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Family travel in London and Paris

Published on: March 01, 2005

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 chariotdor@wanadoo.fr).
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

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