Summer travels - the planning, Day One and some hints for travel with little ones

In May and June, when asked to describe our summer plans - well, really, isn't the whole point of summer not to make plans? - oh, yes, but after a short century of refusing to plan, we found ourselves planning.

The broad outline of our summer plans went like this:

Plan trip to London and Paris with two little kids

Take trip

Spend rest of summer recuperating from trip

Since we tend to be lazy when traveling, as in not climbing to the tops of monuments, the tops of castles and forts, the tops of churches and cathedrals, all of which have narrow twisty staircases with short steps, and then you have to go back down, we knew from previous trips with kids (not these two, but kids anyway) that this particular adventure would be more, um, physical than we've been doing lately. There would be climbing. So my personal readiness plan included (a) lose 10 pounds because every 10 pounds you take off takes 120 pounds of pressure off the knees and feet, and (b) test-drive shoes and remember which pair was which.

Even though our trip was in July, weather can be chancy, and so we listed indoor as well as outdoor activities and walks for each city. The kids brought plastic rain ponchos, and we supplemented these with zip-up hoodie sweatshirts when we got to London. Himself and I tend to avoid summer travel because of the crowds, but the kids could only come when school was out. So we agreed to deal with the crowds and not complain.

Rather than book two hotel rooms for the four of us, we took little apartments in each city. This let us have breakfast in, and on some days, light lunches or suppers. And we had a stash of snacks, juice, milk, and more than one bathroom.

And so, we arrived in London. The kids loved the taxi from the airport, best part was the little jump seats which were just the perfect size for little kids. In fact, after that ride, every time we stepped outside, little voices would clamor "Can we take a taxi?" "Do we get there by taxi?" "Look, there's a taxi, why are we standing at a bus stop?"

Time changes were not as tough as we had anticipated, not being sleepy at the right time was easier to deal with because the London apartment had a living/dining room with a large television. The kids loved British TV, even programs that were way too young or too old for them and some that I wouldn't have expected, like silly cooking shows. If they woke up early, they helped themselves to cereal and milk and plunked themselves in front of the TV. Did we come to London to watch television? Of course not, but they did enjoy hearing everyone speaking with a variety of British accents, and had fun imitating some of the sillier characters.

For our first day, we had booked what was billed as a Small Group Tour of Highlights - pick-up at our hotel (the apt. building was owned and managed by the hotel next door), a narrated tour of London on a double-decker bus, early beat-the-crowds entry to the Tower of London with a walk led by our Own Personal Beefeater, a boat trip up (down?) the Thames, and a reserved viewpoint to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. All at one price, and they would buy the admission tickets, scout out the lines, and so on. It seemed a very sensible way to get some important sightseeing done, leaving the next few days open for whimsy.

The night before the SGTOH, we got an email telling us that the hotel pick-up would be in front of the Ritz Hotel Casino Entrance on Piccadilly, since our place was on a one-way street. The airport taxi had had some navigation problems with this street, due to construction, so we didn't think this was odd.

So in the morning, we walked over to the Ritz at the appointed time, and waited. After a while, the casino doorman came over and asked if we were waiting for a tour. It turned out the tour people had called the doorman(?!?) and asked him to tell us and any other waiting visitors to meet the tour at Gate 15 at Victoria Bus Station before 8:30, when the tour would leave. There was, apparently, traffic. In London! During rush hour! Quelle surprise!

I wondered why the tour people just happened to have the doorman's mobile phone number, but there wasn't time for discussion. The kids were happy enough to have another taxi ride ($35), but all of us were taken aback by the mob of commuters, travellers and asylum-seekers at Victoria Bus Station, which was not as bright and well-kept as the Port Authority Bus Station in New York. In fact, it lacked only a few chickens on the floor to make me insist that we bag the tour and see if Gordon Ramsey could fit us in for lunch. I said as much to Himself, and whatever his answer might have been was drowned by cries of "Look! Pigeons!" Which of course we had come all the way from New York City to see. The pigeons were monopolizing the few remaining seats.

Squawks from the PA system directed us to an open door and after an argument with a man holding a clipboard about getting our taxi money back, and more words with a lady with large family and large dog headed for Graz (right. Austria), she got off and we got on our bus.

The bus was comfortable enough, and held - let's see, about 80 of us, but it was not a Red Double-Decker Bus. Hint: Be careful about how anything is described to kids. Any variance from the description will require repeated explanation.

The narration of the drive through London was pre-recorded. Clipboard Guy told us how to tune our earphones.

The Tower of London, for those who haven't done this, attracts throngs upon throngs, which means lines and lines and waiting and waiting. Coming with a group meant that our tickets had been bought in advance, and we did in fact move in a shorter and faster-moving line.

The kids had a scanty background, if any, in English, Western European, North American history. They attend multi-cultural schools with politically correct curricula, and that does make it difficult to explain colonialism, let alone the Reformation, heresy and beheadings. So our Personal Beefeater's brief remarks  - make that Random Beefeater snagged by Clipboard Guy - pointing out where various bloody events had occurred on the large inner courtyard and in the different buildings, had little significance. Except that Younger Child was terrified, having no concept of elapsed centuries. The Queen's jewels were a big hit. The Tower's gift shop had recently been restocked with a full line of Disney Princess merchandise and Younger Child cheered up - until she understood that we had no intention of buying her a £60 velvet princess dress - accessories were extra. Note: we'd given the kids basic books about London and Paris when the idea of a trip first arose. Oh, well.

Clipboard Guy gathered the group and we trotted across a few streets and climbed aboard for our boat ride on the Thames. There may have been narration but we didn't hear any. Off the boat, up some stairs, and we raced to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace from our Personal Vantage Point before the ceremony was over. We were in time to stand at the entry to the park and see a group of Guards marching away. Photo op. Then we tromped through Green Park, back to the apartment for late lunch and some relaxation.  The Pret-à-Manger chain - mainly sandwiches and salads -has outposts throughout London, and Marks & Spencer has little "food halls" sprinkled around, and that was where we hoped to do any necessary food shopping.

So - would I recommend doing a sightseeing tour like this? It wasn't cheap, and I had the feeling that if the bus had set out on time, the scheduling might have worked better.  Still, when traveling with kids, you want them to enjoy the experiences, and the wasted hour at the grungy bus station didn't set a happy tone for the day. The lack of informative talk along the way was also annoying. You can certainly find the Tower of London without a tour bus, and you certainly don't need the tour bus to see the Changing of the Guard, although if you want to really see it, you need to get there a few hours early and be prepared to wait. There's also a quite reasonable "Hop On, Hop Off" sightseeing bus, which is a real red double-decker bus, and you can make your own list of Highlights. I think I would do that if I were to plan the London segment again.  I was not impressed with our tour organizers and if you want to do a tour, email me and I'll tell you which group we used so you can try a different group. There are many.

Next travel post: Fish & Chips, Trafalgar Square, The Theatre.


  1. Ah, London. A little jealous. I do know what you mean. As we have been taking more city vacations I often wonder if we are missing important aspects of our trips by not taking tours. But, Mr. and the KnitYarn teen age boys don't always have the patience for a tour. Thank you for your insights. I love your blog. Similar experience at an MLB game- "No, we are not buying the $$$$$$ priced jersey that we can buy at home for $$" . And I am always shocked by the brisk business those vendors are doing.

    1. Thanks, KnitYarns! We've spent a lot of time in London and other parts of England, and it was so much fun to share it with the Teeniest! On my first trip - decades ago - the city bus tour was fun, we rode on the top of an adapted double decker red bus and joked with the tour leader. That was the experience I wanted to give the kids. Anyway, the Tower and the Changing of the Guard were must-dos, and we did'em.

  2. HI WFF,
    This was so well written that I felt that you were still in London and I was about to pen alternative suggestions. The bus station fiasco will make for great chortles down the road. Great post. Can't wait for Paris.

    1. Thanks, Yippee, there's still more London (and we did wind up taking the kids to restaurants with tables and siverware).

  3. Those doormen have a racket in town I tell you - so much so that they sell their positions and is normally bequeathed to a son or a nephew! It has been ages since I was a proper tourist in London but I applaud your efforts and patience bc I have only ever walked or driven past the tower of London. The queues make me want to chop my own head off. I do think that some of the tours are very lazy. The only time tours are any good is for niche tours rather than introductory ones. Do they show horrible histories over there? It is a bbc show about history but with such a humor that even adults watch and laugh along. If you don't - I must insist you youtube some episodes - never has history been so interesting!

    1. I've read some of the 'Orrible 'Istry books and luvved them, will hunt for the programs onYouTube.

  4. Sounds wonderful, long lines and all.

    Kind of reminded me of New Orleans, where we were told the "ghost tour" was at 7:00, to meet at a bar -- and then told the tour was at 8:00, so why not have a drink or two?

    One hand washes the other...


    1. I hate showing up on time for a reservation and being pushed into a bar. A recent addition to the "worst" list was a new hot place, a tiny storefront restaurant on the Lower East Side, where we were on time and they were running late, and they gave us one of those things that buzzes and blinks and told us to wait in a bar down the street.

  5. Agree with your advice completely. in 08 when we wanted to see Shakespeare's birthplace, Anne Hatheway's cottage and oxford we did the tour and it was the ticket. We are the people that are always 45 minutes early to any opening and always eat at 1130 when we have kids with us. You miss so much hassle! So glad you had fun!

    1. We chose to use a tour so we could be watchful of the kids, who hadn't travelled abroad before. And we hoped to avoid lines.

      Chasing after Clipboard Guy, being part of a "small group" of about 100 - 100 get off the bus at each stop, 100 get back on - and milling around with pigeons and peasants made the whole tour an hour late getting going, and slow and cumbersome when we were underway, so the convenience aspect was limited to ticket purchases. And since our tour price included hotel pickup and drop off, taking a taxi to the bus at the start and being dumped in a park at the finish caused some heavy-duty grumbling. On the other hand, you can't take kids to London and skip the Tower. Not done.

  6. Wow! You did so much! I love the walking through London but as we've experienced with Cy if we ever did that it in New York its "where are we going, please tell me, what are we doing" and wanting a game plan every step of the way.
    I have a terrible feeling I have never done the Tower (inside) maybe I have but I can't recall it. I am trying to see the jewels in my mind but can't...
    Ooops I only lived in London for 15 years.
    Thank goodness harry Potter books has really invigorated travelling in England. My sister and her kids just loved his Harry Potter land or whatever it was called.
    Also think London great for kids travelling in that you have pret a manger for sambos that I absolutely love _ the Coronation Chicken and the bacon and egg - just love those. And Marks which has great food to grab as well.

    1. Hi, Jody, wherever you are, we had a crammed first day, because our stay was short (on purpose) and we knew that afterwards, if we hadn't seen a few Important Things there would be regrets.

      Happy travels to you!

  7. Have never been to London... you may have scared me off! I would have been so aggravated by the tour shenanigans and the crowds. Getting twitchy just thinking about it! I hope you had fun anyway.

    1. Hi, cate, i think we just picked the wrong tour, and if we'd thought it through better, I would have opted for a "hop-on, hop off" bus, and set a slower pace. London's like any other large city - there are lots of people. Where I live in New York City we always worry about the visitors who stand still in the middle of the street to check a map...

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