We knew that following our time in Asia that transitioning to Europe would be hard on our dwindling travel funds. Many people joked that we couldn’t have picked a worse destination than London as our entry point with respect to sticker shock. While it might be true that London is a very expensive city, we had an amazing time during our eight-day visit—I reveled in reigniting a long-standing love affair as well as getting to introduce Tony to one of my favorite cities in the world and watch him start his own romance with London. The icing on this already-delicious cake was getting to reunite with friends made on the road while traveling, and getting to see London through their eyes too.
So, yes London is about as expensive a travel destination as one could pick, but we don’t regret a single pence or pound we spent during our visit. It probably doesn’t hurt that—as The Beatles sang, thanks to a little help from our friends—we were able to keep our budget relatively in check and came up with a few tricks to make our time in London relatively affordable.
Check out a detailed analysis of how much it cost us to visit London to see what I mean:
London By The Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in London: 8
Average Daily Cost, per person: $38.69 US
Projected Daily Budget, per person: Our overall trip budget is $50/person, so we were $11 (per person!) UNDER budget! Woo hoo! Under budget in London—who would have thought it possible?!?
Cost of transport from Colombo, Sri Lanka to London Heathrow (flight): $140.50 US per person (we cashed in 45,000 worth of points using our Chase Sapphire card to get such a great price)
Cost of 180-day visa: Free! (Although we were grilled rather intensely at immigration, but never the less, citizens of the U.S. and Canada are able to stay as tourists in the United Kingdom for stays of up to 180 days. Note that the UK is NOT part of the Schengen zone and has its own immigration procedures and visas.)
Total London Costs PER PERSON: $473 US
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our transport into London. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way or from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other like-minded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure, and we will continue to treat it as such.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up. Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
Accommodation: Lodging in London is notoriously pricey, so its absence from our daily budget is quite glaring—we were lucky enough to have made some lovely English friends while traveling in Asia who graciously offered us the use of their spare room during our visit to London. If not for their generosity, our daily budget would easily be double (if not triple!) what it wound up being. While perusing budget guidebooks on the best ways to keep down lodging costs when visiting London, nearly all of them suggested doing exactly what we did: have friends or relatives who live in the city and bunk with them. The fact that our costs for London were so low is 90% due to the kindness of our friends Kat & Alex, so a HUGE thank you to them for their kindness and hospitality!
(If you don’t have friends/contacts you can ply for free lodging, you can always try CouchSurfing, though I will admit that having browsed through the hosts for London proper we mostly found the prospective hosts to be quite creepy and off-putting. I’m sure there are some decent ones out there, but we kept finding an awful lot of older men who were only interested in hosting young women, or men who boasted about their affection for the “nudist” lifestyle. If that creeps you out, as it did us, you might then look into AirBnB rentals and hostels, but be prepared for sky high prices in either case.)
Food: Although we didn’t anticipate eating well in London, the fact of the matter is that we sort of went on a boozy food bender during our time in the city, something our budget clearly reflects! Far and away, food was our greatest expenditure, making up nearly 75% of our daily budget. In retrospect, that kind of seems a bit ridiculous, but we also have absolutely no regrets on what we ate.
By far the best thing to do in London is secure lodging where you have kitchen access and can prepare some of your own meals. Grocery stores are actually quite reasonably priced and we came to love our local Sainsbury’s. It’s also worth popping into supermarkets and even chemists like Boots around lunchtime as many offer very reasonable lunch deals—we largely survived on Sainsbury’s lunch specials while in London: £5 got you a sandwich, a drink, and a snack. Perfect for picnics in the park, and with sandwich fillings like “cheese & pickle” (where pickle = a tangy brown spread) and “roast chicken & stuffing” and crisp flavors like “prawn cocktail” it’s still a quintessential taste of England for you. Different supermarkets offer different promotions, but we thought Sainsbury’s was the best.
We generally ate breakfast at home, had lunch out (see above re: Sainsbury’s lunch deals), and ate about half of our dinners out too. Our grocery bills were a bit higher than they might have been if we were renting an apartment as we cooked a few Asian meals for our friends as a way of repaying their hospitality, so if you were conservative, you could certainly eat for far less than we did. We really didn’t restrict ourselves when it came to eating in London, and had a few pricy splurges like our afternoon tea. Also, a round of pints down at the pub adds up fast—although it is certainly cheaper to drink at home, it would be a shame to miss out on this quintessential aspect of British culture (and if you have English friends, a trip or two to the pub is unavoidable… you have been warned!).
Transportation: Public transport is exceedingly good in London, but it is also quite expensive. Although we stayed strictly within London and only strayed outside Zones 1 & 2 once, nearly a quarter of our daily budget was spent on simply getting about the city. Although walking is always free, London is sufficiently large that it really isn’t feasible to only travel by foot.
The London transportation network is extensive but also rather confusing for a casual visitor due to all the zones and the different ways fares can be calculated (how many zones you are traveling through, when you are traveling, and also whether you are paying cash or not). You will ALWAYS pay more to take public transport if you pay cash or buy a single ticket, which is why all Londoners have Oyster cards—a plastic card that you can top up and allows you to access the buses and Underground with a simple swipe when entering and exiting that debits the correct fare. Oyster cards can be purchased at any Underground station, including the one out at London Heathrow; they cost a refundable £5 and you can put a balance of your choosing on the card at the time of purchase. Because a single cash fare in Zone 1 alone currently costs £2.50 MORE than if you use an Oyster card, if you plan to take the Underground at least 2 times, it is likely worth your time to purchase a card.
If you only plan to take the Tube a few times, you may find that it is enough to simply put a balance on your Oyster card and “pay as you go”—based on the zones that you visit and the times that you travel on public transport (peak vs. off peak times), your Oyster card has a built in daily maximum price cap that it will not exceed. For instance, even if you used the Underground 15 times in one day, so long as you rode during off-peak hours, you will only be debited £7 total for the day from your balance.
It is also possible to put a travelcard on your Oyster card that allows you unlimited rides within predetermined zones for a daily set price. There are single day travel cards, which actually cost more than the Oyster card’s default pay-as-you-go max cap, so they really make no sense as far as I can tell. Because we were in London for over a week, we got a 7-day travel card, which did wind up being fairly good value for money as it broke down to costing around $7.50US per person per day: so long as we averaged 3 or more journeys on the Tube per day, then we did better than we would with the Oyster card (and even if we only averaged 2 per day, we were only out about 20p per day per person.). We decided that it was worth it for us to have the freedom to jump on and off the Tube whenever we felt like it without having to rigidly plan and structure our days as we otherwise might in order to avoid hitting the pay-as you-go cap (which is £8.40 if you ride during peak hours within Zones 1 & 2; with the travelcard, you can ride at any time of day and you pay the same daily fee regardless.). Our friend Maddy warned us that if we got the travelcards we would certainly rely on public transport more than we otherwise might, but all in all I think we are happy with the choice we made as whenever we went out, we were guaranteed to take the Underground at least twice (to and from our friends’ flat).
Bottom line: it took me a couple of hours to actually understand the different pricing schemes for London’s public transport and to decide what made the most sense for us. I think the general rule of thumb is that if you’re in London for 4 days or more then a travelcard will likely make sense. It’s complicated and pretty confusing and the fact that it costs nearly $5 to ride the Tube during peak hour in Zones 1-2 even with an Oyster card can make it stressful too. Just accept that although convenient, the actual theory behind the fares and what makes the most sense for you will be confusing. You will probably need to read through various web pages on Oyster cards and travel cards and then sit down with a calculator to figure it all out.
Attractions: I’ve already talked about this in another post, but we made it our mission to only avail ourselves of London’s free attractions, of which there are plenty. There are also lots of attractions that aren’t free and are generally pretty expensive, so if you have your heart set on riding the London Eye or visiting the Tower of London, expect to pay a LOT more than zero. However, it must be said that our days were plenty full and we were never without things to do, even with our strict activities budget. You can certainly pay a lot to entertain yourself in London, but you can also pay nothing at all and have a really good time too!
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Not technically a splurge because it was a gift, but we really didn’t expect to love Hint Hunt as much as we did! If we had paid to do it, it would have been pricy, but well worth it. So much fun! (Steph); Our afternoon tea certainly wasn’t cheap but it was delicious and really, how could we not have a proper English tea while we were in England? (Tony)
Worst splurge: Café in the Crypt is reasonable given its location in London, but since all we got was a sandwich with a side salad, we enjoyed those things for far less money throughout the rest of the week just by visiting Sainsbury’s. Not bad food, and not bad value for money for London, but we wouldn’t rush to eat there again. (Steph & Tony)
Best surprise: I’ve had a horrible track record on this trip predicting which places I will and won’t love and so although I had already visited London and loved it, I worried that after 10 years away and so much time in Asia and elsewhere that the bloom would be off the rose. I guess it was surprising to find that London felt pretty much exactly as when I last left it, and I still loved it just as much as I always have. A very happy discovery indeed! (Steph); Just how good the food was. I had heard that London had good food so the fact that was true wasn’t a huge surprise, but I was surprised by the diversity on offer and the quality of what we tried. I was really happy to see that the stereotype of stodgy, bland British food no longer appears to be true. (Tony)
Worst surprise: Probably the worst thing about our time in London actually occurred before we even arrived: I knew that public transport in London was fairly involved, but I really didn’t anticipate how complicated the system was when it came to figuring out what made the most sense to purchase as a visitor to the city. The fact that it’s possible for a single ride to have 3 or 4 different fares depending on a variety of factors really didn’t help and I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to wrap my head around which option (Oyster card? Travelcard? Both?) would make the most sense for us. (Steph); I knew it was coming, but the prices still hit me pretty hard, especially coming from Asia. (Tony)
Favorite meal: OMG. The pork sandwich at Roast in Borough Market. Really, how could it be anything else?!? (Steph & Tony).
Least favorite meal: Maybe we should have known better than to purchase already cheap sandwiches on discount, but we couldn’t help ourselves when we really, really should have. There wasn’t anything actually wrong with the sandwiches save for the fact that they each involved an overwhelming—and unexpected—slathering of horseradish that really ruined them for us. (Steph & Tony)
Best memories: Getting to see our friends Maddy & Simon, Kat & Alex, and Kirsty & James again! All the time spent simply wandering around the city and falling in love with London town all over again; visiting some of the city’s amazing markets; eating and drinking far too much.
Hidden gem: Much has been written about the fantastic markets in London, but few people tend to mention Brixton, perhaps due to its—ahem—colorful past. But Brixton is such a vibrant and diverse area of the city that feels a world away from the old world Victorian charm of the heart of London but is just as vital to the city as Buckingham Palace & Big Ben. When people say they don’t care for London, I often wonder what exactly they’ve seen of the city, and I suspect that they never made it here. Both the market and the neighborhood are well worth a visit!
If We Could Do it All Over Again?
If only we could! Neither of us has any regrets about our time in London, save for the fact that we ONLY had eight days there. There are so many things we would have loved to do: visit a ton more markets, eat more things, make it to Greenwich, explore East London, check out a few other freebie museums, visit more parks… The list really goes on and on. All we can say for now is: Next time! Rest assured, we will be back.