How to Visit London on a Budget: The Essential Guide

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London is an expensive city, but you can visit it and enjoy it even if you travel on a budget. I’ve done it many times and got a lot of money saving tips to share.

If you want to visit London on a budget, it may take a bit of planning, but it can be done. It’s not as hard as it seems.

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How you can visit London even if you travel on a budget

This guide covers the most essential things you need to know about how to save money in London: Transport, accommodation, food, shopping, theatre, museums and a bit extra.

I wrote this guide with first time and second time visitors in mind, but I’m sure others will find useful tips and links in it as well. It’s a super dynamic city and although I’ve been there over 10 times now, i still discover new things about it on every visit.

Transport – Ways to save money on getting around

London is huge. While other capital cities may be walkable (Madrid or Amsterdam for example), London is not. You have to rely on public transport daily.

The good news is that London’s public transport  system is great. It’s extensive, mostly reliable and can be very fast. On a typical visit, you’ll most likely be using the underground trains (“the tube”), overground trains and buses.

 

If you’re new to London, these tips will help you understand how public transport works. If you’ve visited London and already know this, do skip this section. 

Money saving tip: The first thing you should remember if you’re on a budget (and even if you’re not) is: do not use paper tickets. They cost almost double compared to the rechargeable card.  

You want to get the rechargeable  blue magnetic card called Oyster.

Oyster card
Oyster card

You can get your Oyster card issued at just about any station. There is a £5 refundable deposit when you issue the card.

How to use the Oyster card

There are two ways to pay for transport with Oyster:

You can charge it with a weekly pass or a monthly pass if you’re staying longer.

The pass is called, somewhat confusingly, a travelcard. This will allow you to get  around freely for a week or a month without worrying about the balance on your Oyster card.

London is divided into zones. Have a look at this map. The centre is zone 1.

London's tube map
London’s tube map – from the Transport for London website

As a visitor, you’re most likely to travel around in zones 1 and 2. These cover the city centre and a bit beyond. You might also go into zone 3 on occasion.

So a travelcard for zone 1 and 2 (combined) is a good idea if you plan to stay for at least a week.

The Alternative option is  called “pay as you go”. Charge your card with money and every time you use it, money will be deducted from your card.

It’s calculated automatically and all you have to do is make sure you have enough money on your card. 

With the pay as you go option, to will not be charged more than the equivalent of a day pass each day, as there is an automatic cap. 

You can then top up the card when you need to. There are machines that let you recharge at any station and it’s easy and straightforward. Here’s a quick explanation:

 So depending on how long you plan to stay in London, you can choose between a weekly travelcard, a monthly travelcard or pay as you go. 

You can also combine the two. For example, if you go for the zone 1 and 2 travelcard, and still want to travel to zone 3 on occasion, you’ll have to pay a supplement. This will be deducted from your pay as you go balance. 

Another important money saving tip:  Buses are generally cheaper than the underground trains and buses are not subject to the zone system.

This is useful, for example, if you have a zone 1 and 2 travelcard and want to travel to zone 3: you can reach the station in zone 2 that’s closest to your destination, and take a bus from there, so you won’t be charged extra.

Check here for the current rates on the Transport for London website (PDF)

Transport between the airport and the city

London has no less than five airports: Heathrow (LHR), Gatwick (LGW), Luton (LTN), Stansted (STN) and City (LCY).

Getting from any of these into the city can be very expensive, bordering on exploitative. This is something to take into account when you book your flight. Some low-cost airlines can offer you a £20 flight to London, but you may have to pay another £20 just to get from the airport to the city! 

Here are some of the cheapest ways to travel to and from London airports: 

Heathrow –  The cheapest way to get to the city from Heathrow is to use the normal underground service. The Piccadilly Line will take you to central London in about an hour. Use your Oyster card with pay as you go and it will cost you £5.10 (Mon – Fri, 06:30 – 09:30) or £3.10 (all other times). 

Stansted – The cheapest way is usually EasyBus. The price of a bus ticket when you buy it in advance can be as low as £2 (seriously!)

However, some tickets at certain times of the day may be more expensive. If that’s the case, it’s better to take the Stansted Express train.

My money saving tip here is: book the ticket in advance. Once you know your flight date, book the airport transfer as well. Ticket prices for the Stansted Express start at £7, but if you wait for the last minute you’ll pay double or even more. 

Luton – Luton Airport is also served by EasyBus and its amazingly low £2 tickets. Depending on your destination within London, the bus may cost more, but it is still cheaper than the train. 

Gatwick – The cheapest option is to take EasyBus; though it’s a very long ride, it will save you a lot of money compared to the train services (Gatwick Express, Thameslink and Southern). 

City  – You can use your Oyster card to get from this airport to the city, as it has a DLR station (which is a type of an overground train). It’s in zone 3 so it would probably be easiest to use pay as you go. You can quickly change from the overground DLR to the underground train.

How to eat in London on a budget

Forget all the jokes you’ve heard about British food. They’re so outdated. London these days is home to any kind of cuisine you can imagine. And as with many things in London, the abundance of choice can be overwhelming. 

You can expect to pay £12-15 for a standard meal at an inexpensive restaurant. That’s perfectly cool if you’re the kind of traveller who’s looking for culinary experiences as an important part of your trip. Just know what to expect and budget for that. 

Otherwise, that kind of money is not really what a budget traveller wants to spend on one single meal. A good solution in this case is street food.

A post shared by Camden Market (@camdenmarketldn) on

Street food is hugely popular in London right now. There seem to be food stalls and food markets just about everywhere you look.

Quick meals, such as falafel, pizza, burrito and the like, will cost you about £6-9, so roughly half the price of eating at a restaurant.

Some restaurants that offer take away will also charge considerably lower prices than what you’d pay for eating in. That’s a good option for days with nice weather when you can have a picnic in the park with your take away meal. 

If you want to save even more money, cook your own meals. Shopping at the major supermarkets in London can be quite cheap and the selection is huge.

How to save money in London - Cook your own meals
Cook your own meals

Each supermarket chain has shops on every high street. For the cheapest price, look for their own brands. You’ll often find these on the bottom shelves.

Big chains pretty much dominate the high streets of London. But smaller shops and independent supermarkets still exist! If you’re not into supporting big chains, you can still buy your food at one of the smaller local shops. You will save a lot by cooking for yourself.

How to find a place to sleep in London on a budget

Rent prices are a big pain point in London. It’s one of the most expensive cities in the world when it comes to accommodation, and as a tourist you will be paying extra. 

But don’t despair just yet! There are several ways you can find a place to sleep in London when you travel on a budget. I won’t pretend any of them is ideal. All of these have their pros and cons, which I’ve detailed below to help you decide.

Airbnb

The London selection on Airbnb is massive, as you might expect, and that’s a big advantage. If you search hard enough you can find some surprising deals. 

[If you haven’t joined Airbnb yet, join through this link and get a discount . Joining is free. The discount is in the form of credit you can use when you book] 

Here are some Airbnb features that will help you find a place to stay more easily: 

Limit the price when you search. Move the sliding scale under “price range” when you search to an amount that seems reasonable to you.

Airbnb Price Range - How to use Airbnb
Airbnb Price Range

Don’t worry if the site tells you there are only a few properties left at that price. You can still find a good place among them if you’re lucky. 

Search as you move on the map – this useful feature gives you different search results as you drag your mouse on the map. As you move away from the centre, you will see the change in prices. You can also zoom in and out and get a better picture of the prices in each area. 

Read reviews! It’s obvious, but should be mentioned again and again. London has a lot of old houses that are not in the best condition, to say the least. You really need to read what other users had to say. 

I’ve made a step by step guide on how to use Airbnb to help you  get a good price and avoid pitfalls. 

CouchSurfing

This amazing community allows you to stay with locals who offer their couch or spare room for free to visitors. They would typically invite you to stay for 2-3 nights. 

If you’re unfamiliar with this community, read this short introduction to CouchSurfing in my guide on how to find free accommodation.

How to save money in London - Couchsurfing
CouchSurfing – you’ll never know unless you try

Bear in mind that Londoners who offer their couch receive a lot of messages from travellers every single day. It’s a big city and it’s always popular.

So adjust your expectations accordingly and remember that the chances of finding a free and available couch are not very high. 

It’s worth a try though. You can make friends for life this way, not just find a place to sleep.

Student accommodation for tourists

Some universities offer their student halls of residence to the public when the students are away on holiday. You can find very affordable rooms this way. Many of these are at surprisingly central areas. 

University accommodation is normally available during the summer holidays, from about mid-June until about mid-September. Some universities also offer rooms during the Christmas and Easter holidays. 

Some require a minimum stay of 7 days. You will often get a discount for longer stays. 

As with any kind of accommodation, you want to read reviews about these rooms before booking. I suggest you have a look at TripAdvisor reviews to help you decide. 

Here are direct links to the visitor accommodation pages of London’s universities: 

London Metropolitan University

 London School of Economics

 University College London

 Imperial College London

King’s College London

University of London

University of Westminster

Queen Mary

University Rooms

Local sites and Facebook groups

To avoid paying tourist prices, you can look for a sublet or short term let, and share a house with locals.

Though local prices aren’t exactly cheap, if you plan to stay in London for a bit longer than a typical tourist visit, this option can save you quite a bit of money.  

Note that prices are often listed per week (pw), not per month.

To save money, you want to look for look for a place away from the centre, but not too far. Look for places in zone 2 or 3. Don’t worry if it seems far away on the map. The public transport system in London is good enough to get you everywhere you want relatively fast.

This map should give you an indication of where the more affordable areas of London are:

London heatmap rent prices by postcode
A map showing rent prices in London. Source: spareroom.co.uk

There is some risk if you choose a local sublet. Unlike Airbnb, you cannot read reviews on the rental and housemates. You also have no customer service to complain to if something goes wrong. So take that into account when you weigh your options. 

Some popular local accommodation sites include: 

Gumtree

Spareroom

Rightmove

Moveflat 

… and all sorts of Facebook groups.

Housesitting

Looking after people’s homes when they are away is another way to stay in London for free. I’ve done some petsitting in London several times and it really is a great exchange that’s convenient for everyone involved – you get a place to stay and the owners can go on holiday peacefully without worrying too much about their pets or plants. 

Read more tips on housesitting in my guide to free accommodation

When you look for petsitting or housesitting opportunities, pay attention to the distance from the places you want to visit in London. Remember, it’s a big city. If you’re going to spend hours and hours on public transport each day, this may not be a good idea. 

However, some remote parts of London are very well connected to the city. They may seem far away on the map, but a fast train can take 20 minutes to the centre. I suggest you use the Transport for London website to find out.

Shopping in London – The win-win solution

London has an infinite abundance of stuff to buy. If you’re travelling on a budget, be prepared – London is going to test your self discipline on a daily basis. 

It doesn’t even matter if you like shopping or not. This city, especially the notorious Oxford Street, is essentially a huge open air shopping centre where you are constantly nudged to shop, and then shop some more. 

I’ve been leading a relatively minimalist lifestyle for years. I hardly ever feel the need to shop. Yet every time I come to London, the old minimalist trick of asking “do I actually need this?” before you buy, doesn’t seem to work… London has all sorts of things you never even knew you needed. 

It is very tempting to buy all the things. The win-win solution for this is charity shops. 

Charity shops are a big thing in the UK. On every high street in London (generally speaking, wherever there is an underground station, it’s likely to be on a high street), you will find at least 3-5 charity shops. They’re often next to one another. 

They are run by charities and sell mostly second hand clothes, books, accessories and houseware. They receive these as donations and sell them at very friendly prices. You can expect good quality and a surprising choice of products.

A post shared by TRAID (@traid) on

This is a win-win as you get to satisfy your need to shop, while not spending too much money, plus proceeds go to charity, and you’re buying second hand, so it’s an ethical choice too.

An interesting thing to note about charity shops is that the prices and the products change according to the part of London you are in. If you go to a posh area, expect the prices to be higher (and expect to find more designer items too). 

Typical shops to look for on a high street would be Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, Scope, Sue Rider, Traid, Mind, British Heart Foundation and more. There might also be some independent charity shops, so keep an eye out for those.

Here’s a useful search engine for charity shops.

You can afford to go to the theatre in London!

The West End in central London is known as “theatreland” for a reason. Going to the theatre is part of the London experience. 

London's West End Theatrelan
London’s West End. Source: Wikimedia

You’ll be surrounded by wonderfully enticing adverts for shows and musicals everywhere you go. But once you look at ticket prices you may be disappointed. The prices for some popular West End shows can reach £120 and even more than that. 

Still, you don’t need to miss out on the opportunity to see a theatre show in London just because you’re travelling on a budget. Here are some options for you: 

Secret theatre clubs – get cheap or free theatre tickets

Why would a theatre give you a free ticket? 

Some shows don’t sell out, so the theatres want to fill the empty seats at the last moment. To do that, they are willing to reduce the ticket price considerably or even distribute some tickets for free. This might mean you can have a £40 seat for £4 (true story!). 

Join a seat filling service (see the list below) and they will email you with last minute offers for shows. If you’re quick to book, you can get a great deal this way. 

This is not limited to theatre, by the way, but can include comedy, cinema, concerts and other events. 

London budget guide - how to get cheap theatre tickets in London
Fill those seats!

The selection of shows may be pretty random. You may not get a free or discounted ticket to the shows you want. But you can also look at it as a way to discover shows you may not have found about about yourself. 

Another thing to note is that some of these sites charge you an annual fee to join them. This can work if you stay in London for a longer period of time. If you’re visiting for a week though, it kind of defeats the purpose, as you might not be saving money at all. 

There are some rules to follow of you join one of these clubs. If you got a free or discounted ticket, you are asked to keep it a secret from other people at the theatre. You’re also asked to dress appropriately, buy a drink or a programme to support the venue and of course – show up.

Have a look at these links and find some seat filling services that suit you: 

ShowSavers Club

The Audience Club

My Box Office

On the List Seat Fillers

Central Tickets

Play By Play

The Theatre Club

Leicester Square discount ticket booth

You will see these ticket booths offering “cheap” tickets all around Leicester Square. TKTS is the famous, official one, located in Clocktower Building. Show up on the day of the performance and you may get a half-price ticket for a West End show.

Day seats – Last minute theatre tickets at a discount

One way to get a discount for a theatre show is to go directly to the theatre on the day of the performance.

If you have a show you want to see, best ask for details at the box office about how it works at that specific theatre.

Each theatre has its own policy on this. Some offer day seats from 10am, some run a daily lottery and some use the TodayTix app. This app is a great way to discover shows and it’s very easy to use.

To get a £10 discount on TodayTix, use code CAHPG. 

Shakespeare’s Globe – £5 standing tickets

The theatre Shakespeare wrote for was rebuilt near its original site. It is now one of the main attractions in London and quite an experience. 

You can see some Shakespeare plays for just £5 if you are willing to stand throughout the show. However, this also means you will get a very good view of the stage. This seat plan shows the standing area. The Globe has 700 tickets at this discounted price for each performance.

The National Theatre – Travelex £15 Tickets

The National Theatre offers about half the seats for its new plays for £15. You can book directly from the theatre’s website.

Royal Court Theatre – £12 Monday Tickets

The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square offers £12 every Monday. You can book them online from 9am on the day.

Arcola Theatre – Pay What You Can

Arcola Theatre lets you pay what you can on Tuesday evenings. You will normally have to arrive early to get these.

A post shared by Arcola Theatre (@arcolatheatre) on

Fringe Theatre

There’s much more than the West End in London. Smaller theatres offer affordable tickets for excellent performances and you should check them out. Here’s a list of Fringe & Off West End theatres in London.

General tips on buying theatre tickets in London

  • Matinees may be cheaper than evening performances.
  • If you’re not going for day seats or last minute discounts – book in advance, as the good seats are likely to be taken quickly.
  • Check if a seat has a good view of the stage and if it’s comfortable. SeatPlan has useful reviews of many seats in many theatres. You can also view the seat plans of all the theatres in London here.
  • To save money on booking fees, simply go to the venue and pay for your ticket there. If you book online there is likely to be an extra fee.

Take advantage of the free museums

In many big cities, museums have one day a week or one day a month when entry is free. If you happen to visit on that day, you’re in luck. But in London most the of big, famous museums are free every day. And London has some of the most amazing museums and galleries in the world. 

Normally you’ll find that the permanent exhibitions and collections are free to enter. There are donation boxes and you’ll be encouraged to give a few pounds, but that’s of course optional. 

As for temporary exhibitions, that’s a different story. These can be quite expensive (typically £10-15), though they may well be worth it. So you may want to budget for them, if there’s a temporary exhibition you really want to see. 

Otherwise – enjoy the incredible wealth of cultural gems and the high standards of curation in all the free exhibitions!

A post shared by British Museum (@britishmuseum) on

Free museums in London:

The National Gallery

The British Museum

Natural History Museum

The Science Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)

Wellcome Collection

Tate Modern

The Museum of London

National Portrait Gallery

Tate Britain

V&A Museum of Childhood

Wallace Collection

Saatchi Gallery

Serpentine Galleries

Geffrye Museum

The Design Museum

Somerset House

Free walking tours

As with any big city in Europe, London has free walking tours. These are tip based – you pay the guide as much as you want at the end of the tour.

Generally, I recommend you take these two types of free tours to learn about two very different sides of London:

History tour – get to know some important monuments, hear all sorts quirky anecdotes about the royal family and listen to some war stories. 

 

A typical tour will include Buckingham Palace (and the changing of the guard if you’re there at the right time), Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and other important sightseeing points of interest.

Street art tour – these have become very popular in recent years. East London in particular is an amazing open air museum of top quality street art. On a street art tour you will get to learn more about the artists and the social context of the works.

Free walking tours in London:

Undiscovered London

Free Tours by Foot

Alternative London

Sandemans

The parks are free and they are extraordinary!

London is a city of parks. That’s one of my favourite things about it. Just about anywhere you go in the massive city, you’ll find a park nearby. 

When you travel on a budget, parks are your friends. Get some street food or a takeaway and have a picnic in the park; catch a free concert in the park; or just walk around, chill, forget about the noise of the city and take in the beauty. 

London’s parks are well maintained and some are really stunning. Queen Mary’s Garden in Regent’s Park has an amazing rose garden. The Japanese garden inside Holland Park is a true hidden gem. Hampstead Heath is a wonderful place to get lost in for hours and then have a swim in the ponds or climb up Parliament Hill and see the city from above. 

There are far too many parks in London to list here, so I’ll just leave you with a link to the Royal Parks website and let you explore by yourself.

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Hope these tips have been useful! Feel free to tweet me @brightnomad with more ideas on how to save money in London!   .

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3 Replies to “How to Visit London on a Budget: The Essential Guide”

  1. It was a very useful article! I was planning to go to London this year and I must admit that I was a little bit afraid of the cost at first. I didn’t know they had free tours at all as well. Thank you!

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