Cheap Travel Tips for London: Flights, transport, where to stay, cheap food and drinks
London is famously one of the most expensive cities on the planet, but you really don't have to spend a fortune to enjoy the sights and even get involved in its world-class nightlife. If you know where to stay in the city as well as where to look for cheaper entertainment, food, and drinks, you can have a great time on a more modest budget.
I've visited the city literally dozens of times, and that experience allows me to quickly find the cheaper stuff that I like and avoid those jaw-dropping prices that haunt most new travelers. Below you'll find tips and advice on how to get the most out of your visit to London without spending a fortune.
Getting to London
Most tourists obviously fly into London, but even that is complicated by the fact that the city has 4 major airports. Longer flights usually land at London-Heathrow, which is helpful because Heathrow is the cheapest and easiest for transportation into the city and back again.
The other 3 airports (Gatwick, Luton, Stansted) are all hubs for many low-cost airlines, especially for flights within Europe. The flights in are often much cheaper, but these airports are also more expensive for transit into London itself. You can save money by booking a bus transfer or even a train ticket well in advance. The important thing is that the airport transportation should be considered before you buy a ticket because the cheapest flight might not actually be the best budget choice.
If you are coming to London from Paris, Brussels, or even Amsterdam (connecting through Brussels), you'll probably want to come by train. Specifically, the Eurostar train connects these cities through a system that is run separately from European or UK rail lines. Similar to a low-cost airline, Eurostar offers cheap tickets to those who buy early, and the price keeps going up as the trip approaches.
You can buy Eurostar tickets up to 6 months in advance, and sometimes they even offer special promotions on round-trips or in the off season, so check as early as possible. If you don't buy early, a flight might actually be cheaper, although still probably not as convenient.
Many people don't realize that you can actually take a bus to London from continental Europe, and it can be incredibly cheap. Eurolines is a system that ties long-distance bus services around Europe together, and it goes almost everywhere. You can get to London from a variety of other cities, as the bus drives onto a vehicle-train through the Channel Tunnel. For example, from Amsterdam to London it takes about 9.5 hours and costs as little as €9 per person with a promotional fare.
Getting to or from the London airports
From Heathrow, the cheapest and best way into the city is on the tube. There are 3 separate stations serving all 4 active passenger terminals on the Piccadilly Line. The airport is in Zone 6 and one ride into Zone 1 (central London) will cost £5.50, or only £5 if you buy and use an Oystercard, which you'll probably want to do anyway.
From the other 3 airports, budget travelers have the option of a train or bus service. Each airport has a train station that is connected to the main rail network (and central London itself) but train tickets are very expensive if you buy them just before you board. You can lock in a cheap bus or a discounted train ticket if you shop and buy online at least a few days in advance.
Getting around London
Much of London is easily walkable and it's as flat as a pancake, but the city is way too spread out to completely cover on foot, no matter where you stay. So even if you wisely stay near the museums or nightlife that interests you, you'll still need to take public transport to see some of what you've come to see.
Fortunately, London's famous underground/tube system is generally very efficient, but only if you buy an Oyster Card first. The city has priced individual cash trips to be so expensive that only a fool wouldn't buy an Oyster Card, which stores prepaid value and is very easy to use as you enter and exit each station.
So before you use the Underground for the first time, even if it's at Heathrow Airport, you should queue up at the ticket window and get an Oyster Card (for a refundable £5). At the same time you'll pre-pay for rides depending on how much you think you'll be using it. It's quick and easy to add more money to it later, and it's also quick to get your deposit for the card back as you are leaving.
Every ride is much cheaper with the Oyster Card than without, and better still, if you ride a lot in one day, the price will be capped at less than the price of a Travel Card (unlimited rides). In other words, if you ride twice in a day the Oyster Card will save you money, but if you ride 4 or more times per day, you'll basically pay for the first 4 rides and any additional rides that day are free.
With the Oyster Card policy in mind, it's often wise to just do things on foot on some days, and then visit some more distant places all on the same day. The London Tube runs from about 5am until about midnight, so you can even use it well into the evenings to check out the nightlife, all for one reasonable price.
The bus system works on the same fare cards as the Tube, but buses are quite confusing for newcomers so the Tube is probably your best option, at least until midnight when they stop for the day.
Where to stay
You don't realize just how spread-out London is until you start shopping for a hotel or hostel. In other words, when you try to choose among the cheaper hotels or hostels on a travel-booking site, you'll notice that each of them is in a remote corner that isn't close to any attractions. If you book at one of these cheapies, you might end up spending a lot more time and money getting around the city, and you'll probably end up seeing less of what you came for as well.
While the hotels and hostels within short reach of tourist areas like Leicester Square or Buckingham Palace tend to be insanely expensive, there are a few good and cheap neighborhoods with decent hotels that are within walking distance to at least some things.
My favorite area for that is Bayswater, which is just north of Hyde Park, and between Marble Arch and Notting Hill Gate. There are cheap hotels and hostels mixed in with local pubs and relatively affordable local restaurants.
Russell Square in Bloomsbury is also home to the British Museum, along with quite a few good-value hotels and hostels. This area is also within walking distance of most of the famous nightlife and theatre districts such as SoHo, Covent Garden, and Leicester Square.
London tours on the cheap
The London hop-on, hop-off bus tours are quite expensive, starting at around £28 per person, but they still might be worthwhile if you somehow only have one or two days in the city.
A better budget option is the free London walking tour, which goes twice daily. In 2.5 hours you'll get to see a startling number of the central attractions, all with commentary by an energetic student who is hoping to be entertaining enough for you to tip them. These tours are an excellent way to get oriented in a hurry, and most guests feel like the optional tip is worthwhile.
Attractions and things to do
London is very unusual in the fact that all of its state-run museums, including the amazing British Museum,Tate Modern, and Victoria and Albert Museum are totally free. But almost every other attraction such as the Tower of London or the London Eye, is insanely expensive. Needless to say, those on lower budgets can keep themselves busy in the museums and in other free attractions.
If this is your first trip to London and you are really interested in some of the expensive attractions, then a London Pass could help a lot. It also allows you to skip many of the ticket queues, so you can actually see more things per day, especially in summer when it's very crowded.
For those on a backpacker budget, it's recommended to do the free walking tour as early in your trip as possible. That alone will give you plenty of ideas of what to do next, even on a tiny budget.
Cheap London theatre and live entertainment
Famous worldwide for its theatre and nightlife, London obviously has nearly unlimited choices for things to do after dark. The problem for visitors is that almost all of the obvious things (ones you'll just randomly walk past while sightseeing) are also very expensive.
The West End theatres typically charge a fortune for same-day performances of the big hit shows, and that's if you can get a ticket at all. However, just like in New York City, you can get half-price same-day tickets for many less popular shows at the TKTS ticket booth in Leicester Square (close to most theatres). They list the current shows on their website as well, but you have to buy tickets in person at the booth. There are other competing ticket booths as well so you have to be careful and check prices.
You can get plenty more ideas for bargain entertainment and nightlife if you go on the Time Out London website and/or if you pick up a copy (now free) in person as soon as you arrive. There are dozens of performances and events listed for every day of the week, and many of them are reasonably priced.
Eating on the cheap
For better or worse, no one visits London for the food, except perhaps for people who like to try trendy new restaurants that come and go. On the other hand, the city does now boast excellent cuisine from all over the world, although it also tends to be very expensive.
Starting in the morning, it's very possible that your hotel or hostel will come with breakfast, and possibly what's known as a “full English breakfast.” If so, you'll be pretty full until lunch or even dinner. If not, you should be able to find a cheap sandwich or other breakfast at a neighborhood shop.
Any time of day when you are looking for a cheap meal you should find yourself fairly close to a Tesco Express (small grocery store), Sainsbury's Local (small grocery store), or a Gregg's (ubiquitous sandwich shop). Each of these had pre-made sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes that are very good value and quite cheap.
There are also plenty of independent sandwich shops that do made to order, as well as jacket (baked) potato places where a meal on the go is quite cheap.
Not much street food
London's unreliable weather might also contribute to the fact that there is almost no street food available. The exception to this is the market areas, which are popular with tourists and locals alike. You can find stalls selling quick meals in the Camden Markets area, along Portabello Road on market days, and in the Burough Market, which is worth a look for its food selection when you are in the South Bank area.
Aside from those places, your best budget option will probably be fast food. You'll find McDonald's, KFC, and Subways all over town, usually advertising some special deal out front.
Affordable sit-down meals
For a good-value sit-down meal, you'll find the best deals in the pubs. A recent trend is the “gastro pub” that offers high quality food for a decent price, but even the more traditional places can do a good job with standards like fish & chips and meat pies. The money-saving trick here is to look for them in non-touristy neighborhoods where locals dominate. Many of them will have a daily special advertised out front, which will also give you an idea of general prices. See the finding cheap pubs section below and look for food bargains in a Wetherspoon pub.
Your other reliable option for more affordable sit-down meals is to try one of the million or so Indian restaurants in London. They tend to be small and family-run, so they keep prices reasonable to appeal to locals in the mood for take-away. Again, the cheaper places will be on smaller streets rather than on busy roads in tourist areas.
The Edgware Road area is lined with authentic Middle Eastern places that are open late into the night, and many of them offer good value. It's within walking distance of many hotels in Bayswater, and it's an interesting neighborhood to spend a couple hours in as well.
Drinking on the cheap
If you just waltz into any pub or bar in a touristy neighborhood, you'll be astonished at the prices for everything. If you only ever drink one drink, then it's probably not worth going out of your way to find cheaper booze. But if you like to imbibe and want to be able to have a fun pub experience, you have to plan ahead.
Buy your own booze
The cheapest option is to start in your hotel or hostel with some drinks you buy from a store. You can go into any Tesco or Sainsbury's and get a .5-liter can of beer for around £2 or a bottle of on-sale wine for around £5. If you buy a package of 12 beers or more, you can get them for about half the individual price, but they will be room temperature. You can also get good deals on spirits or wine at a chain called Oddbins if one of their 20 or so London locations is near you.
Finding cheap pubs
Again, the key here is to get out of the touristy areas such as Leicester Square or Covent Garden, and make your way into more residential neighborhoods where locals outnumber tourists by a great degree. Even then, drinks can be very expensive anywhere in London unless you seek out the cheaper places.
There's a huge UK chain called Wetherspoon's with a handful of London locations. They can be tricky to find because they all go by their own local names and almost none of them look alike. In fact, most of them are in large, historic buildings that have been re-purposed as pubs, so they are often really cool and interesting inside. You don't get music, but you do get the cheapest pints in each neighborhood, plus amazing deals on pub food. Check the Wetherspoon website for exact locations.
There are a few other chain pubs, and while some locals look down on them, the chains usually have the best prices and are often packed. The key to finding them is to always keep your eyes peeled for them when you are out and about. The chains, as well as most other cheaper pubs, will usually have a sign-board out front with their prices and/or nightly specials. If a pub has no specials or prices visible outside, it's probably pretty expensive.
Another strategy is to do a “cheapskate pub crawl.” This means that you go from pub to pub, only ordering one drink in each one until you find one with prices you like or you are too drunk to move on. It can be challenging to guess drink prices from the street in the UK. A dumpy-looking place might charge every bit as much as a posh-looking place across the street. And there might be a generic-looking place around the corner where each drink is £1 less than in either.