“Budget” London with a Family of Four

by Nancy Bestor

Planning for a recent trip to France was in the works when we got to thinking it would be easy and fun to tack on a week in London. We were going to be so close to England that it seemed a shame to miss the opportunity to show the girls the sights. Bob and I had both visited a couple of times before, and it has always been one of our favorite cities, so we wanted to share it with our daughters, aged 12 and 10 at the time.

While researching lodging options and prices, it soon became apparent that our family of four would be spending at least $175 a night, and that was if we could find a great deal. Also, it is often more difficult to find hotel rooms for four in Europe, and we didn’t like the idea of splitting up. A chance reading of the travel section in the San Francisco Chronicle turned us on to the idea of a home stay. Several agencies serve as brokers for these types of rentals and as a bonus, the price of lodging includes breakfast which, like almost everything else, can be quite expensive in London.

We booked our home stay through www.happy-homes.com. Their agent, Erica Reynolds, worked diligently to find a home that would suit us, and we were not disappointed. For the price of 490 pounds (about $980), we spent six delightful nights in a comfortable Chiswick, London home. Our hosts were a good-natured, retired couple who a few times a year rent out the two bedrooms on the top floor of their home. We also had our own bathroom, and each morning we were treated to a delightful full breakfast. Some mornings it was muffi­ns, cereal and fruit, others it was waffles, or bacon and eggs.

Big Ben

Big Ben

Our hosts gave us our own key, and we were able to come and go as we pleased. We were a bit concerned with the idea of making small talk every time we were in the house, but our hosts went out of their way to make our stay as private as we cared. Breakfast was set out for us each morning. And most days we would leave without seeing them and return late enough that they were already asleep. Yet when we needed them, they were always available to answer questions and provide any other help.

The home was a five-minute walk to the Acton Town Tube station, and from there a 20-30 minute ride would get us almost anywhere in the city. The London Underground (a.k.a. “the Tube”), is an extremely easy way to get around. We bought three-day travel cards for off peak hours ($30 each). Our 10 year old was free (11 and younger can travel free off peak with an adult) and our 12-year-old took part in the kid for a quid program ($2 per minutes. There are a host of options for Tube tickets, and the Rick Steves’ London guidebook does an excellent job of helping travelers figure out the pass that best meets their needs.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the British Museum (free!) where we got close-up looks at the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, Rameses II, Assyrian statuary and carvings and the Rosetta Stone—now behind glass, whereas on our last trip, 15 years ago, we could touch it. Also behind glass is Lindow Man, also known as “The Bog Man”. He was a victim of an ancient human ritual sacrifice, and his wounds are still visible, as he was accidentally preserved like a mummy in a peat bog for more than 2000 years. Quite frankly he looks like a very old piece of leather in the shape of a human.

Home of the Crown Jewels (yes THE Crown Jewels), the Beefeaters, and one of the great museums of the world, the Tower of London was a favorite stop for the whole family. The Beefeaters, otherwise known as Yeoman Warders, offer free tours of the Tower every 30 minutes. These hour-long tours are very entertaining, as the Beefeaters recount exciting tales full of political intrigue, bravery and love, while sparing none of the often gruesome and grisly details. Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and many more legendary names all star in these fascinating stories of the Tower’s amazing history.

Our Daughters with a Beefeater

Our Daughters with a Beefeater

A visit to London wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Harrod’s, London’s most famous department store. Owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, father of Princess Diana’s infamous boyfriend Dodi, the seven floors of high-end shopping include an odd and garish memorial to Dodi and Diana. It boasts Diana’s engagement ring from Dodi, the wineglass Diana drank out of on the night she died (lipstick still staining the rim), and both a huge picture and statue of the two. It is certainly quite a sight, especially with tourists lining up to have their pictures taken in front of it. The girls loved Harrod’s huge toy department, with many toys to try out, including a child’s size Hummer, on sale for a mere $25,000.

We also stopped off, with about a million other tourists, to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (bit of a yawn in my opinion), but much more interesting was a look at some very famous diaries and books at the British Library (free!). Pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebook (written in Italian as well as backwards, so bring a mirror!), the scribbled lyrics to I Want to Hold Your Hand by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Magna Carta, and much more are all on display.

We spent about $24 to take one of the famous “London Walks” tours. We chose the Beatles Tour, thinking it would be of interest to the whole family. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Our tour guide drove us crazy and we saw the outsides of lots of buildings. Needless to say, it did not live up to its billing. On a previous trip to London Bob and I took the terrific London by Gaslight Pub Walk tour. Of course we were 25 years old and pubs were an important part of our day—every day.

We tried to keep our London food costs to a minimum. We did splurge at a couple of Indian restaurants and once at a pub, but most of our meals came from daily stops at Marks & Spencer. This high-end grocery chain has outlets throughout the city and offers ready-made salads, sandwiches and such that made for great picnics in parks or even on street benches.

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

Make no mistake—London is expensive. And this bit of penny-pinching gave us more money for other adventures, like guided walks, half price theater tickets, and entrance fees to the important sites on our to do list. And while London offers a few of the most amazing free museums in the world, these are more than offset by hefty entrance fees at must-see sites like the Tower of London ($92 family price) and Westminster Abbey ($45 family price). London is a great city, and our six days there were full of fun and adventure. We were always on the go, and didn’t really spend much time at our home stay. That makes it the perfect lodging choice for travelers of all kinds.