We need to talk about “optimal resource management”.
That’s admittedly an unusual way to begin a family travel blog article, but making the most of what you have and taking smart decisions about you do are the keys to a successful family visit to London.
Let me explain in plainer terms. Visiting a place – any place – is generally constrained by three factors:
- Money, and
- Things to see / do.
But the problem is that London offers a quasi-infinite number of things to see and do, and therefore time is of the utmost importance – it simply isn’t possible to stay long enough in London to see everything it has to offer. Money is also a issue: with its prices echoed by its soaring shiny skyscrapers, Europe’s largest city is going to put a considerable strain on the travel budgets of all but the wealthiest travellers.
Therefore, balancing all of these factors is the key to any successful family trip to London. So this article isn’t about “Top Ten things to do in London” nor is it claiming to be the “Ultimate guide to London” or any of that nonsense: it is simply about making smart choices. Let’s start with getting around the city.
DON’T do hop-on, hop-off buses.
OK, don’t misunderstand me: the familiar and much-loved open-top tourist bus is generally a great way to see a new and unfamiliar city.
BUT MAYBE NOT IN LONDON…
Why? Because of the ubiquitous, iconic red double-decker buses, that’s why. With expressions of utter joy on their faces, let your kids clamber to the upper deck of almost any local bus service in central London, where they will get the same views AND a more authentic London experience for a mere fraction of the cost. And I mean a mere fraction – a day ticket on a tourist bus currently costs around £30 (kids about half of that), whilst hopping on and off the local buses may not actually incur any incremental expense whatsoever if you have a travelcard or Oyster card.
TIP: An Oyster card is a great way to get around London. Buy a card (£5 deposit) from any ticket vending machine, and top it up with cash (£20 is a good start). Then simply use it on Tube, bus and other transport within London at discounted prices. We averaged about £10 per day per adult with moderately heavy use.
A nice feature is the capped daily limit: after three or four journeys, you reach your daily expenditure limit, and there is no charge for any further journeys you may take.
Children under 11 travel free when travelling with an adult (up to four kids per adult) and discounted fees are available for 11-18 year olds (ask at a ticket office for this). At the end of your trip, return the card for the refund of the deposit and any unused credit. We loved it.
London may be massive, but its main sights are surprisingly concentrated, and walking between them allows you to discover a multitude of hidden gems. Look on a map, and you’ll see that Hyde Park is just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, which is a short stroll from Trafalgar Square, which is within earshot of Big Ben, which is directly opposite the London Eye, etc., etc.
Walk. Discover. Enjoy.
(As a small aside there are plenty of local walking tours available, many of which are gratuity-based only. Although we didn’t try any London tours in particular, these are generally a good way of gaining a unique insight into a city whilst putting money directly back into the local economy).
Tip: London’s parks are fabulous, numerous and often huge. No matter where you are, you’ll probably find a beautiful green space to relax and allow the kids to let off some steam.
DO go to the museums.
It costs around €15 to visit the Prado in Madrid, and the same to visit Paris’s legendary Louvre. Money well spent. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg will set you back something similar whilst a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York will make your wallet $25 lighter.
But the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the V&A, the Tate Modern and many, many more world-class museums in London are all FREE. Yes, free.
Tip: Don’t underestimate how interesting these brilliant, brilliant museums are for younger children, but do remember that our little ones see the world very differently from us adults.
For example, whilst our six-year old loved the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum, he was equally thrilled by many of the more “mundane” exhibits, stuff like ancient swords and Roman coins. By contrast, the importance of, say, the Rosetta Stone was lost on him. Plan your visits carefully.
Tip: Some of the larger museums (e.g. British Museum, Natural History Museum) have side entrances. If visiting during busy times, using these may save you some queueing.
DON’T do something if you can do it elsewhere.
Now that we have saved some money, let’s figure out where best to spend it. Remember – your time is limited and London is expensive, so before you commit to any particular attraction or activity, ask yourself:
“Can I easily do this somewhere else?”
If the answer is “Yes“, then don’t do it.
Let’s illustrate this with an anecdote: as we were shuffling along in the crowds near the London Eye, my kids spotted a well-known branded aquarium. All keen animal lovers, the pestering factor was immediately cranked up to ten. But I firmly said “no” because there are countless other aquariums in this world. Why should we waste time and money doing this in London? Similarly, avoid the High Street shops and chain restaurants.
Instead, think of what interests you, and align this to what London has to offer. My girls love musicals, for example, so a visit to Matilda in the West End was an absolute must: we simply can’t go to this sort of show in Luxembourg. My eldest son loves ancient Egypt and Greece (thank you Percy Jackson), so a trip to the British Museum was followed up by a visit to Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment.
Think unique, think about London, think about YOU.
DON’T go chasing wizards (well, not in the city anyway)
London may be synonymous with Harry Potter, but there isn’t much to see within the city centre itself. Diagon Alley is modelled more on the backstreets of Edinburgh’s old town and York’s Brambles than any atmospheric London alleyway, and avid fans wishing to visit Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station will have to make do with an over-crowded replica in the main passenger foyer (you need a valid train ticket to get onto the platforms themselves).
But consider the difference between these two photos (hover your mouse over the images for explanations):
In short, why go chasing scraps when there is a feast nearby? Now, I’m not a particularly huge Potter fan and I’m certainly not known for recommending large-scale commercial ventures, but even I have to admit that the Warner Bros Studio Tour on the outskirts of London is absolutely fabulous. Magical, even.
Creativity, attention to detail, craftsmanship, imagination… even muggles like me can’t help but be impressed at this remarkably insightful and entertaining exhibition. Yes, it’s fiendishly expensive and tickets need to be booked months in advance but it’s well worth it. Expect to spend around 3-4 hours there, so book a slot near the beginning or end of the day to make the most of your precious time in London.
And finally… DO choose your accommodation wisely.
Finding suitable accommodation in London for a family can be daunting: get it wrong and it can ruin your entire trip. Hotels are generally geared towards business visitors and organised tours, and are therefore expensive, cramped, or both (source: me, on countless business trips). AirBNB is an option, but you’ll need to do your homework on the part of town you’ll be staying in: friends of ours recently had an unpleasant experience in a London flat that turned out to be dingier and dodgier than families generally like…
As a family of six, accommodation can be particularly costly for us. For this reason, we initially wished to do a Home Exchange in London, which is generally a great way of discovering a city or region through the eyes of the locals. Alas, we couldn’t find a suitable exchange this time… but luckily struck family travel gold instead (not a sponsored feature).
Meininger is a German brand of youth hostel / hotel hybrids which are pitched perfectly for families visiting urban areas. Our room was spartan, but clean and surprisingly spacious, the location in West Kensington (opposite the Natural History Museum, a short stroll from Hyde Park and 5 minutes from two Tube stations) was perfect, the price reasonable, and the facilities (basic kitchen, spacious common areas) all we needed. We have also stayed at a Meininger in Berlin, and look forward to discovering other hotels from this brand in other major European urban areas over the next few years.
Tip: Restaurants in London are great, but often expensive and cramped, not really geared towards families. Save time and stress by buying food in a local market / supermarket and using the kitchen facilities at Meininger instead.
DO… Visit London
To summarise: think smart, think unique, think about the best use of your resources… and enjoy London. It’s fabulous…
(Non) Disclosure: All opinions are entirely our own and we did not receive any sort of compensation from any third party in relation to this article.
Daisy the bus visited London in April 2019. All aforementioned prices are at this date.
(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr