London can be a difficult city to love. It’s extraordinarily busy, seemingly everywhere and all of the time. It’s often grey, cold and wet. It’s enormous, meaning a poorly planned day can mean hours spent in a hot, crowded metal tube underground and in the dark. Above all, it’s expensive. Not like Scandinavia, where a meal might cost as much as your hotel room but at least you know it’ll be one of the best meals you’ve had in your life, but the kind of expensive where a Burger King meal deal is as much as day pass on the already expensive London travel network. Price does not guarantee quality in London, but there are ways to have an excellent experience and see London on a budget.
As mentioned above, London is massive. Even just to cover the main tourist centre, you’re looking at an area of 50 square kilometres. You will need to use the public transport system, which is, unsurprisingly, one of the most expensive in the world. There are ways to keep your expenditure down though.
Firstly, you need to get an Oyster Card. Don’t bother ordering online- you might have to queue at a desk or machine to get one, but at least you’re not wasting money on postage. It costs £5 to start with, but you can claim this back at the end of your trip if you have the energy to, and travel by electronic Oyster card instead of paper tickets is about half the price. You can also use your contactless credit or debit cards for the same fare as an Oyster card, but there’s no guarantee that cards from abroad will work.
Secondly, plan your days well. Try to arrange it so you only need to get yourself into an area once, and then walk about from there. Just travelling on the tube twice a day in zones 1 and 2 will cost you £5.80 a day in peak times and £4.80 a day off-peak. Peak times are a bit sneaky- they run Monday to Friday from 06.30 to 09.30 and then also between 16.00 and 19.00. Weekends and bank holidays are always off-peak. If you do use the tube more than twice, you’ll never pay more than £6.60 for a whole day of travel in zones 1 and 2. You can see the full maximum fares for different zones here.
If you need to use public transport more and walk less, then take the bus wherever you can. Most tourist attractions will be well serviced by bus routes, and each journey is only £1.50. If you need to change buses to get somewhere, as long as you get the second bus within an hour of getting on the first one, it won’t cost you any extra (although you do still need to scan in when you board), which is great if you want to see the whole of London on a budget. The added bonus of the bus is you get to see more of London and, though they are often still standing room only, they are a little less hectic than navigating the tube network. Useful routes can be found here, although there are plenty more. Just look at the nearest bus stop to you to see where all the nearby buses go.
If you get lost walking about, keep an eye out for the public bicycle docks. These each have a local map on them, orientated to the direction you’re facing, making getting about on foot very easy.
This may well end up being your single biggest expense in London. The first thing to emphasise is that if your accommodation includes breakfast, use it! Go native and eat a full fried breakfast every morning, and hope that keeps you going through to dinner with only a small snack at lunch. If you accommodation doesn’t provide food but does have a kitchenette, have breakfast at home most days. If you want to try a traditional British fry up, do it once, and do it somewhere that looks a bit cheap, with a clientele with an average age of 60. A proper fry-up is not about class or glamour. It’s about grease.
If you find yourself buying breakfasts out and about, and the fry-up is not for you, most chain coffee shops will happily charge you £5 for a coffee and a tiny pot of yoghurt and granola, whereas you can easily buy a weeks worth of granola and yoghurt for £3 in a supermarket.
For a thrifty lunch, you may struggle in central London. There are endless coffee and sandwich chains, all with very similar pricing and debates rage around many an office as which is the best. You’ll be looking at £3-5 for a sandwich or wrap, plus another £3 for a drink, more if you want a smoothie or similar at any branch of Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero or Pret-A-Manger. A good option, although not for quality, is a meal deal at one of the supermarkets. Tesco is usually the cheapest, although prices do vary store to store, giving a drink, a snack (fruit, crisps, yoghurt or similar) and a snadwich, wrap or salad for £3.
If you aren’t averse to carrying your own bottle of drink around with you all day, your chances of getting a hot lunch for under £5 are greatly increased. Somehow, London charges almost the same price for a drink as for a meal. Look to fried chicken shops for a burger for a couple of quid, or a lot of Asian restaurants, especially Thai and Vietnamese, do either a cheap lunch portion of curry or a finger food option at lunch time. A good guide to find a cheap eat near you is this Time Out article.
For dinner, it depends so much on whereabouts you are as to how much you’ll be spending. The key is to move away from the centre of wherever you are. This doesn’t mean, don’t eat in zone one, although that will help your budget, but rather, move away from the hub of whichever area you are in. Even if you are way out in Stratford, visiting the Olympic Park or Westfield Shopping Centre, you will find such a huge difference between the price of food inside Westfield and just ten minutes walk away.
While there is a centre of London in terms of Soho, Leicester Square, Piccadilly and Covent Garden, everywhere else has little centres, usually radiating out from the tube station. Head away from the crowds, and prices will drop.
If you’re looking for traditional British food, you may find it tough going. The British like to go out for food that they don’t get at home, so while you can get food from pretty much any country you can think of, classic British food is pretty much restricted to pubs, and even then it is very much modern British food. Pie and mash will feature, but so will a chicken tikka masala.
While the quality is variable, the British pub chain Wetherspoons are good for decent food on a budget. Definitely order from their offer menus to keep the price down, or at least those deals that include a drink. The bonus to eating at a Wetherspoons is that they are often in grand old buildings, so you get to sit inside a 1920s theatre or similar, and have a burger, chips and a pint all for about £8.
If you don’t want somewhere to sit in and keep warm, fish and chip shops are the best priced takeaways out there. While a kebab can still set you back £6 or £7 a head, a large chips and a battered sausage will often come in at about £4. Again, you want to look for places that are little more than a counter and some dated posters of different kinds of fish. There’s a few “posh” fish and chip chains appearing, such as Poppies that will easily charge you double the price of other places.
If the thought of a classic British curry tempts you to Brick Lane, be aware that some restaurants have excellent deals on set menus, but will become much more expensive if you order a la carte. It’s also recommended to walk the length of Brick Lane down to Whitechapel, take a left and then eat somewhere along Whitechapel Road. They’ll be more locals about, the food is often better, and the prices much lower.
So somethings in London you are going to have to pay for, no matter what you do. If you want to go see Madame Tusaauds, there’s no secret free hour once a week that those in the know use. However, there are ways to spend less money than you might think.
Firstly, go to all the free things. There is so much for free in this city. All state museums and galleries are free to visit, with a charge for special exhibitions. See Has Anyone Been To…?’s guides to the best museums and galleries in London here.
The Royal Albert Hall has free concerts every Friday lunchtime. There are also “free” walking tours, such as Free Tours By Foot, but these should be treated with caution. Essentially, you pay what you feel the tour is worth, and so should never be advertised as free. I would expect to give about £10 per person for a good tour, so by all means go and enjoy, but don’t expect to pay nothing.
The alternative is a self-guided tour, following a route set out by someone else. Has Anyone Been To…? has a couple of these, including of Piccadilly and Fleet Street, but others can be found at sites such as London Toolkit.
Secondly, make use of vouchers. The best ones are offered in conjunction with national rail tickets. They give 2 tickets for the price of 1 on a huge number of attractions, shows and restaurants across London. To use them, you need to have either printed a voucher from their website or a filled out voucher from the back of the booklet available at most national rail stations in London. Waterloo, Liverpool Street, Victoria, Charing Cross, Euston, Kings Cross and Paddington are most likely to have them. You also need a train ticket valid for the day that you wish to use the voucher. The good news is that you can buy a ticket from somewhere close to London, such as from Elephant and Castle to Waterloo, from any ticket machine. This will cost about £5 each, but will usually still result in a saving of £10 or 15 each, even if you only use one voucher. The key, however, is that you can buy a return ticket valid for the length of your stay in London, and then use that one purchase to cover a whole host of entrance tickets for your whole holiday. Be ready to show all the train tickets at the ticket desk.
If you want to get a great view of London but don’t want to shell out for the Shard, there’s a couple of excellent options. The Sky Garden, near Monument in the City, needs booking well in advance but is completely free. You’ll need to bring your passport as ID as well as having booked, and make sure you’re on time. Following the bureaucracy rewards you with stunning views across the city, surrounded by a tiny rainforst, and a cocktail bar.
There is also a viewing platform in the newer section of the Tate Modern. You can only get to it from certain lifts all the way down in the Tank Rooms, and it’s incredibly well situated, looking across the Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral. And of course you can tie it in with a visit to the free permanent exhibitions in the Tate.
If you want to see a show that isn’t included in the Days Out Guide vouchers, you can go about this one of two ways. If you have a particular show you want to see, have a really good search online. There’s an app called TodayTix which has daily £20 lotteries for last minute tickets to big shows, and there’s websites like Love Theatre which can do some great deals. The cheapest seats will always be restricted view, and in some theatres that’s not a problem, but some can have some pretty annoying pillars. To check the seats you might be buying, use Theatre Monkey and see what kind of view you will be getting.
If you don’t really mind what you see, but happen to be in the theatre district, the best thing to do is pop into the theatre an hour or so before the show starts. While not all do, many offer standing tickets to walk ins for around £5 – £10 per person, which is completely unbeatable. This generally won’t work for the lost running staples, but will be more successful for something in town for a few weeks only.
There’s plenty of music going on for free, with the concentration of pubs and clubs offering live events in the North East, from Camden round to Shoreditch. See who’s playing tonight for free here.
If you like the sounds of a cheap trip to the cinema while you’re in London, Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel is £5 per ticket Monday – Wednesday. Much more central, Panton Street Odeon is hidden away just below Leicester Square and is only £6.50 per person from Monday – Thursday.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, and won’t mean you can explore the UK’s capital city for free, hopefully you’ve got a few more weapons under your belt to see London on a budget.