Thanks to low prices on trans-Atlantic flights and the favorable exchange rate, there are good values for Americans. Whether you deal in dollars or pounds (1 British pound = about 1.5 dollars at the moment), every traveler has different spending priorities—but we all like to get our money's worth. Here's a look at what I did on a recent trip to pinch the pounds while still finding smart ways to enjoy London's most classic attractions: historic hotels, high tea, and double-decker buses.
Narrowing down London's many options by neighborhood helps you find the right area for your budget. For example, bustling Bayswater has many good deals while exclusive Mayfair is filled with luxury hotels.
Staying in Bayswater at Vancouver Studios is one good way to use your pounds wisely. The friendly, welcoming staff makes guests feel at home in this 44-room converted Victorian town house. My cheerful, bright studio had a modern kitchen and bath with shower (no tub or elevator though). There's a shady private garden and a relaxing drawing room, complete with working gramophone player. Room rates start at £125 (about $184) for a studio that sleeps two, but there are also singles and a 3-bedroom apartment. Tip: Flat rentals and hotels with apartment-like amenities are a good value if you use the kitchen, and they become a better deal if you have more people to share the space.
Park Lane's Grosvenor House recently completed a major renovation of its 494 rooms, but the Hyde Park views and historical feel are unchanged. Appropriately located in luxurious Mayfair, rooms are done in dark wood furnishings and rich colorful fabrics with gleaming marble bathrooms. Extra touches include plush bathrobes, dual voltage electrical sockets, and a dedicated theater desk in the lobby. When the hotel opened in 1929, the sprawling Great Room was originally an indoor ice rink (the Queen learned to skate here!) and today the ballroom hosts regular events. At night enjoy a drink in the Red Bar next to tuxedo and gown-clad Londoners, and in the morning, a small lobby cafe is a great value as a breakfast buffet alternative. It's a bit of a walk to any tube stations, but who needs public transportation when your doorman is ready with a traditional black taxicab? Room rates start at £229 (about $337) and suites are also available. Tip: Luxurious hotels are still opening in London, but for added value stay at a historical one to really feel like royalty: others include the Dorchester and the Connaught.
The Tube is a convenient way to get around, but traveling above ground means you can see more—just avoid rush hour. While articulated "bendy" buses may be the way of the future, double-decker buses are a London icon.
Since I'm confident using the tube, I felt ready for public buses as my next adventure. And, at £2 a trip, the red Transport for London buses can be a thrifty way to get around. There's even traditional Routemaster buses on the two Heritage Routes (9 and 15). Look at the front of each bus for the destination, but the TfL Web site and the bus stops themselves have more information. Tip: You can use your pre-paid Oystercard pass on all of London's public transportation. Simply buy the card, add some pounds, swipe, and go.
A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is helpful to get a better sense for the city's medieval layout while dealing with jet lag. London has two operators: Big Bus Tours and Original London Sightseeing Tour. Compared to the TfL buses, rates of £24-25 are a bit of an indulgence, but you get a full day to hop on and off while still stopping at popular sites along the way. Tip: Take advantage of the free extras. Both bus tours also include walking tours and a boat cruise on the Thames—one of the highlights of my trip.
After a long day of sightseeing, a little caffeine and sugar can be the perfect afternoon boost. High tea is a grand affair at fine hotels but a cup of tea can be had almost anywhere.
At the immense British Museum, the soaring Great Court is a great place for a break from exploring. In the Court Restaurant, a pot of tea and cookies is just £6.50 while traditional tea is £18.50. Calmer than the Gallery Cafe downstairs, this is an excellent spot to rest as you admire the modern glass roof. Tip: The British Museum is much too large to see everything in one visit. Like many of London's museums, it's also free.
Finally, champagne tea at Brown's Hotel for £44 pounds (regular tea is £35) was more than enough food for an evening meal and perfect for a special occasion. (Hope you enjoyed your birthday, Mom!) Everything was as expected at the classic Mayfair hotel: dainty tea sandwiches without the crust, live piano music, and endless scones with jam and clotted cream. I couldn't think of a better place to celebrate than this quintessential English experience. Tip: Book high tea in advance and be sure to come hungry.
Photo Credit: istockphoto / Jeremy Edwards