Wednesday, February 8, 2012

London on a budget.

I've learned to be a great budget traveler through necessity, despite my single malt (which I like better than champagne) taste. As the dollar remains weak, budget traveling becomes a more and more important skill. I don't intend to stop traveling; I only intend to travel smarter. Last week's trip to London was an exercise in just that.

London is the 18th-most expensive city in the world, the highest being somewhere in Angola, if you can believe that.* The highest-ranked US city (New York City) comes in at a mere 32, and if you've ever been to NYC, you'll probably be in shock thinking of a city that's even more expensive. I mean a one-way ride on the London Underground in City Centre now costs £4.00 -- that's about $6.50. That would buy you several bagels and cream cheese in NYC, not to mention that a Subway ride to anywhere in all five boroughs currently costs $2.25. I don't think anything in London costs $2.25.

Of course, it helped that we were crashing in a hotel room with some friends (who got the hotel room on credit card points), meaning that we spent nothing on accommodation. If we'd had to pay for accommodation, we wouldn't have gone. We are living on a student budget, so even a hostel in London would have been luxurious.

Even when our friends headed off to a West End show, David and I were able to entertain ourselves just wandering around the city and finding free adventures. Free is the key here, folks. Here's what we got into:

The Natural History Museum is free these days. We managed to sidestep the crowds by using the side entrance and headed directly for the stuffed Dodo Bird. At least one of the two stuffed Dodos (maybe both, I can't remember), came from some rich dead man's private collection in the late 1600s. The Museum eventually bought the good stuff from him/his estate, and now anyone can run in and see a Dodo Bird. They are much cuter and even more whimsical than I expected. After paying our respects to El Dodo, we dodged strollers and wandering toddlers and headed for the lifesize replica of a Blue Whale, surrounded by lifesize models of many other animals. This whale made the elephants look like puppies.

After the Dodo, we stumbled upon a few Ichthyosaur fossils that were discovered by Mary Anning, who I'd thought was a fictional character invented by Tracy Chevalier until I got about halfway through the novel, Remarkable Creatures, I read last week. That was pretty cool find, though not as cool as finding the Ichthyosaur on a beach would have been.

We could have spent hours wandering around the museum, but we opted to head back into the sunshine. Our next stop? Harrods, just a short walk up the road. You might be wondering why a budget traveler who hates shopping would choose to go to a massive department store (over one million square feet!). These kinds of stores are great when you aren't actually looking to buy anything. I mean, Harrods sells Bösendorfer pianos! Being the food-obsessed people we are, however, we spent our time in the Harrods Food Hall, a scrumptiously-designed paradise -- Willy Wonka for adults -- that left us both drooling in wonder. We walked away with a lunchtime snack purchase of dates and cashews, totally about £5.

Truthfully, the best part of any city is just walking around, in and out of storefronts and cafes, finding some cheap snacks at a grocery, and soaking in the vibe. We did plenty of that, despite only being there a day and a half. Some pics of classic Big Ben/Parliament/Westminster Abbey:

As far as classic budget travel advice:
-Share an entree when you dine out. You can't take home leftovers anyway, and it's much cheaper.
-Go to the grocery store for snacks/lunch/beer.
-Don't drink too much (easier said than done, but I managed not to drink at all this weekend and still had a blast).
-Walk. Walk. Walk.
-Find free museums!
-Find friends who have lots of British Airways points and can get a free hotel room. Okay, so this one is kind of a matter of luck ... :)

*According to this website which looks fairly accurate, but which I did not research too deeply.

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