Dispatches | May 31, 2007


When two of my wealthiest friends recently complained to me about the expense of shopping, eating and getting around in London, I knew that I was in for a pence-pinching time of it during my ten-day trip there.  Moscow is currently the most expensive city in Europe, but London and Paris are close rivals.  And when it takes two flimsy American dollars to buy a single weighty golden British pound, I felt like a traveler in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, giving over my life’s savings for a knackwurst and kraut.

The morning I arrived, after eating everything that was offered to me on the plane and drinking three free mini bottles of a cheap Shiraz, I sat down in the hotel lobby and drafted a list of economizing rules that I would try to live by.   

•1)   When free food is offered take as much as possible without appearing grotesque  Later that day, I found a gourmet open-air market that served samples of brie and pâté and hummus.  In London, food handling restrictions are lax, meaning grab and go.

•2)   Be stingy with tipping.  In the U.S. I usually tip 15-20 percent.  In London, a service charge is already added, ranging from 10-12.5 percent.  One restaurant, Live Bait, advertised a three-pound cover charge.  I thought it was a joke; it wasn’t.  Even better, eat at a self-serve restaurant.  With the four to five-pound savings on the tip, buy bread pudding and share with your travel partner.  Trust me, you’ll need the calories.

•3)   Avoid high tea.  Stick with low tea, meaning the free bags of English breakfast in your hotel room along with the complimentary Walker’s shortbread.

•4)   Growing up, I made fun of my Polish step grandmother who carried a plastic-lined purse that she loaded with leftovers plus packets of butter, salt, sugar and creamer.  This early education in pilfering served me well in London.  My hotel provided a free English breakfast, so each morning I wolfed down scrambled eggs, pancakes, yogurt, toast, and juice, and then dropped a few croissants into a Baggie.

•5)   Never forget the conversion rate.  A cute floral cotton frock at Laura Ashley priced at 50 pounds seems like a deal until you remember to double the price.  A window display of gossamer scarves and empire-waisted dresses lured me into a store called Kew, where I weakened and handed over my credit card.  I later discovered that Bodens, an American sister store, sells the same dress at half the price.  While Selfridges and Harrods are wonderful spectacles, you can buy the same designer clothes at Nordstrom, often on sale.  So exercise a little emotional maturity and WAIT.

•6)   Share entrées, and when there is a bread basket, eat every crumb and then hold out the basket to your server (he’ll never see you again) and say, “Please, sir, may I have some more.”

•7)   Never, ever, eat anything from the mini bar.  In fact, don’t even take a peek.  A tiny sticker that we failed to read on the front of the mini fridge in our hotel room warned that charges were assessed each time the refrigerator door was opened.  The small wheel of cheese that I stashed there nearly cost me an additional fifteen pounds.

•8)   Walk everywhere.  Taxi rides are the extravagance of mobsters and royalty.  Even the Tube is expensive — five-pounds-fifty per day.  Charmed by a bicyclist rickshaw in Leicester Square, we hopped in and let him take us for a ride.  He did all right; around the block for ten pounds.

To keep myself honest and accountable, I kept a daily journal of all of my expenditures over my ten-day trip.  Looking back, I did my Depression-era grandmas proud.  I did London for two on less than eighty dollars a day.  These days, I doubt Frommer’s could do much better.