My most recent trip to London was my best yet - and I did it on a budget.
I was determined to get a handle on this city that I usually visit for business. So I scheduled three days for exploring and, for the first time, I took a walking tour.
And I walked to the tour.
I walked many, many miles spending as much time above ground as possible to get a real sense of distance and how the pieces of London fit together.
London can be a very expensive city. But with the recent political changes making the pound more affordable, more people are going. And with a little planning and these budget London tips, you can enjoy an affordable visit.
Getting around London
Getting from Heathrow to London - First, pack light so that you can manage public transport with your bags. You can go from Heathrow to the center of London for £3,10 by the Underground depending on the time of day. This is from the Heathrow website: "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). You'll need an 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. You can buy one in advance here: London visitor oyster card. Top it up with amount you've decided is best for your stay and get information on how to get to the Tube station closest to your accommodation.
More about the Oyster Card. 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. You can buy one in advance of your trip here: London visitor oyster card and they will send you the card in advance of your trip. 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.
Download the London Tube app. The London Underground is large and complicated. Use the routing option of this app to get detailed instruction 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.
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.
Rent a bike. Like most major cities, London has bikes for short-term rentals. 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 is 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.
Pick up a free map at a hostel. The free map at hostels tends to have some of the better low-cost recommendations.
Tourist Bargains in London: What to Do On the Cheap
Buckingham Palace. The changing of the guard takes place every other day at 11:30am. If you want to actually see the spectacle without climbing a fence, get there by 11am. Free.
Get the London Pass. 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 the list goes on. If you won't take in many attractions your better bet is likely the hop-on, hop-off tour. Ask the drive if she/he has any discount coupons. They often do.
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.
East End Walking Tour £8. This East End Guided Walk takes you through the bohemian part of London "as famous now for its booming street art scene, fashion boutiques and curry houses as it once was infamous for its poverty, violence and gangsters.
London museums are 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.
Take in an event or festival. The Time Out app is a great resource for local events and festivals.
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 a very pretty, a refreshing change from most churches.
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 still seeing some of the major sights.
Take in the street art. London has lots of great street art and many famous street artists. Here are the artists to watch for. And here's a guide to London's street art (give the page a moment to load). And here's a free London street art tour tour.
Check out the Globe Theatre. This is a replica of the theater that Shakespeare and his fellow artists built. There are tours and, during the high season, plays as well. (It's just across the Millennium Bridge. The Tate Modern is there too.) You can read Solo in London: a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe. The London Pass includes this tour.
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 on. It's a site unto itself. Read: Solo in London: Shopping.
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. While they promote half-price tickets, not all tickets are half-price. You can also get theatre passport which gives you deep discounts off of ticket.
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 neighbourhoods 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.
The Scoop. In the summer, The Scoop amphiteater, which is beside City Hall, close to Tower Bridge offers live music, plays, film screenings almost every evening.
Cheap Eats in London
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 on-site if you want to cook your own.
Affordable High Tea options. High Tea is a wonderful London experience but it can be very expensive. To find the High Tea within your budget check out AfternoonTea.co.uk. They list some of the classic spots for high tea but also have special offers starting as low as £18 when I last checked.
Eat at a pub. Not only will you be fed, but you'll get a classic London experience as well. And watch for happy hours when there are often special promotions.
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 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.
Budget London Accommodation
Top recommendations for London. This topic requires an entire post unto itself. Here we have recommended places to stay in London from luxury to budget to hipster and everything in between. Read: Where to Stay in London.
Consider a hostel. I have stayed in inexpensive hotels and hostels in London and I have found hostels to be superior in this category of accommodation. Of the two hostels I've stayed in YHA London Central was my preference though both were clean and acceptable. Looking around, I'd say that the average age of guests is 35 with many people older and many younger and some families. I certainly did not feel particularly intrepid to be hosteling in this crowd. Hostels are also very solo travel friendly with options from private room with ensuite to dormitories.
Airbnb is an option. I have not used Airbnb but I know people who have and have had very good experiences. Sometimes you get the whole apartment, sometimes it's just a room. They seem to have more affordable options than some of the other vacation rental sites. In addition to looking at the apartment pictures carefully I would definitely check the place out on Google Streetview and do a bit of research to ensure that you are booking into a good neighborhood.
Getting a mobile phone in London. If you have an unlocked phone, stop into any mobile phone shop and buy a SIM card. I paid £10 for a SIM card (hold onto it for the future) and £10 for 1G of data. (It was not 3G data so it was slow.) They also gave me a free phone which is good for calls (including international) and text but it's not a smart phone so it has no app capability. It was really the smartphone capability that I want most.
Make free calls on your locked phone. First, if you have a smart phone with you that is locked, make sure that you turn the roaming off. You don't want any surprise bills when you get home. Make sure you have Skype on your phone. There are many places in London to get free WiFi including most though not all independent cafes as well as the chains such as Costa, Starbucks, and Pret a Manger. You can also get free WiFi at any library.
Need a computer? If you need access to a computer you can go to any of the libraries and get it free.
Good to know. The emergency number in London is 999 not 911.
Where to Stay in London
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Hotels Recommended by Solo Travelers
Definitely the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Palmer’s Lodge redefines luxury hostels. Located in a restored Victorian building, it couldn’t be a cooler and more affordable place to stay.
40 College Crescent
Tel: 44 20 7483 8470
Captain Bligh House
This is actually Captain Bligh's house. There are several fabulously decorated rooms with so much attention to detail. Gayna and Simon are very welcoming. They stock your little fridge with breakfast and tea things, and there's a microwave, tea kettle, and hotplate so you can cook in your room, and there’s TV with some DVDs and a hair dryer. Lovely view of garden and London Eye out back, and the Imperial War Museum is across the street. It’s an easy walk to Westminster Bridge for Parliament, Big Ben, London Eye, walking on the Thames and ten minutes from there to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, as well as The Strand. It's on the Bakerloo line so a straight shot to Paddington for the Heathrow Express. I've stayed in the Captain's Cabin twice now, which was Captain Bligh's room. It's quiet and what a treat to hear Big Ben chime!
100 Lambeth North
You can book it here.
The Astor Museum Hostel
Great staff, great location, great customers, heaps of movies on a hard drive, and the occasional free or cheap dinner.
27 Montague St
Tel: 44 20 7580 5360
You can book it here.
YHA London Central
It’s warm and welcoming, clean and comfortable, but what makes this hostel really great is its location. It truly is central and if you are an avid walker you can get to all London’s highlights by foot.
104-108 Bolsover St
Tel: 44 845 371 9154
The Penn Club
This is a hotel run by the Quakers. It is centrally located in London and in a safe area. Members who pay a subscription fee receive discounted room rates.
Accommodations are clean, but a bit austere with no televisions or phones in the rooms, so this hotel better suits those looking to unplug and find some peace and quiet.
Although you can probably find cheaper hotels in this area, a generous cooked breakfast is included and it is very solo traveler-friendly. Single rooms are available with the option of shared (but very clean) WC and shower down the hall. The dining room is available all day for relaxing or eating takeaway lunches and dinners. Many of the guests are solo travelers and happy to chat with fellow travelers.
21-23 Bedford Place
Solo Travel Specialty Hotel
The London location of a small chain of boutique hotels that have made solo travelers a priority.