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Highlights from London

raising tower bridge

In continuing our tour of Europe, today we’ll be visiting London, one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Even if you don’t normally try to collect points and miles, I would consider them if a trip to England is on your bucket list. The exchange rate is not on the side of the US dollar! Here are some highlights from London.

Getting Around London

Visit to London

Big Ben at night

After taking the train from Edinburgh, we arrived at St. Pancras, which is right beside King’s Cross station where you catch the underground or “tube” as the locals call it. The tube is one of the few cheap things in London. If you’ll be using the underground more than once, the easiest way to pay is with an Oyster card that you scan before and after each ride. We ordered cards ahead of our trip, but they would have been easy to buy at the station. I put £15 on cards for Jim and myself, which covered us for four days in London. Kids under 11 ride free, making the tube tons cheaper than taking a taxi.

Plaza on the River

Up to this point, our hotels had been functional but very cramped and without many amenities. I had originally booked a Hilton in London, similar to our previous places, but when points availability opened up at a Plaza on the River,  a Club Carlson property. I jumped at the chance because of their apartment sized rooms.

Sadly, the deal we booked is not available anymore because Club Carlson took away a huge program benefit that gave the last night free on an award stay. Anyway, I’m glad we got to take advantage because the room was spectacular. We had a great view of the River Thames and were very close to Big Ben and other attractions. There was also a full kitchen and washer/dryer that we put to use almost right away!

Things to do in London

St. James Place

Better view at St. James Place

We walked for miles and miles around London and hit almost every major tourist site and then some. The weather was perfect, so that might have contributed to our enjoyment. We thought just about everything was fantastic.

Some highlights included:

  • Seeing the crown jewels at the Tower of London
  • Seeing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the Royal Gallery
  • Walking across the Tower Bridge and watching it rise to allow a sailboat to pass through
  • Spending most of the day at Kensington Park and playing at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Park
  • Catching changing of the guard at St. James Place instead of Buckingham Palace, which was an invaluable Rick Steves’ tip. I highly recommend his London guide if you aren’t familiar with the city. It saved us a ton of time and headache.

Despite my prior claim that London is very expensive, there are some really cool cheap or free things to do in the city.

Some of our Favorites were Cheap or Free

The National Gallery was completely free and was as good as any museum we visited in Paris. I would advise getting there as the doors open to beat the crowds.

Although you can’t go inside except during very limited times, it’s free to walk around Buckingham Palace,

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Park

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Park

Parliament, and Big Ben. Changing of the guard is also free to watch, although you have to get there very early to get a good spot at Buckingham Palace. There was almost no one at St. James Place, where we watched a similar ceremony.

One of the coolest places we visited was a last minute addition from Jim. He found out that the Magna Carta is stored at the British Library, so we hopped on the tube to check it out. The library is free, but there is a £12 charge to see the Magna Carta. I didn’t feel it was worth it, so Jim went in and left my daughter and I to explore the library.

In one of the exhibit rooms, we found a ton of treasures including handwritten original works like da Vinci’s diary (with early drawings of eyeball optics!), a letter from Galileo, Handel’s Messiah,  early drafts by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and too many others to list. One of the coolest things was also one of the most modern; handwritten lyrics to Help and Yesterday by the Beatles. I had no idea all that stuff was there and it was amazing to see, especially at no charge.

Ripped Off at Harrods

For the attractions that did charge admission, we bought a three day London Pass. I think we came out a few dollars ahead, but the real bonus was being able to skip lines at places like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. I’d say it saved us a few hours of waiting around, worth quite a bit in my book.

The only thing in London that I didn’t enjoy was Harrods Department Store. I should have listened to Rick Steves description which was something to the effect of a huge, overpriced, crowded place full of Asian and Middle Eastern tourists. That was pretty much spot on. There was actually a designer kids section with little bitty Dior, Prada, and many designers I’d never heard of, and it was packed!

We made the mistake of letting our daughter see and then being stupid enough to eat at the Disney Cafe inside Harrods. With the exchange rate, it came out to about $70 for three plates of pasta. Bottled water was £5 and smoothies were £3. Jim ordered a smoothie and I asked for tap water, which they never brought. His “smoothie” turned out to be a miniature version of a kid’s drink box. I shared a bottle of water with my daughter that we had in a backpack. Not our finest moment, and we had to eat at Subway for the next couple of meals to get back on budget. Live and learn!

Despite the price tag, I would go back to London in a heart beat. Just accept that some things will cost money and make sure to balance it out with cheaper alternatives.

What would you most like to see in London? Have you ever paid too much for a crappy meal? 

 

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.

16 comments

  1. Sounds like you had a great time in London, aside from the Harrods experience. Other than the meal, we had virtually the same experience there – just a bunch of overpriced stuff. We got to spend about 3 days there as a part of our honeymoon, and while it was expensive, we really want to back again and stay for longer.

    • I think it would be fun to stay for a couple of weeks and live in an apartment so meals out is not a budget breaker. It’s easy to get around and there would be plenty to do.

  2. Looks like a great trip. That stinks about the Disney Cafe. Sounds expensive!

  3. Appreciate the review since London is somewhere we plan to go in the next year or so. I’ve heard it’s expensive but there are always pockets of value in every city. Enjoy the rest of the trip!

    • It’s the exchange rate that kills. The Euro was almost equal to the dollar, but the pound was about $1.60. As long as you expect it, it’s not too bad. It is one of those places where points really can save you on hotel costs.

  4. My favorite thing to do in London is visit the British Museum, and the runner up is the British Library. Both are free, and absolutely incredible. I always hit grocery stores instead of restaurants (true for most anywhere in the world I happen to be).

    • We found a small market that worked well for breakfast and snacks, but ended up eating out most lunches and dinners. It was just too inconvenient to try and get back to the room in the middle of the day, and honestly, we didn’t want to cook.

  5. Seems like you all had a blast in London. I’d like to visit the London Eye and see the Buckingham Palace. My kids dreams of visiting the British Museum.

  6. I’ve never been to London but have always wanted to go…I think knowing that it is more expensive than other European destinations has kind of kept me away. Gah I hate it when touristy type places or restaurants totally jack up the prices for no reason. 🙁

  7. Our biggest challenge when in London and the rest of Europe is finding hotels to accommodate our family of 4. We, too, stayed at the Plaza on the River in London because of it’s flexibility in accommodating 4. On a prior visit, we used our Chase IHG Free Night Certificates at the Intercontinental Park Lane and were told only three guests were allowed per room. Thankfully, a family member only had two in their room, thus allowing our fourth in their room. It would be nice if more hotels throughout Europe changed their policies to allow families of four to stay together. We wouldn’t need additional bedding (we travel with an air mattress), but we do prefer to stay together. Regardless, London was, and continues to be, one of our favorite European cities due to the ease of getting around both via the Tube and walking.

    • I had a hard time finding points redemptions that allowed more than two people in the room, so I imagine four would be very difficult.

  8. My favorite free thing to do in London is visit the British Museum. There is all kinds of crazy stuff to see in there from ancient middle eastern and greek history. Even the Rosetta Stone is there. We spent half a day there and barely saw 1/4 of everything.

  9. I have never been to London but would love to go. I have definitely overpaid for a bad meal. I had a chicken sandwich on my way up to the cabin a few years back and it was definitely regrettable. Felt sick the whole night!

  10. London sounds SO gorgeous. I’ve not caught the traveling overseas bug yet, bu the kids talk often about going to London, Germany or Ireland. We’ll see. 🙂

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