The £10 cuppa, and other tales of 'rip-off London'

A new book accuses British hotels of outrageous overcharging. Julia Stuart puts the theory to the test
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The Independent Online

My, is that the time? Four o'clock; undeniably time for tea, I'd say. And where do I happen to find myself at this most agreeable of hours? Blow me, if it's not outside The Ritz. I manage to duck through the sea defence of concierges in the lobby and slip into the Rivoli bar where I request a cup. The waiter goes through a long list of options, some of which sound like martial arts. "Builder's" isn't one of them. I opt for Lady Grey and a silver pot of the stuff arrives complete with strainer. And what do I see nestling tastily in my saucer? Absolutely nothing! Not even a whiff of a custard cream. Time for the bill, I think. What? £4.90! That's twice what I spend on lunch.

My, is that the time? Four o'clock; undeniably time for tea, I'd say. And where do I happen to find myself at this most agreeable of hours? Blow me, if it's not outside The Ritz. I manage to duck through the sea defence of concierges in the lobby and slip into the Rivoli bar where I request a cup. The waiter goes through a long list of options, some of which sound like martial arts. "Builder's" isn't one of them. I opt for Lady Grey and a silver pot of the stuff arrives complete with strainer. And what do I see nestling tastily in my saucer? Absolutely nothing! Not even a whiff of a custard cream. Time for the bill, I think. What? £4.90! That's twice what I spend on lunch.

I head off down the road to The Dorchester in search of a better deal. I'm intrigued to see if claims made in a new book, Hotel Babylon (Bantam, £12.99), of "rip-off" prices charged by London hotels are true. Plonky-plonk music is wafting through the bar, though no one is sitting at the piano which is covered in pieces of mirror and looks like a disco ball. There are also mirrors on the ceiling. It's a great spot for kinky sex, but I have much stronger needs to be met.

I request a cup of tea from the waiter, who offers no choice of blend. But he clearly knows what a woman wants because he returns swiftly with a plate of four florentines and another of six cantuccine almond biscuits. There are still even a few left when he returns, two minutes later, with a pot of leaf tea. Duly polished off, it's time to pay. £4.20.

I've still got biscuit goo between my teeth. Time to wash it down with a glass of water at the Hilton. I'd rather sit at one of the tables with the white tablecloths on, because the bread sticks would make an excellent gift for the friend who's cooking me dinner tonight, but I get siphoned off into a barren corner. "Is a small bottle of flat OK?" the waitress asks. It is, but not when I get the bill. £3.38! A service charge of 12.5 per cent has been added. I should have had a swig from the taps in the loos.

I take a cab to Knightsbridge and ask the driver for a receipt when we arrive. "How much for?" he asks. I look at the metre. The fare is £4.40. "£4.40," I reply. "No receipt for £4.40!" he barks. "I've waited for an hour outside that hotel. You should have walked round. Go on, get out." How rude!

I feel a little shaken and in need of a drink. The smiling waitress at the Mandarin Oriental's bar approaches with a sizeable bowl of crisps and peanuts covered in something orange which she places next to two red serviettes which will fit nicely in my handbag to take home for Christmas. I think a glass of Chablis will do the trick and a large one is brought to my table. It goes down very well. So well, in fact, that I'm starting to wonder how far I would be able to blow a peanut if I put one in a nostril. The waitress approaches. "Another one for you?" she enquires sweetly. I decline her offer as it's still not 6pm, my personal watershed. She looks disappointed. I request the bill. Blimey! £8.50. I can get two decent bottles of New World for that.

The little hand has finally reached six, and, if it isn't cocktail hour. Where better to spend it than the American Bar at the Savoy? Many places, it would seem. I order a kir royale to take my mind off its lack of character. It arrives with a bowl of uninspired mixed nuts and one of green olives. After a while a bowl of crisps arrive. The pianist then starts playing. I could cry me a river too when the bill comes. £13.50! £1.50 of it is a discretionary service charge of 12.5 per cent. I would have collected my drink from the bar myself had I known it was going to cost that much to transport it five metres.

Got to get a grip and sober up a bit before I show up at my chum's for supper. Coffee at the Waldorf sounds like a good plan. I order, but am not offered a choice. A double espresso arrives with milk on the side. At £2.80, it's a quid more than my usual latte at Starbucks. Always best to eat before going to dinner at my friend Jim's, I find. A short trot down the road and I ask the waiter at 1 Aldwych for a sandwich.

He can't provide me with one, so, a little parched, I ask for a glass of water. He repeats the order back to me, managing not to flinch. It comes with a generous stack of ice cubes and a slice of lime. When I ask for the bill, I'm told that it was tap water and I don't owe anything. I make a mental note to tell every tourist I meet and offer them directions to get there.

It's 10pm and I've just left Jim's where the menu was a microwaved chicken and rice TV dinner for one -shared between both of us - and organic vegetable juice. Time to make amends. A drink is in order at the Sanderson Hotel. GQ reckons this is the hippest hotel in the world, but the Long Bar is surrounded by net curtains. Al, next to me at the bar, describes the place as "wank". I ask for a glass of Pinot Grigio and am given a large glass with a warm stem. A bowl of smoked almonds wouldn't go amiss, but it comes with a white paper serviette. The barman asks whether I want to open a tab. I don't. He says it'll be £8.80. I ask for a receipt and it is handed to me with my change. I note that the 80p refers to a "service charge".

Still starving, I head off to the Langham and take a seat at the Chukka Bar which has run and run with the polo theme. I ask for a sandwich, but the barman says it will take up to 40 minutes. It's 11.49pm. I order a cup of tea instead and he warns me there will be a cover charge of £5 as it's after 11.30pm and I'm not a guest. The tea comes in a pot with a teabag floating inside like a lifejacket. I've had better-tasting tea aboard GNER rolling stock. I ask for the bill. It comes to £9.25.

At Claridge's, the waitress's smile gets even wider when I request a glass of champagne to go with my beef sandwich, which arrives in six pieces, crusts off. On the plate is also a handful of crisps and a small heap of dressed salad, which, as there is no fork, get shovelled in with fingers. The bar is about to close so I ask for the bill: a mighty £10.50 for the sandwich, £10 for the champagne and a 10 per cent discretionary service charge: a grand total of £22.55. Time to drown my sorrows with a nightcap.

I stride through the minimalist lobby of St Martins Lane, near Covent Garden, and get as far as the entrance to the bar where my entry is blocked by a doorman. He asks whether I'm meeting anyone in there. I tell him I'm not. It's residents or invited guests only, he replies. It's a good job. I have spent a staggering £77.88 on three pots of tea, a small bottle of water, two glasses of wine, a glass of champagne, a cocktail and a beef sandwich. Outside the hotel, a cab driver offers to take me home for £35. The half-hour journey normally costs £20. It's so preposterous I laugh out loud and get him down to £25.

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