London might have a reputation as a notoriously expensive city, but the good news is that you don’t have to drain your bank account to have a great time. The British capital is home to plenty of cheap and even free sights and activities – you simply have to know where to look.
Read on to learn about how to cut costs on transport, entertainment, sightseeing and more. And if you’ve got any great penny-pinching tips for London, let us know in the comments!
How to save on London transport
1. Pick up an Oyster card. The public transit system in London will get you just about anywhere you’d need to go as a tourist, and the travel pass known as the Oyster card will save you money as you do it. Individual journeys using the Oyster card cost less than if you pay by cash, and if you make a lot of trips in a single day, your daily fare is capped (so you never end up paying more than a daily travel pass would have cost).
2. Instead of shelling out for one of those pricey bus sightseeing tours, you can see all the same sights by hopping on a regular double-decker bus at [much lower] public transport rates. Click here to see the best bus routes for sightseeing.
3. Travel during off-peak times. Fares for public transport are slightly cheaper after 9.30am on weekdays and all day on weekends, so you can save by timing your trip.
4. Avoid black cabs. London taxi drivers might be famous for their incredible mental maps of the city, and a ride in a taxicab might seem like a quintessentially British thing to do. But. Black taxis are notoriously expensive. If you really need to take a taxi, make a booking for a “minicab” instead. You can’t flag these down on the street, but a hotel or restaurant should be able to help you with a booking.
5. Walk. London is a pedestrian-friendly city and many of the major attractions are within easy walking distance of each other. See below for suggestions on great walking tours.
Eating on a budget
6. Pick up a ready-to-eat meal from one of London’s supermarkets. The city area is dotted with supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Marks & Spencer, which sell pre-packaged sandwiches and salads for next to nothing. If you’re having a particularly late lunch, you’ll likely find that a lot of the lunch fare has been marked down. Be sure to pack your travel spork!
7. If you’d rather go straight to the source, why not hit up a food market and put together your own picnic? Borough Market is one of London’s most famous produce markets selling everything from artisanal French paté to good old meat pies. All you have to do is find a park and enjoy your meal alfresco (two lovely spots are St. James’s Park and Hampstead Heath).
8. Dine at pubs. Not only is pub food tasty and cheap, it’s also iconically British. Note that you don’t have to be drinking to eat at a pub, it’s fine to go as a family, and the atmosphere is not at all dingy (in general).
9. Go ethnic. London serves up some of the most authentic South Asian food outside of India, but you can find plenty of Asian and Middle Eastern fare as well. Many of these joints offer terrific value for money (we’re talking less than £10 a person).
10. Eat a pre-theater meal. Many restaurants in London offer discount meals aimed at those heading to musicals and plays – however you don’t have to be attending a show to take advantage of these offers. You may have to eat a little earlier than usual, but it’s a great opportunity to try a restaurant that wouldn’t normally fit into your budget. Learn more about it here.
11. Have plain old water with your meal. Drinks can easily bump up the cost of a meal but tap water is free, and by law, restaurants must serve it to you if you ask for it.
12. Want a list of specific cafes and restaurants to hit up? This article about cheap eats in central London is a great place to start and this post about budget restaurants near the Olympic stadium might come in handy too. Meanwhile, this list of affordable venues includes a Michelin star-rated restaurant where a three-course meal will set you back less than £15!
Sightseeing in London for free or cheap
13. Hit up the museums. Ever wanted to see the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles? Many of the world’s greatest treasures are housed in London’s museums and the good news is that almost all of them are free, including the following:
14. Go on a free walking tour.
Here is a link for a great walking tour that operates daily. Guides work on a donation basis.
If you prefer to go at your own pace, this site lists a number of different walks based on themes like shopping, literature, the Royals or even Jack the Ripper. The online guides include historical information about the sites so you know what you’re looking at.
Want to create your own walking tour based on your interests? This website allows you to plot any route you like (avoiding polluted or busy areas if you desire) and will spit out a map along with information about distance and time required.
Prefer sightseeing with an audio guide? This website has a number of interesting podcasts that you can download to accompany you on your walks.
15. It’s absolutely free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It’s worth checking dates and times for the guard change here, since the ceremony is sometimes canceled due to bad weather or other events.
16. Want to visit Westminster Abbey but don’t want to pay £16 for the privilege? You can actually enter the Cathedral for free to attend Evensong. You probably won’t be permitted to see the side chapels, but you’ll be able to see the main area of the church. You can check Evensong times here.
17. A lot of the “sites” in London are outdoors and free, for example Piccadilly Circus (which is actually a road junction, not a circus); Trafalgar Square; Harrods (don’t miss the touching but slightly creepy memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed); and Big Ben.
18. Visit Speaker’s Corner and listen to public debates and discussion. It’s located in the north-east corner of Hyde Park.
19. Check out the Prime Meridian of the World at Greenwich and be in two places at once.
20. Visit Abbey Road and recreate the famous Beatles album cover.
21. The Palace of Westminster (where Parliament meets) is pretty impressive from the outside, but did you know you can also go inside to watch parliamentary debates and attend hearings? Find out how here.
22. See the Ceremony of the Keys. This ceremony, which marks the locking up of the Tower of London, has been taking place every night for the past 700 years. You can attend the ceremony for free, but you’ll have to request tickets several months in advance.
Other ways to save
23. Want to learn more about the country? The British Academy holds free talks on a number of different current and historical issues.
24. Feeling frazzled after all that sightseeing? This organization offers free meditation and personal development courses.
25. Don’t have access to free internet at your hotel? Hit up a public library where you can go online free of charge (they’ll accommodate you even if you don’t have a library card).
Finding dirt cheap entertainment
26. Listen to free concerts.
The National Theatre hosts regular free concerts featuring everything from jazz to folk, reggae, dance music and everything in between.
The Royal Opera House has free lunchtime performances that can be booked in advance if you don’t want to miss out.
The National Gallery hosts free live music every Friday.
27. Want to see a theater performance but don’t want to pay premium prices? This website allows you to purchase discount theater tickets online, while the Tkts booth in Leicester Square sells cut price tickets for shows playing that night.
29. See a Shakespeare performance for 5 quid. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre aims to recreate the experience of attending a Shakespearean play and tickets can be had for just £5 – as long as you’re willing to stand. The good news is that standing gives you the best view of the stage.
What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions for saving money in London?