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Visiting London on a Budget – Accommodations, Transportation & Things to Do

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English writer and critic Samuel Johnson famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Of course, to experience all that London has to afford, you have to be able to afford London. That’s where things get tricky.

In 2014, British newspaper The Telegraph proclaimed London may be the most expensive city in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond your reach. All it takes to have a great visit to London on a budget is a bit of planning and some tricks to make Europe’s most-visited city easy on the wallet.(And don’t forget to pack a pair of really comfortable walking shoes.)

When to Visit London

The first trick to making London affordable is to find a cheap flight. Prices vary dramatically by day and location – regardless of which American coast you fly from, it’s not unreasonable for prices to creep into the four figures, especially during popular months.

Not surprisingly, flights to London are cheapest from major hubs such as New York and Los Angeles. For example, I found flights up to 33% cheaper from New York City than from Akron, Ohio. So depending on where you’re from, it may be worth booking a shorter, separate flight to a hub before departing from there.

Costs of flights also vary greatly depending on the season:

  • Fall and Winter. According to U.S. News, late fall and winter – with the notable exception of Christmastime – are typically the cheapest times of the year to fly to London. I’ve found that winter flights are up to $500 cheaper than flights during the summer. And while these seasons are chillier, they’re not unbearably cold if you’re prepared. London is notoriously prone to rainy weather, but winter is only slightly rainier than summer, on average. Fortunately, London has a very mild climate overall, with only a 27-degree swing between the average high temperature in the coldest month (January, at 45 degrees Fahrenheit) and the warmest month (July, at 72.1 degrees Fahrenheit). While you won’t be facing arctic temperatures, you do need to pack heavier in winter. So take into account baggage fees in case that winter coat requires you to check a bag.
  • Summer. You can expect to pay up to twice as much to travel during the late spring, summer, or early fall as you would during the winter. Hotels also frequently cost more during peak travel season (July through August), and you may have a more difficult time finding an available room. For instance, in 2015, the Queen’s Gate hotel costs $148 per night in January and $193 per night in July. In the summer, you also must wait in longer lines (or “queues,” as the Brits call them) at popular tourist destinations such as the London Eye and the Tower of London. You don’t need to pack a winter coat, but you may want a light jacket, as London boasts a temperate climate year-round and summer evenings can get chilly.

No matter when you go, pack an umbrella – London experiences regular mist and fog year-round. Fortunately, actual rain storms are relatively infrequent in London. Visitors are more likely to encounter varying levels of drizzle that can be easily fended off with a sturdy umbrella.

Where to Stay

If you’re accustomed to three-star, four-star, or even five-star hotel rooms wherever you go, prepare for sticker shock if you expect to maintain those standards in London. According to The Daily Mail, average London hotel prices approach $200 per night. If you have your heart set on luxurious accommodations, especially within easy walking distance of a major landmark such as Hyde Park or Buckingham Palace, plan to fork over significantly more.

City Center

Fortunately, you don’t need princely accommodations to experience London at its best. London is chock full of cheap accommodations and alternative lodging including an ample supply of hostels.

In the summer, you can stay in the dorms at Imperial College, located near Hyde Park and Harrods department store. Also, lodging prices drop as you move away from the City Center, though the compromise may not always be worth it. During graduate school I lived in Ealing, which is located as far west as you can go while still being in London proper, and spent more than an hour in transit each day while commuting to classes in Central London. (And it still wasn’t cheap – I paid $3,500 per month for a 400-square-foot apartment.)

If your goal is to experience the most popular cultural, historical, and gastronomic elements of the city, it’s certainly worth your while to compromise on the star-rating of your hotel in order to stay in a better location. In order to stay in these hot spots, your best bet for budget accommodations may be a hostel.

One option for a hostel is the Astor Hyde Park, which is top-rated by Hostelworld.com and available to travelers aged 18 to 35. The Astor Hyde Park is located just steps from Hyde Park in the most affluent area of the city, and you can stay in a dormitory-style room in the middle of peak season for £23.00 per person per night. If you fancy a bit more privacy, you can stay in a private room at the Astor Hyde Park for £55.00 per person per night.

An even cheaper option – but still highly rated on Hostelworld.com – is The Horse and Stables, centrally located on Westminster Road. A bed in a mixed dorm room costs only £19.50, and during the off-season, you may be able to negotiate a lower rate if there are a lot of empty beds. Start with an offer of 25% to 50% below face value, but be polite about it and don’t argue if your offer is turned down.

When considering a hostel or other form of lodging, always be sure to research and read reviews in advance. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the proprietor if you’re unsure. If you can’t quite stomach a hostel but don’t want to bust your budget on a four-star hotel, aim for a lower-star hotel with good reviews in a neighborhood such as Bayswater, which cozies up to Hyde Park but isn’t quite as posh as Kensington, its neighbor to the south.

Greater London

If luxurious accommodations are nonnegotiable but you have a tight budget, you may have to head away from the heart of the action. Be aware that London’s public transportation system (London Underground, also knows as the Tube) is divided into zones. Zone one covers all of central London and nearly all of the main points of tourist attraction. Unless indicated otherwise at the ticket booth, your single journey or unlimited travel card for zone one covers travel to zone two as well.

However, if you plan to stay in – or venture into – an area outside of zone one or two, you will need to buy a travel card that permits such travel. An unlimited seven-day card for zones one through six is £58.60 as opposed to £32.10 for zones one and two. Keep in mind that staying outside central London doesn’t just mean more expensive transportation – it also means a lot more time spent on the Tube.

Greater London is spread out over an enormous area. At more than 600 square miles, it is approximately half the size of Rhode Island, and around double the land area of New York City. Greater London is separated into 32 sections, known as boroughs, and its most popular tourist destinations are nearly all concentrated toward the center of the city, roughly in or near the boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Southwark, and Westminster.

london from the thames canary wharf Liubov Terletska
London from the Thames, photo by Liubov Terletska

Safety

A tight budget shouldn’t mean you have to compromise on safety. As is the case with any major city, London has some areas that are safer than others. The east side of London has undergone quite a revolution, especially with investments related to the 2012 Olympic games, but still hasn’t completely shaken its dodgy reputation. The extreme southeast and southwest suburbs of London (such as Richmond-Upon-Thames and Kingston-Upon-Thames) are extremely safe and very affordable, but they’re also a long ways from the action.

As always, use your best judgment no matter where you’re staying – it’s best to avoid walking alone at night and carrying significant amounts of cash. Make sure you have copies of important travel documents, and ensure that someone you trust has a copy of your itinerary.

Getting Around

Public Transportation

While I prefer to walk as much as possible in London, it’s simply not practical to navigate such a large city entirely on foot. Fortunately, London has one of the oldest, most efficient, and most expansive transportation systems in the world.

The London Underground, known colloquially as the “Tube,” is more than 150 years old and includes approximately 270 stations all over the city. In central London, most stations are within a few blocks of each other, so you’re never far from a stop. By nearly all accounts, the Tube is the best way to get around in London.

Single-journey tickets (usually £2.90) add up quickly, but you can buy a pass that grants you unlimited travel for the duration of your stay for £32.10. It’s wise to compare single-journey/return tickets versus unlimited passes to make sure you’re getting the best deal – but unless you plan to stay almost entirely within the area immediately surrounding your hostel or hotel, you’ll likely save money on an unlimited pass.

Travel passes typically cover both the Tube and buses, so your dream of riding atop a double-decker bus may come true after all. Many tourists and locals prefer the Tube to the buses because the Tube is quicker (not limited by traffic congestion) and, at most stops, the Tube comes more often than a bus. However, most Tube lines shut down by midnight, so if you’re making a night of it at the pub, you will be thankful that the night buses are still in action.

Taxis

London is full of taxis, including the iconic black cabs, but those tend to be significantly more expensive than public transportation. You can go anywhere on a single journey within zone one for £2.90 on the tube, but if you spend six miles in a cab, you can expect to pay more like £25.00 – and spend 40 minutes doing so.

Avoid taxis other than the official black London cabs or sanctioned, pre-booked minicabs. Only official black cabs and pre-booked minicabs are allowed to pick up passengers on the street, and unsanctioned taxis can pose serious dangers for riders. British news is rife with stories about people, women in particular, who have been victimized by drivers of unsanctioned taxis. In one of many examples, The Daily Mail reported on a woman picked up by an unlicensed taxi driver who then assaulted her.

Rental Cars

When it comes to rental cars, the short answer is “don’t bother.” Even if you can get past the whole driving-on-the-left-side-of-the-road thing, parking is nearly impossible near all major tourist destinations, and central London has strict restrictions on driving in the city center (called a “Congestion Zone”), requiring incredibly pricey permits. Even if you plan to venture out to the countryside, you are probably better doing so by train.

You can take the Heathrow Express directly from the airport, and connect directly to the appropriate Tube line from the Express. Tube maps are in every stop in London, and in addition to automatic kiosks that allow you to purchase tickets, there are usually Tube employees (known by their official title as Transport for London employees) at major stops.

london subway tube
The London “Tube”

What to Do

Sightseeing on Foot

My personal favorite activity in London is also the least expensive activity: walking. If you can manage a three-mile stroll, you can see some of the most famous tourist destinations in the world, and all you need are good shoes. Even though it’s spread out, London is a great walking city, and you can always take the Tube to a starting destination and explore on foot from there.

One sample three-mile itinerary:

  1. Start in Kensington Gardens in front of Kensington Palace, the occasional home of Prince William and Duchess Catherine (it’s also where Princess Diana used to live). The nearest Tube stops include Gloucester Road, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street Kensington.
  2. Stroll east through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park until you reach Hyde Park Corner. Walk under the famous Wellington Arch and continue east on Constitution Hill until you arrive at Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen herself. If the British flag is raised, the Queen is home!
  3. Next, meander down to the Birdcage Walk and continue heading east, noting the Guards Museum on your right, and keep walking until you reach Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. You’ll also have a splendid view of the London Eye.

And there you have it: In only three miles, you’ve covered several of the world’s most famous destinations – and you haven’t spent a dime, unless you needed to stop for a snack. (The Sandwich Shoppe on Gloucester Road, north of the Gloucester Tube stop and just south of Kensington Gardens, has tasty and inexpensive sandwiches in case you need cheap fuel for your walk.)

If you’re up for a bit more, after you’ve admired Big Ben, venture north on Whitehall until you reach Covent Garden. This is a lovely area that boasts many shops and restaurants, and on the other side of it is Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar Square is home to a large statue of Horatio Nelson, a vice admiral who commanded the British fleet at Trafalgar.

Pose for a photo with the statue of Vice Admiral Nelson and then stroll northwest toward Piccadilly Circus (the “Times Square” of London) or northeast down a street called The Strand for an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the famed West End theater district.

People-Watching

If people-watching ranks among your favorite activities, London is the city for you. If I’m not walking around in London, I’m probably sitting somewhere on a bench, eating a baguette and watching the world go by. With 8.3 million residents and around 17 million visitors per year, London is always buzzing – even during the off-season.

My favorite spot to sit and people-watch is the Broad Walk in Kensington Gardens (the nearest Tube stops are High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road), and not only because I got engaged to my husband while sitting on one of those park benches. You don’t need a park to people-watch, however. The whole city is truly a people-watching destination – and, best of all, people-watching is free. Consider sitting outside one of the major museums, where there’s a constant flow of pedestrian traffic.

Theater

London’s West End theater district sits with New York City’s Broadway atop nearly every list of the world’s best theater destinations. The West End boasts dozens of shows at a time, with a mix of big-name offerings (often including well-known Hollywood names) and lesser-known plays.

There are nearly 40 active theaters in the West End, many of which have been running the same show for years – or even decades. “The Mousetrap” debuted in London in 1952 and has been continuously running ever since (it moved to its current theater, St. Martin’s, in 1974).

While full-price tickets for the “big” shows are often prohibitively expensive for many budgets (easily $50 or more per show), there are a couple ways to beat the system, so to speak:

  • Last-Minute Ticket Booth. There’s a ticket booth located in Leicester Square that often offers discounts for last-minute shows at many of the theaters in the West End. It’s a great one-stop shop if you’re not sure what you want to see. You might not have a terrific view, but you’ll save money. The nearest Tube stop is Leicester Square.
  • Rush Seats at the Box Office. You can also take a bit of a gamble and try for rush seats. Many theaters open up the box office a few hours before showtime and offer any remaining seats at a substantial discount. You are likely to end up in a line, and you may walk away empty-handed, but if you are more concerned with cost savings than with a guaranteed seat, rush tickets are a great option.

If you have an active student card, you’re in luck – student discounts are in effect all over London, and theaters are among the most student-friendly destinations. You can expect to knock up to 50% off face value of a ticket with a student discount. However, not all theaters offer student rates, so call ahead or check online.

queens theatre london Bikeworldtravel
Queen’s Theatre in the West End, photo courtesy Bikeworldtravel

Museums

London is famous for its museums, which are wonderful to visit whether you are solo or visiting with your family. Unlike top museums in other major metropolitan areas, many of London’s most famous museums do not charge admission. That means you can see the Rosetta Stone (at the British Museum), van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (at the National Gallery), and the Holocaust Exhibit (at the Imperial War Museum), among thousands of other attractions, all without opening your wallet – unless you fancy making a donation.

Museums make up eight of the top ten most popular tourist attractions in London. Admission to all the museums listed below is free, with the exception of some temporary or special exhibitions.

The most popular museums are:

  1. British Museum. Dedicated to human history and culture on a global scale, the British Museum is located at Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. The nearest Tube stops are Russell Square, Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, and Goodge Street. It’s open from 10am to 5:30pm every day except Friday, when it’s open until 8:30pm.
  2. Tate Modern. Featuring international modern art, the building itself is a piece of artwork. The Tate Modern is located at Bankside, London SE1 9TG. The nearest Tube stops are London Bridge, Blackfriars, St. Paul’s, and Southwark. Its open Sunday through Thursday from 10am to 6pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 10am to 10pm.
  3. National Gallery. An art museum founded in 1824; it houses some of the world’s most famous paintings dating from mid-13th century to 1900. It’s located adjacent to Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN. The nearest Tube stops are Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus, Embankment, and Leicester Square. It’s open Sunday through Thursday from 10am to 6pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 10am to 9pm.
  4. Natural History Museum. Displaying a broad range of exhibits covering animals and natural phenomena, it’s located at Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD. The nearest Tube stops are South Kensington and Gloucester Road. It’s open daily from 10am to 5:50pm.
  5. Imperial War Museum. Covering the first World War to the present day, the Imperial War Musuem focuses on the experience of people whose lives have been shaped by war. It’s located at Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. The nearest Tube stops are Lambeth North, Elephant & Castle, and Kennington. It’s open daily from 10am to 6pm.
  6. Science Museum. Featuring exhibits covering all areas of science and technology, it’s located at Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD. The nearest Tube stops are South Kensington and Gloucester Road. It’s open daily from 10am to 6pm.
  7. Victoria and Albert Museum. Dedicated to decorative arts and design, and founded in 1852, it’s located at Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL. The nearest Tube stops are South Kensington, Gloucester Road. It’s open daily from 10am to 5:30pm, except for Fridays, when it stays open until 10pm.
  8. National Maritime Museum. Featuring naval art, history, and astronomy, it’s located at Park Row, London SE10 9NF (located in Greenwich, outside central London). The nearest transport stop is Cutty Sark (zone two), and it’s also accessible via boat (Greenwich Pier). It’s open daily from 10am to 5pm, except for Thursdays, when it’s open until 8pm.

If you’re interested in experiencing something a bit off the beaten path, consider venturing to one of what Telegraph.co.uk calls London’s “most unusual museums,” such as the Freud Museum, the Cartoon Museum, or even the Fan Museum. (Yes, London has a museum completely dedicated to fans. Not the people who cheer at concerts and sporting events; rather, the kind that keep you cool in hot weather.) Admission charges vary, with some smaller museums free and others charging nominal fees (such as £4.00 per adult at the Fan Museum).

Shopping

London is a global fashion destination. The United Kingdom is responsible for a number of big-name fashion designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, and, of course, Burberry. You won’t have any trouble burning a hole in your pocket in London if you wish to do so, but you can also save your cash and score great deals if you know where to look.

While Harrods department store, Oxford Street, and Bond Street are great for high-end window shopping, you should steer clear of these areas if you aren’t able to stop yourself from converting window-shopping into actual shopping.

Londoners and tourists flock to “high streets,” which are essentially concentrated shopping districts. High streets offer comparably low prices at retailers such as Topshop, H&M, T.K.Maxx (Britain’s version of T.J.Maxx), New Look, Zara, and Primark. Begin at High Street Kensington Tube stop for easy access to many of the aforementioned shops. This isn’t a place to go for knock-offs; most of the aforementioned stores carry private label brands, so if you’re looking for a flashy name, head to Oxford or Bond Street.

London is also known for an impressive array of markets. Each market specializes in something, or a combination of things, including food, clothing, crafts, and antiques.

Notable markets include:

  • Borough Market. Known for a wide array of food, it’s located at 8 Southwark Street and the nearest Tube stop is London Bridge. It is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 5pm, Fridays from 10am to 6pm, and Saturdays from 8am to 5pm.
  • Portobello Road. It claims to be the world’s largest antique market, and is located at Portobello Road near Kensington Park Road. The nearest Tube stops are Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill Gate. It’s almost exclusively operated on Saturdays, and timing is informal. Things usually get going around 9am, and stalls close as the purveyors wish throughout the day.
  • Camden Lock. A collection of brick-and-mortar shops and temporary booths that sell everything from name-brand boots to trinkets. It’s located just outside the Camden Town Tube stop in Camden, and most stalls are open from 10am to 6pm every day.

Other Attractions

Several of London’s most popular (non-museum) attractions charge admission. These include:

  • London Eye. A giant Ferris wheel with individual capsules that provide a panoramic view of the city, it’s located at Westminster Bridge Road, London, SE1 7PB. The nearest Tube stops are Westminster, Waterloo, and Embankment. Admission costs £29.95 for an adult, and it’s typically open from 10am to 8:30pm during the winter, from 10am to 9pm during summer weekdays, and from 10am to 9:30pm during summer weekends. There are many exceptions to opening times – visit the London Eye website for specific opening times.
  • Globe Theatre. A reconstruction of the original theater associated with William Shakespeare, featuring plays, exhibits, and education, it’s located at New Globe Walk, London, SE1 9DT. The nearest Tube stops are Westminster, Waterloo, and Embankment. Prices vary by play, tour, and event, though most shows offer standing tickets at £5 per ticket, while actual seats typically range from £17 to £43. Visit the official website for more information.
  • Tower of London. A historic castle that played host to myriad famous – and infamous – events that now serves as a museum, admission is £24.50 for an adult. The Tower is located on the north bank of the Thames, London, EC3N 4AB, and the nearest Tube stop is Tower Hill. The Tower is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 5:30pm, and Sundays and Mondays from 10am to 5:30pm.

With a little advance research, you can learn enough about each destination to prioritize your list of “must-see” items and budget accordingly. If something doesn’t quite make the cut, you can always view it from the outside. The Tower of London (and the adjoining Tower Bridge) is a sight to behold even without stepping foot beyond the entrance gate, as is the Globe Theatre. And while the purpose of the London Eye is to provide a view of the city, the giant Ferris wheel-like structure is quite an arresting site from the ground.

london eye and parliament
London Eye

Eating and Drinking

If you’ve never plunked down $12 for a single pint of beer, you’ve probably never been to London. As with nearly everything except the museums, food and drink are more expensive than most other destinations in the world.

Once again, a little advance research pays off. Pubs that cater primarily to tourists, such as those along The Strand (located in Westminster near Temple Tube stop just north of the Thames) and right next to major tourist destinations, tend to be more expensive than those a few blocks off the main thoroughfares. London has plenty of Starbucks stores, and there seems to be a Pret a Manger (sandwich and soup chain) on nearly every corner. “Pret,” as it’s called, is a good, moderately priced option for a quick lunch. For dinner, pub food is common, though London increasingly has a wealth of impressive ethnic restaurants (Busaba Eathai, with 12 locations throughout London, is a personal favorite.)

One surefire way to save money is to stock up at a grocery store instead of going out to eat. Due to space restrictions in most London homes, it’s a common practice in London to shop at a grocery store on nearly a daily basis (as opposed to the bulk shopping that we’ve mastered in the U.S.). Compact grocery stores are scattered liberally throughout the city, so you’re never far away from one. Even if you don’t have a kitchen in your accommodations, it’s entirely reasonable to buy a meal’s worth of groceries at a time and find a lovely park or square to sit and enjoy your food.

Prices vary dramatically at different grocery chains:

  • Waitrose. Arguably has the most expensive food, and is common in “posher” areas such as Kensington and Chelsea
  • Tesco/Tesco Express. Extremely common and offers affordable options
  • Sainsburys. Also very common; offers similar prices to Tesco
  • Boots. Technically a convenience store, but is very easy to find and offers takeaway sandwiches and other food items

Final Word

London is as expensive or inexpensive as you choose to make it. Saving money in London requires a bit of research and a bit of compromise, but the payoff is immersion in one of the world’s major hubs for culture, art, history – and beer. Keep in mind that the exchange rate nearly always favors the British Pound (otherwise known as Pounds Sterling or “Quid”), so the price you see listed typically adds up to substantially more when converted to American dollars. Visit XE.com before your travels to confirm current rates.

Have you been to London? If so, did you go during winter or summer? What was your “can’t miss” activity or show?

Ellen Gans
Ellen Hunter Gans is a full-time writer who loves highbrow books, lowbrow TV, late afternoon sunshine, Oxford commas, adding to her "countries visited" list, and the three Cs: cabernet, coffee, and carbohydrates. She's also a fifteen-time marathon finisher and Ironman triathlete. Ellen lives with her awesome husband and adorable son.

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