Updated: Dec 7, 2018
In partnership with Sn-ap Travel
As a family we love a city break; we've visited Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Blackpool and several european cities. Until now we've only taken day trips to London as a family because it's too expensive and crowded for us to really let go and enjoy ourselves. Until now, that is!
Setting aside a budget of £150 including return travel, we thought we'd avoid the expensive, mainstream tourist hotspots and enjoy a laid-back but no less activity packed couple of days with an overnight stay in a modern hotel.
So, without further ado, here's how we got on!
Transport | £30
To travel to London, we used a new 'on demand' coach service called Sn-ap. The coaches are surprisingly quick (the outbound journey took two hours, directly from Fosse Park near Leicester to Covent Garden). On the outbound journey unfortunately we were the last to board which meant that our seats were quite a distance from each other - not a big problem but it meant we were unable to have our picnic lunch together (first world problem, that one!). The return coach was quiet so we all sat together and played eye-spy.
Sn-ap is surprisingly inexpensive with single tickets between midlands cities and London from just £2 or £3 each. If like us you're flexible on departure times you'll receive the best price.
Once landed in London, we hopped one stop on the underground and then onwards toward Canary Wharf via the DLR. The DLR is a fantastic attraction for the kids in itself; the lack of driver allows the boys to occupy the very front carriage and pretend they're driving the train.
The kids travel for free on the London Underground and DLR, by the way - when you're negotiating the ticket barriers with young kids, head for the wide 'family/disabled' gates.
Hotel | £47
We chose the Holiday Inn Express London ExCel. It's a brand new, contemporary hotel, only a two minute walk from a DLR station. Considering the price and location, it's pretty fantastic. It's tucked away near London City airport and Canary Wharf - away from the chaos of central London but easily accessible.
If you're a seasoned Daddy & Dad reader, you'll probably know that Tom and I are extremely critical when it comes to what hotel brands describe as a 'family room'.
Believe it or not, we've stayed in family rooms containing just one small double bed before so the benchmark is fairly low. The Holiday Inn Express family rooms contain a double bed and a small sofa bed.
Lyall and Richard struggle to breath the same air without a huge WW3 style fallout, let alone share a bedroom, let alone share a sofa bed. It's never going to happen, at least not without black eyes and a lot of screaming.
So the family room at the Holiday Inn Express received a tentative sideways wobbling thumb hand. But, the quality of the bedding, the breakfast (included in the price for four people), the cleanliness, the perfect air-con, the style and the value for money receive a confident thumbs up. On reflection, we would recommend it and we would stay there again (with earplugs).
Crossrail Place Roof Garden | Free
A couple of DLR stops from the station, just outside Canary Wharf is a true hidden gem. The Crossrail Place Roof Gardens are an architectural delight (I'm a bit of a building nerd) with an amazing geometric windowed roof, partly open to the elements but partly sheltered from the rain and wind.
It's a nice place to relax for half an hour - the boys played hide and seek while Tom and I sat and looked at the tropical trees, plants, bugs and birds.
Zizzi Canary Wharf | £50
Armed with a discount code, we walked through impressive Canary Wharf to Zizzi - our big ticket spend for the weekend. Zizzi is located just opposite Canary Wharf Pier, overlooking the Thames with spectacular views of the river and the huge factory apartments on the other side.
We're not reviewing Zizzi, because, well, what would be the point - the best thing about Zizzi is it's predictably excellent wherever you are. Also, the kids love to turn their choice of pizza into a calzone, which essentially resembles a giant pasty. Yum.
The National Maritime Museum | Free
We spent £127 on day one, leaving just £23 for day two (our return bus was at 1pm). After a lie-in until 9am and then loading up on an enormous cooked breakfast we checked out and took the DLR toward Greenwich. At Greenwich station we met an old friend of ours, Jess and her little boy Remy and headed for The National Maritime Museum.
It's a vast, interactive museum with enough to occupy everybody for at least an hour and a half.
Rich and Lyall loved the 'Mayday' phone exhibit, allowing its operator to phone another mayday phone in the museum to report an emergency. In a slightly creepy turn of events, our friend Jess, thinking she was talking to Lyall on the other phone found herself talking to a little girl, even though there was only one other phone with Lyall at its helm. We never quite got to the bottom of that 😲👻
Tom was fascinated by the historic navigation tools and the model boat exhibits. There's also a fantastic pirate ship-shaped section of the museum with an interactive canon simulator - I was by miles the best shot among the family, naturally!
London boozer | £15
Travelling between Greenwich and the bus departure point in Covent Garden we were treated to the most torrential thunder and lightning storm we'd ever experienced. Even worse than the Lake District storm! It was horrendous. So, although we were heading for the Science Museum to occupy our last hour and a half, instead we dashed into a local London pub to shelter from the storm and wait for the rain to clear (which it didn't!).
We're resigned to the idea that a nice pint of lager in London can be anything up to £6, so to be honest we weren't overly shocked when the bill for four drinks was £15. In fact, it was a really nice way to reflect on the amazing time we'd had in London.
And, get this... we had £8 left for a picnic for the bus on the way home!
Please leave comments with your 'hidden London' cheap activity suggestions. We'll be returning in the Summer Holidays for another frugal London trip with your recommendations!