Bargains rule in post-Brexit Britannia
LONDON — Cast your mind back to June 2016. “Hamilton” swept the Tony Awards, Mike Posner topped the charts with his sure-to-be-future-classic “I Took a Pill In Ibiza,” and in England, a majority of voters decided that their country should break up with the European Union. They said yes to a ballot question dubbed Brexit.
The economic repercussions of the vote were swift, as the value of the British pound dipped against the US dollar. Bargain-hungry travelers wasted no time realizing that England, long seen as a pricey vacation destination for US visitors, was suddenly on sale.
Like all good things, with the exception of Nilla Wafers and Cher. I assumed that the Brexit benefit wouldn’t stick around. It seemed improbable that the value of the pound could remain so low for so long.
I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Very wrong.
This month the value of the pound dipped even further when the Conservative government outlined a firm plan to exit the European Union. This means, my friends, that England is currently more of a bargain than it was in June. The value of the pound has dropped 24 percent in the past two years against the dollar. On Oct. 7, it hit a 31-year low.
To put it in perspective, two years ago a pound was worth about $1.60. Before the Brexit vote in June, it was at $1.48. As of Oct. 11, one pound was valued at $1.21.
Let’s plug these figures into some real-life scenarios.
If I wanted to go to London for Thanksgiving and stay in the gorgeous Ian Schrager-designed hotel the Edition, the price for a basic room is 378 pounds a night. In dollars, that means I’m paying about $457. Two years ago, that room would have cost over $600.
Pretend we’ve just had a bit of Cantonese cuisine at Phoenix Palace restaurant in Marylebone and the bill came to 115 pounds. Two years ago, that would have cost $184. This week the bill would be $140. Eat up!
“The predictions of Britain being on sale to US visitors and US shoppers certainly came true,” said Joel Brandon-Bravo, managing director of the UK branch of the website Travelzoo. “You’re getting a lot more bang for your buck, and now the actual data is starting to come through.”
What was immediately obvious to those running Internet travel search sites was that initial interest in England soared. There was a 50 percent increase in searches for flights to London and Edinburgh in late June, according to the mobile app Hopper, which analyzes trends to predict airfare.
While there may have been an increase in interest, prices decreased on flights to Europe this summer. Overall, prices on flights to London are down 11 percent from this time last year. In Boston, flights are 37 percent cheaper to London than they were last October, said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper.
July was the highest month ever for tourism to the UK with 3.8 million visits, up 2 percent over the previous year, according to the country’s Office for National Statistics. In July alone, 580,000 North American visitors came to the UK, up 5 percent from 2015. More tourists means more spending.
“People are spending now because they’re realizing just how far the dollar is going against the pound,” said Jason Clampet cofounder and head of content for Skift, a website that examines travel trends. “They’re going to nicer restaurants and spending a bit more at shops. They’re really flexing their muscles once they get there.”
He predicts that the Brexit effect will linger through the winter and spring.
This was all I needed to hear. I started looking for bargain flights. My recent trips to London had all been clipped short on my way to other locales in England and Europe. It was time to give my credit card a workout and plan a proper visit.
Some aspects of my trip were quite easy to map. I had yet to see the expanded Tate Modern and was itching to explore its Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, which runs through Oct. 30. There was the opening of “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970” at the Victoria and Albert, and the very family friendly exhibition “Fire! Fire!” at the Museum of London about the Great Fire of 1666.
But I didn’t plan this trip entirely for the culture. My fellow Americans, here was an opportunity to finally shop without the full guilt of London prices. I’m normally no good with math, but as my fingers flipped price tags on sweaters and trousers, my brain solved “Good Will Hunting”-level currency exchange equations (minus Matt Damon’s perfectly floppy, boy band-ready, Prince Valiant 1997 coif). Are those limited edition Nike’s worth the price? Should I buy this antique ceramic cat? Yes, and yes!
It’s easy to fall into the trap of shopping on Oxford Street, Regent Street, or Carnaby. No offense, but many of these districts resemble glorified shopping malls. Why bother flying 3,000 miles to go to Sephora or Primark?
If I was going to break the piggy bank, I wanted to do it where I could seek out unique finds. I was continually drawn to the East London neighborhoods of Redchurch Street and Shoreditch. There is a cat cafe in Shoreditch, but I promise that was not my motivation to spend time in these districts. OK, it might have been part of my motivation.
Head to Redchurch for the unique men’s and women’s fashion at Eizenstein , the incredibly curated selection of housewares, clothes, and kitchen supplies at Labour and Wait , and the stunning home decor at Monologue . The street is known for its mix of home decor and fashion, and you can find both in spades at Modern Society .
Chatting with the staff at Modern Society, there was talk of more chain stores headed to the colorful, mural- and graffiti-filled streets. J.Crew recently opened on Redchurch, and I’m told more chains are on the way. It may be the sign of a healthy neighborhood, but perhaps these arrivals are not so good for small, independent boutiques that could face rising rents as a result.
Shoreditch has been revitalized thanks in part to Boxpark, the world’s first pop-up mall constructed of shipping containers. It opened in 2011 as a way to provide low-rent retail space to small shops and has since flourished. There are restaurants and outdoor dining spaces on the second level. On a slightly quieter street in Shoreditch, I discovered Paxton Chocolate, whose founder was an architect and fashion designer before moving on to chocolate. These bespoke chocolates were gorgeous. And yes, I just wrote the words “bespoke chocolates.”
After emptying the counters at Paxton Chocolate, I was urged to check out Columbia Road. It’s the street where the incredible Saturday flower market takes place in East London, but it’s also lined with charming little shops. I wandered over, as any good reporter should, and added to my collection of shopping bags by picking up T-shirts for friends at Dandy Star.
“Wouldn’t you have saved even more if you hadn’t bought anything at all?” a well-meaning killjoy asked after my trip.
He was right, but after years of pressing my nose up against London’s store windows, it was a joy to finally be able to throw open the door and spend. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself as I scanned my bloated credit card bill a few weeks later.