Planning a Trip to the UK


Planning a Trip to the UK

Stonehenge, UNESCO World Heritage Site, UK.          Photo by Bram Spooner

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Sometimes one has to do a great deal of searching to find educational and historical sites on a trip, and sometimes one has the opposite problem: too much of a good thing! If you’re planning a trip to the British isles, you will definitely suffer a case of the latter! From the prehistoric fossils beds of Lyme Regis and the ruins of Stonehenge to the Roman relics of Hadrian’s wall, countless medieval castles, and even the “modern” haunts of the halls of Parliament or the London Eye, there are thousands of sites that come to mind! Even with a full month of vacation time, you would still have to pick and choose sites, experiences, and a route to connect them all.

Explore from home to decide on your top destinations

Boudiccan Rebellion, London, UK. Photo by Socalwanderer

The first step in planning my trip was brainstorming a prioritized list of sights to see. I had been to the UK several times before, but this would be my son’s first trip, so I began “priming the pump” about a year in advance. I searched out resources that would educate my son about the area in an entertaining manner. 

Learn about the history of the UK

If your child is old enough to read an 1,145 page novel, the novel Sarum is an excellent choice. The history of England is told from the perspective of characters stretching from the first humans (whose narrative is pieced together from archeological and anthropological evidence) to the mid-1980s.

If this tome is a bit too long, the film Warrior Queen is an entertaining dramatization of the Roman conquest, and has just enough artistic license to keep kids entertained while staying true (enough!) to history. (This is an age restricted video on YouTube so families will want to decide for themselves if it is appropriate for them.)  Another good choice about the same topic is the documentary Boudica: Warrior Queen of Ancient Britain. 

 My son also enjoyed the BBC series Battlefield Britain, which brings history alive with maps and contemporary footage. There are multiple episodes bringing the viewer through major battles from Boudica through to the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Use what you have discovered to craft your itinerary

My next step was to brainstorm a list of sights to see. I began by simply searching and saving each site we’d like to see on Google Maps. You can create lists and color code your saved places if that helps you organize your trip. We began with one color for “must-sees” and another for “second tier”.  We saved sights from as far north as Liverpool and as far south as Brighton. For this reason, we decided to book one-way flights to allow us to start our trip in the north of the island and end in the south. (We eventually decided to utilize the Chunnel and go as far south as Paris, France… but that’s a story I’ll leave for later!) Of course, your experience may well vary and allow for a circular route around the island. We did find that two one-way tickets were not any more expensive than a round trip when we booked, though that can vary depending upon airlines and the season. 

Follow your child’s lead

Keeping family interests in mind is a great way to get your kids excited about the trip. My son had an interest in WW2 aircraft and tanks thanks to several video games, such as World of Tanks and War Thunder. My grandfather was a mechanic in the Royal Air Force, so my father was aware of several good military museums in the UK. The Dorchester Tank Museum is one of the finest tank museums in the world, with many hands-on exhibits that will appeal to kids (and adults!) of all ages. London’s Imperial War Museum is another worthwhile stop for anyone with an interest in military history.

A shortlist of our must-sees included London, Stonehenge, and a few members of our extended family. Both my son and I are huge Beatle fans, so we also decided a trip to Liverpool was a must. We then added some “second tier” sites that we’d love to see if it was convenient to do so. After finalizing our lists, I opened up Google Maps and started planning a route.

Find the hidden gems

The Rick Steves England travel book (or website) was invaluable. I found many hidden gems via his suggestions. While London has enough sights to fill more than a month of sightseeing, I found several lesser-known, excellent educational places to visit, such as Dennis Sever’s House and the Old Operating Theatre Museum

My best tips for your trip to the UK

We decided to rent a car for most of our trip. You’ll want to assess your own ability to drive on the left side of the road and keep in mind that nearly all intersections are traffic circles. If neither of these things bothers you too much, then give it a go! I found that driving was not as hard as I anticipated. We did decide to use a train for two long segments where there were not a lot of sights we wished to see in between. Unlike much of the US, the train system in the UK is modern, fast (one of our trains ran at 186 mph), reliable, and relatively inexpensive. Again, Rick Steves’ recommendations for rail passes came in handy.

When traveling in Europe, remember that America is the only country in the world that places month before date. Despite the fact that I knew this, it was easy to fall back into old habits and it led to one reservation for a museum being wrong. This goes hand-in-hand with my final bit of advice: be willing to change plans on the fly! The reservation that I goofed up was for the Dorchester Tank Museum– the highlight of the trip for my son. We switched hotel reservations, stayed an extra night in Bournemouth, and managed to get into the museum the next day! In addition, a quick search online found a local hike and zipline experience to fill the extra day. Smiles all around, and a dad-fail turned into a dad-win. 


Enrich your trip to the UK

Visiting the UK is always a pleasure, but taking the time to learn more about these isles before going made it even better. My son was excited to go when he first heard we were planning the trip, but his enthusiasm increased exponentially after being exposed to historical fiction and learning about sights that appealed to his interests. I had been several times before and felt I had little more to learn about England, but I was also surprised at how many hidden gems I (and even my relatives who live there) had overlooked in the past. It just goes to show, you’re never too old to learn! We already have a new list of sites lined up for our next trip!

This guest post was contributed by SocalWanderer

We love to learn from our guest authors and appreciate their expertise!

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How to Create Your Own Stargazing Tour

How to Create Your Own Stargazing Tour

Photo by Greg Rakozy

It’s hard to believe that it was only about eight years ago that I bought “my” first telescope. (I put “my” in quotes because it was actually for my 8 year old son, but I ended up using it far more than he did!) Since that time astronomy has become such a big part of my life that, if I was forced to describe myself in one (hyphenated) word, it might be “amateur-astronomer”! Our family loves to travel, and whenever possible I like to incorporate some stargazing into the vacation. While I’m definitely not the wisest astro-aficionado, I have learned several things over the past eight years that I wish I’d known earlier, and I’m hoping to pass on this knowledge to those who are interested so you can create your own stargazing tours.

Beginner's Resources for Stargazing

Photo by NPS/M.Quinn

Your Local Astronomy Clubs

If you’re considering getting into astronomy, one of the easiest and cheapest first steps would be to contact your local astronomy club. A Google search of “astronomy clubs near me” will likely bring several up, but another good source would be this site. Clubs come in all shapes and sizes, so don’t be afraid to try several local clubs until you find a good fit. Almost all of them will offer at least one “Star Party” per month, where members gather in one spot and invite the public to observe through the many scopes they have brought with them. It’s a great place to meet members and to ask questions about their equipment. Some clubs also rent telescopes (or even let you check out scopes from their “scope library” for free!). Furthermore, in the event you decide to buy your own scope, members are often upgrading their own equipment and selling their older scopes for pennies on the dollar to other members.

Astronomy Apps

Although I’m loath to encourage anything that gets us staring at our phones more, I have to admit that there are some great, free astronomy apps that will help you find and identify objects in the night sky quickly and easily. Android users can download “Sky Map”, which has a red-light mode (easy on your eyes in low-light situations) and other great settings that the user can customize to their liking. Apple users could install Star Walk 2 or SkySafari, which are comparable in their functionality. All of these apps allow you to simply hold your phone up to the area of the sky you are looking at and see a labeled image of the constellations, stars, and/or planets (…and even comets when they’re around!).

Sky Map App

Buying a Telescope

I would hold off on buying a scope until after you’ve checked out several from your local clubs and star-parties. You’ll also get lots of advice from these friendly folks. I went down the other route of buying a scope before I knew anything about them, and I wish I hadn’t. This telescope was only $75 (and also included a microscope!). While it did instill a love of astronomy in me, it would have been much better if I had put that $75 towards a better scope. 

Most cheap, department store scopes have a major Achilles heel: a poor tripod mount. Ask any astronomer: the mount is as important–if not more–than the scope itself. You could have a ten million dollar telescope, but if it’s on a flimsy mount that lets it shake about, you may as well not bother looking through it! 


Top Picks

Nearly all astronomers recommend beginners start with a type of telescope known as a Dobsonian; they have extremely sturdy mounts. They also give you the most “bang for the buck” as far as image quality. Furthermore, they are not only “beginner” scopes… you’ll see for yourself at any star party that many seasoned veterans still use these “light buckets”, which are actually the best kind of telescope for deep-sky objects.

A good set of binoculars is also a good, inexpensive starting option. They’re great for the moon and will even bring up detail in some deep sky objects (galaxies and nebulae). Furthermore, they’re great for wildlife watching during the day!


Whenever anyone asks me for advice on this, I recommend the AWB Onesky, a small Dobsonian that collapses for travel purposes. Even though I now own a much bigger, computerized scope (that is taller than most people who look through it!), I still keep my Onesky as my travel scope. Furthermore, the non-profit organization you buy it from (Astronomers Without Borders) donates one scope to a needy school or community for each one bought!

Planning Your Stargazing Trips

Darksite Finder

So now you’ve caught the astro-bug, you’ve bought/borrowed a telescope, and you’re ready to head out to a dark-sky site!


The first thing you’ll want to consider is the moon’s phase. A full moon is beautiful, but it’s incredibly bright. It will help you if you’re planning night hikes, but it can completely ruin a planned stargazing session. I have taken several night hikes under a full moon in Joshua Tree National Park–an internationally recognized “dark sky” oasis… but with the full moon I may as well have been in downtown Los Angeles. You will see only the planets and a handful of the brightest stars under these conditions. I recommend you check the phase on a site such as this, and go as close to the new moon as possible. Definitely avoid any phase greater than 50% (a “gibbous” moon). 

Location, Location, Location

At least as important as timing is your location. A city will have far too much light pollution (the world’s one exception is Flagstaff, Arizona, which has worked hard to limit light pollution). The good news is that many cities are a short drive from excellent skies, and many other locales, such as national parks, are well-known for their pristine dark skies. The International Dark Sky Association has a list of areas of exceptional night time beauty. My favorite planning site is DarkSiteFinder, which superimposes a color-coded level of light pollution over maps of the entire world. When planning a stargazing vacation I’ve often been able to find a dark, or darker, sky on this site that would be impossible to find any other way.

For example, Joshua Tree National Park is an excellent site for stargazing, but if you look at the screenshot above, you’ll notice there is a “rainbow” of light pollution in the park. The bottom-left (southwestern) side of the park has a great deal of light pollution from the neighboring city of Palm Springs, while the top-right (northeastern) side is pristine. Even within the same “dark sky” park, your experience can vary greatly! I zoom in on the darkest areas and find those that look like they’d be a good place to set up your scope. You’ll want to be able to get away from busy roads (with cars headlights), but you’ll also want to try and verify it’s not on private property. I’ve found  Bureau of Land Management and National/State parks are some of the best places. If you have an AWD/4WD vehicle, you’ll multiply the number of areas open to you by an order of magnitude. Most of my favorite stargazing sites are along dirt roads in the desert southwest. Many of these spots permit overnight camping so you can car-camp if you’re observing until late in the evening

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Share the Wonder

I hope you get to enjoy stargazing with your friends and families. To gaze outward is to gaze within. In the words of Carl Sagan, “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

This guest post was contributed by So Cal Wanderer

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You've landed in the right place! Tripscholars is here to help you extend the joy and wonder of travel far beyond your days on the road. Find travel education tips and inspiration in our ROADMAPS BLOG. Save yourself time and money by using our TRAVEL RESOURCES LIBRARY where we have already gathered top resources for you to enjoy from home. Tripscholars is where curious travelers come for meaningful travel planning and trip research.

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