6 Tips for the Budget Traveler in London

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As I stumbled off the plane at the ungodly hour of 5am at London Heathrow, I saw the cure for all my troubles: a Starbucks coffee kiosk. Wow, I thought, and the prices aren’t all that bad. It’s the same as the US, one cup of coffee costs four dollars…. then, through the murky effects of jet lag, I remembered that the prices weren’t in dollars anymore. They were in British pounds. And, at the time I visited, the exchange rate was almost 2 to 1. Even with my extreme lack of sleep and jet lag, I just couldn’t bring myself to pay $8 for a cup of coffee. This was going to be a long and expensive week in London.

How can you cope if you’re broke like I was? Check out my list of 6 ways to avoid bleeding money in London.

1. Book a hotel with free breakfast

Even though this has backfired on me from time to time (see food poisoning in Prague, Morocco, Turkey, etc.), I will always choose a hotel with free breakfast over one without. Apart satiating from my coffee addiction, it also allows you to “stock up” for the day, especially if money is really tight. My first time in London, we ate all the cereal and toast that our tightwad hotel would provide us with. Then we had just a snack of fruit or a granola bar for lunch, and saved the little of our money that was left for dinner.

2. Eat at ethnic restaurants

If it’s your first time in London, then by all means, have your fish and chips and steak and kidney pudding. Personally, I am not a fan of the English cuisine, so on my second time around in London, I decided to eat only at ethnic restaurants. I was lucky to be in the Kensington area where there were plenty of kebaberies and curry restaurants to keep me going. While kebabs have always been this poor traveler’s meal of choice, for both their deliciousness and cheap cost, British kebabs still cost about twice as much as they did anywhere else in the world. But that was still cheaper than any of the pubs or sit-down restaurants. The Indian restaurants were also reasonably priced and offered some of the best curries I’d ever had.

3. Be on the lookout for restaurant deals

On my first trip to London, we stumbled upon Earl’s Court Café, which was a short walk from our hotel. We were thrilled to discover that every night, they offered a buy-one-get-one-free deal on dinner. So, every single night that we stayed there, we loyally returned to our “place,” tried a new item off the menu and didn’t feel nauseous after getting our bill.

4. Find freebies

The British Museum, undoubtedly one of the finest in the world, is free. Make a day of it. You can easily spend hours upon hours strolling through their exhibits. I was also fortunate on my second trip to London to just happen to come to Trafalgar Square at night, and see that the National Gallery was not only open, but also had free admission that night. Many of London’s attractions, like Big Ben and the exteriors of the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, are simply outdoor sights that require no admission fees. And London is one of the greenest cities in Europe, so if you’re visiting in spring or summer, spend the day at Kensington Gardens, or Hyde Park. Go there, spend some time and save that cash for the exorbitant entry fee into the Tower of London. It hurts to pay it, but the Tower is worth every penny.

5. Research walking tours

I really wanted to do the Harry Potter tour when I was in London but it was crazy expensive! So I did some internet research, found out where they stopped on the tour and went there on my own. I don’t need to pay someone $100 to take me to King’s Cross station, and lead me to the wall between Platform 9 and 10.

6. Book an apartment instead of a hotel

This strategy has worked well for me in other cities and I think I will try it out on my next excursion to London, whenever that may be. When you rent an apartment, you often get a centrally-located spot for a fraction of the cost that a hotel in that area would cost you. And while you may miss out on the free hotel breakfast, self-catering is another great way to save some pounds.

So, if you are a budget traveler like me, don’t skip London just because of the sticker shock that will greet you almost everywhere you go. Be smart, pinch pennies where you can and enjoy the sights and experiences of one of the world’s greatest cities.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Samuel Johnson

Share your money-saving, London-insider tips below!

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9 responses to “6 Tips for the Budget Traveler in London

  1. Definitely the freebies! There is so much free stuff to do in London. The major museums (Tate Modern!) are a start, but there are lots of little art exhibitions tucked away as well, and never underestimate the power of a good walk around town.

    The Oyster cards (Octopus? I forget which sea creature is for what city) were just coming in when we left, but I presume you can still buy your unlimited public transport tickets by the day/week/month.

    Accommodation costs varied wildly by suburb as well so worth some research.

  2. Yes, all the big museums are free, also the Wallace Collection and the Sir John Soane museum and a few others. Westminster Cathedral is free (the Abbey may not be unless you’re attending a service). The Cathedral has a bell tower that used to cost only a couple of pounds to take a lift up, great views!

    Food: also, at the markets, Borough, Brick Lane, Camden’s various markets, there are always food stalls that offer cheap food as well.

    For some of the expensive things, if you have a British Rail ticket (those little green and orange cards, get a one day travel card from the rail station) you can print off 2 for 1 vouchers from the London 2for1 Guide http://www.daysoutguide.co.uk/attraction-types/2for1london.aspx which at least helps the budget a bit.

    The bus is cheaper than the Tube, too, so you could get a bus-only pass instead of an all-transport pass. Not sure if you can get those for a day but you can for a week. Slower going through traffic but you see lots!

    • Sorry for the delay in my response! It has been one of those weeks…

      You have some amazing tips. Thank you so much for sharing. You’ve certainly spent more time in London than me. London (and New York too) are such world-class cities that seem a bit out of reach to budget travelers these days. It’s good to know there are still many ways to save money and have a good time without breaking the bank.

      • I’ve been to London many times, mostly just a couple of days at a time. I’m not a super-budget traveler anymore but i don’t throw my money away either. I don’t like hostels but lots of people do. And in summer some of the universities also let out rooms.

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  5. I am traveling to London about twice a year and also try to keep the expences Down as much as possible. You mentioned the National Gallery at Trafalgar Sq. It’s always free like the Victorian& Albert and the National Science- and the National History Museum and the Museum of Childhood. Only when they have special exhebitions you have to pay. I nearly forgot the Tate Gallery and Tate Modern.
    You cn eat very good and cheap in the Café crypt of Saint Martins in the Fields just uppersit The National Gallery

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