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London on the cheap PDF Print E-mail

Q: We’re going to London next week on a free flight we earned as frequent flyers. We don’t have much money to spend. How can we make it stretch?
A: Are you kidding? That Blighty burg is one of the most expensive in the world. Last year, we booked a cheapo room on Ebury Street. It was an old converted town house, and our room was three flights up and so tiny we couldn’t move around it without standing on the bed. But it did have a nice tiny window view of the charming trash cans out back. Price 100 pounds, or about $180 U.S. bucks.

Fancy carriage, London


Many things in London town are costly, comparable to what you’d pay on a visit to Manhattan. Movies are $15, and stage shows start at $100 and up. Quickie food joints that serve burgers or fish’n’chips charge about $10, and sit-down restaurants are out of sight, starting at $50 and going up, way up.

Cabs are expensive, but buses and the Tube (subway) are relatively inexpensive at about a buck a ride. If you’re able to walk, London has many inexpensive and free sites to visit.

Our room wasn’t far from Hyde Park, and on the day we visited the pleasantly wooded area, there were all kinds of free entertainment. Street musical groups, dancers and a bothersome mime than kept making fun of we elderly Yankee tourists.

The highlight of the visit was when various speakers got up on chairs (not soapboxes) and gave impassioned pleas for world peace, global unwarming, fair treatment of immigrants. While all of that was free, many performers had hats or plates out for contributions. We tossed in some English coins, but had no idea of their value.

Our best memory of almost free time in London was sitting in the park opposite the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey and eating egg mayonnaise (egg salad) sandwiches. We did a lot of people watching and enjoyed the cheap lunch while Big Ben tolled the time. We hung around until late afternoon, when admission to the Abbey is free. It was a beautiful experience, and the music was heavenly.

Admission to Parliament was free that day, too, but the lines (queues) were so long, we gave up and just enjoyed walking around outside and watching traffic on the nearby Thames River.

We also went to the gates of Buckingham Palace, and for free watched the famed changing of the guard ceremony. There was also some kind of official function there that day, and we saw open carriages full of colorfully-uniformed VIPs coming out the gate. Then we followed some colorful cavalry and infantry units as they marched through the London streets.

We hung around the famed Trafalgar Square for an hour or so and watched kids climb all over the big stone lions at the foot of the tall Nelson column. There were a couple of elderly guys in the middle of the square selling little paper cups of birdseed for a buck each. The pigeons were massed everywhere, and so was their poop. They look charming in tourist photos, but as one Londoner described them, they’re just rats with wings.

We had to get to Piccadilly Circus at dusk and watch tourists, teenagers and the dinner and theater crowd gather for the night. The statue of love god Eros shooting an arrow seemed to set the tone for the evening. The restaurants in the area were very expensive, so we found a grocery shop and ordered ham sandwiches and ginger beer. 

We had to get to the British Museum, a sister institution to my alma mater, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Admission to most of the museum area is free, with fees for special traveling exhibits, such as the recent King Tut statue and burial chamber items. The thousands of works of art, as well as historic and prehistoric objects, are worth more than just a day of visiting. 

For late afternoon and dinnertime meanderings, we found Covent Garden a haven for food, flowers, music, clothing bargains and flea market shopping. On the evening we were there, we sat on the sidelines eating fish and chips rolled up in the London Times while a quartet of Chinese musicians played just for us, along with about a thousand other visitors.

By all means, you can do London on your tight budget. Just go venturing forth and enjoy the free and almost-free stuff. You’ll find it will be all the more fun if you do it with a serving of fish'n'chips rolled up in the London Times.

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