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The Next Great Mistake-Fare Guide to London

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Though last week’s $50 mistake-fare to London was a bust, it only goes to show how excited people get about traveling to the Big Smoke. The dollar-to-pound exchange rate is at its lowest in ages, so in the hopes that another bloody cheap fare is right around the bend, new TPG Contributor (and committed Londonphile) Jade Broadus serves as your guide to the delightful city of London. Cheers!

The view from the London Eye
The View from the London Eye. Photo courtesy of Paul Tridon – Flickr.

A massive, multi-cultural city long renowned for its history, architecture, parks and royal family, modern London has built a reputation for cutting-edge art, fashion and design, as well as an exciting new cuisine scene. A visit to the city will leave an indelible mark on both your heart and your passport.

Logistics

With flight times from New York City under seven hours and less than 11 hours from the west coast—and an often similar version of the English language—London is one of the most popular foreign cities with U.S. travelers. Most London visitors arrive into Heathrow or Gatwick, two of the most traveled airports in the world.

Set 14 miles from the city center, London Heathrow (LHR), has five main terminals and operates transatlantic flights on British Airways, Delta (which has a new lounge here), United, US Airways, American and Virgin Atlantic, so it’s relatively easy to find reward tickets or transfer points to get there. Once you arrive, head to Paddington Station via the Heathrow Express train (£35 ($54) round-trip or £21 ($32) one-way). The Heathrow Express also offers a Business First service that includes complimentary WiFi and newspapers, at-seat power sockets, worktables and extra legroom for a whopping £53 ($81) round-trip, but at only 15 minutes, this is the fastest, easiest way to get into the city.

London's Heathrow airport is home to Virgin Atlantic's amazing first class Clubhouse.
London’s Heathrow airport is home to Virgin Atlantic’s amazing first class Clubhouse.

If you have a bit more time and want to save some money on transportation, you have a few options. You can take the Heathrow Connect from Heathrow to Paddington Station for £10.10 ($15.60). A train leaves every 3o minutes and makes a few scheduled stops along the way. Or, the Piccadilly line of the Underground (or Tube) goes all the way to the airport for only £5.70 ($8.79); check train times for departures, as they can vary depending on the day. Taxis aren’t the recommended way to get from the airport, namely for the £60 ($92) cost of a one-way fare and the route’s notoriously horrendous traffic.

Gatwick (LGW) is located about 28 miles south of the city center, and serves daily flights from the US on Virgin Atlantic. To travel direct to central London, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station (£31.50 ($48.56) round-trip, £17.70 ($27.29) one-way). If you’re traveling with a group, book the tickets online in advance to save money; currently, you can purchase four tickets for the price of two.

Once you’ve arrived in the city center, purchase a Visitor Oyster Card —an easy, cheap way to travel around London via the Tube—and preload it with money so you don’t have to continually buy single-ride tickets. The base card costs £3 ($4.62) and you choose how much money to add to it. (Note that if you purchase the card before you arrive in London, you can get additional discounts.)

Where to Stay

Waldorf Hilton. Photo courtesy of Hilton Hotels.
Waldorf Hilton. Photo courtesy of Hilton Hotels.

London is known for having a diverse, multi-cultural population, and its neighborhoods and hotels are just as varied. To get a sense of them, see our comprehensive destination post on London and keep an eye out for a London hotel overview post, but know that there are points properties all across the city, with many concentrated in The West End—like these two, for example:

Set in the theater district, the venerable The Waldorf Hilton starts at £239 ($368) or 60,000 HHonors a night; the Category 9 property is currently offering double points if you book a weekend stay with HHonors. Also in the West End, in the Fitzrovia neighborhood near Soho, The London Edition is a new Marriott luxury property with a blend of 19th-century and modern design, and rooms starting at £335 ($516) or 45,000 Marriott Rewards points.

If seeing London’s famous sites from the floor-to-ceiling window of your hotel room is more your thing, the Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard starts at £425 ($730) or 20,000 Golden Circle Reward points. Proximity to famous sites and museums like the Tower of London and the Tate Modern is an added bonus.

If you’re planning a trip this summer, make sure to check out The Hilton Bankside—mentioned in our Top 15 Hotels Opening in 2015.

The Haymarket Hotel in London.
The design lovers dream at The Haymarket Hotel. Photo courtesy of Jade Broadus.

For an extravagant—but non-points-earning—experience, The Haymarket Hotel near the National Gallery and St. James Park has gorgeous one-of-a-kind designed suites, with rates starting at £334 ($515) per night for a superior room and rising to £1,507 ($2,350) per night for a one-bedroom, full-suite apartment.

If an apartment is your style, but not on that kind of budget, know that there are thousands of rental options all over the city. Be sure to check out our post on maximizing points and miles with Airbnb and VRBO, and be aware that Airbnb has a new partnership with Amex, allowing you to redeem Membership Rewards for Airbnb gift cards.

Eggs Benedict at The Northall
Eggs Benedict at The Northall

Where to Eat

No matter what you’re craving—Indian, Spanish, French, Italian or even a hot dog—you’ll find it in London, and most likely with a coveted Michelin star. The Points Guy recently ate at three of the hottest tables in the city right now—Berners Tavern, Ham Yard Hotel, and Chiltern Firehouse—and his review is soon to come.

For a traditional British meal that has a farm-to-table flair, visit The Northall, located within the luxurious Corinthia Hotel. Just steps from Trafalgar Square, this fine dining option features seasonal dishes with carefully selected wine and Champagne pairings.

Located within the Fairmont-managed Savoy, the Art Deco-designed Kaspar’s Seafood Bar and Grill sits right on the River Thames across from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, offering sustainable seafood like pan-seared Scottish salmon and pretty, artisan desserts like a green-apple parfait.

Lobster Club
Lobster club sandwich at Kasper’s Seafood

To experience the most indulgent meal in all of London, head to Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester for the seven-course Black Truffle dinner, which costs a whopping £240 ($369). If you want to taste Chef Jocelyn’s creations on a (relatively) smaller budget, visit during lunch for a three-course, two-glasses-of-wine pre-fixe menu that only costs £60 ($92).

French perfection at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.
French perfection at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester

For a meal you’ll find only here, sit down for Champagne and hot dogs at Bubble Dogs. With over 49 Champagnes and 18 hot dogs to choose from, including the Mac Daddy—a hot dog with mac and cheese, bacon bits and crispy onions—and the New Yorker—topped with grilled sauerkraut or caramelized onions—this is a decadent meal you won’t soon forget. Hot dogs start at £6 ($9.24).

Make it a point to visit The Anchor and Hope, a pub known as much for its food as it is for its pints. Be sure to try their crab soup, Scottish veal rib chop and flourless chocolate cake.

Hearty mains at Jamie's Italian. Photo courtesy of Jamie's Italian UK.
Just one of the hearty mains at Jamie’s Italian

And if you want to try celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s famous food firsthand, head to Jamie’s Italian in Covent Garden. Perfect for pre-theater dining or satisfying your hunger between hitting up the local shops, enjoy hearty mains that start at £13-16 ($20), like the turkey Milanese and Italian steak frites.

Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guards
Buckingham Palace in London. Photo courtesy of Glen Scarborough -Flickr.

What to See

London occupies 607 square miles—15 times the size of Paris—and could take months to explore. There are over 240 museums, 230 professional theatres, 20 markets, and eight Royal Parks— five of which are in Central London. While it may sound overwhelming, the good news is that with a little planning you can organize your London itinerary to see the best of the best in even three short days.

A first-timer’s sightseeing list for London should include Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London and Shakespeare’s The Globe Theatre. Immortalized on postcards for years, these attractions certainly won’t disappoint in person.

The British Museum.
The British Museum in London, England.

Most museums in London are free to the public, so adding one a day to to your itinerary will allow you to see a slew of art and history without breaking the bank. The British Museum—known for human artifacts such as Egyptian mummies and Greek pottery—and The Tate Modern—a museum known for inspiring and radical modern art pieces—are two favorites of mine. Also try not to miss The National Gallery, a massive, several-story palace to art that houses some of the world’s most famous works from the 13th through 19th centuries— and is open 361 days a year for free.

St. James Park photo courtesy of Herry Lawford on Creative Commons.
St. James Park. Photo courtesy of Herry Lawford -Flickr.

Another free activity is visiting one of London’s premier parks. St. James Park is great for a stop between Buckingham Palace and the London Eye. Regent’s Park is the largest outdoor sports area in all of London and is also home to the London Zoo, the Open Air Theatre and Queen Mary’s Gardens, which includes over 12,000 roses.

Portobello Market. Photo courtesy of Chang Yisheng.
Portobello Market. Photo courtesy of Chang Yisheng.

Whether you’re looking for food, unique gifts, clothes, local art or vintage jewelry, London has a market for you. Some of the markets sprawl amongst several streets and hundreds of stalls deep, and it could take an entire day to visit each vendor, if you were so inclined. Others are confined to warehouses and buildings and are great for a simple stroll. Old Spitalfields Market, Camden Lock, and Borough Market are three of my favorite haunts, and Portobello Market in Notting Hill is a must if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind souvenir.

The Globe Theatre in London
Waiting for the show to start at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Photo courtesy of Alistair Young – Flickr

The theatre scene in London is constantly changing, with shows opening and closing each week. The most recognizable shows are on the West End, Broadway’s theatrical sibling. Here the playbill is musical heavy and it’s the best spot to catch a spectacle heavy show. To get deeper into the theatrical scene, check out The Old Vic, The Young Vic, The Royal Court and the Barbican. These award-winning playhouses consistently bring acclaimed actors and well-known celebrities to their stages.

Day Trips

White Cliffs of Dover
Summer day trip from London: White Cliffs of Dover. Photo courtesy of Karen Roe.

If you have more time in London, consider leaving it—most easily by train—for one or more of these attractions set one to three hours from the city:

The Baroque splendor and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Blenheim Palace is where Winston Churchill was born. The iconic Stonehenge —one of the wonders of the world and a World Heritage Site — is about . Adult tickets are £13.90 ($21) and children under 5 are free. In Bath, where Roman baths date back to 836BC, indulge in your own soothing spa treatment at Thermae Bath Spa where a two-hour soak coasts £35 ($53).

In the summer, visit one of the beautiful coast towns to the south. The White Cliffs of Dover—where the English coastline faces France—is a great spot for photography and nature lovers. Brighton is a popular beach city great for families, foodies and shoppers. Spring through Fall, animal lovers should visit The New Forest National Park, where almost 2,000 wild ponies roam the land. The 220 square mile park is also great for bike rides, kayaking adventures, golf trips and horseback rides.

You could explore London and its environs every year without repeating an itinerary—and save foreign transaction fees by using cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Barclaycard Arrival Plus—so let’s hope for an ever-strengthening dollar and more cheap fares to England’s most popular city!

Have you traveled to London? What are your favorite places in the city to visit?