London: Luxe for Less

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When London’s calling it can be hard for frugal vacationers to answer. The city’s upper crust diversions are obscenely expensive and even bread-and-water ones can blow the average budget. But, pound for pound, we’ve found some of the best values around.

Chelsea Mornings (and nights too!)
You’ll remember them well, those Chelsea hotels — presuming you can actually afford to stay at one. The legendary neighborhood wedged between Knightsbridge and the Thames is known for small luxury lodgings that were originally private residences, like the Draycott, Eleven Cadogan Gardens, London Outpost, and San Domenico House. Aesthetics aside, their cachet is intimacy and you’ll pay dearly to enjoy it: doubles seldom go for less than £220. So if you want to feel at home without having to take out a second mortgage, consider a neighborhood B&B. The divine double room at 4 First Street, for example, starts at just £105. London Bed and Breakfasts list other Chelsea charmers.

Feel Free
London is ground zero for monarchists, yet sightseeing here is actually quite democratic. After all, admission is free at top-drawer attractions like The British Museum (photo above ), the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum (though you may have to pay a few pounds for special exhibits). The same goes for 235 other museums and galleries in the city. Unless you’re a true sightseeing junkie that means a London Pass (starting at £34 for one day) probably won’t pay for itself. An Oyster Transit Card, on the other hand, will. Valid on buses, subways, trams and trains, it automatically adjusts to give the lowest rate for all trips you make. Refillable ones start at $15.

Walk this Way
Aside from having no-charge entrance policies, many museums also offer complimentary exhibit tours. So you could, theoretically, spend your entire vacation trawling their halls. But when fresh air and exercise are the order of the day, many vacationers sign on with Original London Walks. The company offers dozens of guided routes, plus specialized itineraries built around royals, writers and Jack the Ripper. At £6 per, the price is good. Zilch, of course, is better. That’s what independent types pay for a series of walking maps — some complete with downloadable audio components — at 24hourmuseum.org.uk. Commissioned by the Department of Culture, these self-guided tours cover topics like Historic Gardens, Literary Landmarks and Sports.

High Tea, Low Tea
“Taking tea” isn’t simply a way to dull pre-dinner hunger pangs. It’s a ritual as rich in tradition as it is in calories. Hence, ambiance is important. One place that has it in spades is the gilded Palm Court Restaurant at The Ritz, where bookings at least a month in advance are typically required. The menu there features finger sandwiches, scones and tasty little pastries for £36 per person. Fortunately, the wonderful Wolsely Café — located steps away and itself pretty ritzy — serves up the same sort of fare for £19.50. Still too steep? Order the Wolsely’s lighter “cream tea,” which comes with scones, preserves and clotted cream for £8.25

Vintage Vacations
Good bye English Rose, hello Second-hand Rose! Given that London remains very class-conscious, it seems rather ironic that the metropolis’ most coveted clothes these days are used. Some euphemistically call the merchandise “new to you;” others call it “vintage.” In any case, it’s hot. High-paid boho chicks like Sienna Miller and Kate Moss prefer to pick up their distressed designer duds in places like One of a Kind Too (on Portobello Road) and Rellik (on Golbourne Road). However, those of us with more modest means do better sorting through the piles in local “charity shops,” such as those run by the Red Cross or Marie Curie Cancer Care in Chelsea and Islington respectively.

The Play’s the Thing
Prices for London shows could make even Queen Elizabeth blanch. So theatre lovers often head to a tkts booth for half-price day-of tickets. This works. Before running off, though, remember time is money — and you can waste lots of it waiting in line. Instead try going straight to the source. The Royal Opera House, for one sells leftover tickets at 50% off four hours before curtain time. Prefer to book ahead? There’s still wiggle room. Say you want to see Rigoletto. Premiere “Stalls Circle” seats cost £ 170 in the evening. But you can save £35 by attending a matinee, and real cheapskates can stand in the same area for only £9.

Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb