London on the Cheap

Hands down, London is one of the most expensive cities in the world (check out the stats here and here).  Depending on your currency and exchange rate, a holiday in the UK capital can translate to at least 50 percent more than the face value of what you think you’re paying.  But not to fear, here are some tips to saving money in London so you can have your crumpets and eat them too.

Oyster Card
It’s no surprise that the most expensive city to visit also has one of the most expensive (although efficient) public transportation systems.  For example, a single Zone 1 ticket for the Tube, Docklands Light Railway or Overground will run you £4.80 in 2015 (that’s more than $7.25!).  Your best bet is a pay-as-you-go Oyster Card, which reduces the rate by more than half to a palatable £2.30 (about $3.50).  Just be sure to “touch out” when you leave the Tube or DLR or you’ll be charged the maximum amount for a ride.  The card is also valid for buses and trams, and has a daily cap that won’t exceed the price of a 1-day Travelcard (there’s also a 7-day unlimited Travelcard if you plan on doing a lot of moving around).  Note that you’ll pay a one-time fee for the Oyster Card upfront, but have the option of getting a refund for any remaining funds plus the initial deposit at the end of your trip.

Free Museums
London is such a museum-rich city, and one of the best things is that some of the most notable ones come without an admission fee.  The British Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum are just a few of the UK National Museums that are free to enter (although some special exhibits may carry a fee).  This is a HUGE perk for both locals and visitors, giving you lots of options when it comes to saving money without skimping on sights.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the many free museums in London

Parks and Squares
Another way to save money is to take advantage of London’s plentiful outdoor spaces.  From the 350-acre Hyde Park to Kensington Gardens, St. James Park and Regents Park, the city’s many beautiful green spaces are perfect for a leisurely lunch or stroll on a nice day, outdoor recreation and open air events throughout the year.  While not as relaxing as parks per se, spots like Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Parliament Square and other smaller spaces throughout the city are also great for (priceless) people watching while taking a break from museums and other sightseeing.

Trafalgar Square at night

Walking Tours
There are a lot of ways to experience London on foot without paying for a pricy tour.  I particularly like the low-cost themed walks offered by this company, which depart at various times throughout the day and don’t require advanced booking – lots of variety and flexibility.  For a big city London is actually pretty walkable, and there are a ton of self-guided walks online (some good basic ones here), or you can follow my suggested itinerary here.  And if you prefer to go it the old fashioned way, grab a paper guidebook and hit the ground running.

Window Shopping
London is home to some truly amazing, world-class department stores like Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.  These megastores offer floor after floor of designer clothing, home goods, food products and almost anything else you can think of, and it’s actually a lot of fun to browse these multi-floor meccas without obligation to buy.  You can window shop inside and out, as such department stores also boast elaborate, block-long window displays, which are especially fancy during the holidays.

Discounted Theatre
There’s nothing worse for an actor than performing to an empty house, and thanks to TKTS theatergoers can help fill seats at a savings.  Just like its Broadway counterpart in New York, London’s TKTS booth (located on the south side of Leicester Square) sells discounted same-day show tickets for up to 50 percent off.  It’s a win-win for everyone.  Note that the line can be long, so come early and with a few options of shows in mind, or be open minded and see what’s available.  You might also be able to get a good deal on day-of tickets by visiting individual theatre box offices directly.  And if you’re really looking to save on a show at Shakespeare’s Globe, the theatre sells £5 standing-room “groundling” tickets – although given the length of a Shakespearean play, it may be worthwhile to invest in a full-price ticket.

Food
London’s dining scene is made up of almost every type of cuisine in the world, but eating out can be expensive.  While you should choose your food wisely, it’s ok to treat yourself to a nice meal (and frankly you should be doing this at least once during any vacation).  I tapped some local friends for money-saving advice and the number one tip is to venture away from Central London for the best deals because that’s where everyday Londoners actually live. To put it bluntly, Central London is for tourists and rich people.  Some other ideas are to seek out pub fare like fish and chips or takaway food like Cornish pasties and kebobs.  The popular chain Pizza Express is also good for inexpensive pizzas and salads, or you can pick up food at a market and picnic in one of the parks mentioned earlier.  For afternoon tea, smaller cafes will do less damage to your pocketbook than some of the more famous places (fancy = pricy).

Have any other tips for saving money in London?  If so, share them below!

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