Seek out just about any list naming the “most expensive cities in the world,” and chances are that London, England, will be on it.
London is a pricey city to live in. There's no arguing that fact. But this also means that London is a pricey city to visit, too – especially if you're coming from overseas and getting hit by tough exchange rates.
So, as someone who both loves London and also loves saving money when in expensive cities, I've come up with some tried and true ways to save money in London.
Top tips for visiting London on a budget
1. London budget accommodation
Hotel prices in London can be sky-high, and many of the city's pricey hotels are just average in terms of what you get. Ideally you would have friends or family in London to stay with (really the best way to experience any city), but, if you don't, there are still options beyond mediocre hotels.
Hostels in London
London has some great hostels in various neighborhoods, and most of them do NOT offer the stereotypical sterile dorm rooms so many people associate hostels with. In fact, many of them are just as good if not better than hotels – but with more on offer at a fraction of the price.
The best London hostels tend to have character. They are located in historic buildings, cottages, and even former courthouses. They are usually ideally located, clean, and way more fun than a hotel. These days, most of them offer private rooms along with dorm beds, too.
Some of the top-rated hostels in London include:
- YHA London St Pancras
- YHA London Oxford Street
- Wombat's The City Hostel London
- Palmer's Lodge Swiss Cottage
- Saint James Backpackers
- Safestay London Kensington Holland Park
Renting an apartment
If potentially sharing your space with others isn't an idea you're into, consider another hotel alternative — renting out an apartment for your holiday.
Sites like Vrbo and Airbnb list whole apartments (as well as private rooms) that can be rented out for anywhere from a few days to a few months. Renting an apartment is usually around the same price as booking a hotel room (though some can actually be quite a bit cheaper!), but you get the added bonus of having all the amenities of a home, including a kitchen.
If you are traveling as a family or larger group, renting an apartment could potentially save you a ton of money over booking multiple hotel rooms.
2. London transportation budget tips
London has a pretty great public transportation system. But traveling on it sure doesn't come cheap. Here are some tips on how to get around London as cheaply as possible:
Buy an Oyster card
The standard price for a single ride on the Tube (AKA the Underground, AKA the metro) can be more than £6 (equivalent to more than $7 USD!!!) within Zones 1 and 2. That's A LOT of money to ride a train.
To cut down on costs, purchase an Oyster card. These little blue cards shave off over 50% of the price of a Tube ride – a single fare with an Oyster card costs £2.50 (about $3.10 USD). You can top up your Oyster card at just about any Tube station, making it a great pay-as-you-go option.
And the best part? There are daily price caps on fares if you pay with an Oyster card. During peak hours on the Tube, the price cap is £7.70 when using a pay-as-you-go method. This means if you're doing a lot of sightseeing, you won't pay a bajillion dollars in transport fares.
Taking buses instead of the Tube
Although taking the underground is so very British, it is by far one of the most expensive ways to get around London. When possible, take the bus instead. This is still very British (I mean, can you GET more British than a big red double-decker bus??), but not nearly as expensive.
A single ride on a London bus costs £1.65 if you pay using your Oyster card. (And here, too, there's a daily price cap if you use an Oyster card – £4.95).
Take the Tube from Heathrow
Want to know a secret? If you fly into Heathrow (likely if you're coming from overseas, but not necessarily a given since there are 4 airports that serve London), you don't have to catch a cab or book a seat on the expensive Heathrow Express train into the city (a one-way ticket is £25!).
You can actually just take the Tube! The Piccadilly Line connects all of the terminals at Heathrow, and can have you in central London in an hour or so. And it will cost you as little as £3 with an Oyster card if you're traveling during off-peak hours.
(There's also the new Elizabeth Line launching in 2022 that can get you to central London faster than the Piccadilly Line, but cheaper than the Heathrow Express.)
3. London entertainment tips
We've established that London is expensive. But the good news is that, when it comes to entertainment, there's actually a lot to do in the city that won't cost you anything at all.
Go to museums
London's museums (like most museums in the UK) are FREE to visit. Check out the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Imperial War Museum, the Museum of London, and many more for absolutely nothing.
These are perfect if you're met with one of London's infamous bad-weather days.
Free walking tours
Want to get to know London on foot? There are tours for that – FREE tours, no less. The most popular and well-known free walking tour of London is Sandeman's New London tour, which runs twice daily (at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) from Hyde Park Corner. Alternatively, Discover Walks also offers 3 different themed free walking tours of London each day.
For these, you're expected to tip your guide afterwards (usually £5-10 per person is a good amount, depending on the length of tour), but it's still a really affordable activity.
Sightsee for free
Many of the best things to see/do in London won't cost you a penny. My favorite suggestions include:
- Walk along the South Bank of the Thames, from Parliament to Tower Bridge (you'll see all the city's best bridges and buildings, and be entertained by plenty of buskers)
- Stroll through Hyde Park, being sure to stop at Speaker's Corner
- Window shop along Oxford Street
- Witness the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace or Horseguards Parade
- Explore Camden Market
- Re-enact the famous Beatles street crossing at Abbey Road
- Walk along the Regent's Canal
Want to catch a West End show (think Broadway, but in London) while you're in town? Well, just like in New York City, you can purchase discounted tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square (up to 50% off) on the day of performances. (Though, if you know what day you want to go see a show, you can often get cheaper tickets in advance online.)
If Broadway isn't your thing, perhaps Shakespeare is? You can watch a show at The Globe theater (a replica of the playhouse that staged many of The Bard's works) for as little as £5.
4. London food tips
There are SO MANY options when it comes to eating in London that finding something to fit your budget shouldn't be a problem. But I do have one fun option to share with you:
Eat your way through the Borough Market
Located at the southern end of London Bridge, the Borough Market is one of the largest food markets in London. Ideal days to visit are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, when this market is THE place to go if you're into food.
Not only can you experience a different side of London here, but you can sample and buy some delicious gourmet food from all over the world. Not all of it is cheap, but it's nevertheless a much better option than sitting down in another restaurant.
Looking for more London tips? Here are more London posts:
Getting out of London on a budget
Spending an extended amount of time in London? Then chances are you might want to see what's beyond the city, as well. There are countless day trips you can take from London, but, honestly, you can do most things cheaper on your own.
The rail network in the UK is actually pretty great. Most major cities in England, Scotland, and Wales are connected by train, and if you book far enough in advance, you can get some really great rates (for example, I've gone from London to Edinburgh for less than £20 before).
You can take a train to York to visit its famous cathedral, to Brighton for some time by the sea, or to Dover to see those famous white cliffs (from there you could even hop a ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, France!).
Even cheaper than trains are buses. Megabus (which also operates cheap bus services in the US) has a ton of routes in the UK, and you can sometimes score tickets for as little as £1. The only downside, of course, is that the journey takes a bit longer.
Book cheap flights
If you want to go a bit further beyond the UK, good news: Europe has quite a few options when it comes to low-cost airlines. While airlines like RyanAir, EasyJet and Jet2 may not have the best reputations when it comes to comfort and customer service, the cheap prices may help take away the sting somewhat.
READ NEXT: Making the Most of 1 Day in London with a London Pass
I hope these London budget travel tips will help YOU save money in London the next time you visit!
What other money-saving tips do YOU have for London on a budget?
Haha good tip on the “subway” signs! (Though the one in the picture was actually near Westminster, so I’m assuming it was there for the tourists?)
And your caveat about the rail system is spot-on. I always book my long-distance rail tickets there far in advance (6-8 weeks at least), and have been able to get some really great deals. Though, if you’re just going short distances, you can buy tickets on the day and still not pay very much.
I think Westminster is one of those permanently congested intersections where the entry to the Tube includes a pedestrian subway for crossing the street. Lots of Tube stations have more than one staircase to street level so I suspect that’s the meaning of the sign.