London on a budget

Traveling London on a Budget

London is notorious for being a super expensive city. I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to spend time in London without breaking the bank (we stayed for 8 days!). Here are a few ways to save money and travel London on the cheap.

  1. Plan Ahead – A few of the following tips are only possible if you plan far enough ahead. If you’re able to go off-season, you might save money, but if you can book things far enough in advance, you’ll be able to save money and have great experiences as well.

ACCOMMODATIONS:

We’ve already shared how we managed to stay in London on the cheap, but here are a few tips if you choose not to go the travel hacking route.

  1. Consider the Airport Hotel – If you are flying into or out of London, consider staying at one of the airport hotels either right when you get in or the night before you leave. Hotels out by the airport are less expensive than the city. Also, if you arrive in the late evening, you will not want to navigate all the way into town that night just to sleep in a more expensive bed (we wanted to get to a bed ASAP!).
  2. Travelodge – There are equivalent hotels out there, but consider the Travelodge. It feels like a really clean hostel but the bed is comfortable and it has the basic hotel amenities. We stayed one night at the Travelodge by Tower Bridge and it was inexpensive and close to the Tower of London and the tube station. There are several throughout the city, most under $100/night. Find one close to a tube station and you’re set.
    Tower of London

FOOD:

  1. Marks & Spencer – Tesco, Sainsburys, and other stores have sandwiches, but I recommend the Marks & Spencer ones. You can also get a hot breakfast at Marks & Spencer for under five pounds. Don’t discount grocery stores in the city. Marks & Spencer actually has pretty good food!
  2. Eat One Big Meal – This is basic Travel 101, but if you grab breakfast and then eat out one big meal around 3 or 4 (managing to get Lunchtime pricing), you’re golden. We often snacked on HobNobs or Digestives around 8pm if we got peckish before bed.
  3. Cafe in the Crypt – Several churches in London have Cafes in the crypt downstairs. They offer delicious, warm food for reasonable prices and you get to eat in a real crypt! St. Martin in the Fields is the church right in Trafalgar Square, so it’s location is awesome and I can attest to its delicious food (yummy apple custard dessert!).
  4. Street Food – Pasties, Paninis, and Kebabs are all inexpensive, warm items that you can grab and go and a variety of places.
  5. Travel Back in Time – OK, this one isn’t usable advice, but after all our careful planning, our best deal on food came entirely by chance. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe because it’s a road trip tradition for Mr. T’s family, and the London location is the original. Well we just happened to be there on HRC’s 45th birthday, and in honor of the day they were serving the original 1971 menu at 1971 prices. So we got dinner and dessert for two for only £1.80!London Hard Rock Cafe

ENTERTAINMENT:

  1. Museums – Most of the museums in London are free. The Tate Modern was just renovated and is huge. The best museums for kids (and my favorites!) are probably the V&A, the British Museum, and the Museum of the City of London. Though they are quite large, they have a large assortment of stuff to see and a few things for kids to do. Do some research beforehand so you know what you want to see. Otherwise, you could spend the entire trip inside museums and still miss tons!British Museum, London
  2. Gardens – Hyde Park, St. James’s Park, and Green Park are all free and wonderful. Hyde Park is large enough to explore for hours! Grab a sandwich and head to a park to enjoy the scenery and the people watching.
  3. Theatre – This is one instance when planning ahead may cost more than waiting until the last minute. I’m a theatre nerd and saw a show every night we were in London. I planned a year ahead and purchased all of our tickets. For shows at the Globe, tickets sell out within a few weeks of going on sale (and aren’t cheap!). Then there was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child where I had to stay up all night to get tickets which sold out within hours (go read my review!). But for all of the other shows we saw, we could have purchased tickets at the official Leicester Square half price ticket booth. Go there. At two of the shows we attended, the people sitting right next to us even mentioned they got their tickets there. My snobbish ways cost us money.Globe Theatre, London
  4. Go to Church – Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s are some of the most expensive tourist attractions in London, but they are still churches. To get inside free, look up Evensong or other services and attend Church. You won’t get to climb the towers, explore the crypts, or see all the things inside the Church, but you will get to experience it for its primary purpose: worship.Westminster Abbey London
  5. Tower of London – A Must See in London is the Tower of London, but it is pricey! Two ways to experience it without the cost:
    1. Go to Church – Sound familiar? Worship services are held in the royal church inside the tower each Sunday (except August and a few other weeks). You’ll miss out on the crown jewels and other exhibitions, but you’ll get inside the gate, see the chapel intimately, and get to look around the grounds. (And for what it’s worth, our Beefeater guide told us that if you’re there for church, they tend to turn a blind eye to what else you do whilst inside the Tower gates…)
    2. Ceremony of the Keys – This is a special ceremony that has taken place each evening at 10pm for over 700. It is free to attend, but tickets have to be reserved online and book up 9-12 months in advance because only 20 people are admitted. You enter the tower with a Yeoman Warder at 9:30pm and are escorted in to see the ceremony. No pictures are allowed and you must be silent during the ceremony. The actual ceremony is about ten minutes long, but you get a glance inside the Tower of London with no crowds, you get some time with a Yeoman Warder (who are all very entertaining), and you feel like you’re a part of the ceremony. (I highly recommend doing this if you can even if you plan to buy the expensive tickets to the Tower of London as well!) Then, when the ceremony is over, you can walk down the pier and take pictures of the Tower Bridge at night!London Tower Bridge
  6. Go Shopping!: But don’t buy anything! Walking through Harrods and Selfridges is quite an experience. The food halls are my favorite. But don’t enter those places if you will be tempted to pull out your wallet. Trust me. You shouldn’t buy anything there. If you need to buy souvenirs, Camden Market area has cheap, interesting stuff. But you probably won’t get a better deal on postcards than the 10-15/1 pound deals you find at the super touristy stores around Piccadilly Circus (and everywhere else!).

London is one of my all-time favorite cities. Buy yourself an Oyster Card for all transportation. Load it at the machine and you’re good to go. You just tap it and go and you’re on your way on the Tube, Buses, and some Trains. Enjoy the experience!

What are your favorite things to do in London?

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square, London

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22 Comments

  1. What a great list of tips! We purposely stayed near a Whole Foods (I know, I know) so that we could eat most of our meals from groceries instead of shelling out for restaurants, and I know we saved loads of money in London this way. I would also say that Westminster Abbey and the Tower, though pricey, are both SO SO worth it. Just incredible sights worth spending hours in — but buy your Tower tickets online in advance because the lines are horrendous.

    • MaggieBanks

      Agreed, agreed, and agreed. And actually, I really love the whispering gallery and the towers of St. Paul’s as well.

  2. I love Mark & Spencer. A great place to get reasonable priced food.

    Museums are great. Not only are they free, they’re great when it’s rainy outside.

    When I visited London by myself many moons ago, I stayed at a hostel in a shared dorm room. It was ultra cheap and lots of fun. Buying meals from grocery stores is a great way to save money. Also donairs can be found at a reasonable price. Agree with Our Next Life, Westminster Abbey and Tower of London are expensive but totally worth it.

    Another great way to save money is walk as much as you can instead of taking the tube. You get to explore some interesting areas you wouldn’t otherwise.

    • MaggieBanks

      I completely agree. I think Mr. T and I are past the hostel stage, which is why I recommended Travelodge (getting old?). And we walked everywhere!

  3. Thank you for these awesome tips! One of the best ways to save money while traveling is to do some research beforehand. I will definitely refer back to this post when we’re in a position to do some international trips.
    Funny thing – my sister was in London at the same time as you, on her honeymoon. I wonder if you two crossed paths at all.

    • MaggieBanks

      Fascinating! Did she go to Trooping the Color and see the queen? There were lots of people there… that was probably our best chance of crossing paths.

  4. I’ve never been to London, but I love this post. There are lots of great tips here that are specific to your trip but could be extrapolated to just about anywhere. I, too, could window shop/people watch forever. It’s so fascinating to see how different cultures treat consumerism. Sounds like a magnificent trip. Woohoo for you!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks, Penny. I actually feel completely self conscious in places like Harrods. Like someone will come over the loud speaker and shout: “You there! You’re wearing thrift store clothes! Get thee out!”

  5. YES! So, so, so glad that you two had a wonderful trip 🙂 Honestly, my favorite thing to do in London is picnic in the parks during summer. My partner and I pack yummy lunches, good books and a soft blanket (and Pimm’s!) for the perfect afternoon. WELCOME BACK!!

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks so much Taylor. London is magical. I stick to it. I’m glad Mr. T got to experience it with me this time!

  6. The Green Swan

    Very good tips, you must have researched your trip very well and/or had some great local sources or travel agent! We don’t plan on heading to London anytime soon but someday we’ll make it over there and I’ll definitely save this post to reference. Thanks!

    • MaggieBanks

      Planning/researching trips is just about my favorite hobby ever. I spend way too much time doing so. 🙂

  7. What an awesome trip! I spent a week in London right after college, my first time outside North America. I’ll never forget the very first interaction I had there: a construction worker in Heathrow yelling something at me over and over again in such a thick cockney accent that I couldn’t understand him, even after he had repeated it three times! “Oh great,” I thought, “I can’t even understand people in a country where we supposedly speak the same language!” Thankfully, that was the exception. Haven’t been back since, but definitely want to return sometime soon. Daniel spent a summer living and working in London, the lucky dog.

    This is a great list, and I agree with ONL that the pricey attractions are still well worth the price. I think it’s astounding, though, that the British Museum is completely free. By comparison, the Met in NY is $25! I could spend days there.

    • MaggieBanks

      My first day during my London study abroad I went to Subway (jetlag) and the guy asked: “Do you want that toasted?” I was used to the first question being: “What kind of cheese” and I couldn’t understand him, so I just kept saying: “No cheese.” 🙂 And we did pay for the more expensive places despite this post, and spent about half of our trips in free museums!

  8. Carrie

    We stayed in an studio apartment hotel in London. It was not really much more expensive and included a fully outfitted kitchen and laundry. We made a lot of our own meals. We got an Oyster card and used the tube/buses and lots of walking to get around. We loved all the museums! We also saw 2 musicals by buying tickets at Leicester Square.

  9. TheMoneyMine

    It looks like you had done a very good pre-trip research. The Ceremony of the keys, with such an advance booking, must feel so VIP. Next time I go to London, I’ll plan on checking that out.
    It’s hilarious that the Hard Rock Cafe celebrated their 1971 menu with their 1971 prices. A £1.80 dinner is probably never heard of in this century!
    I have otherwise been to London mostly on business trips, so never had the time to really visit. But one of the highlights last time was having lunch at the top of the BT Tower. That was definitely super cool.

    • MaggieBanks

      Ooooh. Top of the BT tower must have been amazing. We were very VIP being in the “in” crowd that got let into the tower after hours. I really enjoyed that experiences. Also, planning trips is my obsessive hobby. I should probably make a career out of just doing that!

      • TheMoneyMine

        I’m sure you could, your research background would definitely give you an edge over everyone else!

        • MaggieBanks

          I’ve definitely thought about it (since that’s what I do in my spare time anyway!) but I have no idea how to get started in that. I’m the entrepreneur full of skills and ideas and completely inadequate in execution know-how!

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