“The Best Things in Life Are Free” according to that wonderful duet sung by Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson. Well, they obviously hadn’t visited the British capital, because London, for all its charms, rarely offers much for free or even at a low cost: certainly in the sleeping, eating and shopping department. It’s an attractive place to visit if you have lots of slack on your credit card, not so easy for the rest of us ‘mere mortals’.
Indeed, my friends in Europe and the USA often nervously enquire how much they should budget for accommodation, travel, eating out, etc and then never tire of complaining just how damn expensive London is. It is true that London has many extremely expensive luxury hotels and the average cost of a nights stay in the West-End is over £150, (around $300) even in ordinary accommodation. The London underground is pricey too, as a single ticket costs more than £4. And what of the dining out options? Yep, you can easily drop over £100 in central London and wonder why you bothered.
But enough doom and gloom, London can be enjoyed on a budget, with a little prior research. A good start point is always to shop around — sites like Travel-Zoo and lastminute.com are very useful — and to book early, most hotels have deals advertised on their websites. The following are very useful:
I’d imagine that your first priority is likely to be your choice of hotel, unless you’re lucky and have an Aunty Gladys who has two spare rooms in Mayfair. If you are looking for clean, central budget accommodation than I’d suggest starting with the Travelodge chain. Travelodge has hotels in every major UK City, their two best in London – at least in my view — are the Covent Garden branch and the Waterloo branch. I visited both hotels recently: the Covent Garden one is smack bang in the West-End and has clean, good size rooms for under £80 if you book early. It is also less than 5 minutes walk from the underground station. Staff are friendly and helpful, everything you could want from a budget hotel in London.
The Waterloo outlet is a bit further from the Underground station, about a brisk 8-10 minutes walk. However, you can be in Oxford Circus in 15 minutes if you take the Bakerloo underground line – Central London’s many attractions are easily accessible from there. Again, the staff were pleasant, the room was clean and the check-out took 2 minutes. Unless the Ritz have a lunacy promotion, and offer rooms for less than £50, I don’t think I’d even bother looking for alternatives.
Moving toward my favourite subject — food, glorious food — while gourmets are spoilt for choice in London, those on a strict budget will struggle in all but the most basic eateries, certainly in the West-End. However, this is where those trusty websites come handy again — www.toptable.co.uk - features scores of restaurant offers, updated daily and the canny tourist can save up to 50% of their food bill. The following are some of the better “more bangs for your buck” venues in London:
Busaba Eathai – 106-110 Wardour Street, 0207 255 8686
Mildreds – 45 Lexington Street, 0207 494 1634
Marsala Zone 9 Marshall Street 0207 287 9966
Pizza Metro 64 Battersea Rise, 0207 228 3812
Another useful tip to bear in mind, is that several of London’s fine-dining establishments offer good value lunch menus, allowing you to sample something more refined without breaking the bank. If you fancy consistently good, Classic French fare in a relaxed, lovely setting, then head down to Raymond Blanc’s flagship restaurant in Covent Garden. They offer an irresistibly affordable three course set lunch menu for £16.45 a head. You can also add a glass of house red, white or rose for only £1.95. I ate their recently and the food was delicious from start to finish – despite the restaurant being packed service was efficient but not overbearing and they really looked after us. Judging by the numbers and queues, people travelled far and wide to sample Blanc’s signature dishes.
Speaking of traveling, if you are coming into London from another part of the UK, as I did, then for god sake don’t drive into the centre! Parking charges are astronomical, there is the daily congestion charge and besides, driving around Central London is a dreary business. Instead, take the train, it’s easier, quicker and if you book in advance, cheaper! I travelled with First Great Western from Bristol Temple Meads, this train operator offers good value fares if you book in advance — www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk
And the really good news is that there are plenty of free and cheap museums, galleries, shows and attractions in the capital. Take the ankle biters to the Natural History Museum, one of the finest in Europe and open free to the public, 362 days a year. The world renowned British Museum and Science Museum are also both free, an attractive proposition when you have exhausted London’s shopping districts.
So relax and enjoy your visit to this wonderful, vibrant and (sometimes) very expensive city. But plan ahead and choose wisely, and your trip to London needn’t break the piggy bank!
195-203 Waterloo Road,
0871 984 6291
Brasserie Blanc, Covent Garden (lunch menu at £16.45)
14 Trinity Square
I travelled to London with First Great Western from Bristol Temple Meads