It had been just over a year since I’d been to Britain for the Royal Wedding and it had seemed like a million years ago. I couldn’t wait to be back again. This time, I wouldn’t be going alone. My wife would be joining me as well as our 15 month old son.
Cue the ‘You took a 15 month old to Britain? On an airplane? You brave soul.’
It actually wasn’t that bad.
But first, we need to get to Britain.
As usual we chose to fly with our favorite transatlantic airline, British Airways. We booked our tickets back in January and got a pretty good deal because we booked during a sale. We were able to snag 2 roundtrip coach tickets and 1 toddler (lap seat) ticket for just $2,164 – a pretty good price during a peak travel season from Chicago.
Alas, we had to fly coach this time – the first time we have in a very long time – but as Anglotopia was covering the costs of our trip, we had to stick to a budget and that budget said ‘Coach’ all the way with a hope of an upgrade (which didn’t happen).
Honestly, though, Coach wasn’t too bad. Because we had a Toddler with us, it’s almost like flying first class – you have more leg room, you get to board the plane before everyone else, etc. I’ll talk more about flying with Anglotopia Jr. a little later.
Our departure was scheduled for May 21st, 2012.
When we booked our tickets that seemed like an ideal date as we were leaving on a Monday and the international terminal at O’hare in Chicago usually isn’t that busy. Well, we were wrong. The 21st was the final day of the NATO Summit in Chicago.
The airport was swarming with Secret Service agents and Air Force personnel. Certain areas were off limits. VIP’s were whisked through security while everyone else had to wait in line, delayed by the convenience.
We never got confirmation (no staff would say), but I was quite sure that British Prime Minister David Cameron was on our flight to Britain. He usually only fly’s BA and it was the last flight out of Chicago that day – so he had to be on it. And judging by the behavior of the staff near the gate – it’s a pretty clear bet he was on board.
This is for the airplane buffs out there. Usually when we fly out of Chicago we’re on a Boeing 777 and the last time I flew I had the pleasure of flying on a brand new aircraft that had BA’s latest offerings. So, I was little surprised to see they’d switched planes on us and were now using Boeing 747 on the Chicago-LHR route. It was an older plane so the interiors were not as new. Oh well – it was still a wonderful flight.
We boarded on time and took off on time – which is more than you can ask for really. Our flight time to London was about 7 1/2 hours and it flew by (no pun intended…).
Traveling with our Toddler on the way there wasn’t so bad. Because we were on an overnight flight, it coincided with his bedtime, so by the time we got on the plane, he was sleepy. He was flying as a lap baby – so he didn’t have his own seat. Instead, you sit in the bulkhead area where you’re provided a bassinet that the baby can sleep in. Unfortunately for us, Anglotopia Jr is large for his age and he didn’t really fit in the bassinet, which meant he spent most of the flight sleeping on Mom (or on me when she’d had enough).
The reason we opted for flying him as a lap baby was because buying him a seat would have meant paying the child airfare which is 9/10 of what an adult fare is. We just couldn’t spend that kind of money.
We will next time.
Once your child gets past a year old – traveling as a lap baby is just too much. Jackie will talk more about this in her articles on traveling with a Toddler.
Our flight over was smooth as can be – we experienced no turbulence and we arrived earlier than planned and I certainly don’t mind getting to Britain sooner!
I’m happy to report that when we landed, we were able to get off directly in Terminal 5. On our last few trips, they always landed far from the terminal and all the passengers had to be bussed to immigration. Thankfully with the completion of Termnial 5C (the final T5 satellite terminal), they don’t do this anymore. Which after 8 hours on a plane with a Toddler is a godsend.
It’s the little things!
We all got a little sleep on the plane so, while we were bleary eyed, we could make do. We got through immigration with no trouble – there have been reports of long queues, but the problems appeared to have been fixed by the time we got there as we sailed through.
After retrieving our bags and changing Anglotopia Jr into some new clothes, we dusted off the flight and headed into the arrivals area.
The first 10 days of our trip would be spent on the road, which meant we would be renting a car. I’ve driven in the UK before and it’s a lot of fun so I was really excited to get behind the wheel and drive on the wrong side of the road again.
The problem with renting a car at Heathrow, though, is that the Terminals are quite far away from the rental pick-up areas. You have to wait for a bus at the terminal, then take a 10 minute ride to the car pick-up place, then get in line with everyone else and wait. This did not appeal to us, especially with a Toddler and 4 pieces of luggage in tow.
Thankfully, through the site we got in touch with 1st Direct Vehicle Rentals. They’re a company that books your rental car on your behalf (and will find you the cheapest rate) and then they will meet you at the arrival gate and hand you the keys to your car.
As we left the departure gate we saw them holding a sign that said ‘Anglotopia – Thomas Family’ – and it was such a relief knowing we were just picking up our car right there. He led us to our car which turned out to be a Volkswagen Golf, handed us the contract, the keys and sent us on our way. The car seat was already installed and Anglotopia Jr went right into it and promptly fell asleep again.
We were on the road in less than 10 minutes.
It was brilliant.
A note about the rental car – again due to the budget we had for the trip – we rented the cheapest automatic car we could get. While through an entertaining game of TETRIS we were able to get all our luggage into the car – if you’re traveling with kids, we’d recommend getting a larger car. We loved the Golf and it proved to be a reliable and fun car to drive for the next 10 days but it just was not big enough for us.
We’ll talk more about Driving in the UK in an upcoming article and in our upcoming Web Series, Travels in Britain.
We left the airport and headed for the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. We decided to go to the Cotswolds based on Rick Steves’ recommendation and we were able to get in touch with Visit Oxfordshire who were able to accommodate us and plan our itinerary.
Our first stop was the Oxford Hotel by Puma, located on the outskirts of Oxford (it’s not in the city centre).
It took about an hour to get there from Heathrow and it was a stunning drive through green hills, fields in full bloom and beautiful villages. It was so nice to go from the airport right into the heart of the English countryside.
We arrived at the Oxford Hotel in the early afternoon and our room was ready for us. The staff was very helpful and kindly helped with our bags. Our room was very nice. We were staying in a family suite – where we had a separate bedroom from the living area. The hotel provided a cot, diaper changing facilities and everything else we would need to care for our toddler. It was a welcome sight!
After we settled in and I’d gone through the information packet left for us by Visit Oxfordshire, we decided it was time to get a proper meal to eat. Thanks to the kind advice of the hotel staff, they pointed us down the road to a local pub that had good lunch. We kitted ourselves out and made the short walk.
It was a beautiful walk through a leafy street, over railroads, canals into a charming little village.
We opted to eat lunch at the Red Lion Pub and they had typical pub fare. We all ate a hardy meal which helped recharged our bleary batteries.
After lunch, we headed back to the hotel and we all took a bath to freshen up followed by a nap. We always like to take a short nap (I emphasize short) when we land in Britain as it helps reset our body clocks.
After nap time, we decided that while Oxford itself wasn’t on our itinerary, we had a little bit of time to check it out so we rode the local bus into Oxford City Centre – a place none of us had ever been to before.
We were very impressed by Oxford. It was heaving with people and it being near the end of the day, everything was closing so there wasn’t much to do except walk around and explore before we ate dinner.
We walked around looking for somewhere to eat dinner and stumbled upon Jamie Oliver’s Italian Kitchen. Being rather hungry and tired, it seemed like as good a place as any to eat dinner. There was no wait and we got a table right away. There’s more than pasta on the menu and I got a hearty steak. We enjoyed our dinner immensely. Our only complaint was the cost – it’s a very expensive restaurant but one would expect that in the tourist zone in Oxford.
After eating dinner, we were done with our first day in England so we took a cab back to the hotel, watched some British TV and turned in early for the night. It was a big shame that we only had a few short hours in central Oxford – but it was enough to make us want to come back and give Oxford a nice long visit on a future trip.
Until…. Anglotopia Jr awoke at 2am unable to sleep and screaming like a banshee. I’ll save you the drama of everything that occurred but none of our parenting magic worked and we ended up having to search for the nearest 24 Hour Tesco to find something to help him sleep. We did (Calpol, in case your curious). We gave him a banana in the back seat and then drove the ring road around Oxford until he fell asleep.
And sleep we all did until a decent hour the next morning.
Tomorrow, we’ll be exploring the Oxfordshire Cotswolds and heading to a new hotel.