London is an expensive place to live. Prices for just about everything here, from pints to accommodation, are often staggeringly higher than they are further north. And for those of us who don’t have finance jobs in the city, the much-touted ‘London wage’ does not measure up.
Thankfully, over four years of living here I have discovered certain ways of continuing to do the things I enjoy without spending tonnes of money. Below are my tips for enjoying London without going broke.
One of the best ways to save money on eating out is by changing your expectations of what that means. Some of the best meals I’ve eaten in London have comprised food wrapped in paper and eaten while sat on a concrete floor! Street food has become very trendy here and in my experience, it’s often of a higher quality than restaurant food due to its producers being so specialised in what they do. My favourite street food sources are:
- KERB — a large collective of street food vans (including BAO) that appear in various formations in a number of locations — regularly at Granary Square near Kings Cross, and less frequently in the City and on the Southbank.
- Real Food Festival — a market of various street food stalls behind the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall from Friday to Sunday.
- Street Feast — a buzzy street food market held on select weekend nights, showcasing the most exciting of traders. Generally held outside in Dalston Yard in summer and inside Hawker House in winter. Turn up early (usually before 7pm) for free entry.
- Borough Market — this large, historical and busy market underneath London Bridge sells more fresh ingredients than street food, but of the limited selection you must try a chorizo roll from Brindisa — it’s legendary. Full market runs from Wednesday to Saturday.
- Broadway Market — a very popular East London market that sets up near London Fields every Saturday, which sells both groceries and street food. Brave the crowds and you’ll find an amazing selection of cakes and other sweet treats, as well as a smaller selection of hot dishes.
- One-offs — the Southbank in particular occasionally hosts one-off street food markets that may only last a weekend, often themed on one particular country. You can find out about these by following my advice under ‘EVENTS>Mailing lists and blogs’ below.
If you’re a fan of burgers, you’re in luck. Since gourmet (as opposed to fast food) burgers became trendy, a huge number of specialist burger restaurants have opened in the capital serving fantastic food, some of which feature on my ‘best chicken burgers’ list. And while these burgers are at least twice the price of a Big Mac, at around £6-£9 they’re much cheaper than a main course at a standard restaurant (in London, generally between £12-£20). That price difference tends to be reflected in the much more casual decor of the restaurants and the casual ways in which the burger is served: often wrapped in paper on a plastic tray. But I think that adds to the fun!
Twitter and blogs
Through following and interacting with food vendors on Twitter, I have been able to save loads of money on food and even get it for free. It’s here that restaurants announce they’ll be giving away free or discounted food to their new restaurant’s first customers, broadcast money-saving offers, and hold competitions to win free meals. Through such tip-offs I have enjoyed half-price feasts at restaurants’ soft launches, grabbed a number of free burgers and won a large plate of chicken wings and champagne at a fancy pub. My best social media blag ever was a ticket to an exclusive party where both food and drink were free and unlimited. So get involved!
Pre-theatre and lunch set menus
If you want to eat at an upmarket restaurant, you can often cut your losses by eating earlier in the day and ordering off a smaller menu. Loads of ‘posh’ restaurants do set menus for lunch or pre-theatre (usually available between 5pm and 7pm) sittings that allow you to eat a two or three-course meal for perhaps £10 less than ordering from the full A la Carte menu. My personal favourites are:
- Clos Maggiore, voted ‘London’s most romantic restaurant’ offers combinations from two courses (£17.50) to three courses with 1/2 bottle of wine (£26.50) if dining between 5-6pm Monday-Thursday. For comparison, ordering three courses and half a bottle of wine from the A la Carte menu could cost around £50-£70.
- Charlottes Place, a lovely restaurant in Ealing with two AA rosettes, offers its full menu at lunch on Monday-Saturday at £17.95 for two courses or £21.95 for three courses (the same menu at dinner costs £10 more).
Some restaurants, often Middle Eastern restaurants that don’t serve alcohol, allow you to bring your own alcohol rather than order it with your meal for a vastly inflated price. In my experience, buying a bottle of bubbly from the supermarket rather than in the restaurant can save up to £20. Watch out for corkage charges though, which at posher restaurants can end up cancelling out the savings. A favourite of mine is Persian restaurant Alounak in Shepherds Bush, which has NO corkage charge and good, cheap food too.
Drinking in general can be staggeringly expensive in London, but you can reduce the blow by choosing cheap pubs over swanky bars. These include Sam Smiths pubs, where the pints are cheap and the soft drinks strange unknown brands; the ubiquitous Wetherspoons; and student pubs such as The Lot in Richmond where bargain wine, cocktails and jagerbombs make getting drunk almost too easy. You can find your closest Sam Smith on this map or this app; and your closest Wetherspoons here.
Even some fashionable bars have happy hours, in which wine might be cheaper and cocktails 2-for-1. Do some research online beforehand so that you can get to the bar in time to make one big ‘happy hour’ order that will last you several hours beyond that.
Some pubs and bars, most often chains, offer vouchers for free drinks in exchange for signing up to their mailing lists (one example is the lovely North Star in Ealing). This is usually a one-time thing, except for Pitcher & Piano who send subscribers a new voucher every month! Yes, the bartender might scowl at you when you hand over the voucher. But if you’re saving a good £8 on an overpriced cocktail, who cares?
Small independent cinemas tend to show only a limited selection of films and have smaller screens and less plush interiors than the big multiplexes. But if you’re willing to make those sacrifices you can end up saving as much as £15 over cinema prices in central London. The king of them all was The Coronet Cinema near Notting Hill Gate; unfortunately, it has now been turned into a theatre…
If the film you want to see is only showing at the larger cinemas, you can still save more than £7 by going to one further outside the centre of London. For example, an adult ticket at the Leicester Square Vue costs £15.95; while the same ticket at Acton Vue costs just £8.30.
On the subject of multiplexes, if you sign up to My Cineworld for free you can save 10% on all tickets bought online (there’s no booking fee either). If you go to the cinema often, it might be worth getting a paid membership that gets you discounted tickets all year round. One really good example is that offered by the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, whose ticket prices undercut those of other central London cinemas even for non-members. Not only that, but it also hosts brilliant events such as all-night movie marathons, beer & pizza nights and sing-a-long showings. We’ve been to events themed around showings of Wayne’s World and Labyrinth!
£5 Shakespeare at The Globe
As long as you’re prepared to watch it standing up and at the mercy of the weather (just like the peasants did in the olden days!) it’s possible to see top-calibre Shakespeare plays at the historic Globe Theatre for just £5! The one time I’ve done this I was drenched by torrential rain and my legs did get a little stiff, but the play (The Tempest, featuring Colin Morgan as Ariel) was so enjoyable that it was worth the struggle.
National Theatre Entry Pass
Anyone aged 16-25 can sign up to National Theatre Entry Pass for free and thus get access to £5 tickets to most National Theatre productions. Among other plays I saw the critically acclaimed Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by these means, before it moved to the West End and became expensive! I was gutted when I turned 26 and had to give up this golden ticket.
Time Out Offers
The offers in Time Out Offers emails aren’t always great money savers, but sometimes they will offer good discounts on tickets to West End shows (as well as restaurant meals and hotel stays). It’s worth signing up if you don’t mind sifting through the emails every day.
Book of Mormon ticket lottery
To my knowledge, it’s only the Book of Mormon that does a ticket lottery. But because I believe it is the world’s best musical, I consider this a tip worth sharing! Turn up outside the Prince of Wales Theatre between two-and-a-half and two hours before a performance and you’ll be invited to enter the ticket lottery by writing your name and putting it into a raffle wheel. Names are drawn out two hours before the performance, and if your name is drawn you can then buy up to two front-row tickets for just £20 each (the best seats usually cost £150, and are sold out in advance). We won the lottery on our first try, after turning up just a minute before the names were drawn!
Most theatre productions sell a small number of discounted tickets on the day of the performance. These are available on a first come, first served basis, so to be in with a chance you generally need to queue at the box office before it opens. This is pretty time consuming and there’s a risk of being disappointed, but it’s worth a shot if you really want to see a particular play and have a free morning. Ticket sale times vary between shows, so check the website of the production you want to see.
One of the nicest ways to spend a sunny day in London is to wander round one of its many beautiful (and free to enter) green spaces. There are so many to choose from, but my personal favourites are:
- Holland Park — a beautiful Japanese garden, historical architecture, woodland and peacocks.
- Golders Hill Park — a small zoo with lemurs and exotic birds, as well as a butterfly house and picturesque pond.
- Regent’s Park — magnificent formal gardens and water features, as well as Primrose Hill that offers great views over the city.
- Mudchute Park and Farm — a farm with llamas, pigs, goats, horses and other animals.
Museums and Galleries
While London is one of the world’s most expensive cities for most purposes, its free museums and galleries make it one of the cheapest for soaking up culture. If you enjoy learning about science, art and history it’s easy to spend hours wandering around them. But there are more ways to enjoy and save money on London’s museums than you may realise… and I have outlined these in the bullet points below.
- Waterstones Card — my favourite of London’s free museums, the Natural History Museum, holds temporary exhibitions on particular topics of interest, such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year. A free Waterstones Card gets you 2-for-1 entry to some of these exhibitions (check the website for which ones), as well as savings on other exhibitions and theatre shows around London. You can see what offers are available on the website, and sign up for the card in-store (no book purchases required)
- Museum Lates — Some of London’s museums have one night each month where they open their doors late (usually 6-10pm) so that adults can have the run of the place for once! There are bars and music, and often free demonstrations, activities and talks as well. My favourites are Science Museum Lates, which are held on the last Wednesday of every month and themed differently each time. In addition to a host of fascinating presentations, there is also the opportunity to see paid exhibitions and enjoy the simulator rides at a reduced price, or for FREE if you visit the ‘Priceless London’ Mastercard desk and sign up for emails (or show them your Mastercard and say you’re already signed up)!
Obviously these are only free if you don’t buy anything in them! But markets are often full of interesting sights, wonderful smells and live music, which make them fun to wander round even if you’re only ‘window shopping’. Free food samples are an occasional bonus! My favourites are:
- Camden market — a reliable staple that’s on every day and famous for its alternative culture. Bursting with clothes, crafts, furniture and more, varying from the beautiful to the bizarre.
- Brick Lane market — comes alive on Sundays with street performers and a huge number of stalls selling all manner of things.
If you shop at Tesco a lot, you have the power to make many expensive London activities free! Collecting clubcard points accrues vouchers that can be spent on attractions such as London Zoo, Madame Tussauds, London Dungeon, Kensington Palace, London Aquarium, Tower of London and tours by bus and boat. The best part is that vouchers tend to be worth 4x or 5x their face value when spent on activities — for example, £10 off entry to Hampton Court Palace costs just £2 in vouchers.
TV audience tickets
Free TV audience tickets have got us into a number of fantastic television recordings, and it can make for a really good night. The best was without a doubt Live at the Apollo, but other good comedy shows have included Mock the Week, Fast & Loose, 10 ‘o’ Clock News Live and Russell Howard’s Good News. You can get them through:
- BBC tickets — higher demand means your chances of getting tickets are small
- Applause Store — has the big ITV entertainment shows such as Britain’s Got Talent
- SRO audiences — has more BBC comedy, panel and chat shows
- Lost in TV — sends out the most emails but generally has the worst shows (in my opinion!)
- TV Recordings — has much fewer shows at the moment but we’ve always been successful with these applications.
When you live in London it’s easy to forget how many awesome sights it contains. Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Thames and all of its bridges are just a few of the city’s architectural masterpieces, all of which are free to view (at least from the outside). If you’re bored of the standard tourist sights, start looking for those made famous through association with music or film — the Abbey Road zebra crossing, for example, as pictured on the Beatles album of the same name (it even has its own webcam).
You know them — Groupon, Wowcher, the aforementioned Time Out Offers, and a host of others. I think these are generally full of rubbish, but they will occasionally have good offers for pre-bought meals out or activities with which you can treat friends. Specifically, I’ve found them very useful for getting discounted afternoon teas at hotels.
Mailing lists and blogs
My friends often ask me how I know about the many events, many of them free, happening in London at any given time. The answer is through the various London-focused emails and blogs to which I’m subscribed. I’ve listed these below, in order of usefulness:
- Londonist — sign up to the mailing list to receive ‘Things to do in London today’ emails every weekday morning, as well as ‘Things to do in London this weekend’ emails each week. Other emails flag up future events, activities and restaurant openings.
- The London Sinner — my number-one source of information on exciting food; whether it’s soft launches, restaurant promotions, supper clubs or new street food markets. I get its updates through my Facebook newsfeed.
- Time Out London — full of ideas for what to do, see, eat and drink in London, including everything from permanent establishments to one-off events. Sign up to its mailing list to receive the weekly ‘Hot List’ email with five suggestions of things to do each week.
- Mr Hyde and (to a lesser extent) Emerald Street — the respective emails for Shortlist and Stylist magazines occasionally give subscribers money-saving offers for restaurants and food events.
Getting around is an unavoidable expense, but there are simple ways of minimising the cost. Forgive me if these are rather obvious!
Avoid starting journeys at peak times — between 6.30-9.30am in the morning and 4-7pm in the evening on weekdays — and you can trim pounds off every trip (all weekend travel is also off-peak). Make a lot of journeys off-peak and the savings soon add up, so see if you can arrange to work earlier hours.
People aged between 16 and 25 can buy an annual railcard for £30 that not only saves a third on national rail travel, but also on off-peak tube journeys if you know how to do it. To get the discount on tube travel, go to the ticket desk of a large tube station and ask to register your railcard to your oyster card (which needs to be registered online already). Travel off-peak every day and you could reap back the cost of the railcard in just a few weeks.
Avoid changes that require checking out and in again
This is an obvious one but worth mentioning. No matter how many line changes you make on the tube network, you’ll only be charged for one tube journey if you never leave a station in between. However, change lines at points that require leaving and re-entering a station (such as District/Piccadilly to Circle/Hammersmith & City lines at Hammersmith; or Central line to Overground at Shepherd’s Bush) and you’ll be charged for two journeys. You can usually avoid making these changes by taking a slightly longer route through other stations.
Tube travel is usually cheaper than bus
You’re currently charged £1.35 for every bus you take, so a journey involving multiple buses can really add up. This means that it’s usually cheaper to take the tube the whole way, for which you’ll only be charged once.
Always use oyster
Even if you’re just visiting London, paying the £5 deposit for an oyster card and then loading it up works out much cheaper than buying a day travel ticket (paying with cash is no longer an option). Not only is every individual journey cheaper, but there is also a daily price cap that guarantees no matter how many journeys you make, you will never pay more than the price of a day ticket. You might find that every journey after your fourth that day ends up being free. If you decide you’ll never come to London again, you can return your Oyster card at a ticket desk and have your deposit refunded.
I hope that this guide proves useful for fellow cash-strapped London visitors and dwellers like myself! Please let me know if it has been. And if you have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them!
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2014. All rights reserved.