During the World Cup, we’ll be taking a few key match-ups on the pitch and applying them to the world of travel. Instead of lots of running around with little scoring to show for it, we’re going to pit the two teams against each other on the tourism field. Which will come out the victor for travelers on a budget?
First up is the big economic superpower match: England vs. the United States, on the field this Saturday. Guidebook author and Perceptive Travel world music reviewer Laurence Mitchell will be taking England’s side. Since I’ve lived in five states and traveled most of the others, I’ll represent the U.S.
So, England or the U.S. on vacation/holiday. Which is better?
Laurence Mitchell for England: There’s probably not been a better time to visit England. The pound is weak against both the dollar and euro, which is bad for us but good for overseas visitors. Even London can seem almost reasonable at this sort of exchange rate. A further bonus is that we think we are looking at a good summer this year (mainly on the basis of just having had a cold winter—nothing too scientific, I know). If England does well in the football World Cup then the mood will be ecstatic here. What do you mean, “What if they don’t?”
England is finally starting to take itself more seriously in terms of its own home-grown attractions. More and more people are taking their vacations at home these days and, as a result, many are discovering their own backyard for the first time.
Tim Leffel for the United States: Even when the dollar is strong, the U.S. is a cheaper destination than England and you get far more choices in what to do with that travel budget. Tropical beaches, the Rocky Mountains, deserts, rivers to raft, and more than one great city to explore. From theme parks to ski resorts to adventure tours, there’s little you can’t do somewhere in the U.S. (It’s why so many Americans haven’t felt a strong need for a passport, wrongheaded or not.)
Our main weakness, besides from the hassle of getting in, is that we’re a car-addicted nation with lousy public transportation. Apart from a few choice cities like New York, Chicago, and Portland, it’s hard to get around without your own rental car. Fortunately, rental car prices are about the lowest in the world. But hey, how about that shopping? I see you loading up your suitcase with electronics mister!
What’s there to do for free or cheap?
England: There’s plenty you can do that does not cost an arm and a leg. In London, there’s the fantastic Tate Modern, a great art museum in a converted power station by the Thames. This has free entrance apart from major exhibitions, and it’s open until 10pm at weekends. If you are going to pay a visit, it is well worth walking there along the South Bank by the river where there’s plenty of buskers, second-hand bookstalls and places to eat.The British Museum is free too — it’s worth a visit just to see the Great Court — as is the Victoria and Albert museum, better known as the V & A. If you like markets, then try Borough Market near London Bridge on Thusday and Friday afternoons, or all day Saturday, for food, or Camden Lock in north London for vintage clothes and weird and wonderful arts and crafts (weird and wonderful people too — it’s Goth central!). Browsing is fun and costs you nothing.
USA: There are more choices in the summer, when outdoor festivals kick in and cities put on all kinds of concerts and plays in the parks. We don’t have as many great free museums as London anywhere, but many of them do have at least one day a week that’s free. Even in New York you can find plenty of free attractions. Our vast open spaces are free or cheap, with hundreds of state parks and national parks to choose from. In general, places that do charge admission cost less the U.S. than they do in England, though you’ll get robbed blind at any major sporting event or corporate theme park.
What’s to eat for $6 or less at lunch?
England: For a cheap lunch try the Food Village at Old Spitalfields Market near Liverpool Street station. There’s a communal seating area surrounded by stalls that dish up spicy Indian and Middle Eastern staples. If you’re happy to spend just a little more, then go to nearby Brick Lane, which is central to east London’s Bangladeshi community and is lined with dozens of cheapish ‘Indian’ restaurants (OK – technically, they are Bangladeshi but so are nearly all of Britain’s numerous Indian restauarants).
USA: Have you seen the girth of our population? Obviously cheap food is not hard to find. We invented fast food chains and soda pop and keep innovating new ways to stuff you with calories and fat for less than $6. That’ll get you a foot-long sub sandwich, burger fries and drink, or even a whole pizza pie in much of the country. Tax included! Naturally, portion sizes are as gargantuan as Spandex sweatpants in a Wal-mart aisle. This is one country where you will gain weight because you’re on a budget.
How many good draft beers in a pub for $20, regular time or happy hour? Which is better: England’s pubs or U.S. bars?
England: $20 will buy you anything between 4 and 6 pints of beer. I presume you mean “beer”, also known as “ale” or “bitter”, and not the insipid fizzy stuff called “lager” that is drunk by the rest of the world (and also, shamefully, by many Brits these days). We are very proud of our real ales and you really should try them if you visit England, just don’t expect your beer to be fizzy… or cold. Lager tends to be a bit more expensive. London prices are generally more expensive too. Beer is quite a bit cheaper in the Midlands and the North. Some places have a happy hour when drinks are half price. This usually tends to be in the late afternoon. If you think that this a good time to be knocking back the beers then, by all means, go for it.
It’s hard to say why English pubs are better than US bars, or bars anywhere else for that matter. One clue is probably in the name itself: a pub is actually a “public house” ie: it’s built for comfort. Many pubs have been running for a long time, centuries even, and have a long tradition of providing a social space — a sort of alcoholic community centre — for the local area. Timeworn long service tends to give them character and there’s none of the cold alienating atmosphere that you find in some bars. It’s a shame but these days, with cheap booze piled high on the supermarket shelves, many traditional pubs are struggling to make ends meet. Others have had to reinvent themselves as places to eat. The food in English pubs tends to be pretty good these days.
USA: It took us 60 years to fully recover from Prohibition, but anyone who wants to drink good beer in the U.S. and avoid the yellow fizzy water can now do so easily. We’ve had an explosion of microbrews that rank among the best in the world and even PBR-loving dive bars usually have something local on tap now. People still drink a whole lot of crap from the duopoly run by InBev/Bud and Miller/Coors, but it’s encouraging that sales of tasteless light beers have dropped substantially this past year and cool Schlafly has doubled its sales in two years on Budweiser’s home turf of St. Louis. You can get about the same number of pints here for $20 as England, though here also the big cities are more expensive than small ones. Happy hour 2-for-1 deals are common in late afternoon except where annoying state laws prohibit it.
Our “Brewpubs” have great food (and beer brewed on site) but regular bars serve bar food: nachos, burgers, and all things fried. Bars here don’t have that communal family spirit, but many are neighborhood hangouts. They run the gamut from roadhouse honky-tonks to sleek lounges with designer martinis and are priced accordingly.
What are the best bets for finding cheap places to sleep?
England: For value for money the best bet is usually a B&B (bed and breakfast) — all towns and cities, and even some small villages, have a decent selection. The local tourist office will always have a list or you can just look for the signs. A cooked “Full English” breakfast comes as standard, and is a very fine thing, although after a couple of weeks you might start worrying about your cholesterol levels.
In London, you are probably better off pre-booking accommodation through websites like www.visitlondon.com, which often have special deals for those staying more than two nights.
USA: The predominant cheap lodging option here is the basic chain motel, which will often be $40 to $60 a night outside the big cities. For that you get most of what you need, including Wi-Fi and a big bed, maybe a pool even. You can score great last-minute deals through Hotwire and Priceline.
B&Bs here tend to be geared to a more upscale traveler and are generally $100 and up, but with a quality breakfast. We have very few hostels, unfortunately, so traveling with another person and staying at motels is far cheaper than traveling solo and staying in hostels.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and a regular contributor to magazines that include Geographical, Discovery Channel Magazine, Walk and hidden europe. His latest book Slow Norfolk & Suffolk takes an affectionate “Slow” look at his home patch in England’s East Anglia.
For info on the real futbol thing, visit the World Cup Blog.