Why You Need to Take a Cruise
Best vacation ever? We think so!
Anyone who's spent their time at sea will come to appreciate how truly relaxing a cruising vacation is. We LOVE to cruise and try to take at least one a year to discover a new island in the Caribbean (or more recently, the Mediterranean coast)!
1. Your carefree vacation starts the moment you step on ship. We can't say this enough and there's proof in the pudding! Have you ever seen a cruise terminal vs. an airline terminal? Two completely different worlds. It all seems easier when you cruise - from the moment you check-in until you step on board - and that's because it actually is! No need to worry about long security lines where shoes and laptops need to be removed; or praying for decent seat arrangements; or trying to sort out unpredictable flight delays and changes - you're on vacation from the minute you arrive!
For someone who has never cruised, your stress-free vacation starts the moment you drop your luggage off with a porter, because it will be delivered straight to your stateroom. Yes, you'll still go through the standard protocol of checking travel documents, receiving your boarding pass (known as your cruise ship ID card), and security checks. But then, then your vacation really starts! Once you board, it's time to pull out that swimsuit and grab a spot by the pool because you have nowhere else to be for the next few days!
2. You get to pack light. What else are you going to do on island time? Whatever you want! Which loosely translates to "don't worry about getting all dolled up every day, you get to unwind and relax." What to pack should be the least of your concerns. No need to coordinate a ton of outfits or worry about bringing shoes to match - all you really need to get by is a swimsuit, coverup and lots of sunscreen!
We're usually at one suitcase when we travel, and cruising is no exception. We pack a few interchangeable shirt & bottom combos, a handful of swimsuits (because they never dry fast enough), items to workout in (which will work for excursions that require a little more manpower too) and then a couple nicer items to wear at dinner for the nights we choose to eat at one of the flagship restaurants. Cruises do have a suggested attire when entering dining rooms, but aside from that, you don't have to worry about packing the "right" thing.
And if you're still worried about not packing enough, all cruise lines offer some kind of pay for laundry service. Disney Cruise Line even has washers and dryers for guest to use themselves, laundromat style - just bring detergent and spare change! Our cruise through Europe on the Norwegian Epic offered us a midweek laundry service for a reduced set price. All we had to do was fill a bag, inventory it, send it to be cleaned, and we had it back the next day with clean clothes to wear through the second half of our vacation!
3. You can eat whatever, whenever, as much as you want. Unfortunately it all still has calories. But good news, is that it's all included in the price of your fare. And trust us, there's food galore!
One of the greatest things about planning a cruise vacation is knowing there's not too many surprises in what it'll cost you. Your per passenger price includes standard meals on board, from quick service dining by the pool to seated dinner in their main restaurants. AND there's no limit to what you get! This especially makes it great for traveling with kids (or picky eaters) because what a blessing it is to not have to plan a meal fit for all.
The experience you'll have dining all over the ship in their inclusive venues is enough to keep your appetite satisfied. But cruise lines do have specialty add-on restaurants, where you can book a "fancier" dinner usually at a flat rate. Unless you're an avid cruiser looking to change things up, or a cruiser wanting to celebrate a special occasion, there's no real need for the upgrade. We spent our honeymoon on Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, and we made it a point to have one night to celebrate one-on-one. After months of madness called planning a wedding, it was nice to have a quiet night just the two of us, in a restaurant that offered even more superb service.
4. You can relax whenever you want. There's that island time again! Because really, it exists. Try to find a clock somewhere onboard - it's hard to come by and that's really a good thing! Want to sleep in and order breakfast in bed? Go for it! Want to take a snooze by the pool? Just remember to lather up and turn over to keep your color even. Need to sneak back to your room for an afternoon nap? It's the perfect time to escape before the evening's festivities begin.
Want to splurge and relax? Spa services are available on board for an additional fee. And though we're not usually ones to use them, we decided that we deserved it on our 2017 "end of the year" cruise on Carnival Magic. And it was so worth it! We booked spa level rooms that granted us access to the sauna and steam rooms at our leisure - our only regret was not using it more! We dropped the kids off at their respective kids' club and we snuck off for some time to unwind AND gear up for the new year, in a way we'd never get to at home.
5. The amenities are great. The bigger the ship the more there is to do, though every ship has a great selection of something for everyone! If the pools with live band weren't enough, many have been upgraded to include water park/play areas or amazing water slides to take your fun at sea up a notch. We cruised Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas where there literally were activities on every corner. Kiddie to adult only pools, putt putt, ropes course, an arcade, sports court, A CAROUSEL and so much more!
For adult only fun, ships have a variety of bars and clubs that each uniquely cater to every type of fun seeker. If gambling is your escape, most ships have a floating casino (available once you reach international waters) - Disney is the only that does not incorporate this in their brand. And more recently, to accommodate growing demand to help limit surprising costs, most lines have introduced a form of unlimited drink package (both non-/alcoholic). We've tried it and its a total benefit for someone who plans on enjoying their trip, without watching their bank account. Just prebook the package and you're ready for arrival - you know what it's going to cost you for adult libations and you can start drinking once you get on the boat!
6. The live shows are included. The caliber of productions that you're going to see is beyond anything you'd expect, especially as cruise lines continue to progress and enhance their offerings! And believe us when we say what you get is fantastic! Disney Cruise Line has always been top notch in their theatrical productions, and can delight children (and kids at heart) of every age. But more recently, we've been able to experience Broadway shows at sea on two separate lines, which truly left us blown away.
Back in 2017, we cruised Allure of the Sea and caught a production of Mamma Mia! which was as great as the touring production we saw a few years before that. And this was in addition to the outdoor stage shows, live musicians, ice skating productions and even a parade this ship offered, all in the same sailing. More recently on Norwegian Epic, we made time to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (and no, not because it was my namesake). I had watched it a few years back and enjoyed it - the ship production really rivaled what we saw on dry land, even on a much smaller set.
If live theater isn't your thing, most cruise lines also offer a variety of other options, including comedians, guest karaoke, live bands, and movie under the stars. We've had some of our more memorable nights as a family cuddling under a blanket and letting the kids doze off under a star filled sky. Just pick a seat, grab some popcorn and enjoy a movie by the pool. Those have always been an absolutely perfect end to our cruises!
7. Don't like to plan? You don’t have to! Everything's scheduled for you - that is, if you want to follow a schedule. Each ship has a cruise director and his staff of employees that coordinate and handle all activities. There's everything you could want to do from games, shows, art auctions, cooking classes, exercise classes, and more!
Every night in your stateroom along with turndown service, you will be provided a detailed daily schedule of what there is to come the following day. Have your pick of what appeals to you! You can start your day with a class at the gym, spend time at the pool, check out an art display, test your luck at BINGO, take a cooking class and then still make it back in time for lunch (and start all over again after that).
If keeping it low key is more your style, you can also opt to do NOTHING AT ALL. Even when docking at your scheduled ports, you don't ever have to leave the ship. For us, we love a good excursion, especially if it's to discover a new country and her people. And we'll definitely return to the ones we love to experience to see it all over again. But there are times when the offerings on the ship are more enticing, and your port day plan can be to stay on the boat all day long! We did this when we cruised the Disney Dream with the kids, and opted not to go to Nassau. We had been a handful of times and there wasn't anything we particularly wanted to do. Instead, we chose to take advantage of an empty ship, which still had scheduled activities, and allowed our kids to meet characters, have play time in the kids club, and enjoy the pools ... all without a crowd!
8. Your kids will have a great time too! Our kids have each been cruising since they were a year old, and it's been by far the best trip we can take as a family, especially with littlest of ones. If all the activities above aren't enough to convince you to cruise, than consider what else there is to do for your tots!
Depending on how old or young they are, there's a selection of activities that cater to each age. Typically cruising can start as early as 6 months old, so strolling the ship or letting them nap while you relax is exactly what you both need. You're limited to paid babysitting services for the littlest of the bunch, but it's worth your while if you're looking for an evening of conversation. For some ships, starting at age 2, your little ones are welcome to their kids club, where they can mingle with other kids their age while being supervised by a host of professional, fun-loving staff! Ships also typically offer this service free of charge until late night (10pm), so it gives parents a chance to grab an uninterrupted meal and post-dinner drinks and still call it an early night (because who are we kidding, staying up late nowadays is non-existent)! You may also keep your children playing after hours (usually until 12), but that comes at a nominal fee. Then for your big kids, they can explore tween and teen rooms; each giving them a safe haven to hang out with kids their age, while giving you the peace of mind of knowing where they are!
Beyond the kids club, unlimited food (and soft serve ice cream), pools, games, and so much more, cruise lines have also done a great job of catering to families by offering a specialty dining experience - like breakfast at sea with characters from Dr. Seuss (Carnival) or the gang from Madagascar (Royal Caribbean).
Disney Cruise Line itself, the pinnacle of fun for kids, offers daily meet-and-greets with Mickey and friends all over the ship, and special appearances by a host of other characters and princesses. You can pay for your kids to get a special princess or pirate makeover (similar to the parks) to adorn the rest of their trip. And you get to end one night at sea in a pirate takeover with fireworks to match (the only cruise line that does this). Disney, like the parks, has taken their experience up a level for family fun and if its something you're considering, definitely book a Disney before your little ones outgrow the magic!
9. You get to visit a ton of places all at once. Beyond all the reasons above, our number one incentive for cruising is the selection of stops we visit. If you've got a vagabond soul (like us) and you're eager to explore - but sometimes all you need is one day. Some of these stops, though beautiful and culturally enriching in their own right, are also new and unknown to us. Cruising gives us the option to see a handful of different places at once without the individual plane ticket prices. From there we can decide which ones we want to come back to spend a little more time at!
Aruba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Dominician Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virigin Islands, Curacao, Grand Turk, Grand Cayman, Mexico, Belize - we've seen them all! And more recently, we jumped on a Mediterrean cruise and got to explore parts of Italy, France, Monaco, and Spain, all in one swoop! It definitely gives us a taste of what we want to see so much more of - and reason to start planning where our next adventure is!
10. Your real world can't sneak in. And if you need any more reason to go, it's because cruising is your one true way to disconnect. Cell charges for roaming on international waters are ridiculous. The first thing you will want to do after setting sail, is to turn your phone to airplane mode. Or like my husband loves to do - turn it off completely!
Cruising really does encourage an atmosphere to unplug, though cruise lines are customizing ship ready apps to keep you connected while on board. It's all a matter of figuring what makes sense for you, all while staying present in your family vacation. I keep my phone on me to make sure I'm capturing all our memories at a moment's notice; my husband locks his phone in our in-room safe only to see it once we're back home. Regardless of how you see it, you're disconnected from work, emails, social media and all those other distractions - and there can't be a better way to spend quality time with your loved ones!
So do we have you convinced? Need anything more? We've cruised the major lines (Carnival, Disney, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean) a handful of times each - all of which have great offerings for couples and families alike. There really is no right or wrong choice in what you choose, as each is different and will give you a unique experience from the other. For us, that's what we love about trying each out and figuring out which line is a right fit for us (right now, we don't have one)!
Ready to take the leap and need help planning the perfect trip for you? Let me know and we can find the right cruise - from ship to destination(s) - for you!
Make Air Travel Work for You
So you've decided you want to take a trip ... but now it's a matter of getting there. The hardest part is taking the leap - because looking at air ticket prices may be the first deterrent to your travel plans.
Instead of being discouraged by the initial step, we wanted to offer suggestions to make air travel work for you. There are plenty of options out there and even more flight gurus that dive deeper into working air travel in your favor. We're going to keep it simple and share what we've done to get the most out of our travel dollars.
1. Get a co-branded credit card. The majority of our air travel we've done for free - and by that we mean points. It's such a perk to look into getting a credit card that you can manage and use to earn you bonus offers - free "money" ultimately, just for being loyal! We mentioned earlier this week, the amazing promotion that Southwest Airlines has with their co-branded Visa. They're offering a Companion Pass for new account holders who spend $4000 in their first three months on one of the designated cards offering this promotion.
Our tried and true card of choice is the Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express, which we've had for over a decade and use to pay for ev-ery-thing! We earn miles on everyday spending, which quickly adds up to free tickets. On top of dollar-for-dollar mile accrual, the card also has the added benefit of Miles Boost which earns you an additional 10,000 bonus miles for every $25,000 spent in a calendar year. Airline tickets redeemed by SkyMiles can start as low as 12,000, so you just earned a free ticket as reward for spending as you normally would. Once we get to the airport, every passenger on the main cardholder's reservation gets their first bag checked free (which can be up to a $60 value per person on a round trip flight). We also LOVE that there are no foreign transaction fees on the card, as we know we won't get hit with anything more than currency exchange rates when traveling internationally! But the biggest perk of our Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express card is the annual Companion Certificate - we get to bring a companion for just taxes and fees. Unlike Southwest it is only one ticket a year within the contingent US, but for loyal Delta travelers its soooo worth it!
We treat our card like our bank account and we pay EVERYTHING on it - and that's a sure way to rake in points. We know that's not conventional financial wisdom, as having a credit card does require a lot of discipline. But it is free perks for spending, as long as you can hold yourself accountable. If this is something you're considering doing but you're hesitant to start, here are some tips to lead you in the right direction:
2. Loyalty Programs. As briefly mentioned above, loyalty programs are everything! If you fly it, sign up for it (it takes minutes to do so). Accrue the miles for taking the trip, because they add up quickly!
When booking your flight, most airlines have the option to sign up for their loyalty program on the spot and then input your membership number. If you forget to do it, don't worry as you can either still input the information before travel OR request mileage credit after travel. Simply put, the more you fly, the more you earn!
With our frequent Delta trips (combined with credit card spending), we've been able to accrue Medallion Status. As a Medallion, you get additional perks like priority check-in and boarding, complimentary preferred seats, partner airline benefits, faster earning potential, and our favorite, free upgrades! We've traveled a handful of times where upon purchasing our ticket, we request a free upgrade to Delta Comfort or First Class. Up to 24 hours before the flight, if space remains in either class, we get upgraded ... for FREE! When that combines with a ticket that we paid for fully in points, we're getting a few hundred (if not thousand) dollars in benefits at no additional cost to us.
With our trips abroad, we've flown Delta partner airlines and were able to receive free checked bags with our status. This goes a long way, espeically with the new Basic Economy ticket (where you get no checked bag & no seat assignment). The new pricing structure is typically $100 less than an Economy seat (which gets you a seat and a bag). For us, its not worth paying the extra because we get perks. So we book the cheaper ticket and then can choose to pay for our seat selection only (seats can typically range $30-$40 a person a segment). This still saves $60/person on flights! Rates and rules vary by airline, so check before you commit.
3. Track Flights. A good flight tracking site can make all the difference if you're flexible in travel, because even a day can have a significant in prices. For our London trip, ticket prices were at least $200 cheaper for flying on Christmas night and New Year's Day than they were a day before or after on either end. Since we had the flexibility, we chose to take it!
Sites that track flight prices range everywhere from Kayak to Hopper to Skyscanner. We prefer Google Flights as we love the look and accessibility in finding flight prices on a calendar. We can then set up alerts on any of these sites to monitor the flight prices! When using these flight trackers, try to remember to search in private browsing mode, so your search history is not tracked as flight prices could suddenly change with frequent searches.
Also, find the prime booking window for your flight. Booking early may not always be an option for you - and at the same time, the cheapest option! We have tested these tips from this CheapAir.com article on waiting for the best time to book and they've worked! If you see prices start to go up and are still outside the prime booking window, you can wait a bit and will see a drop. Though we do NOT recommend waiting if you're flying at a peak time (like the holidays or an exclusive event) or seats seem to be disappearing fast on the flights you're eyeing!
4. Off Season Travel. This may not be the solution for everyone, especially if your trip is planned for a special occasion or around set dates. But if you're flexible enough to vacation when you can, do it! There are times when unbeatable flight prices arise and the trip is every penny worth taking!
If you're not in the mood to search for the best flights, you don't have to! We love the following deal sites to find flying sweet spots. Click through the pages to follow them or sign up for alert emails. We ALWAYS keep an eye on what's out there and are waiting for the right time and place to jump!
5. Consider a Neighboring Airport. When looking for flights, don't always stick to what you know. Sometimes flying out of a neighboring airport makes all the difference And if you don't mind the drive, a neighboring city could save you a few hundred dollars on a ticket (or at least offer a better travel schedule)! You can then look into a park and fly package at a hotel near the airport. What's that? You can leave your car at the hotel for the length of your trip for the price of one night -- and sometimes it includes a free airport shuttle too! All the more reason to head over the night before, get a good night's sleep, and then easily access the airport as you head on that sunny vacation!
Consider this strategy for flying home too! You may not always find the price you want at the airport of choice.For our summer Europe trip, ticket prices were cheaper for a multi-destination trip (Orlando to Rome > Paris to Orlando) then they were round-trip to and from the same cities. We also found a better deal and flight schedule flying back home from Paris through the lesser known Orly Airport than the renowned Charles de Gaulle. We knew we wanted to see Paris, so we booked it! Both ended up being the same distance from our final stop, so accessibility wasn't an issue and we got home all the same.
6. Work with a Travel Planner. Hi, me!
I can help you to either find a deal for air travel or if you want it all, help to build a full package. Partner packages with airlines can also run cheaper as they bundle their air at a discount, a commodity that is rare to come across nowadays! Even if you decide to go and book your own flight, I can still help plan anything from transfers, accommodations and activities!
If you're already considering travel and want to take the next step, here it is! Fill out a Travel Planning form if you know exactly where you want to go and need help pricing it! If you need help finding the right trip for you, try the Adventure Seeking form to detail what you want from your trip.
You can also send me an email and I'll be in touch to help plan the rest of the details for you! I LOVE travel - to talk about it, work through it, and most importantly, DO IT! And if I can help you take the trip, I'd love to provide you with that!
Disney Beyond the Rides
It’s our favorite time of the year here in Orlando! The holiday rush is calming down, the masses are starting to leave (though we love our tourists and all that they do for our great city), and our annual passes are full force again! There’s a nice calm after the storm in the parks, where you can enjoy the stillness and the BEAUTIFUL weather Orlando winter brings. If you're a local, you know that in some ways, right now The City Beautiful feels exclusively yours.
We also love this time of year because it gives us a chance to enjoy some of the perks about living with a theme park in our backyard that we tend to take for granted. There’s SO much to do at Disney than just the rides and we wanted to give you a preview of some of our favorite activities that make an appearance when it quiets down around here.
1. Four times a year RunDisney hosts a racing event on property for guests that want to view the parks in a whole different light! November starts race season with the Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend and then it quiets down again until January. The beginning of January brings the only marathon race with Walt Disney World Marathon Race Weekend, followed by the Princess Half Marathon Weekend in February, and rounding off with the Star Wars Rival Run Weekend in April. These events are so exhilarating, from the registration process (will I even get a spot?) to the week of anticipation! The days leading up to the actual races, you will have to go to ESPN Wide World of Sports to pick up your bib, and this also gives you a chance to peruse the numerous vendors, selling everything from racing gear to themed merchandise. It’s a runner’s delight ... and really can inspire anyone to do want to run these races (we're about to run our 4th half marathon)!
And if running anything with marathon in it is not your thing, each of the race weekends above offer a 5K & 10K, as well as kid races! If timing doesn't line up, consider racing at Port Orleans - French Quarter, where the on-site property hosts a Beignet Fun Run most Sundays (except race weekends) and you finish with a sweet treat to celebrate!
There's so much excitement in the air when a race comes to town!
2. In-park events start to come alive again in January, when EPCOT welcomes back the annual International Festival of the Arts. This particular event mimics the likeliness of the other in-park events, but draws on creativity and imagination. There are speciality food booths lining the World Showcase that make food a work of art, artists with their masterpieces on display, and performances by broadway stars, to name a few of the activities.
Festival of the Arts, which is in its third year, runs Jan 18 – Feb 25, 2019 and joins the ranks of the International Flower & Garden Festival, the renowned International Food & Wine Festival, as well as Festival of the Holidays. Flower and Garden happens in spring and showcases the horticulture in the park with their magnificent colors and celebrates the art of growing food. For those that like to munch around the world, the booths are back with deliciaes grown on property and Disney’s culinary team once again delighting in sample size. Food & Wine, which is a staple for many, comes back earlier than ever and with more booths than before to celebrate the culinary cultures of the world. And Festival of the Holidays introduces worldwide food and holiday traditions during the season! These events are included in your EPCOT or multi-park admission ticket.
3. Disney Special Events always has a special place in our hearts, as it’s a fun way to see the parks from a different lens. Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party encourages guests of all ages to dress up and trick or treat at Magic Kingdom! We have attended the event a handful of times and each one we love the memories we make in costume. Even though most rides are up and running during the event, you can fully enjoy the event without even stepping foot on a ride! We use this time to load up on candy, wait for special character meet and greet & dance parties, watch parades & shows unique to this event, and catch the full park fireworks display.
Following Halloween is Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, where the park lights up at night in celebration of the holidays. From meeting Santa, to cookies and cocoa to your heart’s desire and topping it off with one-of-a-kind parades, shows and fireworks, this event is an added bonus, especially if you call this home for the holidays. These are sepearately ticketed events, but if you were wanting to explore the park in a different light, this is definitely something to check out!
4. Ever thought about staying on property? Right now might be the time! Disney offers hotel specials and discounts to Florida residents throughout the year. When you come make plans to spend time at the resort, enjoy the pool(s), participate in activities and RELAX! If the park is still calling you, you can always go, but we like to enjoy a true staycation exclusively at a Disney hotel to take in all it has to offer! We enjoyed Art of Animation a few years back, and swimming in one of their 3 pools until the sun disappeared. After sunset, they had movies on the green between the buildings. It was perfect.
If staying at the resorts is not for you, consider just popping by for a visit. The dining options are fantastic! From heading over to the Magic Kingdom loop and heading on the monorail for a date night; strolling Disney's BoardWalk and renting a tandem bicycle to explore the area; or dining with characters dining at a handful of the resorts. There's plenty to do that doesn't even require a ticket into the park!
5. Another option outside the parks is to check out the various activities of Disney Springs. From bowling at Splitsville, catching a show at House of Blues, seeing the world from above on Aerophile, or watching a movie at AMC, that’s only a portion of what the entertainment complex has to offer. The original Disney Village still stands in all of her glory, with classic shops and restaurants, like Rainforest Café and T-Rex, for kids of all ages. We just visited and got to catch the last night of the Christmas Tree Trail, where Disney Springs dressed a tree for the likes of every Disney movie! Heading over to the newer Disney Springs you will find more eclectic dining and shopping options. You can easily make a day of exploring the area or enjoy a Disney date night (we particularly enjoyed the progressive dinner style ones we’ve done).
For those that are toying with the idea of becoming loyal Disney patrons like us, Disney offers a host of ticket options. From day tickets to annual passes, you can find the one to customize what you need. And right now they have a special promotional offers for FL residents if you're not ready to dive in - the Florida Resident Discover Ticket offers 3 Days starting at $175!
If you're ready to explore options of visiting that can fit you, anything from a day trip to the resort to a staycation or full on vacation, let us know! We'd be thrilled to help you plan a trip, perfect for you!
A London Holiday
Did London meet my expectations? I always go into my travels with a nervous excitement, so it lowers my anticipation a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled for the prospect of travel, but between balancing the logistics of a trip and “blindly” planning to visit a new place, I simply go in expecting to have a good time, whatever that may be. Sure, we didn’t know what to expect but it definitely was not what we got; we fell in love with London more than we ever knew we could!
For an outsider’s perspective, the easiest place to compare London is to New York City. It’s a very vibrant, cultural melting pot with non-stop action and excitement, much like NYC. It has distinct neighborhoods laid out similarly to a map of the Big Apple, each having its own unique appeal. It’s an older city that has the charm of preserved history meets the state-of-the-art infrastructure that gives it new character. London above all has a timeless beauty to rival that of NYC, and the pride in which its citizens have to keep the city pristine is inspiring.
Now don’t get me wrong, I will be the first to shout from the rooftops about how much I love the city that never sleeps! But from the architecture to the people to the activities to the food, we were truly blown away by all London has to offer!
So how’d we get here?
We caught the Europe bug this summer after spending 2 ½ weeks visiting a handful of countries. We knew we wanted to come back soon, but never anticipated how soon. We had started looking into trip options for the week between Christmas and New Year’s in July, knowing we were cutting it close in the affordability window. All our searching was turning out empty, as every option we considered sat on costing more than what we were willing to pay. I then stumbled upon direct flights on Virgin Atlantic to London Gatwick from Orlando using Google Flights and the price hit our sweet spot.
We quickly jumped over to do a search of hotel prices to see if it was too good to be true, and sure enough it wasn’t! We booked a refundable option until we solidified all our trip plans, and then after some more research and waiting for the Europe flight prices to hit their lowest point, we booked!
We knew from the start it was going to be a Christmas surprise – we always talked about how the kids have too much stuff and the next holiday trip was going to be their gift! We were originally considering a Disney cruise as our New Year’s plan, but because of the peak week and higher demand, the cost rose beyond what we wanted to pay. We would cruise Disney in a heartbeat, but we wanted to ring in the New Year in a way we never had before, and since we had done already cruised Disney, we searched for something with a price point we felt was reasonable. And in turn, this trip ended up costing us LESS than that cruise would have.
Unbelievable, right?! We were able to take our family across the pond for a Christmas week holiday for less than cruising the Gulf of Mexico right next door.
Sound like something you want to do?
Here are some things we took note about London that we feel will help make this a trip for you!
1. Flying into London is EASY and cheap! There are DIRECT flights from Orlando (MCO) to London Gatwick (LGW) for cheaper than flying into some US cities. We booked Virgin via Delta and scored a price cheaper than going to NYC, San Francisco or even Phoenix (to watch the UCF-LSU game) for the same time period. We did book an Economy Light ticket, which is a new pricing structure most major airlines introduced to make traveling a bargain. But very important to note, it eliminates immediate seat selection and a checked bag. Yes, we know it’s not for everyone, especially those traveling with kids (we’re crazy, right?)! But having loyalty to an airline allowed us to check our one bag free (Delta Medallion status via their AmEx credit card). And Virgin made seat selection a breeze thanks to their loyalty program, Flying Club, which allowed us to select our seats 72 hours before our flight departure. All you have to do is register and apply your membership number and you're granted an additional 48 hours to choose (you'd otherwise pick an available seat at check-in).
2. London is relatively inexpensive. We came into this hearing the exact opposite, but after living it for a week, we beg to differ. Yes, a last minute trip to London can cost you, especially when it comes to flight and lodging prices. But if you start planning early, you can find a bargain on hotel rooms or vacation rentals. Once there, the average pricing is pretty standard, if not cheaper, than stateside. Granted the exchange rate hurts a little since it favors the GBP; but “dollar for dollar” prices were not what you expect from a BIG city, a la that of NYC, Vegas or San Francisco. Most meals we kept under the $50 mark for all 4 of us. We did take an occasional splurge on something fancy, like attending a West End show or partaking in a unique activity, but more than made up for it with $3 (or 2 GBP) drinks.
3. They accept credit cards virtually everywhere. No need to worry too much about hitting the ATM up before traveling, as most major cards are accepted from the minute you get off the plane (but do make sure you have a Visa or Mastercard handy). They do not take the US dollar and you will need the GBP if you wish to make cash purchases.
If it gives you peace of mind to have cash on you, then bring a minimal amount of pounds. We like to avoid the currency exchange shops with higher exchange rates and pesky transaction fees, so we find a bank partner ATM and make the withdrawal there. For us, we bank with Bank of America and they have a partnership with Barclay’s. For any cash needs, we could use a Barclay’s ATM and only get charged the currency conversion (no transaction or ATM fees)! Most major US banks have a partnership with international banks, so find out if your bank offers one to save you any additional fees.
4. Skip renting/chartering a car, public transportation is the way to go! The train into London was the easiest mode of transportation we’ve ever taken leaving an airport. We left customs, found a kiosk to buy tickets and then headed to the South Terminal to catch the train one floor up. The National Rail runs every 30 minutes and is roughly a 30 minute ride to London; from there you can hop over to the local Underground that will get you to your destination.
We highly recommend getting a Visitor Oyster card, as not only does it give you a capped Underground fare per day, but also allows you discounts to many attractions. You can prebook a Visitor Oyster card and have it mailed to you, but you will pay the shipping fee from the UK to US (roughly $4 for standard untracked or $12 for Express tracked shipping ). If you rather not pay for shipping, you can purchase one on arrival ONLY at the airport (there is a 5 GBP fee for the card either way) and all you need to do is “top it off” with the amount of fare you need to travel. And best of all, kids under 12 travel free on most trains so you will only need a card for each adult (though a 5-11 year old may need a National Rail ticket to get into London). Once you’re done with the card, you can return it to receive any unused funds back (it will come in pounds though).
5. You can’t go wrong with where you stay. London is so vast and spread out that unless you intend to stay and play in one area ONLY, then really where you stay is of no concern. The area that sees the most foot traffic and is the true hub of the city is Piccadilly Circus (the Times Square of London), but everything else is either a walk or short tube ride away. We opted to stay over in Tower Hill in the City of London (aka their financial district). Sure, it wasn’t in the heart of everything, but it had one thing that could not be beat – an Underground station one block away that got us EVERYWHERE! We could not be happier with that perk, because at the end of a long day, nothing tops walking ONE BLOCK back to your hotel from your train.
6. Find a place to stay that suits your needs. As mentioned above, proximity to the tube station was enough for us. We’re walkers (no pun), so we knew we’d be exploring on foot wherever we went (seriously, we logged 80 miles of walking on this trip). But we had to get there first. There was no main reason for us to stay in one neighborhood over another as we intended to explore the whole city.
We also prefer a hotel to a vacation rental, particularly with little kids – because the convenience of on-site dining and disposable amenities a phone call away eliminates the stress of finding an open store in the middle of the night. We did make pit stops though and stocked up on snacks to have, and our hotel had a decent size mini fridge in the room that was filled with tea, coffee, and water bottles every morning. We stayed at the Novotel London Tower Bridge and we were impressed with the brand, particularly the simple practicality of the room; the clean, crisp boho contemporary look of the hotel; and the price tag that came with it. It was cheaper than most AirBNBs in London and got us all that we needed!
7. The city is extremely family friendly. Bring the kids, they’ll LOVE it here! From riding the tube to looking at Christmas lights to playing in parks to finding random holiday markets filled with goodies … you name it, there was plenty to do! And they enjoyed every minute!
There are several FREE museums in London to explore, including the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert (museum of art & design), British Museum and Tate Modern (art museum) to name a few. If you don't mind dropping some pounds (no pun), visit the famous London Zoo and get an up close and personal experience with the animals that call it home. Or make time to visit WB Studios to see THE Harry Potter movie sets (be warned, tickets sell out fast, so this is something that needs to be booked months in advance)! Or just do a Harry Potter walking tour to see the actual places that inspired the movies - there's nothing like being there in person! If you want to see London from above, visit the London Eye; there are several other attractions including the SEA LIFE Aquarium and Shrek's Adventure! nearby.
And if all else fails, there are several parks with adorable playgrounds to keep them entertained while you rest your feet from all that exploring. Our kids played on the wooden sculptures of St. James Playground with Buckingham Palace as their backdrop. They climbed a rope course in Regent's Park (the park that is said to be the kite flying playground of the Banks children in Mary Poppins). And they made friends with Londoners at Hyde Park as they raced around the various playground delights. Bonus for parents, these parks are extremely clean and their restrooms are CHILDREN ONLY, which we felt was a gracious gesture to assure that these sacred play spaces were preserved for our little ones.
8. Come during Christmas! It is absolutely beautiful! Just about ever corner of this city has something the rings the Christmas spirit. Despite us traveling after the actual holiday, it still felt like we were gearing up for the big day with the excitement that surrounded the city dressed up in lights.
And if there wasn't enough to do already, the city has Christmas markets everywhere, along with carousels and ice skating rinks to stop you in your tracks! We enjoyed skating at the Natural History Museum in particular. Above all, make sure to visit the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Or if you rather not ruin a fair experience for your children (or yourself, really) ever again, don't visit it. We will never be able to go to another fair without having to significantly lower our expectations after our over the top afternoon there!
9. If you can’t come during Christmas, come during spring/summer. We’d absolutely take this city on with warmer weather, a little more sunshine, and the excitement of soccer (better known as football) to match! We'd love to see how the city scape changes as the new seasons bring in new beauty! And the new appeal of more outdoor activity with mild weather! The cold didn't keep us from doing anything, but we'd also love to see how much more we could do when its warmer out and it beckons outdoor play!
10. Pack appropriately! Winter was cold here, but not dreadfully cold. We lucked out and didn’t get rain, though we think we only saw the sun for one day. The weather is funny; sometimes the coldest days felt warmer than the ones projected to have higher temperatures. And it all dealt with cloud coverage, moisture and wind. Best advice, layer up – we wore an undershirt, sweater and jacket, with warm socks, gloves, a hat/beanie, and good walking shoes. I would usually bring a scarf for additional clothing to pass on to the the kids (if needed) and would suggest packing an umbrella if you’re worried (or just buy one there).
We managed to take everything we needed in one suitcase for all 4 of us – and I’d recommend packing light too! There are plenty of shopping options there in case you forget something, including a TK Maxx (yes, TK not TJ) for some discounted brand name shopping.
11. Try the staple foods! You can’t miss out on traditional feasts like a Full Monty breakfast (we recommend the one from The Breakfast Club), fish and chips (you HAVE to go to Poppie’s for that), or Indian cuisine (eat at Delhi Brasserie) to name a few. Pret A Manger was a wonderful on-the-go stop for fresh eats every morning and we enjoyed shopping the food corrider at Harrod’s, where we grabbed fantastic cronuts from Bread Ahead! We also couldn’t resist the beckoning charm of Chinatown near Leicester Square and had a wonderful dinner at Canton.
But THE one thing you HAVE to do is afternoon tea – what a fantastic tradition that rivals no other. There are various locations that offer a host of adorable theming options, but we chose to go with The Winter Wonderland Tea at Chesterfield Mayfair. Their menu hosts a variety of options inspired from the candy of Hardys, the famous London candy shop which inspired the likes of Honeydukes. We sipped tea flavored like candy, dined on delicious sandwiches, and devoured sweets to match the theme. All at your leisure and with unlimited supply. Once done, you can head to the candy cart to take sweet treats from Hardys home! It was amazing and more than we could ever expect from this timeless tradition.
12. Make sure to write a bucket list and tackle it. Here's a quick preview of some of the must-do's from our list:
13. Map it out. If you're a visual person (like me) and rather have a mapped out version of what to do, we use Google Maps to create day trips and plan activities in the same vicinity. This made sure we weren't hopping all over the place and also helped us to check off all the activities we wanted to hit. We could then pop open the map while we were out and about and had a true gauge of where we were going with landmarks labeled!
Feel free to borrow the one we created (or we can help customize one to fit your vacation needs)!
You guys, London was AMAZING! And with kid its was very manageable (no stroller and all)! Put it on your bucket list to visit, if it's not already there.
And if you need help planning this trip (or any other) - from finding flight deals, a home away from home and/or planning activities, let Adventure Somewhere help get you there this year!