Getting your money’s worth in the capital
London’s getting a bit of a reputation for being too expensive these days. The prices of everything, from rail fares to pints of beer, seems to go up by 10% every year, while the amount of money you have to spend stays the same.
Logic dictates that this isn’t going to change. As more and more of London gets privatised, prices to do things follow suit by inflating, and before long, what used to get you a meal now gets you a side.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t splash out when you’re in town, though. That’s the whole point of coming to London, right?! All it means is that you need to be a bit more selective about what you spend your money on.
Our little guide is a way to strike out all of those little expenses that soon add up and stop you from having that last, great meal out with your friends. It’s a way to stop that feeling when you get to the bar at the end of a day of sightseeing, open your wallet and privately ask yourself “where on earth did all my cash go?!”.
The best part is, you can do all of this while actually getting more out of London than if you threw your money about like royalty. Get the most out of London and keep some money back? Is that really doable, or is this a ploy? Well, read on. It’s basically the way most Londoners have to live but with the incentive that you’re on holiday, and you’ve got free time.
London’s a magnificent place, full architectural marvels, laced throughout with strands of historic intrigue, possessed of genuine magic, romance and beauty – and you can’t put a price on any of these things. Luckily, no one’s trying to (yet), so by saving money one way, you can appreciate London too.
The crucial word in all of this is planning. The smallest bit of advanced planning can save you anywhere from £10 to £100 a day; money that could be much better spent. And we don’t mean to say that you should plan your trip so meticulously that you can’t have fun or be spontaneous; we know that’s the point.
Make sure you’re not spending on things you don’t want
Lists are great. They’re fun to write, you feel like you’ve achieved something and then you get that extra tang of satisfaction when you achieve something on your list.
So write a list of exactly what you’re prepared to spend your money on. It’s much more fun to write a list of things you want than of things you want to avoid spending money, and it’s much easier to buy something you want than it is to quibble about whether it’s the right investment for you (even if it’s a train ticket).
Be as specific as you like, but don’t make it impossible to deviate from your list. Say you want to buy some clothing, have a good think about exactly what you want, get a good idea, maybe do some research, then add “two bits of clothing” to your list. If you put exactly what you want, you might feel restricted, but this way you’re allowed some wiggle room.
Bear in mind that this isn’t a budget. You don’t have to put how much you’re going to spend on each item down, because that’s restrictive. Just the things that you’re prepared to shell out for. The reason for this is that if you’re finding it hard to decide whether or not to buy that extra coffee or take that cab, all you need to do is ask yourself “is it on my list?” and the decision’s made for you.
Here’s an example: Food & drink, social drinks, clothing x 2, theatre/film/event tickets x 3, emergency transport (and presents if you’re the generous kind).
That’s our list, and we’re pretty sure that covers everything. At least, it covers everything you need to pay for.
If you want an added level of incentive, order your list items by priority – with items that you want to spend the most on at the top.
Know what’s on offer before splashing out
So, what do you want to do? Well, we understand that if London’s a new city for you – or even if you’ve been here a few times before – you might now know what you want to do. Maybe you want to be surprised, or maybe there’s something new in town.
Or, maybe, you know London pretty well and have a good idea of what you’re after. In all of these cases, it’s still researching what’s on offer, and the reason for that is: it’s London. There is so much going on that you might be missing out on the time of your life next door by travelling to that popular and familiar exhibition.
So we’ll start with an easier question: what do you like? Gardening? Great. Well the internet will tell you exactly what there is in London by way of public gardens, flower shows, flower markets, inner-city farms, park and woodlands nearby, garden centres and so on.
What if you like theatre? Oddly, this is a bit harder to navigate because the market’s so saturated, but don’t just see what the obvious listings are. There are so many shows on that those with the biggest budgets get the most advertising space (and run the longest, making them even less deserving of the advertising space).
Plays like The Woman in Black, while amazing, are always on. So do some research for London theatres, rather than shows, and see what comes up. There are greats like the Old Vic and Young Vic, the Arcola, the Almeida, the Royal Court, the National Theatre, the Southwark Playhouse, the Union Theatre, the Waterloo East Theatre, the Tricycle, the Bush Theatre, the Gatehouse, the Oval House Theatre and on and on.
These, as well as having much more up-to-date, relevant and exciting material being performed, will also have much cheaper ticketing and a younger, more vibrant crowd.
So research what you want to do thoroughly to find the best option for you. We’ve got a huge number of guides on almost every aspect of London tourism you could ever want, so check those out if you need some advice, or call our helpdesk.
3. Be Savvy!
You don’t have to listen to the loudest voices
Often the places with the biggest budgets will be the pushiest when it comes to getting you through their doors. The most obvious of those examples are nightclubs, but this does extend to other realms too.
The poshest nightclubs are so rich that they don’t even need you to know they exist to turn a huge profit, but if you’re out on the tiles in Leicester Square, then we advise being very, very wary of the hundreds of people you’ll meet offering you drinks discounts and so on at their clubs. Invariably, these clubs will be soulless and very little fun.
Instead, find a few recommendations from friends who’ve been to London before or live there and who know your tastes. Many clubs and bars won’t come up on the first few pages of a google search because there are just too many, but these maybe some of the best on offer.
There are two main bits of advice with this: see what’s in your area, and see what your friends want to do. We have a lot of guides on lesser-known bars, clubs and pubs by area and there’ll certainly be something off the beaten track that suits your group in there.
So first, see what’s in your area. If you want to go out on the town, check out which area you want to go to using a map service like google maps. This has two advantages: it acquaints you with the area before you’ve gone, and it tells you which businesses are there. It’s just a short step from seeing what people say about those venues to make up your mind. This is a lot more trustworthy than some guy who’s never met you thrusting a flyer into your hand.
4. Make Your Own Discoveries!
Use travel guides as guides, not instructions
Following on from our nightclub advice, when you get to where you want to go, if somewhere catches your eye, just go in. You’re not obliged to buy anything if you don’t like it.
Surprisingly little of what is on offer is actually marked on google maps, and even less of it will be forthcoming on a normal search. If you can refine what you want when you’re researching (e.g. Irish pub Soho rather than just “pub Soho”) that will help a bit, but there are a few venues in London which remain delightfully hidden from the internet.
These are often some of the most authentic places out there, and you’ll only ever discover these places through recommendation or by accident. Most good parts of London are so great to just walk around that you can find your own hidden gems and have fun at the same time.
All of this is tied up in our next point, which we feel is central to our campaign to getting you to save money in town.
Transport is not always necessary in the centre of town
Of course, there will be many times when taking public transport is necessary. For example, if your hotel or B&B is outside of the centre of town then if you want to do anything you’ll have to get a tube or a bus.
But, once you’re in the centre, distances are not as far as you imagined. Moreover, you get to see all of the wondrous bits of London that you would otherwise be stuck underground for.
In the modern era with our smart phones and technological advances, GPS maps are very handy for this kind of thing. But, to be honest, so are real maps, and an old London A-Z is always a handy thing to have in case you run out of battery.
Walking is free, and tubes are expensive. Not even reasonably priced; they are very expensive. Especially if you don’t have an Oyster Card. There really is no need to get the underground from Holborn to Embankment; it is not a long walk – and it’s a great walk, past some iconic landmarks.
This will save you an absolute wedge on transport. It depends how much you like walking, but we reckon seven to ten miles in an entire day is quite a good day’s walking, and over that distance you can take in the vast majority of central London.
It burns calories, too – and if you’ve been out the night before then that’s a great way to kick-start the metabolism and prep you for the night ahead!
6. Take Advantage of Offers
Most places want to compete for custom, so know when to buy!
There are a handful of offers that apply to most places in London nearly every day of the year. When it comes to food and eating out, many, many restaurants (especially those in the West End or near a theatre) will have pre or post theatre menus.
These are discounted meals of a selection of items from their a la carte (sometimes featuring a du jour dish or two) menus. This is great to take advantage of, as you don’t have to be going to the theatre to qualify for one and you’re likely to get gourmet food at a fraction of the price.
The only trouble is that you have to go at a specific time. This is (usually) between 3:30 – 5:30 and then 9:30 – 10:30/11:30pm. These are normally inconvenient times to go, well outside of the prime dining time. But for your purposes, you could work it into your day.
Reductions do tend to be jaw-dropping. Somewhere usually doing three courses at £35 might have 2 courses for £15 or 3 for £20 – over a third off – and there are plenty of places offering these menus around.
Lunch menus are similar and offer great deals, as well as appearing at a wider variety of restaurants. Lunch is usually considered to be 12:00pm – 2:00pm.
Seasonal sales in shops are there to be taken advantage of too. The best times are January/February and autumn.
7. Go Independent!
Chains have no need to drop prices
By independent, we just mean not existing as part of a chain. Moreover, this mainly applies to food and drink (as clothing and furniture gets more expensive if it’s independently made).
Cafés have to compete with larger chains for business and therefore are usually a staggering amount cheaper. Moreover, you can watch your food being made and have a much greater say in how you want it to be.
Good independent cafés are becoming increasingly popular, and will offer a bigger variety and (generally) higher quality of produce. There are exceptions to this rule, but they’re too rare to make anything of here.
When it comes to coffee, people get very picky. Independent cafés tend to take much greater pride in the origin and quality of the coffee they serve than even dedicated coffee chains such as Starbucks and Costa. You’re likely to get better service (despite the efforts of those companies to force their staff into being as saccharine and familiar as possible) and spend far less money.
Plus, if you order a sandwich, you have the added comfort of seeing it be made in front of you, rather than unwrapped from a cellophane packing.
8. Older is Better!
Outlets which struggle to compete have to drop prices
If you want to go clothes shopping, the obvious choices are either of the Westfields or similar gargantuan shopping centres (and Oxford Street).
And these are great. In such a large market, with so much price regulation, it’s hard to force these brands into being too competitive to drive down prices. So how do you take advantage of them to get your money’s worth?
It’s a little sinister, but big, flashy new developments have, obviously, had billions invested in them. Therefore, for the time being at least, it doesn’t matter as much how well they perform. However the older, more tired shopping centres, which are struggling more, tend to rent their boutiques more cheaply and therefore attract retailers with lower prices.
With that in mind, shopping centres such as the Whitgift Centre in Croydon are good places to look. Alongside big, high-street brands are smaller brands and independent labels with completely slashed prices. You may also find outlet centres springing up in these areas as a result of the recession, where the only options are what’s there, but what is there is very high quality and staggeringly reduced.
Other options like this include the London Designer Outlet and Wembley Retail Park in Wembley, N1 in Angel and Bluewater (a little further afield).
9. Avoid Black Cabs
They’re too expensive by far!
We know very few people who haven’t heard of or used Uber, but they are out there and you may be one of them. In which case, it’s worth looking into.
But the point is that black cabs in London are just too expensive. The metre starts at a price higher than what you currently have in your wallet and increases by a ridiculous amount every few feet from then on.
So, if you don’t want to use Uber or black cabs, what are your options? Well the simplest thing is to do a search for a local cab firm on your smartphone. But if you don’t have one, there are simply hundreds of licensed taxi firms all over London.
If you’re in a pub then you can just ask the barperson to call one for you (this is something of a tradition), but if you’re really stuck and don’t want to get a black cab then call a service provider such as 118 118. It’s an expensive call to make, but it will save you the heartache of forking out whatever the price is for a black cab.
All of these options will make sure you get in a licensed taxi. We cannot overstate the dangers of getting in an unlicensed taxi, particularly if you’re female and even more particularly if you’re on your own. Always make sure that your cab’s licensed.
And, if it’s not, it’s better to take a black cab and pay the money than risk it with some stranger and their car.
10. Be Canny About Etiquettes!
Not all traditions are cheap!
Some behaviours are considered universal. They’re not. Tipping is one of these things. While it is obviously seen as polite to tip and, in some countries it is very welcome, in other countries it is seen as offensive.
It is not offensive to tip in London, but it’s not necessary either. Nearly every restaurant you go to will take the tips and either keep them for the management or divide them amongst the staff after having creamed off the top. In the worst case, the staff won’t see any of their tips. Sometimes they’re added to the monthly pay surprisingly light.
So, don’t tip. If your waiting person has been spectacular and you really want to reward them for it, ask them whether they get to keep all of it. They may not want to say, but it’s worth asking all the same. If they don’t, then you are simply paying extra for your meal. That is not sensible.
Barpeople don’t get tipped in the UK. If you want to tip a barperson, offer to buy them a drink when they next serve you. If they want, they can collect the cash instead of the drink (probably, but not always), but in most cases they’ll be happy with the drink.
Rounds (as in one person buying drinks for everyone and then that person rotating every round) is generally how drinking’s done in the UK, even though a lot of other cultures see this as ridiculous. The reasoning is that it keeps everyone fair and together. No one wants to be thought of as the person who left the pub just before it was their round after accepting drinks off everyone else.
But equally, no one wants to be the person who gets two rounds and then everyone leaves after having bought one each.
So discuss this with your group, and if it looks like you might be shelling out extra, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying “you guys do rounds, I’ll sort myself out”.
We hope this guide will save you money; there’s plenty of good information on free London events in our guides – so a great deal of what London has to offer is free anyway. It’s just making sure that the little things don’t add up that’s important, and we think if you’re savvy about how you spend, then you’ll be able to splash out even more on enjoying yourself.