The renown of London speaks for itself. There’s no denying that it is one of the greatest and most diverse cities in the world, so I’ll skip the meaty intro and go straight into what you came here for.
It is undeniably difficult to do London cheaply. Even if you do everything right, odds are, you will still spend much more than you expect to. Public transportation, cooking your own meals, and crashing at hostels is much more expensive than the typical backpacker destinations outside of Europe. After breezing my way through South East Asia for almost the entirety of 2018, arriving in London was quite a shock, mostly to my wallet. The $5 hostels and cheap free-flowing alcohol were no more. I was in the land of pubs and pints and my wallet was feeling the hurt.
London can’t be done on a backpacker’s budget in the way that South America or South East Asia can. You can try to minimize your costs as much as possible and you’ll still find that you’re spending about 5 times the amount daily than you would in a cheaper country. In short, it is possible to enjoy London without spending an obscene amount of money. But you will still have to spend at least $30-40 a day on the absolute necessities.
Keeping Transportation Costs Low
Figuring out the tube is essential in minimizing your costs while in London. Taxis will cost you a fortune and although London is a very walkable city, it is almost incomprehensibly large. Many of London’s most exciting neighborhoods are scattered throughout the city and will take ages to reach if you refuse to figure out London’s Underground.
It is overwhelming at first, especially when you look at the map and all of the various lines intersect and overlap with seemingly no rhyme or reason. However, you just have to realize that you will truly only need to figure out about 10% of that complex map.
I haven’t quite figured out the double-decker bus system yet but you should be completely fine just using the tube to get around. Now, on to how to get the most mileage from the tube at the lowest cost. If you were to pay for every time you rode the tube, that will add up to a point that you might not even be saving money anymore. Depending on how long you will be in London, it’s best to get an Oyster card or daily travel passes.
Getting from the airport to wherever you need to go in London can also be done pretty cheaply via the trains. It cost about 10 pounds each way to get from Gatwick to wherever I needed to go in London and I can imagine it’s about the same for the other airports. The first time I was in London, I was in a taxi for nearly three hours to Stansted because my friends and I hadn’t bothered figuring out the public transport. It cost nearly 200 pounds. Trust me, taking a little time to figure out the public transport will save you loads of money in the long run.
And of course, there’s walking. I walked a lot in London. Partially because I love walking around cities but mostly because I needed to save money. London is a very walkable city, despite how large it is. There’s something to see on every corner.
Finding Cheap Food In London
Eating out for every meal in London will quickly add up. As a backpacker, places like Tesco Express, Sainsbury’s, and Poundland will quickly become your best friend. I’m not saying that you should eat a pre-made 3 pound baguette for every meal but make eating out an occasion instead of the norm.
There are plenty of places to eat on the cheap. Like most cities, these will usually be Chinese takeaways, Falafel joints, and fast food establishments. As much as I hate the fact that there’s a Pret A Manger on every corner, I can’t deny that their 5 pound mac and cheese has been a more than acceptable meal on multiple occasions.
However, London has one of the best food scenes in the world. I’ve heard people say that they didn’t like the food in London but that’s just like… what? There are thousands of places to choose from in London, ranging from every possible type of food you could imagine. Just find your spots and London can be an incredible city for foodies.
Finding Cheap Accommodation In London
Accommodation is definitely the hardest cost to keep low while in London. The cheapest hostel dorm beds I’ve seen can be as low as $15 a night but most of those are a bit further out of the center of town. You’ll save money on housing but it will pile up a bit in transportation costs. If you are looking for somewhere central, look to spend at least $30-40 US for a basic dorm.
Where to stay in London on a budget:
St. Christopher’s Inn – London Bridge
St. Christopher’s is London’s (and Europe’s) most popular backpacker hostel company and for good reason. It offers high quality accommodation at among the most budget-friendly prices you will find in all of London. There are multiple locations, each with their own benefits. The two locations in London Bridge will allow you to be within walking distance of a lot of the city’s main attractions. The other locations, such as Camden, will give you quick and convenient access to some of London’s most exciting nightlife.
While you will find a pretty eclectic mix of travelers at St. Christopher’s, there will always be a heavy presence of other backpackers looking to make friends and have fun. With a Belushi’s bar adjacent to every St. Christopher’s, you’re never too far from a wild night out. It’s a great place to meet other travelers and make friends and prepare to take on London’s unbeatable nightlife.
Cheap Nightlife in London
Oh boy. A night out in London is basically guaranteed to drain your wallet.
Buying alcohol from supermarkets is the cheapest way to get drunk in London. Depending on what the deals are, Happy Hours can also be a decent way to keep costs down while enjoying some sort of an atmosphere. As a backpacker, you are probably used to sitting around a six-pack and a deck of cards with random strangers, though, so let’s keep rolling with that idea first.
It’s hard to suggest any place in London that is both cheap and has a fun atmosphere. I’ll be honest, even with all of my local friends in London, I still couldn’t consider any of the local pubs to be that “cheap”. Of course, paying 3-4 pounds for a pint is much cheaper than 15 pound for a cocktail at some of the clubs I was going to, so I guess cheap is pretty relative.
If we’re talking really cheap, then Sainsbury’s is your best bet. Grab a bottle and drink up. Get hammered before you even show up to the club. Otherwise, a night out in London is going to hurt your wallet as much as it’s going to hurt your dignity.
It’s easy to accidentally blow a ton of money while you are there and it will take a lot of self control not to eat out all the time or take the easy way home with a taxi. Drinking will definitely take its toll on your wallet unless you strategically pregame. Even then, cover charges, drunk food, drunk Ubers will likely cost you.
Free Things To Do In London
Despite London being one of the most expensive cities to travel within, it also has an abundance of incredible free things to do. From their world-class museums and art galleries, to the simple pleasures of wandering the city by foot, London is a city that you can spend a lot of time and not a lot of money in.
The Tate Modern is among my favorite art museums in the world. It is massive and boasts collections from all eras and all parts of the world. With its central location right along the Thames, it is no doubt one of the best free things you can do in London. I’d spend hours there at a time, splitting the walking and browsing up with some coffee at their cafe in between.
The British Museum is one of the coolest museums I’ve ever been to. I literally couldn’t believe that it was free to enter. I didn’t even have close to enough time to see the entire museum, probably spending much too long at the Egypt and Greek exhibits where they house one-of-a-kind items like the Rosetta Stone. This is well worth the visit when you are in London.
The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is a free to enter art museum with thousands of paintings on display. Since you are probably already going to find your way in Trafalgar Square, might as well go in for free. It is one of London’s most important galleries and the exhibits are always interesting.
National History Museum
London has so many incredible museums with free entrance. I could spend days at each one of these and I actually did find myself coming back to some of them multiple times.
Find all the Harry Potter places!
From King’s Cross Station to Leadenhall Market, London is full of filming locations from the Harry Potter movies. For any Potterheads out there, this is a must-do while in London. Here’s a big list of filming locations that you can find in London!
Walk around the neighborhoods of Camden, Shoreditch, Soho, Westminster, Notting Hill, and more
London, while massive, also happens to be a very walkable city. If the weather cooperates, there is nothing better to do than just wander and let yourself get lost in the city. You can find history and culture on every street corner and alleyway of this city. There are so many diverse neighborhoods beyond the tourist trail, so once you knock off the areas of Westminster and Kensington and the like, you should definitely check out places like Shoreditch and SoHo.
One of the best things about London is just how much history has happened in its buildings and on its streets. You can give absolutely 0 f*cks about history and London will still intrigue you.
Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace are all places that you can stumble upon for free while roaming around London. Some of these places, like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, cost money to enter. I do recommend paying entrance for some of the more intriguing places, such as the Tower of London considering all of the history that happened within its storied walls.
While there are a lot of free things to do in London, some of the best things to do will cost a little bit of money. Tourist traps like the London Eye can totally be skipped, especially with its price tag of over 30 pounds. However, for the incredible things that can only be done in London, there’s no reason not to shell out a bit of money to experience some once-in-a-lifetime things.
London is undeniably expensive for a backpacker on a budget but there’s no reason you should go broke trying to have a good time in London.