Updated: 19th March 2018
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“But isn’t London super expensive?” has got to be the most common questions I get asked as an ex-city boy when talking travel and to be honest, London on a budget is possible.
Ok, maybe on a budget is a stretch but there are heaps of tips and tricks to follow to cut costs and make it more affordable. Take it from a local who survived in this city as a waiter for a few years, you can make your pounds go further if you know how. So forget tips about free museums, here are some of the basics for before and during your trip.
1. Flying to London (or not)
Firstly, flights. You are either heading to London for a city break, to explore the UK or as a good hub for getting around Europe. If you are travelling a long distance and in the latter category then here is a tip for you, don’t fly to London first!
In the past, I have travelled to Amsterdam or Rome to take long-haul flights because it has been up to £250 one way cheaper. London has high taxes and its fares are not always that competitive so look at flying into a different European city first, saving some bucks for a night or two there and then jumping on a budget flight back into one of our six airports around London (more on those below). That said, this usually works best towards Asia with Wow and Norwegian now offering discount flights from London to the USA.
You can also use your flights to save money on accommodation, especially as many of the budget flights are often at awful times. For example, you can get a super early flight in, and a really late flight out, essentially giving you two full days. If you do this rather than arriving late, and departing early, you can cut two nights accommodation off your trip. There are loads of places to ditch your luggage for the day before checking in to your hotel, LuggageHero is pretty cheap, and has lots of different storage locations.
2. Book in Advance
Book as many activities as possible in advance and you will be quids in but don’t book direct. We have a thing for coupons in the UK (and I’m not talking the type your granny takes into the supermarket).
There are tonnes of great voucher websites, one of them being VoucherBin which often have some huge discounts on theatre tickets, travel deals and much more. One of the popular booking engines, 365 Tickets can be used for sightseeing tours around some of the most famous sights such as the Tower of London.
3. Finding affordable London accommodation
Whatever search engine you use I will promise you one thing, cheap does not usually mean cheerful in London. Whilst there can be some epic bargains to be found generally if you want to be central you have slim pickings. Take a look at the websites of Tunes, Easy or The Z which usually offer central accommodation at a fairly decent price and will guarantee a certain standard of hygiene and facilities.
Alternatively, stay further out and use it to your advantage. London is a super connected city and we even have a night metro on weekends now, so you can rent any one of London’s high-quality short term rentals and you won’t miss out on a thing. The bonus of staying in say zones 3 and 4 is that not only is accommodation cheaper but food and drinks can drop dramatically in price.
4. Don’t get scammed at the Airport
“Express Trains” are not something you will ever find me on.
We have six airports in(ish) London. Gatwick and Heathrow serve most of the long-haul, London City some long-haul and mainly business flights in Europe and Luton, Stansted and Southend which are budget airline operated.
Here are the examples if you buy just before online or on the day (if you book the trains 30-90 days in advance though you will save big)
Heathrow Express – £36 Return/15 Minutes OR Heathrow Connect – £21 Return/30-45 Minutes
Gatwick Express – £35 Return/30 Minutes OR 2 Alternative train lines From £20 Return/35-45 Minutes
You get the point, check the train times and prices online beforehand and decide how much time/money you can balance out on. Coaches can be even cheaper and booking anything in advance online will always save you money.
From London City and Heathrow you can jump on the tube or DLR train lines which may take longer but will save a tonne and get you straight into every Londoners favourite thing, the underground :P
5. Walk, Cycle and get Contactless
London may seem scarily big when you look at a map (or especially a tube map) but walking around central London actually does not take too long, in fact, it can be quicker to walk between some tube stations than take the train when you add all the time up. If the weather is good do as much of London on foot as possible.
We also have the Santander Cycle scheme which you can find dotted around the city and access with a card. For £2 you get 24 hours bike hire. However, this is if you only use them for 30 minutes each journey which likely will be ample time to get to your next place of interest.
You may have heard of Oyster card, cheaper than buying individual travel tickets for the underground/bus. If you have a contactless credit card you can now just tap in and out with it, cheap and easy.
6. Use Public Transport for Sightseeing
Public Transport in London is pretty good and a daily occurrence for most of us so if you are from a country/city that looks down on it forget those ideas, it can be your best friend.
The Thames Clipper, a public ferry service which will cost you £8.20 for a full journey is considerably cheaper than paying for a tour of the Thames. You can also use the public red buses, sit on the top deck and get that hop on hop off tourist feeling without spending a fortune.
One of the best things about London is just how photogenic it is and some of the best Instagram spots in London won’t cost you a penny. Jump on a public bus with a contactless bank card and check out some of these spots for a cheap day out that will have you snapping your way through the city.
7. Check out the Free Attractions
London may be an expensive city but many of the attractions actually cost nothing. Learning how to travel the world for free is a fine art and here you have plenty of it.
These include the British Museum, St Pauls Church (not the cathedral), The Tate, National Portrait Gallery, Strolling through Covent Garden, Borough Market, Taking in Greenwich and all the beautiful parks.
8. Get a Three Sim Card
I love my Three Sim Card, I pay £20 a month with a data add-on and get 12GB and unlimited text and calls (for an extra £5 it is unlimited data). The best thing is if you plan on seeing more of Europe that allowance works in 57 countries, in fact, in the past year I have used this sim for free as far as Australia, Indonesia and the USA – it’s usually cheaper than even the local data plans.
9. Skip the Shard and get it for free
The Shard may be the most famous, but the views from across the river are just as good and free. The SkyGarden is a stunning building and you can visit for free and then maybe grab a coffee at the top (the restaurants up there are also great). Simply book your visit in advance online and it will cost you nothing.
10. Chain restaurants are not the enemy
Yeah yeah, I’m probably gonna get slated for saying that but I am a sucker for Pizza Express (usually having deals of two course for £10 even on the Southbank), Wahaca for Mexican and chain pubs for relatively good value British Grub and a pint. Always check their websites in advance to see if they have email vouchers.
LET ME SEND YOU MY BEST TIPS + TRICKS FOR TRAVELLING EUROPE…
11. Hunt out Set Menus Deals
Set Menus, especially on Sunday evenings and lunches are a pretty big deal in London. If you have a restaurant you really want to visit whilst you are here call or check the website to find out if they offer a set menu – it will usually save you a fair chunk on the A La Carte price.
12. Picnic on a Meal Deal
All Supermarkets in the UK and even pharmacies/other stores usually have a meal deal. For around £3 you can grab sandwiches, crisps or fruit and a drink. Take these to one of the beautiful parks in London and you have a bargain picnic lunch on your hands.
13. Book train fares in advance
If you plan on leaving London to visit other parts of the UK or even to go as far as Edinburgh you should know our trains are seriously expensive and you are not guaranteed a seat which sucks so book in advance online.
Not only can you usually score a seat reservation but you can sometimes get up to 50% or more off. Whilst individual train companies (we don’t have one rail company) allow booking on their own websites, The Train Line usually comes up best for discounts even with their annoying booking fee. If you plan to travel to some of the most beautiful parts of the country, such as visiting the Cotswolds, these advance fares will be your biggest money saver.
14. Try and get last minute theatre tickets
Whilst top end theatre tickets can run into triple digits there are usually last minute tickets always up for grab. On my last visit back home I scored great tickets to Miss Saigon for £20 about an hour before curtain up. The Book of Mormon even run a lottery every day for £20 tickets if you want to take a gamble daily 2.5 hours before the performance.
15. Do your shopping second hand
Between Brixton, Camden, Notting Hill, Greenwich and of course Borough Market you are spoilt for choice to hunt down quirky gifts, clothes, art food and second-hand items from small suppliers which can usually throw up some great bargains, especially in the second-hand shops – note vintage shops usually are nowhere near the former for prices.
As more budget tips pop into my mind I’ll keep listing them here. There is always a new way to get London cheaper – got any great ideas? Share them in the comments…
Check out some tips from YHA via other bloggers on great ideas for London here.