The pluses far outweigh any minuses, and the minuses can be turned to your advantage. We're saying all this because American tourists have been staying away from London, and for all the wrong reasons. First it was the foot-and-mouth scare. Then, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, nobody wanted to fly anywhere. Just when tourism was picking up, America and Britain went to war with Iraq. Europeans kept coming to London during that period, but the city was devoid of American accents.
So why should you break the stay-at-home spell and visit London now? Because our "$90-a-day" premise makes a trip to one of the most expensive cities not only affordable, but smooth and fun-filled! Our premise is that two people traveling together can have a great time in London for only $85 a day per person. That will cover the price of a decent double room, a lunchtime refueling stop at a pub or cafe, and a fine feast at an ethnic restaurant in the evening. It's likely that you'll get a free, full breakfast at your hotel. After searching the streets of London, we've come up with the best of the budget deals. And don't worry -- this doesn't mean you'll have to stay at dingy dives or eat nasty food. You can do it for less than $90 if you want to, of course, and you can definitely do it for a lot more. Included in the book are recommendations on how to do both.
Pretrip Planning and Transportation Savings
1. Information pays. Read as much as you can about London before you go. Talk to people who've been there recently. Check in with the VisitBritain offices in New York, 551 Fifth Ave. (at 45th St) 7th floor (tel. 800/462-2748 or 212/986-2266; www.visitbritain.com) for a wealth of free information, including brochures and details about several discount deals: the London Pass, a 1-, 2-, 3- or 6-day saver pass to major museums and galleries (see tip 11, below); the London for Less discount card and guidebook, and Great British Heritage Pass (see tips 8 and 9, below). You'll also be able to get maps and helpful booklets like London Planner, Britain for Walkers, and more.
2. Make a note of the London fun that requires months of forethought. For instance, you'll need to write in for tickets to see the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, Trooping the Colour, or visit the Lord Chancellor's rooms at the Palace of Westminster and Mansion House. The ballot for Wimbledon tickets closes in December.
3. Travel off-season. Airfares and B&B rates are cheaper and easier to get if you travel from late fall through early spring. Winter 2003 saw round-trip New York to London airfares drop as low as $200 (keep in mind, though, that add-on airport taxes for international flights now average about $100). Hotel/flight package prices plummet by hundreds of dollars off-season. And, unlikely as it sounds, London is great in the winter. Cultural life is at full throttle, and sightseeing is more rewarding without the summer hordes. You don't have to go in darkest January -- in March or October, you'll still reap financial benefits.
4. Reserve and pay in advance, especially if you plan to rent a car. If you book with an agency like Europe by Car, (tel. 800/223-1516 in the U.S., or 212/581-3040 in New York; www.europebycar.com), the broker Kemwel (tel. 800/576-1590 in the U.S.; www.kemwel.com), or Holiday Autos (tel. 0870/400-4447 in the U.K.; www.holidayautos.com), you'll pay much less than with a local hire company. Car-rental rates fluctuate according to demand at the online-only www.easyRentacar.com, from £8 ($13) weekdays, or £9 ($14) on a peak-season weekend if you book several weeks ahead, to £28 ($45), plus £5 ($8) car-prep fee, £2 ($3.20) transaction fee, and 20p (32?) for every mile over 75 miles. Great value for day-trips into the English countryside.
5. Fly during the week and early in the morning and save big money. Shop around for your airfare. This will be the most expensive part of your trip, so it pays to do some legwork. Surfing the Internet will turn up some great bargains. Alternatively, scour the newspaper for consolidators like Cheap Tickets (tel. 800/377-1000 or 212/570-1179; www.cheaptickets.com), which sells airline seats at a substantial -- as much as 60% discount. Certainly consult your travel agent, who will often be privy to special deals and package rates. Air carriers want to fill every seat on every flight, so they're constantly adjusting the pricing.
6. Consider buying a vacation package: one low price that includes airfare, transfers, accommodations, and some sightseeing discounts. For example, in 2003, Cosmos (tel. 800/556-5454; www.globusandcosmos.com) is offering a week in a smartish hotel in London for $1,284 (per person, peak season). Many of the airlines have bargain packages, too.
7. Pack light. You won't need a porter, and you're less likely to succumb to the desire for a taxi. But pack small, too so you don't have spaces just aching to be filled with shopping. Note: Luggage carts are free in London's airports.
8. Buy a London for Less card and guidebook for $19.95, valid for up to four people for 8 consecutive days. It gets you a 20% to 50% discount at many different attractions, on theater and concert tickets, in restaurants and shops, on tours, car rental, hotels, fees at Travelex foreign currency exchanges, and telephone calls. With money off at the Almeida, the English National Opera and Ballet, and the Royal Philharmonic, plus savings on admissions or tours at the Tower of London, Madame Tussaud's, Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, and Kew Gardens, you're sure to cover the sign-on cost. The card and book are available in London at any tourist info center for $21. To buy before you leave home (and get the $19.95 price), call 888/GO-FOR-LESS in the U.S. or 937/846-1411; www.for-less.com, or visit Britrail's British Travel Shop, 551 Fifth Ave., 7th floor, New York, NY, next to the BTA office.
9. The Great British Heritage Pass is great if you're planning any day-trips. You get free entry into almost 600 public and private historic properties owned by the National Trust, English Heritage, and Historic Royal Palaces. That means Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, and Windsor Castle, plus half-price at the Tower of London. Passes are valid for 4 days ($35), 7 days ($54), 15 days ($75), or a month ($102), no discounts for children. In the U.S. call BritRail (tel. 866/BRITRAIL or 877/677-1066; www.britrail.net). In London, take your passport to the Britain Visitor Centre, 1 Regent St., SW1, or any tourist information center. At press time, however, the exchange rate did not favor that approach.
10. Before you leave, also get a 3-, 4-, or 7-day London Visitor Travelcard, which offers unlimited travel on public transport and is not available in the United Kingdom. Contact your travel agent or BritRail (tel. 866/BRITRAIL or 877/677-1066; www.britrail.net). It comes with a bunch of discount vouchers and has other advantages over buying a local pass in London: You don't have to provide a passport photo and can travel at any time (in London, many passes only work after 9:30am. You can choose all zones or just Central London, which will cover most of what you need, even stretching as far as Greenwich: Central zone (zone 1 and 2) adult passes cost $21 for 3 days, $27 for 4, and $33 for 7; children (ages 5-15) pay $9, $11, and $13 respectively (children under 5 travel free). All-zone cards are $31, $42, and $62 for adults, $14, $17, and $26 for children.
11. Buy a London Pass (tel. 0870/242-9988; www.londonpass.com). This beat-the-queue swipecard is worth £350 ($560) in free admissions to over 60 attractions, plus the guided tours and walks, boat trips, commission-free currency exchange, free and discounted telephone calls, and an all-zone London Visitor Travelcard for unlimited travel on the Tube and buses. To be honest, this card isn't the bargain it used to be because prices have shot up since the last edition, so do a little research to find out if it will actually reduce your travel expenses. Like any pass, you have to be pretty energetic to make it pay. The Visitor Travelcard is only available to travelers from overseas, so you will need to buy the London Pass online before you leave home. Otherwise, you can buy it without the transport element from Exchange International bureaux de change, the London Transport Information Centre and London Tourist Board office at Heathrow, and at the London Visitor Centre at Waterloo station. The London Pass costs £32 ($51) for 1 day, £55 ($88) for 2 days, £71 ($114) for 3 days, and £110 ($176) for 6 days for adults; or £20 ($32), £34 ($54), £45 ($72) and £61 ($98), respectively, for kids (ages 5-15). Without the transport element, it costs £27 ($43) for 1 day, £42 ($67) for 2 days, £52 ($83) for 3 days, and £72 ($115) for 6 days for adults; or £18 ($29), £29 ($46), £34 ($54) and £46 ($74) for children.
12. International phone calls are exorbitant. Although using a calling card overseas usually carries a surcharge, it's worth checking it out before leaving home: American Express cardholders should ask about the charges using the company's "Connections" plan. Also see what AT&T, MCI, and Sprint have to offer. Much less hassle is eKit (www.ekit.com) -- both the Youth Hostel Association and Council Travel offer their own branded versions. Join for free on the Web, and you'll get free e-mail, cheap access to voice-mail and to a "travel vault" -- a secure place online to store passport and credit-card details, medical records, and so on -- and super-cheap international calling rates. The lowest British Telecom (BT) charges are only available on weekends. eKit has one rate 24 hours a day, but you will have to pay for a local call to access the cheapest discount price. Assuming you'll probably be using a pay-phone, here's an approximate per-minute comparison: 21p (BT) and 11p (eKit) to the U.S., 21p (BT) and 14p (eKit) to Canada, 44p (BT) and 14p (eKit) to Australia and 44p (BT), and 12p (eKit) to New Zealand. The only catch is that lines do get jammed, usually just when you want to call home.
Once You Arrive
13. Take public transportation from the airport into the city. The Piccadilly Line on the Underground runs directly from Heathrow to Central London and costs only £3.70 ($6), instead of the £40 ($64) or more that a taxi would cost.
14. Don't use traveler's checks or moneychangers like American Express and other bureaux de change. Instead, go to an overseas ATM and withdraw money from your account at home. You'll get a much better deal on the exchange rate. Do check with your bank first to find out what kind of fee you'll be charged for this service. Above all, don't draw cash on a credit card; you'll pay exorbitant interest rates. Though many of us now rely on credit cards for nearly every purchase we make, in England and elsewhere in Europe this convenience will cost you an additional 3% on average. That's the "conversion fee" many credit-card companies and banks now tack on to purchases in a foreign currency.
15. When you're looking for a hotel, try a university area like Bloomsbury first. Other London neighborhoods worth investigating for a good supply of budget hotels are Paddington, Bayswater, Victoria, and Earl's Court. Many options in these and other budget neighborhoods are listed in the London Tourist Board's free publication, Where to Stay on a Budget. It's available from the VisitBritain office in New York or by calling 020/7932-2000 in London.
16. Think about what you really want in a hotel room. If a private bathroom isn't crucial to you, you can save anywhere from £10 to £20 ($16 to $32) a night.
17. Negotiate the price. Check if the management will give you a discount for staying 3 nights or more. Suggest trade-offs -- a lower price for a smaller room or a room minus TV, and so on. Ask for an old-style per-person (not room) rate: On a tight budget, a couple may be able to downgrade to a 4-foot-wide bed normally used as a single; with a bit more cash, you could get a good rate on a triple. If you're on a hotel-lined street like Sussex Gardens in Paddington, or Ebury Street near Victoria, keep checking out rooms until you find one you like for your price.
18. Think about alternatives to hotels and guesthouses. Many Londoners offer bed-and-breakfast in their homes, a cozy option that costs as little as £40 ($64) a night for two people in attractive West London through Host and Guest Service (tel. 020/7385-9922; www.host-guest.co.uk). Other similar services include At Home in London (tel. 020/8748-1943; www.athomeinlondon.co.uk), which offers rooms in Central London from £75 ($120) for a double and £57.50 ($92) for a single, and Uptown Reservations (tel. 020/7351-3445; www.uptownres.co.uk), with single rooms from £75 ($120) and doubles from £95 ($152) in central London.
19. Or be even braver and do a house swap, which costs nothing once you've paid the yearly $49.95 matchmaking fee through U.S.-based HomeExchange.com (tel. 800/877-8723; www.homeexchange.com).
20. Depending on your threshold of pain, consider staying at a youth hostel, or at one of the dozens of university dorms. High Holborn Residence, 178 High Holborn (tel. 44/20-7379-5589 or mob 44/7740-373-247; www.lse.ac.uk/vacations) charges £58 to £68 ($93-$109) for a twin, and provides two TV lounges, a bar with two pool tables, table tennis, 24-hour Laundromat, and a computer room.
21. Don't call home from a hotel phone unless you can access USA Direct or a similar company, and even then, check to see if there's a charge for the connection. Similarly, don't call directly from a pay phone, which may connect to carriers charging super-high prices.
22. Stay at a hotel providing a full breakfast, not the continental one that some hotels are switching to. I've noted which still serve the traditional cereals, bread, fruit, bacon, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, and tomatoes. That would cost you at least £6 ($10) a head outside the hotel.
23. Bring a knife, fork, plate, and corkscrew so that you can feast on delights from the splendid food halls at Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Selfridges; on simpler fare from Tesco Metro and Marks & Spencer; or the super-fresh produce from the city's farmers' markets.
24. If spreading your own butter is not your style, then check out the ever-expanding range of budget eating options, such as one of the many Soup Opera branches around Soho and Covent Garden, where prices start at £2.95 ($4.75) a cup and include bread and fruit.
25. At many a London restaurant, you'll find fixed-price and pre-theater menus. Depending on the neighborhood, a two-course meal could cost as little as £6 ($10), and many are £10 to £15 ($16-$24). Even Nico Ladenis does lunch and early-bird suppers at his new Incognico restaurant for £12.50 ($20). Note, though, that most of these menus offer a limited choice -- that's why they're the price they are.
26. At many restaurants, service is included -- don't make the mistake of tipping twice.
Getting Around Town
27. Walk -- it's the best way to explore the city and meet the locals. London is big, but it only takes a little forethought to schedule sights, shops, and meals by neighborhood. That way, you can explore on foot and save on Tube costs, as well as on wasted downtime.
28. If walking is not for you, take advantage of any discounts on public transport. Travelcards (see tip 10, above) allow you to ride the buses and Underground throughout the two zones of Central London for £4.10 ($7) a day and £19.60 ($31) a week (off-peak fares). They make sightseeing so much more spontaneous, too.
29. For London's cheapest tour, ride the no. 11 bus from Liverpool Street to Fulham Broadway, or the new R1 Riverbus service from Covent Garden to the British Airways London Eye, Tate Modern, the Globe, and over Tower Bridge to the Tower of London. Or any other route, for that matter. With a Travelcard, you can go wherever you please inside the zones to which it applies.
Sightseeing & Entertainment
30. Surf www.londonfreelist.com. It lists 1,500 permanently good deals and daily specials, most of which are free, and none costing more than £3 ($4.80), from famous London attractions to local neighborhood events-jumble and car boot sales; fetes and festivals; and so on.
31. All the national museums have now ditched their admission charges, for everyone! In addition, many museums and galleries put on tours, talks, hands-on workshops and other entertainment to engage the public's interest, and lots of it is free.
32. Make creative sightseeing choices. Some of the best things in life are free. A walk down any street in London is bound to turn up several buildings marked with blue plaques, showing that someone famous once lived there. No one can charge you for looking, so enjoy the architecture. And do make sure to walk across the marvelous Millennium Bridge between St. Paul's and Tate Modern.
33. If you go to the park, opt for the classic iron bench, not a deck chair which costs money.
34. Enjoy London's feast of festivals and ceremonial events: the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, St. James's Palace and Whitehall; the Lord Mayor's Show; the Notting Hill Carnival; and a year-long list of many more. You can enjoy the entertainment in the Piazza at Covent Garden any day -- fire-eaters, mime artists, a jazz trio, who knows what.
35. Take a seat in the galleries at the Old Bailey in the City, the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, and of course, the Houses of Parliament. They're all free and will give you a glimpse both into the past and into the institutions and social issues of contemporary London.
36. Visit a legion of long-dead celebrities at London's cemeteries. And not just Highgate-Brompton Cemetery on Old Brompton Road, Hampstead Cemetery on Fortune Green Road, and the Dissenters' Graveyard at Bunhill Fields in the City. The Pet Cemetery in Kensington Gardens was the fashionable place to bury noble and not-so-noble cats and dogs, from Victorian times until 1967. Call ahead for permission to visit (tel. 020/7298-2117).
37. Go to nightclubs early or very late to get a discount. For instance, Bar Rumba has a happy hour Monday to Thursday, 5 to 9pm, and there's no cover charge then. Also clip out the Privilege Pass, printed weekly in the listings magazine Time Out. And check Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus for cheap-deal flyers, which some of the clubs also post on their websites.
38. Queue at the tkts kiosk in Leicester Square for half-price West End theater tickets. Or pop into an Internet cafe, and surf www.lastminute.com for right-now discounts. There are five handy branches of easyEverything.
39. Go to matinees instead of evening performances. A top-price matinee will cost about £5 ($8) less than a top-price evening ticket.
40. On Monday nights, when all tickets are only £7.50 ($12), go to the Royal Court Theatre, which offers some of the city's most exhilarating and controversial contemporary drama.
41. Think laterally about what constitutes an entertainment venue! Borders stages live music, readings, and talks usually at 6:30pm. Events at Waterstone's bookstore tend to start around 7pm and most are free, too.
42. Hunt down those free concerts. You'll find them in churches at lunchtime, in the foyers of Royal Festival Hall, at the Royal Opera House, and at London's many drama and music schools. For example, students of Trinity College give free concerts in Hinde Street Church on most Thursday lunchtimes during term. Call these places for information: the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Barbican, EC1 (tel. 020/7628-2571; www.gsmd.ac.uk); Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Rd., NW1 (tel. 020/7873-7373; www.ram.ac.uk); or Trinity College of Music, 11-13 Mandeville Place, W1 (tel. 020/7935-5773; www.tcm.ac.uk).
43. At many a jazz or other music club, sitting at the bar instead of at a table can save you anywhere from £6 to £12 ($10-$19) cover charge.
44. London has developed a happy-hour culture. Many bars offer discounted drinks-cocktails are the hip tipple these days-usually between 5:30 and 7:30pm, with prices slashed by 30% to 50%.
45. Hang out at the outdoor markets: Camden Town on the weekends for a youth-oriented experience; Bermondsey and Portobello for antiques; and Borough Market and the city's new farmers' markets for mouthwatering fresh produce. 46. Come to London in January and shop the sales. Virtually every store of every description knocks down its prices, and Londoners indulge in a frenzy of post-Christmas spending.
47. Check if there's one of the grab-and-shop designer sales on during your stay. Mens- and womenswear is 40% to 80% off during these warehouse-style jamborees, put on by one company at a photographic studio near King's Cross and another at the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.
48. Check out Debenhams department store, as well as high street fashion chains like Top Shop: They've invited big name designers to create exclusive collections for them, at unexclusive prices.
49. Trek a few extra Tube stops to find 25% to 80% discount on ends of lines at the Burberry factory shop or, for china and glass, Villeroy & Boch.
50. Get your VAT refund -- a whopping 17.5%. Fill out the appropriate forms in the shop; get the form and your receipt stamped at customs; and mail them back to the retailer.