Alright friends. Time to dig in. Last week in the U.K. was a dream come true for me- such a great time. And as I listen to what our friends have spent on exotic beach vacations and fun family trips to Disney, I’m happy to say we spent probably half of what any of them spent to take in what I felt was both relaxing and intellectually stimulating. Don’t get me wrong- I like to turn my brain off as much as the next person. But when you spend your entire day teaching one person columnar addition and two other people not to put boogers on one another, it’s actually really nice to be reminded that your brain can still process and actually retain information, beyond the lyrics to the most annoying song the Wiggles ever wrote.
In thinking of how to frame this series of posts, I decided to mirror the way we went about planning the trip. Basically we decided where we wanted to go (the U.K., obviously), then we decided how much we wanted to spend, then we made a wish list of all the places we wanted to see. Once we made that wish list, we first separated them by location (so we could see which locations we could group together from a transportation standpoint) and then by cost. Based on this, we came up with a list of FREE attractions, budget attractions, and big spender transactions. Today, I’ll talk about my favorite part, which is getting the most value out of our trip.
I absolutely LOVE saving money. The hubs and I are probably frugal to a fault. But we are of the mindset that you’ll never be wealthy if you’re paying things off, and we’d like to be able to pay for our kids to go to college and get married, and retire at a decent age without having to choose between one or the other. What helped make this trip enjoyable was the fact that not only did it meet both of our interests, but it also met our family budget. We didn’t worry about what we spent or how we’d pay credit cards off later because we didn’t have to charge anything. Of course, that also means that we made some choices that others wouldn’t have made…but that’s them, and this is us. So here it is- without further ado:
The budget-friendly UK experience, Halcik-style:
- Best thing we did: Stayed with friends vs. in a hotel. Some dear friends of ours have a wee daughter and a sweet little house right outside of London, and they were kind enough to lend us their guest room for the week. They worked and we just came and went as we pleased- it was glorious. The money we saved on hotel fees alone basically paid for the trip.
- Next best thing we did: bought rail passes in advance. We purchased an eight-day rail pass that allowed us to ride anywhere in the country of England, without limits. We bought a separate weeklong pass for the underground and had basically no issues getting anywhere. Seriously- we never even called a cab once, and the suburban rail lines took us within a half mile of our friends’ house, so we were literally able to get everywhere.
- Food: This trip was not about food. The most delicious shepherd’s pie I’ve ever had? I made it tonight, at my house in America. We may have gone for fish and chips at a pub with our friends one night, and a quick French meal another, but for the most part, we picked up sandwiches and sparkling elderflower water (which is totally my favorite) at grocery stores. With no crazy security measures on rail lines, we happily packed little lunches for the train rides and were free to enjoy our time in the UK exploring and not waiting for service and paying bills.
- Attractions: This is the fun part. As part of the Queen’s jubilee, the vast majority of museums in London (and in various other parts of the country) offer free admission, with paid access to special exhibits. In addition to museums, we wanted to tour religious sites of significance to us, and those had free admission as well. I have pictures for you from Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, The British Museum, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, Durham Cathedral, John Wesley (the father of Methodism)’s chapel and home, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
- Things we passed on: Theater. I know. London is seriously the theater capital of humanity. But it’s also super-expensive. There are smart ways to be able to take in shows (like matinees, catching things in the middle of a run, going to lesser-known shows and avoiding those starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), but we were more into the history stuff, so that saved us a bunch. We also avoided some of the more expensive, well-known touristy spots, like shopping at Harrods, riding the London Eye, and taking pricy bus tours of the city. Instead, we bought inexpensive guide books, used the Tube map and national rail guides, and asked questions of the people working exhibits, restaurants, and shops that we visited.
The National Gallery
I just LOVE historical art. The fact that we could actually reach out and touch (theoretically touch. I mean, there were guards in the rooms and they did not look too kindly on all the touchy-feely tourists) the works of Rubens, Van Dyck, Monet, Titian, Renoir, and so many more, was just breathtaking. I felt like we got a little window into culture over the last millennium, and it was so incredibly eye-opening. If you have an issue with your own body image, I highly advise you to look at some classical art. Whatever your challenge- too heavy, too thin, too pale, frizzy hair, no hair, crooked teeth, wild eyebrows- it was all here, and it was all glamorized. I swear, whether these guys were painting truth or satire, they made some serious statements about the human condition and its relationship to the world around it. See here: no one is asking these two nursing mamas to cover up. Apparently that’s a more recent thing.
The National Portrait Gallery
I’ll save you the trouble here… admission was free, but there was almost no photography allowed. These were the original artist renderings of the monarchy, beginning with Edward the Confessor and leading to today, with many other key contributors to British history worked in. The work of Hans Holbein (Tudor portrait painter) to John Singer Sargent were all right where we could touch them. But many exhibits were actually so sensitive to light that, even in a darkened room, they had to be encased in glass with a leather cover, which visitors could lift for a quick glimpse and then replace. It was fascinating. All I have to show for that trip was a picture of James Joyce, who was my favorite and worth sneaking a very quick shot (since I legitimately was afraid a sneaky shot of one of the legit monarchy photos would result in some level of damage or my arrest or both. I know, paranoid). And since a SWAT team didn’t jump down and arrest me, I feel like I did the right thing. The basic gist of this place is, every portrait in every history book you’ve ever seen is held safe and sound in this particular museum. Think of it as a yearbook of history’s rich and famous.
The British Museum
What was so remarkable about the British Museum was the sheer amount of artifacts from throughout the ancient and modern worlds. I could have spent a week looking at and reading every single plaque. I think my husband nearly spit out his drink when I told him I took over 300 photos inside. I honestly didn’t even realize I was doing it- we just saw so much. Here are a few things from the Greek period- mostly recovered from the Parthenon and surrounding areas. Of course I also had to include the Easter Island head and some Greek pottery, and the one exhibit we did pay to see- Metalpoint through the ages, with original art from DaVinci (on loan from Her Majesty the Queen, of course).
This was the real beauty of the trip. We literally just showed up at the train stations and picked our times, and connected via various underground (Tube) stations. It was awesome.
This was another fun part. There is so much history in the U.K. that you can literally just walk along the high street and observe historical sites, without actually having to go inside or explore more deeply. Little plaques surround everything you see, so it’s simple to walk right up, take in a bit of history, and continue on your way. Lovely.
Whew! Are you tired? I’m tired. This took a lot longer than I expected. And I used more than 2000 words, which I kind of hate, but kind of couldn’t avoid. I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into our fun and excitement! More to come in the days ahead 🙂