Our first big international trip was just this past summer with a 3 & a 6 year old on a 17 day trip from Orlando to Rome, around the Mediterranean and ending in Paris. We've done trips out of the country before, but never to this caliber.
And if I'm being completely honest, I had some reservations - let's call it the fear of the unknown. I started to make up reasons why we couldn't or shouldn't do this for an unrealistic moment. They're too young, it's too far, it's too long, it's too much. But then the spirit of adventure and logic set in. We got on our first flight, and I left any worries stateside - the adrenaline of travel is form my liquid courage.
We were flying Delta with a connection domestically to start the trip. I chose to do this as opposed to connecting closer to Rome, just so we could limit going through immigration and booking a long layover to match. We also chose to fly Delta because we found an excellent rate, in Basic Economy though. It was our first time flying on this entry level fare - no bags or prior seat selection included - but we also knew we'd have perks being Medallion members (like free bags) that eliminated the cost. Lucky for us, Delta offers family seating, so in the weeks prior to our trip I called and requested assignment as I was traveling with two young kids. The seating is in the very back of the plane, but it worked out perfectly the day of our trip. Both kids were up extremely early and both had outgrown the trick of a rocking plane lulling them to sleep, so I only had to graciously apologize to one row of people for E's pint sized punch. She actually fought it all the way through our dinner time lay over in Atlanta, until take off to Rome; where after a minor screaming fit ensued, she was no longer able to fight sleep.
Our arrival into Rome was pretty self explanatory and not at all complicated. The airport is very immaculate and the ease of getting around is a dream. Really, it was the arrival you'd want in a new country and such a welcoming start to our trip. We hired a driver for pick as opposed to waiting for public transportation or a taxi, since we wanted a secure source to get us to the hotel upon arrival. The service was fantastic and efficient; we were greeted with a sign with our name and led to a Mercedes minivan for our trip through Rome to our hotel, Best Western Hotel Spring House. Both of which I'd highly recommend.
Best Western Hotel Spring House is located right next to the Vatican, a quieter part of town, but still busy. We chose it less because of proximity to major sightseeing hubs, but more because of location - my parents were staying at a nearby B&B and we wanted to be nearby to get together during our trip. Also, there weren't many hotels available to accommodate a group of 4 (in one room). After some in-depth research, the hotel proved to be *perfect* for families. We had to book a family room/suite because of our size, which in this case consisted of dual-level room with two beds and a bathroom not of European size. The top floor loft had one king bed under skylights for some incredible morning sun when we woke; while the bottom floor had a queen, closet space, in-room safe, mini fridge, and a bathroom big enough for a family (with shower only though). Because our rooms weren't ready at arrival and as an act of hospitality, we were comped breakfast during check-in, which was a great added bonus. We prefer to book hotels that serve breakfast when possible, as morning food varieties don't matter much with kids, so we want the option to eat where we're at.The hotel including it for us was a generous gesture that makes recommending them all that more worthwhile. And for anyone questioning the Best Western brand, its not at all what I expected.
Our arrival day was made up of a LOT of walking (10+ miles) and self guided tours! We strapped on the toddler carrier for E and prepared J for a lot of standing, as we purposely left the stroller at home. We made the decision early on in our planning process to bring a carrier and started the research for one with a a higher weight limit that could also be easily be packed. We went with the Ergo, and actually found a reseller on Facebook Marketplace where we paid saved a good chunk of change on a excellent condition carrier that had been lightly used. It would have been worth every penny of full price though because it definitely getting around manageable and traveling with one less items a dream!
We created Google Maps prior to our trip, dropping pins of sites we wanted to see and then mapping out walking tours according to our pins for each of our 3 days there. Rome is very walkable - I knew it was a major city and expected traffic, but major roads are very avoidable if you want to trail down cobblestone paths. We even made it fun for the little ones by providing them with scavenger hunts in the city that the could do. J was equipped with an old iPhone to take pictures (and load games as necessary), scavenger hunts - both city specific and generic, and a notebook, both for doodling and writing his adventures. The combination of activities definitely made the trip unique for him in how he'd see the city.
We stopped for pizza at a cafe by our hotel, gelato by the Pantheon, marveled at Trevi, watched street performers in piazzas, got lost various times which all ended up being beautiful detours, and finally ended up in the Jewish Ghetto around dinner time. I had received a recommendation to dine at Ba'ghetto Milky -it looks like a dimly lit small cavern upon entering and was fairly empty, which was a welcome sight for hungry & exhausted travelers. The restaurant is meat free, offering minimal fish options, which was a bit of a surprise but also a fun change of pace (to not force our traditional selection). I ordered a fettuccine with truffle sauce and have been dreaming of it ever since; European portions are not nearly as generous as American but not was the perfect amount! Chris got a local fish dish which was delicious but quite honestly not as impressive as my pasta. And the kids ordered an eight slice pizza to share - and finished it themselves if it’s any testament to our day! Yes, we were famished, but the food was more impressive than our need to devour it and hands down we will recommend this restaurant over again. Plus, the neighborhood is up and coming district, full of rich history and stories you don't always hear about Rome - if you can carve time to get to know it personally, absolutely do.
We didn't mind the walk now that we had indulged so opted on the two mile venture back to pass spots we hadn’t yet. It was also an excellent excuse to pack in more calories in the form of dessert cannolis, a first for the the kids (and which they loved it)! We also had some beautiful views of the sun setting in Rome and a chance to enjoy the carousel in the square by the Castel D'Angelo. The unique beauties of this cities, how do I even start to explain the emotions they evoke? Rome by foot was worth every blister and leg cramp we had after the first day.
We decided to book both our tours of the Colosseum and Vatican in one day, since we had the unpredicatability of travel on our other two days there. We booked both with Angel Tours, off a recommendation, and the tour operator easily accommodated our requests and made two tours in a day feasible. We started on what ended up being a private tour at the Colosseum and ventured to the Roman forum before ending slightly before lunch. We hopped in a taxi and grabbed a bite to eat near our hotel, so the boys could change into pants (no knees for visiting the the Vatican) and headed back to meet our guide for our small group tour.
Were back to back 3 hour tours a lot? For exhausted travelers it could be. But was it worth it? Even more so. Both our guides were very knowledgable and attentive to our kids, keeping us engaged and sharing the treasures of these gems. Having an actual person to guide versus an audio recording is also the only way to go. We could ask questions to learn as they explained; and many times we were surprised with how much more we learned. Best of all, they save you a lot of time, which is worth the extra money. Otherwise, you face lines to buy tickets and lines to get in and lines for just about everything else. And this was at the end of May, which isn't even their peak holiday season yet.
We ended our day of tours with dinner in Trastevere, a neighborhood off the beaten path. We wanted to explore Rome like a local and only wish we had a little more time here, but an evening stop made up for a whirlwind day. We had fantastic dinner outside at Trattoria da Gli Amici - or Restaurants of Friends as it literally translates to. It was a cute little cafe with outdoor seating in a lively piazza. The restaurant next door even provided music for us to dine by - along with a few street musicians who came by our table to perform for spare change. The food was superb, as we ordered just about everything off the menu to build a family style meal of sharing. Bread is always served on the table and the bottles of wine at the price of American glasses were refreshing on this warm evening out. And if you need any more of a recommendation here, the restaurant does incredible things with its staff - they employ veterans and those with special needs that typically can't get jobs anywhere else. What charming people to meet and humbling to know you crossed their path & gave their job a purpose. We were the lucky ones that evening which was simply stated, perfect.
After arriving back from cruising for a week, we had one more full day planned in Rome. We scheduled this purposely so we could explore any new parts we missed, or go back and see the things we loved one more time. We opted to move hotels this time, and stayed near their financial district at Best Western - Hotel Artdeco. Though the room was spacious and the bathroom generous, this one fell short of the family feel we had at the previous hotel. We were fortunately near many shops to pick up groceries as needed. Which came as a blessing in disguise, as J had a stomach bug manifest that very morning. So after we checked in, Chris offered to stay behind (since he had a chance to explore Rome in a past life), so J could rest. E and I made way with my parents to have lunch in the city center and then walked over to visit the Spanish Steps. E, in traditional Italian fashion, ate a pizza on the steps as we took in the sights and sounds around us. And after a few hours of exploring and a scoop of gelato later, we headed back to check on the boys.
Thankful for some well heeded advice and medicines to match, J was feeling better and was ready to explore. So our long awaited trip to Villa Borghese was our next stop. We booked our hotel here, due to its proximity to the park and the fact that we had mapped out a day to check it out exclusively (obviously plans had changed). So we made the 20 minute walk over, exploring Italy on foot again, and arrived to the Italian version of Central Park. It was full of life, with skating lessons being taught, a playground full of children laughing, a train passengers to explore, and visitors strolling the tree-lied park on a mild June afternoon. We spotted tandem bikes for rent by the hour and we knew we had to explore in this fashion.
The park is full of pathways that lead everywhere - beautiful fountains, a gallery, another hidden nook or even right to the zoo. Due to our late afternoon arrival and to our kids' dismay, we were not able to visit. But had plan A worked out, we would've spent some time exploring to indulge in this park even a little more. Once we rode every crease & crevice and realized we were ending in the prime spot for the kids, we returned to the playground and let them run more energy out on the playground and play some arcade games situated nearby, with some county-fair like rides.
Our dinner plans took us back to Trevi fountain to the twice recommended Vineria Il Chianti. We gathered that the proximity to the tourist hot spot to may take away some of its local charm, but the raving reviews were enough to lure us in. There is a small courtyard on arrival where you can dine and people watch in the piazza. But if you prefer a more intimate setting, the restaurant itself is situated in a charming villa with dim lights and hidden rooms, including a tea light lit hallway that resembles a runway to the bathroom. The menu was full of amazing feasts that it made it hard for us to decide on just one, so we didn't. We had a beef steak with enough servings to feed 4, a pasta with Bolognese sauce, and the kids had the most fantastic wood-fired pizza for our one last goodbye to this Italian deliciacy.
We ended our evening's adventure with another goodbye to gelato and a trip to drop off some postcards for friends back home. We couldn't find a more loving souvenir for the kids to give then sending postcards back got friends. We tied it in with the objective of getting J to practice his penmanship and spelling by sending mail to his friends back home - a thoughtful souvenir for them, a fun activity for him, and a wonderful memory for all of us. And before we departed Trevi's sight, we hopped back over one more time, with coins in hand and wishes to be sent. We kissed our metals, threw them over our shoulders and hoped we'd soon be back to make more of these memories.
How do I even start describing how amazing this place is? It was mentioned Italians are proud people, hesitant to speak to you if you don't know their language and relatively inhospitable once they realize you are a foreigner. I didn't find any of this to be true. We had nothing but wonderful, warm interactions with everyone we met. It's everything you see out of a movie, with big boisterous greetings and dinner tables full of love. No one ever felt like a stranger and these welcoming gestures left us wanting more. From the gentleman working in the gelato shop giving E candy as she patiently waited for her cone to be filled; to the reserved waiter having a staring contest with J until he laughed. These people have left an impression on my kids and have so much more on me.
Italy has been all I dreamed of and more. There's not a magical age to do this nor know when to start. Too young? There are families literally everywhere, so no, we're not the only crazies walking around with a sleeping tot on our back. We decided what was right for us and now was perfect. Plus, now that we started, we have opportunity to keep coming back; there will be no "what if" dialogues, because we have and now we're on for more. We love this place already and if we didn’t, our last couple days have solidified our desire to adventure more.
It sounds a little early to be discussing plans for the new year, but as vacation plans go, it's just one of those weeks that book up before you even start to think about it! Build in extra time for planning if you're traveling with kids, as it's difficult to narrow down what to do that can be age appropriate for all. But if you're looking for our best suggestions, cruising into 2020 is the only way to go!
For us, in 2017 we decided we would usher in 2018 with a long coveted first - a New Year's cruise! It doesn't sound that complicated, but when you live in Florida and 5 ports are in your backyard, it's not the first resolution for a unique new year, only because you likely have already cruised! The decision really came to us as a solution to the debate on what could we do that the kids will also enjoy? And after having cruised with kids for a few years, it felt like the perfect compromise. And actually created THE best start to a new year ever!
1. The timing is perfect - NO SCHOOL and an excuse to escape winter blues. So you're getting an off period where you don't have to pull the kids from classes and you likely have vacation time to burn too!
2. It's not hot! I mean, its still warm, but it is not the unbearable heat you get over the summer. It is also the perfect time to exchange boots for flip flops and sweaters for cover ups.
3. And let's talk perspective! I woke up on January 1st to pristine waters and umbrella drinks on the gorgeous island of Grand Turk. I can't think of a better to welcome a brand new start (you know, if you're into that stuff)!
And it goes without being said, it gave the kids something to do with a PG rating. We got caught in the monotony of having an early New Year celebration or spending it at home since being out was too much work. But the ship is your home away from home, so you're going out without all the nuances and worrying about the details. Add the bonus that the celebration by no means comes lack luster - you'll be sailing in comfort with a "couple thousand of your closest friends," so the celebration is even brighter than it would be watching the ball drop on your couch. The walks of life you get to surround yourself in such an occasion with; it brings perspective to your place in the grander scheme. This trip sure put a highlight on the "lonely years" of bringing up kids; not knowing what to do with them and not wanting to do it without them.
For this particular trip, we sailed on Carnival Magic out of Port Canaveral for 7 days, though we recommend itinerary and timing over any ship. The kids had the first week of January off, so we used the week after the holiday celebrations started to taper off to keep our spirits bright and this itinerary met our needs.
The ship itself highly promotes the celebration, particularly highlighting whatever sponsor was taking care of them for that sailing. New Year's Eve fell right at the beginning of our trip, which was deemed the ship's “formal night”. Having the celebration on a night where cruise goers were directed to fancy up a little more made the event feel extra special; everyone dressed to the nines and knowing that the party wouldn't even really start until closer to midnight.
During the day, the crew had guests write their "New Year's Wishes" and place them in a balloon which we filled with air. Around 11pm, a party in the atrium featuring a balloon drop in the atrium began. The net holding these wishes were released from a top deck and our wishes would be free to float and where the crew chose a few lucky wishers to win celebratory bottles of champagne. The party continued on the pool deck where the night was lit with excitement as we counted down to midnight. It could not have been a more perfect way for us all to celebrate, together most importantly.
Carnival has been known as the "Fun Ship" and I think at times a little too rowdy for more conservative crowds. But we find that their longer cruises do a better job of having a great mix of people. There were a great mix of people on board - from singles to families so we it was never a situation of feeling out of place. Add the slew of things to do that the longer itineraries feature, we all found ways to unwind for the new year.
The bigger ships feature a whole water park at WaterWorks, which makes cruising a blast for kids! Seuss at Sea themed activities bring a week of entertainment, including character greetings, a passenger story time production, and a brunch featuring foods like Green Eggs & Ham! Our youngest is now old enough to enjoy the kids activity drop offs, Camp Ocean, so we could partake in some alone time to enjoy the spa, go to the gym, or just not have to watch a toddler outdo herself - all of which we gloriously did. Parents designate who have sign in and out privileges so they're not just being released; there's alarms at the gates that will sound if someone comes in without permission; and there's a good ratio of counselors to children so the littlest ninjas (ours) are never out of sight. Plus the kids each get their own pretty cool wrist band to designate them to a muster station should something happen and parents were on the opposite end of the boat. We found that the time after dinner was *perfect* to get their energy out at camp and be able to crash right when we were ready to too. For New Year's they had their own pre-midnight celebration which made it a little extra special for just them too.
For the big kids (adults), we love the eclectic mix of venues we can spend an evening at, whether it be grabbing a drink, listening to live music or watching a show. All have been updated to keep with the changing times, so the thought of dated ships is a thing of the past. And if we don't feel like enjoying an adult beverage, there's a variety of activities from sports, movies, shopping or classes we can take. On this particular trip we decided to upgrade ourselves into a spa level room and capitalize on spa access for the whole week. So while the kids were playing in the kids club, we got to relax and rejuvenate with hot tubs, saunas and treatments. It was definitely a welcome way to end one year and start the next!
The itinerary on this cruise was similar to one we had done before; but this trip we were taking for the experience not the locations. We had the opportunity to unwind in Grand Turk on New Year's Day; discover Amber Cove, Dominica the day after; and explore a little more of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We also got three total days at sea, a nice break that allowed us to rest after the rush of the holidays and recharge as we embarked on a new year.
Looking for a better way to start the year? I couldn't think of a better one than this, especially with kids! We came into January, refreshed, in good spirits and with a (sun)kiss of extra color. What more could you need to feel rejuvenated to tackle a new set of 365 days?!
We did something most annual passholders wouldn’t admit to doing.
We spent a whole day at Magic Kingdom.
As much traveling as we have done to all the other Disney parks, our eldest informed us we had never had done a FULL day at our park. And truthfully, it wasn't something we had necessarily planned to do because it's just so accessible.
As passholders, we're spoiled in getting to go whenever we want to. We make plans off of FastPass availability, do the allotted rides & maybe a few more with low wait times and leave. It's usually a pack-your-own-lunch, splurge-on-a-sweet-treat, we'll-be-home-in-a-few-hours kind of day. It's become easy to come & go to the parks and not fully immerse ourselves in the tourist experience.
But this particular end-of-summer Saturday. we brought their cousin & made our way over to Magic Kingdom for a fun-filled day of playing tourists in our home! And to see if we could do the majority of the park in a day.
The result may surprise most of you, as it did us, because we DID!
So I bet you’re asking, how’d we fair? And it would be selfish of us not to share how we made a magical day out of a HOT August day. Here’s our tried and true tricks that still to this day don’t fail us!
1. Download the Disney World app. Once you have tickets, you can upload them in the system and assign them to a park for FastPass selection at least 30 days before. And if you're lucky enough to be staying on property, you get an additional month and can plan 60 days ahead! The magic trick here and key time is 7am. The system uploads the new date at that time, so have your app open and thumbs ready to go to get the best availability.
We selected a few of the more popular attractions to do right at lunch time, so we could capitalize on the slower morning hours and because the popular rides we were aiming for weren’t available. But you could and should choose an earlier FastPass start time to get more done with minimal waits. Your goal is to get them as early as possible so you can add on more passes during your stay. You should also aim to book Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Peter Pan's Flight or Space Mountain in that order, as they're the most popular attractions.
The app will also come in handy during your stay. Starting a few days before you can check back in for changes and cancellations. Yes, they’ll always happen because plans change once people get here. The morning of is particularly important, because as people get their coveted FastPasses, they may be releasing YOUR coveted FastPass.
Also, you may have to break up your party to get the FastPasses you desire, but you can try for overlapping hours. And if not, you can always try the kindness of cast members. If all members of your party have a FastPass but at varying times, they can usually shift to match one rider’s time so you all can be together. Disney is about making magic happen, isn’t it, and cast members are usually empowered to do so!
2. Come early. They say the early bird gets the worm, right? In this case it's true ... but be prepared for a whole flock of early birds too.
If you skip breakfast & come hungry, there's plenty of quick service options in the park to satisfy your stomach before you get started. Our little gem is heading to Starbucks right when you get in and using the Starbucks app to get extra perks! We use the app rather than cash/card, and for those that don't know, IT IS ACCEPTED PAYMENT IN DISNEY STARBUCKS! You can't redeem reward stars for food/drink or capitalize on promotional offers in the park (those rules don't apply to Disney Springs though) - but you can use the app to pay and GET STARS for what you would purchase in real life anyways! And for those that are spending savvy (like me), use Raise to purchase discounted Starbucks gift cards so you're saving even more! We grab and go, while delighting in our goodness and making everyone else gawk in jealousy.
The parks opened at 8am the day we arrived and we got in a little past 830am. The parks are quiet first thing in the morning, so use the Disney World app to look at wait times and hit any attractions that seem unusually low. Try to ride any of the above that you didn't get a FastPass for early on, especially with wait times that look made up - more on that next!
3. Ride anything with little to no wait. That's pretty obvious, but really, it’s a must.
Once we arrived, the boys decided to head to Tomorrowland and conquer Space Mountain (1) because it only had a 15 minute wait! Fifteen, 1 - 5, I said that right. We didn't have a FastPass for the ride and this was the lowest wait it'd be all day, so the boys got in line. Which left me and Elle to find a ride in the area that she could get on and that they wouldn't care to miss. Astro Orbiters (2) it is!
Once we all finished on our respective rides we met to get on Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (3) and hopped on after a 10 minute wait. The boys are finally at the age where they can ride non-thrill rides unaccompanied, so they had a blast experiencing this game together.
The rest of the morning we hit up rides according to wait times and tried to get through a slew of attractions without losing any precious time:
(4) Mad Tea Party - 5 minutes
(5)Dumbo the Flying Elephant - 10 minutes + play time under the big top
(6)The Barnstormer - 10 minutes
(7)Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid - 10 minutes
(8)Mickey's PhilharMagic - 10 minutes
We got to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (9) where Elle was itching to go, and it had a 30 minute wait. We decided to swallow our pride and line up, since we had been running hard and it gave us a chance to plan the rest of the day. Plus this attraction also has another play area, which was enough distraction to make the time go by fairly fast.
4. Recharge at lunch and Order Ahead. While in line, everyone agreed they were hungry, so we decided on Pinocchio Village Haus in Fantasyland for pizza and started to make lunch plans.
You can access quick service restaurant menus right on the app, and even better, you can Order Ahead on there - at no extra charge & once again saving you time. We accessed the app and picked out all our meals for lunch while we waited to board Pooh's honey pot. Once our order was complete, we paid, sent, and got back to our day.
The restaurant doesn't charge or prep your order until you hit the "I'm Here" button to advise them you're ready to eat! Once you get to the respective restaurant, go back into your app, advise them that "I'm Here" and wait for an alert that "Your Order is Ready" to head to the Order Ahead line to pick up your meal! It's that easy! This gave us time to find the perfect spot to eat, unwind, and also sit down rather than spend more time in line.
For us, we were able to grab prime seats for lunch - the windows that overlook the "its a small world" ride. Disney has action signs available to hold up to the unsuspecting guests as they sail by to do as you command (in our case, the YMCA and Chicken Dance were the most fun). The boys had a blast holding up markers that told them to do a random dance and applauded their audience for showing off!
Finished with lunch, it was time to start hitting up our first three FastPass attractions - so a little after 12p we headed towards Pirates of the Caribbean (10), followed by Splash Mountain (11), where I became unfortunate victim to get drenched on the way down.
5. Do something different. Since we used our first two FastPasses back to back, we had a little gap of time available before our last of the original three, Haunted Mansion. So we headed to do some shows we never slow down to see - Enchanted Tiki Room (12) and Country Bear Jamboree (13). Followed by something we hadn't before really ever done - Tom Sawyer Island (14). There we got to hide in caves, play on bridges and explore different passageways.
We also managed to find a quiet spot on the water that faced the parade route, so we got a view under shade and unobstructed (in its own right), for a unique way to see the Festival of Fantasy parade (15). It was definitely a hidden gem & welcome surprise! They have chairs and tables set up for picnicking and it would be the perfect spot to open a Mickey bar ice cream, to treat the kids after exploring!
6. Plan ahead. We head to our last Fast Pass after arriving on mainland, Haunted Mansion (16), which we used at the end of its allotted hour (you get an additional 15 minutes on the back end and 5 minutes on the front to access each FP). So while in line, I grabbed tickets for another FastPass. FastPass works in that after you're done with your original three for the day, you can grab more, one at time to use. We purposely put our 3 back-to-back so we could then fill in as we rode. So we got on the following rides and as FastPasses showed up for the ones available, I managed to grab.
7. Minimize spending with snacks. We try to keep our spending to a minimum when we're at the park, and today was no exception. We knew we were going to stop for lunch/dinner and made sure to order single meals big enough to share. We’ll also opt to order an entree and app to split if nothing else on the menu, and then a kids meal and a side for the kids to split as most come with more than enough food to get through the meal!
But since we were also going to spend all day here, we came well stocked with snacks. We love the option that Disney gives, in allowing us to bring snacks with no limitations, so we make sure to have an insulated backpack ready to go. With this we also make sure to bring reusable drinkware to refill with water; the insulated kind too!
If we do have to purchase, we try to make a stop in the stores for a quick bag of treats. A huge perk of being a passholder are the discounts they give in park and stores. That's no exception to food - so if you can find something to eat at a retail location, rather than a food stop - grab it here for less spent! Same goes for drink as some stores carry bottled beverages for convenience, but cheaper than at a quick service restaurant since you can apply your coveted discount to it!
8. Grab the perfect spot for fireworks. Since we had snacked all day, we opted for a very late, very light dinner. We once again used Order Ahead to stop at Casey's for hot dogs and created our dinner menu as we walked over. We found a table outside as patrons cleared their plates, and then waited for the alert that our meal was ready. Since we ate at the end of the dinner rush (around 9p, like we said VERY late), we were seated in the perfect spot for the Happily Ever After (26) fireworks display. We didn't have to worry about people standing in front of us or using our shoulders (and my case, tip toes) to get the kids to see. Everyone around us remained seated and we could peacefully enjoy the show in a contained area, content with our full bellies and rested feet. Perfect!
9. Make a game of it. We love that Disney introduces different ways to see the park, including the Sorcerer's Apprentice game which we always make a point to collect additional cards at the firehouse on Main Street before continuing our game. The game is time consuming though, as you have to hunt for portals and fight villains to unlock the next clue. It definitely is a distraction for the kids on a slow day, but since this was anything but, we skipped playing on this visit.
We did start using Play Disney on the Disney app and were collecting tokens for visiting attractions. Play Disney doesn't require any additional effort though. You just have your phone ready to go as you line up and then you've collected for just visiting. We got through most of the park, so after fireworks, we made it a point to get at least one more.
10. Finish strong. We had managed to squeeze in one last FastPass and really the second to last ride we could nab for the day - Peter Pan's Flight (27). We decided to call it after we had hit this Play Disney point and really our point of exhaustion. The park closed at midnight and we were content with our 10pm end time.
And though we missed doing one of the most popular attractions, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, we had a better than good run. We had four little feet run strong all day, smiling ear to ear and we hit up 27 attractions! We couldn't be happier with how we ALL faired on our day as tourists.
Planning your own day? Here’s the order to nab FastPasses to make your day worth while.
It was a perfectly magical day! The type that you don't typically bank on but end up becoming one of your favorite memories. We're glad we had a little coaxing from a well-behaved kid and allowed ourselves all to be kids again for the day!
Back in 2017 we were craving some California vibes and decided that a Pacific Coast Highway road trip was in order - we made plans to make our way up to San Fran by way of LA. We planned out our days visiting coastal cities, wineries in Central Cali, and the beauty of the Bay Area (more on all that later). But we also knew that with our proximity to Disneyland with two young kids, who were part of four of the biggest Disney fans, we had to make a stop!
And we're so glad we did! Brows might be raised as to why we'd go all the way out there, when we have everything that Walt Disney World has to offer right in our backyard (and quite literally at our disposal). But one is not like the other; the experience between the original and the remix are completely different. And in many ways, we actually ended up liking Disneyland better!
We didn't cease to tell anyone that asked, or maybe questioned our trip, about what an amazing experience it was to see the park that Walt himself designed. And we got local Californians who couldn't agree more. But for someone who hasn't been, here are the reasons why if you're even a bit of a Disney fan, you should stop to see where all the magic started!
1. The resort feels exclusive. Yes, much like Walt Disney World, once you enter Disneyland California you feel like you're in a world all their own. But much different than Walt Disney World, if you're staying on property, you can leave your car and not need it again until you pack up to leave!
Walt Disney World has miles upon miles of roads that make this megastructure amazing to visit - there's another spot to see at every turn! Disneyland is situated within Anaheim city limits, but once you get on property, the real world gets left behind. For Orlando locals, or those familiar with the spot, the best comparison is to that of Universal Orlando Resort. All hotels and activities are within walking distance of each other and if you're staying on-site, you don't need to hit a major road way to get anywhere you need to go. You know it is situated in the middle of the real world, but from where you are, nothing else seems to exist. And quite honestly, it has a very similar layout to Universal Orlando that it made us feel a little at home.
For our trip, we opted to stay at one of the three Disney branded properties, Paradise Pier, which was about a 10 minute walk to Downtown Disney District. Upon arrival, we parked our car, checked in, and made our way towards all the action! Our walk took us past the classic Disneyland Hotel, which brings you glimpses of what this place used to be in all its original glory. Once you get through security, you're where all the magic happens! A movie theater welcomes you to the District, and is surrounded by plenty of other stops including The LEGO store, Splitsville and The VOID. There's a huge selection of restaurants, with all types of cuisines and plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy perfect Southern California nights. The flagship World of Disney store leads you directly to the Esplanade between the two parks.
If you're looking to stay in the middle of it all, we recommend Disney Grand Californian as it is situated above the retail locations of Downtown Disney. Bonus, also has its own exclusive entrance to Disney's California Adventure - so you could quite literally leave your hotel and be right in the park!
2. Small but fierce. Disneyland is smaller - much smaller. But it was a big part of why we liked it so much!
If you hadn't heard it before, the whole Disneyland park has been said to fit in Magic Kingdom's parking lot. It seems like a discouraging fact when you hear it, but haven’t seen it to believe it. But once you're there, that fun fact hardly seems true - the intimacy is a welcoming feature of the park!
We know the effort it takes to see the Walt Disney World parks, and as we were trying to cram two whole parks in only two days, we started doubting how much we could do without completely wearing the kids (or ourselves) out. Especially since this was the first leg of our 10-day road trip!
Our doubts carried no weight - the size of the parks actually made the trip! We loved the fact that with two young kids, compact parks meant manageable while still feeling completely immersive! I love to rave about how while we waited to ride Alice in Wonderland, we stood in an open air queue right next to the route for the Main Street Electrical Parade as it rolled by. Where at Walt Disney World can you do that?! We kept them distracted and entertained all while best utilizing our time there!
This park was definitely proof that less is sometimes more!
3. Size doesn't matter! Because even though it is smaller, there's actually more to do per park!
Yes, you read that right. There’s more to do at the Disneyland parks than those at Walt Disney World. But now if you're adding up everything all 4 parks have vs their 2, that's not going to equate. But when we were looking at the map of Disneyland, we counted at least a handful or more attractions than at Magic Kingdom. You know, the park that is said to fit in the other’s lot.
The same went for California Adventure - compared to any of the other parks here, it had more to do by square foot. Which in turn made it feel like our stay there was worth every penny since we were going to accomplish just as much in two days than we would in the same time here. .
But if this alone isn't reason for you to go visit, I don't know what is. That you can go visit another park and actually see a few things slightly different than we can, is actually really cool.
4. Come see the classic rides! We love that Walt Disney World gets an update and something fresh pops up to keep guests coming for more. But there's something special about seeing what Walt built and the nostalgia that comes with it.
Upon entering Disneyland, after walking down a 3/4 scale Main Street and passing through the gates of Sleeping Beauty's castle, you'll find King Arthur Carousel as the centerpiece of Fantasyland, much like at Magic Kingdom. But surrounding it, you'll find Snow White's Scary Adventures (remember the scary witch at the end - yes, they have her there too!) and Pinocchio's Daring Journey (we were a little jealous we never had this) on one side; Peter Pan's Flight and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride on the other. Mr Toad's, guys! How much do you miss that?! Right next to Dumbo the Flying Elephant, you could ride a car in Casey Jr. Circus Train, which couldn't have made my little guy's heart sing anymore with his then train obsession! My princess fell in love with the Storybook Land Boats and loved to shout about which princess lived every different themed land we sailed by. There was just something special about riding these very simple yet, timeless rides - it made you very much in awe the innovative mind of those that opened this over 60 years ago!
The Mad Tea Party is an open air attraction, which is hands down much better to experience with the lanterns lighting up the cool California night. And to top it off, "it's a small world" is by far the most beautiful facade you will see - glimmering in white and gold as you wait in sunshine to board the boat. The ride itself has an adorable touch of Disney characters hidden in each land each is respectively from, making the ride that much more adorable to enjoy as we looked for them with the kids!
Remember the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarines? They still have them here, except now they've been rethemed to Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. I couldn't tell you my excitement to step back down on that sub and bring my kids along - it felt like I was their age all over again! On top of that, the "race cars" of Autopia are absolutely worth the wait to ride - because you know you'll want to get a picture with one in all its cartoon cuteness.
Then head over to New Orleans Square for Pirates of the Caribbean, where you get quite a lengthy boat ride as you sail from the depths of the Louisiana bayou to the Gulf sea. You pass right by the famous Blue Bayou Restaurant and envy the diners who nabbed a spot. Early reservations, every bit of the 60 days before, is absolutely true - trust us, we learned the hard way!
Seeing all the originals and imagining that these came at a time when nothing like this existed is amazing. It makes your truly appreciate how genius Walt and his time were for bringing this and so much more to life!
5. New thrills! Want something a little more updated? They have LOADS of it too! Head to Disney California Adventure for not only more updated rides, but also new experiences compared to what Orlando has to offer!
Their Tower of Terror has been rethemed to Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: BREAKOUT! which is quite honestly a total upgrade to make it a lot more entertaining. Cars Land takes you straight to Radiator Springs, where you can find Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters, and the main attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, which is absolutely amazing! Further into the park you'll find the Pixar Pier, which houses the iconic Ferris wheel that California Adventure is known for, as well as Incredicoaster (a pretty intense ride for those coaster lovers)! Our little ones also LOVED It's a Bug's Land, though it has since closed down. The area had a huge selection of rides for tots & allowed them to feel as small as a bug with their bigger than life surroundings.
In Disneyland you can find updated attractions of the past, like that of Mickey's Towntoon. It is set in an adorable little town, complete with streets, trolley cars, and each character's unique home - including Mickey's house, Minnie's House, Chip and Dale's Treehouse, Donald's Boat, and Goofy's Playhouse. The space is also shared by Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin and Gadget's Go Coaster - a perfect little wonderland for the littlest of kids, tucked in the back of the park!
6. Weather's great. You CAN NOT beat Southern California's weather. We woke up to slightly cool days, covered in haze. But as the sun broke through it warmed up and we had nothing but golden sun & bright blue skies. We fully took advantage of this gorgeous, predictable (which we don't have at home) weather and made the most of every minute in the parks.
Did we mention that at the end of June the temperature was in the 70s for the high? Yeah, it was that perfect!
The weather's so great, "it's a small world" made a point to call it out on the ride!
7. The added benefits made the parks even easier to see. We'll be the first to admit, we came into this in full tourist let's-try-to-get-as-much-done-as-possible mode. But there was no need to!
For starters, the park doesn't run at nearly the capacity our parks fo. We never at any point felt like we were caught in the masses or disappointed by wait times - and we came during their peak season. Yes it was busy, but never insane!
We took advantage of the perks of staying on-site and utilized Extra Magic Hours to beat the crowds. Staying at Paradise Pier, we booked a Club Level room (which we HIGHLY recommend) for all the added benefits!, We were given some appropriately themed Mickey sweets in our room at arrival which was great after a long day of travel. Club Level provides you with a lounge which includes snacks and appetizers, along with beverages and a daily beer and wine hour for the length of your stay! There was also a concierge available at all lounge hours to help plan your day!
So we'd get up, have a quick continental breakfast, load up on snacks (they had cereal, individual bags of chips, fruit, and soda available to take at your discretion), and then head to the park for opening at 8am. We'd ride line free attractions for the first couple hours of the park being open, and the extra hours allowed us to do all the major rides before wait times set in. Then we started pulling FastPasses.
The FastPass system there is not like our mobile one here - you're not initially limited on FastPass pulls, just timing of them. So, for example, if I grab a pass at 955am valid for use between 10am - 11am, I can walk over to another attraction at 10am and pull another FastPass - even if I didn't use the first one. That means if the next FastPass is time stamped with a soon forthcoming time, I can pull another and then use all three back to back. This was great as it gave us some set plans and then also allowed us to wait in some short lines, all before our passes expired. It also gave us an advantage to get on the more popular rides, since we don’t have a cap on passes we just had to wait an allotted time before pulling the next!
And now they have the purchase option of MaxPass, which allows you to have full access to passes on your phone once entering the park. So if you’re a planner and want the convenience of mobile selection, it’s definitely worth the minimal upgrade fee!
Using FastPasses, we found that by lunch time we had completed most of each park, and with that we'd go back to the hotel for a mid-day siesta. We got to enjoy the hotel's pool and water slides, take a quick nap, and then head back down to the Club Lounge for an evening bite and drinks, before heading back to close down the park. Both kids ran hard during the day, but doing this, both kids also lasted way past the stroke of midnight. We couldn't recommend staying on-site more for all the benefits it offers - for everyone!
8. Book a dining experience in advance. Our carefree approach also allowed us to take in some extra special character dining. On our first day we had booked a princess character dining, which at the time was offered at Pacific Wharf. We enjoyed a prie fixe meal and met with 5 princesses, including Ariel who met us at the entry. We used their PhotoPass benefits to get pictures of our lunch and were never at any point rushed to finish. We sat outside in that perfect California weather, overlooking Pixar Pier and Paradise Gardens Park, and watched their eyes light up every time a new princess (or a plate of food) came to them.
Each princess took her time when speaking to our kids and gave them each special attention and we couldn't be more grateful for them allowing to soak in that moment. For two that get to see this all the time at home, I thought it'd lose a little bit of it's wonder. But it didn't it all. We also made it a special point to bring a Princess Story Book that our daughter loved, to have each princess sign the chapter about them; now when we read it at home, it’s also full of fond memories of our time in California.
For our second day, we had attempted to make dinner reservations at Blue Bayou, because it came highly recommended and after seeing it and its menu in person, we knew we had to try. No such luck - this is why we recommend booking dining in advance ( reservations open up 60 days prior to travel at Disneyland)!
We instead ate at Cafe Orleans and every bit enjoyed the Cajun style food, the live music, people watching and those beignets! Makes me drool just looking at them!
9. This is Walt's kingdom. You can feel his timeless presence in the Disneyland park, like Walt still has his hand on it. We met employees who were there from the beginning and still spoke about him with a smile on their face. For the reputation that those in the great Los Angeles region get, the people we met here were genuine, warm and full of love.
Characters walked around without handlers in sight; and really interacted with those that came to visit. The park was kept up to very pristine standards. There was a general light hearted vibe in the air - no rush to fit this all in your family vacation, just be present. It was truly amazing to have a vacation that felt like one and immerse ourselves in every experience with our kids.
People would find out we were form Orlando and envy the fact that we get to go to the World. But we in turn envy that this park was theirs - such a simpler way to live and with a pureness you could feel from its creation.
10. Roadtrip! You're in the perfect part of the country to load up the car and watch the terrain change! How could you not want to come visit Disneyland and then let the compass guide you as part of a bigger trip? In our case, we headed north after our two & 1/2 perfectly magical days at Disneyland - and made another week’s worth of amazing memories.
It was definitely the way to set off an incredible trip and if you have the opportunity to go visit, we urge you to do so! It's worth every penny spent and second of your time. Then if you’re longing for more real world adventure, load up the car and see all the PCH has to offer. This has been one of our families best and most memorable trips to date - and we’d do it all over again!
What does it mean to be an Orlando resident? Orlando - the name is synonymous with Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and so on. If you ever have that opportunity to visit to visit these places that put us on the map, we urge you to come! We get to call these places our playgrounds. If not because we have passes to visit year round but for a weekend getaway or a much needed staycation. We do realize how lucky we are that visiting these places are even an option while raising our children.
But beyond the parks that made us renowned, there is a whole other world of wonder here. Yes, they are in fact the reason we're even on the map, thanks to Walt himself. Before Disney came marching in, most of Central Florida was swamp lands and citrus groves, so we owe him a lot of credit to building our estate. But as a local knows, there's so much more than just theme park thrills here at home. The variety of local gems that make Orlando this wonderful melting pot of diversity, interests and activities is plentiful and can delight anyone.
Downtown is the heart of this city, and is so much more than the business district. It is the true central hub and makes getting to any of its four corners easily accessible. It's also one of our favorite spots, because we love the feel of true Orlando that it shines and the facelift it is continuously receiving to update with our expanding population.
And there's even more ...
And ALL this is a just a preview of this vast area and how much more there is to do.
... & we KNOW we missed so much more there that makes this place absolutely amazing. It truly lives up to its notorious hashtag of #orlandodoesntsuck, because really, it doesn't. Spend some time with a local outside the theme parks and really see how wonderful it is to call this place home!
We’ve done our fair share of traveling with little ones. Our oldest has been traveling since pretty much out of the womb. Really, he was just shy of a month old when we traveled cross country to Colorado for a family wedding. Since then we’ve flown all over the United States with him, from NY to Chicago to Texas. And then we added another baby to the mix and traveled all the way over to California, three times.
We’ve packed the car and road tripped all over Florida countless times and then ventured up north to the Carolinas. We’ve boarded a cruise ship six times with kids and made our way all over the waters to discover another corner of paradise. We’re collecting stamps in our passports from all over the world, including the latest additions of Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
So to say we have a knack for this is pretty accurate and very much a compliment. Our kids have enjoyed our wild adventures as much as we have, and though every trip hasn’t always been easy, every moment has been so very worth it.
If you’re toying with the idea of your own family vacation, here are some of my well-rounded and seasoned travel tips to save you sanity on your next adventure.
1. Expect the best. Daydream, daydream all you want! This is how you got you here! Imagine all you’re going to do & see and bring your kids into your excitement. Traveling with kids is not hard, just different than going at it solo. And the bonus is you get to live vicariously through your little people's eyes. Make plans to incorporate what you want to do, but find family friendly activities to partake in too! There really is no better way to get the vibe of a city than living like a local, and traveling with a child can slow you to that pace. There are plenty of options and travelers who share their experiences and are worth every bit of the read (even if you don’t do everything recommended).
2. Prepare for the worst. Because, let’s be honest, you’re traveling, anything could happen. One of our trips to Colorado, we all picked up the stomach flu, so with some well sought advice from a nurse friend we got ourselves back to health via allergy medicine before boarding a plane. Our latest trip overseas, I heeded that same advice and stocked up extra on the medicine cabinet. And what a blessing in disguise it was - the dreaded stomach bug hit us again! But this time, we were prepared; and there’s nothing more relieving than having the right stuff on hand, especially when you’re far from home. Make a list of all the things that could ever need and just bring what you don’t think you can easily access, just in case. And yes, you can’t prepare for everything but do what you can and it will make all the difference in the world.
3. Bring them into the planning process. There’s nothing more exciting than going on an adventure for everyone! If you talk to your kids about what you plan to see and do and consider their perspective, the whole trip will run a little more smoothly. And not for them, but for you. Sometimes sightseeing is a little too much, so the opportunity to stop and literally smell the roses is just what vacation called for. Some of our favorite memories on our recent Europe trip were finding carousels in the cities we visited and getting to ride them. Carousels are just a luxury of Disney back home, so to be able to get on one in the middle of a city, in the prime of their childhood when this means everything, meant everything in the world to us.
4. Travel schedules are everything. Planning accordingly is very important, especially in considering sleep schedules, meal times and time adjustments. If you want rested kids, book a trip around a time that they normally nap or sleep, so that a long trip won’t get the best of them or you. Our first plane trip to the west coast a family of four, we opted to take a layover in LA during lunch on our way to San Francisco. It was our lunch time, so yes, a little comical to be eating burgers a little past 10am at the airport. But once we got to San Fran, the kids were fed, well rested and that made for an easy transition to west coast time.
5. Allow them each their own bag. Regardless of what kind of trip it is, allow them a carry-on bag of their own. Fill it with activities (more on that in a bit), a change of clothes, snacks, and toiletries of toothbrush, paste, comb, shampoo (always a must in an accessible bag). Yes, an extra bag seems tedious when needing to carry it, but when it’s time to restock and you can inventory exactly who is missing what, it saves you the burden of looking for through your stuff. It also teaches your little people responsibility to make sure they’re taking care of their things, and there’s nothing more satisfying than having their own things!
6. Snacks save you sanity. Hand in hand with having their own bag, bring a few snacks they love to fill that bag. Airplane food is tough, even most adults don’t love what they serve, so make sure that you pack snacks and treats they can grab when munching sets in. TSA will allow you through with mostly anything, except liquids and gels (unless traveling with babies, toddlers, and kids with dietary restrictions). Rules always vary at each airport, so I'd double check at your departure airport before stocking up.
Same snack rules go for a car trip; make a special grocery trip before hitting the road to just fill a cooler with items to munch while on the open road. You may find that once you're cruising you won't always have a store readily available. And when pulling over at a gas station, your snack options are drastically limited in selection and strikingly doubled in cost.
Whatever you do, make sure to pack an extra "emergency" stash in your bag, in case the layover goes a little longer, or they decide to go through a growth spurt on the first day of your trip. If you pack the one thing that brings them joy, it can be the thing that saves the trip. Make sure they pick it out and allow them to bring something reasonable yet remarkable to them.
7. Activities to engage and activities to distract. We tend to head to the Dollar Store or Bullseye’s Playground at Target prior to a trip and pick up a few random activities to introduce while traveling. Coloring pages and activity books are always a huge hit because they're never ending. A good set of over the ear headphones are perfect for personal TVs, whether in the car or on the plane (a must). Then a few games to play as a family keep kids delighted on any trip. If you have the option of downloading a few movies on a tablet, do it and bring it. Particularly after arrival when waiting or commuting can get to be long, this is the time to allow them to unwind while they practice patience.
Our biggest successes on our last trips were were scavenger hunts for the cities we visited, reward calendars for excellent behavior days, and an old iPhone to serve as a camera (and app holder) to document (or distract) on the trip.
8. Comfort is key. When booking where to stay or what to do, look for what’s going to best suit YOU. For us, we prefer to stay in hotels, choose to hotel hop to stay in proximity of what we’re doing (we hate wasted drives) and find hotels that serve breakfast.
Our kids wake up hungry, so having to find a breakfast place to open can be daunting. Since going on a breakfast hunt every morning isn't something we want to be forced to do, we try to book hotels that have it on-site (and for free is an added perk)! And when we don’t find a place that fits our need, we look for a place near great breakfast spots to try out! If all else fails, we make sure wherever we stay is in close proximity to a store to stock up OR we make a stop along the way to have what we need in the mini-fridge without paying hotel prices. Figure out what your comfort point is and plan for that!
9. Embrace the chaos. Things aren’t always going to go as planned and that’s okay. Sometimes the best memories come from the plans you didn’t make. We’ve had plenty of these moments on trips where we meant to do one thing and then went for another. And then plan B turned to be better than plan A. Perspective makes a difference when traveling, there’s elements that you’re not going to be able to control – other people, the weather, schedules, delays – but you can control your mindset. So, if you choose to stay positive even when you feel like you’re going to positivity loss it, you’ll see how the road less traveled became the right journey for you!
10. Build everlasting memories. This is why you’re here, isn’t it? Regardless of what happens, make it a point to make this the best trip ever. Whether it’s your first trip or your 50th, this is going to be the last time you can do it exactly like this. In a few weeks’, months’, years’ time, your kids will be older, your activities will change, your memories will vary. So, make the best of this very moment, it’s the whole reason you’re here. To have these memories that will last a lifetime.
Trust me, traveling with kids, it’s worth it. It may take a few times to feel like you got it right, but I promise you when I say this, you’re never going to do it wrong in their eyes.
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!
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!
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!
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!