Great Britain, Good Value
(50 ways to a value-for-money holiday)
by Bob Barton
You can spend a fortune on a trip to Britain but it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, you may be surprised to find how many top attractions, particularly in the cities, are free to visit. With a little bit of planning, and by keeping your eyes open when you arrive, it is possible to get excellent value for your hard-earned money. Whatever your taste – whether it’s museums or galleries, grand historic houses or simply sightseeing – here are 50 ideas for seeing Britain on a budget.
1. Enjoy London’s free attractions. The capital has some of Europe’s best museums and galleries, filled with priceless treasures and intriguing art in landmark buildings both old and new. Among those that offer free admission (except for special exhibitions) are the National Gallery, the British Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery (marking its 150th anniversary). In South Kensington are the Victoria and Albert, the Science and Natural History Museums, while Thames-side Greenwich has the National Maritime Museum. Website:http://www.visitlondon.com/city_guide/budget/f_free_museums.html
2. Buy theatre tickets for half-price. Theatre-lovers should head to the Tkts ticket booth in Leicester Square or Canary Wharf, which have seats for many West End productions available on the day of performance at half the box office price. http://www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/tkts.
3. Get around London with a Travelcard. To get about, the smart visitor buys a one-day travel card from Underground stations. They cost from £4.90 for a whole day’s travelling around central London after 09.30 a.m. on the buses, Underground and Docklands Light Railway (DLR).
4. Ride the Docklands Railway. Not to be missed is Docklands, east of Tower Bridge, with its towering glass office blocks and other modern architecture, surrounded by the water of the former docks. The semi-automated DLR trains (included on the Travelcard) give a great view from their elevated tracks -- and there is a free commentary on some weekend services.
5. Stroll in a Royal Park.Dine on a picnic and watch the world go by in one of the city's Royal Parks: beautiful at all times of year and there’s a programme of free events, too. http://www.royalparks.gov.uk
6. Bag a bargain in a market. Check out London’s open-air markets, of which the latest is the Sunday (Up) Market in the Old Truman Brewery, off Hanbury Street, E1. The market is a platform for designer-makers selling unique goods direct to customers and joins the others, including Old Spitalfields, E1; Camden Lock, NW1; Greenwich, SE10 and Portobello Road, W10, as ‘must see’ attractions for shoppers.
7. Get a pass to Britain’s heritage. The Great British Heritage Pass provides unlimited entry to almost 600 castles, stately homes and gardens all over the country. There are four, seven, 15 and 30-day options, all offering considerable savings if you plan to visit several properties. http://www.gbheritagepass.com/.
8. Stay on campus. The country’s colleges and universities have accommodation in student halls, hostels, college or university-owned lodgings during the summer. These are often centrally located and comfortable, but don’t expect hotel-type facilities. http://www.venuemasters.com.
9. Visit a pub. Places in which you can meet the locals, and enjoy good food as well as drink, in a friendly, informal setting. Found everywhere. An expanding chain of pubs called J.D. Wetherspoon specialises in low-cost drinks and meals. How about a pint of beer for under £2; or two hot meals for £5.99? http://www.jdwetherspoon.co.uk.
10. Take the National Express. Don't confine your visit to London, there is so much to see outside the capital. The biggest express bus company, National Express, reaches every corner of the land at prices between a third and half that of rail travel. Visit any of the 1,000 destinations served with one ticket, the BritXplorer Pass, available in three configurations covering different time periods. http://www.nationalexpress.com
11. Ride the train.The railway network is extensive and trains are frequent and speedy. The go-anywhere BritRail Pass is such a good deal that it must be purchased before you leave home – it is not available to the locals in Britain. http://www.BritRail.com.
12. Cruise the Thames. The River Thames now offers a practical addition to the capital’s Underground and red bus networks for sightseers in central London. Two new boat services have been launched by Thames Clippers and there is a new ‘hop-on, hop-off’ ticket called the River Roamer. The services complement the ‘Tate to Tate’ boat which links the Tate Modern and Tate Britain art galleries. The network has been rebranded as ‘The Riverline’ and its network map bears more than a passing similarity to the famous Underground map.
London Travelcard holders get a discount. Website: http://www.thamesclippers.com.
13. Walk London. London’s first Walking Pass gives visitors five guided walking tours of the capital for £12. Valid for two days, pass holders are led on themes including The Da Vinci Code, James Bond, movie locations and ‘ghosts by gaslight’. The pass is the idea of the Big Bus Company, and customers of its London bus tour (£20) get the walks free of charge. Bookings, tel. 020 7233 7797. Website: http://www.bigbustours.com.
14. Watch a Shakespeare play for £5.Yes you can, and in an accurate replica of Shakespeare’s original Elizabethan Globe Theatre, on the South Bank of the Thames near Southwark Bridge. Ask for a ‘groundling’ ticket: you have to stand throughout the performance, but you are in amongst the action at the front of the stage. The season runs from May 5 – October 8. http://www.shakespearesglobe.com.
15. Sample a festival. Music, theatre, literature and comedy are just some of the art forms on offer as more than a hundred festivals are planned all over the UK each year. There are usually a number of free or low-cost events at each festival – and the atmosphere is electric whenever a festival is happening. You can find out details of them all at the British Arts Festivals Association’s website: http://www.artsfestivals.co.uk.
16. Explore Liverpool. This city in North-West England will be European Capital of Culture in 2008 and has opened a free, ‘one-stop’ centre, ’08 Place in Whitechapel, as a showcase for its 2008 preparations. There is also a multi-media experience on Liverpool’s attractions and events, both current and planned. The city has eight museums of national importance, including the Tate Gallery (free). Website: http://www.liverpool08.com.
17. Stroll the Avenue of the Stars. Britain’s answer to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is being created in London’s Covent Garden. One hundred stars of stage, screen and TV are being immortalised on the Avenue of Stars. The first recipients, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Rex Harrison, are represented by silver stars in the walkway, situated outside St Paul’s, the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden. Free.
18. Visit a film location. Many visitors come because of a film they’ve seen, and it costs nothing to stand where the actors and directors have stood. The 1983 film Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster and Jenny Seagrove, shot in the Scottish village of Pennan, Aberdeenshire, came top in a 2005 film critics’ poll for the best use of locations. Others included: The Full Monty (Sheffield, Yorkshire); Trainspotting (Edinburgh); The Railway Children (Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Yorkshire); An American Werewolf in London (Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, London Zoo); The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Lyme Regis, Dorset); Brassed Off (Barnsley, Doncaster, Halifax, Birmingham); Brief Encounter (Carnforth, Lancashire); Kes (Barnsley, Yorkshire); and Shadowlands (Oxford and the Wye Valley)
19. Visit Glasgow’s 13 museums and galleries. The Scottish city is full of stunning Victorian architecture alongside Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art nouveau buildings. Visit the Gallery of Modern Art, housing four floors of modern painting. There is also the Burrell Collection, with over 8,000 varied art objects; and the Peoples’ Palace, telling the story of the city’s last 250 years. In summer 2006, the magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum reopens with 8,000 exhibits after a £28 million revamp. All free. http://www.seeglasgow.com.
20. Stay in a budget hotel. The budget hotel chain Travelodge is making £20 million of price cuts this year. The company’s Internet-based price-cutting strategy means 500,000 rooms are being sold at £26 per night and other price cuts are available on standard room rates across all 280 hotels. Locations range from key out-of-town sites on the main road network to city centre and airport hotels. Rooms are en-suite, with TV and coffee-making facilities, and they sleep up to a family of four. Another chain, Premier Travel Inn, has 470 hotels and rooms from £47 per night. http://www.travelodge.co.uk; http://www.premiertravelinn.com.
21. Overnight in a youth hostel.T here are more than 200 hostels with excellent facilities in the towns, cities and countryside of England and Wales. All age groups are welcome and you don’t have to be a member. Prices start at £15 per person in London, or £11 in the countryside and the chance to meet other travellers also makes them a good choice. A new offer, YHA Hostel Hopper, provides seven, 14 or 28 day’s travel by coach and the same number of overnight vouchers for hostels – all from £165 per person. http://www.yha.org.uk.
22. Stay in a Scottish hostel. The Scottish Youth Hostel Association’s (SYHA) rustic hostels, in remote locations amid some of Scotland's finest scenery, are ideal for visitors who want to get off the tourist trail and enjoy outdoor pursuits such as walking and climbing. Accommodation costs from £11 - £17 per person per night. There is also a range of activity holidays: from walking the West Highland Way long-distance trail to climbing the challenging Skye Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) and a range of watersports, mountain biking and pony-trekking trips. http://www.syha.org.uk.
23. Jump on a Routemaster bus. This red, double-deck bus – an icon of London for more than 50 years – has begun a new lease of life as a travelling landmark on heritage routes nine (Royal Albert Hall to Aldwych via Piccadilly Circus) and 15 (Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill via Fleet Street). They run every 15 minutes from 9.30 am to 6 pm, passing many of the best-known attractions and, because all valid Travelcards and bus tickets are accepted, it means that travellers can enjoy their own mini sightseeing tour for £1.50. http://www.tfl.gov.uk/buses/ini-heritage-buses.asp.
24. Enjoy free entertainment. Look out for free musical and dance performances in the foyers of major arts venues or tourism centres, such as London’s Covent Garden and Edinburgh’s Princes Street. A free open-air showcase of theatre performances, West End Live, takes place in and around London’s Leicester Square on June 17-18. http://www.westendlive.co.uk.
25. Cycle the national network. Britain has a remarkable National Cycle Network – well signposted and much of it traffic-free – which makes an excellent way of seeing town and country and keeping fit. Beg, borrow or rent a bicycle and sample some of the growing 10,000 miles of route, managed by the charity Sustrans. http://www.sustrans.org.uk.
26. Join the rat race. The annual Rat Races in Edinburgh (July 15-16), Bristol (June 17-18) and Manchester (Aug. 5-6) are sporting spectaculars, with hundreds of participants navigating the streets on mountain bike, kayak, on foot, down ropes and even using space hoppers. Live bands entertain the crowds – there is no charge for spectators. http://www.ratraceadventure.com.
27. Stroll on a seaside pier. The seaside piers around the coast of Britain stand as a powerful reminder of the achievements of Victorian engineers and are traditional attractions. There are dozens of them, often full of amusements and fairground-style rides, and admission is usually free. Among the best are those at Blackpool, Brighton's Palace Pier, Southwold on the East Coast and Llandudno, North Wales, Britain’s Pier of the Year for 2005. http://www.piers.co.uk.
28. Visit an artist’s studio. Twenty-one artists in West Wales will open their studios this summer for a rare chance to see their work being created. The Cardigan Open Studios weekend (August 26-30) is free, and one of several similar open studios held around the country, such as South-East England (June 9-25) and Northamptonshire (Sept. 2-17). http://www.westwalesartists.co.uk; http://www.southeastopenstudios.org.uk.
29. Explore an Open House. Five hundred architecturally significant--and often private--London buildings will open their doors for the annual Open House event (September 16-17). They include government buildings, historic houses, arts spaces, banks, medical centres and schools: all entry is free. http://www.openhouse.org.uk.
30. Get a free newspaper. To find out what's happening every day, help yourself to a free morning newspaper, Metro, from the blue racks at rail stations and other key points. The paper now has editions in 15 British cities and a million copies are printed.
31. Buy a discount pass. Many of the major cities sell a pass that gives entry to attractions, discounts at restaurants, theatres and tours and sometimes free use of public transport for one payment. It helps you jump the admission queues, too. Look out for the London Pass, Edinburgh Pass, Cardiff Welcome Card and York Pass, and many others. http://www.leisurepassgroup.com.
32. Pack a picnic. A great British tradition. Several chains such as Marks & Spencer and Pret a Manger sell a delicious range of take-away foods such as sandwiches, salads and soups which are ideal for creating your own picnic, which you can take to the local park, riverbank or other public area, just as the locals do.
33. Take a two-for-one. Two people can get entrance to attractions for the price of one, or two night’s hotel accommodation for the price of one, using a dedicated website. There are conditions attached, such as travelling by train, but substantial savings are possible. http://www.2for1entry.co.uk.
34. See how far you can go for £1.Megabus, a low-cost bus service, offers online bookings and, for as little as £1 (plus booking fee), travellers can book a journey on the growing network – from Plymouth, South-West England, to Inverness, Scotland. http://www.megabus.com.
35. Shop at a discount. Designer label
fashions can be purchased at a discount at chain stores such
as T.K. Maxx and Matalan. If you are prepared to forsake the
brand names, cool clothing can be bought for low prices at
the popular Primark stores. There are branches throughout
37. Taste good food at a farmer’s market. Not only do these markets sell the freshest, tastiest and healthiest produce, but there are plenty of opportunities for free sampling before you buy. There are well over 120 markets, in towns and cities all over the UK. http://www.farmersmarkets.net.
38. Dine in a gastropub. These are the biggest thing to happen to British food and drink in the last few years as they offer diners high quality meals in an informal pub setting, at reasonable prices. These offer value for money rather than being cheap, and beers and other long drinks are available as well as full wine lists. http://www.squaremeal.co.uk.
39. Become a Scottish ‘trail burner’. Rabbie’s Trail Burners is a company that uses mini-buses to tour ‘off the beaten track’. It takes backpackers and others on a limited budget, from place to place, and is a great way to see Scotland and meet like-minded travellers. The expanding programme includes a five-day trip to remote Hebridean islands. http://www.rabbies.com.
40. Reclaim tax on purchases. If you live outside the European Union you’re entitled to claim back the Value Added Tax (VAT) on any purchases made. VAT within the UK is charged at 17.5% on most goods bought in shops so obtaining relief from it means quite a saving. http://www.globalrefund.com.
41. Visit a remarkable open-air art gallery. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield features modern and contemporary art in a new Underground Gallery, set into a hillside with a covering of soil and turf. Other exhibits are set out in 500 acres of 18th century parkland. Admission is free. http://www.ysp.co.uk.
42. Explore a new landmark in Wales. The Wales Millennium Centre in the capital, Cardiff is a state-of-the-art entertainment venue and a landmark on Cardiff Bay. Listen to music, visit the hands-on, interactive gallery, listen to daily lunchtime concerts, take in an art exhibition, or join a creative workshop – all free of charge – and some weekend performances are free, too. Behind-the-scenes tours only cost £5. http://www.wmc.org.uk.
43. Go to Baltic in the North-East.Baltic, the centre for contemporary art housed in a former flour mill beside the River Tyne in Gateshead, is the biggest gallery of its kind in the world and admission is free. As there is no permanent collection there is something new to see on each visit, from international exhibitions and performances to events and workshops. http://www.balticmill.com.
44. Tour a whisky distillery. Scotland – and particularly Speyside – is the home of ‘the water of life’. Most distilleries offer free entrance but make a small charge for a tour (including tasting) while free tours are available at The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Glen Grant distilleries. Follow the world’s only malt whisky trail to find out more. http://www.maltwhiskytrail.com.
45. Dine in a cathedral. Britain’s
cathedrals are not only places of worship and magnificent,
historic edifices, many of them contain superb cafés and
restaurants selling wholesome, tasty food (including
breakfast), home made cakes and good coffee at reasonable
47. Hunt for sale bargains. The traditional seasons for sales in department stores and high street shops are the days following Christmas and through January; and throughout July, but the UK’s competitive retail environment means you are likely to find sales at many other times too.
48. Go night-clubbing in Brighton. The
larger seaside resorts are often the best destinations if
you’re in search of free or low-cost night-clubs. Brighton
on the South Coast is renowned for its lively night-life and
competition between clubs ensures that a large number have
free admission. http://www.whatson.brighton.co.uk/Clubs.asp
50. Last but not least,see VisitBritain’s impartial website which is a good starting point for anyone planning a trip and includes searchable databases of accommodation, attractions and events. Great Britain doesn't have to mean great expense. http://www.visitbritain.com.