London is rumored to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, thanks in large part to an exchange rate that is not in Americans' favor. But I think the rumors are mostly exaggerated. Money is no reason to deny yourself the opportunity to see one of the world's finest capitals. If you can afford Chicago or Disney World, you can save money in London by sticking to my insider's budget travel tips.
One of your biggest expenses will be getting there. That's a given. But once you land, you don't have to spend a fortune to see one of the world's finest capitals. These 10 quick tips, if faithfully followed, will whittle your on-the-ground budget to a level that can make London even more affordable than many American cities.
1. Fill Your Time With the Free Museums
Years ago, Britain declared that most of its best museums should be free to enter so that all citizens could benefit equally from them, and that sense of equality holds at many private museums. That means visitors can now easily fill an entire week seeing some of the most important and exquisite exhibits on the planet, including those at the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain, V&A, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of London, the Saatchi Gallery, and the unparalleled British Museum. Cost: FREE
2. Churches Can be Free
Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral are two attractions that do charge admission, and if an adult goes to both, they'll pay some $44 in ticket fees. But they're also working houses of worship, and anyone can attend services for free. Cost: FREE
3. Eat Triangle Sandwiches
Londoners by the million eat a cheap, quick lunch in the form of fresh-made sandwiches sold refrigerated in triangular cartons. Those cost only £1.50 to £4, and eating one will keep you from wasting touring time. After all, most museums are only open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. COST: £3 ($4.75) per meal
4. If You Have to Sit, Have a Pub Lunch
You know you want to go to a pub anyway. Many pubs serve food, as well. It's basic, but cheap, and you'll have it in an authentically-English atmosphere. Estimate about £6 ($9.50).
5. Know the Cheap British Hotel Chains
In the past half-decade there's been a flourishing of inexpensive, high-quality budget hotel rooms. Three big brands to look for: Premier Inn, Travelodge, Ibis. Travelodge costs about £55 ($88) per night with a few months' advance purchase.
6. Enjoy a Family-Run B&B
The English are known for their homey hospitality, and it's easy for Americans reared on major hotel chains to remember there are hundreds of family-run B&Bs in historic buildings where you can get local advice, increased privacy and personalized service, a home-cooked breakfast, and cheap prices in the center of town. There are major pockets of affordable B&Bs near Kings Cross and St Pancras trains stations and along Gower Street, just west of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. Both are within walking distance to the West End and cost about £55 ($88) for a single room and £90 ($144) for a double. Those prices are for your own bathroom. Use one down the hall, and you'll save another $25.
7. Sit Upstairs On a Red Double-Decker Bus
A ride is only £2 ($3.20), but the view of the city will be unforgettable. London's buses themselves are famous attractions, anyway. Prices are even lower if you buy a temporary bus pass. Cost: $3.20 per ride.
8. Keep Off the Tube as Much as Possible.
London's subway system was the world's first, and that's a big reason it's famous, but that fame makes tourists forget that London is at heart a walker's city. Paying in cash will cost you £4 ($6.35) per ride, with discounts if you spend more on pre-paid rides. But so much of the city, especially the West End, is walkable, and many Tube stations are much closer together than the Underground map makes them appear.
9. Take a Walking Tour
London Walks (started by an American, of course) offers dozens of historic and literary walking tours all over the city each day for just £8. The group is deservedly famous, so brochures and timetables are found everywhere tourists are.
10. Eat Atop a Graveyard
I'll throw one budget restaurant into my list of suggestions because it's smack in the middle of where most tourists go. In the former burial place at St. Martin in the Fields, the Café in the Crypt is a popular place to rest your feet and scarf down delicious food (I like the berries with freshly whipped cream), and it's yards away from many of the city's most popular attractions. The Café has grown famous among budget travelers, and there's a reason why.
Last year, WalletPop brought you a complete podcast about strategies for saving money in London. Click here to watch and hear that.
Budget London Tips: Tour for $15 a Day