Last weekend I had the happy excuse of heading to Scotland with my husband and daughter to celebrate the wedding of a very dear friend. I was on bridesmaid duties and so headed up a bit earlier in the week, with Roo and my husband following on at the weekend, hence it being a bit quiet on the post front here recently!
The wedding was a massive success, taking place at a castle hotel in the midst of the beautiful countryside of the Scottish Borders. We had been apprehensive about travelling from the South to Scotland for just a weekend with my 19 month old daughter though and deliberated hard over everything from how to get there to how we would get some late night dancing in! I’m pleased to say though that short weekends involving long distances and flights are possible with a toddler and we all had a fantastic trip.Here’s how we did it:
Flying with Virgin Atlantic Little Red:
Whilst we often opt to drive for our trips up to Scotland, driving seven hours home with potentially groggy heads the day after a wedding was something neither of us fancied. Having left it too late for cheap train tickets and with Heathrow Airport on our doorstep, we looked into flights to Edinburgh instead. Normally, flying to Scotland from Heathrow is expensive, with British Airways the only company offering sensible flights but fairly expensive prices. Easy Jet and other budget airlines operate from the likes of Gatwick and Luton airport – both far enough from home to make the journey getting to the airport a mission in itself, not to mention adding enough to the cost to cancel out any savings on the flight itself.
Luckily for us, Virgin Atlantic have just started up their new Little Red domestic flights service in April 2013, including services between London and Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Manchester. Even better, the flights are priced competitively (my return flight cost £130 in total) but still retain their dignity by allowing you to pre-book your seats, offering a generous 23kg luggage allowance, a complimentary drink and snack on the plane and generally making you feel like a civilised human being. This is my main issue with budget airlines normally. Much as I love the prices of budget airlines, I hate the degrading experience of the flights themselves which seem designed to both squeeze every last penny out of you whilst also releasing the worst and most animal behaviour in all of us as we are forced to wear our hiking boots on the plane to avoid excess luggage charges, give those daring to buy priority boarding dirty looks and then get our elbows out and employ every dirty tactic out for the scrum which is the boarding queue! Is it any wonder people get air rage?! I’m not always a massive fan of Mr. Branson but how wonderfully refreshing to be offered a simple but comfortable flight from a well connected airport, at a reasonable price, with pleasant staff, which subsequently engenders reasonable and well-mannered behaviour from its satisfied customers!
The flights went well. I had to head up to Scotland early to help the bride with a few last minute preparations, so hubbie and Roo travelled alone on Friday afternoon but managed the journey seamlessly. The flight back was equally as good and whilst it helped that none of our flights were full and Roo therefore had the luxury of an extra seat to help keep her entertained, the seats were fairly spacious and didn’t feel packed in. Virgin Atlantic’s Little Red service does allow a generous flight time of 1 hour 30. In reality, the flight often takes less than this but it does allow the airline contingency time for getting a take off slot at Heathrow and general other airport related delays. I arrived nearly 30 minutes early on the journey out and we were on time on the way back, despite leaving later than scheduled from the airport on both legs. Staff were friendly and check-in staff were very helpful with assisting us to change our bookings to sit together on the way home, despite us all travelling on different reservations. It’s worth knowing though that if you are travelling with an infant, you are not able to change your seat booking online and have to make any subsequent changes at the airport check-in desk.
Heathrow and Edinburgh Airports
Little Red operate out of Heathrow Airport Terminal One. As one of the busiest airports in the world, Heathrow can be a bit of a mission at times and it is very much down to luck and when you travel as to how busy it will be. On this occasion, neither of our flights out had any issues at the airport, security checks took minimal time and effort and there was plenty of time for me to make the usual unnecessary airport purchases and for Roo to check out the airport activity from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows before hopping onto the flight. The toilets and baby changing facilities were immaculate on the way out and our trip back through arrivals was fast and efficient on our return. Domestic flights also avoid the issue of immigration passport checks – Heathrow’s biggest downfall in terms of customer experience and waiting times.
Getting to Heathrow can often be a headache for people, although for those in London it is well connected using the Heathrow Express train from London Paddington railway station. I took the strain out of my journey by taking the RailAir coach service from Reading Railway Station to Heathrow Terminal One. It’s expensive – £15 for a single, £23 for a period return, with children over five charged at £7 for a single and £11.50 for a return. The unsmiling staff, whilst not rude, certainly do not go out of their way to be overly friendly and made the classic customer service error of telling me about the coach I had just missed rather than just simply telling me the time of the next service! However the service itself is great with coaches running several times an hour from just outside Reading’s snazzy new railway station and the coach interiors are so luxurious and comfortable they made me wonder why I don’t travel by coach more often! I snoozed my way to the airport in style and was dropped at the door of departures at Heathrow ‘s Terminal One.
Hubbie opted to drive to Heathrow on the Friday and parked at the Business Plus parking. Closer to the airport than the more budget options, Business Plus offers a much more frequent shuttle service to the airport (minibus every 2-3 minutes) making it worthwhile for short trips, although prices add up quickly if you are away for more than a couple of days. If you’re a roll-up-at-the-airport-at-the-last-minute kind of traveller or just want the convenience of your car waiting for your arrival at the main door, Heathrow Airport also offer Valet Parking. If you’ve got the extra cash it might just be worth it to have your car picked up and delivered back to you at the airport forecourt- we’ve been tempted many times! You can find details of all the parking options and prices at Heathrow Airport here.
Edinburgh airport was a joy to arrive at, with a very quick direct transfer from plane to airport by tunnel and baggage arriving with minimal waiting time. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the way back. Check-in was trouble free but getting through security was horrendous. With just two security gates and luggage scanners open for a queue which snaked six rows back, it took us the best part of 50 minutes to get through to the departures lounge and with only ten minutes to go before our flight was scheduled to take-off. Nobody was calling through passengers on flights about to depart, as is common practice elsewhere and some desperate passengers broke ranks and stormed the staff-only security gate in an attempt to make their flight to Paris. It was utter chaos, badly organised and with no clear contingency plans in operation for overcrowding. According to one of our fellow passengers who travels regularly through the airport, this situation is a common occurrence. Roo was incredibly hot and frustrated after such a lengthy wait in a slow moving queue and I’m afraid I didn’t have much sympathy or do much to help when she beeped going through the body scanner and the staff attempted to body-check her whilst she had a full on, lying on floor, kicking legs tantrum. Luckily and no thanks to the staff at Edinburgh Airport, we made the flight and made it back to much pleasanter Heathrow on time.
Auto Europe and Interrent Car Hire
Keen to keep costs low, a quick search of online travel comparison websites showed up that our cheapest car hire option from Edinburgh Airport was via Auto Europe with Interrent, costing £94 for five days rental of a compact class car, with a child seat costing £12 a day extra. My allocated car was a chirpy if a little comical looking Fiat 500 which fitted two suitcases, two adults and a toddler easily and was surprisingly fun to drive.
With budget prices there is normally a downside and in this case it is that the Interrent office is located a short drive away from Edinburgh airport by the Quality Hotel. You are given a number to call upon your arrival and a shuttle comes to pick you up for the minute or so’s short drive to the office from the number 6 bus stand opposite the airport’s main door. Checking out the car was fairly painless although it did surprise me when I asked a passing member of Interrent staff for assistance fitting the slightly tired looking Narnia toddler car-seat. He informed me that yes, he did know how it was fitted but was unable to assist me as it wasn’t his baby – implying he was afraid of being sued in the event of an accident! I managed to work out the seat myself eventually and hopefully the staff member concerned was unable to help perhaps due to lack of training or similar. Whatever the reason, a bit of work on customer service skills and use of initiative wouldn’t go amiss! Returning the car was ok although we did have a bit of a wait for someone to turn up and sort out the paperwork. Once they arrived it took seconds and our shuttle was waiting for us but I’d advise leaving a little extra time for car returns just in case.
The Bonny Scottish Borders
The weekend itself was a delight and set in the Scottish Borders just south of Edinburgh. If, like me, you’ve often whizzed through Scotland’s Borders region on the fastest possible route, heading for the more well-known attraction in the north, you are missing out. The belt of land between Northern England’s rugged boundary and the metropolitan bustle of Edinburgh and Glasgow is a beautiful wilderness of rolling hills and mountains, pretty historic towns and castles and babbling burns. This is a region steeped in history over centuries of disputes over Scotland’s sovereignty and border, with evidence of its turbulent past to be easily found in the historic buildings and scenery still present today. The wedding took place at Barony Castle Hotel, near the pretty, historic market town of Peebles and was a fantastic event – I have blisters on my feet and aching legs from over-enthusiastic ceilidh dancing still to prove it!
We had a pleasant stay at Barony Castle and the venue would make a good base for families exploring the local area. There are lots of walking opportunities nearby and those into mountain biking plenty of different cross-country and downhill tracks on offer at nearby Glentress Forest. Barony Castle itself has lovely grounds extending to 25 acres. They include the unusual and impressive 50m x 60m map of Scotland made out of concrete by the Polish Army in the 1940s as a planning aid in defending Scotland’s coastline, complete with a moat representing the sea. The map was later restored by wartime occupant Jan Tomasik with the help of polish students as a living memorial to the gratitude of the Polish soldiers’ gratitude to the people of Scotland. The map is currently part of a project to be restored again and can be viewed from a platform in the grounds of the hotel.
Our thoroughly over-excited daughter managed to stay up pretty late on the night of the wedding and enjoyed some dancing before finally having to be taken to bed exhausted around 9pm. The hotel annoyingly don’t offer babysitting services and so after some testing the night before and requesting the hotel to put us within easy range of the wedding reception room, we were able to let her sleep in her cot in our room with the door locked and listen in on her with the baby monitor from downstairs, along with a few checks for our peace of mind. It worked fine but this was another one of those times though when I think having a video baby monitor would definitely come in handy!
Overall it was a fantastic trip though and despite only being a couple of days away for Roo, she has slipped back into her routine with minimal disruption. It has proved that it is possible to get away quite a distance for a short weekend with a toddler and with Little Red also offering a service from Heathrow to Aberdeen, heading to the Cairngorms or Scotland’ mountains for some weekend family walking has suddenly become a possibility without taking time off work, leaving us as parents traumatised by the experience or bankrupting us. Watch out Scotland, we will be back soon!