March 8, 2004 -- Many British hotels have retired their winter discounts, which is a bummer. The best deals you can get right now to London are with packages that typically combine your airfare, hotel and morning meals. For a great list of current deals, check out our column from Friday.
Don't overlook the usual online travel agencies, either. It's still possible to find mediocre but cheap London hotels on Expedia (www.expedia.com) and to peg a four-star hotel in London for under $100/night on Priceline, as the folks at BiddingForTravel.com have found (http://pub210.ezboard.com/fpricelineandexpediabiddingfrm215).
Another strategy for saving pence is to stay on the outskirts of town. The London Bed & Breakfast Agency (www.londonbb.com) can find you single rooms for £25 ($45.75) a night or doubles for £44 ($80), provided you're willing to take a bit of a ride on the tube. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- some of the neighborhoods that their cheapest lodgings are located in, such as Archway and Chalk Farm, are comfortable neighborhoods not too far out that let you see how real Londoners live.
(Avoid staying out by the airports, though; getting into London from there is more pain than is worth the price, we think.)
Of course, stay out of London altogether -- enjoying the ambiance of Oxford, Liverpool, Bath, Glasgow or many other beautiful British cities -- and you'll save even more money. When we searched on Expedia, we had no trouble finding quality, central hotels in Glasgow for under $100/night.
Getting Around the UK Cheaply
The ultimate in cheap travel is the new Megabus (www.megabus.com) service, offering a slew of well-traveled intercity bus routes for a shocking £1.50 ($2.74). It doesn't get cheaper than this, folks.
From London, Megabus goes to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Exeter, Oxford, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, and Swansea. The bus also runs between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, and between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, St. Andrews, and Dundee.
If you prefer rail, remember that British rail fares are like US air fares -- you can save up to 80% if you book far in advance and accept non-refundable, non-changeable tickets. Conversely, if you try to buy a train ticket right before you travel you might find fares so high as to be intolerable. Most British trains also have peak and off-peak times -- travel outside weekday rush hours, and you'll save big bucks.
For instance, for a trip from London to York, a "standard, open" ticket is £69. But book it seven days in advance, and the price drops to £37. Ride on an off-peak train, and you may pay as little as £19.
Most UK railway companies will allow you to buy tickets online, in advance, and will either send them to your hotel or let you pick them up at the train station. To get train times and book tickets, go to www.nationalrail.co.uk and pick "Plan Your Journey." (You may have trouble entering your US address on some of the railway Web sites. If all you see is a postal code field, enter the postal code and choose the address of your hotel; then change the details after the fact to your US details. Or buy the tickets over the phone.)
Taking a Pass on the UK
No, don't skip the UK. Rather, get passes. Both BritRail passes and the Great British Heritage Pass can save you big bucks with the weak dollar.
If you plan to take long journeys, BritRail passes from Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) may make sense. Rail Europe has a very wide range of UK passes -- there are passes covering consecutive days and nonconsecutive days, and passes for England, Scotland, Wales or the whole of the UK. Discounts are available for kids, people under 26, seniors, and groups of three or four traveling together.
A two-day BritRail Days Out From London Pass, for instance, costs $59. If you use that for two day trips -- say, to Oxford and Salisbury -- you'll essentially pay £16 per roundtrip. You can get a £16.50 round trip to Oxford if you buy in advance and choose from a thin selection of trains, but even the cheapest ticket to Salisbury is £24, and a flexible ticket to Oxford is over £30. The pass means big savings in this case.
The Great British Heritage Pass, also available from Rail Europe, is another big saver. A seven-day pass costs $54, but covers a very wide range of attractions. If you're going to be hitting at least five of the castles or houses on the pass list, you'll probably save money.
What are your strategies for staying cheaply in the UK? Tell us on our Great Britain Message Boards.