Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

big ben londonGet a group of politicians together and they often skip right over the important issues and on to agenda items that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Remember the U.S. House of Representatives and the “action” that called for French fries served in the restaurants and snack bars run by the House to be renamed freedom fries?

Another equally important proposal was recently put forth by the British Parliament: changing the name of London‘s famous clock tower — known throughout the world as Big Ben — to Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

According to the BBC, the proposal is now fait accompli.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in London

Okay, yes, Big Ben is simply a nickname that originally referred to the bell inside the tower (though few people distinguish between bell, clock and tower these days). And yes, it was even once known as Victoria Tower and is now officially recognized as the Clock Tower. But really, billions of people the world over know the entire tower as Big Ben. Why mess with brand name recognition?

It’s simply not as sexy to snap a photo of oneself in front of the tower and tell friends, “Here’s me in front of Elizabeth Tower.” Though as one writer here said, maybe people will just call it Big Beth.

— written by Dori Saltzman

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

— written by John Deiner

moneyTypically, we aim to showcase travel deals that save you money — like this half-price cruise to the Western Mediterranean. But a few deals for hostel dorm beds during the 2012 London Olympics (July 27 to August 12) were so frightening that we had to share.

Sites like Expedia and Hotels.com have policies dictating that you can’t book rooms more than 11 months out, which means they’re only now allowing reservations coinciding with the Olympics.

Here’s what we found: A 28-bed all-male dorm room at Palmers Lodge Hostel (just south of Hampstead Heath) is on sale for $157.50 per person, per night on Hotels.com — that’s about $4,400 per night for the whole room. (The rate includes 28 breakfasts.) That said, whichever bed you book in the hotel, be it in an ensuite double or an eight-person female-only room, the per-person price remains the same. (Hint: Palmers’ direct booking prices are significantly cheaper than those posted by Hotels.com.)

Want to stay at Hostel 639, a spot near Notting Hill, during similar dates? On Hotels.com, the per-person price for a night at Hostel 639 is equal to rates for a dorm at Palmers — but Hostel’s rates are two times what Palmers offers for a basic double with shared bathroom. That’s more than $500 per night for two travelers. Reserve a quad room today and you’ll pay $1,000 per night. Booking sites, including Hotels.com and Venere.com, have rates starting at less than $20 (includes taxes) for stays at the same properties this September.

These price hikes should come as no surprise, since news outlets have been reporting on soaring rates during the Olympics in London for some time. But perhaps we can be optimistic that the hoteliers are being, well, optimistic. Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), told the Telegraph, “In Athens [host city of the 2004 Olympics], around 15,000 hotel rooms were sold. London has 125,000 rooms to sell. Such optimistic pricing in the face of such disparity is extremely brave.”

David Tarsh, another spokesman for the ETOA, has been widely quoted as saying visitors to London during the Olympics should wait until early next year before booking accommodations; Tarsh has predicted that hotels with unsold rooms will be forced to reduce their prices by that time.

Have you ever stumbled upon a hotel deal that was too bad to be true? Share it in the comments.

— written by Dan Askin

new inn pub hotel london Here’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog (top right).

We have a winner — er, actually, two winners. The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $139.49 a night (based on the July 29 exchange rate) or 85 GBP. Susan Frye, who issued the first correct answer in GBP, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. But we’re also giving a T-shirt to Marcia, whose guess in U.S. dollars was closest based on the July 29 exchange rate.

The room pictured was a twin room at the New Inn, located in the St. John’s Wood neighborhood of London. The inn is best known for its friendly pub, which serves a mix of English and Thai cuisine, but it also offers five rooms (three double and two twin) for overnight guests. All rooms cost a flat rate of 85 pounds, regardless of the season — an extremely affordable rate for London. Read more about the New Inn in London Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

After eight years, I was back. I had last called on London in 2003 for 100 days during a college semester. Terrorist attacks, a winning Olympic bid and new recycling laws had left their indelible mark on city and psyche during the intervening years, and yet my surface experience as a tourist seemed largely untouched — except that now I had sterling to spend on a proper pub pint instead of a 99p can of Speckled Hen from the local Sainsbury.

Speakers’ Corner, a Sunday institution that celebrates “free speech,” belongs in the British Museum. The setting, the crowds, the English nationalist talking about the dilution of her breed, have all been cast in marble. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I turned away from the eugenics nonsense to see the same American preacher in a cowboy hat and U.S.A. flag shirt climb his ladder and begin, with a sly smile, to warn listeners of the dangers of “evilution.” Eight years had passed, but the anti-evilutionist and xenophobe’s spouts were still preserved in amber. As was the crowd’s response: unabashed mockery or visceral rancor for the racist; good-natured ribbing for the always-smiling preacher man.

speakers corner london

Some recollections seemed preordained. My lady and I had lunch at Cafe Below, located in the 11th-century crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, a Christopher Wren-designed building that was mostly destroyed during the Blitz — except for the crypt. As we walked down the stairs, I remembered a passing comment from our 6’3″ bearded professor, who took our class there for a lecture. “Oh, they have a wonderful cafe in the crypt,” I could hear him muttering in his slightly grizzled voice. Dining on local farm-sourced lamb burger and a pint of pear cider, I had to agree.

I headed back to Portobello Road for the mobbed Saturday market of antiques, sundresses, bric-a-brac, and food vendors hawking German fast food, crepes and Turkish stew in steaming mega-woks. I had lunch again at the Grain Shop, a vegetarian spot where you can fill a tin with multicolored salads, stews and stir-fries for about four quid. Just as in ’03, I followed my somewhat healthy vegetarian lunch with a second course of spicy Bavarian sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.

portobello road london

Also on the dining front were the ever-present takeaway paninis, a cheap lunch eaten hot-pressed or cold. But I couldn’t find my favorite sandwich spot from 2003, a purveyor of an addictive salad with roast ham, mature cheddar, hard-boiled egg, pickles and mayo. I’d been waiting eight years for that sandwich. The loss was hard to bear.

Even thoughtless moments triggered memory flashes. At my first busy crosswalk, I recalled how cab drivers seemed to speed up if they sensed the slightest intention to cross.

On Tube platforms, the once ubiquitous Cadbury machines had vanished. The emergency phones, should you need to report a sugar crash, remained. I may have splurged on an 80p chocolate three times in three months in 2003, but I could taste the absence of fruit and nut during pre-train idling.

I remembered hurrying down Tottenham Court Road, a central artery clogged with electronics and home furnishing stores, and chain cafes like Nero, Pret a Manger and Starbucks. Not much had changed, including my closely guarded opinion of it as the worst street in Central London.

Finally, at night, I remembered how the streets buzzed after football matches. On the evening after Brazil beat Scotland 2-0, the kilted army marched from pub to pub belting out victory songs. Perhaps they stopped watching before the players had left the pitch. I suppose only giving up two goals to Brazil is a victory.

big ben london

Have you ever revisited a place after a long absence? What changed and what stayed the same? Tell us below.

— written by Dan Askin

old crown london London is full of free things to do. A bunch of world-class museums, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, offer free admission. There’s no charge to watch cheeky orators embarrass themselves and others in front of large crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And it’s free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Travelers to London can also enjoy complimentary comedy shows in the heart of the city, which I accidentally discovered on a trip earlier this week.

Searching the Web for something budget-friendly and fun to do on a weekday night, I came across an online listing for “The Ideas Factory,” a free comedy show at a bar in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. On a whim, I showed up at the bar (Old Crown on 33 New Oxford Street), and was directed to a small room upstairs. It was a tiny, dimly lit space with two beat-up couches and some folding chairs. There were just three or four people standing about drinking beer. The place looked like a sad and poorly attended party hosted by college students in a studio apartment — no stage, no audience and no microphone; this didn’t seem promising.

Despite my unease, I stayed, expecting a mediocre show at best, and an embarrassing flop ending in violence at worst. Yet the show was brilliant. The comedians, who hammed it up just inches from a tiny group of roughly 10 people, were polished, professional and delightfully clever. Performers included Matthew Highton, Paul Duncan McGarrity and Jay Cowle, established British comedians who also do standup at the “real” comedy clubs — you know, the ones that charge admission.

During a break in the show, I asked one of the performers why he bothered to appear at a free show in such a dark and diminutive room above a bar. He explained that this kind of intimate performance is common in London, where comedians arrange small events for the purpose of testing new material in front of an audience.

Spending the evening as a comic guinea pig in London was an unforgettable experience. To find free comedy shows in London, check out Time Out London (www.TimeOut.com/London).

— written by Caroline Costello

london Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: British Airways rarely runs airfare sales — in fact, the airline slashes prices on economy-class flights only a few times per year. But luckily for travelers heading to England’s capital city, British Airways recently published a spate of cut-rate spring fares to London, including roundtrip flights for as little as $380 plus taxes and fees. Expect taxes to amount to roughly $200 roundtrip. The cheapest total price we found with this sale was $570.97 roundtrip including taxes and fees for a midweek nonstop flight from New York to London in March — an economical price for a trip across the pond.

It’s not difficult to unearth the cheapest possible flight for your London vacation. British Airways’ convenient rate calendar allows travelers to clearly see on which days the least expensive fares are available.

The Catch:
Travel dates are limited, as the absolute lowest fares are only offered on a few select dates. Plus, the British Airways sale page states that “Prices and availability are updated every 24 hours,” which means that your window of opportunity to book these low fares could be rather limited.

The Competition: Lufthansa is currently offering reduced fares to Europe, which include flights to London for as little as $209 each way plus taxes and fees for travel this spring.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.

–written by Caroline Costello

milestone hotel It’s not a royal wedding without some kind of commemorative plate set. Or a vinyl Kate Middleton doll (the Franklin Mint is working on one, enticing collectors with the glitter of limited availability — only 5,000 will be made). Keep an eye out for souvenir royal wedding condoms too, which are already for sale in England.

Luxury hotels certainly aren’t above cashing in on the big event along with nearly everyone else in the British Isles. The Milestone Hotel, a posh five-star London property overlooking Kensington Palace, is offering a four-night Royal Occasion package that includes a set of fine English bone china commemorative plates and mugs, crafted by Royal Worcester. Package prices start at 2,418 pounds (that’s about $3,894 as of this posting) for two people staying in a superior queen room between April 24 and May 3. Here’s what’s included:

– Four nights’ accommodations

– Daily English breakfast

– A royal Champagne afternoon tea

– A seven-course meal prepared by the hotel’s chef

– Two tickets to Kensington Palace

– Luxury car transfers from London Heathrow Airport

– And, most importantly, that commemorative plate set

Add-ons range from a Champagne sabrage (that’s when a bottle of Champagne is ceremoniously opened with a knife or a sword) to an elegant picnic in Hyde Park. I’m no luxury traveler, but any package that includes a guy hacking at a Champagne bottle with a sword is something to consider. Plus, the painful price of nearly $3,900 isn’t quite as paralyzing once you realize the package covers two people staying for four nights in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Excuse me while I try to think of a clever way to scare up four grand. In the meantime, tell us: Would you book a luxury package in London for the royal wedding — or will you just stick with a few commemorative plates and some souvenir condoms?

–written by Caroline Costello

win a trip to london from monogramsWe’re celebrating our 20th anniversary — and we want you to celebrate with us! That’s why we’re giving away a free trip for two to London from Monograms. The vacation includes roundtrip airfare from the United States, three nights in London, airport transfers in London, daily breakfast and a sightseeing tour, plus free time to explore the city on your own.

But a trip to London is just one of many fantastic prizes. We’re marking 20 years with 20 days of giveaways, including a NOOKcolor e-reader from Barnes & Noble as well as 20 IndependentTraveler.com T-shirts. You can enter once a day through February 14. The more entries you submit, the more chances you have to win! Click here to enter.

(Sorry, international readers: for legal reasons, we can only open the giveaway to residents of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.)

For more festivities, including a slideshow featuring the highlights of two decades of travel, check out our 20th Anniversary page.

And now we want to hear from you. Which trip of your own stands out the most from the past 20 years — your honeymoon, a once-in-a-lifetime African safari, your first glimpse of the Great Wall of China? Post your favorite travel memory in the comments below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

london houses of parliamentWhich destination would you choose as the best in the world?

It’s a tough question for any globetrotter, but travel agents across the world came together to vote on just that in the 2010 World Travel Awards, announced yesterday. London took the title of the World’s Leading Destination for the fourth time in six years (other recent winners have included Dubai, Las Vegas and Orlando — though how the Mouse beat out cities like Paris and Rome in 2006 is a mystery to me).

In addition to selecting a “leading destination,” the annual awards highlight the cream of the crop in a heap of other categories including airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tourist boards and more.

To no one’s surprise, the fee-happy U.S.-based airlines were barely represented in the “world’s leading” list — Etihad Airways took top honors for the best overall airline, while Cathay Pacific earned a nod for its economy-class experience (Virgin Atlantic won for business class and Etihad racked up another trophy for first class). However, there was one lonely U.S. airline on the list: Frontier, which beat out JetBlue and several other discounters for the title of the world’s best low-cost carrier.

Given the perennial complaints about the lack of comprehensive train transportation in the U.S., I was a little shocked to see Amtrak take top honors as the World’s Leading Rail Service — beating out Eurostar, which had won the award every previous year since 1998. Dare we hope this means that U.S. train travel is on the rise?

Other highlights from the list: InterContinental Hotels & Resorts was named the world’s best hotel brand, Royal Caribbean ruled the seas as the top cruise line and the self-proclaimed “seven-star” Burj Al Arab in Dubai took the “best hotel” crown for the sixth year in a row. Click the link above to see the full (and lengthy) list of winners.

–written by Sarah Schlichter