Exploring London on a budget
London is an expensive city. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s like New York City-level expensive and even then I suspect it’s worse in some categories. Of all the cities I’ve been to this year, it is easily the most costly. There are only so many ways to save money there, but let’s look at ways that we can spare our pocketbooks and still get to experience such an important world capital.
My goal throughout the entire year of my travels is to average spending $50 a day. I believe this figure to be achievable, over a year’s time, but I also recognize that the more expensive countries will be evened out by cheap ones. Spoiler alert, however before we get much farther, I didn’t hit $50 in London, but I was proud to clear $100 a day over the 4 days I had in town.
I’m going to break down costs by the major categories that tourists spend money and share what worked for me. My overall costs will be listed in US dollars which are worth $1.52 for every £1 as of early October 2015.
Hostels Arguably the most difficult part of planning a trip on a budget is how the hell do you find a place to stay without shredding your savings account. This is a constant struggle for someone traveling long term like me, but also one that I see as a challenge. In London, many hostels and cheaper guesthouses exist to fulfill the high demand from the thousands of travelers visiting the city everyday. But with this high demand comes higher prices. A nice offset to this is that many hostels often include breakfast and are a great way to meet other travelers.
Top rated hostels on Hostelworld include Wombats City Hostel London, YHA London Central, and YHA London St Pancras, all in the $25-30 price range for a dorm next month. Prices will be higher during peak season in midsummer.
Guesthouses and small hotels For a slightly higher quality of lodging expect to pay $50-75 a night for a private double bed room. Top options include Royal Hyde Park Hotel and St George Hotel. Both of these are in the same neighborhood I stayed in and can highly recommend it for its easy access via tube to the rest of the city.
What I did I stayed a hostel called Pub Love @ The Green Man in the Edgware Road neighborhood. The hostel was a half block from a tube station and within walking distance of a grocery store, a couple ethnic restaurants, and when I was feeling extra energetic, was about a 30 minute walk into the city.
Oyster Card This card can be loaded up with your choice of pounds starting with a £5 deposit. I would suggest buying the 7-day unlimited card for £35 which will save you money on the many buses and tube trains you take. When you finish in the city, you can even turn the card in to get your deposit back! If you have a smartphone with you, know that Google Maps has great transit direction coverage for the city and I relied on it heavily.
Walk everywhere London is a very beautiful and walkable city. If the weather is nice, get out and explore. Get lost. The neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Covent Garden, Camden, Marlyebone, and Paddington all offer views of historical London. Anytime I make it to a new city, the very first thing I do is walk all over the place. In one half day, I often find that I can tap into what makes a city tick and this greatly increases my appreciation of the place.
What I did I messed up and missed the memo that you can take the Underground into the city. It’s not marketed at all and you have to ignore all the Heathrow Express train signs. I opted for the faster but four-times-the-price train as I didn’t know any better. It costs £21.50 one way! Lesson learned. I later bought the 7-day Oyster Card. And of course I walked all over the city. You might need to take the tube in to the center if you are staying in cheaper accommodation farther out, but once you’re closer to the Thames River, the city is very walkable.
Being such a massive multicultural city, there is something for every palate and every budget in London.
Eat at the markets Like any good major city, London has its fair share of fresh food markets to satisfy its population and provide a cheaper option for visitors. The most famous markets including Borough, Camden, and Portobello are hotspots of activity, shopping, and affordable food. I found Borough market to be my favorite, especially during lunch time, where the central courtyard vendors are open in abundance.
Cook your own food If you are staying in a hostel or guesthouse with kitchen facilities, you can save a mini fortune living how locals do by cooking for yourself. Visit one of the fresh markets above, grab some greens, stop by the butcher, and put together your own feast. I loved how readily available fresh food was in the city. So much better than what we have in the States.
Fish and Chips The famous english street food can be found all over London. In most shops, expect to pay £8-10 for large order of the classic dish. But don’t be turned off by the price, each time I ordered it, I found the portion sizes to be massive! Easily a meal and a half or one meal to share between two people.
Beer Pints average £3-5 in the less touristy parts of town and can be £6+ in the center. I would highly recommend checking out Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which is located just west of St. Paul’s. This ancient pub was the haunt of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, RL Stevenson, and many others over the course of its existence. It is the quintessential English pub and is surprisingly large inside. Check out the basement bar for its low-ceilinged, moody ambiance.
What I did My hostel included breakfast. I also had lunch in the markets I mentioned earlier and Tesco became my best friend. Tesco, the UK’s most common supermarket, offers cheap £3 meals that include a drink, sandwich, and a snack like fruit or chips. Unfortunately my hostel didn’t have a kitchen, or I would have been able to save even more money.
Free Museums Some of the city’s greatest sights are thankfully free. At the top of my list of all things to see and do would be the British Museum. This stunning collection houses some of the world’s eminent historical items. Must see pieces include The Rosetta Stone, the only surviving sculptures from the Parthenon, an Easter Island head, and a stunning collection of Egyptian mummies. You could spend an entire day here and not see everything. My second favorite museum in the city is the Natural History Museum. This museum hosts many important collections including Charles Darwin’s own specimens, a stunning set of dinosaur skeletons, and the parallel blue whale skeleton and full scale model. Other free museums include the Tate Modern art gallery, the Museum of London, and the National Gallery.
City skyline view Whenever I get to a new city, I try to find the highest point I can reach to get a great overview of the space. In London, I found that to be the top of the New Change mall, pictured above. Simply take the elevator to the roof deck for a free and peaceful view of the entire city with St. Paul’s prominently in the foreground.
Self guided walk Another great pastime in London is people watching. My favorite place to do this was along the Thames waterfront. This is a great place to stroll at dusk and to take in the many famous landmarks. Start at Tower Bridge and head west along the South Bank trail passing City Hall, The Shard skyscraper, the Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Millenium Bridge, The Tate Modern, The London Eye, and finishing at Westminster Bridge. That walk, not including stops, should take about an hour. It took me nearly three, taking photos every couple hundred feet!
London Pass Many travel sites that speak about traveling to London talk on and on about the value of the London Pass. This multi attraction discount card does help you save money if you plan on visiting many places. I did the math for me and it just didn’t add up. I actually save money by not buying the card. But if you are interested, it covers Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, London Zoo, Tower Bridge and 50 others starting at £55 for a one day pass.
Paid sights If you are a theater buff like me, you’ve heard of The West End, London’s version of Broadway, where more shows premiere than in New York. Get a great deal on tickets at the TKTS discount stand in Leicester Square. Discounts can be up to 50% and on offer for nearly every show in town. There are also many famous sights in the city that charge very high entrance fees. Westminster Abbey charges £20 and St. Paul’s is £18. The Tower of London costs £24.50.
What I did I balanced expensive sights like St. Paul’s with free ones like the museums. I spent $55 to see The Commitments musical on the West End, $28 for entry to St. Paul’s, and $6.25 for entry to The Monument to the Great Fire. I also spent half days each at the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. And I walked all over the city, for free, on my own self-guided tours.
Staying in touch If you are traveling overseas with an unlocked phone, there are many options for cheap SIM cards and data in London. O2, Vodafone, Three, EE, and many others all have Pay As You Go plans available specifically for tourists. Expect to pay about £10 for 500MB of data and 100 Min talk time, which would be plenty for a short stay. It is as easy as walking into one of the many stores near the center of town and asking for their options. You’ll be in and out in under 15 minutes.
What I did Thankfully I was there during a special promotion that got me 12GB of data for a month for £10! I was heading up to Scotland after London so I really appreciated the extra data for free.
I spent a total of $372.08 on the 4 days I was in the city. I could have gotten that down $33 less had I not made the error on transportation from the airport. And if you aren’t into musicals, you can remove $55 for my West End musical ticket. So with those savings taken into consideration, daily budget backpacker costs would run $71 a day. While nowhere near as affordable as say Southeast Asia, do not write off London as unattainable. Be smart in your decisions, do your research, and visit one of the most interesting cities on earth.