London has lately been scarily expensive -- from the huge airport tax that bumps up your airfare to Heathrow, to the mind-bogglingly high single-ride Tube fare, to the requisite £37 afternoon tea at The Ritz. Americans have become used to marauding gangs of English tourists visiting U.S. shores and department stores, grinning ear to ear at the offensively low cost of clothing compared to their super inflated pound prices, but are the tables turning? Is it time that Americans reclaimed the right to visit London and still be able to smile when the bill arrives?
Let's begin with the currency issue; after all it is the exchange rate that often determines whether or not we choose to travel to a destination. The pound sterling began 2008 at $1.985 and it went on to notch up a high of $2.022 in March. But in August, it commenced its drastic decline to end the year at $1.468, a dive of almost 27%. It is now hovering at around $1.41, a far more reasonable option for those of us who need to convert our greenbacks, and a drop of over 30% since the pound's peak last year. For current exchange rates check www.xe.com. Airfares to London also seem to have dropped with both British and U.S. based carriers offering discounted flights for spring and even summer travel.
Currently, you can travel mid-week during March and April on either British Airways (www.ba.com) or Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com) and pay as little as $439 for a non-stop round-trip flight from New York (or Newark) to London Heathrow -- including taxes. From May, the flight prices go up somewhat and of course summer fares see another increase, but in general fares seem to be at least 20% less than they were during the same period last year. You'll also notice in the airfare breakdown that the flight price is often less than the applicable taxes so when comparing website prices, make sure you factor in the total price of flight plus taxes. If you are willing to sometimes stop en route, Vayama (www.vayama.com) can hook you up with some cheap airfares out of various cities, for example for May travel:
- From Houston flying Continental Airlines from $451 including taxes
- From Chicago flying non-stop from $489 including taxes
- From Detroit flying Continental Airlines from $536 including taxes
- From Boston flying US Airways from $538 including taxes
- From Los Angeles flying Air New Zealand from $560 including taxes
- From Atlanta flying American Airlines from $587 including taxes
Once you arrive in London, your best bet will be to take the Heathrow Express fast train from the airport to Paddington Station. If you must take a taxi, do it from Paddington as the cost and the time that it takes to make your way into central London by car does not make it a worthwhile or a sensible option. A round-trip express ticket is £32 and if you compare that to the standard $60 (including toll and tax) that it costs to make your way by cab into New York City from JFK Airport, it all seems quite reasonable. If you'll be traveling around quite a lot on public transport within London, you might like to invest in either an Oyster Card (generally considered the cheapest way to make single journeys in the capital) or an unlimited use multi-day ticket. The Oyster is particularly good if you are traveling off-peak (not during the morning or evening rush hours) and means you can save upwards of 75% on each ride -- paying as little as £1 per trip in Zone 1. The only initial downside is that you need to pay a £3 deposit for the card itself but that is refundable. You can buy an Oyster Card at tube stations or online at www.oyster.tfl.gov.uk/oyster/entry.do. A weekly travel card for travel within Zones 1 and 2 (covering central London) is priced at £28.50 and is definitely the cheapest way to go if you'll be in London for seven days. Children aged 12 and over pay £12.90 and children 11 and under are always free on all London buses and the Tube.
Accommodation prices also appear to have fallen, or at the very least, discount websites can help you score a room at a highly coveted property for less -- even a five-star hotel may be within your range. Sites like www.hotels-london.co.uk promote their ability to provide accommodation for up to 75% off advertised hotel rates so we did some research and indeed, there are some bargains to be had.
- Okay, it's the Best Western brand, but the four-star Best Western Premier Shaftesbury Hotel is a gorgeous boutique style hotel with luxurious amenities located in a sensationally central position between Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus right in the heart of London's theatre district. Staying here means you can spend more time walking to attractions and shops and not have to take cabs home at night. Double room rates including taxes during the spring start from £159 per night including tax.
- Another Best Western, the four-star Best Western Shaftesbury Paddington Court Hotel situated next to Hyde Park and Kensington Palace Gardens, and just a few minutes walk from the Heathrow Express terminal at Paddington station has double rooms priced from only £59.
- The funky five-star Marylebone Hotel, located smack bang in the center of the West End and a short walk from both Oxford Circus and the High Street shopping of Oxford Street has double rooms with lavish king sized beds starting from £126.50 a night including tax -- a saving of up to 60% over rack rates.
- Kingsway Hall is an elegant four-star hotel situated in the heart of Covent Garden and mid-week room rates this spring start from £129 for two people including tax
You can also choose to hold off booking to the last minute and take advantage of even cheaper prices when you book through a website like Late Rooms (www.laterooms.com). Here a five-star hotel like the Westbury in Mayfair can cost as little as £125 and four-stars, like the Shaftesbury Hyde Park International might only set you back £69 a night, especially if you are traveling within a few days of booking.
Another option if you are on a tight budget to go for a lesser star budget hotel or a traditional London Bed and Breakfast, after all you're not going to be spending a lot of time in your hotel room in a city like London. For example a double room at the two-star centrally located Eden Plaza Kensington Hotel (www.edenplazakensington.co.uk) is priced from £50 per night if you book directly from their website. This hotel is a perfect spot for museum buffs. Situated in Queen's Gardens, it is opposite The Natural History Museum, The Science Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum. The quaint Victorian Chelsea House Bed and Breakfast (www.chelsea-house.co.uk) located in Earl's Court offers double rooms with private facilities for £51 on weeknights and £55 on weekends for stays from mid March to December 26, 2009, with rates inclusive of tax and a continental breakfast.