stick to the Tube.  It’s definitely not worth lugging a carseat around with you!.  To make best use of public transport, you’ll need two things that every Londoner has:
      1. An Oyster Card.  This is a reloadable travel card that you can get at any staffed Tube station and most ticket machines. Check out this very helpful video for details.  The video offers the option of getting a visitor Oyster card in advance, that they’ll mail you.  I’m not sure if there’s any benefit to doing that as opposed to just getting your card when you arrive – but if you’re the type who likes to plan ahead, then by all means order it.  Note that you can get a refund for any remaining balance on each card up to £10, plus the £5 deposit.  Each adult needs their own card (you can’t use one card to pay for multiple people).  Kids under 11 travel free, and don’t need cards.  Just use the wide luggage gates at the end of the row of turnstiles and your kids can pass through with you.
      2. Citymapper.  This is the world’s best travel app, and it will enable you to not only compare options for Tube routes, but it will also have you taking buses like a local within a couple of days.  Download it before you go!
    • For longer trips (to and from the airport), you can also consider using a car service.  These are sometimes cheaper than Uber, and you can schedule them.  They may also be able to provide car seats.  There are many that you can find online.  We had good luck with Greenford Cars (+44 (0) 20 8422 7733). They would typically charge about £45 from West London to Heathrow – which is about the same as two Heathrow Express tickets – but easier if you have bags.  Just be careful about traffic – it can be slow at rush hour.
    • Apps – In addition to Citymapper, I find that the TimeOut London app is great for local events.  Zomato is good for restaurant reviews (kind of like Urban Spoon). The TripAdvisor app is good, too.

CitymapperIconzomato TOicontripadvisor

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