London! The name conjures up images of Big Ben, 007, British Royalty, Fish & Chips, Sherlock Holmes and so much more. As a young boy, most of the books I read were by English authors whose stories, characters and places in London had imprinted certain images in my mind. So, when we decided that this May, we should visit England and Scotland, we were all excited.
My wife and I started searching on the web for the perfect guide to London. We found that most articles and posts were about Top x London Attractions and none of them about how to plan and go about visiting them. So I am writing a series of posts for the benefit of other travellers to London – the aim is maximum enjoyment with no waste of time and money (London can hit your budget for a six).
This post is a guide to London so you can enjoy at less cost (does not mean cheap), without wasting time and effort.
Firstly, London is NOT doable in 2 days or less, unless this is a stopover or you are on a business trip. You should plan a visit of at least 5 days to enjoy most of the iconic sights in London.
To make your visit to London memorable while saving money, time and effort, I strongly recommend the following:-
- Get the London Bus Tour. London is the place that started it all – the open-top double decker bus tours which are now in most cities began in London more than 60 years ago. Today, there are more than 4 companies in London offering bus tours. I recommend either Big Bus Tours or The Original Bus Tour. However, since Big Bus offers 48 hour ticket at a marginal extra cost, the value lies in getting that one. If you purchase it online, you may get a discount too. After you book it online, take the print of your receipt / invoice along with you. You will have to exchange it for tickets. This can be done at any of the stops of these tour buses – a uniformed staff will do that for you. Although, they provide a map of the tour on-board the bus, you can get a PDF map on their respective websites. I usually save these maps on my iPad. Find out the tour bus stop nearest to your place of stay and begin your journey there – you need not go to the start point. This way, you can end your day at your stop. Depending on your tour, there will either be a live commentary or a recorded one (headphones are provided). The bus tour will also include a free cruise on Thames river and some walking and/or bicycle tours. Make the most of it and enjoy these too. TIP: Try and sit in the partially covered top deck – this way you can enjoy the tour and also be protected against the rain (London weather is unpredictable)
- You Must Get the London Pass. London Pass is a travel pass which will allow you entry to over 60 attractions at a much lesser cost than if you get individual tickets to them. You also save time not standing in queue for the tickets. Moreover, you can skip the lines at some of the famous attractions and further save your time. For a full list of attractions, activities and offers, go to London Pass website. Many times they offer discounts in excess of 10% or so, if you book online. Although, they can deliver the London Pass at your place of residence anywhere in the world, I suggest that you collect it yourself at London – it will cost you nothing and will save anxiety if your pass does not arrive in time. Take the print of your invoice / receipt and head over to their collection point – the directions are given on their website as also on the receipt. We got it at their desk near Trafalgar Square, opposite Garrick theatre. Each adult passholder also gets a guide with information on all the attractions included. So this guide along with your bus tour map are all you need to move around and enjoy London. The guide book also has offers on dining and shopping if you need to.
- Tickets to Other London Attractions. Some London attractions like the London Eye, Madame Tussauds, London Dungeon, SeaLife Aquarium are not included in the London Pass. But, the good news is that you can get combination tickets at discounted rates if you get tickets to 2, 3 or all 4 of them. These packages are available on the respective websites of all the four attractions…of course, at the same rates. I suggest getting the deal from the website of the attraction nearest to your place of stay in London. e.g. if you stay in Central London, the nearest attractions will be London Eye, London Dungeon and SeaLife Aquarium (all three located within 100 metres of each other). Madame Tussauds is the only one in North London where you will need to go by the tube / bus / cab. You may also want to get tours to Stonehenge & Bath, Oxford and Cotswold. These tours are not included in London Pass and should be done separately, espcially since Stonehenge and Bath takes almost an entire day.
- Use the London Travel Card. Moving around London is not economical, even when travelling on the Underground (metro rail / tube etc.) or the typical red double decker buses. However, if you purchase a travel card (Not the Oyster card which is for the locals) which is valid for consecutive number of days you choose, it will save you money and time (no hassle of queing up for tickets). The Travelcard gives you unlimited use of the London Tube, bus services and over-ground trains around London. London is divided into ‘zones’ 1 to 6, in the context of transport. Each zone has a separate value and the zones extend out from Central London, which is Zone 1. The Travelcard allows you to travel all the way between Zones 1 and 6 for free. It is a good idea to get the Travelcard along with the London pass on their website. Yes, the Travelcard covers every attraction on The London Pass. Ensure that your bus tour and Travelcard dates are not overlapping – i.e. on the day/s when you avail the open-top bus tour, you need not get the Travelcard for those days. The London Pass also provides information on how to get to each attraction using the Underground, bus etc. Therefore read and see it on the London Underground map (available free at any station or at London Pass collection centre).
- Try Car Network Companies. Instead of the famous (but unfortunately expensive) black cabs, try Uber or Kabbee or Hailo and many such companies whether it is for airport transfer or for other excursions. I have written in detail about this in a blog post on car network companies. TIP: If you sign-up on Uber using the promotional (or coupon) code “Itauq” (without the quotes), you will get £10 off. If you sign up on Kabbee using promotional (or coupon) code “9FJ23Z” (without the quotes) you will again get £10 off. With both, you get a total of £ 20 off !
- Search for Meal Deals. Get on LivingSocial, Groupon and other such sites to get deals / discount vouchers for meals, shopping, theatre tickets and much more. This way get more bang for the buck. You should also open up your Google Maps in the browser and search for outlets of food retail chains like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S Foods, A.P. Food Express etc. where you can get ready-to-eat meals at reasonable prices. Just get them to your room and heat it.
- Limit Other Expenses. It is more economical to get your clothes laundered at Laundrettes (as they are called in London) – there are self-service or the usual types. I would also recommend getting a local cellphone SIM card from one of the stores in the city. Don’t buy it at the airport (especially Heathrow), where you will pay more than double for the same SIM card. I usually never recommend anyone to get the travel SIM card from India – just check out online forums and review sites to see how others have been swindled by them.
Now, that you are armed with information on a travel hackers guide to London, I will chalk out an itinerary to tour London in the next post.