London is famous for many things, and one of them is being expensive. It’s even worse if you’re dealing with a currency that isn’t as strong as the pound. When we were in London, the exchange rate averaged at about $1.60 USD per pound. That means something that costs £5 comes out to over $8 USD. It adds up fast. However, there are still plenty of things to do in London while pinching pennies.
Restaurants can really get you. However, if you get your meals from the smaller shops instead, you’ll save a lot more. By eating in the shops outside the major tourist zones, it wasn’t hard for us to have an enjoyable meal for two people for around £6.
Grocery and convenience stores usually have sandwiches and ready-made meals for around £2. They often have deals like a sandwich, small bag of crisps (chips in the US), and a soda for just over £3.
The local markets usually have plenty of food vendors as well, and they are pretty reasonably priced. Tigger had a lovely egg and bacon bap (sandwich on a soft roll) for £2 at the wildly popular Borough Market (tube: London Bridge). By the way, I would definitely encourage you to visit this market. It’s absolutely wonderful, has an amazing variety of foods, and we bought the most delicious strawberries we’ve ever had there. You can pick up ingredients to make a meal or buy something they’ve prepared at quite reasonable prices.
In Chinatown, located outside Leicester Square, you can find many low-priced street food vendors. Friends tell me the best Peking duck outside Beijing is found in this locale.
Don’t let business names fool you. We popped into Perfect Fried Chicken to escape the rain one day and discovered they also had biryani and lamb and chicken curries on the menu, in addition to many other items. Chicken was actually a small part of their offerings. My lamb curry with rice was £4, and that was the most expensive item on the menu.
As is the norm, if you want to eat out in a restaurant, try to go during lunchtime when they have more specials. We saw many special lunch deals for 2 people that would work out to about £3-4 per person.
Admission fees for these venues are criminal. At places like Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Hampton Court, etc., you can expect to pay around £15-20 ($25-32 USD) or more per adult. Sometimes you can walk the grounds for free, and even just walking around the perimeter still affords great views of the structures and the grounds.
The Tower Bridge is probably the most unique bridge in the city, and it is free to walk across. You can do an interesting loop by crossing the Tower Bridge, walking around the Tower of London, crossing the London Bridge, and completing it with a visit to the Borough Market. The London Bridge isn’t all that exciting, but it’s fun to say you’ve been on it. The market makes the journey worth it.
Near many of the popular sites are wonderful parks which are great if you’re traveling with kids. In between walking by all the old buildings, they can have a nice run and enjoy the playground in a gorgeous park.
Buckingham Palace isn’t all that exciting unless you want to catch the Changing the Guard ceremony.
Walk away from the palace and past the Victoria Monument, and you will find the absolutely gorgeous St. James Park on your right. During the spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom, it’s quite stunning. If you’re a fan of Princess Di, there is a 7-mile-long walk that is charted by plaques and takes you past locations associated with her.
After walking by Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the Victoria Tower, there is another park with a really cool playground near the bridge. Even Tigger had fun there.
Kensington Gardens have some great paths for cycling and is a popular picnic spot.
Neighborhoods can be quite intriguing, have fun quirks, and the buildings can be very interesting as well. They are sometimes full of little surprises, so they’re really fun to explore. We spent a lot of time just exploring various neighborhoods.
Some of the really worthwhile markets, such as the Camden Street Market, are best visited on the weekends. If you have some time on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll want to check them out.
The Spitalfields Market in London’s East End has a very diverse offerings from around the world. You won’t find as many food vendors here, though. It’s an interesting area to visit, and the East End has a lot of history and ethnic diversity, so it’s worth a visit for sure.
While London is quite huge, it’s still easy to explore many areas on foot.
London has a really great transportation system as you might imagine. The London Underground (the tube), Overground, DLR, and others make getting around the city pretty easy. But transportation is not cheap. If you plan on using public transportation, you will want to purchase an Oyster Card. You will want to pick up one of these cards as soon as you arrive.
Without the Oyster card, you will be paying at least double, sometimes more. They’re easy to buy. You can find machines in almost every tube station (and Overground and DLR stations). You can top them up at the machines, ticket windows, many of the convenience stores and kiosks, and online. The machines will accept credit/debit cards as well as cash. It really couldn’t be easier.
It’s still going to be a bit pricey, so this is one of those times when planning your day can save you money. Generally speaking, the average one-way journey will cost you around $3.60 USD per adult.
When you’re leaving London, make sure to stop at a ticket window after you’ve exited your last pay point and turn in your Oyster cards for a refund of any money left on the card. If you don’t live in the UK, have your passport handy as you will also get a refund of all the VAT (value-added tax) you’ve paid. We used the cards for about 4 days of travel, and we got back over £8 for our VAT refund. That’s a nice chunk of change!
As mentioned previously, many attractions are within walking distance of each other, and it’s a fairly pedestrian-friendly city.
Buses are cheaper than the metro system at just over £1.
Unfortunately, the Oyster card does not include child discounts. You can buy child tickets at the machines or ticket windows.
The photo Oyster card will give discounts (and buses and trams are free), but it’s more of a process, and there is a £10 fee. Unless you’ll be spending a lot of time in London, I doubt it’s worth it to invest in the photo card.
Here’s the nice part for families with younger children: Kids under 11 can travel free when they are accompanying an adult with an Oyster card or valid ticket; up to 4 children per adult.
On 2 wheels
Like many large cities, there is a network of rental bicycles throughout the city. Unfortunately, the posted rules state the bicycles are for people 14 and older. Not as helpful for families.
You pay £2 for 24 hours of access. Rides for under 30 minutes are no extra charge and unlimited. You can conceivably ride all over the city all day for £2 just by ensuring you dock your cycle and get a new one every 29 minutes or so. But an hour only costs £1 extra.
There are many routes, and the city is fairly flat so cycling is a great and inexpensive way to tour.
Museums & Galleries
There are a ton of museums and galleries throughout the city, and thankfully many of them are free! These include some rather impressive collections. You could spend days visiting all the places listed with free admission.
The city can keep you quite busy. There are so many great things to do in London, and thankfully you can still enjoy yourself without spending an absolute fortune.
What’s your favorite low-budget activity or place to visit in London?