Around the World on $50 a Day - London

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Westminster Abbey


London, England

Our plane was on the London Heathrow airport tarmac on time, but delayed getting a gate. Brother's was delayed even longer; I looked for him for 25 minutes before he appeared in the baggage claim area. An entry form is required at customs giving name, address, London address ("unknown" is acceptable), and purpose of visit. They're usually filled out on the plane before landing, but our crew failed to advise us of that, so I had to do mine hurriedly at customs. Luggage all arrived timely.

We spotted a brochure near the baggage claim for "Hotels, B&B's, and Hostels," and learned there was a counter for such an agent at the subterranean station entrance to the Underground, London's very good subway system. It being the noon hour on a Friday, we were told no hostel or guest house beds were available, and were offered a hotel double for 70 a night, quickly raised to 75 ($56 US each per night) when we showed interest. We took it for two nights, paying for the first with a Visa card on the spot.

The Underground, being immediately available, was the appropriate choice for transportation to the Langham Court Hotel on Langham at Titchfield, a few blocks from London's landmark, the British Telephone Tower. We had to change from the Picadilly line to the Victoria line at Green Park, exiting at Oxford Circus to walk the final 10 blocks (which appeared to be closer to four on my detailed London map).

For the first three or four miles of the subway ride we sat across from a "French-looking" amorous couple; the man in his twenties with pierced ears and eyebrows, the woman probably past forty. Her lips against his ear and intertwining of her legs with his reminded me of the "pre-pill" era when romancing couples on beaches and campuses were all over each other, and also reminded me of my previous visit to Paris, when intimacy seemed to be as French as the language. You don't see those couples on American beaches and campuses any more; maybe it was the cold weather when we were in Paris a few days later, but amour was nowhere nearly as evident there now, either. One couple—just one—were seen leaning into each other as we walked along the Seine.

The subway (it was Bob's first ride on one!) was efficient, but changing lines meant lugging two heavy bags up a number of stairways. Make a note to book your room accessible from one line only—we later saw many hotels in the vicinity of King's Cross (railway) Station that looked more economical and could have been reached from the Picadilly line only. Alternately carrying, wheeling, and dragging a hundred pounds of luggage, and straining to keep up with Bob who is taller and whose step is equal to my stride, on top of the already full load my extremities normally support, wreaked havoc on my feet, and by the time we reached our hotel they were starting to blister and the front of my ankle was beginning to ache from walking on squared rather than broken-in heels.

Bob and I meet in London; our first day there. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

The Langham Court was very nice. Though our room and bathroom were small, they were modern, clean, and comfortable, with beds as hard as boards at first but not uncomfortable for a first night of about only one hour's sleep for me and three or four hours for bro. Our room had nice tea service and I made a pot while bro showered.

Before dinnertime we walked to the British Museum, which I hadn't visited on my previous trip, and saw its best-known treasure, the Rosetta Stone.

Having bought day Underground tickets (3.90) good for reuse in zones 1-6 (virtually all of London) until close of business, we took the Underground to Hyde Park for our second excursion. The weather was cloudy and breezy, a little chillier than I was dressed for. We had dinner at the park concession on the lake, an unexceptional meal of a quarter roasted chicken, rice, and vegetable for 6 (c. $8 US). Then we walked out Edinburgh Gate and down Brompton Road to London's premiere department store, Harrod's, which had prices to marvel at (rack after rack of 50 neckties and 21 T-shirts), and a deli department with cheeses galore. But the emporium proved to be tourist unfriendly (absolutely no photographs—you'd have thought we were with the IRA!).

A walk back to Hyde Park to pose for each other's cameras in the famous speakers' corner and a final Underground ride to the Langham rounded out our first day.

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $70


We spent most of Saturday touring via London Pride tour lines, a great bargain at 7 (?) compared with similar bus tours in other cities. Tickets are good for 24 hours and you can get off at any site, sight-see, nosh, use the WC, or shop as long as you like, and get on the next bus to continue. And there are four routes in the London Pride schedule, all of which can be taken for the single fare. We definitely agreed this is the way to get a handle on above-ground London. London Pride is just one of three or four such tour services of London; the one we happened to pick up on.

Its service was typical of London's generally positive posture toward tourists; there's a lot of history and literary romance to visit in this city, some of the best of it (like the British Museum, the National Gallery and several other galleries) is free, and there are many ways to get to it. There are lots of free maps, booklets, and brochures in travel terminals and hotels. London ranks with Washington, DC, and San Francisco in terms of tourist value, and, IRA threats notwithstanding, is certainly a lot safer than the American capital.

We began our Saturday with breakfast at a McDonald's on Oxford Street, not far from our hotel. Bob likes their "Big Breakfast" and wasn't interested in the continental breakfast that came with our room, and I like their Egg McMuffins. Prices at McDonald's, as we would read later on one of the newspapers passed out on a Swiss Air flight, are set according to their American counterparts all over the world, so there is even what is called the "Big Mac exchange rate," based on the variations in Big Mac prices as world currencies fluctuate. Compared with British breakfasts, McDonald's were not bargains (unless potatoes with your eggs are de rigeur as they are for Bob; he was surprised to learn that our mother never served potatoes for breakfast—at least not while I was growing up!). And the exchange rate definitely does not apply to McDonald's coffee—a cup that would be called small in the USA sells (in $) for more than a large one here, and there are no free or discounted refills. And the American McDonald's Styrofoam coffee cup, one of the utilitarian marvelsTrafalgar Squareof modern culture, is also noticeably missing at international outlets. For my taste, I'd rather escape American culture while abroad, do as "the Romans" do, and eat tomatoes with my breakfasts in London.

A walk through Soho Square and on to Picadilly Circus led us to the London Pride lines' main departure point, where we bought our tickets and began our journey. We saw most of the sights from the bus first, then got off at the Tower of London for lunch at a fish and chips restaurant and a tour of the outside of the Tower. We then hopped aboard to Trafalgar Square where we spent some time photographing the pigeon feeders, along with the bagpiper in kilt, and the children climbing the bronze lions at the foot of Lord Nelson's memorial. We transferred there to one of the other Pride lines and circled the zoo and the northern section of central London.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London; once the royal palace,
later the kingdom's most famous prison, it now houses the royal jewels.

We toured London by bus, and took a train out to the countryside town of St. Albans. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

We visited Charing Cross railway station to see if we could check luggage there after leaving our hotel on Sunday, and although that didn't prove feasible, we managed to book a room, through a Thomas Cook agency, at a less expensive hotel for our return to London on Tuesday.

Bob didn't care about touring historic buildings, and as I had done most of them on my previous trip, my only "requirement" for him was Westminster Abbey. But we arrived there as Saturday evening vespers were getting underway so, although he got the general impression of the church, we were barred from touring the areas where monarchs, war heroes, and literary giants are buried.

Back to our hotel before dinner, we decided to try the Titchfield Cafe adjacent to our hotel, and found it to our liking. It had a pleasant "antiquey" atmosphere, with a menu that showed originality without being pricey, each of our dinners running about $12, including service charge (the norm in England and, I gather, most of Europe).

Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $81


I had hoped to ride the historic canal boats at London's Little Venice [take Warwick Avenue exit from the Bakerloo tube line, three-minute walk to opposite 60 Blomfield Road] as our main Sunday excursion, but the weather wasn't quite good enough. There was lots of sunshine, but it was also blustery, so we decided to forego spending the better part of the day on the water, something I would prefer more than Bob.

Bob hates big cities and big crowds (unlike me, who used to spend weekends in New York when I lived in New Jersey, for fun), which are everywhere in London, so I had been surprised in the first place that he was even up for joining me on a 20-day tour of 10 big cities. But to try to facilitate getting him out of the city and its crowds, I suggested we try to get a train to some small outlying village, to see some countryside on the way. We checked out of our room and left our luggage at the hotel desk (a service most hotels seem to offer, which we discovered accidentally) to return later in the day to make our way back to Heathrow and our flight to Dublin.

A ticket agent in the King's Cross station a couple of miles from our hotel suggested a round trip (they call them "returns" in England) to St. Albans (5), which we undertook. The village wasn't all that quaint—better planning would have got us really out of town to someplace historic and easily accessible like Oxford (Oxford Tube busses run every 20 minutes from London Victoria station, I learned too late, for example).

When we returned for our luggage the people at the Langham Court told us we could arrange for a hotel shuttle to take us to Heathrow for 8, which seemed a bargain compared to the blistered feet I got lugging my baggage in the other direction on Friday.

© Jon Kennedy 1996, 2009