Since moving to London, one of the things I learned very quickly was that this city is expensive! But that doesn’t mean you can’t experience London without breaking the bank.
Arriving in London
A taxi is pretty much out of the question if you’re on a budget.
Assuming you come in via Heathrow, save money by taking the Piccadilly line into central London instead of the Heathrow Express. The underground will be slower but the price of a ticket (£5) is significantly cheaper than the Heathrow Express (£21).
Getting Around in London
The public transit system is nearly always your cheapest form of transportation. Greater London is divided into ‘zones’ for the purposes of public transit, starting with zone 1 in the central most part of the city, and extending out quite a ways. Most tourists will spend nearly all of their time in Zone 1 and Zone 2.
Contactless – if you have a credit or debit card with the contactless logo you will find it cheapest to use this to tap in and out of the trains and buses. TFL (Transport for London) has made it so that when you use contactless, you automatically get the benefit of a weekly ticket (cheaper than hitting your daily cap 7 days in a row) if you use it enough within a week. This means that you’ll spend no more than £6.40 per day but no more than £32.10 per 7 day period if you use contactless and stay within zones 1 and 2. (source)
Another option is walking. The tube maps are really bad at conveying actual distances between destinations. There are many occasions in which it is quicker and cheaper to just walk to the destination. BuzzFeed has a handy article laying out the time it takes to walk between stations here.
Things to Do
Now that you know how to get into London and how to get around a bit, it’s time to think about what you’ll be doing on this trip on the cheap.
Some of London’s best museums are free. The British Museum, The National Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Natural History Museum are just several of the free museums with many famous works you can see.
Witness the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace for free. (Make sure you check the schedule as it only happens on certain days at specific times) Walking along the bank of the Thames, you can see the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower (host to Big Ben). A bit further east, you can find Tower Bridge.
This is the major touristy stuff you can cross off your list. Beyond that, there are numerous other activities that are cheap/affordable.
- Walk through Brick Lane Market (via Aldgate, Aldgate East, or Liverpool St) on Sunday afternoon and join the trendy crowds heading to small cafes, specialty restaurants and browse secondhand wares and food vendors
- Make your way north to Camden Town on the northern line and then walk north to Camden Lock Market for more food vendors and secondhand stalls
- London is home to many famous parks. Visit Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to listen or take part in lively debates on all sorts of issues (mainly dealing with religion and politics)
Your cheapest option would be to buy food and prepare it. Your best bets for groceries are typically Tesco and Sainsbury. Just because you’re getting grocery food, doesn’t mean you can’t still sample regional UK flavors! Grocery stores offer a number of cheap items to keep you full throughout the day. I’d recommend Scotch Eggs, Pork Pies or Samosas for cheap, filling UK foods you can pack on the go.
The food vendors located in markets across the city are pretty well priced if you want to try some unique foods. Try a duck confit burger at Brick Lane Market or a cronut at Camden Lock.
Meal Deals are also pretty popular in London and are available at stores such as Marks and Spencer and include a sandwich, side and drink for around £3-4.
London is a city with a lot to do if you have a lot of money. But you can get by on a lot less if you use your head. It’s easy to wreck your budget in this city on one night out, so make note of where you’ll be eating and do lots of pregaming if you plan on imbibing. I hope this has been helpful in thinking about things to do in London on a budget and look forward to hearing additional tips!