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Saving Pence and Pounds in U.K.

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When in Britain, do as the Brits do. That’s my motto for stretching my travel dollar as far as it will go in the British Isles.

After all, the British are experts in squeezing the last pence from their own travel pound, and nowhere do they do it better than when they’re vacationing on their own turf.

So I tour with the Brits, stay in accommodations they favor, eat where they eat and look for shopping bargains where they find them.

Other than general prudence, there are two good reasons why I need to budget more carefully in Britain this year than last. One is the less favorable exchange rate between dollars and pounds, which has worked to diminish our buying power here by around 30%.

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The other is an economic fact of life in Britain, as elsewhere: Prices tend to go up. If the cost of travel seems high now, just wait a few months and it will climb higher.

Sure enough, air fares have increased in the U.K. by about 6% since the first of the year and British Rail has added an average of just about 8% to the price of a ticket.

Less of a Gas Drop

Gasoline prices, which in some European countries have declined 30% or more because of falling oil prices, have decreased only about 15% here, hovering around $2.55 per gallon.

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Now for the good news. You can still travel around Britain without having to take a second mortgage on the house, but you have to work at it a bit. Here are my suggestions, garnered from six months of observing how the British operate.

Wait until you arrive to book your tour of Great Britain. British touring companies that do not have North American connections offer tours comparable to the U.S.-affiliated ones for at least 25% less. Besides, the competition among most travel outfits here is particularly keen just now, which pushes prices ever lower.

One such touring firm is England’s third-largest coach (bus to us) outfit, Wallace Arnold Tours Ltd. To reassure Americans worried about late bookings, managing director John King maintains that there are always seats available. Arnold, like many other British tour operators, books to 85% occupancy to allow for last-minute arrivals.

You can send for information by writing to Wallace Arnold, Gelderd Road, Leeds, LS12 6DH, England. Otherwise when you arrive, head for the nearest travel agent bearing the sign of the Assn. of British Travel Agents and ask about this or other British coach holiday tours.

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Saving by Bus

For those who prefer independent travel, and 70% of us Americans do, long-distance motor-coach transportation in Britain is an incredible value. Compare, for example, the cost of a one-way ticket on National Express, the nation’s biggest bus line, between London and Edinburgh with the price of the British Rail fare. To make the 393-mile journey by train is about $58; by bus, figure $17.

British motor coaches are no antiquated bone-shakers. They’re modern and luxurious in the extreme, meaning large tinted picture windows, videos of feature films, stewards or stewardesses moving up and down the aisles serving snacks and soft drinks, tables for writing post cards, individually controlled reading lights and ventilation--the works.

“The coaches are playing at being planes,” commented a London journalist.

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Additional savings on all National Express coaches can be realized with the purchase of the BritBus pass, now in its second year. For $10 for 30 days it entitles incoming travelers to a one-third discount on all routes. These passes can be obtained through U.S. travel agents.

For Americans the BritRail pass, only available in the United States, is still a good buy if you plan to travel extensively and exclusively by train. It allows unlimited travel for up to a month. The cost for an adult for two weeks in economy class is $175.

Reducing Housing Costs

Next to transportation, living accommodations away from home siphon off most of our vacation funds, and bedding down in the United Kingdom is no exception. The average hotel rate in London for two, including breakfast, ranges from $70 to $120 a night; outside the capital, it dips to $60 to $75.

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By staying at guest houses or bed-and-breakfast residences you reduce your living costs dramatically. The average guest house outside London will be about $18 per person, including breakfast. In bed-and-breakfast farmhouses and town houses you can usually find lodgings for $9 to $16 a night.

Even in London, bed-and-breakfast establishments flourish. An organization called London Homes offers accommodations in private dwellings in and around the central city for $15 to $25 per person. For information, write to Thea Druce, London Homes, 8 St. Dunstans Road, Barons Court, London W6, England.

I’ve learned to save money on hotel bills by following the lead of some English friends and asking to omit the breakfast portion of my charges. At first I was surprised to see $7.50 roll off the bill. I find I can obtain as equally sustaining a traditional English breakfast for $3.75 at the neighborhood Little Chef, a national restaurant chain with 200 sprinkled around the country.

Costs Too Much

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The English seldom dine out. I was puzzled by this when I arrived, until I paid a visit to a neighborhood Italian restaurant. After pasta, salad and a glass of wine, I received a bill for $20. Now I know.

On the road, pub lunches are the thing. For about $4 you can have the special of the day, usually meat pie, stew, stroganoff or curry, including vegetables, French fries (“chips”) and a few salad morsels.

Fish-and-chips dinners are also a relatively inexpensive option. Mostly they go for around $6.75 in restaurants; at take-out shops, $2.50 or so.

“Budget Good Food Guide,” a new book from Consumer Assn., lists 1,500 places at which one can eat for around $7.50. It features some surprisingly fancy addresses, including the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair for cocktail bar snacks and the National Gallery restaurant for lunches. The book is available in London bookstores.

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Independent car rental agencies offer rates 50% lower than the big international companies; the London Evening Standard lists these car rental firms in its classified section. One outfit, Jet Self Drive, purports to have the lowest prices in the United Kingdom. They rent 1986 Ford Fiestas, unlimited mileage and insurance included, for about $82 a week. For more information, write to them at 114 Regents Park Road, Finchley N3, England.

Follow the Natives

Twice a year you’ll find clothing bargains--in January for the winter sales, July for the spring/summer markdowns. Otherwise, follow the British around for the bargains.

They like to shop in outdoor markets. I bought an Irish hand-knit sweater for $55 in a covered stall outside St. James’s Church in London. Harrods and most other places in the city price them at $100 and up. The British also patronize Marks & Spencer, a large clothing chain that sells good-quality wools at reasonable prices.

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Be sure to claim your redemption of 15% on all taxed items of merchandise.

In their own country the British prefer to travel out of season. One reason is they can take advantage of reduced rates on literally hundreds of hotels and guest houses when they stay two or more days.

Brochures cover various sections of the country and give all the vital data. For information, call or write the British Tourist Authority, 612 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90017, phone (213) 623-8196.


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