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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 budget London tips, you can enjoy an affordable visit.
Getting around London
The Oyster Card. Taxis add up. Public transit is the most cost-efficient way to go any distance in London and it is easy if you have a london visitor oyster card which is a transit pass. They will send you the card in advance of your trip. Alternatively, you can buy the card for £5 at any Underground station and pay as you go. 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. Sightseeing passes
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.
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.
Hop-on Hop-off with a Discount. A hop on hop off london sightseeing bus tour is great if you’re short on time or want to get an overview of the city before you dig into its specifics. This company has five different routes and live commentary which is always better than recorded versions.
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 london visitor 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.
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.
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.
Get the London Pass. If you’re going to take in a number of London attractions then the London Pass is likely worth it. It gets you into Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, museums and historic houses, Wimbledon… the list goes on as part of your pass. If you won’t take in many attractions your better bet is likely the Hop-on Hop-off tour and they often have discount coupons with the driver.
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.
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. The London Pass includes this tour.
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. You can also get theatre passport which gives you deep discounts off of ticket.
Go to the best books shop in town. Stop into Daunt Book Shop on Marylebone 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, Marylebone, 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.
Cheap Eats in London
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.
Budget London Accommodation.
Read: Where to Stay in London for more lodging options.
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.
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 your 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.