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The Solo Traveler Blog

Affordable London! 32 free and low-cost tips

You meet for one of the free tours at the Diana statue outside of Green Park station.

You meet for one of the free tours at the Diana statue outside of Green Park station.

My latest trip to London was my best yet – and I did it on a budget.

I was determined to get a handle on this city that I usually visit for business. So this year I scheduled three days for exploring and, for the first time, I took a walking tour.

And I walked to the tour.

I walked many, many miles spending as much time above ground as possible to get a real sense of distance and how the pieces of London fit together.

London can be a very expensive city. Prohibitively so. But with a little planning and these tips, you can enjoy an affordable stay in London.

Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace.

Getting around London

The Oyster Card. Taxis add up. Public transit is the most cost-efficient way to go any distance and it is easier if you have an Oyster Card which is a transit pass. You can buy the card for £5 at any Underground station. You then need to fill your card with cash. Go here to see which option is best for you.  Don’t worry about putting too much on the card because if you have money left at the end of the trip you can go to a ticket booth to get a refund. You can also give your Oyster card back and get your £5 reimbursed or save your Oyster Card for future trips.

Download the London Tube app. Use the routing option of this app to get detailed instruction of how to get where you want to go from where you are. It will also tell you approximately how long it will take.

Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square. That’s the National Gallery on the left and St. Martin’s in the Field on the right.

Don’t forget that there are buses as well. Tourists tend to opt for the Underground because there are maps to show where you’re going. However, sometimes buses are a better option. You can also download an app called the London Bus Free Map and Route Planner.

Getting from Heathrow to London – First, pack light so that you can manage public transport with your bags. You can go from Heathrow to the center of London for less than £3 by the Underground. When you leave the arrivals area just follow the signs for the Underground. At the entrance to the Underground, go to the ticket booth and buy an Oyster Card and top it up with amount you’ve decided is best for your stay and get information on how to get to the tube station closest to your accommodation.

Lord Nelson statue

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

Walk, walk, walk. This is a big city but most of the tourist places are within one big walking district so take yourself on a walking tour as you head to your destination. Note that one street can have many names. These go for main streets as well as small ones. Charing Cross turns into Tottenham Road. Mortimer turns into Goodge. Knowing the changes will help you navigate more easily. Also, be careful. At every intersection look down and it will be painted on the ground which way you should look for traffic. There’s a reason they invested so much to paint this. It takes time to adjust to the different traffic flow.

Get the Google Maps app. I don’t like to walk about looking at my phone but with all the tiny streets in London the Google Maps app can be very handy.

Pick up a free map at a hostel. The free map at hostels tends to have some of the better low-cost recommendations.

The guide for the free Undiscovered London tour.

The guide for the free Undiscovered London tour.

Changing of the Guard.

Changing of the Guard happens every other day at 11:30am.

People on Fence trying to see Changing of the Guard

People on a fence craning to see the Changing of the Guard.

Tourist Bargains in London

Buckingham Palace. The changing of the guard takes place every other day at 11:30. If you want to actually see the spectacle without climbing a fence, get there by 11am. Free.

Take a free walking tour. Take one of two free tours of the city. They are offered by Sandeman‘s and Undiscovered London. I took the latter and it was worth it though not the best tour I’ve ever taken. Remember to tip your tour guide. In addition to not being paid for their time and expertise, they have to pay the company an amount for every person who attends.

East End Walking Tour £8.  This East End Guided Walk takes you through the bohemian part of London “as famous now for its booming street art scene, fashion boutiques and curry houses as it once was infamous for its poverty, violence and gangsters.

London museums are free. Go to the museums which are free for their permanent collections. There is usually a fee for special exhibits. Unless you’re a real museum enthusiast, you may want to ask at Information for a recommendation. I did this at the Tate Modern and, rather than dashing through trying to take in a lot, I took in a little but with more appreciation.

Interior of St. Martin's in the Field.

Interior of St. Martin’s in the Field.

Free concerts in Trafalgar Square. Go to St. Martin in the Fields at noon for a free concert most days. It’s usually an organ recital. If you don’t like the idea of that, go just to enjoy the church. It’s a very pretty, a refreshing change from most churches.

Feel London at a different pace. Walk the Victoria and Albert Embankment from the Houses of Parliament to the Millennium Bridge and you’ll enjoy London at a more relaxed pace while still seeing some of the major sights.

Check out the Globe Theatre. A replica of the theater that Shakespeare and his fellow artists built. There are tours and, during the high season, plays as well. (It’s just across the Millennium Bridge. The Tate Modern is there too.) You can read Solo in London: a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe.

Covent Garden decorated for Christmas.

Covent Garden decorated for Christmas.

Window shopping. There are many places to shop in London but I love to go to Covent Garden for some unique shopping. While there, wander the West End theater district to see the range of plays on. It’s a site unto itself.

London’s West End theater scene. Buy tickets for the shows at Leicester Square. There are a couple of places there. Go to the one on the south end with the permanent structure as I was told by a theater box office person that they sell their best available seats. While they promote half-price tickets, not all tickets are half-price.

Affordable London: 31 tipsDon’t forget Off-West-End productions. Check the reviews carefully (I didn’t and went to one that was really poor) but in doing so you’ll enter the local theater scene.

Go to the best books shop in town. Stop into Daunt Book Shop on Marlyebone High Street and check out the travel section for which they’re famous.

Go to the parks. There are a number of lovely parks in London. Hyde Park is famous for Speaker’s Corner which is often entertaining if not thought-provoking.

Wander the neighborhoods. London is made up of neighbourhoods made famous in literature and film. They have a certain familiarity to them and yet there’s more to them when you see them live. Go to Nottinghill, Bloomsbury, Marlyebone, and for the younger set, Camden.

The Scoop. In the summer, The Scoop amphiteater, which is beside City Hall, close to Tower Bridge offers live music, plays, film screenings almost every evening.

Cafe beneath St. Martin's in the Field

Cafe beneath St. Martin’s in the Field

A few eating out suggestions

St. Martin’s in the Field Cafe. Beneath the church is a cafe and gift shop. It’s reasonably priced with the wonderful ambiance.

Hostels have great breakfasts. A full breakfast with juice, cereal, yogurt, coffee and a croissant was £4.95. Just cereal (which is all I want in the mornings) was 95p. And, they had adult cereal. I’m not into sugary cereal so it was great. The cost of food throughout the day was very reasonable plus there’s a kitchen onsite if you want to cook your own.

Check out the markets.  There are many markets to try. Tracey recommends one off the beaten path. Try the Brixton Market market as an interesting place to mingle with locals as well as for the best pizza ever.

Fish and chips. I’ve never had a bad fish and chips meal in the UK. Affordable and delicious but not something to have every day.

Don’t let the windows fool you. As you wander the streets looking for a place to eat you may think that every place is full. Step in to confirm this as many places have additional seating upstairs or down.

The front entrance of YHA London Central

The front entrance of YHA London Central

Budget accommodation.

Consider a hostel. I have stayed in inexpensive hotels and hostels in London and I have found hostels to be superior in this category of accommodation. Of the two hostels I’ve stayed in YHA London Central was my preference through both were clean and acceptable. Looking around, I’d say that the average age of guests is 35 with many people older and many younger and some families. I certainly did not feel particularly intrepid to be hosteling amongst this crowd. Hostels are also very solo travel friendly with options from private room with ensuites to dormitories.

Airbnb is an option. I have not used Airbnb but I know people who have and have had very good experiences. Sometimes you get the whole apartment, sometimes it’s just a room. They seem to have more affordable options that some of the other vacation rental sites. In addition to looking at the apartment pictures carefully I would definitely check out the place on Google Streetview and do a bit of research to ensure that you are booking into a good neighborhood.

Coco Channel logo in London

Coco Chanel logo in London? This is a good example of the need to question your tour guide. Yes, the story goes that these lamp posts are a tribute to Coco Chanel by the love-lorn duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, but city council denies this. By the way, they were installed well after the Chanel-Grosvenor romance in the 1950s.

Communication that’s affordable.

Getting a mobile phone in London. If you have an unlocked phone, stop into any mobile phone shop and buy a SIM card. I paid £10 for the SIM card (hold onto it for the future) and £10 for 1G of data. (It was not 3G data so it was slow.) They also gave me a free phone which is good for calls (including international) and text but it’s not a smart phone so it has no app capability. It’s really the smartphone capability that I want most.

Make free calls on you locked phone. First, if you have a smart phone with you that is locked, make sure that you turn the roaming off. You don’t want any surprise bills when you get home. Make sure you have Skype on your phone. There are many places in London to get free WiFi including most though not all independent cafes as well as the chains such as Costa, Starbucks, Pret a Manger. You can also get free WiFi at any library.

Need a computer? If you need access to a computer you can go to any of the libraries and get it free.

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  • Peggy

    Take the bus from airport into London cheaper but just a bit longer than the train

  • Janice Waugh

    Fantastic tip Deb. Thanks for sharing.

  • Deb G.

    iPad tip: On a trip to London last year I went to the Apple store near Covent Garden and bought a 3G SIM chip for about $7 US dollars that was good for 30 days and 1GB of data. It can also be used after the 30 days/1GB by using their pay-as-you-go option. My iPad is an ATT 3G and their cost is $30 or 35 dollars a month. I only had to use 3G a few times during the trip when WIFI wasn’t available so I was happy to have paid only $7 for it vs $30.

  • Maybug

    I went to the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park and saw a fabulous presentation of To Kill A Mockingbird. The setting is beautiful; the stage is at the bottom and the seats ascend from it.

  • Jitender Tastor

    thanks for the tips… really help full for me…just planning for London Trip….your blog will surly going to help me out through my trip… thanks once again.

  • solotraveler

    HI Fred,

    Thanks for sharing and I think you have a great idea. Perhaps we can get all our friends on Solo Traveler to share affordable accommodation in the form of B&Bs, hostels, etc. I’ll have to come up with some criteria but I think we can put this little ebook together. I’ll give it more thought.


  • fred

    Hi I just spent a week in London as part of a trip in Europe.Tips–hostels yes but again something mentioned; it would be great to get a list of hostels that cater to an older crowd, I travel a lot but my recent hostel in London was too big, too noisy,messy, etc, and well too much!lol….I love hostelling but as one gets older (read set in your ways) I look for certain things in hostels and you have a hard time getting that from the website. I often ask if they are a party hostel and once in a while they are honest, but usually not. Would be a great article and I have some choices!

    Markets are my passion but I learned that many are not open all week or they start later in the day–so check them out first. Use the hostel breakie to make sandwiches–very cheap alternative for hoofing it as London is indeed a walkwer’s paradise. Like most cities they have dollar stores as well so pack light and then get the usable stuff when there,,,,

  • rose

    Thanks for the tips! Why don’t you visit Dubai and Tours Dubai is the best way you can explore this place.

  • Janice Waugh

    I hope you checked out the hostel suggestion. I found it to be a really great find in an excellent location.

  • Janice Waugh

    I’ve heard of Stanfords as well but not been there. Thanks for adding your tip!

  • Tresco

    Stanfords in Long Acre, near Covent Garden, is three floors of travel books, maps, etc plus a small coffee area. Great place to browse.

  • msinfo

    thanks for this- I avoid London because it is so expensive for those of us who have to change our US dollars to British Pounds

  • Maharaja Kashan Arshad

    London has a huge selection of sandwich shops at lunchtime, and supermarkets offer cheaper alternatives!

  • Jasmine

    Daunt books, my favourite place in London. I spent 2 yrs in London and lived just around the corner. Many next travels were planned there.

  • Francis Cassidy

    It used to really wind me up when I’d get a £5 ryanair flight from somewhere else in Europe to London, and then once I arrived have a train fare of 5 times the price to go the last few miles! haha

  • Janice Waugh

    Thanks Francis. The Ryanair tip warning is a good one too.

  • Francis Cassidy

    Some good tips there, thanks for sharing. It’s worth mentioning that anyone flying in on a supposedly cheap Ryanair flight will have to pay £25 for a train from Standsted airport. It’s crazy!

    Also I didn’t realise that you could 1GB of data for only £10, that’s great news

About Janice Waugh and Tracey Nesbitt

I'm an author, blogger, speaker and traveler. I became a widow and empty-nester at about the same time. And then, I became Solo Traveler... Here's the full story. >>

Tracey Nesbitt I’m a writer, editor, food and wine fanatic, and traveler. On my very first trip abroad I learned that solo travel was for me. Here's the full story. >>

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