Sunday, July 31, 2011

How to Do London on a Budget


I have finished my 3 day tour of London and I spent around £100 ($163USD or 173,000 won) in total. I could have spent even less if I had wanted to, but that was including a £30 train ticket to Brighton for the day and a few nicer meals and drinks. London is one of the most expencive cities in the world, but if you follow a few simple steps, you can save a lot of money if you're on a budget. 

1) Watch how you get around:
This may sound obvious, but for someone who didn't do any research about London, it would be easy to spend vast amounts of money on transportation. First of all, in the center of London, most stuff is within walking distance. When looking on the map, you may think, 'wow, that's 6 stations away! I don't think I can walk it!' But, be careful to look at the actual distance. You may be surprised how close it is. On my first day, I only took the metro once and on the second day I took it twice. On the third day though, in order to save some time, we took the metro and bus a little more often. As far as getting metro and bus tickets to get around, be sure to get an Oyster card. This little card will make your trips around London much cheaper, and you don't need to go up to the machine every time you want to get a ticket. Don't forget to cash out your Oyster card when you leave. You'll also get back the £5 deposit you made on the card when you leave the country.

Another problem I encountered when I wanted to go to Brighton (1 hour south of London by train) was that tickets were really expencive. £29 for a round trip ticket seemed a little steep, but I figured, I would have spent the same on a hostel if I stayed in the city so I just paid it. Then when I went to Brighton, it turns out my friend there knew a website where he could buy a round trip ticket to from Brighton to London that included a subway pass for the entire day for about £12. Of course, tickets like these can't be purchased by just any tourist, you need a British credit card to buy them. But, if you know some locals, you could theoretically get them too. Their use is not restricted to British citizens only, just the purchase. Make sure you ask your friends to look for discounts that you can use too! 

This may seem like an obvious one, but you should avoid taking taxis. Traffic in downtown London is quite terrible. Our Big Bus tour guide joked that the speed of traffic in London hasn't changed for the last three centuries, the speed of traffic is no faster now than when people got around by horse and buggy. The minimum cab fare is £2.20 ($3.60) but goes up quickly and for going one mile, you should expect to pay £5.20 ($8.50) as a minimum, but could be much higher if you are stuck in traffic. 

2) Watch where you eat:
If you go to many restaurants in central London, you may think that eating out in London costs a fortune. That's probably because you've found yourself at one of the thousands of restaurants that cater to tourists. It's not unreasonable to say that 2/3 of the people you'll pass in central London on a summer day will be folks on holiday, so there are plenty of places set up to rip these people off. It's best to look around and see where the locals are eating their lunches. I'll certainly bet it's not one of those traditional looking English Pubs. Here are some suggestions for where to get a cheap bite to eat:

Supermarket lunch
Supermarkets: The first thing I did when I got to London at 8 am on Friday morning was stop at the supermarket built into the subway station and find some breakfast. All London supermarkets seem to have a decent bakery selection. Even at the smallest supermarket, you can find some bread or muffins for a snack, breakfast or a meal if you like. On our second day, we put some bread and cheese together at home and picked up some cold cut meat from the supermarket and had our lunch along the Themes. Who needs a nice restaurant when you can eat for practically nothing, surrounded by some of the most beautiful sights imaginable? On the last day, we picked up some of their pre-made food and got the "meal deal" which was for us a hearty salad, drink and bag of chips. Never underestimate the power of the supermarket!

Matt's homemade bread with cheese and meat which we ate next to the Themes
Pret A Manger: This little sandwich shop deserves it's own category because once you get to London, you'll realize that this chain is more prevalent than Starbucks in America or all the cafes in Seoul combined. You can't walk one block without seeing one of these and it seems to be a local favorite among the English. Who can blame them, though? They have a huge selection of freshly made, pre-packaged sandwiches for between £2.50-£5.00. They taste good and you can get one and eat it in less than 5 minutes if you're in a rush. 

Curry at a take-away place 

Curry: I was told that the national dish of England is not fish and chips, but curry. Take away curry shops are as prevalent in London as take out Chinese food or pizza is in the states. They even look pretty similar to those kind of places on the inside. At the one I went to, dishes seemed to range from £3-6 depending on what you got, plus, of course extra for rice and naan. We spent about £15 on two curries, a naan, a plate of rice, and two sodas.

Cheap pints of beer at Wetherspoon

Neighborhood and Chain Pubs: Saturday night we found ourselves at a local pizza place/bar kinda place near where we were staying at my friend's sister's flat outside the center. The pizza was a little expencive, £12 from their gourmet selection, but of course, we split that 2 ways (could have done three and been healthier if we'd had another friend with us) and they had a nice selection of beers around. We got their special, called Speights for £1.50 per bottle. £15 total for a pizza and two beers didn't seem too bad at all, especially after eating homemade sandwiches on the Themes earlier that day for lunch. Another place to check out is a popular chain of pubs called Wetherspoon. They have pretty cheap, typical English food and super cheap drafts. We got ciders for about £2.50 per pint and draft beers for less than £2 per pint. They are also interesting because they have a huge variety of local brews that you would never be able to find abroad. 

Gourmet pizza and cheap beer

Fish and chips in Brighton, bigger and cheaper than in London
3) Go local!
As I alluded to before when talking about train tickets, getting a local to help you get around is definitely a plus. While I tried to couchsurf while I was here, I was unsuccessful finding someone to host me from the website. But, as it turns out, we were hosted on Saturday and Sunday night by my friend's sister's roomates, and it turns out they are couchsurfer hosts too! Staying with locals, either friends or couchsurfers has two great benefits. One is that... well, it's free. But two is that they can show you the good, local places to go or give you insider tips on how to do things cheaper, like, for instance, the cheap train tickets. While we were in Brighton, my friend was also able to get half priced admission for himself to get into Brighton Pavilion and so we just split the total cost so it was cheaper overall. 

Brighton Pavilion

The cloisters of Westminster Abbey (admission free)

4) Take advantage of free attractions
London has lots and lots of things to do for free. For lists, you can just google 'London for free' and you'll get millions. Many churches, museums, markets, and sights don't cost a thing. We went to four museums for free; the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another little thing we realized was that to go into Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral was £16 and £14.50 respectively. But, to go in as a worshiper during their services for free. Granted, you don't have the same experiences or photo opportunities, but it's quite impressive to tell your friends at home that you went to Sunday services at Westminster Abbey and sat how many feet away from where William and Kate were married? Or attending Evensong in the evenings at St. Paul's and say you listened to their choir in those enormous halls. Don't forget too, that the cloisters and St. Margaret's Church on either side of Westminster Abbey are always free and open to the public.

Giant sloth in the Natural History Museum

 Real moving steam engine at the Science Museum

 Hanbok made from bojagi  at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Egyptian statue in the British Museum, (aka the museum of cool, stolen things)

Changing of the guard starting from St. James' Palace (we had a great view here, those who went to Buckingham Palace couldn't see a thing)

Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral


  1. Hey, this is a very helpful article. I've been to London like half a dozen times and realized what you listed here very slowly and haven't gotten to use it much. I'm hoping an occasion would arise soon though. Hope you had a lot of fun there.

  2. 1) Chock full of brillo tips for saving money--and seeing sights better. When someday I go to London, I'll remember your advice.
    2) Speights is actually a New Zealand beer, wen they had that on tap, it was my preference.
    3) Nice on the hanbok!
    4) Looks like you had a jolly olde time! Yes, I had a great time in Bali, but i'm still jealous!

  3. Speights was quite tasty, especially for the price!

  4. "This may sound obvious, but for someone who didn't do any research about London, it would be easy to spend vast amounts of money on transportation. First of all, in the center of London, most stuff is within walking distance."

    I absolutely agree here and there's another reason for walking in London; you discover a lot that you'd miss if you used the bus or the Tube! Keep an eye out for plaques on buildings, particularly if you're interested in history.

    It is also good if you can stay with a local. This won't always be an option but if you have contacts, use them! No matter where you go, it can never hurt to have a little insisder knowledge. The internet can only tell you so much. Failing that, you do have a lot of options when it comes to accommodation; there's serviced apartments London, hostels, bed and breakfasts etc and you can just pick the one that's most practical for you. (Or cheapest) I don't know about anyone else but I find it's best to view the place your're staying as a bed for the night, nothing else. Your experience of London itself is far more important than the place you sleep.

    The parks in London are free and well worth a visit too. They're very beautiful and a great place to eat lunch as well.