England (outside of London) can actually be cheap and wonderful
Pretty much everybody who visits England will justifiably start off in London, and it seems the majority never go anywhere else in the country. While it's true that most of the country's checklist attractions are in its capital, it's an undeniably beautiful country from top to bottom, and your money goes much further everywhere else.
I'm now almost two weeks into a long tour of the UK because I too have been guilty of concentrating all of my visits on London, and there's some very good news to share about costs of things (as well as quality) outside of London. Part of it comes from the British Pound being weaker than is has been in recent years, but much of it comes from the fact that costs are lower and competition is more fierce in areas that aren't always overloaded with tourists the way London is.
London sticker-shock is a problem
Nearly everyone has a similar experience on their first visit to London. It's an impressive place, but everything seems to cost more than it should. From public transportation to a bottle of water to the kitschy souvenirs to an order of fish & chips to a pint in a pub near your hotel, everything seems like the exchange rate is off and your daily budget is double what you projected.
Having visited London literally dozens of times, and also being a cost-conscious (cheapskate) traveler, I've learned how to keep costs lower while still having a great time, and I've written about my best London cheap travel tips. But still, it's a shame that visitors have to strategize to this degree just to be able to afford a visit.
I'm guessing that one major reason that most travelers don't explore beyond London is the aggravating feeling that “England is really expensive.” It would even be too simplistic to instead say that “London is really expensive,” because the reality is that the most touristy parts of London are really expensive, and great value can be found nearly everywhere else if you look for it.
England can actually be cheap with a bit of planning
First off, this isn't to say that England is a cheap destination because it isn't. The tips below are about how to make the country surprisingly affordable for budget travelers who are careful.
British trains are very cheap if you book in advance
The rest of Europe is actually catching up on this, but the British trains have been privatized and run with (airline-style) dynamic pricing for many years now. The bottom line is that train tickets can be amazingly cheap if you book well in advance, and still quite affordable if you book online at least a few days out.
For example, you can get from London to Manchester for only £16 (about US$25) compared to over £50 if you buy a walk-up ticket for the 3-hour trip. The same is true for virtually every route in the UK, where advanced internet fares are cheaper than normal for Europe while walk-up fares are higher.
If you are 25 or younger you can pay £28 for a 16-25 Railcard and get a 33% extra discount on every trip for a year. Check the National Rail site for advanced fares and online booking.
Bed and breakfasts outside of London are great value
England has its share of chain hotels including Premier Inn, Travelodge, and Ibis, but all of them seem to be priced for business travelers so they aren't a good option for backpackers or other budget people. However, the country is brimming with traditional bed and breakfasts that tend to be friendlier and much better value.
As a solo traveler I've been finding really nice rooms for £40 (US$60) and under in most cities and towns, and if breakfast isn't included it's available for about £5 more. That breakfast, by the way, is always a variation on the “Full English” which is more like a brunch anywhere else in the world. Conveniently, these B&Bs are generally mixed in with the normal hotels on booking sites, so they are easy to find, compare, and book.
For the real backpackers there is a refreshing hostel culture in the UK as well, with cheap dorm beds available in even the smallest of towns. Beds start as low as £10 per night in many cities, and you can always find something for under £20 per night.
Cheap food and drink in chain pubs and non-touristy local joints
If you are staying in a touristy part of London one of the many price shocks you'll experience is that an order of fish & chips will be over €10 (US$15) in a takeaway place or more like £15 (US$23) and up in a pub. Pretty much all of the other dining alternatives seem equally overpriced, but once outside of London the prices drop dramatically.
While they may not be as quaint and traditional as the small corner English pubs, there is a large network of pub-restaurants run by breweries and other companies and they compete fiercely for business with low prices. Instead of £4.20 (US$6.50) for a pint of lager or ale in London, you can find them from anywhere from £1.80 (US$2.80) to £2.50 (US$3.85) per pint in the chains.
Wetherspoon is one of the most notable chains, operating almost 900 pubs in the UK, most of them in large and unusual re-purposed buildings. You don't get music, but you do get sports on TV screens and amazing special deals like £5.99 (US$9) for a full order of fish & chips AND a pint of beer or cider. Tee-totallers can save £1 and get a non-alcoholic beverage instead.
For a lunch on the go it's easy to find baguette sandwiches for under £2.50 US$3.75) each at takeaway shops all over town. You can also get fresh salads and pasta dishes at these same shops or the ubiquitous Greggs chain with stores on every high street. Start the day with a filling breakfast at your B&B, grab a cheap sandwich or salad for lunch and end the day with a special at a large pub and you can stay full for a song outside of London.
Free museums all over the country
London is famous worldwide for its free-to-enter museums, but that policy is actually a national one. This means that all museums operated by the UK government are free to enter for everyone every day of the year. In practical terms, this means you'll have at least a few decent and free options in every city you visit, including some really interesting and unusual museums.
Free and cheap attractions, as with anywhere
Travelers who head to places like Madam Tussauds or the London Eye might have a great time while spending every penny they have, but any experienced traveler knows that every destination is loaded with free and very cheap attractions as well. England is obviously no exception, and it might be the world leader when you include all of its free museums.
But in addition to the indoor attractions, England is known for its scenery and landscapes. At the moment I'm staying in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales and nearly everyone who comes here does so to take long walks through the stunning countryside. The weather doesn't always cooperate, but a cheap local pub or tea house never seems to be far away.