London is expensive. I mean, really expensive. The prices exceed that of New York City and San Francisco for living arrangements. The exchange rate makes it even more pricey for Americans. Even the competitively priced AirBnB (app) has rates at £120/night, which equals close to $200 in Zone 1. Plus, space is extremely limited in Europe, especially the cities like London and Paris. That $200/night will get you a studio about the size of a large American walk-in closet, a kitchenette, and a bathroom in which you can barely turn around. I kid you not. Space is definitely a shock when traveling to Europe from America for the first time. Still, they are better priced than most hotels in the heart of London’s Zone 1. Zone 2 is still considered central, and it’s usually only a few tube stops away from the greatest attractions.
I remember flying to London in the late 80s and early 90s. I paid $500 for a ticket then. These days when I travel, I use point from an American Airlines reward card, so I get a “free” ticket. This “free” ticket costs $700 in taxes, more than I used to pay outright. Of course, it’s still a great savings since a round trip ticket in the summer from PDX to LHR is about $1200 before taxes.
Fortunately for me, when I travel to London each August, I look after pets for my friends, so I get accommodations for free. They get peace of mind and free pet sitting. It’s a great arrangement if you can find it.
Despite these ways I save enough money to make the annual trip possible, it’s still expensive. Over the years, I’ve found ways to make the most of my money and time while in this remarkable city, and I’d like to share those with you.
If this is your first time in London, you must see all the must-see places. Every year, I go to listen to Big Ben chime on my first day there. It is one of the most beautiful sounds to ever enter my ears. I highly recommend it. There’s nothing that says “I’m really here” like the sight and sound of that magnificent clock tower. It’s awe-inspiring, much like seeing a celebrity.
Before you do much else, especially if you don’t know where to start, I suggest you invest in the Hop On – Hop Off double-decker tour bus for your first or second day. This will give you an overview of the city and ensure you see all the main attractions. You can return to the ones that interest you the most on subsequent days or move onto other things.
TRAVEL AROUND LONDON & DAILY CAPS
Your best bet is to get an Oyster card for travel or a series of daily travelcards. It’s difficult to travel around London without one of these. An Oyster or Contactless card is required for nearly every kind of intercity travel, although Apple Pay is starting to spread and can now be used on the Underground. You can get an Oyster for £5 at “Off-License” (Convenience) shops as well as train stations. You will “top up” this Oyster card for traveling on buses and the Underground (Tube) or Overground trains. The most cost effective way to travel for tourists going all over the city via Tube and/or Bus is to get a weekly Travelcard, which currently costs £32.10. The only alternative to this is if you’re staying at a place from which you can walk to most places you want to visit.
Another option is to travel by buses only, which I highly recommend if you are not pressed for time because you really get to experience the magnificence of the city. The daily cap for buses is £4.40, or the equivalent of three (3) bus rides. Every ride after that for the rest of the day is free. Traveling by double-decker is a great way to see the city, although the bus system is more complicated to understand than the Underground system. I live on this London Bus app when I’m there. It will show you nearby bus stops and the time the next bus is arriving.
If you prefer traveling via the Underground, this helpful app has the Underground map.
You could also take the infamous Black Cabs (app) or even Uber (app), but they are pricey by comparison. Besides, driving in London is maddening, so by no means rent a car and expect to get around inside the city.
EATING WELL FOR LESS
The British aren’t well known for their cuisine, but there are some lovely options that are particularly British that one should enjoy it while in London. First, have a full English breakfast at a pub at least once. You will of course indulge in a delicious serving of chips talked with salt and vinegar from a local “chippy,” and if you’re smart you will include a decadent Cornish Pasty at one point during your stay. Maybe even twice.
That said, you can’t have Cornish Pasties, “chips,” beans and toast, or Bubble and Squeak washed down with Guinness for every meal, or you might go into carb overload (not to mention the limited nutritional value these things contain).
Although it’s essential to have a big, heavy meal at a pub at least once during your stay, but almost knees when you’re out and about, there are much easier, healthier, and cheaper options available.
A place called Pret A Manger is on virtually every street. If by some off chance you don’t see one, this handy app will help you locate the closest one. They offer fresh, healthy food, prepackaged and for a reasonable price. They only make so much every day, and when that’s gone, it’s gone. You know it’s fresh, because it was made just that day. It’s a great way to quickly grab something to eat between one amazing attraction and another. Besides, they also offer free WiFi.
Similarly, a place called Eat is also frequently seen around the city. Mark & Spencer’s (app) is a department store, and they often have a special sections or a standalone shop called M&S Food. Even a Sainsbury’s Local or a Tesco Express will have ready-to-eat food at a reasonable price. Any of these places offer quick, healthy food while you’re on-the-go. (Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose are popular grocery stores in London.)
If you’re a vegetarian, like me, you simply must try The Shakespeare’s (pub across from Victoria Station) version of vegetarian Fish and Chips. The “fish” is made with halloumi cheese, and it’s a great way to experience that traditionally English meal without eating any animals.
One of my greatest joys while visiting London is to experience it on a bicycle. Of course it’s impossible to carry a bicycle with you when you’re traveling overseas, but fortunately London has a slew of bike rental stations throughout the city. They are currently sponsored by Santander Bank, so they’re called Santander Cycles.
For a mere £2, you can rent a bicycle for 24 hours at unlimited 30 minute increments. There is a self-serve station with a touchscreen video to check out the cycles. Use a credit card to reserve, and each time you want to check out a new bicycle you reinsert the credit card and get a new five digit code. You punch these five digit codes into one of the bike’s docking stations, and then lift the bicycle out. Ride through Hyde Park, from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall towards Parliament, around Parliament Square, pedal in front of Buckingham palace, or even cross the Tower Bridge.
It’s a brilliant and cost-effective way to see the city. As long as you don’t have a bicycle out for more than 30 minutes at a time, you will never be charged more than that initial £2 in any 24 hour period.
You can find a map for Santander Cycle stations at the information center in various bus depots and tube stations. I found mine at the bus terminal at Vauxhall. It also gives you a nice layout of London, so you can see where the cycle stations are in relation to the places you want to visit most.
There is also an app for that! Check out the Santander Cycle app and use it in conjunction with a used iPhone you can get from PowerMax. You’ll always know where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there.