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!