Yes, London can be a bit pricey. In fact, it’s recently been listed as the priciest place to live in the world, but all that really means is that those of us lucky (or daft) enough to live, sleep and work in the Big Smoke know a lot about doing things on the cheap. I’d even put my neck on the line and say that London can actually be pretty good value destination for those prepared to do their homework.
So, visitors to the capital – here’s how this Londoner “does” London on a budget.
The advice I’d generally offer here is to stay out of the main thoroughfare and use the tube or bus to commute to a hotel close by. Take a look at the tfl journey planner for an idea of journey times – a quick commute can result in a huge saving.
Look into hotels in the City area (i.e. Bank, Liverpool Street, St Paul’s) if you’ll be staying on the weekend. As a large chunk of their business is from business travellers who stay during the week, they tend to be quieter over the weekend and often slash room prices as a result.
Alternatively, Travelodge, Premier Inn, Holiday Inn and Ibis are all “budget” hotel chains to look into. As always, the closer you are to the centre the higher the prices so it’s worth comparing locations.
If you plan to spend most of your time within the centre, for goodness’ sake don’t bring a car. Not unless you a) absolutely have to, b) are prepared to shell out a small fortune in parking fees or c) relish the prospect of driving in circles for half the day looking for a space. You won’t need one. For all that Londoners moan about public transport in our fantastic Capital, it is actually top-notch.
Get an Oyster Card; they’re by far and away the easiest and cheapest way to get around on London tubes, buses and overground trains. You won’t meet a Londoner who doesn’t own one. Pick one up at any tube station (or order one online in advance) for a refundable £5 deposit. You’ll slash the cost of a single trip in Zone 1 from £4.70 down to £2.20 www.tfl.gov.uk
Pick up a Barclays Cycle Hire bike (aka Boris bike). You can pick them up from docking stations all around central London. Cost is just £2 to access the bikes for 24 hours, then you can make as many journeys under 30 minutes as you like, depending on how energetic you’re feeling.
There are plenty of boat tours along the Thames, but the budget way to see London from the water is to jump on a Thames Clipper river boat. These zippy catamarans are a commuter service that runs along the scenic stretch of river from the London Eye to Greenwich. You’ll get to see all the cool hidden places along the river where London smugglers used to ply their trade many moons ago. Adult single fares cost £6.50 and you get 10% off fares if you have an Oyster card or a third off with a Travelcard. https://www.thamesclippers.com/
One of the cheapest and finest things you can do in London is to just wander around. Yes, it might be massive overall, but London’s centre is extremely walkable and you can see a lot within quite a small area. A personal favourite walk of mine is down along the Thames, following Southbank from the London Eye to Tower Bridge. You’ll pass icons like the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, HMS Belfast and the Tower of London. Printable walks can be found here: https://www.londonforfree.net/walks/
Give the open-top bus tours a miss – the city has several scenic “normal” bus routes you can ride for £1.45 with an Oyster card. Try the 88 (past Camden, Oxford street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament) or the number 4 (Waterloo, Somerset House, the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Barbican).
For a taste of London’s history, there are one or two places operating free guided walks around the city. Sandeman’s New Europe for instance, run a 2.5 hour tour at 11am and 1pm each day from Hyde Park Corner to the Houses of Parliament. Alternatively, download an app like FieldTrip or Secret London, both of which pop up with interesting snippets of history or trivia as you wander around. https://www.newlondon-tours.com, www.fieldtripper.com
The best views of London are free or cheap as chips. In the North, try Primrose Hill, Alexandra Palace or the top of Hampstead Heath; in the south go for Richmond and Greenwich parks. In the centre, a mere £3 will get you to the top of Monument, marking where the Great Fire of London started in 1666. https://www.themonument.info/
Things to do
London Museums and Galleries are the best bargains of the capital. So many are completely free to enter, including the British Museum, the National Gallery, Natural History Museum, the Tate, the V&A and the Science Museum (although bring some cash for that one – it’s got a very cool gift shop). Tip: If visiting the British Museum, also take the short stroll to the lesser-known Wellcome Collection. It’s not far and is full of incredible curios spanning the history of medicine, including Darwin’s walking stick and Chinese torture chairs .www.wellcomecollection.org
Book some of the bigger attractions in advance, even the day before, to save a few pennies. The London eye and the Tower of London are both a cheaper by a few quid, for instance.
Or, if you use WeSwap to get your Pounds Sterling you can grab 2 for 1 entry to many major attractions, including Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon and the Sea Life Aquarium, as part of the Mastercard® “Priceless Cities” promotion. Alternatively, if you plan to travel anywhere by train (not tube), National Rail also offers 2 for 1 vouchers for train ticket holders (https://www.daysoutguide.co.uk/)
Theatre: for cheap tickets to West End shows, your best bet is to either buy tickets on the day before or on the day itself, as online vendors like Ticketmaster don’t generally discount. Take a trip to Leicester Square to find an explosion of ticket merchants offering discounted entry. On a recent trip I saw tickets to the book of Mormon for £50 each (down from £170), and tickets to Wicked for £27 (down from £80). The TKTS booththere is a good place to start, but it absolutely pays off to go to a couple to compare prices, because they don’t all have the same supplier. www.tkts.co.uk
For other theatre, the National Theatre sells £12 tickets to many performances(www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) Shakespeare’s Globe sells standing tickets right in front of the stage for £5. Don’t be put off by the thought of standing, either; it’s where you get the best view, and often the stage action will extend down into the crowd. www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre
For live music, St Martin in the Fields< (right next to the National Gallery), holds free classical music performances at lunch times. The Southbank Centre also often offers a mix of free performances from jazz to dance. For open-mic nights and one-man-and-his-guitar type affairs, head to the pubs around Camden and Shoreditch. www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/music/concerts, www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson
Comedy nights always make for a good night out and can be excellent value; venues rarely charge more than £10 for entry and many are free. Timeout has a good list of some the best in the city. www.timeout.com/london/comedy/the-best-comedy-clubs-in-london-1
Eating and Drinking
There are so many good, cheap restaurants in London. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of neon-covered money-sinks strategically placed around the centre to trap the unwary (especially Piccadilly Circus/Leicester Square). Do a little bit of research before you go out and scope out a handful of options where you’ll be for the day – five minutes googling could mean the difference between spending £20 on a tough old steak and soggy chips, or £5 on a superb Vietnamese banh mi baguette. As a general rule of thumb, excellent value can usually be found in London’s ethnic areas. Chinatown for Chinese and Dim Sum, Brick Lane, Southall or Drummond Street for Indian food or Kingsland Road for Vietnamese.
Street food has exploded in London in recent years. There are lots of markets to choose from, but look out for Kerb in Kings Cross (12-2pm), the Real Food Market on Southbank (Fri-Sun) and, of course, the famous Borough Market(Weds-Sat). Venturing East to Hackney’s Broadway Market on a Saturday is also well worth a visit to sample a fantastic selection of delicious treats from around the world. https://www.kerbfood.com, https://boroughmarket.org.uk, www.broadwaymarket.co.uk
Samuel Smiths Pubs is the name to look for good-value pints in a traditional boozer, and there are over thirty of them in the city – here’s a map: ww.jamesgretton.co.uk/samuelsmiths
And if the weather’s good enough, there’s always a picnic in one of the many sterling green parks all over the capital. Here, for tasty finger friendly fare, beloved British institution Marks and Spencer’s comes into its own.
Steph is a Londoner born and raised, and has never had any money to speak of.