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?

One Year in Review

The LaBelleValise blog is now one year old.  This blog started as a travel log on all the places work, life, and wanderlust takes me and over the past year the adventure has been better than I hoped.

Here are a few of the highlightswpid-20141203_115451.jpg

Cruising? A Supposedly Fun Thing I Thought I’d Never Do Again

So, You’re Considering a Family Cruise

When I read the late David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruising in Harper’s, Shipping Out, On the Nearly Lethal Comforts of a Luxury Cruise, I laughed with the deep understanding that comes from having been there, and felt all of that.

Yet, two months ago*, there I was, planning a cruise with my family of four for Christmas. Our lofty goals of a cruise through the Mediterranean were quickly tempered by the reality of traveling with two tweens through museums, UNESCO sites, and endless cathedrals.  Once reality struck it was decided that we’d start with a beginner’s cruise: a week in the Caribbean followed by a week of Disney magic (before they become too old to enjoy the Mouse).  Perhaps I should have lobotomized myself in anticipation.

As a mother, and frequent traveler, I have learned that the secret to traveling well with Royal Caribbean Deck Six Mapunruly travelers is planning coupled with flexibility.  

*Note that this article was originally written in 2015, since then RC has rolled out a more flexible upgraded dining package.

My Theory of Traveling Successfully with Kids

When it comes to travel, I firmly believe nothing of value is gained by leaving your hard-earned vacation days to the fates. That said, after months of research I selected the Royal Caribbean, Independence of the Seas six night, seven day cruise to Grand Caymen, Jamaica, and Labadee Haiti. I booked two adjoining rooms (6575 and 6577 for those who know this ship). Our trip would be followed by five days in Orlando, Florida at the Universal Cabana Bay, and a night in Fort Lauderdale at the Marriott Pompano Beach (gotta use up those points), heading home on Christmas morning.

Dining on Royal Caribbean Cruises

The Royal Caribbean group has decided to make understanding their dining program unnecessarily complicated and difficult, but I will not be deterred when there are bloggers who’ve come before me who’ve simplified the information that Royal Caribbean has not.

In order to simplify things for those that follow … here’s what we found:

The Independence of the Seas, offers a number of varied dining options:

The Main Dining Room (Breakfast lunch and dinner, Deck 3-5) The three-deck-high dining room (called Romeo and Juliet on Deck 3, Othello on Deck 4 and King Lear on Deck 5) is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Breakfast: features eggs Benedict, pancakes, granola, and omelets as well as a daily special such as chocolate-chip pancakes, a bacon and gruyere quiche (which was quite good), or almond-crusted French toast. Seating is available for individual parties or communal seating. You can order mimosas or bloody marys with minimal hassle since the breakfast crowd is mostly at the buffet.

Lunch Salad Bar

Lunch: the Independence offers Brasserie 30 (the Dining Room called by another name, but still smelling the same). Lunch features a menu/made-to order salad bar combo where guests pick their toppings, and a crew member mixes it together.  The salad bar also features a light antipasti selection. The set menu features traditional lunch entrees, pastas, soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts and a two course meal can be completed in 30 minutes.

Dinner: passengers can choose between two standard dining times (6 and 8:30 p.m.) or My Time Dining, where you can make a reservation to dine at different times each day. In selecting My Time dining you give up the cruise tradition of having the same waiter and set table mates each night and can sit by yourselves at tables of two, four, or more. With My Time dining gratuities are paid up front (if you’re one of those obstinate sorts who asks to have that removed so you can tip based on service, I saw the email that goes out to the entire service crew that you’ve requested that, so BEWARE).

The dinner menu features salads, soups, appetizers for starters, classic entrees, and desserts. Each night new entree, soup, and starter options are introduced and there are also “every night” selections including vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast, and a sirloin steak.

Review of the Main Dining Room: Faux-tastic … the dining room attempts to look elegant and sophisticated, but rolling trays of detritus are stacked up just feet from where you’re dining. The constant table turnover makes the room unpleasant and loud, and the service attempts to be five star, but with weird hangups (they squirt the ketchup for your fries for you rather than leaving the bottle or bringing a small ramekin of ketchup.  Why can’t I just have the damn ketchup bottle!?!)

Ordering a glass of wine (or God forbid, a cocktail) is an ordeal that requires a separate server, your SeaPass card*, and a hassle that becomes downright obnoxious by night four. Why do they make it such a hassle considering the servers are the same, they know your name and room number, and they’ve already seen your SeaPass card and therefor drink package half a dozen times by then! The food is fine, occasionally good, and I might have even had something that was great at least once. The dress code is weird; on formal night we were wedged between octogenarians in their tuxedos and ball gowns and a Danny DeVito look-alike in a T-shirt and shorts.

Independence of the Seas Windjammer Buffet

The Windjammer Café (open for breakfast lunch and dinner, Deck 11) is a traditional buffet that will ignite all of your “ick” sensors – think Food Court without the filter of price or quality.  People belly up to the bland servings of fake mashed potatoes, undercooked pancakes, and overcooked bacon and create Jenga-like towers of food that no human should ever consume.

I know that it is paid for in advance and therefore people want to “get their money’s worth”, but why does that have to happen all on one plate?  They aren’t kicking people out.  Fill your plate to a reasonable level, take a breath between bites, grease up your hips so that you can get in and out of your chair, and repeat.  No need to strain your wrist trying to wrangle that platter of bland, lukewarm fried chicken stacked over a cheeseburger, with a saddlebag of tater tots back to the table.

Jade: The buffet also has a section called “Jade” which cruise advertising attempts to feature as a separate restaurant, but it isn’t.  Jade is a row of about 12 “Asianish” options that represent Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Indian fare all grouped together. It is also rumored that Jade offers a special “Sushi night” on some ships, but I never saw or heard of this and the buffet is so gross, dirty, and crowded that I wouldn’t be eating any cruiseship-sushi anyway.

Windjammer Review: Ick, Yuck, and a pile of muck.  We ate here twice (lunch once and breakfast on the final day) because my kids wanted to gorge on cookies. I had bad coffee, a bowl of cold/bland miso soup, and salad. I didn’t want to go anywhere near the food, or the people throwing elbows to get to the food any more often than I had to.

Sorrento’s Pizza (Deck 5, on the Promenade) – Pizza by the slice, tirimisu, beers, and a daily sandwich/calzone option.  The pizza wasn’t bad, there were plenty of tables, and the lines were minimal.  Most afternoons we’d meander down to Sorrentos and graze on a slice. We did have a moment of awkward when my son ordered a tirimisu and the attendant got mad at him for trying to order liquor underage … so there’s that (I guess they soak the lady fingers in rum instead of rum flavoring).

Café Promenade (Deck 5, on the Promenade) – Sandwiches, cookies, pastries, specialty blended coffee drinks, and free drip coffee was served here all day.  The options weren’t bad, the line was never too long, and they make some “adult” coffee beverages that were quite good.  We enjoyed afternoon tea here most days.

Room service – available for free until midnight, the room service menu was somewhat limited (burgers, sandwiches, and pizza) but the kids enjoyed ordering cookies and hot chocolate every night, and a couple times I ordered nachos and a cheese plate while we prepared for dinner, because, hey – it’s all you can eat, and I paid for it.

Options for an Additional Charge:

  • Chops Grille Steakhouse – (6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. $25 surcharge, Deck 11) with a $35 per person charge. This was our best meal of the evening and is comparable to the quality we’d get at a steakhouse at home.  We booked before we left and ended up getting a discount on our drinks packages.
  • Giovanni’s Table Italian Restaurant – (6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. $25 surcharge, Deck 11) – We never ate here, something about it just seemed too similar to The Windjammer for my taste (though that may have just been weird personal interpretations, not based on actual fact). The menu includes: focaccia della casa –- a flat bread with potatoes, marinated artichokes, olives and pesto, and oven baked, almond crusted scallops with red bell pepper,
  • Johnny Rockets (Deck 12) – I found it annoying that we had to pay $5 per person to eat here, plus another $5 to order a shake – it should be either/or.  The food was fine, the ambiance was fine, but I left annoyed about the additional charge for shakes.
  • Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream – this place was a graveyard, the lights were never on, and it never appeared to be open.  Maybe it was, but I couldn’t tell.
  • The Cupcake Cupboard – (Arrival day 2:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., sea days from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 pm, surcharges from $1.50 – $15.00, Deck 5) The Cupcake Cupboard is located on the promenade and offers gourmet cupcakes at $2.75, minis at $1.50, cake pops for $1.50 and giant birthday cakes at $24.95. The shop offers design classes priced at $22 for adults (11 years-up) and $15 for children (five years-10 years) with a maximum of 10 people students per class. It was cute, but we preferred the free treats at the Cafe.
  • Sprinkles Ice Cream Station: (Pool deck, with a line 15 deep at any given time, open from 11:00 – 6:00 daily) The ultimate in gross (see below for the image of the slop trough set below the machine, which slowly fills up throughout the day and attracts every manner of gross).

Highlights and low lights of the trip:

Sources:

  1. Cruise Critic Dining Review
  2. Taste of Hawaii Royal Caribbean Review

*SeaPass Card – the most obnoxious part of the cruise.  You receive the card when you arrive and it becomes your “credit card” throughout the trip, as well as your room key, and the card that gets you on the ship at each port.  The obnoxious thing about this card is that even if you buy the all inclusive unlimited drinks package, your card must be swiped for every drink you order, every bottle of water, and every cup of coffee – adding a few minutes of waiting to every transaction, followed by a receipt you have to sign.  Why not just give us a wristband and then use the SeaPass cards if an issue arises? Reason one out of 100 why I’ve decided I prefer the All Inclusive resort experience.

Christmas in Berlin

Planes, trains, and automobiles – I am in the midst of a 30 day journey that will take me from the red rock deserts of Southern Utah to the domed spires of the Milan cathedral, from the salty shores of the Adriatic sea to the warm Caribbean waters of Jamaica.

I’ll pause and post when I return to civilian life, but for now, my greatest hits.

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Zen and the Art of Sightseeing

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I am one of the fortunate souls who doesn’t get jet lagged. Perhaps that’s just my biology, but I think it’s probably my approach to International travel.

My Routine for Avoiding Jet Lag:

1. Sleep En Route: While people will encourage you to avoid alcohol when travelling I am a strong advocate for a glass of wine, or two, to help ease into sleep while flying. Every hour of sleep you can get while flying is one less hour of sleep lag when you land; and wine makes me sleepy.

2. Hit the Ground Running: According to travel Guru Rick Steves (and one of the toppers on my Five List ’cause I’m kinky like that) one tip for avoiding jet lag is to start your vacation on local time. “On arrival, stay awake until an early local bedtime. If you doze off at 4 p.m. and wake up at midnight, you’ve accomplished nothing. Plan a good walk until early evening. Jet lag hates fresh air, daylight, and exercise. Your body may beg for sleep, but stand firm: Refuse. Force your body’s transition to the local time.You’ll probably awaken very early on your first morning. Trying to sleep later is normally futile. Get out and enjoy…”

3. Limit Caffeine: On day one, avoid using coffee to keep you awake. Instead, use your body’s natural rythyms to rise as close to sunrise as you can and then call it a night early.

4. Sleep with The Curtains Open: To aide that “rise with the sun” idea sleep with the curtains open so that your body can adjust to the new sleep schedule more naturally.

5. Imbibe, But Just a Little: In a recent article for The Daily Mail, Orlando Bloom gave his tips for avoiding jet lag, and that included avoiding alcohol. Now, while I agree you shouldn’t go on a minibar binge of Tequila and Tobblerone, two glasses of wine before bed on the FIRST night in a new timezone, followed by an early lights out is my proven method for getting a decent night’s sleep in a new environment and waking up on local time. I do the same thing on my first night home.

6. Don’t Bring Your Pillow: It makes you look like a travel noob and subconsciously reminds your body that you’re not at home. But, mostly because it looks ridiculous.

7. Pack Sleepwear AND Loungewear: Change out of your day clothes and into your lounging clothes to tell your body its time to relax; then change again when its time to sleep. Set new routines in hotels to teach your body what to expect, and when.

8. Triple Alarm Clocks: Nothing will mess with your sleep like tension that you might miss a critical appointment. Solution: set your cell phone, the room clock, and request a wake up call so you don’t wake up worried that you missed your alarm clock.

9. Water, Water, Water: Dehydration will make you fell run down. Stay hydrated to avoid wearing yourself down which will leave you feeling slugish.

10. Whitenoise: Find something that masks the unfamiliar noises and helps you relax into sleep. I’m fond of leaving the TV on, at a super low volume, so that it drowns out the street sounds, and those frisky neighbors

Airport Zen

Surviving An International Flight with Kids: Europe with Teenagers

Park and Ride drop offs; shoes-off-tech-out security screenings; gate change; screaming kids; and octogenarians who have never flown before all collide into one frenetic, frustrating, infuriating pulse during the experience that is airplane travel.

But, when you travel as frequently as I do (just got my Platinum Medallion welcome kit five years running, Damn Diamond always just out of reach!) if you let the airport get to you, you’ll start to look like your passport photo. So, I like to practice what I call, “Airport Zen.”

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Airport Zen takes focus, and practice – much like any meditative practice. Finding it for the first time is a struggle, maintaining it is even harder, but when it’s there it offers a perfect little mental oasis inside the traveler’s hell known as the airport.

Finding Airport Zen in Lines

Lines? An opportunity to breathe in for three, hold for two, and release for six; during which time I zone in on someone or something pleasant to look at (advertisements for a juicy steak, a child behaving like children do, a couple in love) and observe the world around me.

Repeat: At Airports, Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

Security? I move intentionally, not allowing myself to assume the anticipatory posture of “hurry up and wait”. I always wear slip on shoes and the same no-pockets-no-mistakes linens pants with no belt or jewelry when I fly, so I can skip the harried wardrobe change at screening and I have only to pick up a tray (at the exact moment it is needed) place my laptop and toiletries case inside, leave my passport and boarding pass on top, then breathe again and follow the person in front of me. All in a deliberate, intentionally relaxed fashion, forcing my shoulders not to clench and my teeth not to grind in annoyance at the cattle call around me.

Airport Zen in Flight

The Flight? When I board the plane I consider my seat a protective nest for the next 2-12 hours and I settle in, just like in yoga, and focus on finding my “posture” – the most comfortable way to sit in non-reclining 33B. I un-shoe down to my comfy travel socks (the kind I keep a ziplock bag for so I can wear them in airplane bathrooms and not care how dirty they get), request a blanket and pillow, then pull out a book for the rest of the take off process (the real kind, with pages, that turn off the electronic buzz and open my mind to a pretend world of interesting people.)

Once in air I order two glasses of water and a glass of wine, drink it slowly, and meditate on nothing.

This relaxed approach makes flying a “practice” rather than a burden, and helps me arrive at my final destination refreshed and ready to hit the ground running at a break-neck pace.

But, how does Airport Zen work with kids?

Airport Zen with Kids

To be honest, it kind of doesn’t – because kids are humans with their own needs, wants, and agenda. But, a few tips can increase the likelihood of success.

  • Airport Hack One: Buy your way out of inconvenience whenever you can possibly afford it – Uber, SkyCap, Upgrade to Priority Boarding, Pay for Clear if you fly more than three tines per year but don’t have status (Amex Card Holders get a discount).
  • Airport Hack Two: Don’t Bring “That”: Whatever annoying, bulky, awkward “want to, don’t need to” device you’re thinking of bringing – DON’T unless: you will have a dedicated hand that can carry it through the airport, it will be DEFINITELY used at least 50% of days, it would cost you more than $75 to buy it on your vacay if you decide you need it. See airport hack one. Thus includes ANY drinks or containers that carry drinks you might forget about (you can buy them on the other side).
  • Airport Hack Three: Consider shelling out the $$ to visit an airport lounge or at least a convenient restaurant; start your vacay the second you leave home to get everybody in a celebratory mood.
  • Airport Hack Four: Check in online, stalk seat assignments in the weeks leading up to your flight to get the best choice, and involve all fliers in the process. Everybody over age five should be personally responsible for getting their body on the plane – which means you should have age-appropriate conversations about what to expect at the airport, when, why, and how to respond.
  • Airport Hack Five: Screens, all the screens, pretty, pretty screens!

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My Go-To Carry On Travel Gear List

Prepping for my next big voyage: Toronto, Amsterdam, and London. Is it in bad taste if I thank the tragic Ebola outbreak for saving my Labor Day weekend and cancelling my leg in Pretoria?

Figured I’d share my packing lists:

Travel Items

After a luggage-check mishap in the UK earlier this year I am now firmly committed to the carry on only approach. So, I use my smaller carry-on for toiletries and make-up kit, and put my hair items inside my larger rolling bag (which I also carry on). I then tuck my purse inside its protective bag inside the smaller carry-on, and keep my baggage light and easy, and out of the cargo hold.

Clear Plastic Sample Containers for Makeup and Skincare

I also re-pot my foundations into these clever little clear plastic makeup sample containers I found on Amazon: Click Here to buy.

Travel Makeup

The trick to ensure I can go carry on only? Editing my wardrobe down to basic, easy, color story mix-and-match items that can make a variety of looks without a lot of weight.

Packing List