London on a Budget
Short- and Long-Term Travel and Living in the City on a Shoestring is Still Possible
With its reputation preceding it as an incredibly pricey place not only to live, but also to visit, the vibrant capital of England continues to jostle for its place alongside fellow costly competitors for the title of the “most expensive city in the world”—(Tokyo, Oslo, Moscow, Geneva, and New York are but of few of its competitors). This can be an intimidating for a budget-conscious traveler who might crave the experience of the London buzz but was not born with a trust fund or title of their own. It would be very easy to avoid London all together on a trip to Europe or the UK, or pay it a fleeting visit while holding on very tightly to the purse strings. But it does not necessarily have to be this way. As long as you are not expecting to reside in a penthouse in Mayfair (or anywhere in zone 1 or 2 for that matter), there are ways to enjoy the city without having to declare immediate bankruptcy upon your return home.
Travel in London
Since the introduction of the Oyster Card, the “debit card” of London travel, normal prices of bus and tube journeys have risen to astronomical levels. Any single bus journey will set you back £2 (be it a 5 minute or a 40 minute trip) and a single journey on the tube is a huge £4 per trip. However, for a deposit of a mere £3, the acquisition of an oyster card will allow you immediate reductions on all of these fares. A bus journey (at the time of writing) will only cost £1 per journey whereas the price of a single on the tube in zone 1 will drop to £1.60. Many believe Oyster Cards are only worth purchasing if you live in London--but this is not true. Even if you are only staying in the city for a few days, the use of an Oyster Card will give you the freedom of movement that normal rates tend to constrain, as the credit does not expire as it does on travel cards. For those who intend to stay in London for a while, the Oyster Card is an absolute must.
Another alternative for those who do not know London very well is walking. It is easy to assume that distances between tube stations are greater than they are. Walking around London is a cheap and easy way to get to know the city, especially if you are not in a hurry, and you will often stumble across some wonderful little places that you might never have found in guidebooks.
If you do need to catch a cab, avoid the black cabs, as their fares are astronomical. Instead, call a renowned firm such as Addison Lee, whose prices are fixed, low and can be price-checked and ordered online.
Accommodations in London
Accommodations can quickly gobble up your money when in London. If you are traveling on a budget, hotels and even bed and breakfasts will be out of the question. The obvious answer would be to book a stay in a hostel, which is a great way to see some of the cooler parts of London at a cheaper price. But for those of you just passing through, an even cheaper option would be couch-surfing. This is an international hospitality service where hosts and members can organize free accommodation all over the world, so you might possibly end up sleeping on someone’s sofa. However, be aware that the idea of this venture is not only about free accommodations, there is also a strong emphasis on cultural exchange and connections. So if you decide on this option, try to get to know a little about your host before you go.
If you decide to stay in London for a little longer, it might be worth looking at shared-room renting. Ideal if you are traveling with a friend, shared-room renting allows you to live in London at a fraction of the cost. Rooms might be cramped and there will probably be several people to share the kitchen and bathroom with, but it means you will not need to be commuting in from zone 6 everyday. The TNT website and free magazine (available on many a street corner of London) is a great source of information regarding this option.
Food in London
The price of food has risen on a global scale, and London is certainly no exception. If you are living there, try not to fall into the trap of doing all of your shopping in the nearest mini-versions of the country's main super-markets. They are extremely expensive. Try instead to turn your shopping into an enjoyable activity and buy your fruit and vegetables from local grocers and farmer’s markets. Not only will you be contributing to the local economy and cutting down on your food miles and thus your carbon footprint, but you’ll also find a greater range of food at a lower price.
As for eating out, London has many two-for-one-deals at both local and chain restaurants, and if you take the time to look, there are some great cheap all-you-can-eat buffets. Try the simple but delicious "Veg" restaurant in Soho.
Every year, many restaurants join up under an "’eat for a fiver" scheme. Some of the restaurants offering these deals are excellent, so keep an eye out in the national press for details.
And if you fancy a pint but don’t want to pay through the nose, look for a pub that belongs to the Weatherspoon chain or head for a happy hour (Brazilian Bar Guanabara offers fabulous cocktails in its happy hour, and even throws in a free samba lesson afterwards).
Entertainment in London
The epicenter of the UK’s cultural talent, the entertainment potential of London, is almost inexhaustible. Unfortunately, much of it comes at a high price. The West End, London cinemas, and music events can all suck the sterling silver out of your pockets quicker than you can say “Mary Poppins,” unless you know the secrets. As a not-so-secret fan of musicals and cinema, I have managed to see many shows in London, only ever paying full-price for a ticket once (and that was for Dirty Dancing which is still a sell-out show). For all the others, I have managed to get the ticket at half price or less. One way to get a good deal is to go online some time before the date you wish to see the show and checking the theater deals. Lastminute.com is a great site for this, especially with their “tickets for a tenner” deal. If you have a spontaneous urge to see a show, your best bet is to head to Leicester Square on the morning of the day you would like to go and play the ticket-sellers against each other. You will see many small low-cost theater ticket sellers dotted around this famous square, and will often be able to get good seats for most of the shows at a fraction of the price.
Cinemas in London are extremely pricey, so look to see if offer a deal on a particular day or head to an independent cinema. One particularly good place to try is just behind all of the razzle dazzle of Leicester Square, at the Prince Charles Cinema. It shows an interesting showcase of films but at about 50% of the cost. And if you become a member, some showings will cost you as little as £1.50. Another option, if you are living in the UK and have a mobile phone on the Orange network, is the two-for-one deal on Wednesdays, available at most UK cinemas.
As for music, check out Time Out magazine or TNT (a very useful little magazine) for free music nights. There are many great blues, jazz, and Latin nights that are free on the door.
A Fun, Money-Free Day
And if you have some free time during the day and really do not want to spend any money at all, I would go so far as to say London is an ideal place to be. With free entry to many art galleries (don’t miss the Tate Modern), museums (such as the Natural History Museum, the British Museum and the British Library), its multitude of beautiful parks (St James’ Park is home to some of the Queen’s own pelicans) and London‘s famous markets such as Portabello Road Market, you really can enjoy London on a shoestring.
For More Info
The website for the Oyster Card offers up-to-date prices and details on where to buy and how it works.
Addison Lee is the taxi cab company that provides London cab fares at, on average, a 30% cheaper rate than black cabs.
Hostelworld is a great website to use when looking for budget accommodations in the capital.
Read customer reviews about London youth hostels. Search by price, rating or location map. No Booking Fees. The most cost-effective hostel bookings for London.
Sign for couchsurfing if you’re not looking for a hotel experience but rather an exchange of cultural ideas. This is a great way to meet like-minded people and sleep on someone’s sofa at the same time. And all for free!
Guanbara is great bar/club that offers fantastic cocktails at happy hour, as well as a free samba dance lesson afterwards. It offers a great evening out “on a shoestring.”
TNT magazine and website provides all important information about what’s going on in London, with excellent listings on cheaper accommodation.
If you are living in London and are on the Orange film mobile network, you can get two-for-one on tickets to the cinema on Wednesdays.
A great website that tells you where to find the best markets in London.
||Caroline Nye has traveled and worked extensively all over the world, working in organic farming, wildlife guiding, teaching and musical performance, as well as volunteering in various international development projects. She has had articles and short stories published in Amateur Photographer (UK), Matador Travel, and The Healing Project book series, and recently won a Bunac Green Cheese scholarship for humorous writing. Caroline is currently managing a dance team in Spain.