Tips for London on the cheap (or cheaper)
Americans visiting London these days may feel as destitute as the young Oliver Twist. And with $400-a-night hotel bills, $80 cab rides and $8 Tube tickets, they won’t need Fagin’s band of pickpockets to empty their wallets.
For their predicament, tourists can mostly blame the woeful U.S. dollar, which, after sliding 14% in two years, was recently worth half a British pound.
Another culprit is increasing costs in London, judged the world’s second-most-expensive city by Mercer Human Resource Consulting in New York. (Moscow was No. 1; New York, No. 14.)
But if Americans plan carefully, they need not scratch the British capital off their 2008 travel lists. And there are new reasons to go: the redesigned St. Pancras Station, now home to the Eurostar and boasting fresh-food markets and soaring architecture; a reimagined London Transport Museum; and a big British Airways terminal, opening in March, that may reduce hassles at Heathrow.
10 DO’S . . .
Here are 10 tips for saving on a London vacation, plus five budget-busting mistakes, all gleaned from a recent trip, travel agents and other experts:
1.Go in winter, spring or fall. By avoiding the summer peak season, which many carriers define as late May through the first week of September, you’ll save hundreds on airfare. And because theaters, museums and many other pastimes are indoors, you’ll still have fun.
In a recent spot-check of flights online, the lowest LAX-London round-trip fare was $1,200, including taxes and fees, for nonstops in summer, compared with less than $700 for travel into March. Expect to pay $50 to $200 more in April and early May, said Brian Clewer, owner of the Continental Travel Shop, an air consolidator and travel agency in Santa Monica.
To snag the best price or even to get a seat, book way ahead. Most fliers are buying international tickets more than three months before departing, said Amy Ziff, editor at large for Travelocity.com.
Don’t count on fares dropping in 2008, experts told me, even though more airlines will fly to London. That’s because Heathrow and Gatwick have limited slots; oil prices remain high; and fuel surcharges of up to $220, along with taxes and fees, already add hundreds to each transatlantic ticket.
2. Book packages or group tours. Packages combine flights, hotels and often airport transfers and other costs into one price; tours typically add guides, meals, ground transportation and more. Either option can save you money, because operators get volume discounts and may buy British currency in advance to cover expenses. To book a package or tour, see a travel agent or check websites of travel sellers and major airlines.
As an example of savings, a recent Virgin Vacations package charged $2,670 total per couple for LAX-London round-trip airfare, six nights at the Holiday Inn Kensington Forum, daily breakfast, taxes and fees. That was $432 less than the lowest total I found online for the flights and hotel on the same March dates. (These prices may no longer be available.)
3. Lower your standards. It’s tough to find a well-reviewed hotel in London for less than $250 a night, and that’s with no frills. Anyone with limited means and a heavy touring schedule should look at two- or three-star lodging. Why book a luxury hotel if all you will do is sleep there? If you have Champagne tastes, try bidding for rooms on sites such as www.priceline.com or using frequent-stay points.
4. Try a hotel alternative. Some bed-and-breakfast inns may charge as much as hotels, but their rates at least include a meal. (Some hotels include breakfast too.) For longer stays, consider renting an apartment to save on food costs or a room at a private home. For families, a home-exchange program can work well. Or cultivate London friends who may put you up next time.
5. Budget for breakfast. Expect to pay $15 and up for even a modest spread at a London hotel. If you must have your morning tea and toast, book a B&B or search out cafes, which are likely to charge less.
6. Hit the markets. Londoners buy their food at stores, and so should you. The savings can be huge. On my last London trip, in August, I paid $7.50 total for a tuna salad, big enough for two, and bottled water at Simply Food, a gourmet chain run by venerable Marks & Spencer. I then walked to nearby Hyde Park and paid nearly that much for a cup of coffee and a scone at the Dell cafe. Lesson learned.
London’s open-air markets also offer fresh, affordable dining options. One of the best is the Borough Market on the South Bank, www.boroughmarket.org .uk.
7. Picnic in the park. Take your takeout outdoors for free fun, natural beauty and stellar people-watching.
8. Use transit. With cab rides from Heathrow into central London running $80 and up, plus tip, you’re almost compelled to find a cheaper way. In fact, there are several.
Options include the Heath- row Express train (adult fare is $29 and up), 15 minutes to Paddington, www.heathrowexpress.com; the Heathrow Connect train ($13.80), 25 minutes to Paddington, www.heathrowconnect.com); and the Tube (4 pounds or $8 cash), 45 minutes or more, Piccadilly Line, www.tfl.gov.uk.
Buy an Oyster card, available at transit stations, to ride buses and the Tube. This card offers substantial discounts off regular fares, which run about $4 on buses and $8 on the Tube in central London. To further reduce costs, look for lodging near Tube stations and bus stops.
9. Haunt museums. London has some of the world’s most fascinating museums, and many don’t charge admission, except for special exhibitions. These include the British, the Victoria & Albert and the Natural History museums.
Entrance fees at other attractions can be steep; the Tower of London charges $32 per adult. Depending on how many of these sites you visit, you may save with programs such as the London Pass, www.londonpass.com.
10. Get theater discounts. The days of $10 seats in big London theaters are long gone. Tickets, although often less than on Broadway, can cost more than $100 for major shows. But you’ll pay half price for many same-day performances at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, www.tkts.co.uk.
. . . AND 5 DON’TS
And finally, for good measure, here are mistakes that could cost you a bundle in London:
1. Paying cash fares on the Tube.
2. Booking a rail ticket at the last minute. Like airfares, prices may go up as you near departure.
3. Taking a pricey city tour. Instead, check out London Walks, www.walks.com. You show up at a designated spot, pay $12 per adult and get a guided, two-hour walking tour. Dozens of themes -- pubs, ghosts, Shakespeare, the Beatles and more -- are available. Or just hop on a public bus and look around.
4. Taking lots of luggage. Excess- baggage charges on airlines can cost hundreds of dollars. Once your plane lands, you’ll have to wrangle all your bags on and off the Tube (nearly impossible) or train (easier). Taxi, anyone?
5. Leaving tips for drinks at pubs and cafes. They’re not expected and can really add up. You also don’t have to tip if the restaurant includes a service charge, typically about 12%, in your check.