With a reputation for being pricier than a diamond-studded double-decker bus, that trip to London you’ve been forever mulling over has always been easy to put off. Eye-popping currency exchange rates, overpriced dining and hotel stays that cost more than your car have traditionally made visits to the old country an exercise in credit card overload.
But while the home of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace has rarely been synonymous with value, the times they are a’ changing. Added to historically low exchange rates — around 0.65 at time of writing, a near 25% rise over last summer — there’s been a staycation surge among cash-strapped Brits that’s cultivated a new emphasis on great local deals.
For visitors, like me, who’ve been opening their wallets and heading to the U.K. for two decades, this is suddenly the year to hit London without breaking the bank.
But first you have to get there. Summer flights to Heathrow trigger Air Canada’s highest prices, ranging up to $1,400 return (including taxes) from Toronto. It’s a similar story on British Airways and other major airlines. And although most offer seat sales — sign-up online for their email announcements — don’t expect peak prices to drop much. Instead, after scanning potential deals on Expedia.ca and Travelocity.ca, consider Air Transat and Thomas Cook Airlines. Landing mainly at Gatwick, they are typically $200 to $400 cheaper than the big boys, saving you enough for a memorable London night out. And if you fancy a value-added side trip, try Icelandair. Their Heathrow-bound summer flights are usually around $1,200 return (with taxes), but they include an optional stopover in Reykjavik, where your dollar also stretches further than ever this year.
Unlike Iceland, however, London is a sleepover minefield where it’s easy to overpay for lame accommodation. To keep the cost in check, try the trendy Hoxton Hotel or Kensington’s base2stay, where the mod rooms have handy mini-kitchens. For even better rates, check the chains: cut-throat rivals Premier Inn and Travelodge offer clean but spartan rooms across the capital. Their websites stage frequent price wars, but you can expect summer nightly rates around $100. Premier Inn County Hall is recommended for its central location.
Shopping around on Hotels.com or Priceline.co.uk can also deliver discounts, but consider self-catering apartments as well: they offer built-in value, since the money saved on not always eating out can be considerable. Among my favourites is the elegant 51 Kensington Court, handily located near London’s giant Wholefoods grocery store. For a budget alternative, the University of Westminster has student-style kitchenette flats.
Dine-out costs will still be a major part of your London budget, but by copying the locals you can also add a side-dish of value. The thrifty $5 sandwich-drink-and-chips deal offered by Boots drugstore outlets is ideal for impromptu park picnics. But for a sit-down treat try Soho’s Arbutus restaurant, which specializes in modern British cuisine. Its fix-prix three-course lunch is around $25 ($28 for dinner). For similar fare, Inn the Park near Buckingham Palace is recommended.
London’s pubs can also provide good dine-out value. The ubiquitous JD Wetherspoon bar chain chefs up budget breakfasts and two-for-one meal deals, but I prefer the smaller Nicholson’s group. This summer, their traditional pubs — try the Cambridge on Charing Cross Road — are offering sausage or pie with mash plus a cask ale for £7.95 (around $12 Canadian) every Thursday. Most pub meals are under $15 and among my summertime favourites are Holborn’s Seven Stars and Southwark’s Anchor, with its Thames-view patio.
Since you’re not just here to eat and drink, you’ll also want to hit the city’s rich layer of attractions. Accessing the extensive bus-and-underground transit network — buy a seven-day one-to-six-zone Travelcard — consider pricey-but-popular sites like the London Eye (adult ticket $27) or Tower of London (adult ticket $26). Then emulate savvy Londoners by taking full advantage of the available freebies. Major museums and galleries here are admission-free, with many offering gratis value-added extras.
The giant, antiquity-lined British Museum hosts monthly late-opening events with free live music and performances, as does the Tate Modern, Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A and National Gallery also offer free daily tours of their artsy collections, with the latter staging additional weekly music recitals in its exhibition rooms. Check their website calendar — or www.lates.org — for upcoming events.
Don’t just rely on the big institutions to keep you entertained. London is stuffed with lesser-known small attractions that can add to your trip while ensuring you get full value from your transit pass. My road-tested recommendations include the Geffrye Museum, Museum in Docklands, Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Old Operating Theatre, Dr. Johnson’s House and the Fuller’s Brewery tour, where your $15 ticket includes generous samples.
Finally, you might also want to add a show or two to your London visit. Check the latest offers at www.lastminute.com or drop by Leicester Square’s official Half Price Theatre Booth to see what’s available on the day. Alternatively, download free tickets for BBC radio and TV recordings before you leave home via www.bbc.co.uk/tickets. Sliding into your auditorium seat in London, you’ll feel just like an in-the-know local.
British-born Vancouver writer John Lee hits the U.K. twice a year. Follow his travels at www.johnleewriter.com.
London on sale: Two sample budgets for two
7 days on $4,000 Return airfare (Toronto-Gatwick): $1,900 (Air Transat)
Double-occupancy hotel room for six nights: $1,250 (base2stay)
Food and drink: $800
Transport: $72.75 (7-day anytime 1-6 zone Travelcard)
7 days on $6,000
Return airfare (Toronto-Heathrow): $2,300 (Icelandair)
Double-occupancy large studio apartment for six nights: $1,825 (51 Kensington Court)
Food and drink: $1,200
Transport: $72.75 (7-day anytime 1-6 zone Travelcard)
(All sample rates accurate as of May 21, 2010)
Top value dining spots
Seven Stars (53 Carey Street, Holborn)
Anchor (34 Park Street, Southwark)
Top value sleepovers