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Putting the Squeeze on a Frugal Budget in Britain

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 31: IRELAND * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

September 10, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

LONDON — When we entered Room 4A of the Arran House Hotel in the Bloomsbury section of this city, we thought we'd been handed the key to the storage closet.

The twin beds ran headboard to headboard the length of one wall. The floor space between them and the opposing armoire and dresser was wide enough to set our bags but not our feet. We couldn't close the door without catching a bedspread in the jamb. The remote to the tiny TV was tethered to the wall by a short leash, requiring us to stand by the door to change channels. The narrow room wasn't all bad: The proximity of the sink meant we could brush our teeth from bed.

The wackiest part of this bathroom-less sliver of space was its nightly rate of $84--the most we've spent for accommodation on this journey. I would've raised my hands to my mouth in mock horror had there been room to bend my elbows.

After walking the Cotswold Way, Andrea and I came to London to see the sights and make onward travel plans. We were stunned to learn that the most popular tourist attractions here are no longer Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and Big Ben, but ATMs. The UK and Ireland have never been bargain destinations, but on this swing through the British Isles, we've been astonished at how little we get for our money. The strong American dollar is a myth here, and the name of the tune this summer is "Cruel Britannia."

We felt the bite the moment we landed a month ago in Edinburgh, Scotland. The view outside the taxi window was captivating, but what really took my breath was the meter, its numbers spinning like the wheels of a Vegas slot machine. The fare for the quick eight-mile ride from the airport to the city center was $30, a sharp contrast to the $6, 30-mile trip from our hotel to the airport in Penang, Malaysia.

The United Kingdom may be small, but it costs a pretty pence to navigate it. A subway ticket in London runs $2.25. The one-way train fare from London to Hereford--about the same distance as Los Angeles to San Diego--costs $63, and that may only buy you standing room. With gas at $6 per gallon, it took $100 to fill the tank of our rental car in Northern Ireland. The bus is no bargain, either. When my foot was too sore for me to walk the Cotswold Way one day, I paid $6 to ride a bus 12 miles. It might have hurt less to crawl.

When the check arrives in restaurants, we're shocked that the tip alone amounts to more than some of our favorite meals in Asia. It's nothing to drop $60 on a forgettable dinner for two--no wine or cocktails--a dry piece of fish, say, accompanied by vegetables boiling since the Thatcher years. This is often served by a staff whose regard for you ranges from total indifference to naked disdain.

The gap between price and value in this region is most striking when it comes to lodging. Guest house owners who learned that not everyone likes sharing a bathtub with a bunch of strangers have wedged private facilities into many of their rooms, creating some absurd living spaces. At Ashford Manor in Galway, Ireland, we paid $82 for a room with a shower stall set next to the door like a see-through closet. As the room was in what I guessed had been an attic, the encroaching pitch of the roof forced me to shower leaning sideways, my face pressed against the glass. I had to assume a similar stance in the bathroom.

Andrea and I disagreed over the virtues of the Bear B&B in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where we paid $66 for a room without private bath. Andrea kept talking of the centuries-old stone structure's beauty and charm, qualities I apparently missed while bent over at the waist to clear the doorway. To me, the room was like a jail cell with dainty wallpaper. I flinched when I rolled over in bed, fearing I might bang my shoulder on the ceiling.

Aside from lodging, food and transportation, it's the high cost of incidentals over here that also keeps me checking my pockets for holes. A daily paper in Ireland costs $1.50. It's $5 to run a load of laundry in Bath, England. You can't always avoid the 30-cent pay toilets in London. A peek inside Westminster Abbey will set you back $7.50. A ticket to a movie in one of the theaters around Leicester Square is $12.25, a sum that makes you feel more like a producer than a patron.

We expected Britain to break our budget, not obliterate it. Our expenses over the past month are close to $200 per day, more than twice our target daily world average. The thriftiest day of our journey to date was March 7, in Jaipur, India. I remember the day well. We had a large, sunny room with private bath, and a balcony affording a view of peacocks. We ate three tasty meals, rode in a rickshaw, toured a temple, gaped at elephants and monkeys and bought a few postcards. I also made it to bed without hitting my head on the doorway. Total expenses: $19.

A truism of travel, as of life in general, is that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Oh, India, how I miss you!


Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at


NEXT WEEK: Back to school in Spain.

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