London…On The Cheap

Americans staggered by British price especially after the dollar’s summer plunge, may find it hard to associate the word “cheap” with a vacation here.

“It’s more expensive than Norway here,” said shell-shocked Chicago resident Tom Day. “Gas is almost $7 a gallon!”

Americans find they’re charged extra for things that are free in the States – such as packs of ketchup and vinegar, or toast, rather than bread, with breakfast – adding insult to injury.

But London on the cheap is possible, and you don’t have to be a college student to find it. In fact, it’s easy. The more flexible your time, the cheaper it gets.

A good starting place is at the airport: From Heathrow, the Paddington Express costs £21 and takes 15 minutes to get you to Paddington Station. Just follow the signs that say “Underground.” (From Gatwick, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station.)

Fall is a great time to go for several reason not the least of which is increased availability of airline seats. Every summer, millions of backpackers and other visitors swoop into the city on the Thame where the tourist industry is lying in wait like a bear trap. Waiting until fall lets you beat the crowds and gives you a better chance of finding cheap lodging.

Accommodations
Time Out: London (Penguin), Western Europe: On A Shoestring (Lonely Planet) and Let’s Go: Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press) are three of the most valuable reference guides for cheap accommodation. Consult them before leaving the States – the cheaper the place, the more imperative reservations are. Most hotels will take a U.S. traveler’s check or a credit card as deposit for a room.

If you show up without a guidebook (or a clue), take the tube to Earl’s Court station – in the center of “Little Australia” or “Aussieland” – and you’ll come across a slew of rock-bottom crash pads (if breakfast is included in one of them it’s likely to feature Vegemite, a black, noxious goo made from yeast extract and eaten for breakfast by many Australians).

Follow anyone with an Aussie accent to the nearest backpacker, where, if you’re of the it’s-just-a-place-to-crash school of hotel selection, you can get away with spending as little as $25 per person per night.

You may also be accosted by any number of cheap-digs hawker who may or may not have a real room. Be careful, and don’t pay anyone anything until you’ve seen the room and gotten the key.

Many of the cheaper standard hotels in and around the center can be had for around $60 double. In the inexpensive hotel bathrooms are usually not inside your room but shared by those staying on your floor. That said, they’re usually spotlessly clean, and almost every room contains a wash basin and towels.

England’s famous bed-and-breakfast which are usually located outside the center, are far cheaper than a hotel, but be careful when looking at prices. They usually list a price per person, not per room. “En suite” means the bathroom is in the room and usually costs $15 to $30 extra.

Changing Money
A great option is cash from ATM which allow you to get cash from your Visa or MasterCard, as well as from bank accounts on the Plus or Cirrus network. Exchange rates on these transactions are generally much better than those for cash, and Lloyd’s and Midland bank machines tend to be connected to many U.S. networks.

In the center, money changers can be found everywhere, and rates are very competitive. Shop carefully; commissions can run high (some charge minimums of £3), while the more disreputable operations will lure customers in by posting rates at which they sell, as opposed to buy, other currencies. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Traveler’s checks will often get a slightly better rate than bank notes. If you’re changing more than $1,000 of either at one time you can – and absolutely should – negotiate for a better rate. Rates in the airports and train stations are generally worse than those in town, so change just enough to get away from there.

Getting Around
Immediately invest £13 ($20) in a one-week transit Travelcard, which covers buses and the tube (but not night buses) in transport zones 1 and 2, which include almost everywhere you’ll head in the city (except Heathrow airport, which is an extra one-time fare). One-day Travelcards cost £2.70 ($4.25), and either is a great saving, as a ride on the tube starts at about £1.

Taxis have a fantastically complex fare system, which can be summarized as a minimum of £1.20 ($1.90), with a fare that zooms up at a jolly clip depending on time of day, traffic, distance and other seemingly arbitrary factors. But you’ll get what you pay for: London cabbies are perhaps the best in the world, having to prove they know the fastest way to get to every single street in the city before they get their license. They’ll also talk your ear off if you let them. Tipping is expected; 10 percent is plenty.

Getting out of London is cheapest on buses (coaches). A round-trip ticket to Leed for example, can cost £15 ($24) on a National Express coach (telephone 071-730 0202) and up to £50 ($79) by train. Another option is a sort of formalized hitchhiking service provided by the National Lift Center, which brings together drivers and passengers. Call the center at 091-222 0090 with details of where you want to go; the staff will try to match you with a driver, with whom you’ll share or pay the cost of gas.

Pub Clubs & Restaurants
Time Out magazine is the frankly-written weekly London happenings bible, which offers the most current and complete listings of pubs and clubs for all taste in addition to shopping bargains of the week; film, dance, music and comedy club reviews and listings; and a helpful “Student London” section. It’s available at newsstands everywhere for £1.50 ($2.40).

Choosing a pub is a tricky matter in London’s center, but a basic rule is the farther from a tube station it i the cheaper the prices and the more interesting the clientele. While Londoners rant incessantly about the price of a pint, the going rate this summer is about £1.60 or around $2.50.

London offers a fantastic array of inexpensive food option and some of the best Indian food on the planet (averaging $5.50 an entree). Other cheap eats include the ubiquitous fish and chips (about $4.75); Japanese (about $8); pizza by the slice (about $1.60); Thai (from about $11 per person); and vegetarian (including the phenomenal stuff at Food For Thought, where light lunches for two can be under $8, including soft drinks). Avoid anyplace calling itself a steak house.

Another cheapie is the “jacket potato,” or potato skin on sale at stands and in restaurants. Fast, filling and deliciou these stuffed things start at about $2.35. (See the box for more on food.)

Theater Tickets
These day good and cheap West End theater tickets are awfully hard to come by, and if the price is under $15, you’re probably sitting behind a column.

Same-day tickets can be had, however; your best bet is the Leicester Square Half-Price Ticket Booth in the clock tower building in Leicester Square. It sells half-price tickets to many shows on the day of the performance; service charge is £1.50 (about $2.35) per ticket.

Museums
Admission is free to the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery. A great deal on 13 others (including the Barbican Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum and Victoria and Albert) is the £10 ($15.80) White Card, available at Tourist Information Centers and the museums themselves. The more you see, the more you save – average admission to each museum runs £3.70 ($5.80).

Doing London cheaply is an art, and the longer you stay, the better you’ll get at it. Time Out and the above guidebooks are but a start. The real fun is finding that fantastic Thai place, discovering “pie and mash,” and feasting on London’s budget cornucopia.

DINING ON THE CHEAP

Here are 10 cheap dining ideas for travelers to London:

Food For Thought

Vegetarian staples with good stew curries and excellent broccoli quiche in a tiny space just off Covent Garden. Very popular. Too bad about all the styrofoam these “environmentalists” use for take-out orders. Average $4 for main course $2.50 for salads. No alcohol. 31 Neal St., phone 071-836 9072.

Wagamama

Japanese health food in a very stylish and funky noodle house-cum-trend spot. Average meals run $8 per person. Wine ranges from $10 to $15 a bottle, sake $3 for a large tokkuri. Streatham Street at Bloomsbury Street, phone 071-323 9223.

The Stockpot

Several branches haven’t diminished the great value of the Italian and Italian-influenced food served here. You can have a full meal (without wine) for $8, and house wine is under $10 a bottle. 6 Basil St. (071-589 8627); 18 Old Compton Court (071-287 1066); 273 King’s Road (071-823 3175); and 50 James St. (071-486 1086).

William Price

This small cafe in Neal’s Yard serves up basic sandwiches and bagels and English breakfasts all day. It also features some very nice cake scones and pastries. Average breakfast is under $5, sandwiches up to $3.75; no alcohol. 7 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-379 1025.

Neal’s Yard Bakery Coop

Right next to William Price, this spot sells amazing breads and cakes and serves pizzas and snacks to eat in the lovely upstairs dining room. The costliest item is just over $3. 6 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-826 5199.

Mandeer

If you take “all you can eat” to be a personal challenge, head to this vegetarian Indian restaurant for a set lunch buffet for a mere $5.50. House wines at $12; 10 percent service charge. 21 Hanway St., phone 071-323 0660.

Diwana Bhel Poori House

Similar to Mandeer, only slightly more expensive. No alcohol, but you can BYOB. 121 Drummond St., phone 071-387 5556.

Upper Street Fish Shop

Good fish and chips in a bistro setting; traditional (deep-fried) cod and chips for about $10; fish can also be grilled or poached. BYOB. 324 Upper St., Islington, phone 071-359 1401.

Fish & Chips Stands

Any number of places sell generally superb examples of this British standby. Dousing the chips in vinegar will make you seem like a local. Average price throughout the city is $4.75.

Pie & Mash Places

These are also scattered about the city, with classic meals of mushed-up English things inside pastry. They’re definitely a London tradition, and can range from “what’s that”” to heavenly. $3 to $4.50.

IF YOU GO …

For budget accommodations in London, try these organizations and services:

The Youth Hostel Association produces a booklet listing all hostels in England and Wales. Write to the group at Trevelyan House, 8 St. Stephen’s Hill, St. Albans ALO 2DY England.

The London Tourist Board and Convention Center publishes “London Accommodation for Budget Traveller” available by writing to the British Tourist Authority, Thames Tower, Black’s Road, London W6 9EL. It contains listings arranged by area for flat-sit B&Bs and small hotels.

London Accommodation Guides publishes a similar listing arranged by price. Information: 071-865 9000.

The British Hotel Reservation Center at Heathrow books B&Bs and hostels. call 081-564 8801 (Terminals 1,2 and 3); 081-564 8211 (Terminal 4).

 

London Homestead Services offers B&Bs just outside the center but convenient to public transportation, from 14 and up per person a night, with a minimum stay of three nights. 081-949 4455.