Euro Shock

London's double-deckers offer a unique view of the city for just two bucks.
London's double-deckers offer a unique view of the city for just two bucks. (By Anne Mcdonough -- The Washington Post)
By Anne McDonough
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Princess Twinkle Knickers, not exactly the royal I'd expected to see in London, stood on a small stage wearing a red velvet half-of-a-dress, a cape and bloomers. Grabbing the pole in front of her, she wiggled her bottom and her dress dipped back and forth, adding a visual rhythm to the Handel sonata played by two wigged musicians in embroidered coats and knee breeches.

It was the first Friday of the month, and the august Tate Britain art museum was open late and filled with visitors in for a night of cabaret performances, lectures and half-price admission to the special exhibit. Works by 18th-century artist William Hogarth had inspired the burlesque-themed evening; the "Handel My Knickers" pole dance was just the beginning.

The best part? The bill for the evening's entertainment came to $7, the cost of a gin-and-tonic in a plastic cup.

Budget plus, baby. Budget plus.

* * *

According to a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Western Europe is home to eight of the globe's 10 most expensive cities. Oslo is 32 percent more expensive than New York, followed by Paris, Copenhagen and London. The cold, hard facts: One euro is currently worth $1.33, and the even stronger pound translates to a whopping $1.96.

For dollar-earning Americans yearning to travel, it's a wake-up smack in the face, and nowhere is that more obvious than on London's Underground, where a single cash ride currently costs four pounds. That's $7.85 . . . to step on the Tube. Price of a movie? In November, I paid $26 for a single ticket at one of London's Leicester Square theaters.

None of this, however, seems to be deterring American travelers much. A survey by last month indicated that travel to Europe will be up this year, with 50 percent of American respondents planning a trip in 2007, compared with 45 percent last year. And last month, I was one of them. Some serious budgeting was clearly in order.

Scoping out flights and lodging rates in London, I quickly concluded that booking an air-hotel package was the only way I could pull off the trip without staying at a hostel or crashing with friends (see "Anatomy of a Package Deal" at right). I chose a hotel that was just off the Piccadilly Tube line, so transport from Heathrow would be cheap if I bought a discount transit card at the airport. And my package deal included breakfast, so I had four free meals. Now I just had eight others to pay for, not to mention activities and entertainment.

Hence the budget-plus plan: Everything I did in London would have to be either free or cheap, and whatever I paid for had to serve double duty. Luckily, London's multitude of free museums and markets can more than satisfy a visitor's shopping, eating and people-watching cravings. Before I left, I scoured Web sites to see what free events were on offer, signed up for Time Out London's online newsletter, and noted which markets operate on which days. If I missed one, it wouldn't be because of poor planning.

* * *

The legendary red double-decker city buses that ply London streets offer the best value bus tour a girl could have. Especially if she's paying with a discount transit card: My $3.90 cash fare was reduced to $1.96.

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