Saturday, August 17, 2019

Planning your trip to London

Well, a few months after out last trip to Hawaii it was time to start thinking about what we wanted to do the following summer.  It is always difficult to decide where to go in the "off Hawaii" year.  Since 2011 or so we have taken many wonderful trips within the United States and Canada.  The trip in the off year also requires a lot more planning than the Hawaii year, so starting to plan the fall before has never been a bad idea.  I pulled books from the public library on Croatia and Costa Rica.  Croatia, though lovely, had a strong reputation for nudism and I decided quickly that this was not how I wanted my 15 year old son to get an education.  Costa Rica looked great but the travel was complicated and expensive.  During the fall we spent a lot of time watching Masterpiece on PBS, stuff like Downton Abbey and Victoria, and we started to think it might be fun to go to England.  We soon figured out that British airways flew non stop to London for less than it would cost us to go to Costa Rica or Hawaii for that matter.  Though we had little hope of running into Prince Albert or Ross Poldark, by Christmastime we had decided we were going to the UK.
We had a very successful trip, but it took painstaking planning.  Here I'm just going to throw out a whole bunch of information I found to be useful and hopefully it will be of benefit when planning your own UK vacation.

1)  Planning needs to start early and needs to be thorough.
The busiest time for tourism in London is mid July, when school gets out, through the month of August.  London literally is wall to wall people during this time, people from all over the world.  The person who doesn't plan is going to spend a lot of time in lines waiting for entry, and may be denied entry altogether.  People who don't plan whilst (UK term there) still in the US can also spend a lot of their precious time in London trying to decide "what to do" and then trying to arrange how to do it.  Better to have a streamlined plan.
Saint Paul's Cathedral
The first step is to procure all the books you can from your local library and write down ALL the things you might possibly want to do. You're going to have to prioritize and decide what is essential and what is impractical. Then depending on how many days you will be there, start piecing together an itinerary.  I had nearly 30 items on my list-but some things never made it to the plan (Highclere Castle, Selfridge's Department Store) and some things fell off even after the itinerary was made whilst already in London (afternoon tea, full English Breakfast, Evensong at Westminster Abbey).  I say the absolute minimum for seeing London and it's environs is five days and this could easily be expanded to seven at a slightly slower pace.  Our pace was grueling, but all told we managed to fit in about 18 things in 5 days.  I recommend purchasing a detailed street map of London, or making a copy of one out of a book. With a good way of seeing how attractions are laid out within the city, your days will be far more efficient.  It makes far more sense to see the London Eye and the Imperial War museum the same afternoon than to run from Westminster Abbey to Tower Bridge and back to the London Eye.
Once you know what you want to do and on what days, it is time to purchase tickets.  The popular attractions have time slots and fill fast. I recommend speedy booking for Churchill War Rooms, the Warner Bros Studios (the Making of Harry Potter), the State rooms at Buckingham Palace (if they are open) and for any popular theatre shows.  For Hamilton and BBC Proms it is critical to purchase tickets the minute they go on sale.  There are many other attractions that do not have time slots but allow you to use tickets anytime during the day.  These include St Paul's Cathedral, Tower of London, and Windsor Castle.  I still recommend the purchase of tickets in advance as these typically offer discounts and entry is quite a bit faster.  Basically, all the time standing in a ticket line is time WASTED!
There is an opportunity called the London Pass which basically allows you entrance to a long list of London attractions for a flat fee over a given number of consecutive days.  Though I could see how this might be beneficial if you had a very limited number of consecutive days and were travelling with kids under 11, it did not work for us.  It did not include the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace or the London Eye or Harry Potter, so we would have paid extra.  Even with the included admissions, which we did not accomplish on consecutive days, the cost did not add up to the price of the London Pass.  We also got to pick our times, not sure how this works with the London Pass.

2)  Decide where you are going to stay.
In order to not be travelling long distances into the city every day, it is best to stay in Central London and that is expensive.  Hotels for families are limited, in fact, I did not find one hotel in a decent area that could accommodate our family of five in one room.  I highly recommend looking at VRBO and Airbnb for a flat that allows you spread out a bit and make a little food and do some laundry.  Flats in desired neighborhoods like Knightsbridge and Mayfair are very expensive, but just staying one tube stop down the street can greatly drop your prices.  I'd say with taxes and cleaning fees and charges, we wound up paying about $350 a night for our two bedroom one bath apartment near Gloucester Road--and that was a steal.  When choosing a place you want access to a nearby Tube station.  This is critical, because the Tube is going to be a daily part of your life.

3)  Getting around
Forget renting a car. That would be ridiculous.  London and the surrounding areas have the finest in public transportation.  In fact, Central London has a congestion charge zone during business hours Monday through Friday.  If you operate a car in this area, you are charged 11.50 (roughly 14$) per day!  So no car.
It is very easy and safe to walk the streets of Central London to get from place to place.  We found Google maps walking feature to be a little tricky and somewhat delayed, so many times we found ourselves walking in the wrong direction or having missed a turn, so here's where that street map comes in handy again.
The London Underground is cheap, expansive, quick, and because everyone knows this, it's crowded all the time.  The tube is safe and gets you to wherever you want to go in London.  When using the Underground, you can pay as you go, which will run you about 4.9 pounds per ride, or about $6.50.  Multiply this by your family of five and the Tube is not really looking like such a good option.  The way to go is the Oyster Card, which is a preloaded card.  The kicker about the Oyster Card is that the fare reduced from the card is about 50% of the pay as you go fare.  The Oyster card also gets you discounts on the bus as well.  Anyway, for being in London 6 full days plus two half days, the only choice for us was the 7 day Travel Card in Zones 1-2.  The Travel card gave us unlimited tube and bus fare for about 50 pounds per adult (my son was cheaper).  To make this worth it (vs just buying the preloaded Oyster card) we had to take about 20
Our Local Tube Station
tube rides during the course of our 7 day stay.  I'm pretty darn sure we achieved this, but at any rate, to not have to quibble about riding the Tube when your feet were going to fall off because you didn't want to spend the money was quite liberating.  The money has already been spent.  Ride the tube as much as you darn well please, and we did.  I have heard this is ideal if you are staying 7 or more days, otherwise just get the Oyster card.
London has Uber and a lot of taxis, but these are neither fast nor cheap.
There are EXCELLENT websites and apps that will plan any route for you from point A to point B using a variety of means of transport, calculating costs and time it will take to get there.  Knowing how long it will take to get somewhere by foot, taxi, bus or tube is critical in planning your days.  Refer here back to those timed entries into those heavily visited attractions.  I like Transport for London's app and website,( and
Also available are Santander Cycles which are kind of all the rage but didn't go so well for me and my husband.  Think trying to cycle through London while trying to navigate holding your phone.

4) Data and Phones
It is pretty essential that at least one person in your party has access to data and calling at all times.
Data separate from wifi (which is in a lot of places but not everywhere) comes in pretty handy, mostly to access mobile tickets embedded in email and of course to navigate yourself around the UK and the streets of London, which can be tricky.  All plans and phones are different.  Iphones will work in the UK on a pay per use basis, but you are pretty much going to pay some really hefty fees.
For a short stay such as ours, AT&T offers an international day pass for 10 dollars a day per device, which is only billed if you use data (which I did every day) or make a call. I put the plan only on my phone.  The rest stayed in airplane mode.
It was indeed liberating for the kids to not have the ability to be plugged in all day.
One thing to be aware of is that when only one person in the group has data, the group needs to stay together and not get accidentally separated, because there is no way to text each other and find out where anyone is.  We found this out the hard way when my daughter (who should have known better) wandered ahead of us until we had no idea where she was.  We lost about 90 minutes trying to find her.  This could have been avoided obviously if she had had a data plan, or if she had just been smarter!
Some parents might think it's worth it to pay for international data on 5 phones for 10 days.  We did not.

5)  Theatre
London has an incredibly vibrant theatre scene which offers just about any show you could possibly want to see.  It is true that you can go to the Kiosk in Leicester Square and procure half priced tickets for shows the same evening.  This is fine if you really don't' care what you see.  The pickin's by this time are slim and some are not even offered at a discount.
If you have your heart set on seeing something special in London-get your tickets far in advance.  Look up the theatre's seating map and pricing and choose which seats you want and pay full price.  Make it a gift to yourself.
The hottest ticket in London is of course Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. On April 1 at 4 in
the morning (12:00 London time), I bought 5 tickets for August 1, but let me tell you, it was not all that easy.  Though most productions offer tickets far more than four months in advance, Hamilton does not.  They release tickets about a month at a time and give you about three days notice as to when they will be released.  I signed up for a twitter notification to find out when this day would be, then I went on multiple blogs and the theatre website to pick the best possible tickets in my price range.  Assuming you get tickets, you are required to pick them up at the theatre the day of the show with your photo ID, credit card, and email confirmation.  Then you walk right into the theatre.  This is all to avoid the selling of these tickets on the secondary market.
It was all worth it.  It's fantastic.

6)  More
-I would like to say quite quickly before you get tired of me that tipping is not expected.  If you order drinks and food at a bar, no tip is expected. If you like your service and food, 12% tip is the norm.  Watch that the 12.5% service charge is not included in the bill and double tip.  I heard that Americans are loved because they are such good tippers--well, we are used to much more expected gratuity and also tipping all the time.  Another fact is that there is no tax on food in restaurants. So from a budgetary standpoint, you can plan on spending up to 25% less on dining out, than you would here.
AND two things that are hard to come by are tap water/drinking fountains and free rest rooms.  We found really early on not to wait until the last minute and to have change on your person to access the public potties.  Even the private potties sometime require an access code.  One time we bought a banana just to get it.
This predicament can leave you quite sick, you don't drink because you don't want to get stuck and it's hot so you get how this can become problematic.
If you want tap water in a restaurant your have to ask for it--and don't ask for still water because then it's coming in a bottle.

Okay here is my list of must sees in London and the UK.  Some are more like experiences and they are in no particular order....
1)  the London Eye
2)  St Paul's Cathedral (make sure you take the 528 stairs to the top of the dome!)
3)  Churchill War Rooms and the Churchill Museum
4)  the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace
5) Westminster Abbey
6)  the Imperial War Museum
7)  Stonehenge  (ok, not really London)
8)  Pubs and pub food
9)  London Theatre
10)  The Tower of London

Honorable mention to Windsor Castle, Borough Market, the Hard Rock Cafe and the London Underground.  What missed my list were the museums, which I know are fabulous but just made us tired.  Also skipped the whole afternoon tea thing.  A friend of our put it best.."I am more interested in afternoon beers than afternoon tea."

This was long but I hope you enjoyed reading! Here are some more pictures!
 View from the London Eye

Buck House, please!

View from St. Paul's Cathedral

Westminster Abbey

Overlooking the Thames and the London Eye

Queen Victoria and Windsor Castle

London Calling!!

Can I please get some service??

Tower of London 

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