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In 2009, Arabs spent $400 million at London's high-end retailers such as Harrods. Daniel Deme / EPA
In 2009, Arabs spent $400 million at London's high-end retailers such as Harrods. Daniel Deme / EPA

It is possible to visit London with lower capital expenditure

There are great money-saving solutions out there. All it takes is a bit of research and planning before a trip.

My plans for Eid were simple. I wanted to travel far away from work and recharge my batteries.

I had dreams of sitting in a quiet coffee shop in London, a city I consider my second home. My priorities were to visit art galleries during the day and watch different theatrical productions each night. But for some reason, that is not what other people expected.

I landed in London at 5.30pm, just in time to sit down dinner with my siblings, who are students in the British capital.

As I passed by a customs officer, he asked me the routine question:

"So, what's the purpose of your visit?"

"Just to visit my siblings and friends for a few days," I said.

He smiled and replied: "And to go to Harrods, right?"

"Not my priority this time," I said.

He seemed rather shocked.

I grabbed my bags and headed towards the arrivals area where my driver was waiting for me.

As we drove home, he jokingly said as my luggage was not heavy I must be planning to fill it up with purchases.

I was beginning to feel that irritating headache after a flight, and somehow his question made it worse.

"No. I'm here to spend some quality time with my sister and friends," I said.

"So you don't want me to take you to Harrods before dropping you to your apartment?" he laughed.

"I don't really like it," I replied. "It's so overrated and crowded. I prefer individual boutiques."

"Wow, you must be the first Arab to say that," he said with a stunned look on his face.

I do not blame him for stereotyping me that way. In 2009, Arabs spent US$400 million (Dh1.46 billion) at London's high-end retailers.

Almost every Arab I know only heads to London to shop and indulge in high-end eateries, mainly in Knightsbridge or New Bond Street, such as an Emirati acquaintance of mine who decided to spend Eid in London, too.

I was surprised by her visit, because I knew she had credit payments to be met and overdue loans at her bank.

What shocked me more was her stay in one of the Knightsbridge area's expensive hotels, dining in fancy restaurants - and then complaining to me about how much money she spent. According to her, this is the price of being in London and there are no cheaper alternatives.

"Knightsbridge is home to the best retail and hotels. There are no better areas. That's what all my Emirati friends tell me," she said.

I failed to convince her there were other great options out there.

Later I met up with my guru, the most practical GCC national I have met, Sara is a member of a wealthy Saudi family who does not like to waste her money when there are alternatives out there.

"A lot of GCC nationals do not plan beforehand how they will spend their money in London, and end up spending too much, which they regret later," said Sara.

Accommodation and transport consume a huge chunk of any travel budget, so Sara decided to demonstrate how tourists could spend less.

Instead of hailing a taxi from Marylebone, an area close to Mayfair, she suggested we take a bus instead, and stop at the lower end of Oxford Street.

The trip which took 10 minutes cost us 2.20 (Dh12.82) rather than 10 in a taxi.

Sara also said it would be cheaper and faster if we used London's underground rail system.

"GCC tourists should consider all transport options. Unless you have your own car and driver in London, you will need a separate budget just for taxis. I know a Saudi family that spent more than Dh4,000 solely on taxis in two weeks only," she said.

Purchasing an underground rail card or a bus card also saves money, especially if you move around a lot. Children get special rates and free admission to some attractions depending on their age.

After alighting from the bus, Sara and I walked for a good 10 minutes from Oxford Street and found ourselves in front of The Chancery Court Hotel, an architectural gem in High Holborn.

This five-star hotel's deluxe rooms, which are within walking distance from Covent Garden, St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Opera House, as well as other hotels in the area, start at 165 a night.

Similar five-star hotels in Knightsbridge or South Kensington start at 400, and more during peak seasons.

"[Hotels such as The Chancery] allow tourists to save at least 100 a night that they could spend on other leisure activities," said Sara.

Many family-friendly and educational activities are available for free. In addition to London's numerous parks, many museums do not charge admission fees.

Tourists could also save a lot on tickets and enjoy West End theatre shows and concerts by avoiding purchasing tickets at the gate, and instead purchasing them through tkts, an authorised half-price ticket booth located on Leicester Square. Other cut-price ticket providers include seatchoice.com.

There are great money-saving solutions out there. All it takes is a bit of research and planning before a trip.

Manar Al Hinai, a fashion designer and writer, was named Arab Woman of the Year. You can follow her on Twitter: @manar_alhinai

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