The Cheapskate Guide To: London

Looking for cheap travel tips for London? Click for a local's best London budget travel tips - affordable theater, budget hotels, and cheap beer! #london #budgettravel #cheaptravel #londontravel

Is cheap London travel in your future? Are you refreshing every few days and hoping the exchange rate has changed? At the moment, $1 US = £ 0.77. Today, two of my favorite American expats are sharing their best budget travel tips for London: affordable theater recommendations, cheap curry, and window shopping at Harrods!

Don’t be fooled. All of the articles and infographics you’ve ever seen declaring London as one of the world’s most expensive cities? It’s all true. London is not a place where you go to save a buck.

It’s not a place where young people stop on their gap years or extended travels. You won’t find retired Brits coming to London to luxuriate in their golden years. There are countless other cities in Europe where your dollar will go further and your bank account will be happier.

But. (And there’s always a but in there, right?) London is one of the world’s great cities, a place that is literally thrumming with activity and diversity and culture and history and industry. It is one of the few places on Earth critical to our global civilization in this moment in time. London is just that important.

I’m Julie Smith, an American who has been living in London for nearly three years. I work in marketing by day, and my husband and I run Drive on the Left, a travel website dedicated to traveling around the UK and beyond. When we’re not hopping around Europe, you can find us obsessing over the latest BBC drama or down at our local pub with a pint.

Here’s how you can visit London for $120/day (about £85/day using today’s exchange rate), accommodations included. Buckle your seatbelts. This is happening.

The Cheapskate Guide to: London //

Cheap Lodging in London

Let’s get the elephant in the room sorted first. I just did a little search on the ‘Net (I’m an 80’s kid, so it’s totally okay that I still use that word), and the average price of a hotel room in London, as of mid-2013, was £160. Using today’s exchange rate, that’s $230. Yowza.  Here’s how you can do better.

Generator Hostel – £22.50/$32
Set off a quiet street in Bloomsbury, the Generator Hostel has the pride of being known as the most fun hostel in town. There is a regular DJ who sets up shop in the lounge, among repurposed furniture and street art. All normal hostel amenities are available, including laundry and storage. And there are rooms of all types – perfect no matter what type of traveller you are!

London House Hotel – £51/$72
This newly refurbished boutique hotel is located conveniently near Hyde Park, Paddington Station, Notting Hill and London’s West End. It’s basically location heaven for busy visitors. This hotel has gone out of its way to remain affordable, while being up to date.

University Rooms – £36/$51
London is full of universities, which means lots and lots of student housing that suddenly becomes available during prime vacation season. There are a wide variety of types of accommodation available through this service, from self-catering rooms, to massive centrally-located suites. There truly is something for everyone.

This is just a short sample of the fantastic hotel deals you can find in London if you’re willing to do a little research. My favorite resources for good hotel and hostel deals, which I share frequently with family and friends, are here and here.

If you have more time and are flexible with your travel plans, one of the largest housesitting companies is located outside of London, and has become an extremely popular option for Londoners looking for home and pet care while they’re away.

We used the service extensively when we had a dog, and met many lovely travelers from around the world who wanted to experience London without the sky high accommodation costs. Annual membership is less than $100/year.

The Cheapskate Guide to: London //

Cheap things to do in London

Free activities is where London shines. Surprised? I was too. Most of the major museums and attractions in London are absolutely 100% free, all the time.

That includes, but is not limited to: British Museum, National Gallery, National History Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, V&A Museum, Imperial War Museum, and National Maritime Museum. And those are just the biggies.

The theatre is a big draw for London visitors, and it’s easy to see why. The West End, is literally packed with high-budget productions, the type available on Broadway. But go off the beaten path just a bit and you’ll find smaller, more affordable productions. Here are guides to off-West End theatres (props to the Almeida Theatre, in my neighbourhood) and Fringe Theatres.

I’m not a big shopper, but I do love to gawk at the amazing items on display in London’s famous department stores. It’s totally free (and fun!) to wander around Harrod’s, Selfridges, Liberty and Fortum & Mason to see the crazy wares and the people that buy them. All of the big shops also have onsite cafes, where I do like to take a break from the walking and have a cup of tea or a coffee.

London is a big place, and when I am exploring a new city, I love walking tours as a way to get my bearings, learn a thing or two and walk off all the junk that I’m normally consuming the rest of the time. It’s a problem, I realize.

For a general overview, check out one of London’s free walking tours (just tip your guide). The city is also home to London Walks, an amazing network of certified guides that give specialized tours of every corner of the city for under £10($14), a great way to spend an afternoon!

The Cheapskate Guide to: London //

Cheap Food in London

Markets! London is chock full of markets, running all over town, on different days of the week. You can, and will eat well at any London market for just about £5. Here are my favorite markets and dishes that I just cannot get enough of!

Markets are a great option for lunch, but as luck would have it, they’re also fantastic for dinner, when night markets open to satisfy hungry Londoners. Street Feast London hosts several indoor/outdoor markets around London at different times of year.

They gather all the best market stalls in one place for a serious chowfest (enter before 7pm when there is no entry fee). Main dishes range in price, by vendor, but £7-8 will feed you well. Some of my faves:

For good old-fashioned restaurants that are a good value, I have a few that are in constant rotation.

Homeslice is a Central London pizza joint, tucked into a narrow alley deep in SoHo. It’s Instagram heaven, and also delicious. Eat well for just one (£4/$5.50 for a slice), or split a pie with a group!

Tayyabs is a family-run Punjabi restaurant in East London. Their speciality is lamb chops, which you can chow down on for £7/$10.

Roti King, near Euston Station, is a local dive dishing up some of the best Malaysian and Singaporean street food around. The entire menu is a great value, with nothing over £7/$10, and they also have a great lunch special (2 courses, under £6/$8.50).

London is waiting for you, so come on over, eat your fill of market food, get cultured in a museum and don’t break the bank. Cheers!

British readers! What else would you add?

P.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously

photo credit: camilla bundgaard // henry be // viaggo vero // london house hotel // margaret bourne // edvard moen // michael brace // eguide travel // cc

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  1. Mary

    Hello – another American expat in London here. Great guide for London! I’d also add you can get free lunch from the Hare Krishna outside next to SOAS at UCL campus. They just ask for a donation. They is usually a long queue but for a simple donation and a plentiful lunch – it’s worth the queue. I work just around the corner and it’s a popular stop for hungry, budget conscious students.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks for the tip, Mary!

  2. Deb

    All of the things in the article are great things that I as a Londoner do regularly, so consider them endorsed!

    If you ride the entire RV1 bus route from Covent Garden to Tower Gateway you take in a huge amount of London’s most historic sites for a fraction of the cost of a tourist bus tour, although of course you don’t get the commentary, but there’s always Google.

    Best dumplings in Chinatown are at Jen Cafe and cost about £5. Order the Beijing dumplings. Then get custard fish at the bakery that’s to the left of the Jen Cafe if the building is behind you. I’m sure they’re not really called custard fish (it’s cake with a custardy centre, in the same of a fish) but they’re delicious and it’s fun to watch them being made.

    For a free view of the city and some fresher air, pack a picnic and go up Primrose Hill or to Hampstead Heath.

    Walk around Shoreditch for a while and take in the street art. The walking tours are £10-£15 so not too pricey but if you really are on a budget, just have a wander around. Walk slowly and remember to look up as well as out.

    Greenwich has a lovely park and a great food market also.

    If you’re feeling confident on the roads, you could rent a Boris bike (we still call them that even though Boris Johnson isn’t mayor anymore – apologies to Santander who are now sponsoring the scheme). A cheap, convenient way to get around. Walking is the best, though. Pack comfy shoes (and a raincoat ;-)).

    I <3 London.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks for all the great suggestions, Deb!

  3. towglow

    The 5 pounds tickets for the Globe Theatre (Shakespeare’s reconstructed theatre) are a bargain, but you need to be flexible with your schedule.

    Also the open days for the Royal College of Music are amazing if you want to hear (future) world class violonists for free.

  4. Sierra

    This article comes as a relief to be honest! I’m leaving in about a week to study abroad in London for three months and I am really worried about the cost of living. I have already paid for my accommodations so I will just be paying for food, shopping, and activities. I haven’t been able to find any current info on inexpensive places to eat in London so I’m glad I found this post! Thank you for the info and I’ll definitely be trying some of these places out.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad it was helpful, Sierra!

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