If given a choice, beach vs another kind of adventure, another kind of adventure wins. Mostly because our family’s pale skin and red hair don’t love the sun but also because our shared genetics have determined a fair amount of inherited hyperactivity that makes sitting still on a beach uncomfortable. To me, relaxing on vacation is not the priority, discovering something new is.
By the end of our eight days in London, Red Head Number 1 was leading the way through Tube stations, reading signs, looking at routes, finding east and west bound trains, bolstered with new navigating skills. Red Head Number 2 had discovered Yesterday, Help, Michelle, Chopin and Bach and stories of Medieval adventures that halted him, tethered to headphones in a surprising, dark, cool place. Both climbed 528 steep steps at St.Paul’s, marveled at the view and the feeling of great peril that high up, they suffered through Evensong tying their shoelaces together so that when we were finally done with unexpected Mass and music, our exit was delayed because of the knots. They learned about bombs, beefeaters, bobbies, Buckingham, bunkers, 3pm beers and beheaded wives. They experimented with tea and found sugar cubes much more interesting. They shopped and changed their dollars to pounds and spent their money on things found and not found at home. They played football in Hyde Park, marveled at Stamford Bridge, the pitch and the jerseys of their idols, and left the country with new boots, decked out in Chelsea blue that drew comments all the way home.
We planned our eight days very strategically. The grown ups had all been to London at least once before and had lists of their “must dos”. We explored travel books for new things, finding many, and added those to our lists. Each day centered around one or two areas of the city to make walking and transportation easy and each day combined activities that alternated between active and more quiet. We had London Passes and Oyster Cards to ease entry into sites and to make each Tube ride seamless and we traveled with water, grapes and apples for quick energy snacks, not just for the boys. We stayed in a flat, that while not perfect in decluttered cleanliness, provided a small kitchen and perfect proximity to Hyde Park and Paddington Station and a grocery store. It was also a third of what a hotel would cost. We made sure the fellas (and all of us) got good sleep and wore good shoes.
During dinner each night, we captured each person’s favorite activity of the day. Looking at the long list now, there are some overlaps and some surprises. There are things we would skip and some that will be visited again on the next trip. As I write this three weeks later I am still marveling at my ten and six year old’s ability to keep up and be totally game for whatever adventure the day held. They have the family travel genes and while they don’t totally understand how big of a deal traveling overseas can be, they are still talking about London “things” and they seem to be talking now with a wider eyed perspective. That is why we travel, of course, near and far, to grow that wider perspective, the one that helps you understand that you are not the center of the universe but instead part of a wonderfully giant world, full of things to learn and discover.
The biggest thanks to my Mom who passed on the travel gene and her contagious enthusiasm to see the world. Thanks for making all our adventures possible.
My 12 tips for traveling overseas to a big city, with and without kids.
1. Know the map and bring one with you. City and transit. Study it before your go, plot your days accordingly and have a pocket map for out and about navigating. Read about the places you will visit in advance and talk them up to your kids. Be realistic about what you can cover in a day. Bring one or two small guide books. Rick Steves and Let’s Go are my favorites.
2. Don’t depend on technology, but know if the city has wifi. Use Yelp to find restaurants. I travel with an extra battery booster for my phone and I temporarily delete most apps to leave lots of room for pictures.
3. Mix quieter activities with active. Climb St Paul’s the same day as you hit the British Museum, for example.
4. Don’t underestimate what a child will find interesting. Talk about how subways operate, talk about history, appreciate what they think is cool. Don’t freak when they have reached their maximum amount of museum touring. Take a break and spend a morning at a park and let them run. We did not do anything that was specifically deemed a “kid friendly activity”. The whole city is kid friendly, in my book.
6. Break every couple hours and have a beer at 3pm. Bring apples and water. Breaking will buy you more hours of activity.
7. Designate a navigator who is responsible for getting you where you are going that day. This person also has a couple ideas ready for dinner. They control the maps. This is a hard job so alternate who does it, if possible.
8. If you have a strictly mac and cheese eater you should prep them ahead of time to expand their palate. Kids overseas eat what grown ups do.
8. Share the daily plan with everyone. Kids want to be in the know.
9. Buy a city pass (if you are in a big city) and mass transit pass on your first day. This saves tons of time and you don’t have to bring so much cash with you everyday. You pay for museum and tourist sites in advance. The London Pass is excellent. Most big cities have something similar.
10. Airplanes in the summer are full of kids, you will not be alone. There are plenty of movies on board and bring food that your kids will eat and food that you will eat. I also bring lots of water. My ten and six year olds were very happy watching movies and cat napping but this wasn’t their first airplane trip either, although their longest.
11. End each day assembling a list of the top favorites for that day. It is a great way to recap your vacation. I used the Notes in my phone to do this.
12. You will get lost, you will have trying days. Go with the flow, get good sleep and relax.