Pound-Saving Tips for Your London Vacation
How to keep from going bankrupt on your next family visit to London.
The financial “ouch” factor of a family trip to London hits home as soon as you begin translating prices from British pounds to U.S. dollars, especially with the rate holding steady at about $2 to the pound. One reason for the high cost of London travel, food, and just about everything else, is skyrocketing fuel costs. Where have we heard that excuse for high prices before? Actually Londoners would love to buy gasoline at a “mere” $4 per gallon like their American cousins, but the average cost of petrol (gasoline) in the United Kingdom is closer to $9 per gallon.
London hotels, meals, souvenirs, admission tickets, transportation—all the necessary ingredients for a fun-filled vacation—can be expensive. After 15 years of family trips to Britain, I’ve learned that a quality London vacation doesn’t have to break the bank. Here’s how.
Free Sites and Attractions
Nearly all national museums in London are free, including the biggies, like the British Museum and family favorites, such as the Natural History Museum and the kid-centric Science Museum. These institutions could fill entire days of a family’s sightseeing time, at least until either kids or parents suffer museum overload.
How about some of the best parks and playgrounds in the world? London is filled with parks, and after museum visiting, parks and playgrounds are great spots for kids to burn off a bit of pent-up energy. Families with younger children should not miss the Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Park, with its life-sized Peter Pan pirate ship. The gardens and play areas in Regent’s Park are equally family-friendly. On our first family trip to London, our children happily spotted a neighborhood playground within walking distance of our hotel. A playground stop was quickly factored into each day we were on vacation.
Editor’s note: Visit Covent Garden Market for free street entertainment, and any of London’s many other street and flea markets for shopping deals and a peak into local neighborhoods. Read more in our Street Shops and Flea Market article.
Walking is a cost-effective way to get around London and many areas of London are eminently walkable. But when you need to go further than your feet can take you, London’s public transportation system is always close at hand. London’s subway—known as the Underground or Tube—goes nearly everywhere a tourist would want to visit, and the city’s bus system goes everywhere else.
Buy an Oyster card. The money saving pearl of wisdom here is appropriately found in an Oyster. The Oyster card is London’s electronic, pay-as-you-go fare-card system, which has a daily cap for unlimited travel. And Oyster fares are cheaper than single tickets—a single adult cash Tube fare is £4 (about $8), but with the Oyster is only £1.50 (about $3). The Transport for London Web site (www.tfl.gov.uk) details a confounding array of fare choices including visitor travel cards, fares for children and options for family groups. Hint: Most tourist attractions are in transport zones 1 and 2, so few visitors need to buy tickets or fare cards covering more distant zones.
Look for rail discounts. Visitors traveling to London by train will want to check out the two for one discount offers on sightseeing, theater, and even restaurant meals. The offers require a valid rail ticket—not including the London Underground—but airport rail tickets such as the Gatwick Express and Heathrow Express qualify. For details, check the Days Out Guide Web site at www.daysoutguide.co.uk.
As in most cities, the more central locations in London often come with the highest hotel prices. But the convenience of a centrally located hotel may be worth the extra cost for a family visiting London. Some money saving tips for booking a London hotel:
- Make sure the hotel rate includes breakfast.
- Ask if the hotel offers “dollars equal pounds” specials that let visitors pay in dollars for rates listed in pounds—effectively a 50 percent savings.
- Make sure Value Added Tax (VAT) and service are included in the rate. Otherwise, Britain’s 17.5 percent VAT can be a nasty surprise when paying your hotel bill.
- Make sure the quoted rate is per room and not per person.
- Many traditional London hotel rooms are tiny. Renting two rooms can really break your budget, so look for hotels that have family rooms.
- If traveling during summer, ask if the hotel has air-conditioning (many don’t).
Don’t Pay for the Privilege of Spending Money
Use your ATM card. The easiest and most cost-effective way to obtain British pounds is to use your own ATM card as soon as you get off the plane in London. You’ll probably pay a $3 or $5 fee for each withdrawal, but the currency exchange rate on ATM transactions is one of the best available. Check with your bank to make sure you can use your ATM card in London and also to make certain that there are no other usage fees. Some debit cards or credit card-branded ATM cards incur more fees.
Carry no- or low-fee credit cards. Credit card companies usually apply the best currency exchange rates, but many U.S. banks add a 3 or 4 percent fee for using your plastic outside the United States. Find a credit card issuer that does not add large overseas transaction fees—it isn’t easy, but there are some low-fee cards issued by credit unions and other institutions.
Avoid converted bills. Once you get to London, avoid another credit card trap: dynamic currency conversion. That’s where a hotel, restaurant or shop in Britain offers you the “service” of converting your charges to dollars. The on-the-spot conversion is often at a poor currency exchange rate. Refuse to sign any credit card slip that has been converted to dollars—insist on charges in British pounds.
Even without unfavorable currency exchange rates, dining out in London is expensive. Here are mealtime value tips:
- London is saturated with sandwich shops that offer familiar between-the-bread selections alongside some particularly British choices like prawns and mayonnaise or egg and cress. Cold carry out food (called “take away” in the local parlance) avoids the 17.5 percent Value Added Tax.
- Take your take away into one of those terrific London parks for a family lunchtime picnic, weather permitting.
- Noodle restaurants are popular with families—the Wagamama chain has multiple London locations.
- Pub food can be a good choice, but the costs and quality vary greatly. Not all pubs admit children, but all are now smoke-free. (Hooray!)
- Take advantage of prix fixe specials and pre-theater options at otherwise moderate-to-pricey restaurants.
- Traveling with picky eaters? Our then 6-year-old son quickly discovered plain jacket potatoes (baked potatoes) and yummy English Cadbury chocolate bars on his first trip to London. Not the most nutritious combination, but hey, it’s vacation.
Let London Come to You
A well-planned London vacation can be a thing of wonder. An over-planned London vacation is another matter. A flexible schedule allows visiting families to take advantage of serendipitous free events—a band concert in the park, a street performance in a marketplace, a passing parade of mounted royal troops—events that add to your sightseeing day without adding to your sightseeing budget. (Read our review of David S. White’s book, Let’s Take the Kids to London.)