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London’s Heathrow is the most connected airport in the world (and is on its way to being the world’s largest), so jet-setting families are very likely to spend some time in the British capital at some point. Between the Harry Potter attractions, double-decker buses, child-friendly pubs and museums, you may not have taken the time to research how to actually get around London — especially with young children. Luckily, TPG has the inside track in London from a mom who has been touring these British streets with two little boys under 4 without a car of her own.
First things first, download the Citymapper app. It will give you the best options for how to travel and even has a rain-safe option, although it’s best to just bring a reliable umbrella. While you may wish to travel to London with your car seat and use it for the trip from the airport in a car service, London is completely doable without lugging a car seat around (a dilemma Mommy Points struggled with on a trip a few years back).
Presently, under English law, children can travel without a car seat in a taxi or minicab (including Uber, car service, etc.) if they sit in the back seat and wear an adult seat belt when they are 3 or older, or sit without a seat belt if they are under 3 (i.e., you belt in and they sit on your lap).
If you’re traveling light and want to get into the center of London quickly, the train is your best bet. The Heathrow Express runs between Heathrow Airport and Paddington Station in London, taking 15 minutes to Terminals 2 and 3 and 20 minutes to Terminal 5. While for a larger family it can end up being expensive, you can save up to 75% off fares by booking in advance. Children 15 and under also travel free when accompanied by a paying adult in Express or Business Class. Tickets must be purchased over the app, at a machine or on board (most expensive). They do not accept Oyster Cards (a type of electronic card used for some transportation in London).
Insider tip: The wheelchair section has plenty of space next to the bathroom (with changing table) for you to spread-out with the family if it isn’t in use. If you are traveling alone and ask kindly, the Heathrow Express staff will help with your luggage or stroller while you carry your child. Also, there’s a black cab stand upstairs in Paddington Station so you can pick one up there, swinging by the Paddington Bear statue en route to your destination.
London’s subway — the Underground or colloquially “the Tube” — is often the fastest way to get around London. Children under 11 travel for free when accompanied by an adult using a pay-as-you-go or travel card. Look for the larger gates with pictures of wheelchairs and strollers and go through those turnstiles. Your children under 11 just tailgate through the barrier behind you or, more safely, in front of you. For your adult travel card, you can purchase an Oyster Card from the Transport for London (TFL) desks or machines or tap any credit/debit card with touch-free access on the card reader as you enter.
Insider tip: As the single barriers shut very quickly (and hurt if shut on you), it is best to use the slower reacting double gates and make sure everyone gets through together. Things get a little more complicated on the Tube with a stroller as very few stops are entirely step-free. In many stations you’ll think you’re in the clear after taking an escalator down and then suddenly there are 15 more steps in front of you before the platform.
If you’re traveling with a small folding stroller, you can plan on folding it at the top of the stairs and hold your child, although this gets tricky if your stroller is also acting as a traveling storage unit. If it’s a double stroller, or you don’t want your walking child running free in a busy Tube station, leave them in the stroller and carry them up or down like the mini-emperors that they are. Londoners are also well-versed in helping people with strollers up the steps.
Check the TFL journey planner for step-free stations or look for the white-and-blue wheelchair circles on the Tube map. If you’re taking the escalator, which can feel a little harrowing, secure your stroller by the back wheel against the step below you and hold on tight. When going up, put the front wheel all the way forward. If there are two adults, it’s best to sandwich the stroller with one adult on each side. When you reach the platform, always enter on the double doors, ideally those with a wheelchair sign. If possible, you will want to avoid rush hours (7am–9am and 5pm–7pm) as the stations can become so crowded that you cannot reasonably get on the Tube with a stroller.
Black cabs refer to the traditional London taxis with the five seats — three across in the back and two flip-down seats facing backward. The rounded Hackney carriage design is from the 1950s, a true London icon. These days, a black cab can be any color, mostly due to advertising on the side and, as of 2017, even hybrid electric, though they all maintain the bubbly Hackney carriage design.
Importantly, black cabs drivers have passed The Knowledge, the legendary exam of London’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross Station. In an age of Uber and GPS, it’s reassuring and a unique experience to get into a car with someone who actually knows where they are going. You may notice that they have a GPS, but it is a specially designed unit that just shows the general direction between two points.
Insider tip: Luckily, black cabs have lots of experience having children in the back of their cabs. Both of our children came home from the hospital in a black cab, held in our arms. You do not need a car seat in a black cab and can just buckle everyone in.
The black cabs’ best asset is that you can keep your stroller open with child inside and just place the whole setup into the back of the cab. Entering through the passenger’s side back door is easiest because of the seat layout. The driver will likely jump out and assist you with your stroller, especially if he or she needs to use the back door extension which is required for larger strollers. Download the mytaxi or Gett app to be able to book black cabs on the go or hold up your hand the old fashioned way and flag one down. Make sure you link one of your travel rewards credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve that offers 3x points on travel purchases (including transportation). Also, black cabs can take the bus lanes, unlike Ubers or hired cars — and since they know all the back streets you can often get around much faster even if their metered fares are higher.
If you take an Uber, just pop your child on your lap or buckle them child into their own seat. You can also install your car seat or booster into the Uber, which we often do for longer journeys to the airport. The Doona car seat/stroller would be fantastic with the 1 and under crowd for those purposes. (If you do travel via this rideshare service, be sure to use the best credit card for Uber.) Currently, Lyft does not operate in London. Another Uber alternative include the local “minicab,” which is the local term for a taxi that is not a black cab. Uber Family is not available in London.
Insider tip: The new minicab comparison site Cabhit makes it easy to book infant car seats, child or booster seats and see a variety of minicab quotes. It is particularly helpful for going to the airport and longer trips that you book ahead of time. The quality of the companies and drivers can vary widely, so check the ratings and reviews.
Riding upstairs on a double-decker bus can be a highlight of a family trip to London. Like the Tube, children under 11 ride free on London buses. Wheelchair users have priority over the designated stroller and wheelchair area in the middle of the bus. Two single strollers or one double stroller can go on any bus in the designated stroller and wheelchair area. Make sure you put your brake on and hold on to your stroller; sometimes you can snag one of the seats right next to the open stroller area, but usually you’ll have to stand without fully blocking the aisle or door.
Insider tip: The driver will wave you away if there are already two strollers or a wheelchair on board. You can fold your stroller and get on. Some buses require front door entry and others allow middle door entry, which is easier for stroller access. If you enter in the middle, have one adult hold the stroller and the other tap your Oyster Card or contactless debit/credit card to the readers for payment.
One of the lesser known ways to get around London is using the Thames Clippers River Bus that runs from East to West (and back) along the River Thames. Kids under 5 ride free and there are reduced child fares for children ages 5–15.
Insider tip: Strollers are welcome on board all Thames Clippers River Bus services, although you have to stow your buggy away from the seating area (not ideal if you have a sleeping child on your hands). You can purchase tickets via the Thames Clipper ticketing app or by touching in and out with a contactless debit/credit card or Oyster pay-as-you-go. just like on the bus and Tube.
Our favorite route is going from Tower Millennium Pier (visiting Tower of London and Tower Bridge) to Westminster Pier (Big Ben, Westminster Abbey).
If you’re nervous about transporting your booster-age children around London with just a seat belt, you can also bring a MiFold Grab-and-Go booster seat (check height and weight requirements). Bringing a MiFold and an infant car seat can be a good solution to hauling two car seats around.
From the iconic black cabs and double-decker buses to the Tube, transportation can be a fun part of a family trip to London. You can even visit a museum devoted solely to London’s transportation (cleverly named London Transport Museum) in Covent Garden that is surprisingly fun and a great fit for the kids.
While you can always bring a car seat to London, you really don’t have to. Have you traveled to London with your kids? Were you able to get around town without a car seat?
Images in article by author, featured image by Benjamin Davies via Unsplash
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