Paid collaboration with Sn-ap Travel
Is it possible to go to London as a family and not spend a small fortune? That was the challenge set to us by Sn-ap Travel over the school summer holidays.
The company have recently brought their low cost coach service Cardiff with daily routes to London and more destinations planned as they expand.
We’ve been wanting to visit the capital as a family for a while and the new service gave us the perfect opportunity. But could we do it cheaply? There’s no doubting a few days in London is more expensive than life here in Cardiff. But we discovered lots of ways of cutting costs. (Although Sn-ap provided us with our travel and compensated us for our time everything else on the trip was self-funded).
Cheap – or free! – coach travel to London
Firstly, the journey itself. With Sn-ap, new customers get their first journey free by using the code ‘firsttripfree’ at the checkout – which is brilliant news if you’re on a budget. And even if you’re a repeat Sn-ap customer, fares are incredibly cheap at around £4-£10 per person each way. We priced up a return journey for the five of us for the dates we wanted to travel and it would have cost around £45 in total. We met one lady on our coach who’d booked her ticket the night before and paid £4.80 for a single to London. Less than a fiver! To London!
The company keeps costs low by only running coaches when there’s enough demand. When we looked online there were some confirmed journeys that you can book onto but you can also request specific pick up times and if there’s enough people wanting to make similar trips together they’ll work with local coach operators to provide the service.
When you’re travelling with a family you need transport to be reliable and the service to be good. I will admit I was a little apprehensive about putting a new service to the test. But actually we were really impressed with the service. Booking online was simple. On the day we travelled, a series of text messages told us our driver’s name and vehicle registration. We could also track his location on our mobiles. Our coach leaving Cardiff was delayed by around 10 minutes because there had been a vehicle fault and our driver needed to get a new bus. We appreciate these things unfortunately happen – but being kept informed at all times was great customer service.
The coach has a few pick up and drop off points – outside Cardiff Students’ Union; opposite the Capitol Shopping Centre; Albany Road; and Newport Road. We opted for the city centre pick up.
Our journey to London was smooth and problem-free. The coach was fitted with seat belts, had a toilet on board, and it took three hours to get to central London. We were dropped off on Baker Street – a brilliantly central location, right outside Madame Tussaud’s and next to the tube station with three different lines, giving us easy access to get to our accommodation in Notting Hill.
Our return journey was equally hassle-free, with text messages keeping us updated, the coach arriving bang on time, and being back in Cardiff again in three hours.
Simple to use, hassle-free and affordable, it’s definitely a service we’d use again. In fact I’m planning a trip to London with some friends in the new year and we’ve been discussing using Sn-ap to keep our costs down.
This is probably the biggest expense for most people staying in London. As a family of five, Travelodge and Premier Inn are not feasible for us because they only allow four per room which would have meant two rooms and double the cost. We spent a lot of time searching on Air B&B and Booking.co and thought we’d found a decent self-catering apartment. The reviews were pretty good, the location great, and it offered good value for three nights. I won’t go into too much detail here but we had a bit of a nightmare with our accommodation for various reasons so unfortunately I can’t recommend it here. That said, the Notting Hill location was brilliant, a short walk from Ladbroke Grove tube station and near Portobello Road Market (which always gets me singing the song from Bedknobs and Broomsticks).
However I have a friend who recently took her family to London and stayed in a private room that slept up to six at the Meininger London Hyde Park Hostel for around £150 per night and she highly recommended it. It’s opposite the Natural History Museum so really convenient too.
On the trail of famous films
As fans of the Paddington movies, my children were desperate to see the statue of the marmalade-loving bear at the station which is where Mr and Mrs Brown first found the bear from Peru when he arrived in London and where he gets his name. There’s a bronze statue of Paddington on platform one, plus a decorated Paddington bench, and a more colourful statue in the station’s Paddington shop which sells all manner of merchandise (we bought a fridge magnet). We picked up the Paddington trail leaflet, showing other sites associated with the books and film, although ran out of time to explore any further.
I’d hoped to find some of the film locations from Notting Hill seeing as that’s where we were staying and was excited to accidentally find myself stood outside the famous blue door of the house shared by William (Hugh Grant) and Spike (Rhys Ifans). Cardiff Daddy had popped into Starbucks to get a coffee and the kids and I were stood outside. I turned around and thought ‘this door looks familiar’. A quick Google of the address confirmed that I was indeed standing outside ‘the house’. Cardiff Daddy and the kids didn’t quite get my excitement though.
Thanks to Kellogg’s, adults went free on the London Eye
The one thing my children really wanted to do was take a trip on the London Eye. I’ve been on it once before way back in 2007 on my friend’s hen do when we had a champagne reception in a pod to ourselves but this was my children and husband’s first time. My children couldn’t get over how big the wheel was, in comparison to the ones they’ve been on in Cardiff previously. Standing at 135m tall and 120m in diameter, each pod holds 25 people, so unless you’re part of a big group or have booked exclusive access, you’ll be with people you don’t know.
You can book online to secure a timed slot and a 10% discount (regular tickets are £27 for adults and £22 for children on the day or £24.30/£19.80 in advance; under 3s are free) or book on the day at the ticket office opposite, either regular tickets or pay more for the fast track ones. We bought regular tickets and queued for around half an hour in the ticket office but were on the Eye within 15 minutes.
We’ve been saving vouchers from our Kellogg’s cereal boxes and had two giving one adult free with a child’s ticket. It cost us £66 for the five of us instead of £120.
The journey on the wheel takes around half an hour. The views from the Eye are incredible, especially on such a clear day, and it really gave my children an idea of just how big London is.
Merlin Passes and The London Pass
We didn’t buy any of these but they are definitely worth mentioning. The London Eye is a Merlin attraction along with Sealife, Madame Tussauds, Shrek’s Adventure, and the London Dungeon. You can buy a Merlin’s Magical London pass to visit all five attractions for £55 per adult and £40 per child age 3-15 (online prices) saving up to £90 for adults and £62 for children. There are also offers if you want to visit two or three Merlin London attractions. All passes are valid for 90 days.
It’s also worth thinking about the London Pass if you’re going to be visiting a number of paid attractions. This includes entry to places such as The Tower of London, The London Bridge Experience, The View from the Shard, Thames River Boat Cruise, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Hop-on-Hop-Off bus.
Free entertainment on the South Bank
After our early evening trip on the London Eye we spent a couple of hours wandering around the South Bank. It was so lively and atmospheric with street entertainers including magicians dancers and buskers. My children absolutely loved it – and it didn’t cost a penny (other than the couple of coins we put in the hats after watching some of the shows).
We saw a West End musical for £15 each
The main purpose of our trip to London was to see School of Rock, the West End musical (full review on that to come soon). Our whole family love the Jack Black film and so I bought theatre tickets for us all for Cardiff Daddy’s 40th birthday earlier in the year. Booking well in advance gives you the best ticket options – there aren’t many seats available for £15 and in fact the most expensive tickets cost £150 which we would never have been able to afford for the five of us.
Obviously our seats weren’t the best in the house but our view was good and it didn’t affect our enjoyment at all. The show was fantastic – uplifting and inspiring with brilliant performances all round, not least from the talented youngsters who play the school children who find themselves in a rock band after their teacher (who has stolen his friend’s identity) turns the musically-gifted pupils into a rock band to try to win the Battle of the Bands and get one up on the band who kicked him out.
You can sometimes pick up last-minute theatre tickets at TKTS booths for shows that day and the following two days. Availability is dependent on what hasn’t sold already at the theatre and it might be difficult for bigger groups to sit together but it can be a good last-minute option.
Visiting the free museums
There are more than 20 free museums in London (read more here) and we couldn’t wait to explore. Top of our list was the Natural History Museum and its famous dinosaurs. We also visited the British Museum and the V&A Museum of Childhood. We’d also hoped to go to the Science Museum but sadly ran out of time so will have to save that until our next trip.
Natural History Museum
We’d heard the museum can get really busy during the school holidays with a one-in-one-out policy often in operation from early afternoon. We arrived around 20 minutes before it opened and although there was a queue it moved really quickly once the doors were opened.
It’s worth looking at the map on the museum’s website in order to plan your itinerary in advance. With 36 permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions there’s a lot to see so it helps to plan your priorities.
The permanent exhibitions are divided into coloured zones.
Blue Zone – dinosaurs; fishes, amphibians and reptiles; human biology; images of nature; mammal; marine invertebrates
Green Zone – our planet’s evolution; Hintze Hall and the chance to walk beneath a 25m whale skeleton; creepy crawlies; fossil marine reptiles; fossils from Britain; investigate; birds; minerals; The Vault; Anning Rooms.
Red Zone – Earth Hall and Stegosauraus; human evolution; From The Beginning; Earth’s Treasury; Lasting Impressions; Restless Surface; Volcanoes and Earthquakes
Orange Zone – See scientists at work in the Darwin Centre and enjoy the tranquil habitats of the Wildlife Garden.
We headed straight to the dinosaur exhibition in the Blue Zone while the area was still lovely and quiet. My dino-loving four-year-old was in his absolute element looking at all the skeletons and reconstructions. He was seriously one excited little boy. My older children (aged eight and six) appreciated the detailed information boards charting different species and information about palaeontological digs and discoveries.
Dippy – the famous huge diplodocus usually in Hintze Hall is currently on a UK tour (he’ll be in Cardiff next autumn) – but the newly installed Hope the blue whale skeleton is incredibly impressive too.
One of my children’s favourite moments was travelling up the long escalator through a red and imposing giant metallic globe and into the Red Zone galleries. This was a fascinating look at our planet including the evolution of our planet and its inhabitants and detailed information on natural disasters. We loved the earthquake simulator as well as the replica casts of victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79AD
With so much more to see we were at the museum for around four and a half hours including lunch in the dino-themed restaurant where we had pizzas and burgers. We could easily have stayed all day and still not seen everything. It’s a huge place with so much fascinating information. We can’t wait to go back and explore some more.
Visit the Natural History Museum’s website here.
We found this guide from Cathy of Mummy Travels blog really useful when planning our visit.
The British Museum
Cardiff Daddy really wanted to visit the British Museum but in hindsight I think our children were slightly too young to make the most of it. Featuring treasures of the world spanning over two million years it’s very artefact-heavy and isn’t as interactive as the other two museums we visited. That said my children really enjoyed the Egyptian area on the upper floor where they learned more about the ancient customs associated with death and the afterlife as well as seeing the mummies.
The Africa section on the lower floor was also great with bright, bold and unusual artworks. We also saw lots of Roman and Greek carvings and statues on the first floor as well as the world-famous Rosetta Stone (the key to deciphering hieroglyphics). There are free daily activities for families during weekends and holidays so it’s worth looking out for these.
Visit the British Museum website here.
The V&A Museum of Childhood
We also visited the V&A Museum of Childhood (you will soon be able to read the full post here). Located in the east end, it’s a two-minute walk from Bethnal Green tube station on the central line. It’s a lot smaller and less busy than the big museums and after two days of the London crowds in a heatwave it was a good option for us as a family with young children.
The museum is filled with toys and baby equipment from the 1800s onwards, as well as plenty of activity stations where children can play and create. There was so much nostalgia on display, with plenty of mine and Cardiff Daddy’s favourites from the 1980s on display – Care Bears, Action Man, Barbie and Sindy, Strawberry Shortcake, and even the Big Yellow Teapot, which I wanted as a child but never had. My eight year old daughter loved the vintage 1960s Brownies uniform. She’s a Brownie herself and while I’ve told her previously about the uniform we had to wear, I don’t think she quite grasped what it was really like until she saw it for herself.
The collection of dolls’ houses was incredible – some of the largest I’ve ever seen, with beautifully made and intricate furniture. There’s also an eclectic art display – a surreal collage featuring 150 empty dolls’ houses of all shapes and sizes.
Dotted around the exhibition are activity stations where children can play, including Lego Duplo, train tracks, a kitchen area and dolls’ houses. It was a great way to keep them interested in between the exhibits.
There’s a café but we ate our lunch in the downstairs picnic room usually used by school groups and full of tables and chairs.
Visit the V&A Museum of Childhood website here.
How to see the Changing of the Guards without the crowds
The red and black uniformed Queen’s Guards outside Buckingham Palace are one of London’s most iconic sights.
So iconic in fact that the daily 11am Changing of the Guards ceremony attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. Unless you get there ridiculously early you won’t be able to see much. We knew this wouldn’t be ideal for young children – but then we came across this brilliantly informative guide on how families can see the guards without the crowds.
If you get to Wellington Barracks at the Buckingham Palace end of Birdcage Walk for 10.15am you can see the New Guard forming and being inspected. While they wait for their Regimental Colours, the band play a selection of songs. This went on for almost 45 minutes before we followed them over to the palace. There was hardly anyone else at the barracks and we had a great view through the railings with the guards coming really close to us at some points. We all loved the sense of ceremony and the amazing synchronicity with which the guards moved.
When the guards leave for the palace, the guide then advises visitors to skip the huge crowds at the palace and head to St James’s Park, over the bridge towards The Mall. Here at 11.10am you can see the Relief march up The Mall and enter St James’s Palace via Stable Yard Road. Or just after 11.35am the Household Calvalry ride past The Mall to theur barracks. At 11.45am the St James’s Palace Detachment of the New Guard, led by a Regimental Band, march up The Mall towards you.
Taking a London red bus instead of the tourist city guide buses – included in your daily Tube travel pass (and children travel for free!)
The downside of travelling by tube is that because you are underground you don’t get to see the wonderful sites of London. We’d thought about getting one of the city sight-seeing buses but then we realised that our daily travel passes (£12 per adult; free for children) were also valid on the buses. Having seen so many photos of the iconic red London buses, my children were thrilled to be travelling on one, especially as we sat upstairs and managed to get the front seat.
We found a bus that went from central London to Hammersmith where it was then just a short tube ride for us to Ladbroke Grove. This number 9 service is one of London’s oldest bus routes dating back to 1856. We didn’t have a tour guide telling us all about the iconic buildings en route as we would have on the tourist bus, but between Cardiff Daddy and I we knew enough about the main sites we saw, and we just googled anything we wanted to know more about. The busy London traffic meant we were on the bus for around an hour and we saw landmarks including the Royal Albert Hall and Harrods.
Picnic lunches from our nearest supermarkets and dining with Tesco vouchers
I’d love to tell you we ate out at lots of trendy and chic Instagtammable eateries. But in reality we exchanged our Tesco Clubcard vouchers to eat at Pizza Express and bought stuff for picnics most days at the Tesco near our accommodation. We paid for one lovely meal at Wagamama on the Embankment and we bought our lunch at the Natural History Museum.
Picnics and playing in the parks
London has its fair share of beautiful parks and open spaces (you can read about some of the best ones here) and while we definitely wanted to do more than hang out in playgrounds during our trip, they were handy to break up the sightseeing and a good place to eat our picnics, especially as we were staying during the summer’s heatwave.
Diana Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground
We visited the Diana Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground not long after we arrived in London as we had a couple of hours until we could check in to our accommodation. Located next to her home at Kensington Palace, the playground opened in 2000 in memory of the princess. Inspired by the stories of Peter Pan it’s free to visit but numbers are limited and on busy days you may have to wait before you can enter. We were lucky to be able to go straight in.
The park is split into different areas separated by trees and my children loved exploring and finding new equipment to play on. It’s not the easiest playground to navigate with more than one young child as they can easily wander off but there’s loads to do for different ages.
The first thing we saw was the huge wooden pirate ship with ladders and cargo nets to climb. Just behind through the trees is a large wooden climbing structure which my two eldest children in particular loved; as well as teepees and a sensory trail.
The Regents Park
We also visited The Regents Park for a couple of hours, coinciding with a picnic lunch. Named after Prince Regent, ‘the playboy prince’ who later became King George IV (1762-1830), it’s one of London’s eight Royal Parks. Its 395 acres include everything from formal gardens and boating lakes to London’s largest outdoor sports area and even London Zoo.
There are four children’s playgrounds – the one we went to had two large climbing structures that suited my four, six and eight year olds perfectly – and there’s a café and toilet facilities. You can also hire pedal boats (which we didn’t do) and explore the wetland area which is home to around 100 species of wild birds and a breeding population of hedgehogs.