Mini Budget Breakdown: London Travel Costs

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...

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

Daily costs per person, London

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.

Oh Marks&Sparks, we love and miss you
Oh Marks & Sparks, we love and miss you

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!).

If you do want to dine out, consider doing so at lunchtime or a few hours before dinner, when many restaurants will offer specials. Also, don’t rule out pubs: even if you don’t want to drink, many of them offer fairly reasonable meal deals of heart pub fare (though, admittedly, these will still be pretty pricey).

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 underground

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.

Note that if you purchase your Oyster card in advance online, these generally cost less HOWEVER the fee is not refundable in this case. It’s easy to buy your Oyster card when you arrive in London, so I see no reason to purchase in advance.

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).

You can also purchase a paper travelcard that is not stored on your Oyster, but the nice thing about having the travelcard on your Oyster is that if you do ride outside of your predetermined zones, the additional fare will simply be deducted from the balance on your Oyster card. If you have a paper card, you have to figure this out in advance and buy a ticket for the difference in the fare and it’s a lot more of a hassle.

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.

We took the bus twice (covered by our travelcard), and if you are really on a budget, then try to use the bus instead of the Underground. It is MUCH cheaper, though it is also less user friendly for tourists who don’t know the routes and schedules (the latter I wouldn’t worry much about since the buses seem to run pretty frequently).

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!

Many attractions offer a web discount if you purchase your tickets in advance online. The savings are often enough that it’s probably worth it to do this, even for the non-planners amongst us.

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?

Oxford Circus, London

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.

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23 comments Leave a comment

  1. Wow! The free accommodation really must’ve helped. I went way over my budget in London, but that was also because of my need to consume beer with every meal! Thanks for the tips on how to save money while there!

    Oct. 6 2014 @ 4:19 pm
    1. Kendra Granniss author

      A free room REALLY helped us stay under budget during our time in London, there is NO doubt about that. We definitely could have come in even cheaper if we had skipped a few trips down to the pub, but where would have been the fun in that? 😛

      Oct. 8 2014 @ 1:50 pm
  2. Nice wrapup! Remind me to travel with you guys next time. I’d be more than happy to let someone else do the OCD calculations and just be a follower. The one time I was in London, my sister bought the very expensive London cards so we basically spent 48 hours doing everything humanly possible. Not sure I’d want to try that again. AND we spent like $170 on a tiny hotel room. Boo.

    Oct. 6 2014 @ 9:14 pm
    1. James author

      We considered one of those mega travel cards for London but we decided that it would really force us to travel in a way that we tend not to enjoy very much anymore, so skipped them. Maybe if I hadn’t already been to London before I would have been more game, but I’ve seen all of the major attractions that I want to so we were happy to just enjoy the many free sights instead.

      It’s really crazy how expensive hotels in London are—even spare bedrooms on Air BnB can come in close to $100!

      Oct. 8 2014 @ 1:53 pm
  3. Why am I not surprise that the big part of your daily budget was food? I know how much you enjoy trying different cuisines and I’m so glad you like what you found, especially the market food.
    Having the accommodation sorted and for free is a huge bonus in London, even the cheapest hostel is still not that cheap (especially coming from Asia). We were lucky enough last time we were in London to have spent some time with our friends that have recently moved there and also with a couchsurfing host which was simply amazing. It’s incredible how lucky we were with that too, we only sent one CS request to this person which we wanted to meet (based on his awesome profile) and he accepted us straight away, if you ask me that’s pure luck especially in London 🙂

    Oct. 7 2014 @ 5:28 am
    1. Franca author

      We thought that hotels and hostels were expensive Japan and Hong Kong, but they were nothing compared to the prices I saw for London, so we were really glad to have such amazing friends who had space for us. We didn’t spend tons of time looking for CS hosts because we had so many contacts of our own, but we rarely send many requests whenever we do Surf because we tend to be pretty selective just like you guys. There have been a few places where we only sent one request and were lucky enough that our host was willing to have us stay… unsurprisingly, those have been some of our best stays!

      Also, whenever food is the biggest part of our budget we have numerical proof that it was a good trip! 🙂

      Oct. 8 2014 @ 1:58 pm
  4. I’m amazed that you spent so little in London – congratulations! If you ever come back to England you’re welcome to sleep in my spare room anytime!

    Oct. 7 2014 @ 7:08 am
    1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) author

      Thank you so much for the kind offer, Jackie! I’m sorry we weren’t able to meet up during our visit this time—we’ll have to make sure to rectify that next time we come to town. 🙂

      Oct. 8 2014 @ 2:00 pm
  5. Awesome breakdown as usual! Such a good thing to have friends to stay with, isn’t it? Makes you see how big of a chunk accommodation really is!

    Oct. 7 2014 @ 12:51 pm
    1. Rika | Cubicle Throwdown author

      Yeah, lodging is often the most expensive part of our budget and that would certainly be true in London. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said our daily budget would easily have been double (if not more) if we had had to stay in a hotel or even a hostel. Plus, we definitely got to see a side of London and get a peek into the local life in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to without the help of our friends, so really for that reason our stay with our friends was priceless.

      Oct. 8 2014 @ 2:02 pm
  6. I love these budget breakdowns. It’s interesting how food takes up so much of the budget in many Western cities.

    I also love the “healthy” rack at Marks and Spencers. If only I could lose weight by eating there! *sigh*

    Oct. 7 2014 @ 8:28 pm
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Ha ha! We laughed so hard at the “Healthy” rack at M&S. It made us worry a bit about how much weight we would gain by shopping in the other parts of the store…

      Our food budget was definitely a bit inflated in London—if we had cooked all our meals (and not prepared some meals for our hosts as well) or at least cut out a few pints down at the pub, we definitely would have saved quite a bit of money. But we can’t say that we regret any of the money we spent—on booze or otherwise!

      Oct. 8 2014 @ 2:07 pm
  7. You did really well with your budget and I’m impressed with how much you packed into your stay. You’re right though, the tube payment system is a bit of a nightmare, I think it’s almost always worth getting an Oyster card though, like you did. Hope to see you both in London one day 🙂

    Oct. 9 2014 @ 9:17 pm
    1. Amy author

      I’m so glad we decided to just go for it and stayed for 8 days in London—I’m sure we could have gotten a good feel for the city with half that time, but it was really lovely to have the extra days so that we could move at our own pace and try to see some less visited things. There was still so much that we missed out on, though, even with our luxurious 8-day stay!

      Everyone I’ve talked to says the tube payment system is a headache, which is why I’m sure most Londoners just have the Oyster card. It’s not always so cut & dry whether that pay as you go system makes the most sense when you’re just there for a short while; as a visitor, as convenient as I found the London public transport situation, it was definitely the most confusing and intimidating to sort out initially.

      Would be lovely to meet up in London some day! I know we’ll be back, so let’s make it happen!

      Oct. 16 2014 @ 9:39 am
  8. I hear ya on the sticker-shock after travelling on the cheap. When we hit Paris after South America we were floored even though we’d been expecting it. Now that we’re in India we are back to (super) cheap living…I am sure when we return to Canada I will be disgusted with how expensive everything is! Bah!

    Oct. 12 2014 @ 11:07 am
    1. Emily author

      I think we did a pretty good job of dealing with the sticker shock in London once we arrived—we thoroughly researched things so we were prepared for how much things would cost, and by having our lodging covered, that took a huge amount of stress off our plates. Still, for most of our time in Europe I would have occasional moments where I would just panic or start to get grumpy about how seemingly needlessly pricy things were and I’d need some time to decompress and adjust all over again. We’ve been back in Toronto for nearly 4 months (?!?) now and I still feel like things are stupidly expensive. Then again, I kind of hope I never acclimate back to our previous careless spending days!

      Oct. 16 2014 @ 9:42 am
  9. Well done you guys. You did a fantastic job and on such a low budget too! Having friends to stay with in London is always the wisest idea as a “sleep-over” can take a huge chunk of your budget.
    The tips about the Oyster card are very good and are to be recommended, as well as having a “sandwich deal” for lunch. A Marks & Sparks lunch is really one of the best but if the buget is limited, you can also go to Tesco. A pub dinner at a “Weatherspoons'” pub is pretty cheap as it’s ” 2 meals for the price of 1″ type of thing and “happy hours” on drinks pretty much all day. You can also get breakfast before 11:00 for between $3-5:00!

    In short, you had a great time. As a British person, it gladdens my heart. Hurrah! 🙂

    Oct. 13 2014 @ 11:46 pm
    1. Victoria@ The British Berliner author

      We had local friends recommend Weatherspoons to us, but we never made it to one during our visit. We also never had a proper lunch at M&S either, but we did pop in and buy some sweets and crisps, which were a delight! There are lots of way to eat on the cheap in London if you do your research and are judicious about it… and by & large the food is delicious.

      We really did have a great time. I’ve always considered London to be one of my favorite cities and it was so nice to go back and find the city held up to my memories. As I’ll soon be writing, you’ll see that wasn’t true for every place we revisited in Europe…

      Oct. 16 2014 @ 9:45 am
  10. Yep, I wouldn’t say that every cent you spent in London was worth it considering you had such a brilliant time. That’s pretty concerning about all those guys on Couchsurfing who are like older men looking for young female guests. Disturbing…

    Also, I burst out laughing looking at those so-called “healthy” foods. WTF. 😀

    Oct. 15 2014 @ 7:21 am
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      I should say that our friends over at AngloItalian, Follow Us! Couchsurfed while in London and had an awesome host who wasn’t a perv, so I don’t want to pain the London CS scene with too broad a brush. Just that we definitely found during our brief perusals that there were a lot of people who didn’t seem to be in it for the right reasons (shall we say) and I think we would have had to work a lot harder to find a suitable host.

      Yup, the healthy food rack at Marks & Spencers was absolutely abysmal. Tasty, perhaps, but healthy? Not so much.

      Oct. 16 2014 @ 9:47 am
  11. Big applause for managing to enjoy everything you did in London for those prices!! It just goes to show that in any city in the world, you can find more budget ways of experiencing them to the fullest. Major kudos guys 🙂

    Oct. 24 2014 @ 5:27 am
    1. Maddie author

      I definitely agree, Maddie. While certain destinations will definitely be more expensive than others, I really believe that with some determination and some creativity, it’s possible to stick to a conservative budget nearly anywhere. You know that we aren’t the type of people who will refrain from doing something simply because of costs if it’s really important to us, but in London, we were certainly lucky that there were so many great things available to us that cost nothing at all. And, of course, having friends who offered us a place to stay was such a boon—that more than anything helped us immensely.

      Oct. 27 2014 @ 5:20 pm
  12. really nice blog, I live in east London. it’s called Whitechapel.

    May. 11 2021 @ 4:00 pm

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