How to do London without spending too much money

South Bank

Though Christine and I are not badly off financially, we’re still in a situation where we really want to save money where possible, and this includes holidays. Despite this, we went to London a few weeks ago for a long weekend, which is probably one of the most expensive cities in the world. But it doesn’t have to cost the earth and I’m going to go through some of the things we did, or could have done, to keep costs down.

1. Don’t stay in a hotel in Central London

As a general rule, the closer you are to central London, the more expensive your hotel will be. Go a little further afield and you will find some good value hotels, many of which are close to Tube stations. And you’ll probably find that the money saved by going for a cheaper hotel further out of London is more than the cost of travelling into central London on the Tube. The only disadvantage is the extra travelling time to get out there, so it’s harder to drop by your hotel room on an evening before going out, for example.

2. Consider a budget hotel

Whilst it’s nice to stay in hotel that offers everything, sometimes all you need is a bed for the night. I’ve stayed in a couple of good budget hotels – Holiday Inn Express at Royal Docks and Premier Inn at Collier’s Wood – both of which were very good value. if you don’t mind sharing a room, a hostel may be even cheaper.

3. Skip hotel meals

Budget hotels often unbundle meals from the price – this makes the headline price of the room cheaper, but means you may be paying as much as £8 per person, per day for breakfast. If you don’t need an all you can eat breakfast every day, skip it – you’ll be able to get something cheaper from a supermarket or a café. You can even save time by eating it on the Tube on your way in to London, if you’re staying in the suburbs.

4. Get an Oyster card

If you’re following my advice and staying outside central London, you’re likely to be using public transport a lot. An Oyster card will not only save you money, but will also mean you won’t need to have change for bus or Tube fares. Fares are as much as 50% cheaper with an Oyster card than without, and fares are capped at the price of a one-day travelcard, so if you do lots of journeys you won’t end up paying a fortune. Say you’re staying in a hotel near a Tube station in zone 3,and travel in and around central London a lot on one day during off-peak hours – you will not pay more than £7.30 that day, regardless of how may tube journeys you do in zones 1-3. Because it’s a top-up card, you just need to top it up at a machine each time the balance gets low (and they take cards). You can pick them up from major Tube stations for around £5, which includes £2 of credit, or order them online; unused credit doesn’t expire and you can register the card online to protect your balance in case the card is lost. It’s accepted on all Tube trains, plus all buses and mainline rail services within London zones 1-9.

5. Don’t go to restaurants on main streets

Restaurants in more prestigious locations will be more expensive. Go a little off the beaten track and you can find some nice places that don’t cost too much. TripAdvisor is your friend here, as are local guidebooks or recommendations. If necessary, stick with a chain restaurant that you know, like Pizza Hut or Nando’s – it’s your call whether you want something cheap and familiar or want to push the boat out a bit.

6. Look for special deals and vouchers

I often mention Money Saving Expert and there’s a good reason for it – the site is huge and is full of really good, impartial advice about saving money in all aspects of life, and this includes going out and holidays. You may find that some attractions will offer you two tickets for the price of one, simply by printing a voucher off their web site, or a restaurant will allow your kids to eat free, and Money Saving Expert gathers many of these in its Deals section. Also, have a look at sites like Groupon, Living Social and Keynoir for deals in London, which may include cheap accommodation, reduced price restaurant meals or cheaper entry into attractions, although be aware that they usually ask you to pay up front for a voucher so make sure you use it so you don’t waste money.

7. Visit free attractions

London is home to quite a few national collections like the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, which are both free, enough to fill a full day and great for people of all ages, including kids. But there are also plenty of other free attractions and once again Money Saving Expert has a list of some of them. Of course, if you don’t want to spend any money you can just walk around and see the sights, eschewing the sometimes expensive open top sightseeing buses.

8. Consider buying a London Pass

If you’re spending a few days in London, and want to visit a number of attractions that charge for entry, you may wish to consider buying a London Pass. The price varies depending on how long you want it for, starting at £44 per person for a one day pass to £95 per person for a 6 day pass, which at £15.83 per day isn’t too expensive. Again, you’re paying up front, so unless you’re sure you’ll visit enough attractions for it to be worth it, don’t get it.

9. Book in advance

This applies not just to your travel and accommodation – some attractions offer a discount if you book ahead. Usually it’s only a modest 10%, but everything helps. If you’re going to London by train, remember that the cheapest tickets tend to be released around 3 months in advance, so order them at least 2 months in advance to get the best deal. Avoid sites like thetrainline, who charge a booking fee, and go directly to one of the train operators – it doesn’t necessarily have to be the one you are travelling with. See my Buying rail tickets guide for more details. Similarly some budget hotels have room sales with some very cheap rooms available if you’re quick enough to blag them.

10. Use the bus, or walk

The Tube is popular with visitors to London as it’s easy to follow, with each line having its own name and colour, and Tube stations are plentiful and located in useful places. But it’s not the only way to get around. London also has plenty of buses, and with an Oyster card, a single bus fare is only £1.30; and, like with Tube fares, they’re capped at £4 per day – this compares favourably with the Tube where a single fare in zone 1 is £1.90 with Oyster, rising to £2.90 if you’re travelling from zones 1-3. Also, because buses are above ground, they’re sometimes quicker than the Tube as you don’t need to spend as long as 5 minutes walking from the street to the platform, and they stop at more places. Use TfL’s Journey Planner to work out if there’s a bus you can catch. Alternatively, it may be quicker to walk, and there’s a handy map showing where walking between Tube stations would be quicker than actually taking the Tube (although the map is from five years ago so is a little out of date – it doesn’t include the Overground).

If you want more information, as well as the aforementioned web sites have a look at Money Saving London and London for Free for some ideas for free or cheap things to do.