Disclaimer: Large Family…Will Travel is sharing its experience using various services and programs, but this post isn’t sponsored by any of the companies mentioned.
When people hear London, the famous city conjures up many different images because its past and present are rich with cultural context. Some immediately think of the royal family with all its fanfare rooted in centuries of empire-building history. Others view it as an epicenter of literary greatness associated with the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Virginia Wolf. Still most immediately think of the iconic structures of Big Ben, London Bridge or Westminster Abbey. No matter what reason draws the millions of sightseers every year, London has plenty to keep your family exploring for days.
As is our custom, let’s get started with a little budget planning…
- Lodging – Since our kids are busy with sports activities throughout most of the summer, the high tourist season of August was the only time we could travel. Thus, it was difficult to find the ideal rental that met our target daily rate of $250.
- Transportation – When staying in London, you can rely on their excellent public transit system with reasonable fares. Purchasing a daily transit pass like the Oyster card enables you to prepay for access to bus or subway making the experience even more seamless.
- Meals -We heard numerous negative comments about the food in London before heading out there, but we found a host of tasty options. There are plenty of outdoor food markets, small mom and pop restaurants and other spots where the dining is really good. Due to the conversion rate on the pound at the time, we had to be mindful of where we ate.
- Excursions – London is full of attractions that will easily eat up your funds if not careful. You’ll want to plan ahead and consider purchasing discounted tickets a week or more ahead in order to save on costs.
- Misc. Expenses – There is no limit to the amount of souvenirs your kids will want to purchase so devise an allowance plan to avoid having to say no all the time. Or better yet, have your kids save up their cash prior to vacation through chores so they bankroll some of their fun on their own.
Day 1 – Eating Well & Taking The Birds Eye View in London
London was the first stop in our 2 week Europe vacation. We landed at Heathrow airport in the morning after an 8 hour flight. The journey matched with the 5 hour time change obviously shown through our energy levels as we waded through customs, waited for luggage and grabbed a train downtown. Next was a taxi to take us to our AirBnB near the Notting Hill neighborhood.
We stayed in a 6 story multi-family apartment complex. The accommodations were nothing fancy, but it was clean and had all the standard amenities. Our rental wasn’t near the city center; however, there was a bus stop right in front of the complex making it easy to get around.
After settling in for a few moments, we ventured out a little bleary eyed to take advantage of our first day. It was getting close to lunch time so we wandered over to Piccadilly market. This was a great first introduction to the city as I love street food and their’s certainly did not disappoint. The quarter mile line of vendors introduced us to a worldwide selection of cuisine at reasonable prices.
Next, we hopped on a bus to downtown to walk around with no set agenda. History resonates from every building from Big Ben to the Tower of London to Buckingham Palace and so on. Then, you encounter more modern installations like the London Eye and its surrounding venues dotting the landscape. We all decided to brave the Eye to take in a spectacular view of the city. Albeit an expensive tourist attraction, the opportunity to see London from these heights are unforgettable.
Day 2 – Rolling Down The River
The next day was aimed at getting full use of our London Pass. These passes offer access to many of the top attractions throughout the city making entry more seamless and in some cases quicker. We jumped on a tour boat on the River Thames giving us unique views of the iconic landmarks,. Taking a boat or sightseeing bus towards the beginning of a trip helps you get a good overview of the area to help confirm your itinerary for the rest of the journey.
We hopped off the boat tour’s second stop to check out the Tower of London. While not as popular as Buckingham Palace, this royal site dates back more than 900 hundred years which served as a fort, royal residence and infamous prison. The Crown Jewels is a main exhibit there, but long lines may await you during busy summer months so plan accordingly.
The rest of the itinerary was searching for great photography spots for my son as well as hitting some other places that our Pass allowed us to access. This served to be difficult as the hours of operation for many venues is shorter than the traditional 9am-5pm window so we ended up getting to a few venues too late. So alas, we did not get the full value out of our pass as I had hoped.
Day 3 – Visiting London’s Furry Friends & Royalty
The London Zoo and Buckingham Palace were our main attractions for day 3. The Zoo is a great place to spend a couple hours. It has all the usual exhibits you’d expect, but the up close and personal Lemur exhibit was the most fun for the kids!
Between July to September, Buckingham Palace is open to the public while the Royals spend their vacation elsewhere such as Balmoral Castle in Scotland. One is struck by the enormity of the grounds to start which only helps prepare visitors for what they are about to experience inside. There are 19 state rooms you can tour with a pre-programmed digital player. The audio provides nice context to everything you see in the rooms and allows you to go at your own pace. At some point, I got separated from everyone, but the path all leads to the back of the palace which a wonder in itself.
The Buckingham Gardens serves as a large outdoor gathering space in the warm months. As you walk off the grounds, the path leads you through a winding path of beautiful foliage, whimsical trees and ponds.
Day 4 – A Tour Through The English Countryside
While London possesses numerous activities to keep your family busy for days, there is some much to explore only a couple hours outside the city. So we booked a full day bus tour that included visits to Windsor Castle, Stonehendge, Bath and Lacock. To be clear, I usually prefer to chart our own path at our own pace. However, with the cost of transportation, access to sites and in many cases at least one meal included, this can make full day tours a solid investment compared to creating the exact same itinerary yourself.
The next stop was the beautiful city of Bath. The day had started out overcast, but towards the end of our Windsor tour the sun began to shine. This helped us enjoy a breathtaking trip to the town of Bath weaving through hilly, winding roads that came straight out of a storybook. Bath itself is worth an entire day with its ancient landmarks, scenic parks and all round peaceful atmosphere.
It’s name derives from the Roman-built baths that were constructed centuries ago to harness the natural hot springs from the area. To tour the bath house was extra, so we decided to just walk around the city. It is a beautiful landscape with views of the hillside and park area to just lounge for hours. Unfortunately, we only had about an hour and 30 minutes so we soaked in as much as possible.
The third stop was in the small town of Lacock. It’s a small, sleepy town where we stopped for lunch. Thankfully, we had a few minutes to explore the town whose tight rows of long-lived in homes takes you back what life was like a couple centuries ago.
The final stop was Stonehenge. An iconic world heritage site that is synonymous with the United Kingdom. The beauty of the area is partly found in the fact that its not perched atop some large mountain or tucked away in an enchanted forest. The large stone structure is simply in the middle of a grassy field.
The path circles around it where you again have the opportunity to do your own self-guided tour. The audio guide with illustrations adds valuable context regarding the ancient beginnings of Stonehenge. Some might wonder what the big deal is about this place. It can be hard to describe, but I believe it is the mix of history, people watching and the peaceful landscape that makes this a must see.
A Little Tip On Sightseeing Passes
Prior to our trip, I had our kids research what main attractions they’d like to visit. After gathering their top picks, the first search brought up sightseeing passes for almost all our destinations. These popular offerings provide access to hundreds of well- and lesser known venues as well as hop-on, hop-off bus services.
I purchased the London Pass on our first day in order to best map out attraction options. Going with the two day pass offered the best chance of getting full value for our $550+ expense!
We were off to a good start with a cruise down the River Thames giving us great views of iconic landmarks. Next, was a fun, self-guided tour of the Tower of London.
Everything was running smooth with 2 attractions down and only 4 more left to recoup our investment! However, it all went down hill from there. Due to the day and timing, we missed the open hours for two other venues. Then, an unscheduled diversion to some clothing shops completely derailed our plans making the rest of the day a bust. We made ground on day 2 visiting 3 more sites, but ultimately fell short of our goal by one.
While the experience was far from a bust, here are some tips to ensure you get the full value out of your sightseeing pass:
- Map out your schedule before purchasing a pass – Our ambition to see as many sites as possible doesn’t often match the reality of time. Plan on visiting no more than 3-4 venues per day.
- Confirm venue’s open hours – Nothing stings like the feeling of seeing the “Closed Today” sign on the site you dreamed of visiting for years. (Cue flashback of me with a huge, locked gate standing between me and the Sistine Chapel.) Opening hours vary especially during high and low peak tourist seasons so monitor closely.
- Compare purchasing tickets direct versus a pass – Sightseeing passes don’t offer much more than 10% off purchasing direct. But carrying one universal ticket to entry as well as some skip-the-line benefits make the pass an attractive option. However, if you don’t visit at least 3-4 venues a day with the pass then purchasing tickets direct is a better choice.
Ideas For Taming Your London Travel Budget
- Lodging – There are a slew of options that could have kept us at the $250 target, but we heeded a colleague’s suggestions around location in order to have easier access to main attractions. So we stayed in basic accommodations near Notting Hill which in August will cost you extra.
- Transportation – We were able to take public bus transit to most destinations and walk the remainder of the way. We used Uber for our trip to the London Zoo, but other than that public wheels and our own two feet did the trick.
- Meals – We found a local grocery store purchasing a few breakfast items which saved on costs. In addition to skipping breakfast due to jet lag recovery, hitting up the outdoor food markets a couple times for lunch helped us stay in budget range.
- Excursions – This is where London and its unlimited amount of attractions gets dangerous. You can easily spend $30-$40 per person on one activity like the London eye which is only about 30-60 minutes if you include the wait time in line. This is where credit card reward points came to our rescue. Check out this post for ideas on how to make reward programs your best friend.
- Misc. Expenses – While we only needed a few toiletries for our rental, the biggest danger was the draw of souvenir shops at every corner. We planned ahead and made our kids earn money to spend thus keeping it from hitting the main travel budget.
London and its beautiful countryside had more than enough to fill up 4 days of our trip. Plan carefully and you’ll be enjoying the UK with your family without braking the bank!