How to travel internationally with kids by yourself

Colorful and illustration-laden books are a great way to keep young ones occupied. Photo Credit: Rosemary Misdary

One reporter’s trip to London sheds light on dos and don’ts.

<br /> Colorful and illustration-laden books are a great way to keep young ones occupied.” class=”wp-image-137297907″/><figcaption><br /> Colorful and illustration-laden books are a great way to keep young ones occupied. Photo Credit: David Handschuh</figcaption></figure>
				<p>After a midnight direct flight from JFK, I landed the next morning in London Gatwick Airport with two dazed kids and a long weekend ahead.</p>
				<p>Traveling solo with kids sounds worse on paper, but London is easier to navigate than New York City. The flight time was about the same as Los Angeles, and getting through immigration and customs was fast.</p>
				<p>After a 30-minute ride on the airport express train, we arrived at our hotel. Too early to check in, we dropped off our bags. Then proceeded directly along Baker Street to the home of the notorious and eccentric English sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. The rickety row house is awkwardly packed with Victorian bric-a-brac and Madame Tussaud’s wax figures of story characters. My sons were intrigued by the “irregulars,” a gang of street children that were informants for Sherlock Holmes.</p>
				<p>The curio shop on the ground floor is a Victorian time warp. We left with new tweed detective caps, carrying the entire collection of stories in serious-looking hardcovers and a thumb-sized music box that cranked out the tune to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”</p>
		<figure class=Don't discount live theater as an engaging activity.
Don’t discount live theater as an engaging activity. Photo Credit: Rosemary Misdary

We spent the rest of the day reading mysteries in white hotel bathrobes until we got hungry.

A narrow side street adjacent to our hotel led us to a dark wood-framed pub. Children are usually allowed in until 9 p.m. or if the place is slow. It’s solid English fare that’s often cheaper than a restaurant. I savored my first pint of the trip as the children watched a football match on the big screen and ate fish and chips.

Skipping dessert, we walked to Buckingham Palace and hung on its wrought iron gates watching the royal guards as rigid as colorful toy soldiers. The kids asked questions about the royal family until bedtime.

Our first full day began at the Tower of London, home of the crown jewels, a jaw-dropping collection of crowns and tiaras, studded scepters of varying lengths, ornate orbs, solid gold punch bowls big enough to bathe in.

The real gems at the Tower of London are the black-hatted guards with red crowns on their chests. They are Yeoman Warders, commonly called Beefeaters. They are the guards, keepers, residents and tour guides at the Tower. In their former lives, they were highly decorated British soldiers.

Guided tours -- especialy ones in which the guides are costumed -- are a great way capture young imaginations.
Guided tours — especialy ones in which the guides are costumed — are a great way capture young imaginations. Photo Credit: Rosemary Misdary

Now, they are shouting storytellers. They tell bad English jokes and recite “The Fifth of November” with sardonic wit. They like to talk about torture and know a lot about it. They namedrop celebrity prisoners recounting which ones were executed and how. They don’t answer questions about ghosts.

They complained that the six Tower ravens have better healthcare. Four beefeaters are dedicated to their care. Superstitious Brits have longed believed that if the ravens ever left the Tower of London, Great Britain would fall. All the ravens have had their wings clipped just in case.

At the Tower gift shops, we spun the carousels full of postcards and bought international stamps. The kids wrote silly notes and signed their names to postcards to their grandparents and one addressed to themselves. When they finished, they raced down the cobblestone path to the scarlet Royal Mail box.

Nearby, the castle-like Tower Bridge led us to the livelier side of the Thames. We sauntered past mimes, dancers, people posing as still as statues, musicians, circus acts, skateboarders and stall after stall of diverse London food – Scotch eggs, kibbeh, roti, Moroccan ice cream.

Under the Waterloo Bridge, my sons browsed used books and discovered “Beano,” the longest running British comic strip. Dennis the Menace is an original member of its bad boy cast of characters.

Late for the matinee at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, we still got standing room ticket for five pounds ($6 USD).

The theater is an accurate reconstruction of the playhouse built by Shakespeare and his company over 400 years ago. It’s located a couple of hundred meters from the original theater that burned down.

The Globe reinterprets Shakespeare while embracing its bawdy common roots. The costumes often look cobbled together hastily by Elizabethean paupers and clowns. They encourage the crowd to be noisy and rowdy. They improvise on stage like stopping a duel to let a pigeon pass.

My sons joined the children who jostled to the front, climbed the wall below the elevated stage and rested their arms securely along the top of the stage for the most intimate view. They lasted for most of the second act.

We recrossed the Thames over Westminster Bridge, and passed Parliament, Big Ben encrusted in scaffolding, Westminster Abbey, the prime minister’s home at 10 Downing Street, the War Rooms and the National Mall; pointing them out along the way home to our hotel. We ended the night playing on the colossal wooden pirate ship at the Diana Memorial Playground, built for the late Princess of Wales on the grounds of her home, Kensington Palace.

The stubborn rain of the final day made it perfect for seeing one of the many free museums of the city. There are children’s programs like a scavenger hunt for famous British faces at the National Portrait Gallery or tours at the Victoria & Albert Museum given by actors impersonating Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their dog Dash.

On our departure day, we had time for one last adventure before our flight home to New York City. After checking out, we left our bags at the hotel, raced to the British Museum and found the Rosetta Stone.

On the way back, we spent all our coins at Cavendish Candy shop. Gnawing on licorice while boarding the airport express train, my sons asked: where are we going next.

5 London Travel Tips from the kids:

  1. Ride the public transportation. The red double decker buses and the London Underground, also known as the “Tube,” are fast and go everywhere and kids under 11 ride free. Buy an Oyster Card at the airport, and use it on nearly all public transportation including the airport express.
  2. It rains every day, but you don’t need an umbrella. The rain usually doesn’t last longer than a cup of tea.
  3. Play mini golf at Greenwich Peninsula or skateboard at Southbank Skateboard Space.
  4. Always bring stuff to do while waiting, like art supplies and paper.
  5. Take your favorite teddy bear along.

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