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Planning Ideas for a UK Vacation

Need some planning ideas for a UK vacation? Me, too! Let’s chat. Share your tips and tricks for traveling with kids in the United Kingdom.

Planning Ideas for a UK Vacation | Life as MOM

The crew walking through Kensington Gardens, Fall 2014

Today it’s Q&A day! Where I give the Q, and you provide the A. 😉

I’m super excited that our family is going to be traveling through the United Kingdom this spring, and while I furiously scan the internet for the best places to visit, I also know that YOU are some of the best people to ask.

I did this years ago when we were planning our first Disneyland trip with kids and again before we took the kids to Europe the first time. How immensely helpful your suggestions have been! Our family has benefitted so much from your hard-earned wisdom. So, today, I’m turning the mic over to you as concerns UK vacation travel with children.

How would YOU plan a UK vacation?

Feel free to plan my family’s UK vacation. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Who: Two parents, Six kids, ages 8 to 19

Our kids have spent a month abroad, with about 7 days in London and another three weeks in western France. They have a small idea of what to expect, but as you know London is not the sum total of the United Kingdom. They will be ages 8, 10, 13, 14, 16, and 19 when we go, though two of the boys will have birthdays while we are abroad.

Where: the United Kingdom, plus Ireland

The boundary lines are pretty wide open. We fly in and out of London and have the ability to hire a car.

When: 4 weeks in the Spring, before summer vacations begin worldwide

Since we homeschool, we can make our own calendar, but we needed to wait until our college son was done with his finals.

How: Budget travel

Let’s say you have about $25,000 to cover transportation and travel expenses for eight people. While the dollar has been stronger as of late, in comparison to the pound, we realize this is not a skies-the-limit kind of trip.

Feel free to leave me links, book recommendations, travel spots, things to pack, tips, etc.

Planning Ideas for a UK Vacation | Life as Mom

 

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  1. I would look at airbnb for places to stay, it’s likely to be much cheaper than a hotel and you can cook for yourselves. We have stayed in great places in Ireland and the UK and you can have the whole place to yourselves.

    • I’m not too keen on the airbnb thing, but we’ve found several serviced apartments that should suit us. We did that in Paris last time and have done it here and it works very well. It’s similar to FRBO, but with staff on hand in case you need help, housekeeping, etc.

  2. York! My boys, at 11, loved everything about the town. The wall around the outside, the Viking museum, the Abbey ruins, the food, the Minster… I highly recommend it!

    • It is on the list! Thanks for the confirmation!

      • Renata Sommerville says:

        The Association of Voluntary Guides tour is excellent (and free!) and has a tour in the evening, when everything else is closed. It’s a great way to see the city and learn some of the history.

        • Thank you!

          • Nikky Winchester says:

            York is wonderful! Dead easy to get the train up from London, and once you’re there you don’t need a car, unless you want to get out into the Yorkshire Dales and to the coast (if you do, I recommend Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay). Other good places to see in York are: the Castle Museum, York Museum, Jorvik (the Viking Museum Renata mentioned), the National Railway Museum, the Treasurer’s House (see if you can spot the Roman legionaries in the basement), Dick Turpin’s grave, and do a ghost walk. It’s very easy to spend a week or two just within the walls of York.

      • We loved York. We stayed there over Easter weekend. The hotel was so kid friendly and upon check in found Easter treats for our kids waiting in our rooms. We walked across the street to a restaurant for Easter dinner (reservations online) and it was amazing! Perhaps the best meal on our trip. We went back again before leaving York. Clifford’s tower has spectacular views. I believe I mentioned to you before about enjoying Windsor. Lovely day! We went to Stonehenge but I probably would not recommend it. We went very early thinking we could be there when it opened. The traffic was horrendous, the line for our reserved tickets made us late, and it was crowded. You can see Stonehenge from the road before reaching the welcome center. Some people pull over and look from a short distance rather than spending most of a day going on site.

  3. Melissa Weaver says:

    Take a train (or bus) from London to Oxford. Oxford is gorgeous and has a ton to offer. Your kids will love the Hardy Potter dining room’s original site, and the parks are amazing. The Eagle and Child is also iconic. In the summer you can stay at Christ Church for a decent price. Look into it. Then go through the Cotswolds if you have time. If possible, take a bus (there is no train) or rent a car and go to Hay-on-Wye, a town of only used books in Wales. Spend some time hiking the Lake District, it’s my favorite place on earth. You’re kids can get up close to sheep and see the cozy little knolls they make themselves in the hillside and the special step-up gates that you can take as you freely traipse through farmers fields. You’ll fall in love with the land of Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth. And go see their houses, especially Potters, if even just the outside. We might go in May or June. It’s on my bucket list to see the daffodils. Other spots in England people like are York, Brighton (incrediable cliffs), and there’s lots of King Aurther history and Shakespeare to be found if you research where to go for that and if you want to work that into your curriculum. Stonehenge didn’t do much for me, but it is iconic. Also, there’s some castle towns. And you can even see the mansion used in Pride and Prejudice if you like architecture. For Ireland, I don’t have as much experience, but I thought Dublin was crowded and touristy but there are lots of gorgeous churches and history. The Cliffs of Moher are amazing but the drive there was a bit nauseating on the bus, FYI. Go to a tiny small town pub where an old Irishman is playing live music. They’ll probably be very friendly and play all kinds of songs they’ll think your children will like. Kind of a fun experience. Enjoy every minute of your trip.

    • Great tips. Thanks! A town of all bookshops sounds so interesting. And yes, all the things you describe sound great. Except for the nauseating bus ride. 😉

      • For transportation, hiring a car can be very challenging with driving on the other side of the road, especially in crowded areas were they go fast. My husband and I ended up eye to eye with a bus in Edinburough, and that was not the only near death experience of the day (and he drives in major cities no problem: NY, LA, etc). Luckily it’s just a funny story now. I would say for day trips from London use the bus or train. And train travel up to Scotland and The Lake District is much easier (it’s so relaxing and beautiful). Where it gets trickier is more remote places like Wales and the Cotswolds, for example. Then you might be stuck waiting for the one bus that comes all day. We’ve had to resort to a cab in these scenarios and that is an expensive situation. Just be sure if you are getting a car you do tons of research. We even put the wrong fuel in our car and had to call someone named, The Fuel Doctor. It sounds like a dumb mistake — and it probably is — but people do it often enough apparently to have a person full-time employed to fix it. Again, though, something to laugh about now but maybe not so much in the moment.

  4. Stephanie Wright says:

    I live in the U.K. (about 80 miles from London) so feel free to ask any specific questions you may have. As a very quick first reply I would agree immediately with the two comments above. Only one experience of AirBnB but it was a very postivite one. Beautiful cottage in Yorkshire, which is a wonderful area to visit and of course is where you can find York as also mentioned. We had a brilliant week there a couple of years ago with another family (younger children than yours) and it is a beautiful city with loads to see. Other area to consider are Lake District, the Cotswolds (near to me), Edinburgh, Scottish Highlands and Stratford on Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace). These are only a few to mention of so many places you could go. For good standard budget hotels Premier Inn are reasonable, consistent and in lots of UK locations.

    • I’ve got many of the places you mentioned on my list, though I had read that Stratford on Avon was overrated??? We’ve stayed in Premier Inn London and are going back this time around at least for the first few days. Thanks for the input! I may have more questions….

      • Stratford is a fairly small place, but if your family like theatre, it’s incredible. On a trip like this, I wouldn’t dedicate more than about 2 nights there, and accommodation can be limited. I’m from Brighton, which has plenty to do to keep all ages occupied, and is truly unique among British cities! Also PS, be aware the ROI (Dublin) only takes euros, whereas Northern Ireland (Belfast) uses pounds sterling. I hope you enjoy our fabulous country!

      • I have many fond memories of Stratford upon Avon – I loved it, but it has been almost 10 years since I was there. The other two places I loved dearly were Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye (you’d need a car there).

  5. Stephanie Wright says:

    A couple more thoughts, if you are interested in stately homes, then arguably Chatsworth (nr Peak District) and Blenheim (nr Oxford) are the finest! If you want to see the best of the coast, what we call ‘the seaside’ then the counties of Devon and Cornwall would be my personal recommendations!

  6. Edinburgh Castle and the Tattoo are amazing! Scotland is gorgeous in general. An English football (soccer) match is always an experience like no other. I’ve never done high tea somewhere but now that I have a daughter it’s something I’d love to do. Madame Tussauds wax museum is so cool. It’s probably a little expensive but I remember going in high school and loving it. Sounds cliche but the double decker buses are great. You can go anywhere and hop on or off as you please, a great way to see any city.
    Dublin is an amazing city to walk around in too. The Guniness brewery is so cool and has a beautiful view of the city from the top. Ireland really does have the most friendly people so going to the “local” (pub), chat up the people, they’ll get some great recommendations.

  7. Laurie in CA says:

    Read Susan Branch’s book A Fine Romance. It’s about her travels in England a few years ago. There is so much to see and the history, oh the history. How we so regret not having the means to see more of the country when we lived there for 3 years. That was 43 years ago. We drove up to Edinburgh from our home 40 miles north of London. It is doable in a day but I would recommend breaking it up. Some of the best adventures are off the beaten track. We stayed off the M1 and took the A1 up to Newcastle. Saw the ruins of Hadrian’s wall, Jedburgh Abbey, Castle Douglas. We fell in love with Edinburgh Castle. Oh how I wish I were going!

  8. Lots of fantastic ideas already 🙂 Being from the South of the UK, I’m going to suggest some places in the South – Winchester, the old capital of England, Stonehenge – I think you can touch the stones, but they are always changing that – I did when I was a child, but that is a very long time ago.
    Then there is Cornwall and Devon – Poldark country (not sure if you watch that)
    Wales, is beautiful too 🙂 and seeing all the signs in Welsh made my kids smile!
    And Ireland – we spent loads of holidays in Ireland as kids – but the boat ride is very rocky and flights can be found much cheaper (showing my age!)

    The one thing I would say, having driven from San Diego to San Francisco, is that even though the distances are shorter in the UK, it does feel longer.

    I live in North London, and for us to drive to visit my dad on the coast (Portsmouth) can take 3 hours!! We also drive north to visit the in-laws near Birmingham, and that can be 2 hours. It’s not a huge amount of time, but it definitely feels longer than when we drive on the USA motorways.

    • Interesting about the drive. We’re both a little nervous about driving on the left and will be taking our time. LOL.

      Last I read Stonehenge isn’t touchable. Some sites recommended Avebury instead. Thoughts on that?

      • Renata Sommerville says:

        Yes – you can only see Stonehenge from afar. Avebury is neat in that you can get right up to the stones, but you don’t get the big effect. They more look like random rocks around the town and outskirts!

        • Exactly what I wondered. If you had to choose one, which would you choose?

          • Renata Sommerville says:

            Tough to say! If seeing THE Stonehenge is important and will be a big wow factor, it’s definitely worth seeing. (Tip…if you just walk around the side you can get nearly as close as paying the fee and going in the official driveway.) If playing around the stones, seeing a quaint medieval town, and walking among sheep better fits your family, Avebury is the way to go.

        • Thank you! That is super helpful!

  9. Renata Sommerville says:

    Salisbury Cathedral, especially the Tower Tour there, is very cool. There is a copy of the Magna Carta there as well. If your kids have read Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke, they might enjoy the special activities they have that relate to the book.

  10. York.Walk along the top of Hadrian’s wall..In London, the Museum of the City of London–arranged so you walk on a ramp thru history. Very fine.

    • Nikky Winchester says:

      You can’t walk on Hadrian’s Wall any more, haven’t been able to for years. You can walk alongside it though. If you’re going up to the Wall, then you must go to Vindolanda. It’s the best of the forts. Other things to see in Northumberland:
      – Alnwick Castle (used in Harry Potter, amongst other films)
      – Alnwick Gardens (especially the poison garden!)
      – Warkworth Castle (Harry Hotspur’s place; smaller than Alnwick, but soooo castle-y); the village and beach are lovely too
      – Cragside Hall (the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power, also has fab gardens)
      – Wallington Hall (classic stately home, includes amazing display of old dolls houses, and lovely gardens)
      – Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens (ruined castle, quarry garden and a grand stately home)
      – Lindisfarne Island, Castle and Abbey (it’s fun going over the causeway – be careful to check the tide times!; the Abbey was the first place to be attacked by the Vikings)
      – Seahouses (for a boat trip over to the Farne Islands to see the puffins)
      – Lots of gorgeous beaches with miles of golden sands
      – and Newcastle upon Tyne (amongst other things I recommend the New Castle, Seven Stories – the national kids book centre, Life Museum, Great North Museum, and Arbeia – Roman fort near the end of the Wall where they’ve rebuilt the gatehouse)

      The rail journey up from London to Edinburgh (which goes through Newcastle) is very good.

      More thoughts to follow… 🙂

  11. tastycook says:

    Premier inn hotels that I have stayed in, especially close to Heathrow are great. A trip to the New Forest and the ponies is lovely. A lot of the major tourist attractions in London are ridiculously expensive and with 8 of you would be prohibitive. The lake district is very pretty and Scotland can be lovely but us very dependent on weather

  12. Nikky Winchester says:
  13. I would have to say when you and if you venture into Ireland, I would check out The Ulster-American Folk Museum. We don’t learn much about how the Irish were treated in their homeland, their voyages here on the “coffin ” ships and then their treatment here. Gave me a real sense of pride to be of Irish decent.

  14. Nikky Winchester says:

    Some random thoughts:

    Travelling by train can be very expensive, particularly if you try to buy your tickets on the day of travel. If you buy tickets in advance, using eg thetrainline.com, you can get some good deals. I highly recommend you don’t travel until after 9am and avoid Friday evenings. A much cheaper way of travelling is by coach – but it does take aaages. If you want to get out into the countryside, you really need to hire a car. If you’re just going from city to city, then train/coach might be easier.

    It’s much cheaper to make your own sandwiches for lunch than to buy lunch, and tap water is fine to drink. Remember that tipping isn’t as big a deal as in the US.

    B&Bs might seem like good value, until you realise that you have to eat out for dinner – and many B&Bs don’t even let you bring takeaways back to your room. Youth hostels can vary widely re their family friendliness, but I have some friends with 3 kids who always go youth hostelling for their holidays. The big advantage is that you can cook your own food. Might be worth checking the YHA website to see what is available for the places you’re considering visiting.

    The weather in spring is very variable, so be prepared for both cold and wet/hot and dry, as you’re likely to get the whole range.

    If you’re considering visiting lots of stately homes it might be worth getting a family membership for the National Trust: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/join-us#Family Likewise, if you’re considering visiting lots of castles and other ancient monuments, it might be worth getting family membership of English Heritage: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/join/ Look at their websites to see what’s available in the places you’re considering visiting.

    If you’re driving out from/into London, it will take you at least an hour before you’re out of the city (or longer if it’s at rush hour). It takes sooo long! If you’re nervous about driving in the UK, then it might make more sense for you to avoid driving anywhere near London. It’s a whole different kettle of fish to driving around the rest of the country.

  15. Nikky Winchester says:

    Suggested itinerary (not knowing anything really about what sort of attractions you and your family might be most interested in visiting):
    Arrive in London, spend a few days recovering from jet lag/sightseeing
    To Cambridge, 1 night is probably enough to get a feel for the place
    To York, for up to a week (as above)
    To Newcastle, for maybe 3 nights? (Hadrian’s Wall, castles etc)
    To Edinburgh, for a couple of nights (Castle, Zoo etc)
    To Glasgow, for a couple of nights (Kelvingrove in particular)
    To the Lake District, for 2-3 nights (lakes, Beatrix Potter, Wordsworth)
    To Liverpool, for a couple of nights (Beatles! and several other very good galleries and museums as well – I can give you more info about Liverpool if you want, as my husband is from there)
    Fly to Dublin for a few days, and back to Liverpool (maybe? not sure if you have time to squeeze it in, and you’d have the problem of what to do with your hire car while you were away)
    To Stratford upon Avon (Shakespeare)/Warwick (the Castle is excellent) via the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, for 2-3 nights
    To Bath, for a couple of nights (Jane Austen/Romans)
    To Glastonbury (King Arthur) and on to Salisbury (Cathedral/Stonehenge/Avebury), for a couple of nights
    And back to London, possibly via a detour drive through the top of the New Forest

    🙂

    Personally, I would recommend trying to do Wales/Ireland/the highlands and islands of Scotland in another trip. 4 weeks really isn’t very long, and there is sooo much to see.

  16. Catherine says:

    We love the Great Britain! We spent our honeymoon in London and have taken several other trips there. You’ve gotten some great information about England and where to visit. The Tower of London is amazing, as are the portrait gallery, walking tours, plays, and the British museum. You could easily stay the month in London with day trips and never be bored, but there is so much more to see and do in the rest of the United Kingdom.
    I would highly recommend looking into getting a self-catering house in Scotland, if you’re going in the off season. The grocery stores are great and you can cook all your meals yourself. We only ate out three times in the 8 days we visited. Many of the self-catering places have lots of great outdoor activities you can do that are available at the rental house. Hiking, fishing, horse riding, archery, falconry, bikes, games, pool tables, and lots of room. We stayed in a place that was close enough to take day trips to Edinburg, Glasgow, Loch Ness, Inverness, Culloden, Pitlochery, visit Scone Castle, hike in the highlands, get to the ocean and drive to Aberdeen for dinner. The waiter thought we were crazy for driving so far for dinner, but being Texans we don’t have much regard for a mile ;). Most of the time we took food and a waterbottle with us everywhere we went. There was always somewhere to sit and eat and a place to fill up our water bottles. We even took our own tea bags and got hot water to make tea most places without a problem.
    VisitScotland.com is a great place to start looking. Good luck with your trip. It sounds amazing! I can’t wait to take my son, niece and nephews back to Scotland. It is full of history and a great place to be outdoors and explore.

    • Thank you for all the great suggestions! We are definitely looking for self-catering options. We were able to picnic in hotels last time, but a kitchen and fridge would be so nice.

  17. I agree with everything the previous commenter Nicky said! Trains are very expensive in the UK, and a car is really needed once you leave the city center. We found Novotel to be a very family friendly hotel when traveling in the Uk and Europe.

    We lived near Windsor for 3 years, and you can some of our travel by looking at our travel page https://txtanya.blogspot.com/p/travel.html or just searching for the location you want. My top picks for the UK would be: London, Windsor Castle, York, Edinburgh, the Highlands, Bath, Wales, and Cornwall. I also spent two weeks in Ireland many years ago. It is worth a visit, but might be a lot to squeeze all into one trip.

    Let me know if I can help!

  18. When our children were young (age 2 and 8) we lived in England for a year while I did a Fulbright exchange teaching near the Lake District. I’m glad that’s on your list. Tons of places to walk and we spent a lot of time at Windermere. We did have a car and acclimated (my husband driving) after a few days. Scariest at first were the roundabouts where, of course, you go opposite what we’re used to. The car allowed us to go to rural places that the train could not get us to, although we did take the train on longer trips. I’d also suggest to bring (or buy there) a collapsible cooler for picnics.
    St Michaels Mount near Cornwall was fun. You can reach it by foot or boat depending on the tide.
    Plymouth-to see where the Pilgrims set sail.
    Also York, which may others had said.
    We spent an amazing week in the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland but that’s a bit far as it’s way north.
    The one thing I really wish we did, that we didn’t do, was rent a canal boat. They come furnished, sleep up to 8, and we regret not going on that adventure.
    Have a wonderful time! Family travel is the best!

  19. Ulster American folk park, the north coast, Giant’s causeway, Dunluce castle etc in Northern Ireland are all super. Castleward national trust property is beautiful also-and I believe you can stay there in little ‘glamping’ pods. Belfast is a great city to visit-Dublin is overrated!

  20. I love castles and historical sites, for sure, and loved Edinburgh Castle and the Churchill Museum And War Rooms, etc. But my favorites were visiting the Yorkshire Dales and seeing the Scottish Highlands. The Highlands made me feel as though I’d stepped into a world of giants, knights, sea faring adventure, and mystic tales. That was just driving around, nevermind the stops we made. My visit to the Yorkshire Dales was largely driven by a book called James Herriot’s Yorkshire; we saw things like The Buttertubs which is an unmarked places at the top of one of the fenns (mountains) where the peat has washed away from the limestone. If you like a hike, I suggest Malholm Cove–something I chose not to do in favor of going into Hawes to visit the Wensleydale Creamery. Hardraw Force is the highest single drop waterfall in the U.K. — or maybe just England — and is accessed by paying a small fee in a quaint pub for getting onto private land. I’d have to do some recon with the family to find the places I went in the Highlands. I think my parents planned that trip along with my English brother-in-law.

    • Sounds like a great trip! My husband has great memories of the James Herriot film series. The kids and I have read some of kids’ books. I need to get some more James Herriot stuff. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Wow such great advice here.

    I am so happy you guys get to go back again. Your posts about all the planning on taking a bigger family out of the country are so inspirational and helpful.
    I hope you do real posts like that for this trip. Because of your great motivation we took our family of 5 kids to the Canadian Rockies last year. We are thinking of doing another international trip this year. Thanks for giving me the push.

    What airline are you flying? What was the great rate you got?

    • Yay! I’m so glad the posts have been helpful. We most definitely plan to give the full details on our adventures, including video this time. 🙂

      Your trip sounds amazing! Some day soon we’ll explore North America, too.

      We are flying Virgin Atlantic again and got amazing fares. I called last week to ask a question and the person in customer service said, “Wow. You got great tickets.” LOL!

      • Heidi Fitzgibbon says:

        So what is a good or great price? 🙂 How far in advance did you get tickets? Starting to research & SAVE for a trip w/ my family of 5 so this is a timely series!! Thanks!

        • We paid almost $9k for 8 to fly to London, nonstop, from LAX in the fall of 2014, purchased 3 to 4 months in advance. A few weeks ago we paid $5k for the same exact route for the spring of 2017, again 3 to 4 months in advance. The Virgin Atlantic agent on the phone said we got an amazing deal, so we might have lucked out. My advice would be to start researching your ideal trip specific to time of year. That’s what I have done each time, about 1 to 2 years in advance and based our budget on that, rounding up for inflation.

          • Heidi Fitzgibbon says:

            Thanks, Jessica! That is helpful! Happy planning to you these next few months! You’ve inspired me to to push my international travel dreams w/ my family into the next stage of planning & saving! Thanks as always!

        • Can’t tell you how much that warms my heart! Yay!

  22. I live about an hour outside of Dublin if you have any questions.
    I love;
    London, so much to see and do
    Edinburgh, beautiful city
    Cornwall, relaxed with gorgeous scenery
    Dublin, lovely vibe
    West Cork and Kerry, perfection!
    I can also recommend the Ulster-American Folk Museum, it’s a great day out.
    Enjoy!

  23. As a non traveler for the most part, we have found ourselves in some compromising situations when vacationing in the states. Even though we live here, it is impossible to know trouble spots in other states. Do travel agents or others give warnings to areas to avoid when traveling in Europe?

    • When we stayed in Paris, I ran locations by my French sister and she let me know what was or wasn’t safe. As for London, I did a police activity search and found a chart of neighborhoods and their safety ratings according to the Met (police). Typically speaking, violent crime isn’t as prevalent in Europe (knock on wood), but petty theft/pickpocketing is rampant. That’s when you really need to be on your guard. In my (limited) experience.

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