How To Enjoy London On A Budget

traveling in LondonBack in November, my family took a vacation to England. In the past few years, we’ve struggled through a financial difficulties, and 2012 was the first time we were able to save money and begin paying off some debts. We decided about 6 months before we left that we wanted to go to London for Taylor’s week of vacation at the beginning of November. We started saving money for several months, and were excited that we had enough money to see attractions that we were too broke to enjoy on our 2009 trip to London.

The biggest difference in our 2012 trip, besides having enough money visit some paid attractions, was that we brought our 12-year old daughter Rosie with us. We also traveled with our friend Clint, who flies with my husband at the same airline. We were able to use our travel benefits to pay for the majority of our flights, but we still had a full 8 days of travel with a moderately limited budget.

London is one of the most expensive cities to travel to in the world, but with a few simple tricks, you can make your time in London quite affordable.

taylor nicole milennium bridgeKnow your lodging options: There are so many different places you can stay in London: hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, home/room rentals, and more. Whether you choose a swanky hotel or  premier hostel in London, you will be able to find lodging to fit within any budget. There are many websites that can help you score a great deal, but my personal preference is Priceline, which I’ve been using avidly since 1999. Not only can you browse hotels at the lowest listed rate, you can “Name Your Own Price” for an even better deal. That’s how we scored the Crowne Plaza for $105 USD per night (a steal during a busy travel week).

One thing to note: It’s very difficult to find hotel rooms for 3+ people. Most rooms are equipped for 2 adults (2 twins or 1 full/queen/king), which proved to be difficult for a party of 4 traveling together. If you want to stay in one room, look for hotels that have rollaway beds or pull-out sleeper beds (which are usually an additional fee). In some cases, it was less expensive to book two rooms than to find a hotel with a more expensive sleeper sofa room.

£3 Tesco meal DealDon’t eat at restaurants every meal: One of the most shocking price differences was how expensive restaurant meals are in London. When you see a price on a menu in the UK, it looks like it’s about the same as the US…before factoring in the currency exchange rate. At the time we visited, the rate was about $1.60 per pounds sterling, which made every meal 60% more than we were used to. Even a non-fancy pub meal ran us  £47 ($76) and we split our plates. We tried to pack food along with us during the day, and grab street food when it was available. We usually shopped at the Tesco Express markets, which offered a sandwich, crisps, and drink special for £3. Also, see if your hotel offers a free English breakfast…they are quite hearty.

Get a Travelcard or Oyster Card: While there are an abundance of transportation options in London, the most cost-effective options are the Travelcard and Oyster Card for Transport For London. They are good for use on the bus, Tube, DLR, tram, and most National Rail services. Oyster is an electronic smartcard ticket that you tap on the yellow reader at the Tube gates. Oyster is more cost effective for single journeys on public transit, while the Travelcard is more suited for days that you will use public transit multiple times in a day. If you’re travelling regularly, a Travelcard can be loaded onto your Oyster. Travelcards and Bus Passes can be purchased for 1 day (Travelcards only), 1 week, 1 month or 1 year’s travel.

london travelcardWe bought our Travelcards as a package deal with the LondonPass. Unfortunately, the passes were purchased in advance online, and we had to go into the city to pick them up from Leister Square. We had to pay for a single journey Tube pass and for our ride on the Heathrow Express (quite pricey, but worth it if you’re in a hurry to get into the city).

Invest in package deals: There are a lot of tourist attractions in London that participate in discount cards. The post popular multiple-attraction discount card is the LondonPass. You can choose a 1-day, 2-day,  3-day or 6-day pass. The LondonPass grants you access to 55 different attractions, some with front-of-the-line privileges, including the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower Bridge Experience, and a Thames River Cruise.

As a side note, the LondonPass does not include the London Eye…but it’s totally worth the price.

wicked londonOne thing that we were pleased to find was that Broadway shows were more affordable in London than many touring through the US. Taylor and I had planed to see Wicked in Salt Lake City, but decided tickets were too expensive. We were able to buy 3 tickets for about $140 total, instead of $75-$150 each in the US.

All-in-all, our trip was just over $3000 (for flights, transportation, lodging, entertainment, food, souvenirs, etc), which is coincidentally about the same price as our wedding in 2004. I’d hate to think of how much our London vacation would have been if we hadn’t been so discount travel savvy.

Traveling on the Cheap

A few of my readers have asked me how I travel so often amidst our family’s financial crisis. I thought I’d give you a few pointers for Traveling on the Cheap.

  1. Marry a crew member: Just like the shirt I saw in a magazine, “Marry me and fly for free!” Preferably a crew member who has student loans paid off, so you can fully enjoy the places you travel (i.e. staying in hotels, fancy restaurants, spendy tourist attractions) If you are already married, encourage your children who show an interest in aviation to pursue their dream. Or, look into non-crew positions through airlines to enjoy the pass benefits, without the expensive professional training. I have several friends that do JetBlue reservations from home and love it.
  2. Do your research early: Prices can vary wildly on fares. Whenever I have an inkling that I’ll be traveling somewhere, I find daily rates for car rentals for less than $10 quite often. If you wait until the week before, it can cost you over $50/day, depending on the airport. Same with hotels – promotions changes all the time. If you don’t need the reservation after all, just cancel it before the deadline stated.
  3. Price shop more than one website: The sites I use most often, with the most consistent success, are Priceline.com and Carrentals.com . I have had varying luck with other websites, and several nasty experiences using Travelocity.com. Kayak.com is a great one to compare prices at a variety of sites. Sometimes the rates are the same, but occasionally a promotion will be running that saves you a bundle. Be sure to read the terms and conditions, understand potential hidden fees.
  4. Join Rewards Programs: Sign up for perks and freebies with the hotels and car rental agencies you frequent. Have a frequent flyer account for the airline you use most (unless you can non-rev, of course)When I get a free night, or a free rental, I try to use it in a more expensive area to get more bang for my freebie buck.
  5. Be a tourist in the cities you have family members and friends: The cities I visit most often are Salt Lake City for my family, and Los Angeles for my in-laws. I always try to make arrangements to be without a rental car, but sometimes you gotta have one. Occasionally I wish that I could visit more exotic locales, but nothing beats a great visit with family and friends in a place I love.
  6. Have a rainy-day travel fund: Sometimes insanely cheap promotional rates pop-up, and you can travel to some amazing destinations for pennies on the dollar. If you keep some money stashed away, you’ll be able to take advantage of these rare perks. Almost everytime I get a cash gift, part of it goes in my jar.
  7. Be flexible: Sometimes adding, deleting, or adjusting an extra day to your travel schedule can mean big savings on flights. Pack snacks and thing to keep you occupied, just in case you get stuck on a delay, or bumped from a flight.
  8. Be wary of travel club sales calls: I’m guilty of signing up for some too-good-to-be-true fly by night operations. Only one was I actually glad that I joined, but I really got taken advantage on another.
  9. Coupons: If you visit certain cities often, buy an Entertainment book for loads of two-for-one deals on restaurants, attractions, hotels, and car rentals.