Saturday, September 30, 2023

The 24 Hours in London Everyone Warned Us Not to Take

When we move for work, we're typically authorized a 24-hour rest stop at a place we would have had a layover. Until now, we've always taken the rest stop and appreciated the chance to shower, rest in a real bed, and explore a bit of the layover city. On our way to PCS (permanent change of station) to Dubai, our designated rest stop option was London. We waffled back and forth about whether to take the rest stop this time for several reasons:

  • We're traveling with a toddler, which is way more difficult than traveling with a newborn as we did on our last PCS from Korea to the States. Newborns are content to sleep most of the trip while toddlers are generally antsier and fussier. Shaking up routines can also be hard at S's age (a year and a half), so most parents recommended powering through to the final destination as quickly as possible and not taking a rest stop until kids are older.
  • Many folks told us that Heathrow Airport was too far from the city and we'd have a frustrating time actually trying to get out and see the sights due to cost and transit time.
  • People advised it's harder to visit London in a day than other cities where we've done rest stops like Doha and Paris because things to do and sightsee are quite spread out from each other and we might only get to see one or two things.

Ultimately, we decided to take the rest stop and see how it went, partially as a trial run to see how S did and partially because we've never visited London or any part of the UK together before. The trip started out very rough, with an awful experience on British Airways (BA). Everyone was perfectly nice, but it felt like the first time everyone we interacted with on BA staff had handled a family traveling with a toddler. For example, we always get S his own seat on the plane with a car seat approved for air travel and have him sit in that seat for takeoff and landing. (Not having him in our laps the whole time reduces the risk of in-flight injury.) Unfortunately, a flight attendant tried to tell us we're not allowed to put him in his approved car seat for takeoff and landing and had to have him in our laps. She brought us a seatbelt extension to strap him into our lap belt, but we insisted on using the car seat. Thankfully, she was overruled and came back to tell us we could strap him into his proper seat. (The exact same thing happened on ur second flight, as well. The head flight attendant insisted we couldn't have S in our car seat for takeoff and landing until we demanded he look up the policy and only let us do it once he confirmed we were right per the stated BA policy.

The worst part of all was the stroller. We have a nice, sturdy jogging stroller we travel with that we have always been able to gate check and receive at the gangway without issue. This time, however, we were told that BA policy was to take anything larger than an umbrella stroller and check it as a checked bag we wouldn't have until baggage claim in London. We resigned ourselves to our fate, taking a baby carrier onto the plane so we could wear him until baggage claim. But when we got to our luggage we discovered they had absolutely and permanently destroyed our stroller. The whole thing was smashed, the wheels were bent in all kinds of directions, the spokes were broken, and it was unusable. We had to toss it in the trash at Heathrow and BA shrugged and told us we could always file a claim requesting reimbursement (which may or may not be approved) later.

Not having a stroller in London (and taking an extra three hours to get out of the airport dealing with that situation) really messed up my carefully planned morning. We landed at 6am, so I thought we'd have plenty of time to drop our bags off and do a morning walking tour that was stroller accessible. We ended up scrapping the walking tour since our only method of transporting S was carrying him. We dropped our suitcases and the car seat off at a luggage storage at the airport and took only our carry-ons into the city. Getting into London once we finally escaped the airport was much less of a hassle than people told us previously thanks to the relatively new Elizabeth line train. We took it from the airport to right by our hotel and only had to walk a few minutes. The train service was great and the train was comfortable and on time with plenty of seating. The best part was, we didn't have to buy any separate tickets and could just pay by tapping our phones at the turnstiles and using Google Pay. It was so convenient.

We were able to check into our hotel a bit early, which I was really grateful for after that first leg of our trip. To our (and especially M's horror), though, they told us the building required emergency maintenance and the entire building would be without air conditioning during our stay. Strike two for our rest stop in London... Funny enough, the weather was gorgeous for our whole time in London, with partly cloudy skies and low 70s Fahrenheit for temperature, but the inside of the hotel was quite hot and stuffy compared to the refreshing outside air.

Once we all had a bite to eat at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant and took a nap to recover from the flight, we headed out to explore and had a lovely walk around Mayfair. I tried to find museums or things we could visit, but all of the ones I found nearby closed quite early on a weekday (5 or 6pm), and we had plans to meet a friend of mine for dinner at 6:30pm so the timing wasn't great. Instead, we popped over to Fortnum and Mason department store to do some shopping and ended up getting their ice cream at The Parlour. The Bickfield Milk flavor was my favorite: it tasted so fresh and delicious. We were so busy wrangling S at the table that I forgot to take a photo! (Oh, how parenthood changes you.)

We were going to meet my friend J for dinner at Dishoom, a restaurant multiple coworkers had recommended, but when we went there was a 40-minute wait and M and I didn't think S would do well waiting that long especially since he'd already be passing his usual bedtime. We tried a few other restaurants on the same street, but one said you needed a reservation and the next didn't have a high chair. As I started to get nervous we wouldn't find somewhere to eat, a lovely Thai restaurant swooped to the rescue with not only a table but a high chair. Success! The food really hit the spot. It was so fun catching up with J, my bestie from my time studying Arabic and teaching English in Oman. I haven't seen her in years but when we found out we'd be stopping by London she was the first person I messaged to see if she was free. This was the highlight of our rest stop (and we didn't miss out on Dishoom since we got some for breakfast the next day)!

On the day of our departure from London, we made arrangements to get to Heathrow two hours before our flight. Since the Elizabeth line train was so reliable on the way in, we thought we'd have a similarly easy time on the way out. Unfortunately, we were sorely mistaken. Multiple trains passed that were not going to our terminal in Heathrow, and the train we actually needed was delayed. It was only the beginning of our departure nightmare, however, because when we got to the airport we rushed to check in at multiple zones where British Airways staff kept redirecting us to a special zone we had to check in given we were traveling with a child, even though we were running late. They insisted it was for our convenience, but it was anything but convenient. By the time we finally found a British Airways employee in the zone for families traveling with children and told them we were behind schedule, they scolded us for our tardiness, rolled their eyes, and let us through saying, "What were you thinking? There's no way you're going to make your flight!" Despite our urgency, they still let two sets of customers from the regular line go before us before we could see an agent. The agent then informed us we were six minutes too late to check in per British Airways' required one hour minimum before the flight. Our pleas for mercy (especially since the only reason we were six minutes late is because other zones kept turning us away) were ignored. The worst part was, our flight ended up being ten minutes delayed anyway so we were technically at the desk more than an hour before departure.

I proceeded to spend many grueling hours on the phone with Carlson Wagonlit (CWT, the State Department contracted travel arranging company), American Airlines (through whom the tickets were booked), and British Airways (who operated the flight). Each one told me to go talk to one of the others and said they could not assist me at all. Even after seeking help from my office, I ultimately had to pay out of pocket the almost $2,000 cost of new flights for the whole family and just pray I can get reimbursed later (something I was assured was not a guarantee).

So what's the verdict? Everyone was absolutely right that the rest stop in London is not worth it, and we should have listened to them! I'm sure London would be great with more time, but 24 hours is insufficient and a logistical nightmare. Even though S handled the transitions, time zone changes, and long hours at the airport like a champ, it didn't make up for how awful the overall experience was. I'm so glad I saw my friend J, because catching up with her was the bright spot of our trip. Regarding everything else, I'll just add my voice to the chorus of wise Foreign Service folks who came before us and say: do not do the London rest stop if you can help it! (Though if you manage to have a completely delightful and successful rest stop there, I have mad respect for you. It's not easy.)

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