Thursday 27 September 2018

FAMILY REVIEW: England (and Wales) - PART I


After being in Athens for a month in mid to top 30s, it was a huge relief arriving in England and it was a nice cool 14℃!

We felt like we were arriving back in NZ: cooler weather and English speakers! Hadrian was extremely happy to hear English as we were going from plane to customs.

It didn't take us long to adjust.


Before coming to England and actually, before leaving on our trip, we knew England would be expensive - even with AirBnb.


We researched as much as we could and narrowed down our stay in London (for touristy things) to two days at a London hotel.

We chose to stay in Wandsworth (the dodgy end*) for two nights at Holiday Inn Express.  Wandsworth was a great place to stay that was just outside of London Central but still easy to reach all the tourist things. We only had to catch a train and an underground metro to reach central London and it was always easy to find our way home. Catching their red double decker buses into town was also easy if you want to experience that as well.

* not actually dodgy - just a movie reference/inside joke!

The sun sets over the Thames river, Wandsworth


As part of our research for cheaper accommodation, we came across housesitting: a service where we house/pet sit for free accommodation.

Before leaving on our trip, we signed up for With an annual fee of approximately NZ$100, we were able to apply for house sits around England and hope they would give us Kiwis a chance to save on accommodation costs and give Hadrian his animal patting fix!

Even though I was the one that found out about this service, I was still a little reluctant to house/pet sit for strangers in their homes. Firstly, what if something happens to their animals on our watch? My record isn't exactly the greatest… And secondly, I felt a little invasive being in their personal space.

But… house sitting has to be up there of our most enjoyed experiences of England!

Our first housesit was south of London in South Croydon for one whole week. It was a suburban community where we stayed, with very little around us except more suburban houses. We had a big job ahead of us here: Two dogs, two cats, two hens, two hamsters, one fish and one parrot. Once adjusting to our responsibilities and inserting ourselves into someone else's home that wasn't wiped of nearly all personal belongings à la AirBnb homes, we really enjoyed our time there. The animals were great (the most difficult being an elusive cat that never came in the house if we were there); the house was homely and cosy; and it made us realise we missed having roots somewhere instead of living out of suitcases. The family were such nice people who trusted us strangers after meeting us for 30 minutes and we were able to experience a part of England we wouldn't have otherwise!


Our second housesit was out in the middle of nowhere close to Oxford. This couple were the first people to accept our application and give us a chance. Their house sit was one of the best experiences we had. It was different than the other house sit in a different way.

They had a huge farm that included an airstrip; three chilled dogs; an old Victorian house with old charm and quirks (including a giant front door key that we were told not to take with us as it's the only key they had - so we had to hide it somewhere in the garden whenever we left); a hidden well; an amazing country side view and just a quiet country life. Their dogs were the easiest dogs to look after - no leashes, no picking up after them, easy personalities.

We could have experienced more around the Oxford area but we were enjoying the countryside too much and it was a nice time to recoup and gather ourselves.

Another chance to experience a part of England we wouldn't have otherwise and meet some more amazing people - who taught us a lot about whiskey drinking and other drinking knowledge. Knowledge we will never need to use in our lives… unless it was a question asked of us on The Chase.


If you are staying in England long term (or doing any travel worldwide long term), we highly recommend house sitting!



Besides these two housesits (that saved us two weeks of accommodation), we stayed in cheap hotels as we made our way up to the top of England.

Guys, if we had to recommend a chain of accommodation, we would recommend Holiday Inn Express! Cheaper accommodation than most other chains; they have basic rooms but enough for a small family; and they have FREE BREAKFAST INCLUDED!! We have been happy at every Holiday Inn Express we've stayed in and they were reasonable prices if you book in advance.

When we were in Newcastle, we stayed in a Premier Inn close to the airport. It was quite cheap but we nearly went mad staying in this place for a week. It's not easy staying in a hotel that has no fridge for an entire week. We lived on pasta cups all week since all we had was a kettle!


Coming to the UK we knew the exchange rate would not be in our favour so we had to be wise in our choices of things to see.


London is by far the easiest place we've travelled around - even after super easy Athens. It was easy and efficient and is run very well. It had a lot more lines than Athens which was a little more difficult to navigate through but it was still very easy.

No public buses, trains or undergrounds are paid using cash. All accept transport cards and paywave/contactless cards.

You need to have separate contactless cards for each adult and they must have different numbers on the cards. You cannot share contactless cards.

For those without contactless cards, they do have a separate transport card (Oyster Card) that can be purchased at stations. But honestly if you have separate contactless cards within your travel party, it's the same costs and process without having to get a separate card. Make sure though that your contactless card can be used overseas and that you don't get charged horrendous fees (we happen to be with a bank that doesn't charge any international fees). We found that certain contactless cards worked in certain countries while others did not.

When you enter the underground or train station, just tap as you enter and tap as you exit. For buses, just tap on as you get on the bus.

Costs for contactless or Oyster cards is £2.40 per journey for zones 1 and 2 around London central.

All children under 11 are free when travelling with a paying adult. When going through the train/underground stations, whichever adult is taking the child through should go through the line that is for prams as it allows more time for more than one person to go through it. If you take the child through the normal lines, it will beep as it senses more than more person is trying to get through on one payment.

They also have a travel cap. You can use any public transportation with the same contactless card and it will cap at £6, no matter how many trips you take.

If you lose the card that you used to enter the underground and have to use a different one to get out, be prepared to pay the top costs. This happened to Nathan and we were charged £13 as it registered him going out but not in.


There is so much to do in London but with 1 1/2 days and a budget, we had to skip a few things.


I chose to go here because 1) it was free and 2) I had heard it was a good museum! After making our way on the iconic double decker red buses, we ended up quickly going through it because we were actually exhausted (after an early morning flight) and someone in our travel party had an upset stomach and needed to be close to a bathroom.

What we did get to see of it though was great! If we had more time to go through everything and had the energy, it would have been more enjoyable. I would recommend going there and taking science-minded children there!

Plenty of toilets here - just not the privacy needed for upset stomachs!
There are also a few other museums along the same street in the South Kensington area where the Science Museum is. These include the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Every summer Buckingham Palace opens its back* doors to the public. While in Athens, we were able to book some tickets to visit the Palace. They were pricey in total but something we decided we couldn't miss. It cost £24 per adult; £13.50 per child up to 17; £61.50 per family of 2 adults and 3 children under 17.

*Do not expect to go in via the main entrance. You can try but you may end up shot by the guard! If you stand at the front of the Palace facing it, turn left and go around the Palace gates until you find the back entrance.

When booking, you choose session times to enter and you are separated into your allotted times until right on your session time, they let you through. You have to go through a security scanning area like an airport and you cannot take photos while inside. There are staff everywhere watching all the crowds going through.

With your tickets you also get a free audio guide per person. Without these guides, the tour would end fairly quickly and you wouldn't learn as much! Buckingham Palace tours are a very well oiled tourist attraction. No hiccups or dramas and a great experience! It takes about 1-2 hours to go through the Palace with the guide plus the gardens and souvenir shop. You're not rushed through though - you can go at whatever pace you want.

There are no toilets to use inside the Palace. There are some in the gardens after the tour by the souvenir shop which have staff standing in the toilet area directing you to the next empty stall! Fancyyyy! (and only in the women's toilet because there's always lines in the women's toilets...)

If you think you'll be able to go back to the Palace again within a year, you're able to have your ticket turned into an annual one, for free. As you make your way around the garden to exit, there is a place there just for that!

SIDE TIP: We rushed out of our hotel to get to Buckingham Palace (because navigator must get there super early) and forgot to take water with us. Hadrian was thirsty (nearly dying of dramatic dehydration) and there was nowhere close to Buckingham Palace to buy water. We were optimistic about making it through the long tour of the Palace without water until we get to the gardens where they have a cafe but not long into our tour, there was an angel there to save our lives... in the form of a worker at a small souvenir stand that sold water!! So if you are neglectful parents like us, know there is water sold in the first leg of the tour!

Buckingham Palace was definitely the top highlight of our trip to England!

From the moment you enter you will see why it is called a palace: from the red carpeted grand entrances to the gold plated stair case, to the individually styled rooms with lavish wall tapestry and intricately detailed carvings, to the large Italian marble pillars and statues, to the collections of wall size art pieces by great masters of the Renaissance, to the antiques from well.. antiquity, topped off with the great ball rooms and the royal throne. It was a highlight being able to recognize areas we've seen on TV from one of the royal weddings!

PS - the souvenir shop was awesome and I wanted to buy all the things!!!!!!!!! But ponchos there are crazy expensive considering it's just a water poncho. And it smelled funny because the material was recycled material and it was recyclable as well. It does have a crown on it though... and I kept them even though we would probably never use them again. I just couldn't throw it away after paying the equivalent of NZ$30 for 3 of them.

PPS - You don't have to have advanced printed tickets for this as there is a place before you enter the back doors that will print your tickets for you with your email receipt.


We didn't go into Westminster but made sure we stopped by and saw it from the outside. The line into Westminster was crazy long; the weather was going through a bipolar stage of sunny and stormy and we didn't have enough time in London to wait in too many lines - although, we do end up wasting time in a line later on. More on that later...

Westminster though, was beautiful from the outside! Sure, the red double decker buses kept getting in the way of our photo op and sure, inside would have looked amazing but we're glad we took a bypass to go and see it!


We didn't get to see Big Ben in all its glory. It is being renovated! So it is covered with scaffolding all the way around it and honestly, we wouldn't have even known it was the Big Ben if I didn't already research it's location beforehand! Such a shame we didn't get to see or hear it but apparently its Twitter account dongs every hour during it's renovation!

The Westminster Bridge - not far from Big Ben and Parliament - is the bridge where people have died in a terrorist attack. We made sure to avoid walking across it, just in case. We were close to it but did not cross it and a few days after we left London, there was an attempt to crash into parliament and that bridge was closed again. We didn't feel unsafe at the time when we were close to the bridge but we did use some wisdom in where to go as a family. If we didn't need to cross, we just didn't cross it.


We booked a Thames River cruise that would take us from close to Westminster Bridge, past the London Eye and to the Tower of London, all while going along the Thames. Through City Cruises we were able to also include our Tower of London tickets in the price. In total, the cruise and Tower of London tickets cost £93.40 for our family of three: £36.80 per adult/£19.80 per child. This also gives you the opportunity to hop on and off along any of the stops (including the London Eye) and return back to your starting point.

We could have travelled the conventional public transport way, but once we got on the cruise boat it started to pour for the longest time. We were glad to be undercover in the cruise ship!

The cruise includes the staff telling us some fun facts about London and the Thames which was actually a highlight of the trip. With both cruises, we had different facts given to us which was even better.

You don't have to take a cruise along the Thames to go to the Eye or the Tower of London or anything else you want to see in London but it was a nice place to rest our feet for a long period of time (takes about 30-40 minutes to get from Westminster to Tower of London).

The cruise along the Thames was enjoyable though... singing the Eastenders theme (in our head) along the way!


IMG_2544So, this was one of those places that was in the possible pile to visit while in London. We had other places we wanted to see (*cough* Harry Potter Studio *cough*) but I had heard good things about this place and that it's worth seeing and the reviews online were mostly quite positive!
I don't know if it was because of the crazy weather we had to deal with or that it was coming to the end of a long day or because we had to wait in the longest line in history to see the Crown Jewels, but Tower of London was not a highlight for any of us.

That line to the Crown Jewels was pretty horrible. Had we not already booked Buckingham Palace as a morning session, we would have gone here first to beat the foot traffic because we were in that line for over an hour. OVER AN HOUR!

IMG_2561 (2)And even once you get into the building and think "Huzzah! We get to see the jewels now!" Oh no, that is a false sense of security. You still have to walk around the entire building - still in a line - before you get to the jewels which is another 10-15 minutes!
The rest of the tourist areas around the Tower don't have as long a line as the jewels but even when we went to other areas, they were a lackluster experience.

If you have an audio guide or had done some prior research into the history, it would be more interesting but when we went into certain areas in hopes to learn more about what happened in those particular parts of the Tower, we were met with a mediocre projection on the walls with minimal historical information.

IMG_2552I know there is a lot of history there but it was definitely not a highlight for what we had paid. If we ever go back there and give it another chance, it would have to be at a discounted price and I definitely would not wait in line to see the Jewels again (because once you see them, there's no point seeing them again).
They did have plenty of toilets and a couple of places to eat.

These tickets were part of the Thames cruise and you do not need to pre-print them. When collecting your cruise tickets from their stand at the wharf, they print the Tower of London tickets as well.

IMG_2551 IMG_2549 (2) 20180810_162324 20180810_162037

NEXT: PART II – Rest of England (and Wales) >>>

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