London is renowned as one of the more expensive cities to visit in the world, but with a little knowledge and advance planning you can see and experience the best of it while keeping the reins on your budget.
Here are a few tips to help you on your way.
This is likely to be your biggest expense, and it’s what you’ll spend most time planning. Start by signing up to the budget hotel chains newsletters – the likes of Travelodge, Premier Inn, Comfort Inn, and Ibis have plenty of hotels throughout the city and suburbs, and have several seasonal sales a year. Some new low- to mid-range options have opened up in recent years, including Dutch chain Qbic. And there are plenty of hostel options around the city.
Also bear in mind that the University of London and other academic institutions open their halls of residence as accommodation during the summer months, often in prime, easily accessible locations such as Bloomsbury.
Getting around London
Rule #1 – get yourself a Visitor Oyster card. Forget the old paper one day travelcards. The Oyster card will save nearly 50% of what you spend on a daily travelcard – a day’s travel in zones 1 and 2 costs just £6.60, compared to £12.30.
You can have your card delivered to your home address so it’s ready to use. It’s a smartcard which you top up as and when required, usually in multiples of £5. You can use it on all forms of transport around London – the Tube (underground trains), buses, trams, river buses.
The famous red London buses are a great way to see the city, and they’re the cheapest way to get around. They’re more time-consuming, but you get to see so much more than on the Tube.
Walking is even cheaper than the bus. One common mistake visitors to London make is trying to get from A to B on the Tube, thinking they need to change and make a second journey to reach their destination. Very often it’s also quicker. By the time you’ve reached the correct platform at Leicester Square Tube you could have already walked to Covent Garden Tube. Again, you also see so much more.
London Sightseeing for free
It’s amazing what you can see in London for free. Entry to most museums is free – this includes the likes of the British Museum (for history and heritage), the three great Kensington museums (Natural History, Science and the V&A), the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, one of the world’s outstanding art galleries, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. That’s enough free sightseeing for a week before you start.
London’s amazing parks are also free to explore. St James’s Park is one of the most popular, bordering the Mall processional route, with a lovely scenic walk from Horseguards Parade at one end to Buckingham Palace at the other. Green Park is just across the Mall, leading to Piccadilly and the Ritz Hotel. Hyde Park covers the area between Kensington and Park Lane, while Regent’s Park, between Marylebone and Camden, has some outstanding walks.
Changing of the Guard
Many visitors to London are drawn by the city’s great history and heritage, especially that surrounding the Royal Family. It’s possible to get a taste of the pageantry, pomp and ceremonial every day by watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony. The more popular ceremony is the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, when the guards assemble in the courtyard of the Palace and march past afterwards. This takes place daily (usually at 1130 am) between spring and autumn, and every other day over autumn and winter. For this it’s best to arrive early to secure a good vantage point.
Alternatively, you can see the mounted Queens Life Guards Changing of the Guard ceremony daily in the parade ground at Horseguards Parade. It’s usually easier to get a prime vantage point for this than at Buckingham Palace.
If you intend to visit a lot of paid attractions in London, then the London Pass is for you. The Pass entitles you to entry to over 80 major London attractions, including big must-sees like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral. Work out which of the more expensive attractions you want to visit, allow what you think will be enough time for them, and buy a pass to cover the time you’ll need to maximize the savings. Travelling on a budget is great but sometimes in trying to save money you miss out on a lot. With the Pass you’re making savings, and still seeing the best of everything.
Eating Out in London
It’s also possible to eat very well in London at relatively little expense. Some traditional London cafes look like they’re from another era, and so do their prices, but they’re great for breakfast or a lunchtime pit-stop. Soho and Chinatown have so many great places to eat, with a full feast often costing less than £10.
We’ve often stayed out in the suburbs I London, and eaten there too. We particularly liked a little Turkish place near where we stayed in Camden, and went back there a number of times – £20 would normally cover both of us, and the food was incredible.
There’s a preponderance of sandwich chains (Pret a Manger, Eat) all over central London, which isn’t good for diversity but is an inexpensive way to eat. Their meal deals are normally good value – pick up lunch and head for one of the great parks or squares nearby.