Different agendas lead to offbeat adventures
Panicked screams echoed through the famous 8-foot-high hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace outside London. My husband and I stood frozen at the center of the maze, horrified to recognize the screaming voice of Sawyer, our then-6-year-old. He was hurt, somewhere in the maze -- alone? Or was 9-year-old Hunter with him? We started running down the pathways, hitting blind alleys, retracing our steps, lugging 3-year-old Lillie between us. "Sawyer! Sawyer!" we cried, but he didn't answer. A pack of British school kids raced past us, doubled back, pushed past again. I lost my head completely. "Find him, find him!" I shrieked at my husband as Sawyer's sobs reverberated through the grounds of Henry VIII's favorite palace.
Family travel. Adventuresome even on the small scale, the ante goes up when we take our kids abroad. Is it worthwhile? Yes. Affordable? Yes again, with luck and research. But traveling to Europe with the gang is very different from traveling alone or as a couple. Family travel means (gulp) swallowing some parental goals, digesting the unexpected and taking a travel bite that the whole family can chew.
My husband and I have taken our three children (now 7, 10 and 13) to England twice. On our most recent trip, we also took the EuroStar train to Paris for several days. The first trip was smoothly packed with adventures straight from the guidebook, mostly planned by me. On the second trip, traveling with older kids and teenagers meant a trickier balancing act of wishes and goals. This proved to be an opportunity, a treasure hunt even. And like many treasure hunts, we found serendipity along the way.
Hunter wanted European CDs and some clothing. Sawyer was hot on the trail of any LEGO not yet available in the States. Lillie sought doll accessories and travel souvenirs. My husband wanted books of World War I poetry, and I popped into every chemist (drugstore) we passed in search of cool foreign toothpaste. Our searches led us on less touristy routes even as we visited museums and monuments. We roamed department stores like John Lewis, Peter Jones, Harrods and Marks & Spencer in London and La Samaritaine and used clothing stores in Parisian basements -- when traveling, even an errand can be exotic.
We also traveled on the cheap. Here's how:
Air travel: British Air flies daily nonstop from SeaTac to Heathrow, and offers email service detailing special offers. I purchased special-offer tickets for $300 each round trip. Airport fees added another $100 to each ticket, bringing our airfare expense to $2,000 round trip. Not bad for five tickets to London.
One parent carried all passports through boarding, flight, de-boarding and customs. For security, we used a locking carabiner from REI to clip our heap of carry-on bags together while waiting to board plane or train.
Lodging: Flat rental in London allowed us more room than a hotel for less money, and we saved on meals since we cooked our own. Our first flat (arranged through Home-From-Home) had a spectacular view of the Tower Bridge -- and a bone-chillingly windy walk across that bridge lugging groceries from the nearest Sainsbury. Our second flat (more crowded, not picturesque, but less expensive) was arranged through Easy London Accommodation. Except for the mysterious smell of sewer gas that filled the flat when we ran the kitchen sink water (bad drains, we think), I felt that the budgetary savings were a coup. Others (those not footing the bill) were critical.
In Paris, we stayed at Hotel Bellevue et du Chariot d'Or (no website, email email@example.com). Located in the Marais district of central Paris, the hotel is affordable, long on atmosphere and one block from the home of the real Nicholas Flamel (a plus for Harry Potter fans). Unlike modern Parisian hotels, ours had bidet -- a true novelty. We had to rent two rooms instead of crowding into one as we do when traveling in the States: In Paris, we learned, it simply isn't done.
Meals: In London, we had breakfast and dinner at the flat and bought lunch in sandwich shops (the Pret A Manger chain is everywhere); another bargain lunch choice is the corner pub. We found that Parisian cafes were outrageously overpriced for breakfast; next time we'll ask directions to a bakery. For lunch, Monoprix grocery stores in Paris carry fabulous sandwiches (for the equivalent of about $3 each) and take-away glasses of wine for the grownups, and many corner bistros sell a lunch plate for $6. My 10-year-old swears the quiche he ate while huddled at an outdoor table in front of one of these bistros was the best meal of his entire life.
Daily travel: Foreign visitors to London can order weekly travel passes for unlimited travel by tube (subway) and bus. The less-expensive Zone 1-2 pass was adequate for us, but families planning daytrips outside London should purchase the Zone 1-7 pass. We found it helpful for a parent to take charge of all travel passes, handing them out and immediately collecting them after each use. A similar pass is available in Paris at the Gare Du Nord train station, where the EuroStar arrives.
Low-cost fun: We attended a Sunday service (free) at Westminster Abbey. On Sundays, you can avoid the tourist hordes since only those attending services are allowed in. You won't get to explore the Abbey (to do that, visit Monday through Saturday and buy a family ticket), but you do get to sit in the middle of the church during services, the same place where royal observers sit during coronations and royal weddings.
We hit London's blocks-long Portobello Road street market twice because Hunter, 13, enjoyed it so much. The market -- located in the equally interesting Notting Hill neighborhood -- is a real spectacle, hugely crowded and very dynamic. London's terrific Diana, Princess of Wales' Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens is also free and full of unusual opportunities for play, such as a gigantic wooden pirate ship and interactive musical features.
Lillie enjoyed numerous rides on the carousels, some double-decker, that we found everywhere in Paris. These are not listed in guidebooks, but seem to be close to major tourist attractions. We found a carousel in Les Halles, central Paris' old marketplace, plus one right by the Eiffel Tower and one across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
Every few days we took one of the fascinating walking tours offered by Original London Walks. These are free to kids; discounts are available to adults. The tours last about two hours, start from various tube entrances and go places no guidebook even hints at: We visited a hall where Queen Elizabeth I practiced for her coronation and a narrow alley with a window covered with anti-child-burglar bars such as those mentioned in Oliver Twist. (The bars were designed to keep kids from being lowered into a house to open the front door and allow robbers in.)
Family travel abroad is adventure in even its smallest details. Why take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower when you can climb the stairs? Why pay for a London taxi when you can ride on the top of a double-decker bus?
And what about our May 2001 parental nightmare at Hampton Court, which is now a family legend? When we finally stumbled out, we found the boys together on the grass. Having run ahead of us, they'd quickly located the exit, but as Sawyer pushed through the turnstile it caught his heel -- thus the screams. We did visit the Hampton Court maze again on our most recent trip. But this time, I stayed outside.
Paula Becker and her travel posse live in Seattle.
Family travel tips for London and Paris:
- Prepare kids with travel videos and books. Knowing that King's Cross Station is the departure point for the Hogwarts Express enriches the London experience. In Paris, we found the bridge over the Seine where Madeline "slipped and fell," frightening poor Miss Clavel.
- Roll with the punches. When we arrived to discover the catacombs in Paris were inexplicably closed, we regrouped over butter-and-sugar-drenched crepes from a street vendor, then walked a block to explore Montparnasse cemetery.
- Notice and embrace cultural differences. We told the kids that shopkeepers in Paris expect to be greeted with "Bonjour, Madam," although most shopkeepers readily switched to English after the first "Bonjour." They show the merchandise; you don't paw through it. We also rehearsed politeness and a few basic French phrases.
- We all kept travel journals illustrated with postcards, menus, travel passes, etc. The journals (besides placating teachers for missed school time) are a priceless and very personal souvenir.
- For one-stop research for London attractions, visit where-can-i-find.com. Rick Steves Travel, located in Edmonds, is also a good source for travel research and information.
- To find lodging, type "London flat rental" or "Paris apartment" into any search engine, which will give you many options.
- Many United States banks have an affinity relationship with banks abroad. We saved a bundle by using Bank of America's affinity banks' cash machines for local currency withdrawals with no service fee.
Great family travel guidebooks:
Cheap Sleeps In London by Sandra Gustafson
Great Sleeps Paris by Sandra Gustafson
Take Your Kids To Europe by Cynthia Harriman
Evening Standard Children's London by Lydia Conway
Book Lovers' London by Lesley Reader and Lesley Gilmour
The London Market Guide by Andrew Kershman
Paris For Families by Larry Lain
French or Foe? by Polly Platt
Savoir Flair! by Polly Platt