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Saving money in London, part II

20_pound_not_2007 For Americans planning a trip to the United Kingdom this summer, the biggest concern has been the horrible 2-for-1 Dollar-to-Pound exchange rate. My mate wrote a great article in today's USA TODAY on how Americans can save a few bucks. It's worth reprinting here:

Thrifty visitors can avoid a soaking in London

LONDON — Traveling here has never been cheap, but now it's even less so.

The British pound crossed the $2 threshold last week for the first time since 1992 and has hovered there ever since.

That means a hamburger costs the equivalent of $8; a pint of beer is another $5. A room in a modest three-star hotel in central London goes for $180 a night; a five-star will set you back $350 a night or more.

A one-way ticket on London's subway is $8; just setting foot in a taxicab is $4.40; and a ride from Heathrow Airport to central London is at least $110.

"I've been here a few times," says Charles Stewart, 23, a U.S. Army lieutenant on leave from his post in Arizona. "I definitely feel a lot poorer this time."

Elliott Frisby, spokesman for VisitBritain, the country's tourism agency, says early evidence indicates the exchange rate could be affecting the number of tourists from the USA and how much they spend. But the agency will have to wait for summer numbers before it can be sure, he says.

Although the 3.7 million U.S. visitors to the United Kingdom last year spent 2.7 billion pounds, or more than $5 billion, those numbers fall short of the peak in 2000, according to VisitBritain. Then, 4.1 million spent 2.75 billion pounds at a time the dollar had more buying power.

To cope in the sinking-dollar environment, frequent American visitors have learned to circumvent retail hotel costs and navigate the city like residents by using travel discount cards and finding inexpensive ways to eat.

Stewart, for instance, searched the Internet to find a $70 room at a convention hotel that wasn't hosting one during the week he stayed there.

Charles and Betty Wright of Williamsburg, Va., have been coming to London every year for the past 35. They trade timeshare points for London lodging.

"We couldn't come here every year otherwise," says Charles Wright, 66, a retired lawyer.

The Wrights find pubs a bargain. Pubs offer typical English fare, such as bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes) or steak and ale pie for $13 to $15.

Another veteran of London, Californian John Wilson, 69, a retired dean at Pepperdine University in Malibu, suggests eating like the natives: Standing up or doing takeaway (carry out) rather than dining at a far more expensive sit-down restaurant.

If you do splurge, Wilson advises, don't calculate what you just spent in dollars.

"My wife and I sat down for coffee and a sweet roll for breakfast and realized we paid $15 apiece," he says. "I keep thinking we paid $30 for breakfast. But you can't do it. You have to put it out of your mind."

How to get more punch for your pound in Britain

London-based USA TODAY correspondent Jeffrey Stinson shares some ways of avoiding a financial pounding while visiting Britain, despite the 2:1 exchange rate between the dollar and the pound.

Travel the way Brits do: with discount cards on London's subway and buses and national rails. Buy them before you leave in dollars, instead of in pounds once you arrive, through visitbritaindirect.com.

Oyster touch-pad cards provide up to half-price travel on London's subways and buses. Otherwise, a single subway ticket can cost $8. London's double-decker buses are also an inexpensive way to see the city's sights (with an Oyster card, ride all day for $6).

Britrail passes provide discount rail travel, four days to a month, anywhere in England. Family passes allow children under 15 to travel free.

Special deals at good restaurants can be found on websites such as toptable.co.uk.

At restaurants, order tap water. It's OK, the Thames has been cleaned up.

For afternoon tea, still considered a ceremonial ritual by many Brits, one of the best deals is at the Orangery at Kensington Palace, where the late Princess Diana lived. There, $16 will buy you a pot of tea, cucumber sandwich and carrot cake. Otherwise, expect to pay the equivalent of about $90 at London's historic and grand West End hotels or about $30 at tearooms in name department stores on Piccadilly and at Knightsbridge.

Many of Britain's world-famous museums, galleries and art collections are free. Most, however, request a donation of $4 to $8 a person.

Similarly, admission to most churches and cathedrals is free, though St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey charge visitors the equivalent of about $20. Attending worship services is a way of getting around those fees.

A Heritage Pass is the least-expensive way to visit any of the more than 550 castles in England, Scotland and Wales as well as Stonehenge and Shakespeare's birthplace. Again, buy before leaving the USA through visitbritaindirect.com.

Brits love the stage more than cinema. Though discount and last-minute ticket kiosks and websites abound, the only official discount theater ticket shop is on the south side of Leicester Square (open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 3:30 p.m. on Sunday). Tickets there are half price, roughly $35 to $45 plus a $5 service charge.

Another option: Go by noon to the theater where the production you want to see is playing. You can get tickets for half price, avoid a service charge and sometimes get your seating upgraded.

Another great deal: Admission is free to many of London's renowned gardens and parks. Take a stroll along the Thames or head over to Hyde Park, home to the Peter Pan statue as well as memorials to Prince Albert and Princess Diana.

For visitors who don't want to invest time boning up on history and geography, one of the best and least expensive ways to learn about London — from Jack the Ripper's alleyways to where The Beatles hung out — is through London Walks.

The firm, owned by an American expat, offers a daily array of tours for $12 (or less with discounts). Visit www.walks.com for information.