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A family affair: Clan O'Donnell takes in the sights of London

Tower of London (Photo by Gretchen O'Donnell)1 / 13
The O'Donnell family takes a selfie at Stonehenge.2 / 13
Stonehenge3 / 13
London phone booth4 / 13
Cup of tea5 / 13
Abbey Road6 / 13
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace7 / 13
Katie O'Donnell in London8 / 13
Hogwarts Express on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour.9 / 13
The O'Donnell family (from left), Colin, Katie, Lucy, Ian and Gretchen are shown on their London trip.10 / 13
Cutty Sark clipper ship11 / 13
Lucy O'Donnell with a statue of Paddington Bear.12 / 13
London Eye, an enclosed 443-foot Ferris Wheel, was a favorite with the O'Donnell kids.13 / 13

When my husband, Colin, and I considered taking our three children — Ian, age 16, Katie, age 14, and Lucy, age 9 — on a trip to London, England, we had several questions on our minds. Will they appreciate and understand everything they see? Will they remember everything? Is it worth the time, the money, the fuss and bother?

The answer, having just returned from 10 days in London with my family, is an unequivocal “Yes!” Sure, they might not fully appreciate every single thing we did, but in looking back at my first overseas trip at age 16, I know that ultimately it opened my eyes to so much beyond the little town where I was raised. I know that for my kids, their perspectives on the world, the ways they view history — and even their views of their own country and their own futures — have been impacted for the good.

Before, during and after our trip, we learned a few things that proved to be very helpful. Let me share a few of them with you.

Before leaving for your London trip, prepare your kids for a few realities:

*  Food. If your child is a picky eater then you better bring granola bars and cheese sticks, because they’ll be hungry. Yes, most restaurants have burgers, but mostly it’s fish and chips, Chicken Tikka Masala (yum!) and meat pies.

*  There will be crowds. Talk about safety, talk about how to handle the jostling. Talk about where to keep wallets and purses. We never felt in danger, but it’s best to be prepared. Oh, and unless you have a death wish, never, ever, jaywalk.

*  Let them know that their feet will hurt, but they have to press on. If you stop every time your feet hurt, you’ll waste your entire trip because your feet will hurt from the very first day.

*  Pack light, and if you want to fit in, don’t pack blue jeans. Also, be sure to have Life Savers in your airplane carry-on. Hard candies are better than gum, actually, as the continual sucking helps keep ears clear. And have a travel pack of wet wipes, too. This will be helpful when your daughter gets a nosebleed at 35,000 feet.

*  Do all the research you can before leaving. Virtually every tourist attraction has tickets available online, which means saving time and avoiding lines. Even Underground (subway) tickets can be bought online, meaning that from the get-go, you’ll be set to hop on the Underground and not waste money on expensive cab rides.

*  Consider skipping the hotels and instead rent a flat (apartment) from airbnb.com. We stayed in a lovely flat which was a five minute walk from an Underground stop and a grocery store. It even had a dishwasher and a washer-dryer combo. (Which, by the way, is another reason to leave your blue jeans behind: they take about two hours to dry in such a machine.)

*  Consider, too, having a cellphone available for even your youngest kids. It won’t work to make calls (unless you set it up beforehand for international calling), but it is great fun for them to be able to take as many pictures as they desire.

*  Two years ago we purchased “Paddington’s Guide to London,” which proved to be an excellent tool. Lucy had a huge list of things to do that Paddington recommended. One favorite: doing a brass rubbing at St. Martin in the Fields’ Crypt.

Some suggestions for after you arrive

*  Don’t give in to jet lag. We arrived at the flat at about 11 in the morning. We were tired, but we dropped off our bags and headed straight back to the Underground. We pushed ourselves, ate a late lunch and returned to the flat by about 5 p.m. The kids were asleep by 5:15.

*  Meal options. First thing the next morning we stopped at the grocery store and picked up breakfast items (crumpets!) as well as pre-made, refrigerated meals for some dinners. We didn’t eat in every night, but on the few we did, it was a far less expensive alternative to eating out.

*  As we toured museums and saw the sights, we kept a running list of words and phrases that were different in England than in America. This was very fun for the kids. Here were some favorites: garbage cans = rubbish bins. Exit = Way Out. Bathroom = WC, loo, toilet. Detour = Diversion. “Are you in line?” = “Are you queuing?” Oh, and “mushy peas” truly are mushed-up peas. Usually pretty tasty, even if they do resemble baby food.

*  Have change on hand, because you never know when you’ll need to use the WC, and many public bathrooms require you to pay 30p (pence) — 50p was typical. Also, bathrooms are few and far between … just sayin’.

* It’s a good idea to have at least one of your family wear a backpack. It can hold cameras, umbrellas, sweatshirts, as well as any small items you purchase. Know, though, that it will be subject to searching at any and every place you go. That’s just a reality these days.

A few of our favorite things

* We took a London Walks Tour of Westminster Abbey, which saved us standing in line and gave us fascinating insights from our tour guide. We took another tour of Notting Hill and Portobello Road. Both tours were very worthwhile, and there are many, many tours available. The London Big Bus Tour was also worthwhile and includes a boat ride on the River Thames.

* The London Eye — an enclosed, 443-foot tall Ferris Wheel — is worth doing for the view that it offers. The kids especially loved it.

* Touring the Cutty Sark Clipper Ship, a three-masted tea clipper built in 1869 and now housed in Greenwich, was quite interesting. They even had an Easter egg hunt on the ship with prizes.

* The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is worth doing, but in order for it to be worthwhile, you must get there at least two hours ahead of time. Otherwise you won’t see much of anything.

* The British Museum with its Egyptian mummies and other ancient things is awesome for a run through, but don’t force your kids to wait while you read every single thing. If you want to see everything, then you must go without them. Seriously. Likewise with other galleries and museums. Know your kids’ limits and don’t push them — they’re already tired and trying hard to be good.

* One definite family favorite of our trip was visiting the Warner Brothers “The Making of Harry Potter” Studio Tour. This was amazing. You see behind the scenes of how they made the movie, complete with sets, props, costumes, animatronics, etc. You can actually walk up Diagon Alley and poke your nose into the Weasleys’ kitchen. If you have kids, it’s a must-do. Give yourselves lots of time and book tickets far in advance. Family rates are available.

* One thing we did that was not ever on my bucket list, but turned out to be quite cool, was to visit Stonehenge. We took a train an hour and a half out of London to Salisbury, then took a tour bus out to Stonehenge. It is an impressive feat of humanity, that’s for sure. From there we returned to Salisbury, where we enjoyed the medieval town and walked to the cathedral where one of the four remaining copies of the 1215 Magna Carta are housed. Fascinating history and a fun day.

The debrief

Traveling in this day and age can seem a little scary. Halfway through our trip the bombings in Brussels, Belgium, occurred. Were we afraid? No. Would fear have helped anything? No.

If fear had kept us away in the first place, we’d have missed out on our wonderful trip. If fear had frozen us once we were there, we’d have wasted time and money. My husband travels a lot, and I can’t spend my life being scared for him. My father, a pilot for Pan American Airlines, was hijacked to Cuba back in 1969 and lived to tell the story, so maybe that has something to do with my attitude, I suppose.

The fact is, the rewards of traveling are worth the risk.

One last thing

The first day back at school after the trip, Lucy’s third-grade art teacher began a new unit on Van Gogh, looking particularly at his “Sunflowers” painting. Six days previously, Lucy had seen that exact painting at the National Gallery. We had made a point of seeing that and a few other things in particular.

That evening after school, eyes lit up, Lucy said, “Guess what, Mom? We’re going to paint Van Gogh’s Sunflowers!”

Suddenly art came alive. Suddenly real life was impacted by vacation. Suddenly the whole purpose of our trip was encapsulated in that one moment: opening the eyes of our kids to the world, to art, to history, to different people and experiences.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

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