When we found ridiculously cheap flights to London, we knew that it was the perfect gateway into our Europe trip (which, by the way, turned into a Middle East trip but a story for another time). London’s pricey reputation certainly precedes it and we told ourselves that backpacking London wasn’t even going to be possible on our shoestring budget. We entertained the idea of flying in and immediately out but we’d met some life loving people from London during our Latin America and couldn’t possibly NOT visit them.
- Is Backpacking London even possible?
- Backpacking London: Quick Reference Guide
- Currency, cash & ATMs
- Daily Budget for Backpacking London
- Accommodation in London
- Eating in London
- Drinking Alcohol When Backpacking London
- Cheap or free things to do in London
- What to pack for London
- SIM cards
- Things we LOVE about London
- Things we don’t
- Visa for the United Kingdom
Is Backpacking London even possible?
Bags packed, bank accounts not exactly filled and feeling nervous about sticking to a budget, we arrived to find that indeed, London is expensive. No surprise. However, we found that it was entirely possible to stick to a tight budget when backpacking London because there are plenty of cheap, free and fun things to do without having to stick to eating bread and drinking free tea every day.
Yes, you can eat well, have a good time and not spend an outrageous amount. BUT HOW?! While we’re not miracle workers, we are pretty bloody frugal so here are our tips. By the way, if you find this post helpful, we’d love for you to let us know – helps the creative juices flowing (and the motivation to slug away).
Backpacking London: Quick Reference Guide
|Cash or credit?||Both|
|Currency||Great British Pound (GPB or £)|
|Daily budget||£25-35 ($50-70 AUD / $35-50 USD)|
|Festive days / holidays||1 January – New Year’s Day
March / April – Easter
1st Monday of May – Early May Bank Holiday
Last Monday of May – Spring Bank Holiday
Last Monday of August – Summer Bank Holiday
25 December – Christmas Day
26 December – Boxing Day
|Must-see / must-do||Free Walking Tour
Visit the British Museum
Eat a Sunday Roast
Visit a pub
Drink tea (the English way)
|Slang||Loo = toilet
Ta = thank you
|Tap water||Safe to drink|
|Tipping etiquette||Service charges are usually included in the bill but if not, a 10% tip is customary.|
|Traditions / customs / respect||Pub: Order drinks and pay at the bar (usually not table service). Bartenders don’t need to be tipped.
Dining: Fork in the left hand, knife in the right
Basic politeness (please, thank you and excuse me) is expected
|Toilets & toilet paper||Seated toilets. Toilet paper is flushed down the toilet.|
|Weather||Dec – Feb: Winter. Average highs of 9°C and lows of 4°C.
Mar – May: Spring. Average highs of 15°C and lows of 7°C.
Jun – Aug: Summer. Average highs of 23°C and lows of 15°C.
Sep – Nov: Autumn. Average highs of 16°C and lows of 10°C.
You can really enjoy London at any time of the year although most visitors will opt for summer to avoid the rain.
Currency, cash & ATMs
London is part of the United Kingdom and accordingly uses the Great British Pound (GPB or £). At the time of writing, the exchange rate is:
1AUD ≈ £0.55
1USD ≈ £0.72
1EUR ≈ £0.88
Credit cards are widely accepted throughout London so you could almost completely avoid withdrawing cash. We found many free ATMs throughout the city if you do need cash. Note that your local bank may also charge you additional withdrawal fees. If you’re in Australia, CitiBank’s Plus Account has no account fees and doesn’t charge foreign ATM transaction fees.
Daily Budget for Backpacking London
Overall, I’d recommend a budget of around £25-35 per day. This isn’t a luxurious budget. You’ll be staying in dorm rooms, spend time cooking and will have to limit your alcohol intake and opt to pre-drink rather than drink whilst out. We spent a total of £307.49 (ie £153.75 / $277 AUD / $215 USD) excluding flights, travel insurance and accommodation (we stayed with friends). This is an average of £15.37 per person per day.
Here are some examples for a better idea of general costs:
- Bus from Gatwick airport to Victora Station – £4 per person
- Bus from Stratford Station to Stansted Airport – £8.50 per person
- Bed in a dorm room – varies from £8 to £35 depending on room size and location
- Bus ride – £1.50 regardless of distance
- A pint of beer – £4.50 (look for happy hour specials)
- Sunday roast dinner – £13 – 16
- Meals at markets – £9-12
London’s public transport system is one of the best I’ve ever used – it’s easy to understand and is convenient. You also get capped for using the tube or overground trains within zones 1 – 6. This means that you can travel as much as you like within a day or week and will be capped a certain price for the travel. For more information, see the Transport for London website.
WAIT. Don’t let the daily capping fool you though because public transport is still quite pricey and there are additional peak-hour charges. We spent £35 per person on public transport over 8 days. Of course, you can reduce this cost by walking as much as possible but being such a large city, it’ll take you a while.
If there is good weather, you may certainly opt to ride but allow me to warn you now, cyclists are ruthless on the road (they have to be to get around the traffic). There is a lot of cutting traffic/footpath riding and sneaking up on pedestrians (apparently no one has heard of a bell).
To reduce your spending on public transport, we recommend you:
- Download City Mapper – it’ll help you navigate through the entire city and tell you what price to expect.
- If you’ve got a bank card or credit card that has PayPass, use the contactless payment option rather than buying an Oyster card or a paper ticket. If you don’t then buy an oyster card as paper tickets are more expensive.
- Avoid travelling during peak hour.
- Divide up what you want to see and do into blocks around the city so that you can spend more time walking.
Some extra transport tips:
- Tube / overground trains – Trains do not run all night so make sure you plan your ride if you’re planning on travelling between midnight and 5 am.
- Local buses – each time you hop on the bus, you’ll pay £1.50. You must have an Oyster card or contactless bank card to use the bus. This is a cheap option if you’re travelling a long distance and not frequently changing.
- Uber – expensive in London but for short distances (particularly in the middle of the night when public transport is scarce), it can be worth it.
- Avoid driving in London as traffic is busy, parking is near impossible and you will get charged for driving into the city during peak-hour. If you’ve got the funds to hire a car, just use an Uber.
Travel to and from the airport
For travel to and from the airport, booking in advance will save you money. The cheapest option is a shuttle bus (usually to or from Victoria Station depending on where you are staying) and then a train from there. We used easyBus.com and compared this to the fares offered on the National Express website.
Accommodation in London
Thanks to our friends in London, we didn’t have to pay for accommodation. We stayed with them in Hackney which is an area close to the city but far enough that you can feel like quite the local walking around. As a tourist, it won’t matter too much where you stay given that London is spread out.
We suggest staying with Zone 1 to reduce your spend on transport and it’s best that you check the City Mapper app to gauge the cost of travel from your accommodation to main sights. If you’re short on time, it’s best to plan an area to stay in around what you plan to do as this will save you money on public transport and reduce travel time.
Eating in London
My favourite dining experience in London was at Camden Markets. We went on a Friday for lunch and it felt like a weekend market with a variety of vendors offering you samples of all their delicious food. We got a lot of fried chicken. With plenty of meat, vegetarian and vegan options, even the pickiest of eaters would be satisfied here.
Around the city, you’ll find food from all over the world. To stick to your backpacking budget, you can eat at:
- The Vietnamese Mile for yep, you guessed it, Vietnamese food
- Brick Lane for curries
- Dalston for Turkish food
- Brixton Market and Brixton Pop
- Camden Market
- Borough Markets.
Check out the Street Feasts website for more delicious inspiration and venue ideas.
Drinking Alcohol When Backpacking London
If you’ve met any British travellers, I’m sure you’ve got an idea of the drinking culture. I believe it’s said that drinking is the only way to deal with the crappy weather. Alcohol is indeed widely available throughout London and you’ll find that good times are always had at a pub. There is a big nightlife and it is quite normal (or perhaps even customary) to have a drink with dinner. If you’re backpacking London, try drinking during happy hour or pre-drinking to help keep your budget under control as alcohol is expensive. For super tight budgets, it’s always better to limit your alcohol intake and stick to the drink that’s always free – tap water.
Cheap or free things to do in London
- Go on a Free Walking Tour – our most favourite thing to do in any big city is going on a free walking tour. Just to be clear though, a free walking tour isn’t exactly free as you are expected to tip depending on how much you enjoy the tour. We have never gone on a walking tour and not tipped though since they’ve all been full of information, history, anecdotes and local perspectives that we’d otherwise be missing out on.
- Visit any of the free museums or galleries – The British Museum is hands down the best museum I’ve ever been to and is (for me) the best of the free things to do in London. Museum buffs can easily spend an entire day hire with the many exhibitions and artefacts from various time periods all around the world.
Other free museums and galleries are:
- The Tate Modern
- National History Museum
- See St Paul’s Cathedral for free by going to a service – have a look at the service schedule to plan in advance and save yourself the £18 entry fee.
- Visit England’s oldest market – Borough Market. The perfect lunch spot with many samples (most of which are cheese – yes!!) and delicious food choices made with only locally farmed ingredients. Food vendors also aim to be eco-friendly by using biodegradable or recyclable food containers and cutlery.
- Monday – Wednesday: Half market
- Thursday to Saturday: Full market
- Sunday: Closed
- Feast on more delicious samples at Camden Market.
- See the London Skyline from Parliament Hill at Hamstead Heath. Breathe in the fresh air and get away from the noisy city at Hamstead Heath.
- Or go for a swim in the ponds at Hampstead Heath. Daniel and I found this a little odd as a pond is not somewhere you’d want to swim in Perth but we understood when we got there. The swimming ponds are more like freshwater lakes. Water is tested and treated so completely safe to swim in. There are 3 ponds – male, female and mixed.
- See the Queen on a Tuesday! The Queen meets with the Prime Minister every Tuesday at Buckingham Palace so you might get lucky and spot her driving in / out.
- See the inside of one of London’s theatres by coming along to a Hillsong church service
Hillsong is a contemporary Christian church with services around the world. We visited a service
- Watch a Shakespeare play at The Globe for £5. Shakespeare believed that plays were not to be enjoyed by only the wealthy so continuing this tradition, you can still buy £5 standing tickets to any Shakespeare plays.
What to pack for London
The weather can change quite dramatically through the day so you should bring layers and have a down jacket / outer jacket. Some must-bring items are:
- Various thin layers – the weather changed a lot during the one week we were there. You’ll need layers to pack light and to have enough clothes for keeping warm.
- Beanie and scarf if travelling in winter.
- Down jacket / wind-proof jacket if travelling in winter.
- Hat and sunscreen.
- Sneakers or hiking shoes if you’re planning on hiking.
- A backpack (rather than suitcase). If it’s raining, you won’t want to be wheeling through puddles.
Wifi is pretty widely available and some train stations also have a connection. We didn’t purchase a sim card as they are quite expensive and don’t offer much data to warrant it. If you get your route planning done in a spot with wifi, you shouldn’t have too much trouble navigating yourself. You should also download offline Google Maps or Maps.ME to navigate yourself without the need for wifi.
If you are still after a sim card, most mini supermarkets or big stores will sell them. Otherwise, plenty of phone stores online.
Things we LOVE about London
- The many free things to do! You can see from the list above that we really made the most of our time. Even then, we didn’t get to see everything we wanted to.
- The architecture! Coming from a country where heritage buildings are anything over 100 years old, it was a nice change to see very modern architecture (by the likes of Norman Foster and Renzo Piano) as well as 500-year-old buildings.
- Learning about England’s rich history which is filled with scandal, wars, battles and a lot of controversies. Being part of the Commonwealth, it was probably about time we learned about the monarch so the free walking tours gave us a lot of insight into the Royal Family and England’s long-standing history.
- A good variety of food choices from all around the world. The thing we miss most when travelling is being able to eat any cuisine. Thankfully in London, you don’t have this problem and can get any food you like.
Things we don’t
- Public transport prices. I was actually shocked at how much we spent on public transport, given we tried so hard to skimp out. Although peak hour prices make sense, it’s a bit frustrating for planning budget travel.
- The gloomy weather which to be totally honest, we managed to escape most of the time. The grey skies aren’t so motivating for travel but that’s just how it is so you’ve got to deal with it.
Visa for the United Kingdom
Many passport holders (such as Australians and US Americans) can travel to the UK without a visa and stay for up to 6 months. EU citizens do not need a visa to enter the UK. To check if you need a visa, visit the UK’s visa website.
Flights to London from Australia:
From Perth, you can fly to London for under $330 AUD one way through Scoot and Norwegian. Check out our Facebook post which explains it all. From other capital cities, you can also fly to Singapore through Scoot or Air Asia. Otherwise, you’re flying one of the full-service airlines.
Flights to London from Asia:
Fly to Singapore and then onwards to London with Norwegian for $199 SGD.
Flights to London from Europe:
Plenty of budget airlines will get you to London. Watch out for Ryan Air and Wizz Air sales for flights as little as 5 to 10 EUR.
Flights to London from the US:
Cheap flights are available through Norwegian or WOW Air for around $200 USD one-way depending on the departing city.
Tip: I always search for individual and connecting flights to compare prices. For example, I searched one flight from PER to SIN and then a second flight from SIN to any of the airports in London and then compared this to the price of booking the return flight. Definitely worked in my favour!
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