London is undoubtedly one of the world’s great cities. Not only has it been my wonderful home for over ten years, but it is a city that offers something for EVERYONE of all ages. During my time as an expat in London I have served as tour guide to friends and families of all ages, and as a “mum” of two kids. Hence I feel confident in sharing my expertise and recommendations with you. In fact, I have so many suggestions and tips for families and multi-generational groups that this post is just the first in a series of blogs about visiting London.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
London is busy 365 days a year and there is always something going on. However, if you have the flexibility to pick your time, the months of May to September are preferable. Not only is the weather better, but the days are so much longer that you will be able to do much more during your visit. London’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, particularly when it comes to rain. But the good news is that it rarely gets freezing cold or unbearably hot. While there are good days and bad days, London’s climate is quite moderate and mild.
WHERE TO STAY
London has endless options for visitors in terms of hotels and short stay rentals. My recommendation would be to pick your accommodation based on your budget and location. Prioritize the activities you want to do and sights you want to see and then pick a location in proximity to those attractions. I would also prioritize proximity to a tube, or London Underground, station for ease of transport around the city.
You will likely have numerous coffee shops and restaurants close by, so you probably don’t need to worry about restaurants located on site. However, depending on the ages of the children in your party, you may want to find a hotel that offers babysitting.
London has an extensive public transport system and also plentiful Ubers/taxis. While travelling around central London, I find that walking is often the fastest and easiest. A number of the most popular tourist spots are all very close, and it would be far faster to walk than to take the tube or a car.
The London Underground/Tube
When travelling longer distances, the tube is likely to be your best bet. Traffic in London is almost always bad, and most tourist destinations are relatively close to a tube stop, making it usually the most expedient choice. One of the more useful tips I picked up when I moved to London is that the iconic tube map is NOT TO SCALE. Within central London, this means in reality that many of the tube stations are much closer to each other than they appear. However, the reverse is also true. As you get further out from the center, the stops are much further apart than they appear on a tube map.
Getting around London with a stroller or wheelchair can be a challenge, particularly on the tube. Unlike some urban subway systems, most tube stations in London require you to use stairs. This can make operating a wheelchair impossible at many stations. It is a common sight to see parents carrying buggies up and down the stairs, but it is a hassle, particularly with larger strollers.
You can purchase an Oyster card (good for most public transport within London) before you visit or use a vending machine to buy one at any tube station. You can also buy Oyster cards at airports and major train stations. If you have a wireless-enabled debit/credit card, you could use this instead of an Oyster. (I stopped using Oyster cards and now just use my credit card as it is one less thing to carry.) However, each adult needs to have his own wireless-enabled debit/credit card if using this method. If you do not have separate cards, you will need to buy an Oyster card. You can read more about buying and using Oyster cards below.
London has an extensive bus network, full of the much-loved double decker red buses. Most of the fleet is modernized double deckers, but there are a few of the old retro Routemaster buses that run from Trafalagar Square to Tower Hill on Route 15 (this is a shortened segment of the route). There is room for strollers (or buggies as they are referred to in Britain) and wheelchairs on the buses. However, most drivers will only allow one or two strollers on a bus at a time, and if a wheelchair passenger boards, a stroller will be asked to leave. Most single strollers can enter through the main front door, but if you have a double buggy you may need to ask the driver to open the middle door.
It is important to note that you must have a “ticket” for the bus BEFORE you board. Drivers do not sell tickets nor do they accept cash. Each person can pay for his ticket with a credit or debit card if it is wireless-enabled (with the little wireless symbol on the back). Alternatively you can buy an Oyster card or paper ticket in advance. There are a number of ways to do this and it can be confusing, so I suggest reading the website from Transport for London for the latest information. As on the tube, you cannot use the same debit/credit card for more than one person. So if you are travelling as a family, you need to get either Oyster cards/tickets in advance for each person OR to have a different credit/debit card that is wireless enabled for each adult.
To pay for the bus, you touch your Oyster card or wireless-enabled credit/debit card to the yellow circle until the light turns green. Alternatively, if you are using a paper ticket, you hand that to the driver.
Taxis and Ubers
Taxis in London are great and readily available, but they are also extortionately expensive. The iconic black cabs are driven by extremely knowledgeable drivers. Wheelchairs and most strollers can be lifted right into the cab, making them extra attractive if you have a napping baby. However, if you are comfortable using Uber, you will find this to be a much more affordable option, and cars are available all over London.
GETTING TO LONDON
London has a number of airports. The two main airports are Heathrow and Gatwick. But there are also London City, Luton, and Stansted. In addition, some discount airlines fly to Southend. Heathrow and City are my preferred airports as they are the closest to Central London and the easiest to get to in my opinion. Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, and Southend are all considerable drives to Central London. (Gatwick can regularly take up to 2 hours depending upon the time of day.) All of the airports have easy links to Central London. The Heathrow Express is only 15-20 minutes to Paddington Station. An express train to or from Gatwick is usually 30-35 minutes from Victoria Station. Heathrow is also on the Piccadilly tube line. Depending upon your final destination, the tube can actually be faster (and far cheaper) than the Heathrow Express. However, the Heathrow Express is a more luxurious experience. A traditional taxi from the airports to London is an expensive proposition. It is far better to book a private car service (such as Addison Lee) or to use Uber.
The currency for London and the rest of the United Kingdom is the British pound. There are ATMs (or cash points as they are often called in England) on almost every corner in London. I find ATMs the most efficient and low cost way to get cash if you are a visitor. The currency exchange rates are much more competitive through an ATM than you will find at currency exchange windows. In the UK banks cannot charge for using their ATM even if you are not a customer (unlike most US banks that will charge a fee). If you make a large withdrawal the ATM choice will usually be more cost effective than the poor exchange rates offered by the currency exchange windows/shops. Make sure that you have your PIN before you leave, and you may want to check with your bank prior to leaving on an international trip to ensure you won’t have problems.
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in most stores and restaurants, as well as taxis. Fans of American Express will notice that it is less widely accepted than in the states, especially at smaller shops. If your credit or debit card does not have a chip and PIN, you will need to swipe the card and sign the paper slip.
Tipping in the UK is different from America. Many restaurants put the tip (or service charge) directly on the bill. They may do this AND leave a line to add an extra tip. So be sure to check your receipt before adding additional gratuity. 10-15% of the bill is the standard tip. For taxis, I would typically round up the fare to the nearest pound or add maybe £1 to the fare.
Be sure to subscribe to the blog for my future posts on London that detail the best restaurants for families! You can find my recommendations for the Top 10 Things to Do in London with Families here.