London: a rip off for tourists?

With London set to play host to an influx of visitors next month for the Royal Wedding, KH investigates whether the capital is a rip off for tourists

Dirty and claustrophobic, London resembles a concrete jungle full of traffic fumes. Public transport is dysfunctional; a privilege for which we pay exorbitant prices. Parking space is at a premium and the congestion charge only adds to the expense of driving. With the parlous state of hospitals and the price of milk at the corner shop, it’s a wonder anyone bothers to visit this joyless, decaying city at all.

Slagging the city has become an acceptable blood sport. Yet why is it so fashionable to slight Britain’s capital but blindly champion everybody else’s? And is it accurate?

Let’s not forget that London was ranked the second most visited city in the world last year: 14.1 million visitors came to the capital to see iconic sites such as the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square.

The notion that London is a rip off for tourists is an outdated one that has long outstayed its welcome something Jenny Kite from Visit London acknowledges: “It is possible to do London on a budget. The online booking service at Visit London is attached to a best price guarantee so if tourists can find cheaper accommodation we’ll refund it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Lyn Eyb, former editor of backpacker bible TNT. “The better you get to know the city, the more affordable it becomes. A lot of TNT readers arrive with a credit card bill as long as their travel tales. We tell them that pre-theatre meals, happy hours and markets all help save money while also helping you get the best out of the city.”

When it comes to art and architecture London is a cornucopia of cultural wealth, boasting some of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries; treasures which are mostly free. “London offers brilliant value for money in its museums and galleries. The biggest sight seeing attractions are the Tate Modern and British Museum. Both are free. They ask for a donation but you’re not really obliged if your conscience lets you get away with it,” argues Sarah Johnstone, author of the Lonely PlanetLondon guide. Whereas once London would have been the sort of place that old style authors might have damned, the revamped guide reckons London is losing its rip off tag.

But what do tourists think?  Barbara Boamah, from Paris praises the London pass which provides free entry to over 60 attractions and says that “with a bit of careful planning, London need not be a rip off for tourists.” Barbara recommends picking up the free newspaper LondonMetro which includes ideas on things to do in London for peanuts. “Experiencing London is not about ticking off sights.” Alternatively she suggests getting hold of a copy of the “indispensable” Evening Standard or Time Out for information on events and different destinations. Serena Ckutchinsky, online producer at the London Paper agrees. “Pick up a guide and pay attention. London’s not a rip off if you open your eyes. If you scratch beneath the surface you can find quite a lot underneath.”

Johnstone admits that “tourists who aren’t in the know are going to pay a premium” however “London isn’t any more of a rip off than any other city in that regard. What makes people think it is is that London is an expensive city.” The Australian born author warns against “converting from pounds to your local currency, otherwise you’ll just be in distress.”

Yet it’s not just tourists who are stung by the expense of the place; Londoners pay the same prices. Catching a cab is horrendously expensive for tourists and dwellers alike. Blue collar workers are being forced out, as is anyone earning less than £25 000. Laura Collins, a 26 year old temp, commutes from Milton Keynes. The office of national statistics estimates that first time home buyers will spend an average of £188 000 for property, meaning for Laura “the chances of pulling myself up into the property market are nil.” Olivia White, a magazine designer, is forced to rent a “shoe box sized flat with friends” despite earning a decent salary. Olivia admits to being envious of her friend “who has just bought a big house near Sheffield for not much over 100k” although she says “I wouldn’t want to live there.”

For while there’s no denying that the capital is costly, the unanimous view seems to be London’s worth it. Heather Reed, 30, from South Africa concurs: “I’ve visited the North which is much cheaper but there’s a reason why.” Surely it speaks volumes when the North’s most famous sons and daughters no longer choose to stay in their home towns: Liverpool’s Cilla Black lives in Belgravia while the Gallagher’s are in Primrose Hill and Cheryl Cole has swapped her native Newcastle for London. Besides the Metro Centre, a desperate retail wasteland complete with a 19 screen multiplex, what else is there to do in Newcastle? Manchester – the official suicide capital of Great Britain– might have Selfridges, but shops alone do not a great city make. And what of Wigan? Out of London you search in vain for a menu that includes rocket or truffles; there is little in the way of culture. Allie Collins, 29, moved to London nine years ago and was instantly captivated. “In London you have everything you want in terms of activity and accessibility. You can’t put a price on that.”

Ultimately London is like a love affair. “When I’m over here I moan about prices and conjure up other cities where life is cheaper,” says Barbara. “But when I leave, I slip into a reverie which goes something like this. Tate Modern, Spitalfields Market, cocktails at Claridges, National theatre, Electric Cinema, London Eye by night …I could go on.”

It’s no bargain destination but as Samuel Johnson once said: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”