City Guide to London, UK: Part 2 | Must See Attractions & City Cards
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There’s so much to see and do in London! It’s by far the largest city we’ve visited to date. Well, we did get to New York City for a day, but we just can’t bring ourselves to count that as a city we’ve seen. You just can’t see and know New York City in a day! London is an iconic city with many must see and do things, like the Thames River, West Minster Abbey, Big Ben and the London Eye, just to name a few. Since, when we visit a city, we want to leave no stone un-turned and really feel like we’ve seen and experienced it, we set aside a fair amount of research and ‘Google’ time when we’re planning out our sightseeing.
Not only is the city huge and chock-full of things to do, it’s also a bit on the pricey side. As we started making our list of things to do and see, we started to see a trend when it came to price of entry. It seemed to us, based on other cities we’ve visited, to be anywhere from 40% to 100% more expensive to get entry into attractions. Luckily, we have one thing on our side. Relatively speaking, the dollar is currently pretty strong. At the time we visited London the dollar was about $1 to £1.20 GBP. Compare that to 2007 when the dollar was at $1 to £2.10 GBP! (xe.com) So right now, if we pay £20 GBP for an attraction, that’s about $25 USD. In 2007 that same attraction would have been $42 USD. Still, even with currency exchange rates in our favor (compared to 10 years ago), London is still an expensive city to see. If we were going to see the city as thoroughly as we wanted to, it was going to be necessary to do as we do and find discounts, deals and coupons.
Our Solution: City Passes
If you’ve read up on our sightseeing in Dublin, Belfast or Amsterdam, then you’re probably already aware that we’re big fans of city cards or passes. Essentially, we purchase a card that, at no additional cost, will get us access to museums and attractions across the city. Most large cities, and now smaller ones as well, have cards like this. In our London research, we first came across the London Pass, which has over 60 attractions on it, including some of the big ones, like West Minster Abbey, a River Thames Cruise and Windsor Castle. However, we realized that, while the London Pass was exhaustive in what it covered, it omitted a few of the must see London attractions, like the London Eye.
We kept searching for other options to save, primarily on the London Eye. The London Eye, also known as the Millennium Wheel, was opened in 2000 and has become an iconic part of the London skyline. It’s the world’s largest observation Ferris wheel and is touted as one of the best ways to see London from a high vantage point (The Culture Trip). It’s no surprise then, that this attraction comes with a hefty price tag. A basic ticket (without fast track, and purchased at the gate) has a price tag of £24.95. So for two of us, we’d be spending almost £50, or $62.50 USD, to get on the Ferris Wheel. We knew there had to be a way to save a few bucks. Here is what we found:
- Buy tickets online from LondonEye.com. Savings are about £2.00 a ticket. However, you must choose a 15-minute window of when you’ll arrive. This puts a huge constraint on the day if you’re visiting several locations. All it would take to miss a 15-minute window is a traffic jam, getting on the wrong bus, or simply staying longer than expected at another museum or attraction.
- 2 for 1. Many London attractions partner with the National Rail to offer 2 for 1 deals on tickets. That’s a 50% savings! The catch is that you need a rail ticket that’s valid on the day you intend to visit. There are a few gray areas in the type of ticket it needs to be, and the attraction is the one who determines the acceptability of the ticket. Sadly, Oyster cards (the London pay as you go public transport card) aren’t valid for this deal. A great 2 for 1 deals resource can be found at Days Out Guide, they do a wonderful job of explaining things!
- London Explorer Pass by Smart Destinations. See more detail at Smart Destinations. Choose from a card that gives you access to 3, 4 or 5 attractions and pay one low price. The savings are typically about 35% off gate prices.
The highest savings is obviously the 2 for 1 deal, at 50%. Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. Since we’re using an Oyster card (London’s pay-as-you-go public transportation card) to get around town, we don’t have the train ticket that is required for the 2 for 1 deal. As we learned from reading a couple of forum posts, you can get a bit snarky and get around this by purchasing a valid train ticket on the day we visit the attraction. But, we can only buy that ticket from a specific train station. This of course adds a few dollars, some time, and complexity. Ultimately, after running the numbers, we opted to get the London Explorer Pass. We chose this because it was straight forward and wouldn’t require any extra steps. Not to mention, when we were considering the London Explorer Pass, it when on sale for an additional 10% savings. We also found a 7% cash back portal*, saving us even more money!
*Cashback portals are a great way to save money when shopping online! Essentially, they are sites that have partnerships with online retailers, and if you click through the cashback site, you’ll earn a dollar amount or percentage back on the purchase you make. What you earn goes into a holding account with the cashback site, and when you reach their payout threshold, they send a check or give you the money through PayPal. Before buying anything online we always check Mr. Rebates, EBATES and Be Frugal (we appreciate your support by using our referral links. Depending on the site, you may be eligible to receive a signup bonus of up to $10!). We check each site to see if there are any rebates for the store we’re purchasing from. We concentrate our rebates to just a few accounts, making it that much easier and quicker to meet the minimum cash-out threshold. So in this case, we searched the cashback site for ‘Smart Destinations’ and found a 7% rebate. We clicked through the cashback portal link and made our purchase. Keep in mind that it usually takes a few days after making a purchase to see the rebate in your cashback account. Cashback sites are great because you can typically stack them with other deals, just be sure to read the terms of each deal to make sure you’re aware of any limitations or exclusions. Also, be sure to disable any ad blockers you have running, or white list the cashback sites.
What Attractions Can We See with The London Explorer Pass?
There are a bunch of attractions, experiences and tours to choose from. The list below is inclusive of what was available when we purchased the pass and includes the at the gate ticket price.
- Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus London 1-Day Tour and Thames River Cruise (£30 at the gate) *
- Madame Tussauds London (£35 at the gate)
- London Zoo (£25.50 at the gate) *
- The London Dungeon (£28.95 at the gate)
- Windsor Express Day Trip (£35 at the gate)
- Coca-Cola London Eye (£24.95 at the gate)
- St. Paul’s Cathedral (£18 at the gate)
- SEA LIFE London Aquarium (£24.50 at the gate)
- Royal London Bike Tour by Fat Tire (£22 at the gate) *
- Wembley Stadium Tour (£20 at the gate) *
- London Eye River Cruise (£13.15 at the gate) *
- DreamWorks Tours: Shrek Adventure (£27 at the gate)
- Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour (£12 at the gate)
- Meal at Planet Hollywood (£22.50)
- The Royal Oak Pub (£25)
- James Bond Walking Tour (£12 at the gate)
- Doctor Who Walking Tour (£12 at the gate)
- The Rising Sun Pub (£25)
* Identical or similar attraction or experience included with the London Pass
As we went through the list of included attractions, we zeroed in on the attractions that would give us the best value. And, since we purchased the five-attraction pass, we knew we needed to be ultra-concise with our list. We already knew we wanted to go on the London Eye, so we needed to narrow the extensive list down to only four other attractions. Of course, wanting to get the best value out of the card, we were quickly able to take the walking tours off our list of contending attractions. Not only are they half the cost of the big ticket items, but we just didn’t have much interest in doing them. (Sorry Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes fans!) We also crossed the dining experiences off our list, since dining just isn’t sightseeing in our opinion. (Sorry Foodies!)
Lastly, we knew we were also going to purchase the London Pass. It’s a competing London city card/pass that includes several of the attractions found on the Explorer London Pass. And, since the London Pass doesn’t limit the number of attractions you can see on the card, there was no point in using the London Explorer Pass to see something that was also included on the London Pass.
With these items crossed off our list, we were able to narrow our contending attractions list to the following seven attractions. To perhaps help you make your own decision as to what attractions to visit, we’ve included our commentary.
- Coco-Cola London Eye: This was a must for us. It’s a classic London attraction, acclaimed for the skyline views.
- Madame Tussauds London: Shannon has never been to a Madam Tussauds and London’s is said to be one of the best. We’ll likely see it once and then cross it off our list for London, as well as other cities.
- The London Dungeon: Similar to Madame Tussauds, neither one of us have been to a city Dungeon. Many major cities have them, however, London is known to be one of the best. Once we see The London Dungeon, we’ll likely cross it off our list for future cities as well.
- St. Paul’s Cathedral: The history and architecture of this cathedral make it a must-see.
- SEA LIFE London Aquarium: We enjoy aquariums across the world and this one seems to have great reviews.
- DreamWorks Tours: Shrek Adventure: Neither one of us are huge Shrek fans and this seems to be aimed towards families and younger visitors. This will be taken off our list.
- Windsor Express Day Trip: The London Explorer Pass and the London Pass seem to be perfectly paired for a trip to Windsor Castle. The London Pass includes entrance into the castle, but unless purchasing the add-on Travelcard, it doesn’t include a way to get to the castle. Since the castle is a bit of a journey, and well outside of the London zone, where you can use the Oyster card, you have to find another way to get there. Fortunately, since the London Explorer Pass includes a day trip to Windsor, but doesn’t include entrance into the castle, having both cards is a great way to get there and see the castle! However, we took the Windsor tour off our list for the following reasons (mind you, these are our reasons, and may not be the same opinion or experience you have):
- Pre-planned tour: We have to abide by the tour companies schedule. We may want more, or need less time in a place than allotted.
- Public Tour: We have to contend with other people on the tour when taking pictures. Taking pictures without other people in them becomes dramatically harder when you’re in a group of 20, 40, or more people.
- Impact on our schedule: It’s a six-and-a-half-hour tour, but we could probably do it on our own in three to four hours.
- We can purchase train tickets: Round trip tickets from National Rail are just under £12 each. That’s about 60% cheaper than the tour is valued at. (Cost from Balham Rail Station to Windsor & Eton Riverside Rail Station.)
After careful consideration, we had our five attractions to see with the London Explorer Pass. Before finalizing it, we ran the numbers just to be sure we were getting a good deal.
Here’s How the Numbers Worked Out:
We ran the numbers and knew that we would save over £60 each, or over 50% off the at the gate ticket price. Double it, and convert it to US dollars and that’s over $150 savings! Let that sink in for a moment, that’s $150 savings on ONLY five attractions. Just imagine how much we’ll save with the London Pass…
So, this post isn’t really a review of the attractions and our experience. However, so that we don’t simply leave you wondering, here’s a little bit about them…
Maddam Tussauds London was really fun. We got some great pictures with wax figures of well known celebrities. The artistry was spectacular, we found ourselves just staring at the wax faces!
SEA LIFE London Aquarium was actually better than we expected. The exhibits were very well done and extensive. We’re sad that we missed the jelly fish exhibit that will be coming out later in the year. We’re sure it’ll be great! By the way, if you can only see one aquarium, the one at the London zoo or this one, by far go to this one.
The London Dungeon was a fun experience. It’s a great way to learn a little of London’s history while being entertained at the same time. It, by no means was scary, but the acting, scripts, and props were well done. We doubt we’ll go to a Dungeon experience in another city, but we’re glad we saw this one.
St. Paul’s Cathedral exceeded our expectations! It was a beautiful cathedral as expected. The surprise was the views we got from climbing to the top of the dome. Read more in our post City Guide to London, UK: Part 1 | Best Skyline Views.
The London Eye was the opposite experience of St. Paul’s Cathedral. We’re glad we did it, because we wouldn’t have known what we missed (or didn’t miss). However, our expectations were a bit high. Read more about it in our post, City Guide to London, UK: Part 1 | Best Skyline Views.