London is among the top tourist destinations during the summer no matter what year it is, but it can also be an expensive city to visit. There are some things you’ll want to make sure to plan for in advance so you don’t end up flat broke or simply broken down.
Here are some travel tips for London to help keep you sane and safe, and save you some cash.
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- Hotels Aren’t Your Only Lodging Options
- Take Advantage of Public Transportation
- Check Out Travel Discount Cards
- Free Things
- Save on Theatre Tickets
- Discount Attraction Tickets – Comparing the London Explorer Pass and the London Pass
- London Deals
- Make Yourself Unappealing to Pickpockets
- London Podcasts
Hotels Aren’t Your Only Lodging Options
Most travelers think “hotel” is synonymous with “accommodation” and don’t look beyond the usual hotel websites when planning a trip. The reality is that there are so many accommodation options available – especially in a city the size of London – that you’d be crazy not to investigate them all.
Rather than paying for an overpriced hotel room, you can stay somewhere unique. London has lots of hostels, where dorm-style rooms are ideal for travelers on a serious budget who don’t mind sleeping with 6-10 of their closest “friends,” and the city is home to countless adorable B&Bs.
But if you’ll be in London for more than 2-3 nights, it’s likely that a vacation rental could be a cheaper option. There’s an array of buildings with fully-furnished “flats” that may be typically used by business travelers, but you could even stay in a local’s apartment – Londoners are increasingly renting out rooms for visitors, and not only are the prices often much lower than what you’d pay for a hotel, but you also get to save even more by cooking some of your own meals. These days you can rent a room in London easily with AirBnb or a similar service (you can even get a coupon for your first Airbnb on this affiliate link).
The very first time we went to London, back in the last century, we stayed in a vacation rental for a week. We had a toddler and my wife was pregnant and we were not looking for nightlife on that trip, so we stayed further from the city center and saved money. But the best part of the experience was that the couple who rented the flat had us over for tea and helped plan our trip. They told us the next day there would be a dress rehearsal for the Queen’s birthday called the “Trooping of the Colours” which is like the changing of the guards on steroids. We would have missed it without this interaction with locals.
There are also a number of hostels in London that can be a great option, especially for the solo traveler who wants to meet people. Some of these are party hostels, and some are not, so make sure where you stay matches your travel style.
Take Advantage of Public Transportation
London’s traffic is bad at the best of times, and while the city’s cabbies are well-known for doubling as top-notch tour guides, taking a taxi across the city will cost you a fortune due to all the time you’re stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic. When your feet get weary, instead of hailing a cab, do as the Londoners do and hop on The Underground.
London’s subway system – alternately called the “Underground” or the “Tube” – is famously efficient and inexpensive, and since it reaches all the far corners of the city there’s bound to be a Tube stop near where you are (and where you want to go). It is, however, worth looking for the closest Tube stops when you’re contemplating where you’ll stay in London, as the further you need to go to get into the city center (i.e. the more Zones you pass through) the more each ride will cost you.
Check Out Travel Discount Cards
London offers Travelcards for public transportation in increments of 1 day, 7 day, and 1 month. One-day off-peak Travelcard costs the same as a single ticket and lets you ride public transportation in London as much as you want during that 24-hour period except for rush hour. The London Tube is not cheap. I single journey costs $8 the last time I checked. If you are staying close to the city center, you can get a car that only covers zones 1-4 cheaper than one that would get all the way out to the periphery of the city, such as Heathrow Airport, which is in Zone 6.
If you’re not sure you’ll be riding public transportation enough during a 24-hour period (or one week) to justify the cost, but you think you’ll still be riding it enough to warrant a discount card, then the Oyster Card might be perfect. No, this isn’t some frequent-slurper card for inhaling the most shellfish – it’s a refillable card you can use to ride public transportation. You can continually top it up with more funds as you need to. The Oyster Card allows you to pay as you go but will cap how much you will pay in a single day. If you stay in zones 1-2 in the center of London, the Oyster card will top out at £7.00 per day. You will need one card per person.
Update: You can also tap on and off of the Underground now directly with your debit card, but you might want to make sure your card has no foreign transaction fees.
The fares quoted here apply to the Tube, but not London’s buses or trams. You can add that option to your Oyster Card and save half off on buses; Travelcards are good on all buses, but only on trams if you’ve got a Travelcard that includes Zones 3-6.
Yes, it does sound confusing but, in truth, it is not hard to master the London public transportation system. I would never recommend you rent a car and drive in London instead. Traffic is heavy. They drive on the left, they charge a surcharge for any car that drives in the city center, and don’t get me started on parking.
Some of the best things in London are free. There is no charge to watch the changing of the guard, and you should do it at least once. Some of the best views are from the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace.
There is also no charge for strolling along the Regent’s canal or ambling through one of London’s many parks.
The British Museum is also one of the museums in the world with the best collection of antiquities, and it is completely free. All in all, there are 23 different free museums in London. While some of these defy categorization, they can be loosely grouped this way:
Natural History Museums
- Natural History Museum
- British Library
- British Museum
- Horniman Museum and Gardens
- Imperial War Museum
- Museum of London
- Museum of London Docklands
- National Army Museum
- National Maritime Museum
- Royal Air Force Museum
- V&A Museum of Childhood
- Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)
- Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre
- National Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- Serpentine Galleries
- Sir John Soane’s Museum
- Tate Britain
- Tate Modern
- The Wallace Collection
- Whitechapel Gallery
- Science Museum
- Wellcome Collection
I have not been to all of these, and you should not try and get to all of them on a single trip. I have my favorites (see My 7 Favorite London Museums) but know that my love of museums skews toward history and science.
Some highlights though would include the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Marbles (Elgin Marbles) at the British Museum, touring a WWI trench at the Imperial War Museum, the toy collection at the V&A Museum of Childhood, or maybe just standing in two timezones at once at the observatory by the National Maritime Museum.
Of course, many of the London Landmarks are free… at least from the outside. So you can see the Instagram shot of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben (technically the Parliamentary Clock Tower, Big Ben is the largest bell), the Tower of London or Picadilly Circus for free. But for the palaces, the tower, or Parliament, you can only visit the interior at certain times and by tour.
Save on Theatre Tickets
Nowadays, you can find discount tickets for London Theatre online but don’t forget the tried and true TKTS booth in Leister Square. They are open Mon-Sat: 10 am – 7 pm and Sun: 11 am – 4.30 pm, and you will have to wait in line, but you can find some great deals on tickets. If you are used to what you pay to see a play on Broadway in NYC, then London might be a pleasant surprise. I remember talking to an NYC resident who swore that they could fly to London to watch Hamilton and spend less money than seeing it in their own city… including, they said, the airfare.
Discount Attraction Tickets – Comparing the Go London Pass and the London Pass
While many things in London are free, most are not. You still have to pay to ride the London Eye, go to the Tower of London or take a hop-on hop-off bus tour. But you can save money on going to multiple attractions using a Go London Pass or the London Pass.
This pass is based on the number of attractions you want to visit, so look at their list of attractions and decide first what is on your list. The passes are good for 30 days, so this can make a great pass for your slow travel visit to London.
This pass will save you about 40% on admission to places including some of my favorites:
- Westminster Abbey
- The View from The Shard
- The Tower of London
- The Cabinet War Rooms Museum
- Saint Paul’s Cathedral
- Kensington Palace
- Hop-on Hop-off Thames River Cruise
- Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
- Kew Gardens
This pass is by the day not by the attraction. It includes many of the same attractions as above. The London Pass has a higher price point but every pass includes unlimited attractions. So this pass makes more sense if you plan to do a larger number of attractions and can move quickly. Both passes are good but you just need to match the right pass to your travel style. The best way to use this pass is in frenzied activity.
The London Pass does include nearly twice as many sites but gives you less time to see them than the Go London Pass. So, for instance, the London Pass includes these great sites that the Go London Pass does not:
- Postal Museum (including underground postal tunnels)
- London Bicycle Tour
- Golden Hind
- Stadium tours
- Canal Boat trip
- Brit Movie Tours
- Rock n Roll Walking Tour
Make Yourself Unappealing to Pickpockets
With all the money you’re saving with these tips, the last thing you want is for some opportunistic thief to erase all of it, right? Big cities like London – tend to attract ne’er-do-wells who prey on unsuspecting tourists. When you’re busy gazing upward at Big Ben (or technically the Parliamentary Clock Tower), you’re less likely to notice the guy lifting your wallet from your purse.
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make yourself look less like a pickpocket’s dream:
- Leave your valuables at home. There’s no need to wear your fancy watches or jewelry on your trip, and you’d be devastated if they were stolen, so don’t even bother risking it.
- Use a money belt for things like your passport, credit cards, and extra cash – and wear it under your clothing, where it can’t be seen. You can also leave this stuff in the hotel safe if you’re staying in a hotel with one in the room.
- Ladies, get a cross-body purse that can’t easily be grabbed off your shoulder – and guys, move your wallet to the front pocket of your pants (get a money clip and carry only the bare essentials if your wallet is too big). Better yet get a bag like PacSafe which has steel cables in the strap to thwart purse-snatchers.
- Backpacks make good day packs, but they’re also easier to rifle through when you’re looking the other way (literally). When you’re moving through crowded areas (including riding crowded Tube trains), wear your backpack on your chest so you can keep an eye on it.
The less you look like someone who’s carrying wads of cash or expensive electronics, the less interesting you are to a potential thief – and that’s about as close to the thieves not existing at all as you can get.
You can learn more about London here at Amateur Traveler with this two-part episode of the Amateur Traveler podcast about London:
This post was sponsored by wimdu.co.uk