In many places staying in a quaint private room usually corresponds with a huge uptick in price. But English B&Bs, or hosted flats, have been one of the world's great travel bargains for many lifetimes. Instead of being hosted by semiretired lawyers and marketing executives (like in some Vermont or Northern California establishments) London B&Bs tend to be hosted by interesting working-class folks who'd like to make a few extra pounds where they can. It's an impressive cottage industry, one that makes up a significant slice of the accommodation culture.
What's included? At the minimum, a bed and breakfast -- yes, stays like these are how the term "B&B" got started. Everything else depends, since homestays are as unique as the hosts themselves. Your hosts may allow you to make free local calls, or they may ask that you use a prepaid card. They may have wireless Internet access, or they may think toaster ovens are the latest word in technology. They probably won't clean your room; many of them are far too observant of privacy to do that. Since no industry standard exists, prepare a short list of what you think you'll need. Armed with a wish list, your broker should be able to pair you with suitable options.
The following agencies specialize in booking visitors in private homes -- what used to be called bed-and-breakfasts. The people who run the homes they represent are generally pleased to meet tourists (otherwise they wouldn't have opened their doors to them) and their continued good standing is dependent on their treatment of you.
You can tell that London Homestead Services (tel. 020/7286-5115; www.lhslondon.com), in business since 1985, is an old-fashioned place by taking a look at the landlords' monikers -- all are referred to by their initials, as in Mr. and Mrs. R., who offer a £22 double room in their home at Wembley Central. The budget category is incredibly cheap (£20 is the average fee for both doubles and singles), but that's usually because they're located in commuter neighborhoods a good half-hour train ride from town, within small, traditional homes. But you'll be spending what you would at a hostel for a dorm bed, in authentic London neighborhoods (old-fashioned grocers, markets, and so on) that few tourists bother to explore. Loosely speaking, the agency's "budget" properties are in smallish semidetached homes; its "standard" ones in slightly larger houses; and its "premier" options are in some of the largest homes (though they're still not palatial by suburban standards). Remember that you will have to pay a little more for trains to reach those neighborhoods, but if you stick to a weekly Oyster pass, adding a zone only costs a few extra quid. "Standard" rooms are generally £25, and "premier" class is typically £30-£35.
Established in 1992, Happy Homes (tel. 020/1352-5121; www.happy-homes.com) specializes in rooms in central and southwest London, about a 25-minute commute to the West End. Its catalog also offers fairly typical, middle-class homes, which is why its rates can be stupendously low. Unfortunately, its clunky website means you have to call to hash out where you're going to stay. Two types of rooms are offered: Short Term (4-13 nights) and Long Term (2 weeks and over), plus a one-time fee of £25 per person. For short term, singles are £25 and doubles are £40. Long-term prices for a single room are £120 per week, with a £60 administrative fee, and for a double, it's £195 per room per week, with an £90 fee. If you pay with a credit card, you'll incur a surcharge of 3%.
Maggie Dobson has personally selected the homes that make it into the stable of At Home in London (tel. 020/8748-1943; www.athomeinlondon.co.uk) since 1986. "About 50% of my decision is based on the attitude of the hosts," she says. Her 80-odd properties are in the tourist areas of West London, near the Tube, and are priced accordingly: £60 (Fulham, Hammersmith) to £66 (South Kensington, Belgravia, Knightsbridge). A few of its most prime locations (Mayfair, Westminster) are priced closer to £95 a night for doubles. Thorparch Road in Vauxhall is owned by an opera singer, and goes for £80 for doubles, £56 for singles. Hyde Park Gate (£85 doubles, £65singles) is the house where Virginia Woolf spent the first 18 years of her life; its owner, who happens to be a professional cook and prepares a colossal breakfast, will pull out the Woolf mementos for anyone who asks. Dobson, who makes an effort to set up tourists with compatible hosts, also aims to put the first-time homestay customer at ease: "Some people are concerned that they'll have to talk to the host too much, that the host will be intrusive, or that they'll have to be back at a certain time or risk annoying their host. Nobody does that anymore." Prices include service fees, taxes, and nearly always, breakfast.
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This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's London, 2nd Edition, available in our online bookstore now.
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