The Fees of London

I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past that when using frequent flyer miles to travel abroad, you’re often better off avoiding London.  The reason for this?  Crazy-high carrier-imposed fees when using London’s airports (regardless of whether London is your destination or you’re just changing planes).  By crazy-high, I mean $200-300 is common, and $300+ happens a lot.

Pretty lame, especially because we LOVE London.  It’s a fantastic place to get started abroad.  The people speak your language (more or less), it’s easy to get around, there is an incredible amount to see, and TONS of the top museums are free for all, and many that aren’t free are at least free for kids.  We’ll be writing more about London in the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled.

But back to those nasty fees.  The thing that makes those fees particularly frustrating is that they apply whether you’re on a paid ticket or an award (frequent flyer) ticket.  So you might find a great round-trip itinerary using 40,000 American AAdvantage miles this winter (that’s American’s wintertime rate, which is quite a steal!), but then you get to the payment page and notice that it’s 40,000 miles PLUS another $196.  Pick a slightly different itinerary on AA’s website, this time using British Airways flights, and YIKES, you’ve just upped your fees to a ridiculous $697.  Not joking.

How can these fees be avoided?  The easiest way is by avoiding London.  I’ve never seen taxes and fees over $250 to other airports in the UK or Europe.  But let’s face it, that’s not really what we want to hear in many cases.  London beckons.

So here are a few tricks—

  • United tends to have slightly lower fees than the others, in my experience.  $200 is normal, but I’ve never seen it much over that.
  • If you fly through Ireland on Aer Lingus, which works well if you’re in Boston or New York, your fees will be very low to non-existent on award tickets (and you can use British Airways frequent flyer miles, called Avios, to do so).
  • Play around with one-way tickets.  Since many airlines allow one-way award tickets, you might be able to save a bit by getting two one-way tickets, either with the same airline or with different ones.  Just know that if you plan to have some award tickets and some paid tickets, mixed airlines can be disastrously expensive.
  • Lastly, while these London high fees may not go away (ever), there was recently some upbeat news on the topic, particularly for family flyers!  The taxes and fees I mentioned above are composed of several chunks, some of which are taxes, some of which are fees.  One of those buckets is the “U.K. Air Passenger Duty,” or APD, and for transatlantic flights from the UK, that duty is about $100 per person.  The good news is that the APD is being eliminated for kids under 12 beginning in May 2015!  And in 2016, that exemption extends to kids up to age 16.  WAHOO!  Good news for family travelers to London!  Read more about this change here and here.

So don’t skip London.  Just be informed and find ways to save, even when using frequent flyer miles to get there.

And mind the gap!

Christmas Abroad

Traveling at Christmastime can truly be an adventure.  Last year we took the family to Portugal, and you may recall the harrowing experience of getting there after some storms caused flight delays.  While it’s true that Christmastime is a busy time to be on airplanes, it can be a wonderful time of year to visit Europe (though perhaps not Scandinavia—save that for sunshiny summertime).

Portugal was not crowded at Christmas, the streets of Lisbon were adorned with lights and decorations, and we had the beach to ourselves! Read more

Rick Steves – LIVE at the Paramount

If there’s one traveling companion that should come along on every trip to Europe—without needing an airplane ticket or a place to sleep—it’s a Rick Steves guidebook for the place you’re headed.  Hopefully you’ve already experienced Rick’s expertise in your travels, so you know what I’m talking about.  While his books may lack the glossy photos of other guidebooks, they are chock full of incredibly useful tips to make your trips successful.

Last night I had a real treat—Rick Steves came to Austin and I was able to see him at the historic Paramount Theater.  That guy is really great.  So knowledgeable, so approachable, and so helpful.


I thought you might enjoy my top 5 take-aways from last night’s presentation—things to think about as you think about your future travels.

  1. Rick’s big thing is encouraging and helping us Americans to experience more of the aspects of local life when abroad. Yet he recognizes the need to visit the tourist spots.  After all, there’s a reason everyone wants to visit St. Peter’s Basilica or the Tower of London.  We can get the best of all worlds by splitting our time three ways—tourist hotspots, modern/growing areas (e.g. La Défense in Paris, London’s Docklands), and off-the-beaten-track towns or sights.
  2. Be flexible when traveling. While this is obviously required when traveling with children (you never know when someone will need a nap or have a tantrum), Rick gave the example of passing through a small town in Sicily, discovering that there’s a cheese festival going on.  STOP THE CAR!  Get out and experience something you hadn’t anticipated, even if it requires adjustment to the plans you’d laid at the hotel that morning.
  3. The free or inexpensive sites don’t get promoted, so it’s going to take some extra effort to seek them out or to make sure you’re aware of them. Sure, you can head to the well-marketed Madame Tussaud’s wax museum for $30/person, but you can head to the British Museum for free.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Madame Tussaud’s—you’ll just need to recognize that the rack of brochures in the hotel lobby may lack some of the free options in a city, so don’t sell yourself short.
  4. The world contains a museum for almost everything. If you or your kids have quirky or specific interests, get searching on the Internet before you go to see if there’s a museum that’s right up your/their alley at your destination.  It’d be a shame to get home and find out that as a lover of handbags, you missed Amsterdam’s handbag museum; or that as a collector of thimbles, you missed Rothenburg, Germany’s thimble museum.
  5. It’s great to have photos of your trip—to capture the moment in a picture that you’ll have forever. But be careful not to spend your entire trip looking at the screen of your phone or through the viewfinder on your camera.  Take time to really absorb the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of travel, and rely on photos to bring all those feelings back to you, not to replace them.

And here are a few additional one-liners from Rick that I can totally embrace:

Europe is the wading pool for world exploration.


Packing light is not heroic—it’s liberating!


Viewing art is the equivalent of time travel.


If you care about your loved ones, you will take them to Europe tomorrow!


Since many of you are probably readers of Rick Steves, what tips have you learned from him that have been invaluable to you and would be worth sharing with others?

Take a second to add one or two of your favorite Rick Steves tidbits in the comments below.  Are there other travel guides that you’ve found particularly helpful?

Tuesday Travel Trouble: Big vs Little

We took our kids to London for a week two years ago and got off to a rocky start.  It took us a couple of days to remember a very important principle—not every activity is right for every age, and it’s okay to split up.  Here’s how things went down, and how we righted the ship.

The first few days on the trip, we were all together all the time, because we wanted to be together.  We’d gotten train passes and planned several day trips out of the city plus lots of fun things to do together in the city.  On about the third day we were all in Dover and it was windy with a light cold drizzle, and Dover is mostly walking and war sites that the younger kids got tired of quickly.   Read more