London has a reputation as one of the most eye-wateringly expensive cities to visit in Europe. Its fame and global appeal have long made it a top ‘bucket list’ destination, with jacked-up accommodation prices and exorbitantly priced experiences, from swanky fine dining to designer shopping.
But there are easy ways to enjoy London without taking out a giant bank loan. Follow these transport, accommodation and meal hacks to save stacks of cash when exploring England’s capital.
- Dorm bed in a hostel: £15–30
- Basic hotel room for two: £100–200
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from £100
- Daily transport travel card: £15.20
- Cup of coffee: £2–6
- Lunchtime sandwich: £3–8
- Three-course restaurant dinner for two: from £80
- A pint of beer at the bar: £4–8
- Theatre ticket for a West End show: £25
- Average daily cost: £200
There are plenty of London experiences that won’t cost you a fortune © IR Stone / Shutterstock
Flying is generally the cheapest way to get to London
Europe’s budget airlines, including EasyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air, Wow Air and others offer hugely competitive fares to the UK capital. However, check which airport you are flying into, as you may have to tag on the price of a costly train fare if you arrive at an airport farther from the center (including London Stansted, London Southend, London Luton and London Gatwick). Also check flight times, as arriving early in the morning (particularly on a weekday) can mean tricky transport links, and possibly a pricey taxi transfer to town.
Stay outside central London to find lower overnight rates
London is divided into nine transport zones, with the most expensive accommodations found in the center in Zone 1 and Zone 2. To save money on accommodation rates, consider staying in Zone 3 or Zone 4 near a Tube station – you’ll pay less and you can still take public transport to the main attractions. Good deals can be found in areas such as Stratford and Islington, or try near King’s Cross if you must be downtown. Budget motel-style hotels such as Premier Inn and Travelodge are another option, as are hostels for solo travelers. Prices for Airbnb apartments can also be reasonable if you’re traveling in a group (stay in the suburbs for lower rates).
Where possible use your legs or public transport to get around
London is a huge, sprawling city – it would take more than a day to walk across town from east to west. However, in central London, distances between attractions are very walkable, often along atmospheric old streets lined with historic buildings. When your legs get weary, hop on a red London bus or take the Tube to cover more distance.
Another great option is to rent a Santander Cycle from one of the docking stations dotted around the center. This budget transport option costs less than £2 per day, allowing unlimited trips if you ride and dock within 30 minutes on each trip.
Going to a show can be expensive, but you can save on dinner © shomos uddin / Getty Images
Take advantage of pre-theatre restaurant deals
Dinner in the West End is usually cheaper if you go before the curtain call. Many restaurants in London’s “Theatreland” offer three-course meals for a fraction of the regular price, starting from when they open at around 5pm until around 7:30pm, on the condition that you’ll be gone by the time the shows start. Another option is to dine out earlier in the week (Monday to Wednesday) when restaurants and pubs offer “Taco Tuesdays” and “Steak Clubs” and other similar offers.
Buy theatre tickets far in advance
Sign up to theater mailing lists when you book your trip to London, and whenever a show you are interested in begins its run. Theatre tickets in the West End can cost as little as £20 booked ahead of time, but you might pay hundreds if you leave booking to the day before. Some last-minute theater booking websites may have tickets available for the next day, but these will likely cost you more.
Budget diners should look for end-of-the-night deals
Apps such as Too Good To Go can help you find takeaway meals at restaurants just before closing time, at a fraction of the normal price. Sometimes the food can be a mixed bag, and you may not know what you’ll be getting until you turn up – it’s not ideal for fussy eaters, but it helps restaurants reduce food waste, serving up portions that would typically be thrown away.
A discount pass can bring savings at famous sights such as the Tower of London © Maremagnum / Getty Images
Save money on attractions with a discount pass
Buy a London Pass and you’ll get free entry to some 80 attractions in the city, including the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, London Zoo and Windsor Castle. If you plan on visiting multiple sights over several days, the savings can be considerable. If you intend to visit royal attractions such as the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace, consider getting a Historic Royal Palaces annual membership (from £55 for unlimited entries), as admission fees for these attractions average around the £25 mark for each visit.
Hit the free museums and galleries
One of the best things about London is the fact that many of its world-class attractions don’t charge a penny, from the extraordinary Natural History Museum and Science Museum to the magnificent Tate Modern. There are also free theatre shows, music concerts, movie screenings and more (read our guide to free London for tips).
Eat street food at London’s many markets
Visiting London’s street markets will give you a chance to support local vendors, and you’ll also get to sample home-grown British produce and all sorts of flavors from around the world, often for just a few pounds. Camden Market, Borough Market, Seven Dials Market and Broadway Market are some of the best. Many vendors are happy to offer free samples before you buy.
A fish-and-chip supper gets you a lot of food for your money © Kit Leong / Shutterstock
Eat local foods to save on cash
There’s a reason we say “cheap as chips” – a bag of chips in a local chippy should only set you back a few pounds if you head out of the center. It’s one of the cheapest, most filling meals you can eat in the capital. Alternatively, hit a local “greasy spoon” cafe – these traditionally working-class joints offer breakfasts (usually fried) for less than £10 in a cafeteria-like setting.
Head to a traditional East End pie-and-mash shop to try another working-class delicacy that won’t break the bank; expect to pay £5–15 for a full liquor-slathered pie with mashed potatoes. Alternatively, eat at the pub, where meals are usually a fraction of the price of a restaurant (again, head out of central London to get the most bang for your buck). Also, seek out all-you-can-eat curry buffets (such as the one served by Indian Veg in Islington’s Chapel Market) to load up on tasty Indian dishes for around £15.
Go to a BYOB restaurant
Dining establishments without a liquor license often allow patrons to bring their own bottles of booze, either for free or with a small corkage charge. This means you can get your plonk in a supermarket for a fraction of the price charged by restaurants, and save a ton on service charges too.
If you want to save on drinking in London, head out early © LeoPatrizi / Getty Images
Hit the happy hour drinks deals
If you’re prepared to drink early – typically between 3pm and 6pm – you can make huge savings on cocktails, beers and wines in London. Look for details of the best happy hour deals on listings websites such as Design My Night, Time Out, Secret London and London Drinks Guide. Happy hours usually run from Monday to Friday and target workers leaving the office early.
Students, children and over-60s get discounts
Discounts for students, children and the over-60s are available at many tourist attractions, at some entertainment venues and on public transport. Checking for these discounts every time is an easy way to save cash. Free events are regularly held for these groups too; check on attraction websites and social media for upcoming deals.
Check for voucher deals online
Spas, tour companies, stores, restaurants and some tourist sights offer regular voucher deals online (see websites such as VoucherCodes, Groupon and Wowcher). Also look out for promo coupons for family attractions such as the London Aquarium and Legoland Windsor on packets of snacks and breakfast cereals. It’s well worth checking for internet or app deals before you book any London experience.