Thursday, March 11, 2010

Planning a trip to the UK

It's been too long since we were last in the UK and it's time to start thinking about another trip there. We used to go a lot more often, but now that we have four plane tickets to buy, it's got significantly more expensive. Still, by planning ahead, there are some ways we can save money.

Direct flights from the east coast of the US are more expensive than a flight with one or more change of planes. For example, we flew IcelandAir via Reykjavik the last time we flew to the UK. You have to weigh the hidden costs of a 'cheaper' flight though. When you're travelling with kids or have a limited amount of vacation time, it's not just a question of money. Is it worth it to spend significantly longer en route? Spending several hours in the middle of the night in an airport that was basically shut down for the night was not particularly entertaining. Nor was it fun to have a three year old screaming for the first several hundred miles because his sister had promised him his own seat-back TV that never materialized because we were on a 'short-haul' flight with TVs that dropped down from the ceiling of the plane. Next time we're paying the extra and flying direct!

In the past, we've had the good fortune to have a family member working for a car rental company in the UK, so we've been able to hire a car at a staff discount. Not so now, but I discovered that if you book a car at the same time as you book your flight with British Airways it is significantly cheaper than booking it separately. I think a manual Vectra for 15 days, including unlimited mileage and all the optional insurance works out at under $300. If you sign up for the BA frequent flyer program you can add a second driver at no charge, which is another savings. (Not that DH ever drives in the UK, but it would be nice to know that he was insured to do so if he had to for some reason.)

Given that we're visiting family when we go to the UK, we are able to save money by staying with them for at least part of the time. On our last few trips, we've made a point of spending a few nights in hotels to visit parts of the country where we don't happen to have any relatives. The first time we did it was for the sheer delight of spending only $9 a night TOTAL for a family of four! The Travelodge chain was having a "Fiver Frenzy" sale - rooms available for five pounds a night! I admit it was close to ten years ago and we've never hit a sale quite that good again, but their regular rates are excellent if you book ahead. The rooms are basic. There are no toiletries provided. (Towels are though.) Breakfast is not included, but there's instant coffee and tea bags in the room along with a kettle, and your room key gets you a discount at the restaurant next door for breakfast. WiFi is available for a fee. Given that we're not there to do anything other than sleep in the hotel room, it suits our purpose fine. If Travelodge is not your style, try checking out's voucher codes for

We like to visit pubs when we're in the UK. There are so many though, and it's really easy to pick a bad one, so we rely on the latest edition of the Good Pub Guide. I have too many American friends who have never heard of it and ended up having a bad pub experience and thinking that all pubs in the UK serve naff food. If you're only there for a few days on vacation you don't want to waste your money on a bad meal! Nowadays, we look not just for pubs that have good beer and good food, but also that are child-friendly.

On our last trip we used the Good Pub Guide to find The Mole and Chicken in Buckinghamshire. There was a similarly highly recommended pub not very far away, but the Guide warned us that it was NOT child-friendly. At The Mole and Chicken we had an outstanding evening, and the children had as good a meal as we did. This time we may not even have to buy the Guide if we plan well as it is now online! In fact, the last time I checked, the 2010 guide is not available in the US yet, so we'll be doing our planning using the website! I may buy DH the book for his birthday though as he does like just browsing through it, and it could come in handy if our carefully made plans fall apart once we're in the UK!

If you're going to visit historic sites, don't forget to work out whether it's worth buying a pass rather than single tickets. There's the London Pass for 55 sites in London, CADW has passes for Welsh sites and the British Heritage Pass covers over 500 sites, some of them National Trust sites. The National Trust has both short-term passes and an annual membership that covers over 300 historic sites. Depending on which sites you want to visit, the National Trust annual membership may actually be a better deal than the British Heritage Pass for a limited number of days! An even better deal for Americans is to plan ahead and join the Royal Oak Foundation which is for American members of the National Trust. A family membership is just US$90, as opposed to the 82 pounds it would cost for National Trust membership - and it's 100% deductible as a charitable donation on your US tax return! Oh - and if you have a membership to a local science museum in the US it is often valid at other museums including a few in the UK.

You can also check sites like to find their latest money saving voucher codes and offers, including Discount Codes and Expedia Voucher Codes. While the site is not necessarily geared towards international tourists visiting the UK, there might be some useful offers there. I've seen printable coupons for meal deals at a Covent Garden restaurant for example. If we were going to such a touristy location where the prices are inevitably going to be high, I'd definitely rather have a coupon in hand! I'll be looking to see if they have coupons for some of the chain restaurants we might stop at with the kids as they seem to have a lot of BOGOF deals, which would certainly make it more affordable. (I do hate the acronym BOGOF - looks too much like 'bog off!')

There are lots of things that seem to be more expensive in the UK than in the US, but I suppose I could 'save' some money by stocking up on a few of the things that aren't, like Indian spices. I remember returning to the US in the past with a large quantity of Patak's curry sauce jars in my suitcase! If I didn't already have more than enough knitting needles, I could stock up on the highly desirable Addi needles as they are generally 1/2 to 2/3 the price in the UK that they are in the USA. Tea bags. Custard creams. What else?

Does anyone else have any suggestions for how to save money on a trip to the UK?

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Ayak said...

I agree with you that cutting costs with cheap flights isn't always a good thing....particularly with children. I travel back home to England about every 6 months and have used some cheap flights on occasions and always regret it. I now stick with Turkish Airlines who are efficient and I have no complaints.

I would love to think of some money saving ideas for your trip, but you seem to have covered an awful lot already. It really does pay to do some research on-line first doesn't it?

Lindsay said...

Addi needles are CHEAPER IN THE UK?!
(head explodes with joy) I will be telling our friend over at "in the left lane" to pick some up for me ASAP!

nappy valley girl said...

Wow - you have done your research. The hire car tip is useful - we will need one when we return for a couple of weeks in August. Although I'd avoid BA - they seem to be permanently having strikes (and I've had some appalling experiences with them in the past anyway).....

Almost American said...

Ayak - lucky you, getting to go to the UK every 6 months! I'd love to be able to get back more often than we do!

Lindsay - 4 mm, 80 cm long, Addi Turbos are $15.95 at my LYS, but at the store near my parents' house in the UK they are the equivalent of $8.40! I only thought to check cos someone on Ravelry mentioned it.

NVG - BA went on strike when we were in the UK for my brother's wedding and we had to stay in the UK an extra couple of days. We didn't mind that so much, but when they finally booked us on a Delta flight back to the US, the chaos at Heathrow was a nightmare. BA and Virgin have similarly priced tickets, but I can't get the car hire deal with Virgin. Hotels, yes. Cars, no.

See you and Expat Mum in the UK in August? ;-)

iwi said...

I'd agree with Nappy Valley Girl - be careful of booking with BA at the moment. Latest strike dates have just bee announced. You'd hope it'd all be sorted by August, but no insurance company will stump up if you're affected. It's a 'known fact' until the unions call off any actions.

Expat mum said...

Fab tips - thanks for posting all this.
I love the National Heritage people when we visit places of interest. They will spend a lot of time with you to figure out the cheapest ticket options. Last year it was cheapest to buy an annual pass.
I'll be there in July for Cybermummy and a few other things, then the family visit is a flying one in August. I think.

'Cross the Pond said...

I got more info from this post than most of my research on google! Thanks for that. I read an article in the NY Times that flight prices in the US drop considerably after midnight on Wednesday and are cheaper until about 7am. The reason being is that all held tickets and reservations are dropped every Tuesday evening and are available on Wednesday at midnight. Also, flying on a Wednesday or Thursday and staying over at least on Saturday will reduce your fare no matter where you go. I hope that helps.

Almost American said...

Cross the Pond - yes, I forgot to mention that the day of the week you travel makes a difference in the price. For this year's trip we initially looked at leaving the US on a Tuesday, as Tuesday and Wednesday flights were cheaper, but decided in the end to leave on a Saturday. DH has limited vacation time and it was worth a little extra to maximise the time we can spend in the UK by adding in some weekend days.

Everyone keep your fingers and toes crossed - because of the good deal we got with the car hire, we went with BA. Now we just have to hope that the industrial dispute is over before the summer vacation!

If I Could Escape . . . said...

Great tips! Would love to get over again this summer. Fingers crossed!

NFAH said...

It may not work depending on your travel dates and with small kids, but many British universities, including some of the Oxbridge colleges, rent out their student rooms when it's not the teaching term, and have a sort of highly discounted B&B service. It's ridiculously cheap AND you get to stay in a historic place. I've also had a rental room at Queen Mary in London.

Almost American said...

Ooh - excellent tip NFAH - I've heard of people who've done that, but not recently so I didn't remember it for this post!

geekymummy said...

home exchanges can be a cheap way to vacation in the UK, especially nicer parts of London, if your comfortable letting out your own home and you live in a place people might like to visit.

Also, for the suitcase: marmite, chocolate buttons, M&S undies.

have fun! I always fly direct into London (from SF) with the kids, changing planes is such a nightmare

Almost American said...

Geekymummy - yes, M&S undies (and socks) are on the shopping list!

Michelloui said...

Wow, Im impressed with your research! This is just what Im like when preparing for a holiday back to Minnesota, so I really relate. Good tips in here for UK locals as well as tourists.

I always enjoy reading your blog. Ive tagged/awarded you with a Happiness Award. Dont feel you have to follow the tasks, its just nice to send some acknowledgement your way x

The Prodigal Tourist said...

I didn't realize IcelandAir was still around...that brings back memories!

Iota said...

Thanks for the tips. We're heading across the Pond this summer. My mum isn't all that far from the The Mole and Chicken, so I might give that one a try.

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