One family discovers the most comfortable shortcuts to savings over a long weekend in London, a town where the Great Britain Pound weighs heavily.
These days, prices in Europe are higher than the orbiting satellites, if you’re working in US dollars. Those considering a trip to London, England to avoid euro-inflation, read on. My wife and I had reason to go to the U.K. recently and had been warned about the 2:1 U.S. to Great Britain Pound exchange rate. But we still opted to go and happily discovered there are some ways to ease the pain if you plan ahead, pick your hotel wisely and do not indulge in multi-star restaurants.
A Hotel Value with Class
Where to stay is always an issue. Over many years we have stayed in everything from some of London’s grand hotels to B&Bs and many levels in between. This time we sampled and very much enjoyed a brief — as it turned out, all too brief — stay at the Hilton London Kensington Hotel (44/207-603-3355), located at 179-199 Holland Park Avenue, London, United Kingdom W11 4UL “in the leafy district of Holland Park,” as their publicity puts it. This property is one of 10 hotels in the Hilton chain in Greater London (and is one of many throughout the country) and its appeal stems from the several amenities available which, when considered in light of the total tariff, make for surprisingly good value.
Whether traveling on business or for pleasure, opt for the Hilton’s Executive package. This consists of a very pleasant and comfortable, recently decorated room on a higher floor, the rate for which includes (at no extra cost) a continental breakfast and/or hot breakfast buffet in the newly refurbished Executive Lounge. Also included are an elegant afternoon tea service, evening cocktails and soft drinks, and free access to the internet via a bank of computers; all in a comfortable lounge staffed by a knowledgeable concierge. The hotel has a full service restaurant called West Eleven and a fitness center.
After a day of work or sightseeing (which surely includes some shopping, even at these prices!) to come “home” to the Hilton London Kensington Hotel to enjoy afternoon tea and/or cocktails is a pleasurable luxury one can’t afford to pass up.
We could quibble with the location; the hotel is slightly out of the city’s center (centre, if you’re already getting into the nuances of the English language). However, this is the charming Notting Hill quarter, and an off the well trod path location usually contributes to value pricing. If you give London’s local transportation services half a chance you’ll get around with great ease.
Getting Around Efficiently & Economically
For families who want to sightsee, an off centre base is more than made up for by the convenience and color of the London Transport system. Local buses stop very close to the hotel, with routes that can deliver you to and return you from the doorstep of either Harrods or Selfridges. These major must-see department stores, in Knightsbridge and in Oxford Street respectively, are in two quite different areas of London’s West End. From there, by connecting routes, you can literally get anywhere in London. The famous London Underground, familiarly known as the Tube, is quicker. The bus is more fun as you will travel through several interesting residential areas en route.
To accomplish this without a hassle you need to acquire two things, ideally ahead of time, although you can get both after arrival. One is a route map of the London Underground and the London Transport bus system.
The other is an “Oyster Card.” The TFL Oyster Card is a pre-filled and refillable magnetic stripe-type loaded card that you swipe as you get on the bus or as you enter and leave the Tube. Get this ahead of time at any tourism office of “Visit Britain” or order it via the internet (just look up “London Underground – fares and guide”).
Arrive with a pre-paid Oyster Card, which comes with its own tiny but useful Bus and Tube map, and you’re all set to go. Alternatively, we picked up a copy of Michael Brein’s Guide to London, a handy self-proclaimed “London Underground Map & Guide” that highlights major attractions so you can see where they are in relation to Tube stops. (Order it online from www.MichaelBrein.com; they cost US$10 and offer several international city public transportation guides). It folded out to a full size map, and this enabled my wife to read directions without reading glasses – handy when lost on a crowded Tube platform. Additionally, the guide also pointed out the top 50 sights to see by the metro. (Since our visit, we’ve learned that Brein’s Metro guide series has been turned into a nifty application for the iPhone and iPod Touch; available through the App Store on iTunes, the “London Envi” and “Paris Envi” maps sell for $1.99.)
In any case, when you buy the Oyster Card you save twice; it ensures a discounted fare and saves time because you’re not standing in a queue (line) to buy tickets. It’s what the Londoners use and using it will make you feel at home in no time.
We arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) on a comfortable daylight flight from New York (JFK). A frequent train service called Heathrow Express runs from beneath your arrival terminal to Paddington and Victoria Tube stations in just 20 minutes, but it’s pricey. A lengthier trip by Tube connects to just about everywhere in central London in an hour, and will cost much less. The prerequisite, of course, is to have manageable baggage, particularly keeping in mind the up and down escalators of this turn-of-the-century public transport system. The famous London Black Taxis are plentiful at the airport but will cost you the equivalent of about US$110 to get into central London. This blow to the budget may be softened if you are two or more traveling together.
Make Every Pound Count: Theater & Dining Strategies
Looking to save money on the theater (theatre!) tickets? Go to the box office of your chosen show (likely in Piccadilly Circus) just ahead of the performance and see if discounted tickets or even two-fers (two for the price of one coupons) are available; just like home. Or speak with the concierge at the hotel, as the Hilton and many other hotels have room and tickets packages to all the hits.
Eating can prove to be expensive in London and there are few short cuts. However, let common sense prevail: stay away from the well known names in the high rent districts and be prepared to cut back on your alcohol consumption. No different from home, it’s the cocktails and wines that run up the final bill (beers and ales are the best value). There are several local restaurants within a short walk of your Hilton hotel and the concierge will gladly help you find them. And if you just want to look at lots of good food, wonderfully presented, take yourself off to Harrod’s Food Hall – it’s worth the detour.
London is a walking city, beyond the Tube and the bus. If you plan your days carefully you can save on many extra fares by walking through central London’s maze of fascinating streets, alleys, mews and rows, just to get from A to B. Read your street guide and ask for directions. Virtually everyone tries to be helpful.
For a day of free entertainment, walk through the famous parks and catch a concert, festival or impromptu performance given frequently throughout much of the year. Both Hyde Park and Green Park offer wonderful vistas, tranquility and the chance to get from one place to another on foot and in safety. Often a short-cut in terms of distance and a brisk walk will save the Pounds you have remaining in that ever-so-handy Oyster Card, which gets depleted by the ride on buses and by the Fare Zone on the Tube.
My Tips for Getting the Most Out of London with Kids
It’s a first-choice Europe destination for Americans. Having said that, families considering a London family travel trip can use a little more help from a local. From the land where children are seen and not heard comes the first tip.
- Everyone gets his or her first choice in terms of what to see – and no one is allowed to complain about anyone else’s choice.
- Be sure to schedule free time since a walk in the park doing nothing is often better than seeing popular sights.
- Agree on how much money each child will have to spend.
- Encourage kids to carry their allotment of foreign currency and use math skills to spend it.
- Spend some time each day apart. Parents should go in different direction with each child. It gives everyone a sense of having discovered something themselves.
- Be flexible about cancelling plans and letting kids lead the way.
- Most importantly, don’t spend more than two hours on any one attraction.
- Do not see more than one of any type of attraction (theatre, museum, arcade) in the same day. They’ll all blur together.
- If you’re staying in London for more than a week, rent a flat or vacation rental and avoid a hotel.
London Travel Tips for Sightseeing Savings
This is not the place to discuss commercial sightseeing (Tower of London, Madame Tussaud’s and other favorites with hefty entry fees) which each visitor will choose according to his or her own interests. I
I will share that we found and printed out many “guaranteed dollar rate” and discount coupons from each attraction’s website. But you can be sure there is always so much going on in London – including free and low-cost events) that you can never have enough time there in any one visit to satisfy your wishes.
Check out the happenings ahead of time and “know before you go.” Not only will you use your time more efficiently, you will do it more economically.
And when you get back you’ll have all those lovely memories to go with, most likely, a smartcard of digital photos.
Have a great trip!
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