a top ten for big ben

VB-00006375-001The rally of the dollar this year against the British pound has lovers of London licking their lips.  Simply put, value for money hasn’t been this good in over a decade:  Americans snag a savings of 20% off the bat due to the weaker currency.   Combine that with the current crop of deals and discounts and it means you won’t have to splurge too many benjamins to hear the chimes of Big Ben.  Whether you’re tackling London on the cheap or looking for the royal treatment, your buck will go a lot further. Here are ten ways of making London well worth the trip.

VB-00017406-001#1: Free Museums and Galleries

From must-see free museums and galleries to historical walking tours, London is nothing short of free activities for tourists.  Britain is unique in its Government’s support for the arts – so much so that entry to the world’s most famous museums and galleries is entirely free. Enjoy the collections at London’s Tate Modern, see the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum or take in the masterpieces at the National Gallery – all free of charge.

#2: The Oyster Card

The “pay as you go” Oyster travel card caps your daily costs at the cheapest price available – a huge savings over buying individual tickets for journeys using the extensive bus or Underground networks. For example, a single tube journey in central London will cost £4 with cash but only £1.50 with the Visitor Oyster Card. Plus, kids under 11-years-old ride for free when traveling with an adult. Purchase a pre-loaded card before you travel at www.visitbritain.com/onlineshop or pick one up at any London tube station.

#3: West End Bargains

Just like its Manhattan brother, TKTS sells half-price, same-day tickets to theater lovers in London’s Leicester Square.  Unlike Broadway – thankfully – there is rarely a lengthy line, plus a varied performance schedule means you can take advantage of shows that play Thursday and Friday matiness.  If you’re headed to the West End expecting to see a sold out hit, check with a reputable ticket agency like Keith Prowse and you can nab seats to top shows like Wicked for $72 (regular price $107) or Chicago for $57 (regular price $101).

living-wall-athenaeum-hotel-london#4: Hotel Deals

The swanky Athenaeum – my favorite hotel in town – is guaranteeing rates in US Dollars throughout 2009 as well as guaranteeing oohs and ahhs with the installation of a dramatic “living wall:” a 10-story vertical garden designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc that fuses the hotel with its Royal Parks surroundings.  Book the “London in Style” rate, from $450 per night for two, and take advantage of a bevy of dollar-stretching freebies that come with it: daily English breakfast or Afternoon Tea, fresh fruit and water on arrival, in-room espresso, soft drinks and snacks from the mini bar, WiFi, suit and shirt pressing – plus, kids eat free. Radisson Edwardian Hotels – which has 11 hotels in London – features an Advance Purchase promotion offering 10% off their Best Available Rate through December. Room rates start at £85 (approximately $136) per room, depending on season and bookings must be paid in full at least 10 days in advance of stay.  The Bermondsey Square Hotel – colloquially called b² – is a bespoke and stylish hotel with a sense of humor and a cheeky charm reminiscent of the East End in the sixties. Rooms have Apple TV, free WiFi, and start at £109 (approximately $175) per night.

#5: Book Before You Go

VisitBritain’s Online shop has a money-saving “Essential London Kit” which includes a three-day London Travel Card and tickets for the London Eye, Tower of London, and Original London Sightseeing bus tours – which itself includes a Thames river cruise and two walking tours – for just $103. Get a four-day “Great British Heritage Pass” for $46 and take your pick of 580 heritage attractions. The pass is valid for some of Britain’s top attractions that include Blenheim Palace near Oxford, Hampton Court Palace and Hever Castle and Gardens, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.

Afternoon_Tea#6: Classic Traditions for Cheap

Helping the Beefeaters lock the Tower of London up at night in the Ceremony of the Keys is free of charge.  Get the details on requesting tickets at www.hrp.org.uk. For a dose of ceremonial pomp, the mounted Queen’s Life Guard changes on Horse Guards Parade Whitehall at 11am weekdays and The Queen’s Guard – the famous “changing of the guard” – changes at Buckingham Palace at 11:30am daily. Make time for tea in the dazzling Palm Court at the refurbished Langham Hotel, where afternoon tea as we know it was born. The endless tiers of finger sandwiches, warm scones with clotted cream, pastries and miniature cakes can easily make this traditionally late afternoon “snack” an economical stand in for dinner.

#7: Airline Packages

Oil prices have fallen, so many airlines are reducing their fuel surcharges and airfares are dropping. Virgin Atlantic has one-way tickets from New York to London from as low as $251, based on a round-trip purchase.  Continental Airlines features 7-day vacation packages, including flights and nights at a 4-star hotel from $1,046. Save up to $485 with United Vacations and get flights, four-nights hotel, a top 10 for biand daily breakfast from $955 per person.

VB-00008405-001#8: Restaurant Deals

Toptable.com highlights deals and discounts from hundreds of restaurants in London, offering up to 50% off on meals at some of the city’s top tables including Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, where you can get two courses for $27.  Another good tip is to look for Bib Gourmands.  These eateries are not official Michelin stars, but recognized for good food at moderate prices, like Gordon Ramsay’s Foxtrot Oscar where a 3-course menu will set you back just £30.  Bluebird Café on the King’s Road in fashionable Chelsea does a proper English breakfast for only a tenner.

#9  ‘Ead East

Eclectic, eccentric and artistic, Brick Lane is at the bargain heart of East London’s emerging artistic community. Dubbed Banglatown for its Bangladeshi influence, it’s also the curry capital of London. Haggle over fashion, art and antiques at vibrant Spitalfields Market, then walk the streets stalked by Jack the Ripper. By night the area hosts some of the coolest evenings around with throbbing clubs cozying up to traditional East End pubs. And if a fiery late-night curry doesn’t tempt you, you can always pay a visit to the famous 24-hour Brick Lane Beigel Bake.

#10: Tour Packages

Tour operators are dishing out fantastic deals across the pond. Go beyond Buckingham Palace and visit Edinburgh, York, Chester and Cambridge on an 8-day tour with Insight Vacations.  A land-only package is $865 with the option to add on airfare for just $99 each way.  Brendan Vacations offers Britain-bound tourists a self-guided 8-day package for $1,029, including round-trip airfare, bed & breakfast and car rental.

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