This city is disastrously expensive, and doesn’t help that the exchange rate is awful. As a point of reference, a regular pint of lager (something like Kronenberg or Amstel, nothing fancy) from a tap at a typical (non-touristy) bar is about £4 – that’s around $6.50. Expect closer to £5 for anything special. A small take-away Chinese meal will easily cost you £6 and if you want see the “sights,” many of them average out around £20 (over $30) each.
But London is a great town full of great and exciting things to do. I’ve been here for six weeks now and feel like it’s a place in which I could spend plenty more time, if only for the people and music. Only problem is, after looking at my bank accounts I realized at my current rate of spending, I’ll be broke long before I want to leave. So I went into cheapo mode and researched how to make the most of your money is this otherwise ridiculously expensive place.
This quick guide is a starting point for travelers spending any sort of time in London. I’ll explain the first things you need to know to enjoy this great city while still having enough cash left over to enjoy your next destination.
If you’re only going to be here for a few days to sight-see or aren’t worried much about funds, fine. This article is not aimed at quick-stop tourists or residents, although you’ll still find this useful.
Get an Oyster Card.
Walk. Our brains are wired to take in our surroundings at a walking pace. Most things you’ll want to see are clustered together in sections anyway, so take public transport between the main areas and walk the rest of the time. It’s a much better experience.
Avoid taxi cabs whenever possible. There’s almost always a bus or tube station close-by that will take you close to where you need to be. If time is an issue and they’re your only choice (buses can be quite slow,) make sure you only use licensed and metered cabs or stop by a mini-cab place and negotiate a price. NEVER EVER EVER (get that?) step into an unlicensed taxi. Especially women. Some people want the experience of riding in the iconic London black cab, and that’s fine, do it once and get your fill.
On the tube (underground subway) or rail, cost is based on the zone you start and end in; you can use as many trains as you want within those zones, but once you step out of the station, that’s where your end point is. Most visitors won’t venture past Zones 1 and 2 very often, which is usually £2 or £2.60 with the Oyster Card. Pick up a free tube map from any hostel – it’s really easy to get used to. The tube map is not to scale – two stops that look far apart on the map might be a two minute walk across the street. Take a good map and don’t be afraid to walk.
Each time you step on a bus, it will cost you £1.40 (with Oyster Card) no matter how far you go. When using buses, your goal is to minimize the number you take. Buses aren’t so easy to get used to. They’re usually slow, get caught in traffic, have confusing routes, aren’t always on time, and they might randomly stop service before your stop. But they’re the cheapest and allow for the best experience. Can’t see much underground, but on the bus you’ll go through neighborhoods and places you otherwise wouldn’t. Google Maps knows London’s public transport bus routes (it’s what I normally use,) and each bus stop will have the train number and generic route and main stops on it. Many stops will have a map of the area with streets and stops listed along with which buses go where. Very useful.
Edit: 12 Aug, 2013, If you have an iDevice or Android, the Citymapper App is the one to download. It gives great routes (better than Google,) and even displays the costs of trips so you can make frugal decisions. Get it. Edit 13 Sept 2017: And now they even have their own buses serving East London!
You can get to and from Heathrow Airport on the tube – it’s in Zone 6 (around £5 to/from central London.) It’s the cheapest but slowest way to get there. Other options are Heathrow Express (£16-18 plus you have to get to Paddington,) and Heathrow Connect (£6.50 – £8.50.)
If you’re like me, you have to try the local dish(es) of the country you’re visiting, and it’s one of those things you don’t want to cheap out on. In England, the big ones are Fish & Chips, Sunday Roast, Shepherds’ Pie, and a traditional English Breakfast (with black pudding, if you’re up for it.) The best deal I found for some of these are at Belushi’s on Borough High Street (near London Bridge) which gives a pretty good discount if you’re staying at the St. Christopher’s Village hostel next door. Many pubs and restaurants have specials that you’ll just have to walk around and discover, but you’ll end up paying more around tourist areas.
Edit: 12 Aug, 2013, For Fish & Chips, go over to Borough Market and get some takeaway from a place called Fish! Kitchen – their hours are limited but it’s totally worth it. £9 for a big portion. For a proper English breakfast, find a hole-in-the-wall British cafe outside the tourist areas. It’ll cost you about £5 for more food than you can eat.
The best way to save money on food is to stay at a hostel with a proper kitchen, which is surprisingly hard to find in London, and use the refrigerator, stove, and microwave. The best kitchen hostels in my experience have been New Cross Inn (a bit out of central but a good hostel,) Smart Camden Inn (great area, iffy hostel,) and Monkeys in the Trees. Many hostels serve food in the attached pub, and naturally want you to buy theirs instead, which adds up quick.
What to buy? Head down to your local supermarket (Sainsbury’s, Iceland, ASDA, LIDL,) or dollar-store equivalent (99p Store or Poundland,) and pick up whatever is appropriate for your cooking skill. Throw it in the fridge at the hostel and cook like you would at home. I can burn water given the chance, so I buy either basic throw-together ingredients like for a salad, or pre-made meals on special. Bigger places like Sainsbury’s or ASDA will often have clearance sections which is pretty much where I live. I just bought four 10″ pizzas for £1 each, a pint of blueberries for 50p, a tub of greek yogurt for £1, and sports drinks (like Gatorade) for 30p a bottle. Just be sure to check expiration dates on anything you’re worried about.
On the go? It’s not so easy running back to the hostel mid-day to have lunch then returning to central London to sight-see. Best thing to do is to pick up a bag of mixed nuts or granola/energy bars for snacks, and pack along a lunch from the stuff you bought at the grocery store, throwing it in your daypack for later. Worst case, you can pick up some street food for a decent price in most areas, or stop by a market and grab something. Make sure you carry along a fork & spoon or spork in your daypack. Sainsbury’s – both the big and small shops – usually have a special that gets you a sandwich, wrap, or salad, a snack (chips or fruit,) and a drink for about £3.
Going out for drinks is notoriously expensive in London. As I mentioned at the start, pints usually cost at least £4. Some places I’ve run across do £2 pints on special nights, and make sure to look out for bars attached to hostels – they’ll usually have specials going on, especially if you’re staying there. Expect a crowd filled with hostel-dwellers, of course. Belushi’s has some good deals, and Backpacker’s Bar at King’s Cross does £3 pints and £3 double mixers all day every day and is filled with a decent crowd. Seek out Wetherspoon pubs for a cheaper drink, but in my experience with a couple of them, they’re kind of crap.
Buying drinks and taking them back to the hostel or a friend’s place is much less expensive, but you still need to look around. The off-licence across the street from New Cross Inn sells six large cans of Grolsch for £5 and other similar specials. If you’re more of a wino, I’ve seen two normal bottles of wine for £5, but it’s rare. Of course buying liquor at the supermarket and a mixer of choice is always a good option.
It’s come to my attention that many people come to London to shop, so I thought I should add this section.
Camden Markets. Camden is a cool area. In fact I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Camden right now. Once you get off the Camden Town tube stop, you’ll immediately see why this place is special. Just start walking North and you can spend literally all day wandering in and out of cool, unique shops selling handmade stuff, art, clothes, food, just about anything. This is easily the cheapest place to get stuff, but make sure to negotiate. It’s expected, and if you pay asking price for anything here you’re getting ripped off. My friend Katalina is a master at this and successfully talked a guy down to £15 from 30 for some clothes, and got a leather jacket here for around 25% of asking price. We also went to Portabello Road Market, which is a cool little area selling vintage stuff for a decent price.
There are a ton of small local markets all over town – Greenwich Market, Shepherd’s Bush Market, Brick Lane Market, and many more – each providing their own unique character and local goods.
Oxford Street is ridiculous. It’s insanely busy, people are obnoxious, and the goods are very expensive, but this is where you need to go if you’re looking for big names and luxury goods. I stay away from here at all costs.
There are way too many areas around London to shop to list here but that’s where I’d start. If you’re a shopper you’ll want to do more research. I’d recommend Camden Markets even if you’re not a shopper – it’s a cool experience.
It’s obvious by now that I usually stay at hostels, but I’m also a big fan of Couchsurfing – it’s always a great option and I’ve had nothing but good experiences with it. Just make sure to check references and read up on their profile first, and remember that most couchsurfers aren’t going to be located in central London if that’s what you’re after.
Hostels are a great option – there are tons of them here all over town, and vary wildly in cost and amenities. Check out both HostelWorld and HostelBookers (also see HostelWorld vs HostelBookers) and make sure to view the hostel’s own website; some of them are cheaper, but some are more expensive booking directly through them. Of course staying in central will be more expensive; don’t be afraid to stay in a location a bit further out – it will have its own character and you can just hop on public transport to get you into town. Check on that first, of course – read reviews of the place and check out a map.
If you’re staying for more than a few days it will be worth getting a hostel with a kitchen to cook your own food. These can be hard to find in London. A good overall: New Cross Inn Hostel – it’s (currently) £13 per night or £90 per week for an 8-bed dorm, has kitchens, a great staff, free tea and coffee, a common room with TV, free breakfast, and free wifi. It’s a bit out of the way but it’s never too tough getting a bus or overground route anywhere you need to go.
What to do?
Of course you came to London to experience it, not scrimp by for a week and move on. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to see, then by all means go see it.
Ask around. Ask locals what’s worth seeing or doing. I decided against a ride on the London Eye because it’s expensive and everybody I talked to said it wasn’t worth it. Want a good view of London? Head up to Primrose Hill by Regent’s Park. I did spend £20 to tour the Tower of London, and would definitely recommend it to others. You can easily spend all afternoon in there, and make sure to get a walking tour from a Beefeater. I also plan on going to the London Zoo – it’s expensive at £20 but it’s the world’s oldest zoo, and hey, I like zoos.
Many hostels will give you discounts on attractions for staying with them. St. Christopher’s, for example, gives you a 20% discount on many places around town including restaurants, tours, and the zoo, bringing its price from £20 to £16. Don’t forget to look online as well, as you’ll often find prices are cheaper, and if you pre-book you might not have to wait in the queue when you get there.
London is hugely popular for theatre. I’m not a theatre buff, but in the small amount of research I did, book online looking for special rates (I got a £40 ticket to Stomp for £20) or go to one of the half-price ticket booths lined up all over town.
Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the many, many free museums and galleries on offer, which you could easily spend days seeing. I visited the British Museum, Wellcome Collection, National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum, and National Gallery and only spent a little bit on donations and getting there. Check out this article on Free London Attractions at VisitLondon.com and Londonist’s Free & Cheap category which is always updated with enough to do without breaking the bank.
Most importantly, have fun! You’re in the capital of the freaking world for Christ’s sake.
What money-saving tips do you have for people visiting London? Is there anything I missed?