The Quick (and Very Dirty) Guide to London on a Budget
London – as with any major city – can be eye-wateringly expensive if you let it. For tourists and travellers who want to soak up as much of the capital as possible, the costs can soon start to add up, particularly when pricey food and drink options are added to transport and sightseeing fees. I therefore bring you a quick and very dirty guide to seeing London on the cheap – and this is serious penny-pinching stuff. No nonsense about how all the art galleries and museums are free (everyone knows this) – this is proper cheapskate territory, saving your precious British pounds to splurge on the stuff that really counts.
If you are super tactical about booking your travel to London, you can save a ridiculous amount of money. If travelling within the UK and eyeing up train travel, start looking as early as you possibly can. I recently got return tickets for a weekend trip to London from Birmingham for £16. I thought this was good, but then found that a friend had beaten me by scoring £8 return tickets!
The best price train tickets normally go on sale around three months before the date of travel, so start looking at least four months in advance if you can, and keep a beady eye on prices. Some companies (such as Virgin Trains) also often have snap sales, and it can pay to be creative with the station that you travel from too. Fares from other major cities in the UK (Manchester; Glasgow; Edinburgh) will generally be cheaper than from your little local stop. Use the nearest big city as a starting point for your ticket search, and it will probably drastically reduce the price. (If I look for tickets to London from Birmingham, they are generally around £100 cheaper than if I search for tickets leaving from my local station).
If you are flying in – either from elsewhere in the UK or from Europe and beyond – take a good look at all the flight options in and out of London’s ridiculous amount of airports. Depending on where you are coming from, you can potentially choose from Heathrow, Stansted, Luton, Gatwick, City or Southend. Prices to each will vary considerably, although don’t forget to also research and factor in travel time and cost from some of the more distant airports.
Be travel savvy in London with Contactless or an Oyster tourist card
Some cities will con tourists into paying through the nose for expensive ‘tourist travel cards’ (Paris, I’m looking at you), and the sheer range of transport options, connections and zones in a metropolis can sometimes seem overwhelming. My fall-back for London travel used to be the Travelcard that can be bought in advance, but even this specified certain zones or periods of time in which it was valid. Generally, the best thing to do in these situations is look at what the locals do, and see if you can do the next closest thing.
Londoners started using the strange sounding Oyster card nearly 15 years ago, and the introduction of contactless payment gives travellers even more options in this respect. Both work in a similar way: Oyster cards or contactless debit or credit cards must be tapped at the yellow card reader points at the entry and exit of each tube station or overground station, and when you board a bus or tram (but do not tap again when you get off said bus or tram). The fare will be calculated and deducted either from your Oyster card (which you need to top up) or directly from your bank account if using contactless. Pretty much any UK contactless bank card can be used, and visitors from overseas should also be able to use contactless American Express, MasterCard and Visa cards. If you don’t have a contactless card (or if you’re from abroad and are worried about bank charges) check out the Visitor Oyster Card. This works in essentially the same way, but you will need to buy the card in advance and decide how much credit you’d like to put on it – although this can of course be topped up as you use it.
The money-saving bonuses of both is that they not only offer cheaper fares than paper tickets bought in stations, but there are also caps on what you will pay. For example, using an Oyster card you can travel as much as you like within Zones 1 and 2 in one day, and only be charged a maximum of £6.60, compared to a Day Travelcard which is £12.30. Contactless payment also offers a weekly cap, so that you will never pay more than the cost of a seven day travelcard, no matter how many journeys you make.
Look for the cheaper accommodation
London accommodation on a budget can be a tough one. Seemingly even the most basic hotel charges over £100 a night, and to dip too far below this risks heading into seriously questionable B&B territory (or worse – hostels and shared bathrooms. Ugh). There are a few other options though, particularly for those wanting to stay in central London or just outside. The most obviously one these days is Air BnB, which usually comes up with cheaper alternatives and can provide you with a more authentic stay in one of the capital’s suburbs.
If staying in a stranger’s place really isn’t your cup of tea however, consider looking at easyJet’s range of ‘easyHotels‘ (stay with me on this one). Just as they did with air travel, easyJet have taken expensive hotels to task: stripping almost all of the luxuries out and retaining the essentials, they offer massively reduced hotel rooms in central London for under £50 a night. I stayed in one, and it was great! Rooms are indeed basic (paying for a window is extra, and I’m not even joking), but they are proper private hotel rooms with an en suite, and are clean and safe. As with most budget options, booking as far in advance as possible (and avoiding peak periods) yields the cheapest results. As an example, a random search for a mid-week stay seven months from now has brought up an offer for their London Victoria hotel at £48 per night. The Best Western next door is £109 per night. You get my drift?
Go for a bottomless brunch
Just because you’re here on a budget doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy yourself. London is bursting with beautiful bottomless brunches to take advantage of – the concept being that for a fixed amount of money, you can gorge yourself on delicious brunch items and swig as much Bloody Mary/Prosecco/Mimosa as you can comfortably manage. The penny-pinching tip here is that of course brunch effectively counts as both breakfast and lunch, and if you time and pace your visit just right you’ll probably stock up on so many calories that you’ll only need a light dinner too. Most restaurants give bottomless brunchers a two-hour window in which to munch, so go for late morning (say, 11.30am – 1.30pm) to maximise breakfast and lunchtime coverage. (Trust me, you won’t need a big breakfast before this. Or probably at all). This is therefore a perfect ploy if your hotel charges for breakfast. One of the best is the bottomless bounty at Jones & Son in Dalston. Most places limit the amount of food orders you can make (or charge for more than one main dish), but Jones & Son permit diners truly bottomless food and drink options – the only rule being that plates on the table must be finished before new food orders are made. Starting at £27 for a non-alcoholic brunch, this is a steal if you consider the range of items on offer – and the amount that you could potentially put away! Go hungry, and take your greediest friends.
Travel beyond London’s tourist sites
Continuing on the food and drink theme, it can also pay to travel slightly beyond the tourist stops, or to try out local neighbourhood cafes and restaurants. This will not only show you a slightly more down-to-earth side of London, it also means you’re less likely to have to pay the exorbitant prices charged by food outlets clustered around the capital’s honeypots. While we’re on the topic of exorbitant prices, it’s also worth avoiding my mistake and assuming that anything with the words ‘street food’ in means low price – for the last few years now, street food events have been big business in London (and elsewhere), and traders often crank up prices. What was meant to be a cheap evening of food sampling at a street food event in Dalston recently cost us in excess of £70…. Consider yourself warned.
Instead, head for London’s markets (Borough, Broadway, Brixton and others not beginning with ‘B’) to pick up cheaper and often tastier produce and goods. Also look for small pop-up restaurants for something a little more unusual. One of the most memorable (and cheapest!) meals I’ve had in London was at a tiny macaroni and cheese pop-up in Bayswater that served deep-fried Oreos, as well as a mind-boggling array of mac ‘n’ cheese options. Dig a little deeper and go hunting for hidden gems off the tourist trail – your stomach and wallet will thank you!