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Ticket to Ride

Maybe all you need is love, but visiting London on the cheap means using public transportation and planning just about everything in advance.
By Tom Wuckovich

According to news reports, London is the third-most expensive city to visit behind New York and Paris, this on top of other gloomy news about prices and the economy. Why, it’s enough to “make a grown man cry,” to borrow a phrase from British rocker Mick Jagger.

Big Ben

Above: Save money in London and use public transportation. Convenient passes for tourists are available prior to your trip. ©Guillaume Besnard/Fotolia.comphoto

Bottom: A good deal of activities, like watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, are free. Also, save money and time waiting in lines by purchasing advance tickets to attractions and museums. ©Martin Wdowski/ photo


But those of us who love to travel have always found ways to make vacations affordable and fun without breaking the bank. Consider these suggestions to get the most for your money and take that trip that you might have otherwise put off.

Hopping across The Pond for less

London is a popular city for Americans for obvious reasons. We former colonials hold the city in high regard and consider it a special place on many levels, not the least of which is the lack of a language barrier. This kinship with Britain’s capital isn’t likely to abate, but you can gather information about deals and discounts to make London more affordable without sacrificing any of the pleasures it offers. And it’s best to consult with a travel professional who specializes in the destination. This can save a lot of time and money.

Consider purchasing–in dollars–any tours or sightseeing activities you may contemplate taking. Buying in advance helps avoid the fluctuating exchange rate and gives you a good idea on the potential cost of your trip. AAA Travel works with Viator, which offers a London Pass starting at about $47 that includes free admission to 60 top attractions, a color guidebook, and shopping and dining discounts. And pass cardholders can skip the long lines at popular attractions.

AAA recommends that travelers take with them a limited amount of foreign currency, the AAA Visa Travel Money Card that gives access to millions of Visa merchants and ATMs, and the AAA Visa or MasterCard. For information, visit

Saving money once there

London is a city that begs to be explored on foot and that doesn’t cost you anything if you want to do it on your own. Conveniently located Information Centers can provide specific ideas for self-guided walks, and because central areas are fairly compact, a walking tour makes perfect sense. Three are included in the London Kit, but many walking tours are inexpensive (under $20 or less) if you don’t buy ahead of time. Look at London Walks (

Take a bus tour to rest your feet. The double-decker buses, a London fixture, afford incredible views of the city. Lines 9, 11 and 15 take you past many of the central sights. The least expensive way to use the public transport is to use the Travelcard or the Visitor Oyster Card, which is good on buses, the Tube (subway), trams and trains.

The Travelcard and Visitor Oyster Card can be used on the bus Heritage Routes that run every 15 minutes daily and visit London’s most famous attractions. You can hop on and off these buses at various historical sights. Buy a Great British Heritage Pass that includes admission to Hampton Court and St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as hundreds of other sites all over Britain.

For information on these transportation cards, click on

London has well more than 200 free museums and galleries and many others with affordable admissions. The museums get crowded late in the day, so plan to go early.

If you want to see the Tower of London up close without paying the admission price, you can go to the Ceremony of the Keys. It won’t get you into the Tower, but you’ll be part of the 700-year-old tradition of locking up the historical sight each night. This takes a bit of advance planning in the form of a written request that should be done at least two to three months in advance. Check it out at

London is renowned for its theater district. Tickets for top West End shows can cost a fortune, but there are many city entertainment opportunities that are completely free, such as the ceremonial Changing of the Guard, the State Opening of Parliament (November) and the Lord Mayor’s Show (August), all of which attract many visitors. Free annual festivals–Chinese New Year, the London Marathon, and the Notting Hill Carnival–are regular fixtures on the event calendar, while jugglers, buskers and mime artists draw crowds all summer in Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square or the South Bank.

If you have your heart set on theater tickets, make a purchase at the box office rather than through a ticket agency. Some theaters, particularly the National, offer a handful of standby or cheap same-day tickets for every performance, but get there early because they are snapped up as soon as they go on sale.

Leicester Square’s theater ticket kiosk, known as TKTS, sells same-day tickets at half-price, plus a service charge. Fringe theater and cabaret or comedy shows at pubs and clubs generally start around $20, while drama school productions may be free. Free concerts can be found in churches or in public parks. There are free jazz sessions at the National Theater and the Barbican foyer, and live opera is sometimes relayed on huge outdoor screens in Covent Garden piazza or Trafalgar Square in summer.

Meals and lodging

Two of the biggest expenditures visitors encounter are food and lodging. Many London hotels are expensive, but bargains are available. Packaged tours or special discounted deals can be an excellent value, especially if arranged through AAA Travel. For the best deals, book well in advance, or if you have a flexible schedule, book at the last minute. London is busy practically year-round, but mid-January and February are the nearest it gets to low season. It’s always worth asking for a discount on standard rates and check to see whether breakfast and service charges are included. Look into the bed-and-breakfast guesthouses, which can save you quite a bit, but most are located outside the city center.

Budget hotels are usually clustered around or near train stations, especially in the areas of Victoria, Euston, Paddington and King’s Cross.

Your budget also will dictate your meal choices. If you’re watching your pennies, select self-service cafés or snack bars in less fashionable parts of town rather than conventional restaurants. However, set-price lunches or pre-theater suppers can be a very good value.

Well-known, reliable worldwide chains can fill you up for a moderate fee. Gastropubs offer flexible dining and drinking throughout the day, but drinks can easily add as much to your bill as food. Ethnic restaurants abound. Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi curries and Jewish bagels are famous. Sample Chinatown’s dim sum for very little money. For something more traditional, try afternoon tea, pie-and-mash or fish and chips.

Save on souvenirs

Shopping is one of the top activities for vacationers. There is no charge for window-shopping, but for buyers, the bargains are best in low season. Best value mainstream department stores are John Lewis, and Marks and Spencers (M&S, as the locals say). Check out second-hand or discount shops for vintage and designer clothing. London’s markets are always worth a visit.

Look for Tax Free Shopping Scheme stickers in store windows to reclaim value added tax (VAT) on purchases made in London. You’ll have to make a minimum purchase–ask what the amount is at the particular store–and then get a complete tax refund check form from the merchant. For details, see or

If you hear London calling, do your homework, then answer the call.

Tom Wuckovich is a new contributor from Valrico, Fla.


Jan/Feb 2009 Issue


Let AAA Travel help you travel to London within your budget. Locate a list of offices to serve you. AAA Travel works with tour companies that offer member discounts. Trafalgar Tours, for example, currently offers up to 20 percent discounts during its value season. Participants must travel now through April 2009. A Winter in London eight-day tour is $820 (double occupancy, airfare not included). For details, call AAA Travel.

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