As one of the most expensive European cities I have visited so far, London is a destination that truly needs an essential guide on how to fully experience the city while on a limited travel budget. Despite its cost, however, London has secured its position as one of my favorite cities to explore. I love the accents (automatically sound smarter!), the pubs (they’re on every corner), the public transportation (I’ll elaborate on this one below), culture and history. From traversing London as a broke college student to exploring the city today with a more forgiving, but still extremely modest budget, I have figured out exactly how to experience London on a limited travel budget. This essential guide, which includes both affordable and free activities, will take you through my top tips to create memorable London experiences while on a budget.
Where to Stay in London on a Limited Travel Budget
This post focuses primarily on my recommendations for how to best experience London on a limited travel budget, but my advice is not helpful without an affordable place to stay!
I am more of a hotel or Airbnb traveler in Europe so my accommodation recommendations will not include hostels. As London is a very expensive city, especially in the main touristy areas, “budget-friendly” really means accommodations that are typically less than $150/night. If you are looking for true affordability, hostels will be the way to go but at this time I can’t give sound advice on which ones to pick. I am sure there are some great hostels in London, though!
London is divided into 32 separate boroughs. Each borough has its own unique attractions and vibe, which can make planning tough since there are so many cool options to choose from. I prefer to be more centrally located to the places I know I will be exploring. Here are my recommended “budget-friendly” hotels in excellent locations and within walking distance of a tube station (very important qualification!):
- The Harrington (nearest tube station: Gloucester Road)
- Grande Royale London Hyde Park (nearest tube stations: Queensway and Bayswater)
- Kensington Gardens Hotel (nearest tube stations: Queensway and Bayswater)
- The Belgrave Hotel (nearest tube station: Pimlico)
Another great way to save money in London is by booking your stay through Airbnb! If you have never used Airbnb before, here is a link so you can save $40 off your first booking (which will save you even more money!). My link will also provide you with a $15 credit to try out Airbnb experiences.
How to Memorably Experience London on a Limited Budget
Now that you have a place to stay, let’s dive into how to memorably experience London on a limited travel budget!
#1: Boat Ride on River Thames
For the longest time, I pronounced Thames as “th-ames”. Turns out, it’s actually pronounced ‘tems’. The famous River Thames winds its way through London with a unique sightseeing perspective of the city’s greatest landmarks. Some of the sights include the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (unfortunately covered up right now due to renovations), the London Eye, Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
For those of you who are visiting London for the first time, you should consider investing in The London Pass. I have never purchased this pass since my first time to London involved living there for four months. In doing the math, however, it seems like you can save a lot of money with The London Pass. A guided boat tour on the Thames is included, so you can completely disregard my money-saving recommendations and still memorably experience London on a budget.
Touristy Boat Tours
Most tourists who don’t purchase The London Pass still opt to enjoy a boat ride with a river tour company, such as London Eye River Cruise or City Cruises. If you purchase a single (one-way) ticket online with City Cruises, it costs £13.25 from Westminster pier to Greenwich pier. If you love live tour guide commentary, then you might want to pay the premium for this boat.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of live commentary on a large tour boat. One of the obvious reasons is my hearing impairment. I often find it too difficult to hear what the person is saying through the microphone. This becomes even tougher a large group of tourists who like to talk non-stop. On a boat, the engine noises also contribute to reducing sound quality.
If I sit close enough to clearly hear the tour guide or read the person’s lips, I run into a second issue. I am way too easily distracted. Typically, when it comes to moving at a pace faster than walking, I’m distracted by the sights out the window to listen to what anyone is saying to me. I would rather just enjoy the ride and views and Google the historical facts later.
Above all else, when there’s an opportunity to take the same London route at a discounted price and support my limited travel budget, I am more than happy to take that offer instead.
Cost to Cruise via Public Transportation
My recommendation is this: take public transportation, otherwise known as the River Bus. This service is operated by MBNA Thames Clippers, but don’t pay for the tour option (unless you want to…). Instead, use your contactless credit card or your Oyster card and pay £7.30. An Oyster card is a smart card that you can get at a tube station and use to travel on London’s public transportation services – bus, tube, overground, etc.
My preferred route is to get on the boat at Westminster pier and disembark at Greenwich pier. I also recommend taking the trip via boat one way then using alternative transportation to make your return trip. By doing this, you can easily experience other areas of the city.
#2: Ride a Double Decker Bus
Even if you have a lot of money put aside for your London trip and aren’t as concerned about your travel budget, you should still make it a priority to sit in the front row on the second level of an iconic red double-decker bus. Not only is it thrilling and memorable, since every turn you feel as if the bus is going to fall over, but you get an incredible view of the city!
Cost to Ride a London Bus
The fare for a bus, using contactless or Oyster card, is £1.50. When you board the bus, there will be a little round scanner located by the driver. Once you tap your card on the bus, you will not get charged again for the next hour no matter how many times you hop on and off buses. So rather than thinking of the cost at £1.50 per bus ride, I like to think of it more as £1.50 for one hour of unlimited bus rides!
Another great travel budget perk when it comes to busses is that the city will only charge a maximum of £4.50 per day. So a full day of unlimited (bus-only) transportation in London, with the bus network covering the entire city, is only £4.50!! This is one of my best essential guide recommendations to create memorable experiences in London while on a limited travel budget.
Which London Bus Route(s)?
For sightseeing via bus, I can’t take any credit for putting together the ULTIMATE London bus route for first-time visitors.
#3: Pray in Westminster Abbey
For me, sightseeing is so much more than just visiting a place; it is truly experiencing it. I accidentally stumbled upon this money-saving option when looking for a way to fully experience a visit to the famous Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey is not only a royal church in the heart of London, hosting every coronation since 1066, but it is also a World Heritage Site. Impressively, with millions of tourists flocking to visit Westminster Abbey, it is still an active, living working church.
While I am not religious in the slightest, I desperately wanted to attend a Westminster Abbey service to create a memorable London experience, but also stick to my limited travel budget. As it turns out, it is possible!
Daily Church Services at Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is quite welcoming to those who wish to attend one of its daily services. With almost no line (!), I walked through the doors of Westminster Abbey to witness the truly magical experience of an Evening Prayer.
While I didn’t sneak any pictures, out of respect and wanting to wholly embrace the experience I was kindly invited to partake in, the inside of the chapel is stunning. The chapel becomes that much more beautiful when the Choir of Westminster sings the majority of the service. As a side note, this is when I figured out what Evensong meant. I definitely got goosebumps at one point!
Cost to Pray in Westminster Abbey
The cost to attend a service is free. A normal ticket to visit the Abbey is £23 at the door and £21 online. Of course, this price is more than just entry into the church. It is a detailed historical tour and, from what I’ve read, totally worth it for many people!
Regardless of whether or not you choose to do a tour, I really do recommend this alternative, travel budget-friendly experience as it is a visual (and spiritual?) memory I will cherish forever.
#4-8: Free Experiences in London
Like the idea of visiting Westminster Abbey for free? Well, there are so many more totally free things to do in London! Here are some of my favorites:
Learn in London Museums
A ton of museums in London are surprisingly free. There are featured exhibits that you can choose to pay for, but for a first-time visit to London, you really don’t need to splurge on the featured exhibits (unless it’s something you’re super into!) as there is quite a lot to see in the main areas of the museums. My two favorite free museums are the Natural History Museum and the British Museum.
Stand Outside Buckingham Palace
Squish your face in between the fence of Buckingham Palace (I still have yet to properly time this to witness the Changing of the Guard…oops).
Visit Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens & Palace
Take a beautiful stroll through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, passing by Kensington Palace (is that Kate in the window?!).
(Don’t) Shop at Harrods
Get ignored by Harrods staff because you’re clearly not rich enough to buy anything in the world’s most famous luxury department store. Even if you aren’t shopping at Harrods, it is still a really fun place to explore. My preferred section is the gourmet food floor where you can find my favorite foods: bread & cheese.
Explore Borough Market
Wander through Borough Market! There are several famous markets in London but Borough has to be one of my favorites. There are lots of delicious food samples so you don’t have to spend money if you don’t want to!
Lastly, I would love to include a little bit about my most recent trip to London. For the first time ever, I tried something a little out of my comfort zone and opted to…
#9: Save Money Being Disabled
Ok so that might sound a little strange…but it’s true! Some cities, and especially London, are really supportive of disabled people (at least I feel that way based on my very limited experience thus far) and offer really great discounts through “concession tickets”. I do consider myself “disabled”, as many definitions of disabled would support, but minus my hearing aids, hidden under my hair anyway, my hearing and visual impairments are invisible disabilities.
Since I can’t simply showcase my disabilities, it’s really uncomfortable for me to consider visiting a place using a “concession ticket”. My biggest fear? I guess that someone won’t believe me and that I’ll be perceived as someone who is abusing the system.
I decided to finally get over my awkwardness of the situation and purchase concession tickets online for a few of the London sights I hoped to visit on my latest trip.
While the London Eye offers discounts for the visually impaired, I refrained from getting a concession ticket. Since I would not have vision issues going on the Eye during the daytime, I would not be confident explaining my disability should someone question me. I stuck to discounts at places with potential low-light situations where I would have more trouble seeing.
Some London Sights with Disability Discounts
St. Paul’s Cathedral: Normal Online Price = £17; Free for both Disabled Visitor + Carer (note: tickets only available upon arrival)
Churchill War Rooms: Normal Online Price = £22; Online Concession Ticket = £17.60 + Free Carer (my friend used this ticket! He would guide me as needed)
HMS Belfast (WWII Battleship): Normal Online Price = £16.20; Online Concession Ticket = £12.95 + Free Carer
So there you have it! A comprehensive guide on how to create memorable experiences in London while on a limited travel budget. Although London will still be quite an expensive trip despite my hopefully helpful travel budget recommendations, I can wholeheartedly promise you that London is worth every pence.
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Disclosure: I may receive a small commission should you decide to book directly through my accommodation links. Every dollar goes directly back to support Wanderlight Moments & Usher syndrome awareness.