The UK, and London in particular, is a very expensive vacation destination. But it’s also one of my favourite places in the entire world.
My son’s current obsession with all things Harry Potter and the fact that 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, meant that we simply had to make the UK our “big trip” of the year.
I always tell people “travel does not have to be expensive”. And it doesn’t. There are plenty of ways I could have made this trip much cheaper than it ended up being, but it would not have been as fun. One place we definitely could have saved money was food. We could have hit Pret A Manger every day, shopped at the grocery store for picnic lunches and food to eat in our room – but we were in Scotland and England! I love love love the historic pubs from the 1700s and I wanted to hit as many of them as I possibly could! And who doesn’t love a good Sunday roast? And Nando’s?
So what should the food budget be for 2 adults and 1 child for 3 weeks in the UK? Good question. I guess it depends on how much you eat and what kind of food you like. It is easy (very easy) to spend $100+ on dinner every night. When planning the trip I set a food budget of $80 per day. That’s $1600. Wow. I am happy to say that I ended up only spending an average of $47 per day for a total of $947 for the 20 day trip. I think I may do a separate post about the places we ate on the trip because there were some really good ones.
Another big expense that miles and points don’t usually cover, is attractions. We went crazy on a couple of these like the Harry Potter Studio Tour (of course), the London Dungeon, the London HoHo Bus, Tower of London and Stonehenge. The last 2 are very expensive and to be perfectly honest, my 9 year old son was unimpressed. I also thought he would enjoy the HoHo Bus a lot more than he did. Lesson learned. As a family of 3, we spent $970 on attractions. I did find Groupons for a couple of tours we took, which saved us some money.
The final big expense of the trip that miles and points won’t cover, is souvenirs. We went way overboard here. But there was so much Harry Potter stuff to buy! My son earned almost $200 selling a boatload of his “baby toys” at our yard sale a few months ago. I told him he could spend $100 of that on the trip. We still ended up spending another $350 on top of his $100. Actually $100 of that was gifts for my husband’s birthday on July 4. He loves golf and we just so happened to be in St. Andrew’s the day after his birthday, so I let him go a little crazy in the gift shop there. So then really $250 on souvenirs doesn’t sound so bad.
We had a rental car for the first 10 days of the trip. I reserved a compact car through Hertz, picking up in downtown Edinburgh and dropping off in London on Edgware Rd. I was pleasantly surprised to be given a Vauxhall Mokka, which is a compact SUV. It was quite roomy for the 3 of us, our 3 suitcases and 3 backpacks. The cost of the 10 day rental, including the one way drop off fee was $302. The car was a manual transmission which was significantly cheaper than an automatic. I didn’t find it that hard to drive (shifting with my left hand), but Matthew didn’t care for it. It just added to the stress of trying to remember to drive on the wrong side of the road. I used miles from my Barclay Arrival Plus card to “erase” the $300 charge, making my car rental cost $0. Gas, however, was another story. We spent $291 on gas over 10 days. A necessary evil.
RETAIL COST: $302
I PAID: $0 (I used 30,000 Barclay Arrival points for a travel statement credit)
So now for the nitty-gritty of how much I spent on airfare and hotels. This is the part of a trip that you HAVE to do. You HAVE to get there and you HAVE to have a place to stay. The food, the attractions and the souvenirs can all be done on the cheap – even in London there are plenty of FREE activities.
AIRFARE: We flew into Edinburgh and out of Dublin. Dublin was not initially part of my itinerary. But once I saw how expensive it was to fly out of London (even on miles), I decided to add 1 night in Dublin and fly home from there.
I used 90,000 Delta SkyMiles for 3 one way economy class tickets from Cincinnati to Edinburgh via JFK. I paid $17 in taxes. Our flight was uneventful; I don’t remember much of it. I think I managed to sleep for a few hours. People put down Delta a lot (myself included) mainly because their SkyMiles program is …well…just horrible. But honestly when it comes to service and in flight comfort, I think they have the other US carriers beat. Especially American.
For our return flight from Dublin, I used 81,000 AAdvantage miles (90,000 – 9,000 miles back as a benefit of having the AAviator credit card) for 3 one way economy class tickets from Dublin to Cincinnati via Philadelphia. I paid $138 in taxes.
It’s hard to say what the retail cost of these flights would be. When I price them as individual one ways, they come to around $3,000 each. Of course it’s unlikely anybody would book them like that. It’s more likely that these flights would cost around $1,300 per ticket, so for our retail cost we will say these tickets have Retail Value of $3,900.
This return flight on American was not as uneventful as the Delta flight. The flight attendants were just this side of rude. I ordered a kid’s meal for my son, double checked it several times prior to our trip to make sure I had requested it, but lo and behold, no kid’s meal was provided. The flight attendant was less than apologetic and just said “so does he want chicken or pasta?” He is the world’s pickiest eater and ended up with nothing to eat. Later in the flight he had to go to the bathroom, but both of the bathrooms on our side of the plane were occupied. Being a 9 year old with a sense of urgency, he asked the people in the bulkhead if he could cross over and they allowed him to. They also allowed him to come back through after using the lav, but he encountered a drink trolley blocking his path back to our seats. He went back across the bulkhead (I realize that is getting out of hand) and tried to cross over through the first class galley. He was met by a male flight attendant who yelled at him for “running around the plane” and ordered him back to his seat immediately. He knew the bulkhead folks would yell at him if he went through again, and this guy was blocking his way to cross over so he got scared, stood in the middle of the aisle and started crying. I was not aware of any of this until I heard him crying. I had absolutely no idea what was going on or why he was crying. I pointed toward the back of the plane and told him to go that way. When I got there, I saw there was a bulkhead row of seats and he could not cross over. The lady sitting in the bulkhead decided to tell me how tired she was of him crossing over and stepping on her feet. I still had no idea what was happening. I pointed toward the front of the plane and told him to go that way. I went through the first class curtain and through the galley to be met by the male flight attendant, who again started yelling at Parker and me. Still not knowing what happened, I told him I was absolutely crossing over to get my crying child and we were going back to our seat. Later, that flight attendant came by and apologized for yelling and said he thought Parker was running around playing. Another passenger who saw what happened told him that he was only trying to use the bathroom.
So…wow…this was supposed to be about flights and hotels! Let’s move on.
Back in November, Ryanair had a “Trump sale” on airfare. Whatever…it was a sale so I bought it. 3 one way economy class tickets from London to Dublin. I paid $150. This was still much cheaper than the $150 per person tax I would have had to pay to use my miles to fly home from London.
AIRFARE BOTTOM LINE:
RETAIL VALUE: $4,050
I PAID: $305
We spent 3 nights at the Radisson Blu in Edinburgh which sits right on the Royal Mile!
As a Club Carlson Gold member, I was upgraded to a business class room. Normally, the business class room includes a buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant but we were not given breakfast because we were given a “complimentary room upgrade”. Very strange.
For 3 nights: Retail cost $1,386
I paid $0 ( I used 70,000 Club Carlson points per night)
After we left Edinburgh, we drove up to Loch Ness and spent the night at The Inch Hotel in Ft. Augustus.
I booked this hotel through American Express Travel because I had a few leftover Membership Rewards points that I could put toward the rate. I booked a family room that was actually quite spacious. It had 2 bedrooms, one with a queen bed and one with 2 twin beds. Unfortunately breakfast was not included in the American Express rate, but we left quite early in the morning anyway.
RETAIL COST: $276
I PAID: $138
Our next stop was on the Isle of Skye for 2 nights. This was definitely our “splurge hotel” on the trip. We stayed at the beautiful Viewfield House Hotel.
This country home sits on 20 wooded acres above the town of Portree. The house was built over 200 years ago and is still owned by the Macdonald family. We had a lovely room with a queen bed and a huge window overlooking the garden.
I slept with the shutters open each night – even though it didn’t get dark until almost 11:30pm and the sun came up before 4am!
Our first laundry day fell during our stay at the Viewfield House. I thought I was going to have to take our laundry down to the Portree Youth Hostel launderette, but fortunately the Viewfield House had a washer and dryer available for guest use. Score!
We also finally had a proper fry-up B&B breakfast each morning in the beautiful dining room.
RETAIL COST: $414 for 2 nights
I PAID: $0 (I used 40,000 Barclay Arrival points as a travel statement credit)
After leaving the Isle of Skye we drove down to the beautiful Loch Lomond area. In the middle of all the great hill walks (including Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles!) sits the town of Crianlarich and the Ben More Lodge. The Ben More Lodge was…how do I say this?….cozy.
This was our room. Seriously. That’s it. This picture was taken standing in the front door. The door directly in front of you goes into the wee bathroom. (with a very wee shower) Miles and Points travel is not always 5 star luxury hotels! But to be fair, the people running this lodge were some of the nicest people we met and they made us feel welcome and cooked a great breakfast (included in the rate).
My plan was to use some Barclay Arrival points to get another statement credit for the cost of this room. The problem is, you can only redeem Barclay Arrival points in increments of 10,000 (or $100) and this room was $90. So before we left we bought a bunch of snacks and drinks for our road trip and added them to the bill to get us over $100. But guess what? Because the Ben More Lodge is a tavern, the charge coded as a “restaurant” and not “lodging”, so I had to pay for this one. Live and learn.
RETAIL COST: $90
I PAID: $90
The Ben More Lodge was our last hotel in Scotland. We headed into England and spent our first night at the Sunderland Marriott hotel. This was a typical business class Marriott hotel, but it sat directly on the sea and our room had a beautiful view.
We arrived fairly late after touring castles all day and stopping at carvery in Sunderland for a yummy Sunday roast. After we checked in, we took Parker to the indoor pool for awhile. The pool area was full of locals who have a membership to the pool and exercise facility. They were all surprised that we came to Sunderland on holiday. I explained that this was the only hotel on our route from Scotland to England where I could stay for free!
Platinum status gave us buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
RETAIL COST: $188
I PAID: $0 (I used an “Anniversary free night in a Category 5 hotel” certificate that Matthew earns each year that he holds the Chase Marriott Credit card) We also earned 1,250 Marriott Rewards points for the stay.
From Sunderland we drove about an hour and a half south to York. York is a beautiful city and I would love to go back and spend more time there. Parker was in heaven when he found “The Shop That Must Not Be Named” , Harry Potter shop.
We stayed at the York Marriott Hotel. I was unsure how I wanted to pay for this room. It is a Category 7 hotel, which is a whopping 35,000 points per night, but I was able to reserve a room at the government rate for $124. I did not feel that was a wise use of points. There was also the option of using the Barclay Arrival Plus points to credit the cost of the stay, but paying for it and using the Marriott credit card seemed to be the best option. Using the card pays 5x points and counts toward elite credit. So in the end, that’s what we did.
The hotel is beautiful and backs up to the York RaceCourse, which you can walk out on. I am not a fan of horse racing, but it was beautiful and I appreciate the history of the course.
I was disappointed that we were not offered an upgraded room for Platinum status. They have balcony rooms that overlook the race course and most of them appeared to be vacant. We were given a standard room with a view of the parking lot.
Platinum status gave us buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
RETAIL COST: $182
I PAID: $124 (government rate and Matthew earned a total of 5,025 points for the 1 night stay)
From York we drove towards the Costwolds (with a stop to visit a friend in Milton Keynes) and spent in the night in Faringdon at The Old Crown Coaching Inn.
This was, by far, my favorite hotel of the trip. The Inn was built in the 1500s and of course it’s haunted! My son and I had a great time looking for ghosts in the courtyard and the bar (that was closed when we were there). The lady working at reception (Sharon) showed us around the hotel, including the secret rooms and underground tunnels. It was amazing. We were in Room 109, a triple room with 3 twin beds, stone walls and a wood beam ceiling. I felt like I had stepped back in time to the 16th century, but with wifi.
Our rate included a cooked to order breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
RETAIL COST: $102
I PAID: $0 (I used Barclay Arrival Plus points for a travel statement credit)
We spent the next 2 days driving through the Cotswolds and spent 2 nights at the Hilton Doubletree in Swindon.
Absolutely nothing special about this hotel or the city of Swindon. (sorry) We were given a Queen Family Room with a queen bed and a sleeper sofa. No room upgrade was offered, but a Diamond Welcome gift of points was given at check-in.
Diamond status gave us free buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
RETAIL COST: $378 (which seems high, but that’s what they were going for in mid-July)
I PAID: $0 (I used 30,000 Hilton Honors points)
Our last stop before London was Stonehenge and I booked a room 15 minutes away at The Coach House through Air BnB.
This was literally a small apartment with 2 bedrooms above the coach house and horse stables. Located in Cholderton, the farm was beautiful and a peaceful way to end our hectic 10 long days of driving. Peaceful if you don’t mind peacocks hollering at all hours of the day and night. Honestly though, I loved it.
Our hosts provided all the ingredients for a cook your own breakfast. Farm fresh eggs, bacon, bread, butter, juice and milk.
RETAIL COST: $126
I PAID: $126 (I booked this early in the planning stages of my trip and meant to credit it with Barclay Arrival points, but I forgot)
Yes – that giant building next to the London Eye is County Hall and Marriott occupies a large chunk of it.
This Marriott was not my first choice. For the longest time I had the Marriott Park Lane on hold. But a couple of my travel hacker friends told me how wonderful the County Hall Marriott is. To be honest, I have never liked that area of London. But things are different now. I have a child and there is an awesome playground next to the County Hall Marriott. Plus the London Eye is right there, the London Dungeon, Shrek and the Aquarium are in the same building. I kept my eye on Trip Advisor reviews and saw that people were regularly upgraded to rooms with views of Big Ben and Parliament. I thought that would be a lovely view to see every night, so I changed my booking to County Hall.
When we arrived we found a German company called Karcher had taken over the hotel for a convention. They had the entire hotel booked for the same 5 nights that we were there and had taken all the rooms with views. No upgrade for you! We were given a room on the side of the building with a view of Jubilee Gardens (basically a view of the support posts of the London Eye). The room we were given was a 5 minute walk from the elevator. Seriously. I’m not being lazy. We were walking 7-8 miles a day in London, the last thing I want to do is walk another 200 miles to get to my room! And finally – a couple weeks before we arrived I sent the County Hall Marriott a Facebook message informing them that it was Matthew’s birthday and I was wondering if they could do something special for him in the room. I even offered to pay for it. They said “Sure no problem. We would be delighted to set something up for him”. When we checked in, there was nothing in the room.
All of that was too much. I went down to the desk and asked if I could switch my reservation back to the Park Lane Marriott. After explaining to the manger on duty all of the concerns I mentioned above (and also the black stains I discovered on the towels and comforter) she not only agreed to switch our reservation but offered to pay for the taxi to take us over there.
After some more discussion with her and her checking the computer several times to see if a better room was available, she (apparently) moved a reservation around and offered to move us to a room with a view of Big Ben being blocked by a Shrek banner.
In the end, we were given a room about 10 steps from the elevator with 2 queen beds, a view of the river and Matthew’s birthday gift.
I realize that complaining about not being upgraded might sound entitled and petty. But Matthew did not earn that status from credit card signups. He earned it from being loyal to Marriott and staying in them on every work trip for the past 5+ years.
Platinum status gave us free breakfast and evening appetizers in the Marriott Executive lounge. The new M-Club lounge concept allows the Platinum member to bring one guest to the lounge. Children of said Platinum guest are expected to pay 40pounds ($52 US)!! for lounge access and breakfast. Can you believe that? $52 for a child to eat breakfast! When the manager was changing our room she asked if we were aware of the new lounge concept and told us what it was. I just looked at her like “You must be kidding me”. She quickly told us we would not be charged, but that Marriott was cracking down on all hotels with lounges to enforce this new “concept”. Hopefully enough Platinum members will complain and they will drop that “concept”. I understand that some people may abuse the lounge access, but I’m betting most do not.
RETAIL COST: $2,800
I PAID: $0 (I used 180,000 Marriott points – 45,000 per night with the 5th night free)
Our last night was spent in Dublin. We paid $150 to fly over to Dublin to avoid paying about $450 in taxes to fly out of London. I had a Holiday Inn free night certificate that was going to expire in April. Even though the stay was not until July, I booked it before it expired and was able to use it. If for any reason I cancelled that reservation after the expiration date, I would lose the certificate.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Dublin City Centre, which was a basic Holiday Inn but within a 10 minute walk of the Temple Bar area of Dublin.
Platinum status gave us free buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
RETAIL COST: $212
I PAID: $0 (annual free night certificate from Chase IHG credit card)
So that’s the entire trip and here’s the bottom line.
TOTAL TRIP RETAIL COST: $10,506
I PAID: $783
Of course as I said at the beginning, I paid a lot more than that when you add up food, attractions, and souvenirs. But all of those charges can be as much or as little as your budget allows. What matters most is how cheaply you can get there and how cheaply you can stay there.