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Monday, November 5, 2018

Visiting London on a Shoestring Budget


No, I'm not heading to London. (Yet, though this post really makes me want to go.) However, my best friend, Michelle, recently was in London, and she amazed me not only by how many things she saw in her short amount of time there, but also little she spent doing so. As she knows how much I love travel, and especially frugal travel, she offered to write this amazing and informative post on how you, too, can visit London, have a great time, and pay nearly nothing. I'm really psyched about this, and I wish I could be in London now (though I will see what kind of Black Friday deals I can find...)

Hi! So I just came back from four days in London, and I realized that London itself, although there are some parts of it that can be expensive, is an extremely frugal city to tour if you can navigate the 2 hot-spots. I thought that I would give some ideas, especially for those interested in touring this major historical metropolis, that might help those who are interested in getting there!

I'm also a huge history geek, so for me, London is a hotbed of amazing historical and cultural places that really added to the experience.


2 Frugal Issues With London: Plane Ticket and Lodging

London flights can be expensive. If you have miles, that would be my obvious choice to try and get to London on a budget, especially the miles that you get when you open up a new credit card and spend X amount of money in certain months. Make sure to be frugal and pay off the credit card in full every month (ie, DO NOT EVER leave a balance) but if you do use credit cards and miles, I would definitely use them on a London trip.

Another option would be random sales, or Skyscanner. I did a basic query, and found London flights off season for about $200-250 USD and found for those who are traveling from out of the US for about $109 USD round trip. Again, this would be the slightly hard, yet surmountable issue for those who like to travel frugally.
I traveled via work, so I was comped for my flight, making this a 0 sum outlay for me :) .



Lodging is the second issue. You definitely want to stay in Central London. There is no reason to stay anywhere else because you'll want to spend most of your time there, and if you really want to travel out of central London, then you can take buses/trains- but you want to remain in Central London in order to frugally (literally) navigate all the free and low cost areas. Best would be a friend, Airbnb, or a random hotel deal. I stayed in the West End of London, on Strand, across from the Savoy, which is quite central. But again, I traveled for work, so these two items were free for me.



Once these 2 issues are navigated you will have no problem navigating London on a budget.

Why is London so cheap otherwise?

Answer: Most historical sites are free or low cost, including museums. This is the amazing thing about London, as long as you have a pair of good walking shoes you are good to go! Food bought in a local Tesco Express is standard cheap pricing, or you could bring food with you (which I did- and managed 4 days on my own food). You need a pair of walking shoes and a raincoat (yes, London rains all the time, so you just want to prepare for that). With those 2 things you should be good to go.

You don't need a map or a cellphone. Yes, I toured London without internet :). There are helpful maps on almost every corner of Central London that show exactly where you are, you can get a free map from one of the double-decker red buses, and locals are more than willing to tell you how to get somewhere. Of course, it helped that I understood British History enough to navigate but I'm sure you will do fine even without that.

Museums I highly recommend seeing that are free in central London:



National Gallery:
Here you will see art from classic artists from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Italian artists (yes, every name you think of), Dutch Van Velde, and others. Must see for anyone. Absolutely spectacular building, and the art will leave you super inspired. They sell maps inside but you don't need one- just navigate via the numbered rooms and when in doubt as to where something is, just look at the floor map on the wall or ask the security guards and they will show you the correct room for that artist. It took me about 2 hours to see fully.



National Portrait Gallery:
Here would be portraits of everyone from British History, from the Tudors, to the Stuarts, to the later and more modern kings, as well as scientists (Kelvin, Faraday, Newton), poets and writers (Donne, Shakespeare), and many many others. Find the room with the "Americans" in it to see a picture of George Washington, as he was born in Virginia when it was still a colony. I recognized most, if not all of the portraits, and was thrilled each time I met another familiar name. Plus the art is spectacular. It took me about 2 hours to see fully.
Again, they sell maps inside, but not needed as there is a great floor plan.

Both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are located next door basically to each other, and opposite Convent Gardens/Market (a must see! just walk around and they have outdoor events all the time), St. Martins Church, Trafalgar Square, and Victoria Artillery Arch. Peek around the corner from the Arch to see the Royal Society of London, and the monument to the Duke of York.
 


If you walk behind Convent Garden/Market (free!), then you will come across the Royal Opera House (peek inside, they let you look for free!), the London Transport Museum (not free, and so I did not visit it!). Keep on going to hit Drury Lane, and right past there you will find a teeny free Camera Museum (on Museum Lane). Keep on walking straight and you'll hit the Freemasons Museum (free!), and the museum I most enjoyed: The British Museum.

The British Museum is one of the most gorgeous and largest museums of culture and history that I have ever seen, and I've been to many of them all over the globe. From the Egypt exhibit (mummies galore, so so much hieroglyphics making it one of the most famous in the world besides Cairo, and the famous Rosetta Stone), to the ancient world of the Levant (Cyrus' cylinder is on display), to the history of coins, clocks (yes the competitors of longitude are on display), the ancient world of Britain, the Parthenon of Rome, (and more from the Acropolis) Temple of Athens, the exhibit of the Assyrian conquer of Lahish, and so so much more- this museum took me 6 hours to tour in its entirety and I didn't skip a single room.
Rooms of China, Japan (the Sacred Wave is sometimes there), Africa, Britain, Rome, Assyria, Greece, Iran (a full exhibit of Muslim culture throughout the ages is there), and the Nereid Monument, you will NOT regret spending a full day if you can there. And yes, it is totally free.
Again they sell maps, but on every floor you will find a very very clear map of how each floor is laid out, and you can ask if you are not sure. I tried to go in historical order (starting from Mesopotamia and the Levant, moving to Assyria, then Greece (Alexander the Great is very much there), Rome and others) but you can see things however you like. It is displayed to be in historical context and British explorers have been bringing things to the Museum for as long as it has been in existence. Make sure you set aside time for this museum as it can't be beat.

Other free museums that I didn't make it to see but that are amazing:
Imperial War Museum- see World War I and II until today equipment and discussion (this is very different from the not-free Churchill War Rooms). I got a very good recommendation for this but unfortunately didn't make it- so this would have been my one addition to my trip.
Victoria and Albert Museum- world's biggest museum for design and arts
Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood- toys, games, very airy space
Buckingham Gallery- rotating exhibit with specific times- please check out the times before you go there
Natural History Museum
Science Museum
Museum of London
Maritime Museum
Bank of England Museum
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology
SO MUCH MORE! I'm sure there are others that I am not listing but the simple fact that all of these are free makes touring London frugal as long as you have a pair of walking shoes.




Non Museum Events:

London has cultural events as well. The famous Changing of the Guards in front of Buckingham Palace is definitely worth your time at 10:30-10:45 in the morning. Check their website to see their exact schedule as some days they are not there and some days they are, and the whole thing is timed in a way that you don't want to miss it!

I happened to be there the weekend of the London to Brighton drive of pre-1904 cars, which starts in Hyde Park and goes from there to Westminster Palace/Parliament Square, and crosses Westminster Bridge to Brighton- worthwhile to be there at sunrise to get a peek of these amazing vehicles!




History

London is a city rich with history. To plan my trip, I made a list of places that I wanted to see, and planned out a route in advance that would allow me to see most of them by walking. You can navigate the bridges across the Thames to your best advantage, allowing you to see the sites while crossing the length and breadth of the city.

I will describe one morning that I did- from 10 am until 4 pm so that you can see that it is very doable, and then describe another morning that I did from 630 am until 10 am- again, making it very doable.


I went from the Savoy past Charing Cross Station into Trafalgar Square (St Martin in the Fields Church, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery). From there you can walk under the Admirality Arch past the Royal Society (check out Newton's telescope) to both Hyde Park (Peter Pan statue, bird society) and St James Park.
If you walk through Hyde Park you will hit Kensington Gardens, and Kensington Palace. There are monuments and little pieces of interest, like where the Ornithological Society had their quarters right next to St James Park. You can walk the long way around the park to pass by the Guards Museum (next to the Mews). Peek inside but you don't have to go all the way in order to see artifacts (the museum itself is not free).
You will pass Churchill's War Rooms (which are not free), and you can keep going until you hit Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial. You can take the long way around Buckingham Palace to see the Apsley Way, Wellington Arch, St George's Hospital (with Edward Jenner's fame), and double back to head all the way back across the city.


From there you can head to Somerset House, Little Ben, and the famous Westminster Abbey. Spend some time in the Abbey to see not only the church itself, but Poets Corner, the burial of Elizabeth I and other royals, and scientists such as Newton, Darwin, and Hawking.

Finally you will get to Parliament Square. At Parliament Square (get a pic of Churchill, Lincoln, and Mandela) is the Supreme Court (and they will let you for free walk around, take pictures, and be there for active court cases), and of course, Westminster Palace/Parliament. Parliament is free to enter- you can go to both the House of Lords and the House of Commons and sit in on proceedings. Big Ben/Elizabeth Tower is currently under renovation (I think until 2021) but you can see the clock face despite it. And of course don't forget to take a picture on Westminster Bridge.

Yes that whole morning was free! You will be able to simply cross the entire city on foot!





Another morning I got up early to go to the pre-1904 drive from London to Brighton. I made my way to Parliament Square to see it, and from there, went down the Thames, by Westminster Bridge across the Victoria Embankment. You will see New Scotland Yard, the London Eye, Whitehall Gardens, and other sites of interest. From there if you keep walking you will hit Millennium Bridge, London Bridge (get an iconic photo facing the Tower Bridge by the Tower of London on the Thames), and get to All Hallows Church next to the Tower of London. Plus, being right next to the Thames is an experience in of itself.

Now, the Tower of London is amazing of course not only for its historical significance in British History as the place of both execution and of ruling families, but currently it houses the Royal Jewels. If you actually want to spend money (finally!), I would highly recommend spending the 20 pounds to go inside and see it and the Jewels. However, if you just want to remain frugal, you can look all around the outside for free :). So this would be the only money so far that I would actually recommend spending on the trip.

If you double back by the Tower of London, you will pass the Monument to the fire of London, a firefighters monument, St Paul's' cathedral, and keep walking to get to Fleet Street (national newspaper journalism). You will then end up basically back where you started, eventually getting to Waterloo Bridge.

I'm sure I missed a few churches (yes, the Temple church, St Martin's on Fleet, etc...) but you will pass them as you walk through the streets. Just keep your eyes peeled and you'll notice the historical places and sites to see that you can't see anywhere else. For me, as a student of British History, even the street names made me happy in recognition.




Slightly further out places: Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes (although the museum is not free)) and the nearby Madame Tussauds London, to all the way across the Thames for Shakespeare's Globe - definitely try to take a peek. You will also at some point in central London, pass the theatre district, from the Lyceum to Her Majesty's Theatre, and others (I can't even list them all here).

Honestly I could keep going and going- from the Florence Nightingale Museum, to the London Aquarium and London Dungeon, to random small memorials for Her Majesty's Navy and Air Force located in many locations (check out the one across from New Scotland Yard). I'm sure also that I passed and didn't write down here, other locations of interest that I enjoyed, but if you have a basic plan of where you are going, you will naturally see things on the way that you will want to enjoy and look for, so that makes touring London a unique experience.

My total cost:
Lodging + Plane = paid for by work but can get flights as low as $200. Did an AirBnB search, right next to the Savoy there are airbnb for as low as $50 inside Convent Garden, or as low as $30 a bit further away. Try and stay as close as possible if you can to central London.
Food = brought from home
Touring = free + 20 pounds Tower of London

My cost: 20 British pounds for Tower of London.

Your cost for 4 full days in Central London: $200 for flight, $120 for lodging = $320. Try and spend less if you can!

I think that London essentially is a city not only built for history and tourism, but a free city unlike New York or Paris where most things cost money. So if you are able to get to London, touring is something that can be done on a budget of 0 dollars, which is much more than I can say for any city across the globe.

After reading this, who isn't psyched to go check out London? I almost felt I was there with her, and now I really want to find frugal airfare to get there! London sounds amazing, and most amazing is how frugal it is! Have you been touring in London? What was your favorite thing to see? What would you add to this list on how to visit London on a shoestring?

11 comments:

  1. We did London as a family this past summer (we budgeted for big-ticket items, but didn't want to spend unneccessarily, just for the sake of it).

    As a family, we found it cheaper to stay just outside London (we stayed in the Premier Inn in Borehamwood), and buy daily travelcards with a friends and family railcard than to stay in Central London.

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  2. Ok, so as someone who has lived in London for 25 years I think that you really over simplified it. First of all, these places are not all close to each other, you must have spent a good part of the day walking. And second I think it would be such a shame to go to London and skip so many things just because they cost money. Yes, I feel that London is a very expensive city but if you are already here please allocate down mmoeny to go to places that a actually cost but are amazing, along with doing all the free stuff

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    1. We are planning a month of Shakespeare in England this summer.
      I would love to hear from you Anonymous, what you think are some of the amazing paying things we should do in London. I actually agree with both sides here, I would love to just walk around and "learn" London, but it *is* frugal to spend money and see the best there is to see, considering the carbon footprint of going means we may never go again.

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  3. Hi Penny, I went few times and the city is really beautiful ald people are so polite and helping. I stayed outside the very center, with my friends and also in airbnb - I really enjoy riding in metro in big cities so I liked the daily tube (their metro system) rides. Also, mews (ex horse stables turnwd into houses) are beautiful to see. Walk on the Portobello road market. British museum is everything your friend said it was. I also enjoyed the science museum (free, they take donations) and Tate modern. Try at least to find somebody to visit there, if not stay with them, as I found the inside od their houses so beautiful and different - you really get the idea of how people live there. I saw Abbey Road because Beatles :) it was fun people watching there, as they were trying to take the iconoc-like picture; I also checked St Martin's Colledge because Pulp mention it in my favorite song. I definitely recommend to listwn to some british music beforehand, because it is wonderful to recognise locations from the songs on your walks. Also, I went on the Tower bridge - didn't see the jewels but walked on the glass floor - amazing experience. I also took riverboat tour to see Meridian, and on our way there saw river dam(s), spectacular. I got a ticket as a gift and saw a musical on West End. (50 EUR, and that i s a cheap one, uh! but last minute prices can drop significantly) Splurge on a fish and chips or a shepherd's pie in a pub. Also, there are free walking tours (they take donations)..

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  4. Hi, I just wanted to point out that Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral are not free, except maybe on certain dates, and can get quite expensive for a whole family. If you can afford it they are certainly worth a visit but if you can't there are plenty of other things to see.

    For instance, if you like open markets there are quite a few good options and they're free access:

    Covent Garden (great ambiance and street numbers for the kids and adults, the shops themselves are expensive but you don't have to buy). Also there's Jubilee Market next to it with much cheaper prices (shirts, souvenirs, bags...). Nearby places: Leicester Square, Soho, Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square... it's really very centric.

    Borough Market if you're a foodie, also expensive as a rule but there's always a beautiful selection of products from different countries. Nearby places: Southwark Cathedral, Tate Modern, from there St. Paul across the river.

    Camden Market for souvenirs or just because it's so quirky (just be sure to price compare before buying).

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  5. That sort of vacation doesn't appeal to me at all. Going to a foreign country and bringing all your own food? Part of the fun of traveling is trying out restaurants you don't have at home. And not spending any money at all on an attraction or a souvenir? What a shame. Especially in your friends case where the trip was free, why not have some fun and go out to eat or buy a t-shirt? It just sounds so sad. And I like walking, but this sounds a bit much. It's a fun experience to take public transport in foreign countries. The thought of walking all day and then having to go prepare your own meals... This is not my idea of a vacation.

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    1. So for me with my food restrictions its not worth it for me to eat out; I'd rather buy some local stuff and supplement with things I brought from home. It also keeps down costs and also means I don't feel icky from eating things that aren't good for me.
      I would rather spend less on food and be able to go on trips more often than eat out and spend more on souvenirs and not be able to travel as much.
      Everyone has different things that speak to them when on vacation, there's no right or wrong way to do it.

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    2. The post is titled "London on a Shoestring" after all. Your personal budget might be able to accommodate more but that would be a different post.

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  6. I love the thought of traveling frugally where possible but when traveling I like to make sure I have the money to spend on experiences, for instance we paid to go to Churchill's war rooms, tower or London, and a few other places. We won't be back, at least not for a long time, and felt it was worth the money. However, these are great tips if you don't have the money.

    For places that tickets are required, I recommend buying and printing them in advance. Many places (Churchill's war rooms, for instance) have much shorter lines for those with tickets printed.

    For Harry Potter fans, you can take pictures at platform 9 3/4, you can buy the professional pictures or take pictures on your phone (you can ask from someone waiting in line to take one for you) and have them for free.

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  7. The flight costs here are really misleading as the flight departure tax from the UK is at least £156 - $202 at today’s exchange rate. I applaud your friend for posting about her experiences but the flight cost info is inaccurate.

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  8. PS I live in Houston, USA and fly to the UK 4 or 5 times a year so I am well versed in searching for cheap flights and aware of the taxes.

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