London on the cheap

Sorry? You don’t understand my headline?

You’ve been putting off traveling to London because it’s so expensive?

Understandable. I’m not surprised. Mention that you’re planning a trip to London and the first thing EVERYONE says, usually followed by a sharp intake of breath, is “but it’s so expensive!”

Still preferable to the people who assume I’m deliriously excited about visiting London, Ontario and require clarification. (What’s with that, anyhow?)

I’m not saying that London isn’t one of the most expensive cities in the world. It is. But you’re not moving there, honey – you’re just spending a few days in one of the greatest cities on earth! I’ve been in love since my first visit in 2006, and now tack a few days in London onto every trip to Europe. Something about having England under my feet just feels right, in a way that I can’t explain.

I’m gonna break it down for you, with the proviso that this is still an overseas trip for North American readers, so my use of the word “cheap” is a bit relative, okay?

Airfare:

I can’t prove it, but I hear all the time that London is one of the cheapest cities to fly into. I’ve been recommending KAYAK for flights and it’s a good place to start shopping. Once you’re in London you can cheaply fly virtually anywhere else you like (e.g., we flew to Turin, Italy from Gatwick).

Hotel:

For this trip we chose to save money by paying for our hotel in advance, and used TripAdvisor to find a room in a good location and close to the tube line we knew we’d use the most (Piccadilly). It took a little while to find a good deal with good reviews, but I persevered and we ended up getting a room for an average of £100 a night. The reviews were spot on, so we didn’t have any nasty surprises.

On our next trip we’d like to explore the idea of renting an apartment for a few weeks.

Food:

This is where planning gets fun! The last thing you want to do, especially when you’re on a budget, is wander around without a clue to where your next meal is coming from. You’ll get hungry and tired and go for the first place you see, regardless of price, quality or atmosphere. On the other hand, you don’t want everything so mapped out that you lose spontaneity and flexibility, right?

Jeff and I had few specifics. We didn’t want to eat any Italian food as Italy was our next stop and we craved an authentic English Breakfast at a real cafe. My first online search for English Breakfast turned up several £15+ places, with reservations required. Not exactly what I had in mind – I wanted something cheaper, more like something Roy Cropper would serve you in his cafe on Coronation Street. My next search on yelp for “cheap English Breakfast” was more like it. We ended up going to Masters Diner twice (a 5 minute walk from our hotel) and to the Regency Cafe once (a short walk from Pimlico tube station). Both places served a full English for £5 each with coffee or tea included. Craving satisfied completely, and exactly what we’d hoped for.

Other than that, I searched on the Guardian, Yelp and TripAdvisor for affordable, authentic food that London does well: Indian, Vietnamese, fish and chips, pub food, etc. and plugged all of their addresses into an app called Rego before we left. I’d wager I had about three times more restaurants all over central London than we had appetites! I also underestimated how filling each day’s breakfast was – we consistently didn’t get hungry again until about 4 pm, eliminating the need for lunch.

We splashed out once, because I just couldn’t be in London and not go to NOPI. Even still, keeping the booze under control helped keep the costs down (we’re both cheap drunks, which helps immensely).

Sightseeing:

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Many London museums are free! It’s nice to donate what you can, of course, but there’s no crazy lineup just to buy tickets. This also translates into less “MUST SEE ALL THE THINGS” pressure because you just strolled in, and you can always go back another day if you want. Check out this TimeOut London guide.

For this trip we stuck to free museums (Museum of London, Victoria & Albert and the National Gallery), parks (Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath) and exploring different neighborhoods. We did spring for a couple of walking tours and they were worth every penny.

Transit:

We’re super comfortable taking the Tube and use Oyster Cards while we’re there. Still, have a look at a map to see whether a walk makes more sense as some of the stops in central London are quite close together (e.g. Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Covent Garden are a short walk in a row). On the other hand, the village of Hampstead and Hampstead Heath were well worth the tube trip north.

We took exactly one hackney cab, and that was more of a touristy thing to do (hey look – I’m sitting across from you!) than an affordable transportation choice.

Navigating:

Everyone has a different attitude to how they get around an unfamiliar city. I like knowing where I am, and where all the awesome food and places I’ve researched are situated in relation to my current location. But I also like to wander aimlessly and discover neat stuff. I keep suggesting this app, Rego, because it is exactly what I would have liked to have on past trips. It uses your iPhone’s GPS rather than using wifi or data roaming to pinpoint your location, and gives you a list of (previously added) locations that you’re closest to. Totally worth the $5.

Being on a budget:

In general, we tried our best not to think of the exchange rate too much while we were there. O, that way madness lies! We came up with a daily food and entertainment budget in pounds before the trip and did our best to stick to it. Of course it would have been nice to be a bit more lavish sometimes, but this was better than not going at all!

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