Parenting

Family travel: How to get around a foreign city

During her family's stay in London during the Olympic Games, Sonia Mendes learns some valuable tips on how to travel a foreign city with young children.

Above: Lily & Elissa nab prime seating on a double-decker bus. Below: When space is limited, two small bums can fit in a seat.

When our youngest daughter, Lily, started junior kindergarten last year, I adopted a “stop and smell the roses” philosophy for our short walks to her school. My fellow parents will understand just how hard it can be to rush a four-year-old child, but I also didn’t want to take away all those wondrous little moments when Lily took the time to crouch down and examine an insect or pet a passing dog.

This approach works beautifully on our four-minute walks to school in suburban Ottawa (OK, probably more like 12 minutes when Lily is with me!). But here in the fast-paced metropolis of London, UK — where the kids and I are exploring while Daddy reports on the Olympic Games — getting around is a whole new world, one that is spotted with challenges.

One of the most noticeable differences between getting around the Canadian suburbs and travelling in London is that nobody drives. At home, it’s hard to throw a stick without it ricocheting off nine gas-guzzling SUVs and subsequently landing in a huge Wal-Mart parking lot. Here, space is at a major premium, dedicated parking spaces are virtually non-existent and gas is more expensive. Even those who own cars will opt to leave them at home in favour of public transit in this city; it simply makes more sense.

I have to admit that in Ottawa, it is not often that we take public transit. We try to walk as much as we can, but it’s often simplest to load the kids in the car and drive where we need to go. So the whole notion of taking public transit here in London — double-decker buses, the Underground or “The Tube” and the Overground — was strange for our two girls at first. Lily kept asking if we could drive in a car to where we needed to go, while eight-year-old Elissa would pull out the classic line, ‘Are we there yet?’ during the first three minutes of a long, multi-leg journey.

Fast forward to today — almost three weeks into our month-long stay in London — and I’m proud to say that this suburban mom and her little troopers have learned the proverbial ropes of public transportation. After a thorough indoctrination from my well-travelled mother-in-law, the girls and I have smoothly criss-crossed the heart of this great city unassisted, using all forms of transport in tandem.


Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way that may be useful to other parents when using foreign public transit:

Try to avoid using a stroller
Before we left Ottawa, I contemplated bringing an inexpensive umbrella stroller for Lily. Ultimately, we decided against it; she never uses a stroller at home anymore and we didn’t want to send the wrong message. Although it was challenging during our first days here — jet lag made Lily a bear to deal with — she has definitely gained a ton of endurance. I’ve also come to realize how tough it is to maneuvre a stroller here — UK parenting websites routinely use the word “nightmare” and one particularly witty blogger writes that “transferring Tube lines with a stroller is akin to the seventh circle of hell.” The vast majority of Tube stops have multiple flights of stairs and no elevator — an irony that has garnered a great deal of criticism as London prepares to host the 2012 Paralympics. If you have an infant and usually move around with a stroller, opt for a chest or backpack-style carrier instead.   

Be prepared to stand
Kids or no kids, the Brits don’t seem to be overly eager to give up their seats. Even frail-looking senior citizens won’t necessarily move their hardened, commuter hearts (and comfortably seated behinds). So don’t expect it — you’ll just grow frustrated and cynical. On a rare occasion, a transit angel will unexpectedly offer up their seat to you or your child, thus redeeming your faith in humanity.

Hold on tight
Further to the above, you will need to tell your kids — and remind them again and again and again — to hang on tight. This applies not only to the Tube but also to double-decker buses. On one occasion during our stay here, we were riding on the upper level of the double-decker bus. When it was time to get off, we were only halfway down the steep stairs when the bus suddenly jerked to a start again — forcing us to take the last few steps while the bus was in motion and get off a stop later than we wanted to.

Travel prepared
In London, or anywhere else in the world, you and your brood may encounter unexpected travel delays. Bring a small “survival kit” that includes transportable snacks (I always carry a tiny container of almonds and granola bars) and a bottle of water. Don’t forget Kleenex (today Elissa had a nosebleed on the bus) and Band-Aids for those “serious” injuries that your kid won’t stop complaining about. If you have the space, bring a small kid’s book or magazine — sometimes the Tube will stop unexpectedly between platforms and buses have to deal with traffic.

Navigating is easier than it looks
At first glance, London’s Tube map is a dizzying, rainbow-coloured maze. But if this suburban girl and her little girls can navigate public transit in a foreign city like London, so can anyone. Give yourself some time to get comfortable and you’ll realize how brilliantly simple it is to get around.

What other tips would you add?