Whenever I start planning a trip, I fall into a weird, momentary trap, where I think I can travel like Britney Spears: unlimited Cristal in first-class, high-end luxury suites and hand-fed truffle oil tartare by a Michelin-star chef for dinner.
Here’s how it usually plays out: my kids fight over who gets to hold the iPad until I’m driven to overpay for barely passable Pinot Grigio in economy class, I’m awoken at 4:30 am in a hotel room by one of them who was sleeping eight feet away until the time change caught up, and I hastily shove a cheese string into my mouth while on our way to the beach, before it has a chance to get covered in sand.
My desire for adventure isn’t one to be curbed by my inability to afford the lifestyle of the rich and famous. That being said, it’s a fun, if only mildly torturous experiment to compare a high-end, dream trip to the budget type of getaway I’m more accustomed to, and I chose London as my destination.
London, The Royal Way
When you arrive at Heathrow, distance yourself from the commoners and find your driver (Prince Charles, if the request went through and he isn’t busy that day). Your chauffeured ride to your hotel, will start at nearly £100 (which is the low end, so probably less the prince driving, more likely Jack the Ripper).
A taxi from the airport to central London ranges from £46-£87, assuming the rate climbs based on distance, time of day and how many times your kids hurl their travel pillow at the back of the driver’s head.
Buckingham Palace finally asked me to stop calling and inquiring about room rates, because apparently they don’t do that, and Kate and William don’t need the supplemental income from boarding travellers.
Just looking at some of the higher-end hotels nearly gave me a panic attack, and by the end of my research, I sounded exactly like Judi Dench. The gilded ceilings and wood-paneled walls of The Lanesborough (starting at $500-700 CDN per night, probably to sleep in the mop closet) are distinctly devoid of crayon marks and I’m willing to bet the floor of the cigar lounge is rarely littered with Lego.
You could slum it at the Grand Royale London Hyde Park starting at $300 CDN per night. They don’t have a cigar bar, but they also have wood-paneled walls and use Edwardian numerous times in the hotel description, which must count for something.
Wine & Dine
High tea is a highlight of any privileged traveller in London, and Claridge’s ( £58 for adults, not including alcohol, and £28 for children) is not only one of the most famous, it’s serious enough to employ a tea connoisseur (a legitimate job title in London, naturally) who will ensure the taste of your beverage doesn’t clash with your scones or finger sandwiches. The dress code is elegant smart casual and if your kids speak above a whisper, they’ll be tossed onto the street and pelted with the specialty duck egg mayonnaise.
Or perhaps while indulging in souvenir shopping at the famed Harrod’s, visit one of their many restaurants for a snack, such as an iconic (their words, not mine) macaron from Ladurée or fresh seafood at the Caviar House Oyster Bar. When I tried converting the GBP cost to Canadian currency for both of these, my computer reminded me my kids need to go to college one day and shut itself down.
The London Eye has been offering guests an unparalleled view of the city since 2000. You can enjoy the experience with a bunch of strangers for as low as £21 if you book online in advance. For an additional £10*, you can enjoy a Champagne Experience, that includes a glass of brut, accompanied fast track entry and a personal London Eye host.
*Also with a bunch of strangers, but made more bearable with wine
Apparently you can’t just pay someone to track down Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in a pub somewhere so you can hang with them for the day. So you’ll have to settle for A Royal Day Out at Buckingham Palace, which for £37, gains you access to The State Rooms, the Queen’s Gallery, the Royal News, but apparently not an actual audience with the Queen.
Now it’s time to let Dame Judi’s voice fade, to be replaced with a Cockney accent, because provided you actually have to travel to London on a budget, here is your alternate trip.
London, the Reality Bites Way
Resting your jet-lagged body in a popular tourist district is the goal of most travellers when booking accommodations, but unfortunately peasant, to afford a hotel in one of these areas, you’ll be eating only mushy peas for the entire duration of your trip. A modest room in a Doubletree hotel can run over $400 CDN per night during high season, and around $200 CDN per night in the off-season.
Also keep in mind that hotel rooms in London tend to be quite small compared to what is typical in North America, so that rate isn’t likely going to get you anything special in a room, such as the space to turn around without elbowing one of your kids in the head. You could have locked yourself in the bathroom and done that at home for free.
The further you stay from central London, the more variety at an affordable rate you can find. For less than $200 a night, you can find many studios on airbnb.com complete with kitchens in areas such as Hammersmith, Notting Hill and Bayswater. While most London flats are tiny they are not nearly as compact as hotel rooms and not only is the price reduced, the chances of making it out of the country without a domestic criminal charge is greater.
Wine & Dine
You might find someone selling caviar out of the back of a truck, but that’s a mistake you only have to make once. Those aforementioned alternate areas where accommodations are more affordable are also home to pubs, cafes (all-day breakfast!) and fast food (or takeaway joints) that locals frequent and where better deals – truck-bed caviar excluded – will be found.
Because you’re not a Rockefeller, look for some curry takeout (a popular option in the city), where many dishes hover around £6. Wash it down with beer or wine purchased at a local supermarket such as Tesco and prices here are far lower, because I would never be so bold as to suggest trying to survive a reluctant dry family vacation because of cost.
That fancy guy in a suit holding the sign at the airport isn’t for you. Try not breathe his air as you walk past. The most cost-effective way to travel from Heathrow into London is the Heathrow Express, where express trains travel non-stop to Paddington Station. Tickets can be purchased online in advance (which also saves money) and children under 15 ride for free (and not on the roof, I checked).
An Oyster card (less tasty than it sounds), a re-
loadable pay-as-you-go smart card is your ticket to riding public transit all over London including the tube, bus (bus fare cannot be paid with cash), tram, London Overground and some National Rail services in London. They can be purchased at visitor centres, stations, and Oyster Ticket Stops.Unlike most public transit in Canada, the fare is zone-based instead of flat, however you are able to top it up which saves 50 per cent from buying individual tickets.
If champagne on the London Eye means you’ll have to sell a child or organ, sneak a few mini-bottles of gin* into one of the many free museums London offers: the British Museum, National Gallery and the Museum of London are just a few.
*Family Fun Canada is not legally responsible if you get kicked out of a facility for smuggling in your own hooch.
Instead of a formal tour of famous churches such as Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, guests can attend a service at no charge. You are not able to take photos or wander around exploring during these times. And definitely don’t bring your own alcohol to these.
Formal tours of famous landmarks including Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London may run upwards of £9 per person, however many free walking tours will guide you around the outside view of these sites and provide commentary and history. Be sure to tip your guide or pay what you can, depending how the tour company operates. Note: it’s frowned upon to press your noses to glass of these institutions to see inside, and it scares the people who can afford the cost of actually going inside.
Whether you’re traveling like Duchess Catherine or more My Fair Lady, London is a city that can be navigated and enjoyed for the variety and history it has to offer. Even if Sir Patrick and Ian do blow you off.