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London: Staying under budget in the EU’s most expensive city

SmarterTravel

Combining the arts of traveling well and traveling cheaply requires more than research. It takes practice and a little bit of luck, even for someone like myself who makes a living writing about budget travel, as I discovered when planning a recent trip.

Two weeks before last Thanksgiving, I decided to celebrate the holiday in London with a college classmate, Carrie, who is studying for her MA at the University of London, rather than stay at home in Boston. It was a spontaneous, exciting idea?and recklessly last minute for holiday travel?but I’d promised my friend I’d be there for Thanksgiving dinner with the cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Waiting for last-minute airfare deals can pay off sometimes, but not during holiday periods. Because I was booking late and my flights to and from London needed to be scheduled on weekend days, I got stuck with an economy seat on Virgin for $328 round-trip, not including taxes and fees. If I had searched for flights a month or so earlier, I could have found round-trip fares from Boston for as low as $200 before taxes.

I had lost out on the cheap fares, but was determined to keep my other expenses down during my six days in the city. I needed to find cheap lodging ahead of time since I couldn’t stay with Carrie in her university housing, and I needed to watch my spending on transportation, entertainment, and food.

While airfare between the U.S. and London has been cut-rate for months, London itself remains one of the priciest destinations in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked London as the most expensive city in the European Union, and a study by the real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle determined London hotels to be the most expensive in the world. High prices on the ground plus a poor exchange rate from dollars to pounds meant that I faced a considerable challenge to stay under budget. (At the time I was traveling, the exchange rate was about $1.70 for every £1. Since then, the dollar has become even weaker, with an exchange rate at publication time of about $1.85 for every £1.)

Accommodations

Because I wanted more comfort and privacy than a hostel could provide, I searched online for an affordable pension-type hotel (a hotel that provides private, comfortably-furnished rooms with shared bathrooms). My search criteria included finding a hotel that was centrally located, within a few minutes walk of the Tube (London’s metro system), and cost under £50 per night.

Alternative accommodations such as pensions are typically not listed on big hotel sites like Orbitz and Hotels.com, so I used smaller European-based sites for my search. After checking out several sites including London-Hotels-Guide.co.uk and VisitLondonOffers.com, I came across ActiveHotels.com, a website that allows you to book independent small- to medium-sized hotels in Europe that lack their own online reservation system. I was able to search for hotels by London neighborhood and then display the available hotels and rates. Clicking on a particular property brought up detailed information on the hotel’s room types, amenities, booking policies, special offers, location, and its distance from Tube stops, the airports, and major tourist attractions. Using all this information, I was able to find a £30-per-night room that came with a free full English breakfast at the Howard Winchester, a small, friendly hotel near King’s Cross.

My room wasn’t exactly luxurious, and I had to share a bathroom with several other rooms, but it was clean, comfortable, quiet, and cheap. I’d be spending most of my time exploring the city with my friend anyhow, and the hotel’s proximity to the Kings Cross Tube stop made it easy for me to get to places quickly.

Transportation

For travel between London Heathrow and downtown London, I opted for a 45-minute Tube ride, the cheapest option at £3 for one-way adult fare. If I had been in a hurry, I could have taken the Heathrow Express train that cost £13 one-way and involved a mere 15-minute commute. Either way, both the Tube and the train beat taking a taxi, which averages £50 for an hour-long commute through London traffic.

Once in the city, I walked and used the tube to get around. As I planned on using the tube multiple times each day, I purchased a seven-day London Transport “Travelcard” that allowed unlimited use of London?s buses and the tube in central London for £20.20. The seven-day card was cheaper than purchasing multiple single-day Travelcards with the same benefits (£4.30 per day), and dramatically cheaper than purchasing single one-way fares for each ride (£2 to £2.50 for a one-way ride).

Culture

London is home to some of the finest museums in the world, and many are completely free. I spent much of the week in these museums, admiring without charge the pillaged wonders of the world in the British Museum, decorative arts in the Victoria and Albert Museum, European paintings in the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, and the most awe-inspiring work of modern art I?ve ever seen at the new Tate Modern (check out the Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson).

Because the museums were free, it was no problem to come and go as I pleased, taking breaks from the exhibits to go for a walk or sit with a pot of tea at a cafe. Incidentally, there are many beautiful gardens and green spaces within the city that you can visit for free, including Kensington Gardens and Regent’s Park.

I did pay for some attractions and tours, including several superb walking tours with The Original London Walks. This highly-praised tour company runs dozens of walks around the city every day, costing £5 apiece. Each walk focuses on a particular theme such as “Shakespeare?s London” or “Historic Greenwich,” and is lead by a local expert on the subject. On my trip, I tried the “Charles Dickens’ London” walk one afternoon, and I capped off my last night in the city with the “Along the Thames Pub Walk.”

Food

British cuisine being what it is, I did not feel tempted to splurge on expensive dinners. Instead, I opted for inexpensive meals at pubs or ethnic restaurants, which are plentiful due to London?s high Indian and Middle Eastern populations. I did spend a lot on the Thanksgiving meal Carrie and I cooked for nine people, but the experience was well worth it.

Heading home

As I mentioned in the beginning, traveling well and cheaply also involves a bit of luck. Whenever I fly, I always check in early and dress up a bit, just in case the opportunity for a free upgrade presents itself. Sure enough, on my flight home, the economy section had been oversold and a few coach travelers had to be bumped up to Virgin’s Upper Class. I guess I fit the bill, because they bumped me without my having to ask. And let me tell you, I made sure I got the full benefit of the extra $4,000 I didn’t have to pay for that seat.

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