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Cheap, chilly, and cheerful in London

SmarterTravel

London may be most popular in summer, but winter offers travelers top value. During January, February, and March, it’s cheaper to get to London and cheaper to stay. But most people don’t travel just to save money, and the roaring fires, warm pubs, and wealth of indoor activities make the English capital an inspired winter vacation.

Between North America and London, airfare increases up to two-fold from winter to summer. For example, on comparable nonstop flights between San Francisco and London, a $583 February price shot up to $1,103 by June. Hotel prices also tend to be less expensive during the winter months, and an increase in budget and mid-range accommodations in the last few years means visitors to London can choose along a broader price and service spectrum. Premier, Travelodge, Accor, Choice, and Cendant are among the budget hotel chains that have expanded their offerings in London. And, at top hotels around the city, a winter luxury accommodations promotion makes staying in style more affordable as well.

Weather can be a top concern for winter travelers, but London actually offers a respite for some visitors. Though it’s no tropical vacation, temperatures tend to hover between the high 30s and mid-40s during the winter months. Is it colder than Miami or even San Francisco? Certainly. But London, where winter temperatures rarely drop below freezing, can seem positively balmy by Northeast or Midwest winter standards. And, with so many things to do indoors, most people aren’t visiting London simply for its weather at any time of year.

There are three ways to approach a winter trip to London: find year-round activities that are perfect for winter, seek out winter-specific activities, or enjoy activities that all but erase the chilly temperatures and bare trees outside. Some are free, others are discounted, and a few are so unique that they’re worth full price.

Approach 1: Year-round activities perfect for winter

Though they attract visitors year-round, museums offer a satisfying indoor break from the cold in winter. Many of London’s largest museums and galleries don’t charge admission, but donations are always appreciated. The variety of museums within the city limits—from old favorites like the British Museum to newer stars such as the Tate Modern and hidden gems like the Geffrye and the Design Museum—guarantees there’s something to match all interests. And though it may be too cold for a walk in the countryside, the miles of corridors lined with art and history make for unforgettable culture hikes.

Theatre is another year-round activity that’s perfect for winter. The West End is the largest theatre district in the world, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy performances without exhausting a budget. Preview performances, those that occur before the official opening of the show, cost less than tickets during the regular run. Matinees are also cheaper than evening performances, and still offer the ice cream at intermission that makes all plays and musicals just that much better. Half-price theatre tickets are available at the official TKTS booths in Leicester Square and at Canary Wharf. The restaurant website Toptable offers a selection of theatre and dinner packages that includes a notation about the savings built into each. And, through the Get into London Theatre promotion, tickets are available at up to 50 percent off through March 24.

In winter, theatre-goers can sometimes find better seating and more ticket selection at the last minute. Plus, December and January are the time to catch holiday-only performances. For instance, at the traditional British pantomimes, well-known stories get turned on their heads with comic results. This is the only time of year to catch Ian McKellen in drag as the Widow Twankey in Aladdin.

London has other year-round attractions that shine in the winter light. Surprisingly, many of the city’s parks are full of people strolling the paths even in the coldest months. The tranquil expanses of Regent’s Park, Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath, and the other green spaces that make up one third of the city of London retain their popularity even without the spring blooms. What’s more, they’re free, and are a great way to see a more informal, domestic side of Londoners, who often visit with children and dogs in tow.

Approach 2: Winter-only activities

Then there are the things you can only find in London during the chilly months. Outdoor ice skating rinks have gone from rare to everywhere in the last decade. Among the places open for skating this year are Hampstead Heath, outside the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens, and Somerset House on the Strand. And, at the just-for-winter Ice Bar everything, from the stools to the glasses, is made of ice. Priced to be accessible to locals and visitors, these activities will only last as long as the winter chill.

For many, one of the most compelling reasons to visit London at any time of year is the shopping. January brings huge markdowns everywhere during the sales at department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges & Co., chains like Zara and Mango, and independent stores and boutiques. Bargain hunters with a high tolerance for chaos and a knack for competitive rummaging can find items for a fraction of their regular cost.

Approach 3: Activities to erase winter

And finally, there are the activities that take the chill out of winter. From early February to early March, the Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens will feature 250,000 orchids in its warm, tropical greenhouses. Kids under 17 get in free, and there’s discounted admission for seniors. Free tours of the gardens are offered twice daily.

Those who prefer to be transported with relaxation will find plenty of options at day and hotel spas around the city. Treatments can be pricey, but when it comes to spas, value is in the eye (and shoulders) of the pampered.

Visitors who don’t mind the chill can find plenty to do and some of the best prices of the year in London during the winter months. As an added benefit, lower tourist numbers around this time of year mean visitors are spared some of the long lines of summer at popular attractions. Travelers also can get a better sense of London as a city full of residents, and not merely as one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations.

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