Flights to London are getting cheaper and cheaper, but unfortunately, the city is still expensive as hell.
When you first get to London, the prices don’t seem too bad - £5 for a pint, £15 for fish & chips, £4 for a coffee, etc. Then you remember the exchange rate and realize that you have to add at least 30% to that. Jesus.
Back in 2010, I decided to live in London until I went broke, which took about 6 months. To be honest, it should have only taken six weeks, but I became a pro at stretching out my weak American dollar. Here's how you can do the same:
When I lived in London I worked at a hostel in exchange for a room. If you plan on staying longer than a month, I highly suggest you do the same. I only worked 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. It amounted to about $25 per hour. The work was easy and I got to meet the most amazing people while I was there.
If you have a short stay and want affordable privacy, I suggest looking at an Airbrb, a private room in a hostel, or a heavily discounted “mystery” hotel on Priceline or a similar site.
Let’s be honest, England doesn’t scream amazing cuisine; especially if you’re a vegetarian. The only thing I MUST get when I’m in London is Indian food - and you should too. Don’t get me wrong, you can find some great food in London, but it’s all quite expensive. For example, Crosstown Doughnuts is great for a quit grab and go breakfast, but a single doughnut is £3.95. That’s ridiculous.
(Market treats and mimosas in Hyde Park with Kensington Palace right behind me)
Even skipping one restaurant meal out can save you $20. I suggest going to Tesco, M&S, Sainsbury, or a nearby market and grabing some groceries or pre-made meals. I typically grab cold food and then head to the park to eat.
If you’re not into pre-made meals, or don't have the means to prep food, go to a small shop and grab something cheap and easy like a doner (gyro), pasty, or Scotch egg. That way you're still getting the London experience without spending a small fortune.
Happy Hours - If you want to experience the wonderful pubs of London without going broke, visit them during their happy hours. Some places start HH as early as 2pm and others end as late as 8pm. Make the most of those 6 hours and plan a course of action.
PIMM’s in the Park - The parks in London are wonderful. I suggest grabbing your drink of choice and heading to the park. It doesn’t necessarily have to be PIMM’s, but when in London…
Free museums - I don’t typically do museums when I’m traveling, but if I've heard amazing things about it, or if the weather is shit, I’ll check them out. Seeing as London often has terrible weather days, I found myself in museums quite frequently when I lived there. Luckily, London is like the capital of free museums. The National Gallery, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Royal Air Force Museum, Tate Modern, National Maritime Museum, and many more are all free. Check out a more detailed list here.
(Victoria & Albert Museum)
Changing the Guard - The thought of going to Changing the Guard may bore you, but at least it’s free. It takes place outside Buckingham Palace every day at 10:45am and lasts about 45 minutes.
There is also the Four O' Clock Parade in front of the Horse Guards building. The guards are inspected by an officer and then the mounted guards take the horses back to the stables for the night. It's another quick, free thing to see if you're in the area.
Parks & Gardens - I love the parks in London. I used to go there to play sports, drink PIMM’s, read a book, and take lunch and the occasional nap. They’re peaceful, pretty, and, of course, free. I suggest taking in the view at Primrose Hill, smelling the roses at Kensington Palace’s Sunken Garden, playing footy in Hyde Park, and feeding the birds in St. James’s Park.
(Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace)
Markets - Wanna know why markets are the best? Samples. Markets are better than a Sunday at Costco. And if there aren't many samples, the food that's available is relatively inexpensive. Plus you get to graze on an array of different food in a single location. My favorites are Borough Market, Portobello Road Market, and Camden - when I’m feeling frisky.
Next time I’m in London, I looking forward to trying the new Soho Vegan Market on Saturdays!
Cheap theater tickets - The West End is second only to Broadway when it comes to theater. If you’re interested in going to a show, there’s no need to pay full price. Unless a show is in high demand, or has a short run, you should be able to get discounted tickets to any West End show. I suggest getting tickets through third party sites like Time Out or TKTS (available in person only).
If you don’t want to purchase tickets from a third party, you can often buy discounted tickets at the venue the day of the show. If you're interested in a high demand show like Hamilton, theaters will often have a lottery for cheap seats. Check with the venue to see their policies and details for entry.
(Meeting Jonathan Groff after seeing Deathtrap. This photo is from 2010 when only cool people had Blackberries and you had to turn your phone around to take a selfie.)
Seasonal Events - Notting Hill Carnival in August is my all-time favorite free event in London. It's a huge Caribbean festival full of color, life, music, and delicious food. In my opinion, it's the event of the year.
Other free events include the New Years Day Parade (January), Trooping the Colour (June), State Opening of Parliament (May), Head of the River Race (March), and more.
(Right before the Four O' Clock Parade, also known as the Dismounting Ceremony and Punishment Parade in front of the Horse Guards building.)
Get. An. Oyster. Card.