London is a great city for solo travelers. Having explored it many times, many ways, here are my top tips for London on a budget including practical advice on how to be navigate London as a tourist. It also includes my best recommendations for London’s historical sites, royal London, tips for active London, London music and theater, and more.
This is the third update to this affordable London post and it is richer than any previous with our best advice for solo travel to London.
London can be a very expensive city. Truly, you can drop as much money as you want in this city. But London can also be done on a budget. There are lots of free and low-cost options. We’ll focus on these but also give you ideas for a splurge or for those occasions when you’d rather save time than money.
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How to Get from Heathrow or Gatwick to London
You’ll likely arrive in London by plane so that’s where we’ll start. As a solo traveler you’ll have to navigate the city all by yourself. Here’s what you need to know.
The Cheapest Way to Get from Heathrow to London is the Tube
First, pack light so that you can manage public transport with your bags. Here’s your post for that: Bare Minimum Packing: Here’s Your Packing List. You can go from Heathrow to the center of London for £3,10 by the Underground (it’s a subway also known as the Tube) depending on the time of day. This is from the Heathrow website: “Journey time by Tube is under an hour and you shouldn’t have to wait longer than ten minutes for a train, even off-peak. Underground tickets are available at all stations. The single cash fare to central London (Zone 1) is £6.00. … Oyster pay-as-you-go fares are £5.10 (Mon – Fri, 06:30 – 09:30) and £3.10 (all other times).” The Oyster fare refers to London’s transit card. See below for more on the Oyster card.
When you leave the arrivals area of the airport just follow the signs for the Underground. At the entrance to the Underground, go to the ticket booth and buy an Oyster card. Top it up with the amount you’ve decided is best for your stay and get information on how to get to the Tube station closest to your accommodation. To save you the hassle of buying the card when you’re jet-lagged, it’s a good idea to buy one in advance, which you can do here: London visitor oyster card.
More Heathrow to London Transfer Options
National Express Heathrow Coach Transfer – The price is right, £6.00, and you don’t have to lug your bags like you do on the tube, but the time ranges from 40 minutes to 2 hours 35 minutes, depending on traffic.
Heathrow Express Tickets – The Heathrow Express is a high speed train between Heathrow and London. The trains depart up to every 15 minutes and take just 15 minutes. You save £5 per ticket when you buy in advance. Price: £22.00.
Heathrow to Central London by Private Transfer – This is the most expensive method. It will likely cost you around US$250.
Gatwick Airport Transfer Options
Planning to Go Beyond London?
Consider a British Rail Pass. The BritRail Pass will get you around the country. The pass is sold by number of days and you have a choice of a pass that only allows consecutive days and a flexi pass that allows you days between trips.
How to Use the London Underground. The Oyster Card and More
Taxis add up. Public transit is the most cost-efficient way to go any distance in London and it is easy if you have an Oyster Card, which is a transit pass. A Tube journey in central London costs £2.40 with Oyster or £4.90 with cash. The Oyster card is a good deal.
You can buy one in advance of your trip here: London visitor oyster card . You’ll buy it already loaded with your choice of credit on the card. Doing this means you have one less thing to think about when you arrive in London. Alternatively, you can buy the card for £5 at any Underground station and pay as you go. Don’t worry about putting too much on the card because if you have money left at the end of the trip you can go to a ticket booth to get a refund. You can also give your Oyster card back and get your £5 reimbursed or save your Oyster Card for future trips. As far as using it as you go, it’s a tap in/tap out process.
More Tips for Getting Around London
Download the London Tube app. The London Underground is large and complicated. Use the routing option of this app to get detailed instructions on how to get where you want to go from where you are. It will also tell you approximately how long it will take.
Don’t forget that there are buses as well. Tourists tend to opt for the Underground because there are maps to show where you’re going. However, sometimes buses are a better option. You can also download an app called the London Bus Free Map and Route Planner.
Rent a bike. Like most major cities, London has bikes for short-term rental. They go under the name Santander Cycles. Once you pay the £2 bike access fee for the day, the first 30 minutes of each journey are free. Ride longer and it will cost you £2 for each additional 30 minutes.
Walk, walk, walk. This is a big city but most of the tourist places are within one big walking district, so take yourself on a walking tour as you head to your destination. Note that one street can have many names. These go for main streets as well as small ones. Charing Cross turns into Tottenham Road. Mortimer turns into Goodge. Knowing the changes will help you navigate more easily. Also, be careful. At every intersection look down and you will see painted on the ground which way you should look for traffic. There’s a reason they invested so much to paint these. It takes time to adjust to the different traffic flow.
Get the Google Maps app. I don’t like to walk about looking at my phone but with all the tiny streets in London the Google Maps app can be very handy at times.
Pick up a free map at a hostel. The free map at hostels tends to have some of the better low-cost recommendations.
Budget London: What to Do in London
Once you’re on the ground in London the question is what to do. Let’s start with getting an overview of the city.
Hop-on Hop-off with a discount. A hop-on, hop-off London sightseeing bus tour is great if you’re short on time or want to get an overview of the city before you dig into its specifics. This company has five different routes and live commentary which is always better than recorded versions.
Take a free walking tour. Take one of two free tours of the city. They are offered by Sandeman’s and Undiscovered London. I took the latter and it was worth it, though not the best tour I’ve ever taken. Remember to tip your tour guide. In addition to not being paid for their time and expertise, they have to pay the company an amount for every person who attends. For .99 you can also get the London Street Art app.
Royal and Historical Highlights of London
If you’re going to take in a number of London attractions, then the London Pass is likely worth it. It gets you into Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, museums and historic houses, Wimbledon, and more. If you won’t take in many attractions your better bet is likely the hop-on, hop-off tour. Ask the driver if they have any discount coupons. They often do.
What the London Pass covers. The London pass includes 1 Day Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour, Skip the Line on certain attractions, admission to 80 attractions including Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Windsor Castle, View from the Shard, London Zoo, Kensington Palace, and Thames River Cruise. It’s sold on a per day basis.
National Trust Touring Pass The National Trust takes care of British heritage sites. The National Trust Touring Pass gives you free entry to over 300 historic houses and gardens in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It’s really worth a look. In London, you can visit many Georgian houses and even a Tudor house. They hold special events as well. This pass is especially valuable if you’ll be traveling beyond London.
Buckingham Palace and more. The Queen opens the palace and its gardens to visitors every August and September. Advance purchase of tickets is recommended. If those months don’t work for you, why not visit Windsor Castle (an hour outside of central London) or the Royal Mews, which is considered the finest working stable in the world. Or take the Three Palaces Pass that includes Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, and the Tower of London. You can get to all three with your Oyster card.
The Changing of the Guard. This time-honored ceremony takes place daily from May to July and every other day the rest of the year. If you want to actually see the spectacle without climbing a fence, get there by 11 am. Free.
Afternoon tea at the Grosvenor Hotel. Since 1929 the Grosvenor House Hotel has received royalty and other celebrities. Their Grosvenor House afternoon tea takes place in the Park Room that has the charm of an English stately home. It’s a theatrical setting. It’s located near Victoria Station and walking distance from Buckingham Palace.
Check out Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This is a replica of the theater that Shakespeare and his fellow artists built. It’s just across the Millennium Bridge that connects, in my mind, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern. There are tours and, during the high season, plays as well. You can book a tour on its own or book a tour and a Midsummer Night’s Dream themed afternoon tea in the Swan restaurant.
London museums rich in heritage and free. Go to the museums which are free for their permanent collections. There is usually a fee for special exhibits. Unless you’re a real museum enthusiast, you may want to ask for a recommendation as to how to approach the museum at the information desk. I did this at the Tate Modern and, rather than dashing through trying to take in a lot, I took in a little but with more appreciation. Here’s a list of free museums in London. Free
Explore London as a Local
Feel London at a different pace. Walk the Victoria and Albert Embankment from the Houses of Parliament to the Millennium Bridge and you’ll enjoy London at a more relaxed pace while seeing some of the major sights.
Take in the street art. London has lots of great street art and many famous street artists. Here’s a self-guided walking tour of London’s street art.
Window shopping. There are many places to shop in London but I love to go to Covent Garden for some unique shopping. While there, wander the West End theater district to see the range of plays. It’s a sight unto itself. Read: Solo in London: Shopping.
Go to the best bookshops in town. Stop into Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street and check out the travel section for which they’re famous.
Go to the parks. There are a number of lovely parks in London. Hyde Park is famous for Speaker’s Corner which is often entertaining if not thought-provoking. Here’s a list that’s sorted according to park locations in the city.
Wander the neighborhoods. London is made up of neighborhoods made famous in literature and film. They have a certain familiarity to them and yet there’s more to them when you see them live. Go to Notting Hill, Bloomsbury, Marylebone, and for more action, Camden.
London’s Theater and Music Scenes on a Budget
London’s West End theater scene. Buy tickets for the shows at Leicester Square. There are a couple of places there. Go to the one on the south end with the permanent structure as I was told by a theater box office person that they sell their best available seats to them. While they promote half-price tickets, not all tickets are half-price. You can also purchase a theatre passport in advance of your trip which gives you deep discounts on tickets. You exchange an e-voucher for the ticket you want at an Encore Tickets Collection Point.
Don’t forget Off-West End productions. Check the reviews carefully and enter the really local theater scene.
Royal Albert Hall tour. I love touring grand opera houses and theaters when I travel. Doing so reveals so much about a place’s history and culture. The Royal Albert Hall is one of London’s absolute top historic buildings. But beyond historic, it’s a magnificent building where anyone who is anyone has played. You can buy a ticket for Royal Albert Hall Tour or get free entry with your London Pass.
Handel and Hendrix House. “Separated by a wall & 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London & changed music.” This is a new find for me. Check it out.
Free concerts in Trafalgar Square. Go to St. Martin-in-the-Fields at noon for a free concert most days. It’s usually an organ recital. If you don’t like the idea of that, go just to enjoy the church. It’s very pretty, a refreshing change from most churches. FREE
The Scoop. In the summer, The Scoop amphiteater, which is beside City Hall, close to Tower Bridge, offers live music, plays, or film screenings almost every evening. FREE
Take in an event or festival. The Time Out app is a great resource for local events and festivals.
Adventure and Active Travel in London
What’s your favorite sport? Why not do it in London on a tour or by joining in with locals?
Run London. What about a tour company that’s specifically for runners? Secret London Runs offers a variety of running tours and events in the city.
Bicycle Tours of London. You have the choice of two tours with BrakeAway Bicycle Tours.
Kayak on the Thames. Kayaking London is another company that offers unique, active tours of London.
Join a local race. Use Find a Race and search on London to see what races might be going on when you’re there. Running, swimming, cycling – this site offers a lot.
Helicopter Tour over London. Now this is a unique way to view London. You can choose a 10, 20 or 30 minute flight.
Cosy into a neighborhood and likely save some money by renting an apartment. I’ve had great success with VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner). Here’s a link to their London listings. Of course, there’s also Airbnb but I’ve found better prices on VRBO. If you’re going the Airbnb route, click here to book and you’ll get a $25 credit.
But there’s more. This topic requires an entire post unto itself. In fact, we have Where to Stay in London, which covers recommended places to stay in London from luxury to budget to hipster and everything in between.
The map below is interactive and includes some of the suggestions in that post. Click on a marker:
- yellow for budget accommodation
- green for middle-of-the-road prices by London standards
- blue for luxury hotels
- purple are hipster hotels
and you’ll see the name of the hotel, hostel, or B&B and a link for more information and to book it.
You can also zoom in and out with this map to get a better look at what’s near the various hotels. I love maps and study them before traveling so that I have a sense of the destination.
Cheap Eats in London that are Great for Solo Travelers
London’s street food. A city with a diverse culture always makes for really interesting food truck and market options. Time Out has an excellent list of 50 possibilities for you to consider.
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Cafe. Beneath the church is a cafe and gift shop. It’s reasonably priced with a wonderful ambiance.
Hostels have great breakfasts. A full breakfast with juice, cereal, yogurt, coffee, and a croissant was £4.95. Just cereal (which is all I want in the mornings) was 95p. And, they had adult cereal. I’m not into sugary cereal, so it was great. The cost of food throughout the day was very reasonable, plus there’s a kitchen onsite if you want to cook your own.
Eat at a pub. Not only will you be fed, but you’ll also get a classic London experience. And watch for happy hours when there are often special promotions.
Marks & Spencer takeaway section. They have an extensive section dedicated to takeaway and easy fix meals. Some you have to cook, which is fine if you’re staying at an apartment or hostel.
Check out the markets. There are many markets to try. Tracey recommends one off the beaten path. Try the Brixton Market as an interesting place to mingle with locals as well as for the best pizza ever.
Fish and chips. I’ve never had a bad fish and chips meal in the UK. Affordable and delicious, but not something to have every day.
Don’t let the windows fool you. As you wander the streets looking for a place to eat you may think that every place is full. Step in to confirm this as many places have additional seating upstairs or down.
Good to Know
Need a computer? If you need access to a computer you can go to any of the libraries and get it free.
Need help? The emergency number in London is 999, not 911.
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