Sunday, 7 July 2019

A Short Break in London with Older Kids | Travel

Last week the twins (age 10) and I headed to London for 3 days (2 nights) to see what we could squeeze into this time on a budget. I'm pretty familiar with the city myself having visited relatives several times as a child and with many work and leisure trips as a grown up. I have particularly strong memories of a visit with my dad and sister doing all the touristy things when I was about the same age as the twins so I was excited to recreate these memories for my girls.

1. Where to Stay?
This was probably the most difficult part of the process. Because it was just myself and the girls, I needed to know we'd be in an area that was fairly safe and easily accessed by tube. I did the usual hunt on Booking.com and Lastminute.com but was bamboozled by the choices. Nice hotels miles out of London and rubbish hotels where we wanted to stay. And the prices! I knew I'd have to pay for a London hotel room in July but I also knew there had to be a few decent budget options. I wasn't looking luxury - such a waste in a city where you are going to be out and about the whole time. I just wanted a clean room with 2 or 3 beds.
Then I thought I'd get off these third party sites and look to book directly with a hotel. First one I checked was Premier Inn and the least expensive option was a family room in the Kensington Olympia one, a 5 minute walk from Earls Court tube. What swung it for me is that it is a 15 minute walk to the Natural History Museum, the first 'to do' on the twin's list. 

I managed to book 2 nights in this hotel for £240 and for just £10 extra each day, I was able to get a full breakfast for myself, which in turn qualified me for 2 free breakfasts for the twins. No brainer. In fact, I could have paid £27 more per day and all three of us could have had dinner at the hotel too - so it's a great budget option given the expense of eating out in London. 

I thought I best manage the kids' expectations of the hotel so I explained that it was London and it was a budget option so in all likelihood, we'd be able to reach out and touch the walls of the room. So imagine our surprise when we arrived into the most enormous family room on the ground floor of the hotel. With a good sized bathroom (with a bath!). I had a kingsized bed to myself and the girls had two singles beside each other on the other side of the room. There were extra pillows, towels, tea/coffee making facility and soaps/shower gels in the bathroom. All the ticks.
(note to self - take the picture when you arrive, not as you leave!)
The welcome was first class - there was a lovely girl on reception on all 3 mornings and she couldn't have done more to help us. Breakfast was great - cooked and continental - and we all ate well both days. The only downside was the fact that it's on the main A4 so there's pretty much constant road noise. But earplugs will keep you right and the kids never heard a bit of it.

PS I have it on good authority that the Blackfriars Premier Inn is also excellent

2. Who to fly with?
We priced a few flight options and it was tricky to get good times for kids, with luggage allowance and arriving into a convenient airport. I get a fair bit of travel anxiety - I'm the one who'll be at the airport at stupid o'clock with my suitcase weighed and stressing about security. Recently in the press, there have been photos of the massive queues at Belfast International Airport with people missing flights. On the other hand, the only budget option out of City Airport, FlyBe, seems to be struggling and recently lots of people had short notice of flight cancellations. I couldn't hack any of this travelling with the kids for such a short time so I opted for BA flights to Heathrow. They're more expensive yes, but for an anxious flyer, it's a price I'm willing to pay and actually, they're not significantly more expensive when booked well in advance. Looking at flights now, you can get weekend Economy ones for £111 at the end of August - the same trip to Gatwick with Easyjet is currently costing £113. 

3. Getting around
Kids under 11 travel free with a paying adult on the Tube, Bus and the Heathrow Express. You have to swipe through the disabled/pram channels though otherwise the gate won't open for long enough to get the kids through! That's a lesson you'll learn quick enough from personal experience!!
I booked a return ticket on the Heathrow Express (online in advance) and then ordered a topped up Oyster Card via the TFL website to use on the tube and buses.
I knew contactless was also an option but wasn't sure of the differences but in fact, it became clear to me that an Oyster Card wasn't required and the kids and I could have gone through all stations with my bank card. So top tip, use your bank card however if you're coming from a country outside the sterling area, you might want to get an oyster card or if you're staying longer, you might be better with a Travelcard. This website explains it well - London Toolkit - click to have a read.

We walked a LOT - the weather was lovely and the tube can be so hot and stuffy in the summer. The hotel was within walking distance of Hyde Park, Holland Park and the Science/Natural History and V&A Museums. You could also walk to Kensington High Street where there were lots of lovely shops.

On our last day, we used the London Water Taxi from Tower Hill to Westminster which is run by TFL and accepts Oyster Cards. It doesn't accept contactless but you can pay by contactless at the ticket machines. Additionally, this isn't free for kids so although it's a really lovely way to see the city, it's more expensive than the tube. It also seemed to be quite slow as it stops lots along the river and is favoured by tourists, making the stops quite lengthy. A gorgeous way to see the city though and far nicer than the tube on a hot day.

4. What to see?
The kids had a list before we went and we stuck to it, though we did change around the days a little. The museums were the priority so on the first day, we were waiting at the gate of the Natural History Museum at 10am. I think this is the worst time to visit because everyone's there wanting to be early and beat the queue....thereby causing a massive queue!! It was a slow process getting in but when we did, the kids really enjoyed it, especially the Earthquake and Volcano zone. Most notable is the Kobe earthquake installation where you can experience what it's like to be in an earthquake, while watching actual CCTV from the Kobe supermarket that's been recreated in the installation. Terrifying and realistic. 
The Hintze Hall is breathtaking and worth walking right around at ground level and on the balcony to fully experience the Blue Whale from every angle. Even more memorable after watching Paddington - I kept expecting Nicole Kidman to appear from behind one of the secret doors!

We had snacks sitting in the open space outside the new Darwin Centre, wandered around the gems and jewels, had a quick visit to the shop (apple doesn't fall far) and then it was onwards to the girls' next destination, Covent Garden.

But we didn't go straight there, instead getting off the tube at Leicester Square and walking through Chinatown, where the girls were amazed by the fruits and vegetables out on the street and the impressive buffets that you could see through restaurant windows. We walked up through Soho and looped back around to Covent Garden where we arrived in time for a really good street performer.

The kids had fun looking at the stalls around the old market and buying friendship bracelets galore - I would have loved to have shopped here too but resisted. Some gorgeous shops like Sandro and Claudie Pierlot, Tom Ford and Olivia Burton.

This first evening, we went to Zizzi with my cousin, mainly for handiness but we were unimpressed so don't bother with that one. As a chain, it's a great budget option for families but the one we went to on Bow Street, opposite the Royal Opera House was a bit grubby, the staff were not particularly friendly and the food was just ok. 

We were home and in our beds for 9.30pm...ready for Day 2 which started with a walk to Hyde Park. This took us along Kensington High Street where we spent time in the Hema shop - perfect for tweens and mums - and Wholefoods, which is just a feast for the eyes and the stomach. It brought back memories of Boston a few years back when we shopped in the nearby Wholefoods Supermarket every day. 

After buying some snacks for a picnic, we headed to the Hyde Park Round Pool and then to the Diana Memorial Fountain....one of the hits of the holiday. The girls had their trainers off in a flash and walked around the fountain several times. It was full of happy children laughing and splashing while their parents sat on the grass and looked on - you could imagine Diana looking down in approval. I think the girls could have happily stayed there all day but Buckingham Palace was next on the list.
The crowds were pretty intense in and around the Palace so we didn't linger. Luckily as we passed through, the Royal Irish Guards band marched past us and played a tune. The girls were so impressed and also delighted to see the Met Police horses in action - another tick on their list.

We took a tube from there to Harrods next where we headed straight to the coffee bar in the Food hall. I have lovely memories of my cousin and godmother bringing me there as a 14 year old and I used these memories as my excuse for paying stupid money for coffee and a croissant. The service was excellent though and it was people-watching gold. 
(please never ask me how much this cost)
After an hour resting in the hotel, we decided to take a different approach to museum visiting and head to the Science Museum late in the day - just after 3pm. Turned out to be the best idea as the place was beginning to empty as we arrived and continued to do so as our visit went on. The girls wanted to visit Wonderlab, the Science Museum's installation that you have to pay to enter (the museum is free otherwise). It was £20 for the three of us and we had 2 full hours to explore this fun interactive area, which was more than enough time, especially as there were so few kids there already - it meant the girls could properly experience all the experiments. So much to see and interact with - absolutely WELL worth a visit. 
The bubble display was the girls' favourite - this guy was great!

We had 30 minutes to quickly scoot to a couple of other areas in the museum and after a quick museum shop visit, we were leaving as they closed the doors and back on the tube to Soho. 
Next up, our West End theatre visit and we'd booked tickets to Aladdin at the Prince Edward theatre via a website called Little Bird that was recommended to me by Jenny who is co-founder of the clothing company Hot Squash. It turned out to be the best priced site for West End tickets - we got three great seats for £35 each (which I know sounds ££ but it's good for London...the kids got a choice between the London Eye and going to a show and they chose the latter). We were high up but the visibility was great and the show was incredible - I'm not the biggest West End fan and could take or leave a show like this but I enjoyed it immensely.

It was 11pm when we got back to the hotel - I was concerned about getting the tube that late in the evening but it was busy and we didn't feel unsafe at any time.

Day 3 and first on the list was Hamleys Toy Store. I was expecting it to be too young for the twins but it turned out to be one of their highlights. They loved going floor to floor checking out the demonstrations and both made purchases here to bring home. We spent about an hour there and the girls could have spent more but I'd had enough and wanted to show the girls a bit of the East End, starting with a walk around Tower Bridge (if we'd had time, I'd have crossed over to Borough Market)
and then over to the Sky Garden, where we'd booked a trip to the top floor.
The Sky Garden on Fenchurch Street was the most frequently recommended thing to me when I asked for suggestions a few months ago and it didn't disappoint. It's free of charge and has one of the best panoramic views of London. You book it online about 3 weeks before you want to visit - so set a reminder on your phone as I did and you should have no problem getting a slot.
It's also a beautiful indoor garden with lots of greenery and there are bars and restaurants too. It was quite congested as we waited to get up in the lift but it kept moving and people were in good spirits. It was all worth it when we got to the top. 
I really wanted to do this one to show the kids the scale of the city but in all honesty, my two were a bit underwhelmed...whereas I could have stayed for hours! They had possibly just had too much stimulation already and energy was low after 50k steps in just over 2 days but it was ok because we had to keep moving anyway. I'd promised them a trip on the River Taxi back to Westminster, before returning to the hotel to pick up our luggage. This was a lovely way to see the city...and at a fraction of the cost of a tourist boat trip though as I said above, it's slow and busy.

5. Eating Out
This is a quick one as we mostly ate on the hop. We brought snacks, energy balls, fruit and nuts with us from home and we picked up bits and pieces in supermarkets or newsagents to snack on while we were there. After a big breakfast and with early dinner both evenings, there was never any need for lunch so that helped keep the costs down. We ate in Zizzi one evening as I mentioned above and although it wasn't great, it wasn't expensive. Their kids menu is a good option, as is the Pizza Express one (and you can use Tesco club card points to pay your bill). On the second night, we ate in a restaurant near the theatre - Old Compton Brasserie, which isn't a family restaurant and doesn't have a kids menu but the girls shared a main so it didn't work out that expensive in the end.
I like them to experience a proper restaurant every now and again where they have to wait for their food and make conversation. As opposed to a restaurant that entertains them with crayons and grazing food. They're old enough for this now....it's not for everyone but do take heart because I've been there not so long ago with fussy kids needing constant placating/toilet visits/cleaning up while struggling to eat some dinner myself. That time passes and before you know it, you can bring them to nice restaurants and you'll actually get to enjoy a quality meal and have a great chat...though they ALWAYS want to eat all your chips.

6. How long to stay for?
As with all good holidays, we could have done with a day extra so that's my last tip - stay longer than you think you'll need to. I was sure 3 days would be plenty but a 4th day would have taken the pressure off us and given us a chance to explore other areas you all recommended to me including, St Paul's, the Tate Modern and Borough Market. It would have been an extra night's accommodation cost but worth it I feel. Lesson learned for the next time!


I hope you found this useful - as always, please leave comments or email me on avril@alifetostyle.com if you've specific questions or suggestions for my next visit...they're planning it already!

Finishing with what I wore - I brought three outfits and one pair of trainers...the perfect capsule for a short break:
Bag - current sale M&S (not online)
Trainers - past season M&S
Vest - basic Zara (years old but I think they still do them every year)
Trainers as before
Bag - ancient old faithful Boden
Stripe top - old H&M
Bag & Trainers as before

Finishing this LONG post by saying I took the opportunity while in London to stay off my phone apart from when I needed to navigate the tube or unfamiliar city streets so I have very few photos apart from ones I took of the kids. So some of the images I've used on this post are royalty free ones I've lifted legitimately from a site I subscribe to. The rest are mine. You can probably tell the difference!!

Till next time...
Ax



Share:

No comments

Post a Comment

I love reading your comments and will reply as soon as I can if you have a specific question. If for any reason, you are unable to leave a comment, just drop me an email at avril@alifetostyle.com or leave a comment on the A Life to Style Facebook Page! Thank you xx

© A Life To Style | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig