On my first trip to London in 1971, I was a 21-year-old backpacker clutching a copy of Europe on 5 Dollars a Day, sleeping in threadbare B&Bs and dining on grocery-store bread and cheese. Today, $5 won’t even buy a pint of beer at a pub in one of the world’s more expensive tourist destinations. As those cooped up by COVID-19 start traveling internationally again, London is bracing for a tourist invasion. Hotel and restaurant prices have been rising accordingly, but wallet-watching American visitors can still experience the best of the city without going over budget. Here are tips gathered on two dozen visits to one of my favorite cities. (Prices quoted are based on the exchange rate with the British pound, about $1.25)
1. Go off-season.
In 2019, before the pandemic, almost 22 million visitors descended on London, according to the Visit Britain tourism office. Family vacationers swarm in summer, and December brings shoppers and holiday festivities. Consider a visit when the city is calmer and airfares are lower. Hotel rates and airfares dip January through March, but the weather can be unpleasantly damp and cold in winter. My advice: Travel in September, October, November or April (except around Easter). And keep your travel dates flexible to find the best airfare; prices can vary from one day to another.
2. Book lodging well in advance.
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Hotels in central London average about $175 in low season, according to the Statista data-gathering firm. But those close to tourist attractions run $275 and up.
You’ll do well to reserve weeks or, preferably, months ahead, and to take some time to compare rates on hotel websites with those on booking sites such as Expedia, hotels.com and booking.com.
One well-located, affordable area to consider for lodging is Sussex Gardens near Paddington Station, where you’ll find rows of pillared London townhouse B&Bs and hotels. For rates under $100 at slow times look at Mitre House Hotel and Europa House Hotel.
Other reasonably priced hotels can be found in Bloomsbury near the British Museum, Victoria near Victoria Station, Islington, Kensington and newly fashionable East London.
Airbnb and Vrbo apartments are often priced lower, but for a first visit, I’d recommend a hotel or B&B that includes a full English breakfast in its rates and whose staff can answer questions, make dinner reservations and otherwise direct you.
3. Reserve transport, attractions and theater tickets before you go.
Beat cab fares from Heathrow Airport that can run more than $100 in traffic by buying round-trip tickets online for the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station in central London. They run as little as $14 if purchased more than 90 days in advance. Round-trip tickets bought closer to departure are a discounted $37 if bought as e-tickets online. (Note that kids 15 and under travel free.) If arriving at Gatwick Airport, advance round-trip tickets on the Gatwick Express to and from Victoria Station cost about $47 online.
Buy timed tickets before you go to tourist must-sees such as the Tower of London, with its red-coated Beefeater guards and the dazzling Crown Jewels, to beat the crowds and often save money. You can do the same at other venues with admission fees. If you’ll be sightseeing, save more than $100 with a weeklong London Pass (about $200, adult), or cheaper one- to six-day passes. Included are a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour (about $48 if bought separately), Tower of London admission ($30–$40), London Eye Ferris wheel ($45), Westminster Abbey ($28–$32) and more.
Find affordable London theater tickets at websites such as London Theatre Direct, where a seat at London’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap (an Agatha Christie mystery that mesmerized me in ’71), starts at 24 pounds (about $30), with no fee for e-tickets. For same-day theater deals, visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square.
4. Take the Tube.
While everyone should experience a ride in a shiny black London cab, famous for its drivers who study for years to pass a test on their knowledge of every nook and cranny of the city, it’s far cheaper to use passes to take the bus or ride on the extensive and efficient London Underground, known as the Tube. You can pay for your ride in cash (the typical one-way fare in Central London is a whopping $8), but savvy travelers use a plastic, rechargeable Visitor Oyster card that shaves off some of the fare for both bus and Tube. You can order it online in advance or buy one at Tube stations. If you’ll be making multiple trips a day, consider buying a weekly Travelcard (about $50) in advance or at a Tube station. Easier yet is swiping a credit or debit card before boarding an Underground train or bus (rides are free after a daily limit is reached). The downside for Americans is that you’ll be charged in pounds and may be subject to currency exchange charges.
5. Take advantage of free attractions.
It costs nothing to visit the British Museum, with its Rosetta Stone and mummies. The permanent exhibitions at the National Gallery (Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci) and Tate Modern (David Hockney, Henri Matisse) are free as well. It took me a few visits to London before I discovered the eclectic and impressive — and free — Victoria and Albert Museum, whose well-curated exhibits run the gamut from men’s fashions, to wallpaper through the ages, to Chinese ceramics. But, especially during the busy summer season, you’ll want to book timed tickets to these popular spots in advance.
There’s no charge to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but arrive early to secure a viewing spot for the 11 a.m. pageantry.
One of my favorite free pastimes is to listen to the rants of orators standing on boxes every Sunday at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park near Marble Arch. Anyone can vent on any subject. Also fun: watching street entertainers at bustling Covent Garden market.
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6. Dine like a duke for commoner prices.
Dinner for two runs $200 and skyward at London’s famed restaurants, including celebrity staples such as the Ivy and newer Hakkasan Mayfair. The Ivy does offer a prix fixe menu for less than $35 a person during weekday off-hours between 2:30 and 6 p.m. My favorite place to eat is the Wolseley, the lively grand café next to the theater district and beloved by tourists and well-heeled Londoners alike. You can splurge on caviar, oysters and lemon sole, but prix fixe dinners start at about $35. Chopped chicken and avocado salad with tarragon dressing (about $20) isn’t cheap, but the people-watching is priceless.
There are loads of other affordable and delicious eats in London. In my backpacking days, I learned to seek out Indian restaurants, whose inexpensive curries and puffy potato-stuffed breads fueled days of sightseeing. Today, look for top-notch Indian cuisine on Drummond Street near Euston Station and Brick Lane in East London.
Beer-battered fish and fried potato “chips” is traditional low-cost British comfort food and can be taken out or enjoyed at venues including Poppies local restaurant chain. Pub grub has evolved from “Scotch eggs” (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat and coated with bread crumbs). Expect to see avocado toast and fresh farm-to-table dishes on the menus at “gastropubs.” Look them up on the Eater London website, which gives the latest scoop on dining options.
Other budget tips: Gather the makings of a gourmet picnic in the food halls of department stores such as Harrods, a destination in itself. Or make a meal out of an afternoon British cream tea with scones, cakes and dainty sandwiches. Some of the best ones are served in historic hotels, such as the Egerton House Hotel in Knightsbridge.
7. Shop, but don’t drop too much.
Skip high-end stores selling cashmere and designer duds on Bond Street or in Knightsbridge, a favorite destination of the late Princess Diana. Do as thrifty Londoners do, and buy at Marks and Spencer department stores — “Marks and Sparks” in local parlance. The flagship M&S is on Oxford Street, a budget shopper’s haven. You also can haggle for antiques and bric-a-brac at the popular Portobello Road flea market in Notting Hill.
8. Sign up for an insider’s tour.
A small-group walking tour is a fabulous way to get to know the city. You can book food-sampling tours from Eating Europe and Secret Food Tours London, but be prepared to pay $100 or more. Tippling tourists will lap up the Hidden Pubs of London crawl that can be booked on Airbnb for $32 a person.
I’m a fan of half-century-old London Walks, which offers more than 500 different two-hour outings for about $12–18. Subjects include the Beatles’ London, street art, Harry Potter filming locales and Sherlock Holmes. I once took the Jack the Ripper walk, still running today. A knowledgeable guide led me and eight other Ripper stalkers through the streets and alleys of the once-seedy Whi techapel neighborhood, visiting scenes of the serial killer’s crimes. The tour, like so much in this fantastic city, was unforgettable.
Kitty Bean Yancey, a former USA Today deputy managing editor, is a travel writer and the winner of multiple Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers.