#GetThrifty,  Travel

London Budget Hacks for a Quality Stay in the City

London can be an expensive place to visit, particularly solo. But I say “can be” because I’m a firm believer that things are only as expensive as you make them. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to #GetThrifty in England’s capital — without sacrificing quality or my budget (or my soul). It’s possible — I promise! — with these London budget hacks.
London Thames
Visiting London on my 2014 sabbatical.

While I’m very fond of London now, I wasn’t a super fan the first time I visited in 2010. (Also not a super fan of the fact that my photos from that trip seem to have evaporated…) I blame jet lag and feeling rushed. But I’ve since visited several times, and my relationship with the city has improved with each trip. Part of this is that I don’t fret about the exchange rate anymore. (Even when the GBP is kicking the CAD in the a**.) Even with a nutty exchange rate, it’s all very feasible. Again, things are only as expensive as you make them. Here are my #GetThrifty London budget hacks for experiencing this amazing city on limited funds.

London budget hacks

1. Ask yourself the important questions

For any place, I always make a list of the things I want to do, check out how much they cost, and then figure out what works best.

Questions I ask myself:

  • What are my priorities?
  • How many things do I want to do?
  • What can I realistically afford?

For me in London: I’m usually only there for three days max, and I don’t need to shop. But I do love and need to eat, and one occasionally needs to use the tube (underground) or transit. And stay somewhere that isn’t a hostel. (I’ve never stayed in one, and I never will. Hard N-O on that.) And, if I can swing it time-wise, see a show in the West End — hoping to convince The Brit on this one next year.

2. Be strategic about your accommodations

London has so many great little neighbourhoods. But if you want to pretend you’re on Made in Chelsea, you’re going to pay Chelsea prices. Personally, I avoid staying in the centre of the city, and I don’t mind a walk.

If you’re travelling solo, getting a room in a Superhost Airbnb is a good idea. This option also gives you someone to check in with. I don’t feel that a hotel room is the best value (unless the rate includes a full English breakfast, which everyone needs to try at least once). I’ve stayed in the Shepherd’s Bush and Lambeth neighbourhoods solo, and really enjoyed the Kensington-Hyde Park area that my girlfriends and I stayed in a couple years ago. (We stayed in this lovely apartment.)

London views
The view from St. Paul’s Cathedral is pretty fantastic!

3. Be choosy about the touristy things

Though touristy attractions are the bread and butter of any big city, they’re not really my cup of tea for the crowds or my budget. I’ve never seen the Crown Jewels or stepped inside Westminster Abbey, though I’ll probably get to the latter next year.

And while I love ferris wheels, I have no desire to queue up for the London Eye. Why would I do that when I can have an even better view of the Thames from tower at St. Paul’s Cathedral or while enjoying afternoon tea at The Shard? For me, both offer better value for my time and money.

4. Museums are FREE

This is probably my favourite overall UK #GetThrifty tip. The majority of museums and galleries in London (and most of the UK) are FREE to visit. Special exhibits have a cost, but are usually worth it.

My personal favourite is the Victoria & Albert Museum (a.k.a. the V&A). Their special exhibits tend to be designer-focused, and quite wonderful. The Brit loves the Museum of National History, and when we are back in the spring*, guess where I’m going for the first time?

*Update (May 10, 2021): Due to the pandemic, this trip didn’t happen. But then we decided to move to England. So as of May 3, I’m just a train ride away!

Top Tips:
  • Go early to beat any lineups and the tour groups.
  • If you’re eyeing a special exhibit at the V&A, commit to a date and buy your ticket the day you book your flight. The designer exhibits at the V&A usually sell out!

5. Grocery stores are your friend

At any grocery shop (Tesco — my favourite, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Aldi, Waitrose, etc.) you get a very decent prepared sandwich, snack (fruit or crisps — what they call our chips), and cold beverage combo for £3-5. This makes for a cheap, cheerful, and moderately healthy on-the-go or picnic in the park meal.

And for those feeling more adventurous than the grocery store or have more time to explore, I recently discovered a great site called London Cheap Eats. They visit and review places in London that serve food for £8 or less.

If you’re feeling a bit choosy and want to get more greens in, hit up a Pret for a cold-pressed juice and sandwich or salad for not much more in price. This is my long way of saying, save your money for a fun girls’ night at Gordon’s Wine Bar or for a truly fab pre- or post-theatre dinner.

Waterloo Bridge London
Enjoying a stroll on the Southbank.

6. Walk everywhere

London is a fabulous walking city. My favourite area to get my step on is along the Southbank. Should it be chucking down with rain, the tube certainly has enough stairs along its network to make you feel less guilty for not walking.

7. Get a day pass for the tube

If you know you’ll be taking transit throughout the day, get a day pass at the start of your trip. It’s much cheaper. But a pre-loaded Oyster card will automatically calculate this rate for you on your last tap of the day. Also, pre-loaded amounts don’t expire, so hang on to that Oyster card for next time. I’ve had mine for over a decade.

London budget hacks
The iconic TKTS ticket booth in Leicester Square.

8. Cheap theatre tickets

London’s West End is known for its quality productions of popular plays and musicals, but tickets can be a bit dear in price. This is where the iconic TKTS booth in Leicester (pronounced Lester) Square could be your saving grace. The TKTS booth is the most well-known and official place for theatergoers to get cheap tickets for a show that same night — but it involves standing in a queue. As that’s not my jam, I’ve used London Theatre Direct a few times, and there are other reputable sites online.

Brighton
The stunning Brighton Palace Pier.

9. Affordable day trips

Sometimes you just need to get out of the city. As the train system in the UK has excellent and frequent service, it’s easy to go for an affordable day trip from London. Highlights for me include Brighton and Hampton Court Palace, and next on my list is the Harry Potter Studios. Also… wine tour, anyone?

10. Check out the free things to do list!

As mentioned earlier, the majority of museums in London are FREE. Along with those, Visit London has a thorough list of other free activities and attractions around the city — the ultimate list of budget hacks. (This is not sponsored, just a link that everyone needs to have!)

Do you have any London budget hacks? Share them below!

A bad day in London is still better than a good day anywhere else.

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