London for the holidays

Happy new year! In lieu of a TBT scorecard this week, I will be posting about our trip to….London!

With five kids, and a big span of ages, not all trips work well for everyone, and I’ve been wanting my older kids to experience international travel, even though it’s very hard with the little ones. So, twice this past year we’ve split the family for trips. I took the big three kids to Paris over spring break, and now I took the big three to London for the week after Christmas.

It all seems somewhat like a dream now that I’m back at my desk on a Monday morning, but we made a lot of memories and had a good time. We flew over last Monday night (the 26th) and landed on the 27th. I half-slept a few hours on the plane — in the middle seat, lovely enough — though I’m not sure the kids did. We had booked one of our hotel rooms for the night before so we could go straight there upon arrival and we all slept for 2-3 hours there. (We had to book two adjoining hotel rooms, as almost no hotel rooms in central London will fit four people!).

We stayed right on Green Park, so very central. The first night we went to see A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic theater. This turned out to be one of the kids’ favorite activities of the week. It was a theater in the round, and you felt quite immersed in it. The actors played handbells and added a lot of actual carols to the Christmas Carol story, and so we quite enjoyed ourselves.

The next day we went to the Churchill War Rooms, and got a private tour of the map rooms. My 13-year-old and I found this fascinating (seeing the push pin marks where they’d noted where ships were!) though I think the others mostly tolerated it. After, we got fish and chips, and then did some (legal!) spray art in a tunnel known for such decorations. With a guide (who knew how to spray paint well!) we all created some pretty stellar letters. Then it was to a pub with board games for some Telestrations fun.

The next day we went to Harry Potter Studios — about an hour away in a London suburb. The 15-year-old and 11-year-old are massive Harry Potter fans (they’ve seen all the movies and read all the books) and so we enjoyed seeing the Great Hall, and Gringots, and the various costumes and props. Everything was decorated for Christmas, which was particularly festive.

The next day we had high tea at Browns — apparently where Rudyard Kipling used to hang out. Then that evening we went out exploring Christmas lights — the decorations at Fortnum & Masons, the tree and Christmas market in Trafalgar, and the lights at Covent Garden.

Then New Year’s Eve brought a baking class at the baking teacher’s apartment — we learned how to make scones, and sponge cake, and shortbread, which we then ate with tea. A more normal tea experience than Browns, I imagine! After that, my 13-year-old and I toured the British Museum (mummies and marbles…), and we went to the Winter Wonderland carnival in Hyde Park to spend the evening. The kids went on the giant Ferris Wheel there, but I stayed on the ground! We saw the fireworks from near Buckingham Palace and rang in the new year there.

Then it was a long long trip back home — but I watched BBC documentaries, and read two issues of The Economist, which feels like a very British way to spend a flight on British Airways. I’ve got some more photos from the trip posted over at Instagram (@lvanderkam).

International travel — and travel with kids — is never exactly easy. I’m spending today mostly recuperating. But I think it’s good to do, and as these things go, London was a relatively easy destination. I was also much more relaxed than I was with the Paris trip where we had the return-to-US Covid testing protocol hanging over our heads. I think within the next year we will start trying to travel with the younger kids too. The little guy just turned three, which means next winter he will be four. We went to London in spring of 2018 with the older three, when my daughter would have been 6, and I recall it being doable. So, we’re getting there…

19 thoughts on “London for the holidays

  1. We are also getting back into international travel. Our last trip pre-pandemic was to London. My husband had a global partner’s meeting and there were activities scheduled for family tagging along. I took my then 12 and 9 year olds and it was great actually.

    Now we are planning a much delayed trip to Italy for a school break in February. It was originally scheduled for August 2020 when my kids would have been 13, 10, 7 and 4. And I have to say the idea of going now that they are 15, 12, 10 and 7 is MUCH more attractive.

  2. I’m curious how you plan your trips. Do you do the research yourself, use a travel agent, a favorite website? You seem to find some interesting and unique activities!

    1. @TAS – we used a travel agent for this one – I knew we wanted to do Harry Potter but the other activities the agent suggested after having a conversation with me about my kids’ interests.

  3. Delighted you had a good time but would beg to differ that HP world is in a suburb of London! Watford is a proud town of its own. It’s a great trip though. As a longtime reader/lurker I’m taking your ‘Tranquility by Tuesday” rules seriously this year and have already booked several adventures that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise, so thank you.

    1. @Clairerm – I’m sure Watford is a wonderful place 🙂 Glad you are planning adventures – they do make life better.

  4. This sound like such a fun adventure for everyone! We don’t have a huge travel budget and much of it will go towards travelling to visit family in Asia and Europe – which is a great experience for everyone, but certainly a different type of travel than purely for leisure, at least with my extended family.
    I was wondering how you find the ideas for all the activities that you do on your trips, and how you plan and structure the days? It might make for a great episode on BOBW :). I would never had even thought to look for a guided spray art activity! I suppose London is chock full of these off the beaten path adventures.
    Also would love to hear how you manage and organize the packing? Between reading of your trip to London and SHU’s ski trip, I find myself thinking packing would also make a great BOBW episode!

    1. @Diane – we used a travel agent to figure out the more off-beat stuff. And yes, packing is a science all to itself. Especially for me, since I never check bags. Ever!

  5. I’m sure you had a wonderful adventure, and completely understand why your itinerary choices were worth it after flying all that way, but as a native Londoner, I have to admit my eyes were watering a little at the thought of the cost! I’m taking my son over from Europe for half term, mainly to see his sibling who is at University College London, and I have a week of activities planned for no more than the price of a travelcard. I’d like to assure your readers that London is accessible on all budgets 🙂

    1. @Susan – definitely accessible! The British museum is free for sure, as is looking at all the Christmas lights, or seeing the fireworks from near Buckingham Palace (we also caught the changing of the guard once…)

  6. I recommend Peru. We have been there several times with children, the first time when they were two and four. We were always moved to the front of the line at the airports in Peru and offered seats on public transport. Ancient Incan ruins interest all ages and everything is kid friendly. There are natural wonders too. My son commented today that his favorite trip was Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands but your kids should be decent swimmers first.

    1. @Susan – Peru is lovely – I went there solo many years ago, but my travel agent told me a lot of folks had to cancel their trips there this holiday with everything going on. Hopefully it all gets sorted out because it is a beautiful place to visit!
      It really is nice when places are kid friendly. In Paris, I loved that the Musee D’Orsay was (if I remember correctly) not only free for kids, I got a reduced fare ticket because I was with people under 18. How cool is that? And BA has a whole family check in area where an employee was handing out activity books for young travelers who might not want to wait in line. We didn’t need it with teens but so cool that they had that.

  7. This sounds like such a fun trip. You always inspire me with your long haul travel… I particularly thought your Paris break sounded like such an adventure, for not very many days. Something I would hesitate to do.

    Also, despite living in England my whole life, I haven’t done many of the things on your list! It sounds like you have made some excellent memories, even if it wasn’t idyllic in the moment itself (as I don’t think family travel ever can be!)

    1. @Katie – maybe it’s the American thing, but many times we don’t have more than a week available to travel. So we may as well go! Europe isn’t that far. I think it would be harder to get my head around Australia for a week, so I’m looking for a time when more like 2 weeks would be possible (knowing we won’t see all of it then…I didn’t see all of it when I lived there for 4 months!)

  8. This sounds like such a great trip! The Christmas Carol – in England – complete with caroling sounds uniquely magical.
    And both my kids would lose their minds with delight over being immersed in Harry Potter’s “world.”
    We went to see (as did you!) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway in NYC this summer and it was a 2023 highlight for the kids for sure!!

    1. @Elisabeth – yep, A Christmas Carol in London sounds like something that should be on my bucket list. It wasn’t, but maybe I can put it on there retrospectively (like seeing a Shakespeare play on one of his stages or something…)

  9. I enjoyed reading about your London adventures, Laura. It’s inspired me to put a few things on our ‘possible adventures’ list, as we live an hour from London.

    In case you might like to know, what you’ve referred to as ‘high tea’ was most likely ‘afternoon tea’. Americans tend to use the phrase ‘high tea’ in a different meaning from what’s traditional in the UK. I write about the differences between British and American English, and have a blog post on this one, again, in case anyone’s interested! https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2008/02/high-tea.html

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