Every summer, our family holidays somewhere different. We've done theme parks, a classic road trip and the Caribbean. This year, with our son hitting his teens, we went international with 10 days in London.
The planning was a team effort: My wife was in charge of the budget and activities schedule. I was in charge of airfare and hotel. Our son played consultant, voting yes or no.
We saved US$1,000 ($1398.60) on airfare by taking connecting flights rather than flying direct. Then, using Booking.com, we spent hours researching hotels. The map icon interface was great: Pick a neighbourhood, zoom in, click on the hotel. We wanted a Tube station within walking distance, but saved money by picking a one-bedroom with pullout couch over a two-room suite.
With flights and lodging booked, we moved on to the itinerary. Our son had two must-sees: the Imperial War Museum and Harry Potter studio tour. We bought advance tickets for Potter, two theatre shows, a bike tour, the London Eye, several walking tours and a hop-on, hop-off bus. With rain jackets and electric converters packed, we were ready.
So how did it all work out?
Our flights involved a series of unfortunate events, including plane trouble in Chicago, lost luggage on the way home and overhead drop-down screens on our trans-Atlantic leg instead of individual entertainment screens. We had to keep reminding ourselves, "but we saved US$1,000!" An expensive cab ride from airport to hotel marred our arrival in London. Next time we'll take the train from the airport.
But our hotel, Citadines South Kensington, did not disappoint. The location was ideal, four blocks from the Gloucester Road Tube station, with plenty of restaurants nearby. An Italian eatery, Da Mario, became a favourite. We even knew somebody dining there our first night - the airport cabbie who'd charged a fortune.
We took the double-decker sightseeing bus on our first morning as a no-stress introduction to the city. Our bus passes included the Tower of London tour and a Thames River cruise. Big Ben, Parliament, 10 Downing Street and Westminster Abbey were a few minutes' walk apart. Cross the river and we were at the London Eye, getting a bird's-eye view of all we'd just seen.
With a teen who grew up reading Harry Potter, the Warner Bros Studio Tour - The Making of Harry Potter was essential. We saw props, costumes and sets, including Platform nine and three quarters, the Night Bus, Harry's cubbyhole at Number 4 Privet Drive and a miniature Hogwarts campus.
You can get filmed riding your very own Nimbus 2000, or pile the family into the Weasley invisible car for a group photo. At the massive gift shop you can easily drop a few hundred quid. But skip the butter beer at the food court - oh, it's horrible.
For a real-life adventure, try biking through London. Besides navigating throngs of wandering tourists, we dodged buses, cabs, motorcycles and delivery lorries while trying not to lose our guide, who biked ahead of the straggling group on our three-hour tour. The only leisurely part was a pedal through St James's Park, Green Park and Hyde Park.
We hadn't planned a firsthand look at the UK National Health Service, but I added to the bike adventure with an ambulance ride after hitting the pavement head first and suffering a concussion. Our son was enthralled by the history lesson at the Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital on Westminster Bridge: Florence Nightingale set up a nursing school there, and it was bombed by the Germans during World War II. So the emergency room visit was not a total loss.
Fortunately our other travels were mostly by Tube, using the convenient London Underground Oyster Cards. After two days, we delegated figuring out routes and platforms to our son.
We also did several walking tours: one on Dr Who locations; a Jack the Ripper tour at dusk - not for the squeamish - in the modern-day Whitechapel neighbourhood; and a Beatles tour with a stop at Abbey Road. Kids who know the Beatles might like it. If not, be prepared for eye rolls.
Our son calls us the "history geek" family, so we enjoyed our day at the Imperial War Museum. And since no London trip would be complete without a little royal pomp, we watched the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
We also enjoyed London at night, walking around Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and the West End theatre district, where we took in The Audience and The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time.
All in all, we loved our trip. Involving our son in planning and research was key, and can be an effective way to engage teenagers who might otherwise never look up from their screens.
One additional word to the wise: If you go biking in London - or anywhere else - wear a helmet.