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!

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

Remembering Flanders Fields

The whole world seemed to turn heart and mind to the world’s veterans yesterday.  I was touched, seeing the faces, the names, the memorials to so many who have given their lives in the name of freedom over the past few centuries.

Since one of the recurring images from yesterday’s commemorations was the red poppies surrounding the Tower of London, a prime location for family travel, I figured it would be appropriate to share a few photos of the poppies and surroundings from last week’s visit to London. Read more

Greetings from London and the World Travel Market

I spent last week at the World Travel Market in London.  It’s an annual event that attracts more than 30,000 participants, including travel agents, tour operators, travel associations, local and national tourism boards, travel technology companies, travel bloggers, museums and cultural sites, airlines, and other categories of attendees I’m forgetting at this moment.  It was a grand event, to say the least!

A few shots of the convention floor–quite the variety of booths:

I joined the event with a few goals in mind:

First, I wanted to connect with other like-minded travelers. 
One great travel blogger I met was Monika, blogger at Mum on the Brink.  She was delightful and encouraging as I outlined the goals of Family Explorers.  I attended several sessions led by various travel bloggers, and it was great to hear their experiences.

Second, I wanted to check out new technologies relating to travel that would be of particular interest to family travelers.
What Now?! - LondonWhile some of the technologies/sites seemed less relevant to our crowd (e.g. Party Like a Local ), there were some much more relevant ones.  The one that really grabbed me hearing from the CEO and Founder of What Now?!.  While it’s relatively new and still only available for iPhone, it shows tremendous promise.  What does What Now?! do?  Well, let’s say you’ve arrived in London with your family, and as you climb into bed at the end of the first day, you decide that tomorrow you’re going to hit the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral (my favorite), and St. James’s Park.  You pull up the app, select those three spots from the list of attractions, and then set your phone down for the night.  What Now?! will show you where each of your sites is located on a map.  It will show you museum information, opening times, and ticket prices for the spots you selected.  Great to have that info in a single spot for easy reference.  But maybe best of all—as you go about your day, you can open up the app at any time to see what’s around you.  Walking from Tower of London to St. Paul’s but not sure where to eat?  What Now?! shows you 10 suggestions within a few minutes’ walk, with ratings pulled from Yelp and similar sites.  Over time, it will learn your preferences and presumably do a better job of recommending options that will suit your traveling brood.  Worried about cellular data charges?  Let it go—when you clicked on your sites the night before (connected to your hotel wifi), the app stored all of the information you’d need for the things around and in between your anticipated tourist spots, so all you’ll need is a GPS signal (which is free anywhere on the earth!).  Pretty great, huh?!  As an Android user, I’m looking forward to their Android app, which I imagine will be out in the next 6 months.  But for you IOS users, check it out and let me know what you think!

Third, I wanted to get an idea of what steps are being taken by museums and other cultural sites to accommodate the needs and interests of families, particularly those with younger children. 
The results on this front were mixed, and it bolstered my commitment to helping families know which sites will be ready for you and which ones I can help prepare you for.  The Vatican Museums, for example, seemed pretty unprepared to help your kids get the most out of their visit.  On the other hand, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is quite well equipped for families of all ages.  In fact, my sister and I stopped by the museum after the convention one afternoon to get a closer look at their kid-friendly resources, and they’re the best I’ve seen of any museum.  They loan out backpacks (for free, plus the museum is free) that are full of kid-friendly activities that make the museum fun and interesting—kind of like a room-to-room scavenger hunt.  Add to that their family pop-up performances (once a week or so—schedule shown on their website), their family garden walk, and their kid-targeted craft projects (see calendar), and you can make a go of the V&A with confidence!  We were very impressed.


My final main take-away from World Travel Market:

There is a LOT of world out there to be explored. 
Not only did I get pulled towards expected interests such as Austria, Ireland, Spain, and New Zealand—I also found myself holding brochures from South Korea, the Philippines (I even got a button from a little paradisaical island), and Bhutan.  Oh, and after spending a few minutes at the Slovenia booth, it was reconfirmed to me that I need to take the family there in the next few years.  WOW, the beauty.

You may not have been at the World Travel Market this week, but I’d love to hear from you.

  • Have you come across any great travel technologies or apps recently that are worth sharing (or worth avoiding)?
  • Have you come across any other family travel resources or blogs that you’ve found especially useful?
  • Do you have any museums or cultural/historic sites that you feel are particularly well prepared to make it great for the kids?

And if the answer is no on all of those, then how about chiming in with where you plan (or wish) to take your family next!  Maybe I can dig up some expert advice to help make the trip fantastic—or at the very least, I can dream about being there, too!