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With the less-than-favorable exchange rate of pounds to dollars (£1 = $1.56 at this writing), new luxury hotels and celebrity chef-driven restaurants opening daily, London doesn’t seem to qualify as a value destination. But thanks to a continually increasing number of nonstop flights from the US — and a slew of points-redeeming hotel options — scoring a budget-savvy trip across the pond has never been easier. TPG Contributor (and London enthusiast) Lane Nieset offers up a few suggestions for ways to save using points and miles on your next trip to England’s capital.
I’ve seen London in every season: flying on budget airlines to catch the Christmas markets and holiday decorations; cashing in AAdvantage miles (and navigating hefty airline taxes) for shoulder-season trips to visit friends in spring and fall, right before it gets way too hot or ridiculously cold; and braving summer crowds to catch festivals. While I prefer visiting the city in early spring or fall, there’s never a bad time of the year for a trip to London (unless there happens to be a snowstorm or killer heat wave), since the year-round roster of events ensures there’s always something taking place.
New York is often referred to as the “City That Never Sleeps,” but despite many of London’s pubs closing before the stroke of midnight, there’s plenty going on at all hours of the night — you just have to know where to look. From night markets to 24/7 skyscraper restaurants, London has a bit of something for everyone, depending on your appetite.
London hosts five major airports, but the airport serving most flights from the US is London Heathrow (LHR), set 14 miles from the city center with service on American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. You can hop on a direct flight to LHR from cities such as Atlanta (ATL), Austin (AUS), Boston (BOS), Charlotte (CLT), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Houston (IAH), Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA), New York (JFK and EWR), Philadelphia (PHL), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO) and Washington-Dulles (IAD), with flight times under 11 hours from the West Coast and around seven from New York. (When traveling from the US, I usually cash in my AAdvantage miles flying direct from MIA-LHR on British Airways, about a nine-hour trip.)
If you’re making your way into London from another European destination, you can fly on a budget carrier such as Germanwings or Vueling into LHR, or on easyJet, Norwegian and Ryanair into London Gatwick (LGW), the UK’s second-largest airport, located about 28 miles from the city center.
American AAdvantage: One-way from 20,000 miles (economy, off-peak), 50,000 miles (business) and 62,500 miles (first) on American or British Airways.
Delta SkyMiles: Round-trip from 60,000 miles (economy) and 125,000 miles (business) on Delta.
United MileagePlus: One-way from 30,000 miles (economy), 57,500 miles (business) and 70,000 miles (first) on United.
Once you arrive in London, you can take the Heathrow Express train into London Paddington, a 15- to 20-minute trip for £26.50 ($41), or take the tube from one of the three stations in Heathrow into Piccadilly Circus on a 50-minute trip costing £5.70 ($9). From Gatwick, the Gatwick Express train is a 30-minute ride to Victoria Station and costs £19.90 ($31) for a one-way ticket. You can also take the National Express coach running from the airport to Victoria Coach Station, which takes about one hour and 20 minutes with one-way fares starting at £5 ($8).
If you plan on stopping in Paris on your Eurotrip, the high-speed Eurostar train is only a 2.5-hour trip from Paris Gare du Nord to London St. Pancras International station (round-trip fares start around $97). You can also transfer British Airways Avios or Iberia points to Avios.com and redeem them for Eurostar tickets. A return ticket in Standard Class starts at 9,000 Avios points, while a Standard Premier ticket starts at 20,000.
Where to Stay
Visa Signature cardholders (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, Hyatt card, Marriott Rewards Premier, Southwest Premier, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card, Capital One Venture and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve) can earn perks like $25 F&B credits, room upgrades and complimentary continental breakfast when booking through the Visa Signature Hotels program for stays at properties such as five-star The Savoy, a Fairmont hotel in Covent Garden; the luxe Corinthia Hotel London; and The Langham, London in Marylebone. (see more below)
Along with The Savoy and the Corinthia Hotel London, The Langham, London is also a member of American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts (Amex FHR), so American Express Platinum cardholders can receive perks such as a fourth night free, daily breakfast for two, late check-out and a spa credit during their stay. The 150-year-old, 344-room hotel — the Langham brand’s flagship property — has recently added the Regent Wing with grand executive rooms that offer guests direct private access to the top of Regent Street, as well as the six-room Sterling Suite and Langham Club Lounge. During my stay here, I loved taking advantage of the complimentary spa amenities like the salt sauna and vitality pool, and I couldn’t help indulging in cocktails at Artesian, rated one of the world’s best bars. Rates start at £300 ($461). Be sure to check out the full list of Amex FHR properties in London.
In Picadilly Circus, Le Méridien is a top pick if you’re using SPG points, and close to landmarks such as Covent Garden and Leicester Square. The hotel has 280 regal rooms and suites decorated in a traditional English style, boasts one of the largest indoor pools in London, and offers a gin and tonic-themed afternoon tea served at the Terrace Grill & Bar. The SPG Category 6 hotel starts at £289 ($444) or 20,000 Starpoints per night.
Set in largely residential Fitzrovia on the edge of Soho, The London EDITION brings hotelier Ian Schrager’s swanky style to 173 rooms decked out in wood hues, gold-framed photos and plush armchairs. If you book select one-bedroom suites or the penthouse, you’ll even have your own terrace overlooking the city. At the hotel, you’ll find traditional British fare at Berners Tavern, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton, and punch cocktails at the reservations-only bar, aptly named Punch Room. Rates start at £365 ($560) or 50,000 Marriott or Ritz-Carlton Rewards points.
What to Do
You could explore a sprawling city like London for months and barely scratch the surface. To make the most of what time you have, consider getting The London Pass, a card that gains you free (and in some cases, fast-track) entry to more than 60 attractions and offers the option of adding a Visitor Oyster card, which allows you to pre-purchase rides on public transportation aboard the Tube, buses and trains. One-day passes start at £52 ($80) for adults and £35 ($54) for children ages 5-15.
If you’re a first-timer to London, a few items that you may want to cross off your checklist are Big Ben, the London Eye, and the Tower of London on the Thames a palace that holds the Crown Jewels and was used as an armory, prison and execution spot for Anne Boleyn, the most illustrious of Henry VIII’s wives. For a less touristy look over the skyline and St.Paul’s Cathedral, head up to the rooftop at the One New Change shopping center for sweeping views of the City of London.
Arguably the best view over London is from the city’s tallest viewing point at The Shard, also Western Europe’s tallest building. From 800 feet high you’ll be able to glimpse views of London for up to 40 miles away, spotting landmarks like The Gherkin, Tower Bridge and the London Eye.
If you want to see the city from all hours of the night, book a table at Duck & Waffle, a 24/7 restaurant set on the top of a 40-floor building in the City of London, a favorite for brunch serving up its namesake, crispy duck leg confit and waffles.
London is one of the world’s fashion capitals, so it’s no surprise that the shopping is superb here, with famous department stores such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Liberty, as well as the designer boutique-lined Sloane Street in Chelsea and the chain-heavy Oxford Street, home to Topshop and Primark. For something a bit more local, check out Shoreditch’s pop-up container mall BOXPARK or Notting Hill’s Portobello Market.
The city is home to tons of other markets, as well, and one of my favorites is the seasonally changing street-food-and-bar night market in Shoreditch, Urban Food Fest, which takes place on Saturdays all summer long.
One of the best things about being a tourist in London is that many of the city’s museums and galleries are free and easy to get to, such as the art-filled Tate Modern and Tate Britain (set across the Thames from one another by Tate Boat, which starts at £7.15 ($11) one-way for adults), the superb Victoria and Albert Museum, the amazing British Museum, the fun-for-all-ages Museum of London and the sprawling, comprehensive Natural History Museum.
With the money you save on museums, consider splurging on a spot of afternoon tea — one of the great pleasures of a trip to the UK. Some of the best afternoon teas in London can be found at Brown’s Hotel, Claridge’s, The Ritz London, the Cellarium Cafe at Westminster Abbey and City Cruises of London.
For more tips on ways to use points and miles for travel to London, check out these other posts:
How to Avoid Fuel Surcharges on Award Travel
How to Use Virgin Atlantic Without Fuel Surcharges
Using US Airways Miles to Avoid British Airways Fuel Surcharges
6 Tips for Using Points and Miles to Visit London and Paris
Best London Hotels to Redeem Points
The Next Great Mistake-Fare Guide to London
Review: American Airlines 777-300ER Business Class JFK-London
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