London insider tips
How to save money plus other advice on London
London can be an incredibly expensive city to visit, but it doesn't have to be. Follow my insider advice to keep the costs down.
- Eat ethnic - if you want cheap and nutritious food, don’t buy British: London restaurants serve a massive range of tasty ethnic dishes, from Japanese noodles and Chinese dumplings to Vietnamese soup and Mexican burritos.
- Do lunch - if you like posh food but don’t have an expense account, try the set lunch. Many of London’s most famous restaurants serve very reasonably priced two- and three-course menus. Think twice before you order any wine, though…!
- Walk - London’s a big city, but you miss a lot when you’re on transport. Besides, many places you’ll want to walk between - Leicester Square and Covent Garden, for instance - are quicker on foot than on the Underground.
- Oyster cards - for a £5 refundable deposit, the pay-as-you-go Oyster card will save you money on every journey you make on public transport. Get one at the airport if you can. For details, see my How to get around London page.
- Unlicensed cabs - no matter how low the price they quote you, no matter how tired and emotional you’ve got over the preceding evening, don’t risk getting into an unlicensed cab. All licensed cabs should have a disc on display in their front and rear windows.
- Cheap tour - you won’t get the commentary of a formal sightseeing bus, but for the price of a single ticket the no.11 double decker will take you on a brilliant tour. St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and Big Ben are among the highlights. Get on the top deck, if you can!
- Ditch the car - unless you stay well out of central London, parking is extortionate. If you do stay out of central London, you’ll have to pay the Congestion Charge each day you drive into town. Give up and use public transport instead.
- Weekend closures - there’s major ongoing refurbishment work on the Underground network. While disruption is kept to a minimum for the working week, entire train lines are regularly out of action over the weekend and the replacement bus services are always painfully slow. Check www.tfl.gov.uk before you attempt any time-sensitive journeys at the weekend.
- Go by boat - visitors and locals alike forget that the Thames provides an enjoyable and often surprisingly efficient alternative mode of transport. It costs a bit more than rail or road, mind you. See my How to get around London page for details.
- Major museums - as long as you’re happy to skip their blockbuster temporary exhibitions, all the major London museums are free to enter: both Tates, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the V&A…
- View - the Monument, Sir Christopher Wren's 202-foot-tall column commemorating the Fire of London, gives brilliant views over the Thames and the historic City of London for only £3. But you do have to walk up a lot of spiral staircase first.
- The Courtauld - this charmingly fusty gallery has an amazing collection of 20th-century art upstairs (Cezanne, Degas and Gauguin are just some of the highlights there), and it’s free to all from 10am to 2pm on Mondays (excluding public holidays).
- Lates - most of London’s museums and galleries host lively late-opening events once a month. These usually involve some kind of live music or performance, a cash bar and half-price entry to the collection’s current major exhibition.
- Handling charges - booking agencies can charge up to 20 per cent as a handling charge on tickets. If you’re already in town, buy direct from the box office of the venue if you can.
- Tkts - in the south-east corner of Leicester Square, this booth sells West End theatre tickets at massive reductions. Run by the Society Of London Theatres, tkts is a totally legitimate way to see the big musicals at half-price.
- Standing room - join the ‘groundlings’ standing in the Pit through a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe for just a fiver, or stand in the slips at the Royal Court Theatre for only 10p.
- Free music - the Barbican and the Southbank Centre, major London arts venues, both programme great free gigs in their foyers, usually themed to paid-for events in their main concert halls. Check www.barbican.org.uk and www.southbankcentre.co.uk to see what’s on during your visit. There's also sometimes free jazz in the ground-floor bar of the National Theatre.
- Royal Court Theatre - this famous Sloane Square theatre, still a pioneer of new plays, offers all its tickets for £10 on a Monday night.
- Films for a Fiver - the best rep cinema in London, BFI Southbank, offers most tickets for £5 on a Tuesday: just quote 'Films for a Fiver' when you book http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/films_for_a_fiver/?utm_campaign=home&utm_m....
- Night at the opera - tickets for a world-class opera are under a tenner if you're prepared to sit up in the gods of the magnificent Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
- Stand-by tickets - available on the day at major venues such as the National Theatre, stand-by tickets are a cheap way of getting to see popular plays. Check the venue’s website for when they go on sale (usually on the morning of the performance), get there early and be prepared to queue.
For advice on things to consider before booking a hotel in London see my London hotels page.