Visiting London...On The Cheap

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

I used to be scared of London. Too big, too loud, too many bloody people.

That's changed though.  I visit it a few times a year now and I can wield my Oyster card and tut at annoying dawdlers with the best of them.

I know half of Blogland lives in London and will probably have no interest in this post but I never fail to be suprised by the amount of people in the real world who treat my London trips as some sort of exotic journey.  Maybe they're all scared to step foot outside the North West?  Maybe they assume it's horrendously expensive? I'm not an expert on everything our capital city has to offer but I think I'm quite good at planning cheap weekend breaks, so here are my recommendations.

Priorities


What would you rather spend your money on?  I know it sounds a bit grownup and boring but have a proper think about what the important parts of your trip are before you go and it'll stop you getting carried away and spending a shedload of money.



As a basic rule, I will happily spend money on an experience that I think is worth it but I won't waste it on things like hotels.  The only thing that was absolutely vital about this weekend was going to see Macbeth.  I was not prepared to be stingy over the ticket price for that so we paid £65 each, sat in Row C and it was wonderful.  All the other stuff wasn't as important, and in total (for return train tickets, my share of the hotel and a ticket for another play) it cost £65 as well.  Not bad, eh?  If you'd rather stay in luxury then you can sit in the crappy seats at the theatre and pay for a nice hotel room instead. The choice is yours.  If you can afford to do the whole trip in style then I shall graciously pretend I'm not envious.

Trains



I am such a fraud writing this section.  I hate train websites with a passion I only usually reserve for hating Fearne Cotton.  They boggle my brain, so I outsource this element of my trip planning and get my good pal Lee to do it for me while I organise other things instead.  He is most excellent.  Ask him for tips if you want cheap train tickets because I can't supply you with anything helpful.

There is technically a £12.50 standard fare from Liverpool to London but you'd be hard pushed to find many of them, especially at a reasonable time and at weekends.  Still, £19 isn't too bad at all and I didn't have to get up too revoltingly early.


Travel


Walk, especially if you're in central London.  It's the best way to get your bearings on the space around you.  I think a large part of the reason I used to dislike London so much was that I never knew where I was.  But guess what? It's really not that hard to navigate, especially in the central areas where you can't move without falling over a signpost. I am still rather vague about the further flung parts of the city but I'm not likely to need to go there so it's not a problem. I can walk from Euston to the Globe without getting lost and I know a few nice pubs and that's good enough for me for now. 

Or y'know, take the Tube. But get yourself an Oyster card. It's cheaper than day travelcards and you'll feel like less of a tourist.



Hotels


My advice is always this: stay in a Travelodge.  They're fine.  They're clean, they have a bed and a bathroom and a tv and a kettle and you can borrow an iron and a hairdryer if you need them. You will probably be in the hotel for about 10/11 hours, 8 hours of which will be spent sleeping. Why pay a fortune when all you need is somewhere decent?  The hotel we stayed in at the weekend cost £35 for a Saturday night and we've had different Travelodges for £18 a night before now.  Stalk their website a bit and grab their cheap sale rates, or have a look and see if anything is available when you want to go. This visit was only meant to be a day trip until we discovered that there were some cheap rooms available.  The same logic applies to Premier Inns which are basically the same but a bit nicer. They have pictures on the wall and everything.

ps - only stay in an EasyHotel for the hilarity factor or if you actually like sleeping in an alcove and/or having a floor space that is literally smaller than a bath towel. They're not that cheap and they're not pleasant. You can't even hang anything up! It wouldn't kill them to put some hooks up, would it?

Theatre


This is mostly what I go to London for. By theatre I mean plays, not musicals.  I'm sure there are loads of places out there that can tell you how and where to buy cut price tickets for the latter but we mostly book our theatre tickets a long way in advance so don't come to me for advice on last minute deals. What I can recommend is signing up to all the newsletters from the ticketing companies and theatres.  Whilst this may occasionally drive you mad (eg when we really wanted to see Our Boys but the timings did not work out at all and about a million emails came through going "Come and see Our Boys" "You know you want to" "What are you waiting for, you Northern morons? WATCH IT!"), it often pays off and you end up seeing some really interesting stuff for less than the cost of a cinema ticket. Case in point: on Saturday night we saw Old Times with Rufus Sewell and Kristin Scott Thomas for just a tenner. Bargain.  They have 100 seats for each performance at that price and it's very much worth it.


Tip - if you're seeing anything at the Harold Pinter Theatre, you still get a decent view on the back row of the stalls.  Unless you're desperate to be in the front few rows, it's a good option.


Booze




Well I don't know about you lot but I won't pay £6 for a glass of wine in a theatre bar. I prefer the rather naughtier (and massively cheaper option) of buying a mini bottle in the shop round the corner for £1.99 and stowing it in my handbag. Theatres always have plastic glasses on the bar so help yourself to one of them and voila! Just pour it out in a discreet fashion when the ushers aren't looking.

Food


You know the usual options for cheap food, don't you?  Of course you do.  Anyone that said McDonalds can go and stand in the corner.  I mean the usual things that work out well for evening meals - vouchers, offers from o2 Priority Moments, Groupon etc.  You don't need me to elaborate.  We didn't actually bother with any of those this time as we had limited time between shows, so we just zoomed to the Wagamama near Leicester Square instead. It's no more expensive than the ones anywhere else in the country and their food is lovely. 



When it comes to daytime eating, never have a hotel breakfast (unless you've ignored my above advice and are staying somewhere swanky). I mean, I love a good cooked breakfast but a) the ones that hotels provide you with aren't good and b) HOW MUCH? £7.95 for some lukewarm bacon and mushy tomatoes? I think not. My solution: £1 for a pot of fruit salad from the shop round the corner to tide you over until later in the morning.  Then, instead of the aforementioned overpriced breakfast, spend a few extra quid on enjoying a really lovely brunch in the company of really lovely people instead. Much more fun all round.



Lee and I met up with Chloe on Sunday and we went to Salvation Jane which was conveniently close to our hotel and really, really good.



Salted beef hashcakes with fresh spinach, poached eggs and smoked tomato relish. AMAZING.


And that, dear readers, is the nicest soy chai latte I've ever had. (I'm not a pretentious nobber btw - I just can't have normal milk)

It wasn't particularly cheap but I'm not into money saving for the sheer hell of it. I like to save money on some things so I can spend it on others.


Free Stuff


Speaking of saving money, go and do FREE STUFF. Free stuff is great and there is really quite a lot of it in London - Time Out has a handy list. I like to explore and could quite merrily walk around looking at roads and buildings and suchlike all day (it's all due to growing up around my mum who likes to go "Alex, LOOK, a chimney!"), but blimey, did you see the weather at the weekend? BRRRRR. We went for a good yomp around the V&A instead.

International man of mystery and his shortarse sidekick.

I love museums.  I can play my favourite game of Thing I'd Most Like To Take Home for hours.  This time I narrowed it down to:


A green Chippendale chair.

A green bonnet.

A most beautiful (and not green) piece of papercut art.

Next time we're going to the Natural History Museum to look at dinosaurs. Raaaar!



So, that was my cheap(ish) weekend in London and those are my suggestions for what to do if you don't want to spend a fortune. It can be done cheaper but I think you've got to strike a balance and I wouldn't have missed out on those Macbeth seats or that delicious brunch for anything.

Do you have any good cheapskate tips for visiting London, or any other cities?

12 comments:

  1. Definitely getting Lee on the case to find me some train tickets for my London trip, and will have a look at hotels NOW. Even though I don't really think I believe that those sale hotel rooms exist. Unless you want to stay in a single room in Timbuktu on a Tuesday.

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  2. Really interesting post and I'm amazed by the train fare! I can never find it that cheap! x

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  3. Totally agree with you - choosing what to scrimp on is a bit like the phrase 'choose your battles' - I used to go for the cheapest option of everything but it's not always worth it.

    As for hotel rooms, I'm lucky that my best friend lives in Islington so my accommodation is always free. It's worth looking out for the £99 deals in local travel agents though where you get your train and 2 nights in an OK hotel - considering you're there just to sleep they can be really good value :)

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  4. pfff I am so jealous you got to see Macbeth! I was far too slow on the uptake as per and missed out. Oh to see James McAvoy up close... xx

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  5. I'm planning a trip in May to go to the Bowie Exhibition which is pretty much the only paid attraction I will be going to. Everything else will be free, I am however trying to impress a boy and searching the internet for cool and fun places to take him. He's under the impression that I know London well and that I know all the good places. This is not true.

    Loved this post xx

    P.S. I'm so jealous that you saw Macbeth! I did however get to harass the Our Boys hunks at stage door. I think Arthur Darvill and Matt Lewis want to marry me... or get a restraining order.

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  6. This looks like it was an amazing weekend! I don't mind travelodges although I know some people hate them (weirdos). Surely you could have swapped your everyday bonnet for that rather lovely green one?!

    Maria xxx

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  7. Great tips, i'd never thought to take my own drinks into the theater but important not sure why i'm normally good at sneaking drinks places xxx

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  8. Great post. My best tip is have two wonderful grown up daughters who live in London and will give you B&B! [they are also brilliant and finding cheap deals for food and theatres etc]

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  9. I haven't visited London in far too long - must admit we always use the Travelodge or Premier Inn (usually anywhere we go, not just London), as it comes in at budget, but also is actually quite nice and you know exactly what you are getting. You really don't need a fancy roll top bath and luxurious surrounding. (Unless you happen to be staying in a Manor House for the weekend with a bunch of other bloggers that is)

    I've only been to the V&A once, but it was lovely and so much to see. That green chair is VERY you xxx

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  10. It is odd how many people I know too that treat London like it is some far away and dangerous place, only to be ventured to when needs must (ie christmas shopping or some over priced pop concert)(I realise I sound ancient right now) My mum was born and raised there, and me too till I was about 6ish, and even then when I was old enough to go on my own (14 was deemed appropriate!) she'd happily pay for my all day travel card, write down a few tube stops for me for various places and send me off to London with a friend to explore, as it was only about an hour and a half train journey for us! In a way i'm lucky as it never had a big scary quality to it for me, and I still love going up with no agenda and just seeing where I end up!

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  11. I'd love to see Macbeth! Totally agree that some things don't require a fortune spent on them, we normally find a greasy spoon for a good, proper fry up and gallons of tea, but I have to say that your swanky brunch looked delicious! I had a horrible stay in a Holiday Inn, there was no hot water and I was told to wait until the afternoon 'when it wasn't so busy'. Now I look on late rooms or book through Show and Stay, which is good as you can book train, show and hotel in one go (yes, lazy). I like the Portrait Gallery for some free meandering.

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  12. So glad you had a lovely weekend, and it was great to see you for brunch. Groupon can be epic for money saving London food, also check out the likes of Itsu for substantial, healthy and reasonable price lunches so you can snack on little things from the supermarket come evening time.

    Also, if you want to save money on transport, have a look into bus routes that run from near your hotel, where they go and which are their major stops or better still if you know where you're going, which buses stop there, and if any of those go near to your hotel. I know you hate them, but sometimes the bus is much cheaper than the tube if you can take one almost all the way.

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