One FREE Day in London

Like any major city, London is expensive!! But, there are actually a wide variety of world-class experiences you can have in London completely free from the playground at the London Eye for younger kids, to a beautiful stroll the parks of London (while most people choose Hyde Park I have a special fondness for Saint James Park). In order to save budget for our second (very much not free) day in London, and following our lovely day Touring Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, and Bourton on the Water In the Cotswolds we decided to challenge ourselves with one full day of free adventures in The Big Smoke.

Our One Day of Free Activities in London with Kids included:

  • A Visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum: We started our free day of exploring London at the V&A (based on my previous tips of evaluating crowd size via Google and prioritizing must-do vs. would-be-nice venues). We arrived promptly at 10:00 am when the museum opens and whisked through security and into the stunning Medieval Renaissance and Cast Courts exhibits where we saw perfect replicas of the amazing works we’d seen on our previous trips to Italy. Then we moved on to photography, where we viewed thought-provoking pieces from the late 19th Century through modern works; and moved into the gorgeous jewelry displays featuring items from Queen Victoria’s coronation crown to Queen Bey’s emerald and diamond butterfly room. Even my son’s liked it. We finished our visit in the Architecture and Glass exhibits but quickly about-faced our of the museum as swarms of shrieking Tweens on field trip had taken over the museum ruining the beauty of the space we’d previously enjoyed.
The Beautiful Victoria & Albert MuseumThe Beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum
  • A Visit to the British Natural History Museum: V&A being the day’s must-do, we decided to take a lap at the Natural History museum next door. We walked through the Volcanoes & Earthquakes exhibit, the obligatory review of the section on Dinosaurs, and some temporary exhibits on Whales and another piece on the Moon. However, if shrieking tweens at V&A we’re bad, tantruming toddlers were the soundtrack of the Natural History museum, and as my son pointed out, “science is the same at home” where we have a world-class Natural History Museum with more interactivity, sans teaming throngs of humanity. So, we moved on to the next stop.The British Natural History Museum

The British Natural History Museum

  • An Afternoon to Explore the British Museum: Now, if crowds were unbearable at the earlier museum, the British Museum was a state of nature, but one can easily understand why. We saw the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, The Mummy of the Chantress of Amun, and sculptures and artifacts from ancient cultures, so we braved the hordes for as long as we could. If we’d waited until after 3:00 when the tour groups leave, I’m told the experience is much calmer – live and learn.
Viewing Arguments at ParlimentAttend Debates at Parliament
  • A Stop to Watch Arguments at Parliament: As politics-buffs (is that a phrase?) we couldn’t miss a chance to watch debates at Parliament – this free experience is rarely crowded and definitely an insider’s experience (no obvious signage or tour groups), and definitely worth the time. To view the debates you enter through the Cromwell Green Entrance, and you can research debate topics and the calendar (debates often go until 10:00 PM) on the Parliament UK site. Our entire experience from line up, through security, and about 30 minutes watching debates about the British HS II project lasted about an hour, which was about the right amount of time for our family’s attention spans.

What are your favorite ways to spend a free day in London with Kids?

10 Tips for Traveling with Kids

My Top Ten Favorite Travel Hacks for Vacationing with Kids10 Tips for Travelling with Teenagers

We just returned from our second two-week trip through Europe with our kids and although we had a few small mishaps (aka setting off the train station alarm in Brussels) we also picked up a few great hacks to share.

While making an adventure like ours (15 days, six countries, seven hotels, plains, ferries, trains and automobiles) work is helped by the fact that I travel globally about 100 days per year for work, I think these easy tips can make family travel with kids less stressful for any family.

img_1991

Visit the Google Information page to view the busiest days and times to visit.

  • Research, Plan, & Prepare: There are a number of times where spontaneity is delightful – an unplanned evening out, or day at an amusement park for instance – but an extended family vacation is not that time. Do your research, use tools like Google Flights, and Google localized business pages to plan for the best value on your airline tickets, or best time of day to visit museums and popular attractions.
  • Pack Light, Use Local Amenities, & Buy as You Go: When traveling with children use the rule of twos: only bring the amount of luggage and gear that can be carried with two hands per person: that means four people, no more than eight pieces of luggage or gear (that includes suitcases, carry on, purse, strollers, or diaper bags). Hotels offer cribs, rental car companies offer child safety seats, and diapers are available in every city of the world. Don’t let your luggage dictate your adventure!
img_1515

Everything we packed for four people on a two week trip to Europe.

  • Bring the Best: To help the packing light process along, CURATE! Only bring the best: the shoes you love to wear, your comfiest most fashionable clothes – not the T-shirt with the stain for lounging around bring the silk pajamas, and pack the makeup you use every day, don’t “try” something new on vacation. 
    img_1501

    I like these cosmetic pot jars for skincare, hair gels, and liquid makeup.

    Consider repotting items into smaller containers if needed. Travel is not the time to bring your “good enough” items because you’ll find yourself feeling less energized and more weighted down, instead bring your best stuff and USE it. That’s the whole point. Marie Kondo your vacay and only bring the items that spark joy.

  • Book Flights Early and Reserve Your Seats in Advance: The time to save money is NOT by booking the lowest cost econo seats that give you seat assignments at the airport, that guarantees unnecessary stress (I’ll go into tips on saving money on travel in a later post).  Buy your way out of travel stress. Book directly through the airlines (more on that later) and select your seats, and potentially your flight days and times, based on the most desirable locations, get aisle seats, toward the front of the plane, and read up on the inflight amenities so you know what to expect.

Pro Tip: For the best prices, book flights mid-week, always including a Saturday night stay, six to twelve weeks in advance, and ALWAYS book seats that allow you to review the seat map and select your seats first.

  • Book Flights the Right Way: An airline snafu can throw your entire adventure out of order, and correcting that snafu becomes exponentially more complicated if you book through a third-party site because, if your flight gets canceled or rescheduled to an unworkable time and needs to be rebooked you’ll have to call the third party, who will then call the airline, and all that game of telephone wastes your valuable travel time. Trust me, it isn’t worth the $10 you’ll save, and you’ll have access to more perks (like travel apps and lower cost upgrades) when you book directly through the carrier. Airlines really are the best way to get the best deals, especially if you’re flexible about the time of day, days of the week, and when applicable the airports (I.e. Miami vs. Fort Lauderdale).
  • Understand Your Hotel Amenities: Read the fine print on your hotel booking, is there a resort fee? What does it include? Is there a free breakfast? What hours is it available, will you actually be at the hotel to enjoy it and make it worth the extra cost? The best way to maximize your hotel stay is to read all the little details on the “about” page, calibrate your expectations, and know all the little extras you’re entitled to, I.E. a welcome drink, free internet, complimentary coffee or happy hour reception. Today’s hotels offer a lot of little perks you’ll only learn about by reading the fine print. But, just as these little extras can really add to your experience, hidden fees can bump up the cost for parking, daily hotel taxes, and resort fees which can be as high as $60 a night!
  • img_1493

    Working on our “Daily Briefing” travel itinerary.

    Go slow to go fast: It can be tempting to go-go-go and try to pack every activity into your itinerary, figuring out your route on the way, but with Kids (and husbands) this can turn into sun-baked meltdowns. Instead, create a daily plan of activities you’d like to do, in order of proximity (remember transit times, lines, and security) and outline a rough but flexible time of day to hit each spot, then choose one or two as your “must do” and the rest as “would be nice”. That way, if you show up to the Churchill War Rooms in London to see a line around the block, you can easily decide to skip it and move on to the next, less crowded activity.

  • Skip The Lines: One way to derail a family vacay is to expect people to complacently wait in a line for some must-do activity, restaurant, or boat ride. Instead, book Activity Passes in advance that let you skip the line or the ticket window, research after hours your options (like visiting the Colosseum at night). Every time I walk out of the Vatican Museum to see people waiting in a three-hour line to get in I shake my head. Ten minutes of advanced planning can get you out of that line and into the Sistine Chapel without incident, and usually with only a nominal additional charge. Visit the websites for each of the locations you plan to visit and research if appointments are available for the sights you’d like to see – especially in Italy where reservations to the most popular sites are an absolute MUST and don’t cost extra.
  • Spring for Space: When booking hotel rooms, read the room descriptions that list square footage. Go for the larger room if possible, that extra ten feet, or with older kids, second adjoining room, can add so much extra luxury and comfort to your vacation.  I’d forgo an extra night of vacation rather than downgrade to the smallest most economical room available.  I know that people often say that “Hotel rooms don’t matter, you’re only in it to sleep” but, SLEEP is critical! Which leads me to my final tip.
  • Schedule Sleep: Tired cranky families fall apart on vacation, meltdowns, runny noses, forgotten passports, brothers throwing fisticuffs in Vienna hotel rooms – this all comes from being overtired.  When planning a trip it can be easy to overlook the importance of eight uninterrupted hours of sleep (at least most nights) but don’t! If you have a busy day the night before, arrange for a leisurely morning the day after.  I know that we all want to maximize our go-go-go fun-button-punching while on a trip, but getting that little extra sleep will ensure that you can maximize your travel fun and minimize mishaps that come when your brain is run down from too much going.

What did I miss?  What are your favorite travel tips to remember?

Read More:

Exploring the German and French Country Side with Teenagers: Our One Day Itinerary

Four years ago, my husband and I did a River Cruise down the Danube, starting in Nuremberg (following three days on land in Prague) and finishing in Budapest. The trip was beautiful, relaxing, and absolutely enchanting – we loved every second of it (which surprised me considering how I felt about our previous experience with cruising). So, as we started to plan this adventure we originally researched taking another River Cruise, but just couldn’t find the perfect combination of dates, lengths, and locations to satisfy our family. So instead, we decided to add a little DIY River Cruise on the Rhine for one day of our adventure, followed by one day driving from Rudesheim (the final stop on our journey) to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland with plenty of stops to explore along the way.

Here is Our One Day Itinerary for Driving through the French Countryside into Switzerland

Exploring the French Countryside with Teens

Alsace, France

Rudesheim, Germany to Mainz

Hotel Lindenwirt, RudesheimStarting our Journey at Hotel Lindenwirt, Rudesheim

We started the morning by taking the train from Rudesheim to Mainz where we’d arranged to pick up our rental car at the Mainz Hertz Rental Car office, which turned out to be trickier than expected due to unpublished train schedules on the weekends. But, after a thirty minute delay, we were off on the roads of Germany

Maginot Line Bunkers, Fort Schoenenbourg (Ouvrage Schoenenbourg)Maginot Line, Fort Schoenenbourg

Visiting the Maginot Line

With 90 minutes worth of driving under our belt we decided to stop at The Maginot Line. With a family full of war and history buffs, there was no way we were learning about underground bunkers and NOT making a stop to visit the underground bunkers and picnic in the Forrest on a self-guided tour.

This French line of defense was constructed along the country’s border with Germany during the 1930s and named after Minister of War André Maginot. It primarily extended from La Ferté to the Rhine River, though sections also stretched along the Rhine and the Italian frontier. The main fortifications on the northeast frontier included 22 large underground fortresses and 36 smaller fortresses, as well as blockhouses, bunkers and rail lines. Despite its strength and elaborate design, the line was unable to prevent an invasion by German troops who entered France via Belgium in May 1940.History Channel Online

Visiting Strasbourg France

Following our stop for the boys in the family, mom wanted a charming little village in France and so our original plan was Colmar, France. But, time had gotten away from us in the morning and during our stop at the Fortress, so we called an audible and stopped at Strasbourg instead. Which turned into the biggest EPIC FAIL of the trip.

Strasbourg, France: Cradle Of Alsatian CultureStrasbourg, France, Alsace

Where we were hoping for dinner in a charming little village, Strasbourg (unlike the stunning Instagram photos) is a major city, with a City Center screaming with tourists from every stretch of the world, which made it a little challenging to find that Belle-in-the-Village moment I was seeking.

Which provides a great moment to reflect on what NOT to do on vacation: Do not let Instagram build unrealistic vacation expectations.

Instead follow to stoic advice of Epictetus

“Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like, … If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse—the people who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start the activity, by telling yourself at the outset, ‘I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.’ Make this your practice in every activity.”

We trudged our way through hordes of humanity to tour the Cathedral, past throngs of tour groups through gift shops and the river front, up and down steps of historic corridors, accidentally following the ubiquitous umbrella-led masses, then stopped for lunch at the Aux Armes de Strasbourg where we patched together a dinner of French and German fair, a little Rose of Provence for me (the non-driver), and bottles and bottles of water and buckets of ice since it was about a million degrees outside.

Overall, not what I expected or wanted – we wished we had grabbed a snack at a roadside service station and kept with our original plan of Colmar, but live and learn. I’m sure so many people LOVE the Strasbourg experience … that person wasn’t me.

Driving from France to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

  • If Strasbourg disappointed, every moment of Switzerland delighted, starting from the moment we left Strasbourg and the Bernese Alps started to appear.
  • Bernese Alps

    Jungfrau, Bernese Alps

    We drove through Switzerland past lakes and peaks, across Interlaken and into Lauterbrunnen where we dropped our car at the Lauterbrunnen car park, gazed at the amazing Staubbach Falls illuminated by moonlight and spotlight, then took the 10:30 PM train straight up the mountain to the car free village of Wengen, where we stayed at the charming Hotel Falken.

    Hotel Falken, Wengen, Switzerland

    Hotel Falken, Wengen, Switzerland

    We spent two days of cable cars, gentle mountain walks, mountainside meals, and gaping open-mouthed at the sheer beauty that is the Jungfrau Region. It was perfection!!

    Jungfrau, Bernese Alps, Switzerland

    Jungfrau, Bernese Alps, Switzerland

    Have you visited the Alps, as enchanted as we were, we can’t wait to go back? Where should we visit next?

    Additional Reading

    Rhine River Ferry: One Day Itinerary with Teens

    Our German River Cruise Experienceimg_1438-2

    Five years ago, as an extended family, we took an amazing two-week river trip down the Danube. While we were by far the youngest travelers on the ship we found the relaxed pace and force-fed charm was a perfect way to see the villages of Germany.

    So, you can imagine our delight when we learned that DIY single-day River Ferries for the more adventurous set are available as an alternative to the two-week leisure cruise.

    Correction: Now having done the river ferry, the set is not “more adventurous” apparently river cruising is something most often done by the senior set.

    About the Rhine a River Ferries

    Each morning, starting in Cologne and Mainz KD Ferry operates boats heading up and down the Rhine River. Most people prefer to start their ferry experience in Mainz and head north to Cologne (getting the prettiest portion of the route earlier in the day and taking advantage of the quicker speeds the follow traveling with the current). But, we were traveling from Brussels and Bruges, so beggars can’t be choosers.

    P.S. – the additional speed of the current once you leave Boppard is nominal, don’t believe the people who make it sound like disaster will ensue if you take the Ferry “upstream”.

    Rhine River Cruise Itinerary

    We started the day in Cologne and took an early morning train to Boppard, skipping some of the earlier but less high-impact stops so that we could allow our boys a little sleeping-in time (to ensure domestic tranquility) and arrived in Boppard at 11:00 AM.

    Boppard Along the Rhine PromenadeStarting the day in Boppard with a pleasant stroll along the Rhine Promenade

    Our day in the Rhine was made en-route from Belgium to Switzerland where we’ve planned to spend two nights and three days, so we were traveling with luggage; and although we are a carry-on family, we’ve decided to focus our Rhine stops in cities that offer luggage storage which meant St. Goar and Bacharach where we stowed our luggage at the Tourist Information offices.

    Tips for Luggage Storage in Bacharach and Saint Goar

    I did a lot of research before the trip and had a hard time understanding the logistics, so I’ll break it down for you for convenience:

    Saint Goar offers luggage storage (free) upstairs at the Saint Goar Tourist Information Center. They close for lunch from 1:00 – 2:00, and for the day at 5:00 PM, so plan accordingly. There is a convenient shuttle stop to Burg Rheinfels Castle, just a half block down from the TI (at the gas station) so it was super easy to hop off the Rhine Ferry, walk 1/8 mile to the TI, Store our bags, and go up to the Castle.

    Bacharach also offers Left Luggage services at the Bacharach Tourist Information Office just a few blocks south of the Cathedral on the Main drag. Once again, they close for lunch mid-day, and have a hard stop at 4:59 for luggage storage pick up, but it’s free (though the attendant is about as unfriendly as they come) and a convenient way to take the Rhine Ferry and still find workable luggage storage.

    Taking the KD Rhine Ferry

    I purchased our Ferry Tickets in advance through KD Rhine (I’m a fan of skipping lines wherever possible and tend to get a better conversion rate when I book in the USA). The process of turning in our voucher for tickets in Boppard was easy and painless.

    To cap off our exciting day on the Rhine we spent the evening at the Hotel Lindenwirt of Rudesheim am Rhein.

    TBH: I would have skipped Bacharach if I’d known Rudesheim would be so charming, but it was cool to see the Werner Cathedral Ruins.

    Hotel Lindenwirt, Rudesheim, Germany

    Photo: Courtesy Hotel Lindeniwrt

    Cologne to Mainz KD Rhine Ferry Schedule

    Favorite Rhine Travel Videoimg_1438-2

     

    Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Eastern Europe Itinerary with Children

    blur cartography close up concept

    Photo by slon_dot_pics on Pexels.com

    The Grande Adventure Continues

    After an amazing seventeen days exploring some of Europe’s greatest hits in 2017, our family of four can’t wait to get back to “the continent”.  So, for the summer of 2019 we’ll be packing our Osprey backpacks and hitting the road for fourteen days through some of Europe en reprieve.

    Family Road Trip through Eastern Europe

    Continue reading

    Florence

    Florence

    Seven years ago, fresh off surgeries, ambulance rides, ICU treatments, and a year that would not give an inch, my husband and I took a pause to travel through Italy with his family – a trip that we are still talking about with awe and wonder. The central element of that trip – three days in Florence.  So, naturally, my Brunelleschi-loving husband, and his Botticelli-adoring wife could think of only one city that they couldn’t wait to visit again with our two sons in tow — Florence!

    The itinerary: one afternoon, a full day, and one long morning. But, first, we have to get there from Cinque Terre.

    Continue reading

    Trains & Public Transit Options: 2017

     

    100_0522

    Taking the train through Cinque Terre, October 2010

    As a family of four we will be “backpacking” through France, Italy, and the Netherlands through a series of planes, trains, and automobiles.  Because I know that wireless access can be limited when travelling, I am saving all of the relevant train schedules for June 2017 here so I have an easy one-stop solution for calling an audible on train travel during the trip.

    Continue reading