A London day trip by low-cost airline: Crazy, stupid, or great?
You can say what you like about low-cost airlines, but their crazy pricing structure lets you fly around Europe for next to nothing. Does that mean you have to do it? Certainly not.
I fly on a low-cost airline regularly. Is a full-service airline is more environmentally friendly and sustainable than a budget one?
Pros: They use new aircraft, which is more fuel efficient. They cram loads of seats in, they’re almost always full, therefore decent fuel economy. You cannot take much luggage or you pay extra, therefore less weight or even more cramming seats in.
Cons: The working conditions. Well, at least one of them makes the news regularly as employees go on strike about working conditions. Do our favourite online retailers have better working conditions? And have we stopped buying there?
This trip to London was borne out of necessity to make a very special purchase. It has been 2.5 years since I last visited London. I was looking for any excuse.
Paracelsus says “it is the dose that makes the poison” so bearing in mind our usually simple lifestyle, and this being an exceptional treat, we headed for a London day trip to make the special purchase, stock up on rice crackers and catch up with a friend.
We booked a flight for 50EURO return on Ryanair. Since their new hand baggage regulations, only a small bag of 40x30x20cm is now allowed. Well, a classic Freitag Dragnet messenger bag, with extensions, fits that brief perfectly and holds loads of crackers.
We had an early start. We live one hour from the airport, parked, took the commuter train for a few stops and were there just under 2 hours before departure. I have never seen Departures so empty but look at the cattle dividers, all set up for the day.
Had we pitched up 45min before departure, we would have made it, but you never know with SXF.
London is one hour behind, so after arriving in Stansted at about 8am, we swiftly moved through immigration.
For us, the bus was the most convenient transport into town as we wanted to go to the West End. We bought return tickets to Baker Street on National Express. There are sale points for the National Express Bus and the Airport Bus Express between passport control and the bus station as well as in the bus station itself.
National Express was the more expensive of the two but has more frequent departures. National Express appeared to have long traffic-related delays, so don’t expect to be at your destination (or back in the airport for that matter) at a set time, but because the buses run about half-hourly, you never have to wait too long for a bus. They also have staff at Golders Green Bus Station that appear to act as dispatchers and did great controlling the flow of passenger.
If you are heading elsewhere, the ridiculously expensive Stansted Express may be an option, or an Airport Bus to Liverpool Street, which doesn’t need to use the notoriously clogged North Circular Road, might be a better option. Of course we arrived in model rush hour traffic, giving us plenty of time to marvel at the rubbish by the road side and how close those cute terraced houses were to six-lane quasi motorway traffic. I was very tempted to hop off in Golders Green for a nice bagel and to check out the wonderful Atari-Ya Japanese Food Shop whose sushi bar and shop in West Acton was one of my favourite places to go, but we had a bit of a full schedule.
Once we arrived at the Baker Street Bus stop, I was once again reminded of the friendliness even in a large city like London – with great care the bus driver explained how we would find the bus stop for the trip back, and cheerily waved at us before he set off. We allowed ourselves a coffee at Pre-a Manger – now apparantly ubiquitous. If only they served their drinks from porcelain cups if you decide to have them in their cafe.
And then, we took the underground to Green Park – we theoretically could have done our entire trip walking, but I wanted to check if our old issue oyster cards were still working, and amazingly they did.
So, after a very very quick look at the shop windows in a completely empty Bond Street, we bought our wedding rings. Only took an hour. But seriously, this was the reason of the entire trip and all that gone well, it was time to relax… or rush around the West End like nuts, flitting from one shop to the next. I apologise for the diabolical dearth of decent pictures here. I normally take pictures slowly, hang around, look here, look there…no such thing this time and I am afraid, it was all self imposed, because I crammed the schedule so full.
After walking along Piccadilly and Jermyn Street, I visited the new Japan Centre Food Store in Panton Street for the first time. It does not look much from the outside, but inside: a multi-level Japanese gourmet temple, along with cute temptations of tea cups, incense burners and bento box supplies! They also have a shop for tableware in their old Shaftesbury Avenue location, the one with the disco escalator, but I did not dare to go there, seeing we have cupboards full of perfectly fine inherited tableware. I get the odd Japanese food stuff here and there in Berlin in Asian grocery shops, but never are Japanese foods presented in such a fine way like here.
And then, through Chinatown (just the smell – I wish I could bottle the smell of Chinatown!) to Carnaby Street to the Liberty Department Store.
Liberty are one of a few stockists of Parfum d’Empire ( a cruelty-free yet high-quality yet still affordable perfumer) and I wanted to try a couple of their scents, Azemour des Orangers and Eau de Gloire. As I entered Liberty, a toxic cloud of a 1001 perfumes enveloped me. Seriously! Is this how you entice people wanting a sniff of something beautiful, not a wild collage of all that’s on offer? It was nearly unbearale. After spending 10 minutes scanning the stuffed shelves in the cute but crammed woodsy alcove that is the perfume hall, while my boyfriend wearily looked for an overstuffed bystander sofa, I asked a salesperson and was pointed to a top shelf with just two measly fragrances out of about twenty in it. I wasn’t even tempted to try anything else, just get out of the olfactory vog.
(I have since found out that you can easily order samples and full size of a huge range of niche perfume from a German perfumery , and closer to home, The Different Scent has an online store as well as an actual store in Berlin.)
And on we went, more brisk walking, across Oxford Street which we completely ignored, through Harley Street to another of my favourite places, Marylebone High Street.
This rather civilised and relatively quiet bit of Central London is one of my favourite places: quite easy to reach, full of nice cafes, shops and restaurants, with plenty of side walks and small lanes and courtyards to linger. After a quick dash into Waitrose for mints and Neals Yard for two bottles of essential oils (at some point, I will probably start mixing my own Eau de Cologne again), we met our friend for lunch.
In our true budget classy tradition, we went for Michelin-starred Indian food.
I love a good meal, and every once in a while we pay a lot of money for an exceptional meal. In London, there are about 70 restaurants that hold a Michelin Star, and if you’re a tourist like us and not totally clued up on the restaurant scene, I let the Michelin inspectors and my purse decide what’s for lunch: a quick online search for “Michelin star lunch London” revealed a few good leads, and I quickly booked a table at Trishna, a Southern Indian restaurant in a suite of cosy-olde-English wood-panelled dining rooms.
I let the pictures speak for itself.
All this, with a drink or two, came to about 40 EURO per person. We have many cheap good things in Berlin, but affordable lunches in classy restaurants are far and few in between.
Soon after we had emptied our plates (in a bit of a hurry, I must admit), we walked the half mile to our Bus Stop on Gloucester Place, where an airport coach duly appeared, and took us back to Stansted in the record time of just over an hour. Security checks were also eerily empty
So, it it all worth it?
Well… it depends on your nerves, your appetite for a day out in a foreign country, and your finances. We could have done this trip as a leisurely weekend, flying out on a Friday, returning on Sunday, paying three times as much in airfare and two nights in a hotel.
Travelling Time vs. Time in London
Alarm rang: 03:15
Arrive at airport: 05:00
Flight Departs: 06:30
Flight Arrives STN: 07:45
Arrival in West End (Baker Street): 10:00
Leave West End (Baker Street): 14:45
Arrive STN: 16:15
Flight Departs: 19:00
Arrive home: 00:15
Cost per person
Airfare to STN: 50 EURO
National Express Airport Bus Fare to Baker Street: 20 GBP
Coffee and snacks at Pret a Manger: 10 GBP
Lunch: 35GBP (okay, this was our big expenditure, but hey, it was Michelin starred)
Because we had to be back at the airport in the late afternoon, there was pressure to see/do a lot of things in those few hours. Had we planned other things further out of the easily walkable West End, time would have been even tighter. I think next time I would at least book a night in a hotel, so there is less pressure to cram everything into a few hours, and meet with friends for a leisurely drink.
Where to Stay
I admit: I have stayed in plenty hotels in London over the years. Most were quite corporate and not paid by me, and others were far outside the centre – not great if you are pushed for time. So here comes my small selection of recommendations based on location and reviews:
The Mandeville Hotel is a Four-Star hotel in one of my favourite places in Central London, Marylebone Village. The location is quiet, yet only a stone’s throw from Oxford Street and around the corner from Wigmore Hall, an excellent chamber music venue. Despite being central, the area is untouristy, so expect to find a lot of small-ish, local cafes and restaurants in the small lanes between Wigmore and Oxford Streets and up into Marylebone High Street. Prices currently start at 220 EURO for a Double.
The Kimpton Fitzroy London is the old Russell Hotel London, housed in a magnificent late Victorian building in Russell Square. It always looked a bit faded when I still lived in London, but in 2018 it underwent a sympathetic refurbishment by its new owner. Interiors are wonderfully ornate and sumptuous, and for that alone I would try to stay here next time I need to overnight in town. It is now managed by Intercontinental Hotels. Prices currently start at 225 EURO for a Double.
Even though I am slowly pushing over my usual budget here, I would add the perennial classic Hazlitt’s in Soho. If you like creaky old houses, love to roam around Soho or wish to live out your lordship phantasies, this one’s for you. Prices currently start at 370 EURO for a Double.
So, what about budget options?
When it comes to accommodation, London is not a budget-friendly city. On my last self-paid trip, we rented an apartment overlooking the river – in Thamesmead. I always found staying further out gives you great value for money, as most tourists don’t venture that far out of tourists areas. If you do, here are some recommendations for cheaper and perhaps more generic places than the ones mentioned above, but you will find comfort, good public transport connections, and a nice neighbourhood!
Doubletree by Hilton London Ealing is a hotel I have actually stayed at several times. Conveniently located 2min from the Ealing Common Piccadilly Line Stop, you’re here form Heathrow Airport in less than 25min. It is generic, modern, comfortable and indeed very well run. For a mid-range hotel, the coffee machines in the room were a nice touch, though not terribly environmentally friendly. You are also 2 min form one of London’s best Sushi bars, as well as lots of Japanese restaurants as the area between West Action and Ealing Common is a residential area popular with Japanese. Prices currently start at 110 EURO for a Double.
If you prefer to be South of the River and out East, the Premier Inn London Greenwich is great. it is literally next door to the DLR and close to Deptford High Street which has a great flea market on Saturdays, and it is quintessential melting-pot London, with a fine baroque church, traditional pubs and hip coffee shops. Like Brick Lane with fewer tourists. If you go budget chain, I find Premier Inn is the best of the bunch, with clean rooms, comfortable beds and inoffensive design. Quality is pretty consistent through all the Premier Inns I have stayed. Prices currently start at 90EURO for a Double. You will actually find Premier Inn in various Central London locations, too, but prices easily double here, and then they’re not such great value any more.
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded, and I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links (marked with an asterisk). For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the complete, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.
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