One of my favorite cities in the world is charming London! The history, the parks, the museums, and the Royal Family—what’s not to love? My daughter, Lindsey and her family have lived in London for about 14 years, so I usually go over at least twice a year. London is by far my most visited travel destination! Today I am going to share with you my Ultimate London Itinerary, along with travel hacking tips to fly you there for almost free and get a free hotel stay with points. Special thanks to Lindsey who shared some great tips and recommendations for this post!
I remember the days before I travel hacked and I traveled in economy class. Luckily, this changed and it’s business class only for me. It is so nice to arrive rested and ready to take on the city now!
Map provided by Wanderlog, a road trip planner
England uses the GBP or Great British Pound. When I first visited London over 14 years ago, the exchange rate was horrible and I used to pay almost double for everything. Lucky for us, (bad for the British) but the exchange rate is much better now. As of this writing, 1 GBP is worth about 1.31 USD. I usually go to the ATM at the airport and take out some pounds to start my trip. I just like to have a small amount of the local currency in my wallet.
Of course, when in London I try and use my credit card as much as possible and accrue those points. Just be sure and take a card with no transaction fees and remember, not every place accepts American Express.
There are six airports in London with Heathrow being the largest. The other five airports are London City, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, and London Southend. I always fly into London Heathrow but have used both London Gatwick and London Stansted for cheap flights to other parts of Europe when I am traveling from London.
My usual form of transportation from London Heathrow is via the train system. I particularly like the Heathrow Express which gets me into the heart of the city in 15 minutes, non-stop. It runs on a regular schedule and is 25£ ($32) for a single-use ticket or 37£ ($48) for a roundtrip ticket. The Heathrow Express takes me to Paddington Station where I usually take an Uber or taxi to my daughter’s house.
Tickets can be purchased online or after you get through customs. You will see several people trying to sell them to you as you head to the area to catch the train. You can also download the Heathrow Express app ahead of time and have them handy on your phone. Follow the signs that say Heathrow Express – it is a bit of a walk. Once you get on the train, there are some places to put your luggage. When I first traveled to London, I would take two big suitcases and that was a pain to drag through the airport and put on the train. Now that I have learned to travel with a nice carry-on, it is really a breeze to get through Heathrow.
Another possibility is to take the Tube or subway system from the airport. Believe it or not, we did this the first time I traveled to London. It is a bit of a hassle with luggage, but cheap, and I find the Tube pretty easy to navigate. I now prefer Heathrow Express from the airport but the Tube is my primary mode of transportation in London once I have arrived from the airport.
You can save money using the Tube by buying a Visitor Oyster card. This card will save you up to 50% off the cash prices. As the British say, you just “top off” using your credit card at any tube station. It’s very simple! With your Oyster card, you just tap in to enter the tube and tap out to exit. Once you’re on the tube, you will hear the words, “Mind the Gap” over and over again as there is a slight gap between the subway trains and the platforms.
Keep in mind that travel apps can make navigating the tube a breeze! My favorite app is Citymapper (which is good for other cities in addition to London). This app will tell you the best routes for getting from your starting point to wherever you want to go and cover everything from tubes and buses to Ubers and bikes!
London’s taxies are just so dang cute! I love how they have so much room in them, plenty for luggage, a stroller, shopping bags, etc. I never use them from or to the airport because they are pretty expensive at 60£ but I take them often for short distances.
Uber has a real presence in London and I often use it from Paddington to get to my daughter’s house. It is a great choice when you are tired of walking the streets of London and just want to get back to your hotel.
London’s iconic double-decker red buses just scream, “I’m in London”! (Along with their red telephone booths). When I am with my daughter, we use buses a lot, but they are harder for me to understand than the subway system. Again, you can use your Visitor Oyster card here to save transportation costs too and the travel app Citymapper is very helpful with the bus system too. It will tell you which bus to catch and where to get off.
When I am in London, I travel primarily on foot whenever I can. I love the excitement of the crowds and looking at all the old buildings. It has always made me feel alive! I love all the High Streets (main streets of different neighborhoods) and the beautiful parks. It is not unusual for me to walk 5-8 miles a day when I am in London. Many things to do are quite near to each other and it is always nice to just get out and walk, get some exercise, and feel that London vibe!
This is where my travel hacking skills come into play – flights. Since I started travel hacking, I have flown United Airlines, Delta, and American Airlines to London using miles and enjoying business class seats while only paying taxes/fees. One thing to note is that the UK has some of the highest international fees of any other country so you can expect to pay more on award flights. Usually, flying into London is not bad. It’s flying out of London where the fees hurt. Of course, paying $300 for a business class seat still isn’t too bad. Here’s a screenshot of possible flights from Denver to London. I love Juicy Miles for helping me find award travel for my London itinerary.
But wait, let’s look at the way home:
Taxes/fees have really gone up when flying out of London! Sometimes it is worthwhile to take a cheap flight to another main European city and position for your flight. Booking your return flight out of Dublin, Paris, or Barcelona is usually cheaper. And sometimes, I just swallow hard and pay for the convenience of a direct flight home.
As you can see from both screenshots above, Chase points will transfer at 70,000 points for business class seats. If you want to travel economy-class, it is usually 60,000 points round trip. Knowing this, I can best travel hack by signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card and earning 64,000 points after minimum spend. But if you know me, I’m going in business class, so I will also sign up for the Chase Ink Business Credit Card and earn 85,000 points after minimum spend (I’m adding on the points I get for the minimum spend too). That gives me 149,000 Ultimate Rewards, more than enough for a round trip ticket in business class.
Another way I can do this is to apply for the United Explorer Credit Card, which has a limited time bonus of 60,000 points till 4/2/20. I could also apply for the United Explorer Business Credit Card, which has a limited time bonus (till 4/2/20) of 100,000 points! There are a lot of ways to get United miles between United cards and Chase Ultimate Reward cards!
Note: Current signup offers may vary.
London has many hotel chains that we can use credit card points for including, Marriott, IHG, Hyatt, and Hilton. Let’s look at a few possibilities.
From high-end hotels to more moderately priced hotels, there are numerous ways to use your Marriott Bonvoy Rewards to stay at a Marriott hotel in London. If you opened a Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card and met minimum spend, you would have 78,000 points. Note: At the time this is published the bonus spend is at a high of 100,000 after minimum spend.
Depending on how many IHG points you have, you can stay in the InterContinental Hotel or a Holiday Express Hotel. The Chase IHG Rewards Premium Credit Card will give you 82,000 IHG points after you complete minimum spend (80,000 points for the bonus, 2,000 for minimum spend). If you and your spouse apply, you will have 164,000 IHG points. Note: At the time of this post publishing the IHG card is also at an all-time high signup bonus of 140,000 points after meeting minimum spend!
The American Express Hilton Honors Aspire Credit Card currently has an offer of 150,000 points with a minimum spend of $4,000 in 3 months. It is a card with a $450 annual fee but that includes a free weekend night award every year, Priority Pass w/ 2 free guests (airline lounge access), a $250 Hilton Resort credit per membership year (you can use that for another night or two in London), and a $250 Airline Incidental Fee Credit per the calendar year (pay for your luggage on your flight). If you get this card you can easily stay for 6 nights with three being free with you bonus points, one from the free weekend night award, and the resort credit covering the other two. Here are some places you could stay:
The Chase World of Hyatt Credit Card will give you 50,000 points after meeting the minimum spend of $5,000 in 6 months. You could use points from that card to stay here on your London Itinerary:
As you can see, there are plenty of options for free nights in London. You just have to decide if you want a luxury stay or not. If luxury is your desire, just get more cards, like Chase Ultimate Reward cards that transfer to Hyatt. to cover it or pay for part of your stay.
London is packed full of fun things to do and fortunately, many things are located close to each other so you can walk to many. Here are just some of my favorite things to do on any London trip:
Can you even say you went to London if you didn’t go to Buckingham Palace and see the changing of the guard? This ceremony usually begins at 11:00 daily and lasts about 45 minutes. Be prepared for some crowds, especially in the summer, but the pomp and circumstance are worth it!
Pro Tip: Hop on top of a granite wall for a bird’s eye view like Alex has.
I just love the gorgeous parks in London. St. James’s Park is adjacent to the palace so wander through and enjoy some people watching. London is a city filled with diversity and I enjoy watching families of all nationalities enjoying the beautiful parks.
Trafalgar Square is one of my favorite spots in London. The National Gallery is located there so stop in for a look at some famous paintings. I like to take the free audio tour there and get acquainted with the most important works of art. From the top steps of the National Museum is one of my favorite views of London. I love the statues in the square, the pigeons, the double-decker buses going by, the crowds, and the street performers.
Speaking of street performers, Covent Garden has more of them there, along with great shopping, and cute places to eat. An easy walk from Trafalgar Square, you can swing by for a bite to eat or a treat and see what’s happening there. Make sure to stop at Santa Nata and get a Pastel de Nata, a Portugues custard tart…so yummy! You might want to have dinner while visiting Covent Garden before you head to the theater district for a musical!
Located near Covent Garden is the London theater district. One of my favorite things to do on any London trip is to go to the theater. I have seen Wicked, Beautiful, Les Miserables, The Lion King, Aladdin, Chicago, Mama Mia, and others in London.
Pro tip: You can get cheap theater tickets the day of a performance at the various theaters when they sell at a discount returned or unsold tickets. You can also visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. It offers half-price and discounted theatre tickets on the day of the show, and up to a week in advance.
After your show, grab a pedicab to drive you by Picadilly Circus and get dessert there.
Picadilly Circus is London’s version of Times Square. Enjoy the bright lights and the crowds in the area. I have always felt safe in London, even at night. I think this is because it has so many people walking all over the city, even after it is dark.
Let’s start your morning off with a visit and tour at the Tower of London. Here we will learn about kings and queens, beheadings and dungeons – what better way to start your day! The cost of the tour is about 25£ and is cheaper when booked online. Be sure and join a tour given by the Beefeaters that is offered every 30 minutes. It will give you some history and insight into the Tower and takes about 1 hour. Then you can explore on your own as you check out the crown jewels and go through the church and tower. It opens at 9:00 so start your day early and plan to stay a few hours.
Before you leave the area, go over and get some pictures with the London Bridge in the background and see the River Thames. There is no cost for crossing the bridge if you’d like to do that too.
It’s probably lunch time so let’s head to one of my favorite sites and places to eat – Borough Market. It is one of the oldest and largest food markets in London. Jam-packed with the best London has to offer in food items, the problem is deciding which stall to order your food in! Want fish and chips, paella, duck confit, a sausage roll, or the most delicious pastry? You can find it all at Borough Market.
Pro tip: Order different items and share. You will definitely want to come back here to try other items! There also is not a lot of space to sit down and eat so grab a curb, hunker down, and enjoy!
Now that we are full, let’s walk over to Big Ben and check out what is in that area of town. Currently, the big guy is being refurbished so there aren’t tours there till 2021. It’s still worth a look to see where he is and get a feel for this area.
Adjacent to Big Ben is the Parliament Buildings. Home of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, along with the sovereignty, it makes up the judicial branch of the United Kingdom.
Probably best known as the wedding venue of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Westminister Abbey is the final resting place of many famous British people including monarchy, poets, and military leaders. It is the place of coronation for British royalty, famous for weddings, and many notable funerals have been held in the Abbey. Ticket prices are 21£ online and you can get fast-track access.
The London Eye is now an iconic part of London’s scenery. Check out a bird’s eye view of London on the approximately 30-minute ride that offers the opportunity for some pretty sweet pictures. The cost is 30£ but you can save 10% if you book online. It looks like a space-age Ferris wheel with glass pods that hold up to 25 people. I just learned that each pod represents one of the boroughs of London.
Let’s make this a Parks and Museum Day. Mixing up the two will get us outside a little after being inside going through some of London’s best museums.
By far, my favorite museum is the Imperial War Museum. It is located a little farther outside of London Central so I would go there first. Grab the tube and head to the Waterloo station. It is a 10-15 minute walk from there. It explores conflict from WWl to today and is really interesting. They do an amazing job with the exhibitions and there is no admission cost. The Holocaust Exhibition is not to be missed. Bring kleenex and be prepared to be moved and changed forever.
Head back to the city to my favorite park of all, Hyde Park. Although not as expansive as Central Park, it is a beautiful place to wander through. Check out the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, boat on the Serpentine, horse ride through the park, play frisbee, have tea in nearby Kensington Gardens -there are so many options!
After relaxing for a while, let’s head to the nearby Victoria and Albert museum. Admission is free and it is full of interesting exhibits on art and design.
If you have children, you might prefer to go to the Science Museum, also nearby. My grandchildren love this museum with its numerous hands-on activities and it, too, is free. After going to the Science Museum, they like to hit up the free Natural History Museum next door and take a look at the colossal squid. ( I miss the huge dinosaur skeleton they used to have there ). In the winter, ice skating at the Natural History Museum is a fun way to spend time. The cost of ice skating is about 13 pounds.
It would be easy for you to change this 3-day itinerary for London to a 4 or 5-day itinerary by adding some of these other things to do in London or adding a day trip that follows.
My daughter lives in London near this market. Going to Portobello Market is one of my favorite things to do in London. It’s open every day but really comes alive on Saturdays! Plan on grabbing lunch, getting souvenirs, and mixing with the locals and tourists as you explore one of the greatest flea markets in the world.
If you are a lover of the Bard, head to the Shakespeare Globe Theater and take in one of William’s famous plays. It is located on the Banks of the River Thames and is worth a trip to check it out, whether or not you take in a play.
A visit to Saint Paul’s Cathedral to view the stunning architecture. If you want a little exercise, climb the 528 steps to the stop and take in the stunning view of London. It is especially nice to time your visit with the evensong in the evenings. Many special musical events occur at the cathedral and you can check here to see the schedule.
I think the Churchill War Rooms, located beneath the streets of London, is really interesting and worth a visit. Walking around the bunker, I could just imagine London’s top military personnel plotting and planning how to maneuver through WWll. Churchill has always been a fascinating person to me and learning about him was so interesting. If you are a history buff, this is a good site to visit. The tickets are 22£ for adults.
Explore the home of Henry Vlll at Hampton Court Palace. Rub shoulders with King Henry, Ann Boleyn, and Jane Seymour in their period costumes and learn more about their life at the palace. The interactive experience is a delight to all, especially children. Seeing people working in the kitchen and other areas will transport you back in time. It is easy to reach by train and costs under 30£ to visit.
Visit this beautiful castle, better known as Downton Abbey, from the popular tv show of the same name. Highclere Castle is located about 45 miles outside of London and is so popular that many dates are sold out. Book early if you want to make this part of your London itinerary.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO site consisting of a ring of stones, each weighing 25 pounds. Believed to be an area used for burials in dates from 2000-3000 BC and is one of England’s most famous landmarks.
Taking the train to Bath is easy and Bath is worth the excursion. Known for its many Roman baths and hot springs, it is a popular tourist attraction. It is also known as a place frequented by Jane Austen. As a lover of all things Jane Austen, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Jane Austen Centre.
Love charming English villages? Love cute little pubs? How about antique shops? Head to the thatched roof medieval villages known collectively as the Cotswolds and bask in that small-town feel. For many people, a trip to the Cotswolds is a highlight when they come to London.
The London Pass gives you entry to 80+ London sites for 99£ for three days. Is it worth it? Here are the things I would use it for:
That’s almost $250 worth of things I’d use it for so it is probably worth getting if you have the time to use it. There are other things you can use it for but most have little value to me. The above items were the most valuable for me.
Pro Tip: Sign up to get e-mails and save 13% off the cost of the London Pass online.
I have to admit that some of my favorite places to eat in London are associated with sweets and London has some pretty spectacular places to get them. Here are some of my favorite places to satisfy my sweet tooth:
London is one of my favorite places to visit. Having family there certainly is a draw, but I loved it even before that was the case. The history, vitality, and culture make it one of the most popular destinations in the world. Add to the fact, that we can travel hack our way there and the costs can be substantially reduced, I highly recommend you plan a trip to London.
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