Tips for traveling to London with kids

Jan 26, 2008 at 12:46 p.m. ET

Traveling to another country with kids can be very challenging. Author Donna Schwartz Mills offers advice for making a trip to London enjoyable for everyone.

Travel with kids is challenging
My husband was born and raised in Wales, and was a grad student in Los Angeles when we met. I must admit that one of the things I found most attractive about him then was his sexy British accent, and I loved the idea of traveling to the UK to meet his family.

Twelve years later, I barely notice the accent any more, and have made the trip so many times that I played tour guide recently for friends who joined us. As romantic as Britain sounded to me back then, I had not counted upon what happens when you add kids to the equation. Whereby you can 'wing it' when you are carefree and single, taking your family along requires some extra planning. So here are my tips for taking a London vacation with your kids:

Saving money on airfare
Your biggest expenses will be lodging, transportation and airfare. You can save up to 70% on the latter by planning ahead and traveling in the 'low season' -- November to April (excluding the holiday periods).

There are several disadvantages to this approach:

1. Your school age children will miss their classes for a couple of weeks. (You may be able to talk their teachers into assigning a report they can work on over the course of the trip -- after all, visiting another country is an educational experience, too.)

2. Britain is known for its wet weather and cold, blustery winds (and that's in the summer!) This is the time of year when both are at their peak. (Pack warm clothes and plenty of cold medication!)

3. If winter days are short in the U.S., they are even shorter in the UK (thanks to the location of the British Isles -- at a latitude of about 50 degrees N). On our recent January visit, the sun did not rise each morning until around 8:00 a.m. -- and set again at 4:00 p.m.! (Plan your days wisely).

Discounts and frequent flyer miles
However, if cost is your biggest concern, you can't beat winter prices. Round trip economy flights from L.A. to London sell for about $950 in July. You can take the same trip in February for just $480.

Save more money by joining your favorite airline's frequent flyer program. We like Virgin Atlantic because the food is good and each seat has its own entertainment center, with programming just for kids. Although we only make the trip every 18 months or so, we are able to rack up miles quickly by using their partner companies for things like car rentals. Virgin is currently giving their 'Freeway' members a discount that can bring the cost of that February round trip ticket down to around $280.

You can add to your frequent flyer miles by using a credit card with a mileage program. We like the Membership Rewards program offered by American Express, because you can transfer your points into any of 12 different airline programs, five hotel chains and four car rental agencies. Best of all, the points never expire -- making it easier to accumulate enough to pay for the trip of your dreams -- or just airline tickets for the family. We use our Amex card for everything we can: Groceries, gasoline, our telephone carrier -- and my husband uses it for all his business expenses. Since these are all things we're buying anyway, it is no problem to pay the bill in full each month, and we don't carry extra finance charges.

Infant travel accessories
If one of your children is an infant under one year old, you have the option of carrying the baby on your lap without having to pay for a ticket. Virgin and other airlines offer 'bassinettes' on built-in pull-down shelves, allowing baby to sleep peacefully during the flight. However, this is not the safest option for your child. You are better off buying a ticket (often discounted for children) and either bringing your own infant car seat or using one that belongs to the airline.

When booking your flight, do let the airline know that you are traveling with children. Families with infants are often assigned bulkhead seats, which offer more legroom than other aisles in the economy section. This is also a good time to order your child's kid meal, if the airline offers one.

If any of your children is three years or younger, you may wish to take along an umbrella stroller as a carry-on item. This will make it much easier to get around Heathrow Airport once you land.

Passports and visas
The U.S. State Department requires that all citizens carry a valid passport -- even infants. So the first thing you need to think about is obtaining one for every member of your family.

While adults with existing passports are able to renew by mail, you are required to apply in person when applying for or renewing one for your child (however, children under the age of 13 do not have to be present -- only you). You need to bring your completed application form, proof of your child's identity and U.S. residency (usually a birth certificate issued by the city, county, or state), proof of your own identity (your Department's rules for passports. You need to allow six weeks for your new passports to be delivered, so it pays to plan ahead.

Complete details and requirements for U.S. passports -- as well as printable forms -- are available here: