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Top Tips from This Podcast
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- Saving Money: Don't obsess over airfare, you can save more money on accomodations. Try bed and breakfasts or renting a room or apartment.
- Don't Overplan: Research ahead of time, but don't go overboard. Remember to enjoy yourself.
- Cheap Eats: British chains -- Wagamama, Pizza Express, Busaba-Etai. Try the local corner sandwich shops or cook for yourself.
- Drinks: Drink beer (2.50 - 3 pounds), not cocktails (7 or 8 pounds).
- Free Museums: The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Museum, the British Museum, the British Library, Sir John Soane house.
- Paid Attractions: Westminster Abbey, Tower of London
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi. Welcome to the frommers.com podcast. My name is David Lytle. Today I'll be talking with Jason Cochran who's the author of "Pauline Frommer's London Guide." Jason has written for publications including Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, and Arthur Frommer's Smart Shopping Magazines. He's also devised questions for the first American season of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and before that spent nearly two years backpacking solo around the world. Hi Jason.
Jason Cochran: How you doing?
David: Pretty good. How are you doing?
Jason: I'm pretty well, thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.
David: No problem. It's always good to talk to you. I know you and Arthur and Pauline go way back. You wrote for the magazine for a long time.
Jason: Sure. And you might remember that I wrote for frommers.com for like a year or two.
David: Oh yeah.
Jason: That early aughts, the early 2000s. It was the best time I'd spent travel writing, actually. It was a really fun experience, I liked it. It was sort of like a home for me.
David: Yeah. It's one of those times, during that period, there was a real immediacy to travel coming onto the Internet, at that time. It was new and exciting. We got to blaze a trail there.
Jason: Yeah. That was my job I would come in every morning and find the deals that had just broken that day. Minutes later they're up on the site. You guys are still doing that kind of thing too. You're still getting the discounts and the deals and letting people know about them right away, aren't you?
David: Yeah. We work hard at that. As soon as we miss a deal, we hear almost immediately from some reader who wants to know why we didn't find it.
Jason: Yeah. [laughs] Or why it got sold out within three hours because everyone who read it on frommers.com...
David: Yeah, exactly. Well today we're going to talk about the new Pauline Frommer's London Guide book, which is the next one in her series. You went over to London and spent a long time there writing about it. And really, I want to get to...oh I'm sorry, go ahead.
Jason: I was there for a few months. Yeah, you really have to dig in when you do a guide like this. 375 pages to fill and I started with an empty page. These are all first edition guides that are being published for the very first time. A lot of other books, you sort of have a base book to start with and you make sure that its up-to-date. You have to build the foundation and the house, all at the same time.
David: Yeah, absolutely.
Jason: I was there for a while.
David: I don't think readers and listeners realized just the amount of time that it takes to create a first edition. You're right.
Jason: Yeah, I know, it's an enormous amount of work. I think it's really gratifying because when you do the first edition, you can decide what goes in it. You can decide the tone, you can decide the voice. It gives you a whole lot of leeway. I think it's something like you do a Broadway show or a movie if you're the first person to do that role, everyone who comes after you has to imitate what you've done.
Jason: You know, in the same style and the same pattern. But if you're the first person who gets to do it, you get to create the role. It's yours. It's a lot like that for writing guidebooks, too.
David: Absolutely. And your voice definitely comes through in here. Let's get down to it. How can somebody visit London which is notorious, especially with the US dollar-pound conversion right now, just for being expensive. What can people do to save some money?
Jason: Right before we began talking today, I went online to see what the current exchange rate was: it was $1.96 to every pound. That's almost 2-to-1. Now mind you, in the late 90's, 98/99, you could get a pound for like $1.30. Much closer to parity. Not quite parity but... So it's brutal right now, which means, if you think about it... In London things are pretty much priced the way they are in the United States, except in pounds, not in dollars. So if you want a coffee at Starbucks, it'll be one pound 70, which is $3.40 every time you want a cup of coffee. It's crazy because it adds up in so many ways. You really have to be judicious about what you're spending your money on.
Now, I think one mistake people make is they get too obsessed about saving money on the airfare. With a lot of websites you can use to book airfare, it's pretty easy to quickly come up with a very good deal. In the wintertime, a little over $300 round-trip. In the summertime, maybe $600/$700 round-trip. People spend far too many hours just searching for $20 less or $30 less than that. You can spend a lot of time doing that. I think people really should be focusing their attention on accommodations. Even a standard American chain like a Marriott or Hilton or one of those in London right now will hit you for over 150 to 200 pounds a night.
Jason: Again, double that to get that in dollars. So one should really spend the most energy thinking about where they're going to stay, if they're going to do it cheap. I think one of the mistakes people make is only looking at the major American brands that they know. Not that they're bad hotels they're excellent experiences. But there's a whole range of other places, family owned places or British chains that people from America might not even know to check. I put a lot of those in the book. Family places which don't have a marketing campaign in America, you would never find that through conventional means in the Sunday travel section. Some British chains as well, which can charge 60 or 70 pounds a night for a perfectly nice standard hotel-style room, but they're chains that you only find in Britain, so again, you wouldn't necessarily know to look if you didn't know about them to begin with.
David: Because they're not marketed to Americans in the first place.
Jason: Yeah. They're off the radar, essentially. That's where you really need someone to say, "Hey, this exists and that exists, and did you know about this family running this 50 pound hotel room outside of King's Cross Station" or wherever it ends up being.
Jason: That's the biggest way, I think, a person can save money. And also, I think people are used to thinking in terms of a standard hotel. When you vacation in America, you go to Orlando, you go to Vegas, you go to New York City: you stay in a giant hotel and you take your room. But in Britain, there's a very long tradition of bed and breakfasts or guest houses, and when I say guest house, you rent an empty room in someone's large mansion or house. You never see the owners, but you can get an incredible bargain, 30 to 50 pounds in London just doing that. It really doesn't sacrifice any more privacy than you would by staying in a hotel. There's a very long tradition of this kind of thing. Bed and breakfasts pretty much originated in Britain. Now we think it's a boutique luxury experience here in America. "Oh, someone makes you breakfast, isn't that..." But there it's the way the working class has always traveled, and its something that an American should definitely take advantage of, if they want to save money.
Jason: You can also rent an apartment. A lush, lavish apartment in London I'm thinking of a penthouse at a place called Scala House is about a thousand pounds for a week, and that's on the very high end of what you would pay. But you can split that among six people, so if you bring five of your friends to London which there's no better way to have a good time than to bring a bunch of friends then you can end up paying like 40 pounds a night, each person, over a week, to have a penthouse view in the middle of the West End. And that 40 pounds is just about the price that a hostel would charge you for a private room. In a hostel. Because people aren't used to thinking about renting an apartment, or renting someone's private room in one of their houses, they're missing these huge bargains. I guess that's one reason they're bargains there's not a line of people waiting for them. But it's a great place to start looking because I think it makes a difference between someone being afraid to go to London, because of the exchange rate, and someone who is now able to make a dream come true by going to London.
David: Right. Well, I think also choosing what we would term alternative accommodations, people get a better experience, actually living in that destination.
Jason: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the points I make in the book, a lot of the foods that you get in Britain just taste different. They taste better, I would say. In a lot of cases... The cheeses aren't processed as ours are, the milks taste different, the chocolates are richer.
Jason: They have different food standards. You can't bring this meat and cheese back home with you. Customs won't let you. So if you want to taste a lot of the things the farms have to offer there, you really need to cook for yourself. So if you stay in a private accommodation, not a hotel, you'll probably have a kitchen, and one with utensils so you can cook. It gives you a whole deeper understanding of everyday life in the destination. This is true, of course, not just in London but all over the world. If you can live in the true neighborhood near a true market, and have a kitchen where you can eat the real food and save money doing it, then you're really going to have a richer experience, and you're going to get to know the place a lot better. You know?
David: Right, exactly. I think that's just something that we push all the time, as often as we can. Hotels are great, but alternative accommodations are a better way to go because it opens up the world of living there.
Jason: Yeah. It's interesting. I find when I talk about these things, people are sort of afraid of them. People really don't like the idea of not staying in the hotel. I try to tell them you'll have more space, I try to tell them you'll make more friends... And I'm not knocking hotels. I mean, there's nothing better than a great hotel experience. You do feel pampered. But if you're going for an authentic experience, where you want to learn about the destination you're in and not just be treated like a king or a queen, then again, you shouldn't be scared of what we call "alternative accommodations." Even the word alternative is a little scary, but I love staying in places these ways, because I come out feeling like I've lived there, feeling like this is one more place in my life that I've made part of my life basically, they can't take it away from you. And I don't feel like I've just vacationed in a place, I feel like I've sort of lived there.
David: Right, exactly. If you do something like rent an apartment and it's in a building, you're going to run into the neighbors in the hallway. And there are not going to be other tourists who are from -- possibly -- your same hometown or someplace else in America. You're going to run into Brits living in London.
Jason: And in practical terms you'll probably have a few more amenities than you would normally have in a hotel, for example, whoever owns that apartment might have high-speed Internet that you won't have to pay for, whereas if you go to a hotel you might pay fifteen pounds a day. You'll have more space; you'll have a second bathroom so that if there are a couple of you together you can use the bathroom at the same time in different parts of the house.
These are little basic things that really do add to the experience. So in a way you kind of get more for your money than what you would get at a standard luxury hotel. Not knocking the hotels, but it's a different experience for someone with a different goal.
David: Right. Well it's great in the book too, I mean you have a whole list of service apartments and coach-house rentals, which we write about often on the website.
Jason: And some of these places because they are privately owned and privately run, they can give deals. You call up coach-house rentals and they'll give you twenty percent off if you stay longer than a week for example. This is being recorded here in January but they're doing that all winter long. And a lot of these privately owned rental agencies are often willing to deal whereas if you booked for two weeks at the Marriott you probably wouldn't get that kind of treatment.
David: Right, exactly. You know in a nutshell what we're telling people to do is, let's not haggle over your airfare cost too much and then look for ways to save on your lodgings once you get to London. Because you don't need to stay in a hotel, typically that's going to be more expensive. Look in chapter three of this book to find a lot of the listings that you have here for saving money and getting a better experience.
Jason: Right, absolutely. And there's a lot of places, the longer section on apartment rentals and B & B type places, I've not seen in the guidebooks for a very long time.
David: You also have some fun stuff here too, like academic rooms where you can stay on a University.
Jason: Yeah, when they go out of session in the summertime you can rent one of their rooms. And people -- again -- I think expect some kind of purgatorial linoleum lined place that put them in mind of their scoliosis checks in High School, but it's really not like that.
There you'll get linen, you probably get air-conditioning, you'll get round the clock security, it will be private, it will be your room. And really when it comes down to that kind of room it's not going to be much different from a basic hotel room, but you're going to be paying a lot less for it.
And they're all central, because these universities, most of them are graduate -- a lot of them are -- and so they have sort of a higher standard, higher expectations, because the students demand that being older. And a lot of them are in the middle of the West End or very close to it, so which also will cut down on some of the transportation costs that you'd have to face. You can walk nearly everywhere you want to go.
It used to be that at these places you'd have to write away for reservations, months ahead of time. But now these universities have wised up and they have websites -- like everybody -- where you can book online and get a perfectly good room of your own with security in the middle of summertime.
David: It really is amazing how the Internet has just changed the way that people can travel. It takes one person to maybe think "Oh, there are all these empty University rooms out there, maybe I could create a single site that you could go to, or a site that at least lists where they all are. Some of these things will be excerpted and put on the website as well, frommers.com.
Jason: It can be overwhelming too, when you've got all these different options. When you have all these Internet options available to you, how do you know when you're done researching your trip to London? How do you know when to draw a line and say "Enough information, I know what I want?"
That's sort of what I'm what I'm talking about with don't over-research your airfare, because there's a point of diminishing return. But I guess that's why you pick up guidebooks, isn't it? So that we know what the base line is, we know what the best is. We can sort of draw a line and not waste months and months and months ahead of time over-researching our trip.
And also another penalty of over-researching your trip -- I guess -- is, once you get to London or wherever you're going, you could be so obsessed about keeping to the schedule and keeping about what you had read about before that you forget to enjoy yourself.
David: Yeah. It becomes exhausting to follow a schedule all the time once you're on the ground, I agree with that.
Jason: It happens quite a lot. So I guess that's why we sort of collect the best of the best, especially in the accommodation section of this book. So that people sort of... Here's a plate, a smorgasbord, eat what you want but don't stuff yourself.
David: Right, right, exactly. The point is that you've done the legwork, you've ran around to these properties and knocked on the doors and pushed on the beds and turned the water on to see what the place is going to be like. If it's all it's talked up to be.
Jason: I think I want to write more guidebooks in the future too. I really did lose about fifteen pounds writing this book, because I was just always on my feet in London, going literally -- like you said -- door to door, street to street, discovering everything I could lay my hands on; some things that people had never written about before. I would just forget to sit down and eat, because eating would take two hours and I have to, I have to research more, I have to cram more in the book.
I came back thinner, it was good. [laugher] It's a diet not everyone should subscribe to.
David: What about eating cheaply in London? What are some tips for that?
Jason: That's a challenge, because prices are... The culture in Britain, it's changing but eating out until recently was something you very rarely did. You did it for special occasions; you did it because you wanted to hang out with friends. So restaurants were generally priced a little higher than the average here.
It's changing. This generation of people in Britain is more willing to go out and eat a lot more, they're more like a cosmopolitan American. But that doesn't mean the prices have necessarily come down very far.
One of the things that are happening in London is that a lot of new chain restaurants, that Americans won't know, but Londoners are very fond of. I'm thinking of something like a Wagamama, which is a noodle shop. Really popular, they have these long communal tables and everyone gets together. You meet people sitting across from you whom you wouldn't have otherwise had any contact with. But they're a lot of fun, they're very high-design.
And Busaba-Etai is another one, yeah it's a crazy name, but there are a few of those in the West End as well. But it's a Wagamama type noodle house. And Pizza Express, Pizza and burgers are now huge in London. Which is kind of strange because they seem so American to me...
David: Yeah, globalization.
Jason: So you can sort of rely on these British chains to feed yourself. The cheapest way is always going to be to grab a sandwich from the corner shop, almost every news agent in town, every tube stop in town will sell a little packet of sandwiches, you know they're triangular and then sealed in a plastic case. They're about three pounds each, but you do get tired of eating those, granted you'll save a lot of money but it only goes so far, you can only stretch the limit of your pallet until you start losing fifteen pounds like I did.
But there are ways to save some money, I tell people don't have cocktails but have beer. Because beer in London will be 2.50 -- we're talking pounds again -- or three pounds, a cocktail will be seven or eight, it's just a luxury product there; it's not that common there. So that's one way to save some money.
Another is not to have an appetizer, have a meal. Because for some reason in the British culture appetizers are often priced almost the same as a main plate, what we would call an entree. Just have the main dish, if you get hungry later on, have one of their great candy bars or their delicious potato chips -- which they call crisps -- There are also some interesting snack things that you can do there, rather than loading up at the restaurant table.
And also I tell people to be wary about ordering dishes that come with rice. And the reason is that culturally in English speaking but non-American countries, when you order a rice dish you also have to pay for the dish of rice, so that will be another pound or two on top of whatever the price of sauteed dish was or whatever it is.
David: So it's more A la Carte than...
Jason: There are a lot of hidden costs that you wouldn't necessarily anticipate on your first trip to London. And I've seen some American people almost get in arguments with waiters thinking that they're being ripped off, they're like "Where is my rice, at home we get rice" Just expect that you have to pay a little extra for that.
But little things like that you have to sort of keep in mind to keep the food prices down. And cooking for yourself, cooking for yourself is the best way always to save money.
David: Yeah absolutely. Because prices are oftentimes are going to be cheaper at a market than they are going to be at a restaurant.
Jason: Yeah. And plus you are probably going to be with a few people and you'll be eating together and you'll be buying in bulk, economies of scale I guess they call it.
David: Yeah. And then your dinner the night before becomes leftovers for lunch the next day before you head out or...
Jason: See I don't have the discipline to eat leftovers when I'm traveling, for some reason I'm always out the door looking for the next new meal, next new taste. I appreciate the thought behind the leftovers, yeah.
David: I just have a tendency never to let anything go to waste, when it comes to food. I have a hard time losing weight when I travel.
Jason: [laughter] You should come with me.
David: Yeah, I would love to learn that trick. People may not realize this about London but some of the best attractions in London are free.
Jason: Yeah. It's interesting, people worry a lot about the airfare and the accommodation. I think there are probably a lot of people who think, "I just can't afford to go to London." They think they're going to have to pay a lot more even beyond that once they get there. It's not really the case.
There is a long tradition in the United Kingdom of free museums. I think it mostly comes out of the Victorian era. There was a huge gap between the classes. The upper classes wanted to educate the lower classes and so they made a lot of museums free so that the "working man" could come in there on his one day off a week and learn about his world. It's a tradition that still persists.
There are about twenty really top-flight museums and attractions in London some of the best that are absolutely free. They're subsidized by the state or they make their money through their gift shops, or whatever. That includes the National Gallery, which is probably the best gallery in Europe. They don't have a massive collection. What they do have is impeccable. They have one of everything: a Michelangelo, a Leonardo da Vinci, a Canaletto, but they always have the very best one.
David: Right, exactly.
Jason: A really terrific museum. Next to that, the National Portrait Gallery is also free. Every famous portrait of a famous person you saw in your history books growing up, the original, the one they took a picture of to put in your history book, is in that museum. The Tate Modern has some of the most incredible modern art. It's in an old power station that they've converted, this huge, massive, cathedral-like space and it's a 1930s, powerful building stuffed with absolutely free things like Rothko and Magritte. You name some powerhouses of contemporary art and they'll have a number of their works on display there for free.
David: It's also nice, especially with the National Portrait Gallery... It's right there off Trafalgar Square, right?
Jason: Yeah, that's right.
David: Then right across from there is St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church.
Jason: That's right. By the way, that church has a great place to eat in the basement. A lot of people don't know about it. The old crypt has been turned into a cafeteria called "The Cafe in the Crypt." You could probably have a really good three-course lunch, and get bread on the side and soup, for about 6 pounds, which is not bad for London. That's very good, and the food is quite nice. So you happened to have named one of the places to save money for dining.
David: After you eat, you can also go upstairs in the church and listen for free to whomever's performing that night rehearse.
Jason: That's right, and you know what's interesting, there are a good 10 churches in town that have lunchtime concerts, too, free concerts held from about 12:30PM to 2:00PM. I have a whole list of them in the book, actually, so you can always get some free entertainment. It'll be choirs, it'll be organists, violinists, and they're really good people, too. They're people who are normally with symphonies or are working professionally in some other way, not just amateurs who decide to walk up and turn a hat upside down.
Jason: So you can really get some good stuff.
David: Right, it's not buskers playing in the church.
Jason: That's another free way to get some entertainment. On the list of free museums, the number one tourist attraction in all of the United Kingdom is the British Museum. That's free. The British Library is free. Most people think it's just a library but in fact they have this incredible display of the rarest books you can possibly imagine -- original fragments from the Bible, they have the handwritten manuscript of "Alice in Wonderland" with the drawings that Lewis Carroll did in the margins. This is the book he gave to young Alice, because it was written as a gift to this girl.
David: Wow, I didn't know that.
Jason: It's an incredible museum and most people don't know about this. They think because of the name "British Library" you go in there if you want to check something out but, no, they have....
David: "British Library" comes off as being stuffy.
Jason: Yeah, it's not at all. The building is sort of new, it's about 10 years old, and a lot of people say it looks a little like a crematorium.
Jason: It's this big brick box on Euston Road, which is not the friendliest road. You can walk to it from the West End. It is sort of ugly but, once you're inside, it's like a giant cavern in the middle. I think it was George II's original library, which he bequeathed to the state, which started the core of the British Library. It's stacked from floor to ceiling, many stories up, right in the middle of this building.
Jason: So it's quite a huge "set piece," it's very theatrical and dimly lit. I really recommend a trip to the British Library, if you like to read at all.
Jason: Even if you don't like to read at all, even if you don't they have original lyric doodles from the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Yesterday." John and Paul first wrote down the lyrics on some pieces of scrap paper. They've got even those on display.
David: There's a way to get the kids in.
Jason: [laughs] The Beatles. Yeah, well, you know you're dated when you reference the Beatles to bring the kids in.
David: Hey, I'm not that old.
Jason: There's a list of which places are free, and which aren't, in the book as well. I put a premium on those places because it's absolutely possible to fill an entire week's vacation with nothing but free museums. If you do that, you're not going to be cheapening your vacation at all. You're still going to see the best-of-the-best because the best-of-the-best in London happens to be on display for free. You'll have to pay for Westminster Abbey. You'll have to pay for the Tower of London. Those are the two biggest attractions that you do have to pay for. I think that Westminster Abbey is about 10.00 and the Tower of London is about 15.00. Again, those aren't cheap. It is possible to have an incredible time and pay absolutely nothing for any of the attractions.
David: Yeah, I was glad to see that you included one of my favorite museums, too, the Sir John Soane house, which is just crazy.
Jason: It's creepy, isn't it?
David: Yeah, absolutely. Who turns their basement into an Egyptian crypt?
Jason: Yeah, he was a very odd man. This is a guy who was an architect, who designed some of the most important civic buildings in Britain at the time, we're talking late 1700s or early 1800s. He just collected stuff from all over the world and stuffed his house with it. In fact, I think he had to buy a second house and break through a wall to fit more in.
Jason: When he died, I think around 1837 or so, it hasn't changed. It's been the same ever since and it feels like it too, a little bit haunted.
David: Yeah, exactly, and it's literally, ceiling to floor, covered with items.
Jason: Yeah, and you don't know what you're looking at, but you know it's probably worth quite a lot.
David: [laughs] Right. Well it's a good example, I think, of how far the fingers of the British Empire reached.
Jason: Yeah, deeply into the pockets of people who lived in other countries.
David: Yeah, and just bringing it back home.
Jason: I imagine that some of those items might eventually find their way back to the host country. [laughs] I know that at the British Museum, they have a few claims on some of the items they have, even in there. They were taken from other countries around that time period. Those countries that originally had them, for example, Greece and the Elgin Marbles, want them back. That's going to be the new frontier.
David: Oh, that's becoming more common.
Jason: It's going to be a lot more common in the future. Items are going to be repatriated to the places where they originally came from. Right now, they're all in one spot where you can see them, but I think in another generation or so, countries are going to start getting these things back, especially countries that are peaceful.
Jason: I think there are some scientists who would say, "Oh, I don't want to send these antiquities back to Iraq right now," but there's not a whole lot behind the argument that Greece can't take care of its sculptures, especially if they're made of stone.
David: Well, Jason, I appreciate you talking to me today. It's been really informative. It's been fun talking to you. We're running out of time here. Just before you go, is there anything else you would like to throw out as a great tip for something people tend to overlook before they take a trip to London that would better enable them to have a good time?
Jason: I would say don't be afraid of it. For a lot of people, London is their first European trip; it just works out that way. The nice thing is, they speak English there. If your hotel reservation falls apart, or you forgot your toothpaste, it's not going to be a problem. They speak your language. They might even have your brand of toothpaste. It's not a terrifying place to go. So that's one really great thing about London. You can relax a little bit when you plan a trip. Have some fun and don't worry about getting into trouble because it will take care of itself. The people there are very much like the here. They watch the same TV shows. They're going to ask you what happened this season on "Lost."
Jason: They're a little bit behind, that's why. So don't be afraid. I just wish fewer people would be nervous about going there. It has so much in common with American culture. The safety net is always going to be beneath you while you go. The biggest challenge is to do it smart, to do it affordably. Hopefully my book... I really want people to travel. I really want people to get out there and see the world. One of the things I love about my job is that I'd like to think people read my stuff and then they go make something of it, and that helps enrich their lives. There's one message that is "Go, don't be afraid." It'll change the way you look at yourself, it'll change the way you look at the world, and it can be done affordably, it absolutely can.
David: Great. Thanks for talking, Jason, I really appreciate it.
Jason: Sure, it was good talking to you.
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