I got the opportunity to experience London for two days not too long ago, and I had never been. Because this was an unplanned trip, it wasn’t something I had a whole lot of money in the bank for after my plane ticket and two nights hotel stay were paid for. I decided on a budget of $100US total for two days. You read that correctly!
One of the wonderful things about London-town is that most of the museums are free to the public! I can’t emphasize enough how much I love this aspect which brings all the art and science and history to anyone who desires and is able to physically enter the front door.
I use a variety of sources when researching a destination. Contrary to a lot of travelers these days (it seems), I don’t use Lonely Planet. And, no, I don’t have a specific reason except that I don’t feel a connection to those publications, the amount of info bores me, and I feel like everyone else reads them – so I don’t.
Since budget was especially important to me, I wrote two lists. All the attractions I could find that had an entry fee and then all the attractions I could find that were free. It’s like a point-system diet: the free attractions were “veggies” and I could freely eat those at any time throughout the trip. The paid attractions were where I had to count points.
I wanted to experience quintessential London things to see and do, and I knew I had to have a relatively well-planned agenda. I didn’t want to waste any time planning while there. I narrowed my lists down to the ones I absolutely had to see.
For the Paid Attractions, I ended up only being able to choose ONE – the Tower of London. Why? Because it offered a chunk of history and royalty to me that I couldn’t see in any other single place. It includes the historic prisoner holding rooms, where many were hanged, the famous Tower Bridge, the Crown Jewels, and pieces of the original medieval city of London. This entrance ticket was £22 ($33).
With my paid attraction decided, I filled in my time with free attractions keeping in mind the area of town, key parts I wanted to see, and the time of year (late November).
What an absolute pleasure it is to visit a city where transportation is not a hindrance to where you want to be and go! I didn’t have to worry about getting to the places I wanted to see because the train and bus system is extensive and top notch. The absolute only glitch I ran into was not being able to use ApplePay for the Underground as they had advertised. I think the technology was just being implemented so the station at Heathrow was still not accepting payments that way.
The lovely gentleman at the Heathrow station helped me a great deal by explaining another option (a day pass) that worked for the Zones I would be traveling within. These passes cost £11($16) per day (after 9:30am) and allowed me to ride an unlimited amount of trips (train or bus) for the entire day without worrying about anything except keeping track of that flimsy paper ticket. Make sure to keep your passes handy because you will use it upon entering and exiting the stations, and people move quickly.
$16 x 2 days = $32 spent on transportation
I was thoroughly impressed with the train system. We are so deprived in the US of any similar system that it makes me sad to think of it. Once I figured out how the lines were marked and interacted with each other, what a joy! Now – I had already a studied the Underground system before I arrived knowing how to get from Heathrow to my hotel.
The only thing I hadn’t thought of was the age of some of the stations and the lack of escalators or elevators to help me lug my large suitcase (for a 2-week stay elsewhere in England) through my changeovers and to my hotel. Oh well! It was an adventure! I learned while there that the London subway system was the first in the world!
I purposely stayed in a hotel within walking distance to an Underground station and a hotel that included breakfast. While a nice breakfast out in a new resto each day would have been lovely, for this trip my budget was of utmost importance to me, and I preferred to spend that bit on lunch or dinner.
Upon arrival, I made a point to stop into a grocery store. Grocery stores and food shops are one of my fave ways to act like a local. It also affords you some snacks and foods you can keep in your hotel room or a backpack so that you aren’t constantly in search of food. In a different locale, it might be easier and cheap to find a food stand or fruit juice while on the go, but in London this is not the case. And I didn’t have time to be leisurely exploring. I spent £20.30 ($30) at Sainsbury’s on a big beer, some pita bread, hummus, olives, and crisps.
$95 / $100 spent
In November the sun sets around 4:00pm in England. Having arrived on an overnight flight, I had from 11:00am onwards to explore after getting to the hotel safe and sound. I decided on fitting in the British Museum visit that day. I hadn’t slept well on my flight so I knew I couldn’t make a late night of it.
The British Museum is free and is spectacular. Relics from Egyptian, Assyrian, and Asian civilizations have been housed in this museum through world wars. In fact, they had to move many of them during WWII into an unused subway station to keep them safe! Being a lover of antiquities, the exhibits were breathtaking for me. The museum itself is a beautifully constructed Greek revival building with a glass dome over the original pavilion. It was easy to forget that I was looking at objects made and used and revered by human beings hundreds and even thousands of years before me because there were so many and they just sat there in front of me in their truth, as if I shouldn’t have been shocked at all. I could have reached out and touched them. The Rosetta Stone?! It’s here! Want to see an old Egyptian sarcophagus?! It’s here! Ancient Mughal prince’s shoes?! They’re here! All this for FREE!
Having worn out my legs and feet after traveling all night, hauling my suitcase on three trains to my hotel, and getting to the British Museum, I was ready to put them up and sleep in preparation for the next very full day. I ate my Sainsbury’s dinner in my hotel room that night and crashed.
Up and at ‘em the following morning with breakfast at the hotel (included and surprisingly satisfying) then strapped on my super comfy Crocs boots (warm and waterproof too!) to make my way to the train. First on the list was a farmer’s market I had read about in a culinary blog (not sure which one now): the Borough Market!
Obviously any time you can visit a market when you travel, it’s going to be free as long as you can resist purchasing anything! Markets offer such great people-watching and are usually culturally authentic. (Some words of caution on markets: I’m not talking about the tourist trap markets that sprout up around places where tourists land/dock/park. I’m talking about local markets. Also, be smart about your money. Keep it in a place that is not easily accessible. Markets are usually bustling places with a lot going on at once. You want to enjoy the experience not be worried about the $100 you’ve got stashed in your handheld wallet (yikes!). Put it in your bra or some other similar place. The Borough Market was not one where I felt this was necessary – it’s quite posh.
Today was my “Paid Attraction” day at the Tower of London. Well worth it, though, for a half day of exploring old dungeons and sighing over the British Crown Jewels – especially the famous 793-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond from India.
That evening, because it was approaching December, I made my way to Oxford Street via the Tube, of course. I had researched things to do in London at that time of year and Christmas lights were at the top of every list I found. The Oxford street Christmas lights are famous, and did not disappoint! I realized that I had seen these lights in numerous British movies including Love Actually, and Coldplay also mentions them in one of their songs. They were a truly London experience!
I found dinner off of Oxford Street at a chain Italian resto for a good price and quality, Bella Italia. There I ate a pasta dish and had an amazing lemon meringue for £10 ($15). My budget was $18.
$110 / $100 spent
After dinner I went for a walk along the Thames to see the London Eye, then veered west to see Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. Let me tell you, this was possible without maps or phone service for two reasons: I had studied the map of London very well, and Britain has excellent tourist signage that looks the same in every city so it’s easy to identify. They include points of attraction near and a map. I love it!
SO! It *is* possible to make a tight-as-hell budget for visiting a super expensive city. It is possible to stick to your tight-as-hell budget. Okay, I did go over budget by $10. However, no credit cards were harmed for this experience. :)
Please share any money-saving tips you know for London or elsewhere below in the comments!
Note: My hotel room, as you may have noticed, was not included in my spending budget. I had booked it prior to arrival and paid for it. It cost me $250 for 2 nights. I did use my Chase Sapphire card (for travel points) for that!
*All price conversions based on £1:$1.5 – correct at the time of travel (prior to the Brexit). ALWAYS do your budget in the native currency then convert to your own.