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"Frommer's ... With Your Family" author Rhonda Carrier joins host Kelly Regan and guest host Mark Henshall to discuss the best ways to navigate London with children. Carrier shares advice on affordable and enjoyable activities for kids, and gives the scoop on London's ongoing transformation into a truly child-friendly capital city.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Transportation: Avoid the tube (subways). Save money on other things and use that money on taxis.
  • Where to base: Think ahead about where's best to stay based on where you're going to be arriving in London.
  • Accomodations: Rent a centrally located, basic and clean self-catering apartment.
  • Saving Money: Visit one of the many free attractions (Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Museum of London, Victoria & Albert Museum, National Gallery). Prepare your own food rather than going out to eat.
  • What to see: London Zoo, London Transport Museum, Museum of Childhood.
  • The Kids: Don't force history and culture on them, tailor activities towards their interests to really excite them and draw them into the destination.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Kelly Regan: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.

Hi, and welcome to the Frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.

I'm joined today by my Frommer's colleague in the UK, Mark Henshall, who'll be doing a few podcasts of his own in the coming months. Mark, thanks for joining me today, and for lending your expertise.
Mark Hensall: Well, I'm glad to be here. Thanks very much, Kelly.
Kelly: OK, great. Mark and I are here today to chat with Rhonda Carrier, who writes several family travel guides for Frommer's. She's the author of our "London with Kids" book, and two newly released guides, one called "Normandy with Your Family," and the other called "Brittany with Your Family." Rhonda's going to focus today on London, and so we'll be talking to her about some tips for saving money, and for how to keep the kids entertained while on a visit to England's capital city.

Rhonda, welcome. Thanks for being here with us.
Rhonda Carrier: Hi Kelly, hi Mark. Thanks for having me.
Mark: Hi, Rhonda. Thanks for being with us today. One thing that Londoners complain about is the traffic in London, and the crowds and noise. How did you find it to get around London when you were researching this book?
Rhonda: When I was first researching this book, and now that I'm doing the update for the second guide, I have to say it doesn't get any better to travel around London.

[laughter]
Rhonda: There's absolutely no hiding that fact. On the other hand, people who love London, people who live there, people who visit there, it's one of the world's great cities. So there are ways of getting around it. We've got one of the oldest underground systems in the world. That is terrible if you're trying to get around, especially if you're trying to get around with a stroller, that is a problem. And I must admit that I avoided that like the plague when I was living in London when I was researching the guide.

[laughter]
Rhonda: That might get better with the Olympics in 2012, there's supposed to be a big investment that's going to happen in transport. There's talk about pedestrianizing the whole of Oxford Street and adding trams from end to end, and I think trams are possibly the way to go. We have those in Manchester where I live now, and that's great. More pedestrian zones.

In the meantime, though, what is the solution? I must admit, when we go to London now as visitors, we tend to try and save money on other things so that we can get taxis, because the fares are so high in central London. It can cost four pounds to get a single ticket on the tube in central London.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Rhonda: If you're not getting a travel card, if you're not making several journeys, then the difference between that and a taxi... Save yourself the stress, get in a taxi with your stroller. You don't even have to collapse it. So that's great.
Mark: Is there anywhere you'd suggest basing yourself in London when you go, to make things easier if you're a family and you're traveling around? Or a best time to get in and out of central London, or times to avoid?
Rhonda: I think it's a very good idea to think ahead, and think where you're going to be arriving and perhaps where's best to stay based on where you're going to be arriving in London. If you come into Heathrow, for instance, you can avoid the tube, you can avoid buses. You can get a good fast train directly into Paddington Station from Heathrow, called the Heathrow Express.

Paddington has long been a very good area for budget and family accommodations, so you're instantly cutting out much of the stress of getting into central London. But you're still within walking distance of the center from Paddington: Hyde Park, all that kind of thing. That's one area that I'd really consider.

Or if you're coming from the continent, the EuroStar terminals have moved now to Saint Pancras, and you're there just a minute's walk away from an area called Bloomsbury, where there's...
Kelly: Right.
Rhonda: ...a lot of family-friendly B and Bs as well. So it's worth considering in advance what you're going to be exploring, and where you're going to be arriving.
Kelly: And like Paddington, Bloomsbury is still quite central, so it would be easy to get around to a lot of the major sites at the center of town.
Rhonda: Absolutely. In fact, Bloomsbury's now a fantastic area, because one of the old 1960s housing spaces has been completely regenerated, and is now full of family-friendly restaurants, cafes and things like that. It's got one of the best children's playgrounds in the city, called Coram Fields. So that's the same, you can base yourself there. You're within possibly ten minutes' walk from Oxford Street. It's a great area to base yourself in.
Kelly: Oh, that's fantastic. Rhonda, you alluded to this a little bit earlier, when you were talking about the tube fare. But London is an expensive city. It's an expensive city for all visitors, but for US visitors especially. We all know the pound is quite weak against the dollar right now, so it makes it a little bit more expensive. The pound is strong against the dollar, is actually what I meant to say.

[laughter]
Kelly: We wish that it was weak against the dollar, but sadly it's not. Did you pick up any money-saving tips along the way, what you think would be really important ways in which you could maximize the money you're spending in London?
Rhonda: Oh yeah, very definitely. I mean, I was totally broke after I had the kids, and I was living in London, so I became an expert in the whole field of living in London on a budget.

[laughter]
Rhonda: But I don't think that people actually realize, if you flip through the "London with Kids" guide, I think you'd be quite surprised by how many things are actually totally free in London.
Kelly: Oh.
Rhonda: All the national museums, which includes the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery, the Museum of London -- all of those don't cost a penny to go inside. There might be a charge for a special exhibition but, in fact, you can go there totally free. In the school holidays or weekends they run children's activities, workshops, things like that.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Rhonda: Which are generally free as well or very cheap, maybe two pounds, something like that. And most of them also have very well kitted out for families, they have picnic spaces, so you can save money by taking along your own food, you don't have to worry about eating out.

And so all of those, I mean you could spend a whole at any one of those, and the Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, you could spend a day in those easily, and not spend any money.
Mark: How about new attractions in London, which ones do you think are the ones that visitors shouldn't miss?
Rhonda: Well the big opening this year is that at London Zoo they've got a new 5 million gorilla kingdom, which is great, people are fighting to get in there and see that.
Kelly: [laughter]
Rhonda: It's to help the gorilla's breed apparently. And they've build them a special island with a moat and a workout room and paddling pool.
Kelly: So is there like a gorilla treadmill that they all kind of get on and jog?
Rhonda: I know, the mind boggles. I'm sure they just much prefer to go and sleep in the corner still. And they've made a new rain forest look out as well, where you can go and see South American animals -- sloths, iguanas, monkeys -- and they are going to be having activity workshops for kids there. So that's a major new attraction.

And then probably the other two really big things this year are things which are reopening but have been completely transformed over years. The London Transport Museum, which is opening again in a few months, has been closed for two years, so that's the kind of extent of how much they're transforming it.
Kelly: Wow!
Rhonda: They have a brand new family learning zone, lots of interactive things where you can sort of revisit all those wonderful experiences that you've had on London's transport system.
Kelly: [laughter]
Rhonda: They tend to be a tube train drive, that is a simulated train you can drive, and lots of interactive stuff there, so that's a fantastic day out.
Mark: You do say in your book not to underestimate the power of the simple or the every day, so it can be quite fun just to get on a double-decker bus with a toddler. That's a big experience for them.
Rhonda: Yes, absolutely. I think kids love the sort of just quite mundane things, but once they sort of understand the history behind or whatever then it's... Yeah, the simple things can often be the most effective.

And there is also the Museum of Childhood, which outside the center in Bushnell Green but definitely worth going to. That's reopened after a huge transformation as well; it's got masses of toys and games, not just to look at but to play with, lots of workshops and events.

I think we're really blessed in London with museums that are really sort of striving now to make themselves more accessible to families. Not just places like the museum of childhood, which you'd expect to cater to children, but absolutely everywhere. There has been a huge kind of surge in family activities.

There's a campaign going on called "Kids and Museums" which you might have heard about Mark, it's led by a journalist called B. Burkett.
Mark: Yeah.
Rhonda: And I think they're really shaking themselves up and trying to offer more for families, and try to think of ways to get children really involved.
Mark: That's interesting, because I mean cities are often thought of as really family hostile, where if you've got a family that they are not the greatest places to be. And a lot of people when they have families move out of London.

But within your book it really comes across that it's a fascinating city, and there's lots to inspire kids and fascinate them on your journey around London.
Rhonda: Yes, absolutely. And so many things for the updated edition of the "London with kids guide" There's just so many places I found have become even more family friendly in the last two years.

The Tate Britain has got a new family wing to get kids interested in modern art, you can get activity packs and games and things. And the British Museum has added the Ford Center for young visitors, which has got a program of family events.

So everywhere it's really sort of like an explosion in family activities and ways to get families into museums. And like I say, most of it's for free as well.
Kelly: Right, right. Well you know Rhonda on the flip side of that, while you were researching the book where there any attractions or places that you found especially overrated or disappointing for families, things people might have heard about, but that when you experienced it you were like "Hmm, not so much"
Rhonda: It's difficult, isn't it? Because I come to it from the perspective of somebody who's lived in London and is British, perhaps things involving the Royal Family, Changing of the Guard and things like that.
Kelly: [laughter] Right.
Rhonda: Things that maybe wouldn't interest me so much as they would... But you know it's largely a matter of taste I suppose.
Mark: I mean, did you ever find the balance between you and your children tricky, was there anything that you really loved but your kids hated, or that your kids found enjoyable and you didn't or did? Was it ever kind of an issue trying to find a casual attraction for everyone in the party?
Rhonda: I suppose... My kids are still pretty young, like four and three, so I've always just got into the mindset of thinking that whatever makes them happy makes us happy, so we go along pretty much with what they want to do, and don't have great cultural expectations of a day out.

But I have been very pleasantly surprised, even when my son was... Well one was a baby and the other one must have been younger than three, but I dragged them into the Tate Britain one day thinking he'd be screaming for mercy, and he loved it, it was very easy to find things to sort of interest him and make him laugh, he liked some of the surrealist pieces.
Kelly: Wow!
Rhonda: I was pleasantly surprised. I was able to sort of wander around for a good hour and he found lots to remark at.
Kelly: That's great.
Rhonda: So, I was quite happy in terms of that. I think what I don't like -- I find the London Aquarium overrated, the present one, because there's going to be a fantastic new one in a few years.
Kelly: Oh, really?
Rhonda: But the one at the moment... And the mistake that we made was to go on the London Eye, and then to go to the aquarium one day. And then every time we go to the London Eye now, it's like, "Can we go to the aquarium?" My oldest son wants to be a marine biologist.
Kelly: [laughs]
Rhonda: So, we always get dragged in there, and I find it overrated and overpriced.
Kelly: Right.
Rhonda: And I've possibly seen the super-sensing animatronics dinosaur at the Natural History Museum a few too many times now.
Kelly: [laughs] Right, right.
Rhonda: [laughs] It's lost its charm for me, but not yet for the kids. But as a parent, you have to go through the pain barrier sometimes.
Kelly: Sure. You actually touched on kind of an interesting point, which is part of traveling with your kids -- and I've talked to other Frommer's authors about this -- but part of traveling with your kids is really understanding what their interests are, and trying to tailor the activities to their interests, to engage them a little bit.

So, it's not so much about shoving history or culture down their throat, but about trying to draw them into the destination in a way that's going to excite them.
Rhonda: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I know that my children are too young at the moment for things like the Tower of London. We stayed near the tower of London recently, we could see it from out hotel and they were very sort of, "Wow, look at that great castle!"

But I'm thinking, "Shall we go inside or shall we not?" It's quite expensive, let's leave it for when they can properly appreciate it. At the moment, like I said, it's zoos, aquariums. We just go with the flow. I think you can't force stuff onto them.
Kelly: Yeah. That makes sense.
Mark: People often say about London, you say in your book, "It's a cosmopolitan, vibrant, exciting city. It's at the forefront of fashion, art, music, food, architecture. But a lot of it -- what people often say also -- it costs a lot to visit London. And a lot of that often comes down to accommodation.

Did you pick up anything on your travels where you could convince people to come to London that were maybe in two minds because they're thinking of the exchange rate and how much it would cost to stay over here?
Rhonda: I guess my main tip for them would be -- and I've found this, it's not just for them in London, it's sort of a general family travel tip -- is to rent a self-catering apartment.

It doesn't have to be a luxury one. There are quite basic ones. But they're clean, they've got what you need. They've got a kitchen. You can save yourself... They're not necessarily that cheap in themselves, and they're certainly not as cheap as they would be in other countries in Europe. Especially in France or in the US.

But they do work out the cheapest option, because obviously you have a kitchen, so you don't have to eat out every night.
Mark: Yeah, you've got flexibility.
Rhonda: Yeah. You can especially save money on breakfasts, which you can spend an absolute fortune on if you stay in a hotel. And, you know, kids don't necessarily want to eat out all the time, anyway. Especially when they're very young, like mine.

They eat at three restaurants a day or three meal outings a day, and it really can get quite tiresome. So, I've found that is certainly something to consider if you're staying for more than a couple of nights.
Kelly: Are there any neighborhoods in London that are especially good for self-catering apartments?
Rhonda: Well, some of them are actually in not shabby areas. There's one called the Citidines Apart'hotel, which they've got one just off Trafalgar Square. So, very central.

So you don't necessarily have to go far out of town. They've got another one in Hoburn, which is sort of bordering Dunesbury. So that's not too far out either. South Kensington has a lot, because a lot of people like to be based near the big three museums. The Natural History Museum...
Kelly: Right. And it's a beautiful area over there too.
Rhonda: Yeah, it's a good area. You're near the parks, there's lots of good family places to eat and things. So, I think there's a lot about now. People have started to really realize that that's the way to go.
Mark: Yeah, you don't have to stay in a five-star.
Rhonda: Yeah, exactly. So, that would be sort of my main tip, if you really save money. If you're really hemming and hawing about whether you can afford to come to London or not, that's your cheapest option, really. I mean, even youth hostels aren't that cheap in London.
Kelly: Right.
Rhonda: Probably the lowest you're going to get a family room for is may 100 pounds, unless you book really, really far ahead. Which is not necessarily a desirable thing when you're traveling with children.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. I think that's probably all the time we have for today. I've been joined by Mark Hensel, who's our Frommer's editor in the UK. Mark, thanks for co-piloting the podcast with me today.
Mark: No problem, it's been enjoyable.
Kelly: Yeah, it has. We've been talking to Rhonda Carrier, who's the author of our "London with Kids" guide, as well as two other family travel guides: "Frommer's Normandy With Your Family" and "Frommer's Brittany With Your Family." All of those books are on sale now.

Rhonda, thank you so much for being here. I hope that you'll come back with us again and talk about you experiences in Normandy and Brittany.
Rhonda: I'd love to, thanks very much, Kelly.
Kelly: Oh, that's great. And join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Reagan, and we will talk again soon.

[music]
Kelly: For more information on planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the web at www.frommers.com. Be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions. This has been a production of Wiley Publishing and may not be reused or rebroadcast without express written consent.