London has so many good free attractions and experiences, suggests the appropriately free Lonely Planet eBook, Recession-busting Britain, that you can "forget all those stories about how expensive London is."
It’s hard to forget those stories, though. There are so many of them. But while chatting the other day with Lonely Planet U.S. Editor Robert Reid, he noted that on-the-ground expenses in London “can be easily less than what you’d spend in New York,” which had never occurred to me. But Reid, a New Yorker who once spent about a year and a half living like a local in London, has given it some thought, because he loves London and wants other travelers to love it, too – and not overpay while they’re there.
A good first step to saving money while visiting London is to strike the right balance between paid “obligatory” attractions and free sites that are also worth your time. That’s why the New York-London comparison is useful – in both cities it’s all too easy for a family of four or more to spend a fortune on two or three sights and activities a day. It’s fine, Reid says, to take in a paid attraction like the Tower of London, but because “so much is free in London, you don’t have to feel obliged to pay up every day of your trip.”
The free Lonely Planet guide recommends plenty of free things to do in the city and Reid recently rounded up 20 of his free favorite London sights. Among them are the British Museum, which yields a totally free peek at the Rosetta Stone as well as 16 free half-hour tours a day; the Tate Modern, with a free-admission permanent collection with the likes of Pollock, Warhol, and Matisse; and the lesser-known Sir John Soane’s Museum, jammed with fun and peculiar objects once belonging to Sir John, a 19th-century architect.
Don’t spend a fortune on food. While you shouldn't cheat yourself out of going to a pub or two, Reid recalls that when it came to “enjoyment per dollar spent, it was not a great value to go to restaurants in London,” as he was “often spending more than I thought it was worth.” Reid says there’s no shortage of grocery stores and shops to grab sandwiches and he remains a fan of the inexpensive fish and chips places (the jellied eel concessions, not so much) as well the grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches and other edible treats you can get at the Borough Market stalls.
Don’t overtip. Reid observes that “we’re mad tippers here in the U.S.” and while you don’t want to stiff your London servers, “you don’t want to tip out of whack,” either. According to Lonely Planet’s London tipping guidelines, “many restaurants now add a ‘discretionary’ service charge to your bill, but in places that don’t you are expected to leave a 10 percent to 15 percent tip unless the service was unsatisfactory,” and further “you never tip to have your pint pulled in a pub but staff at bars often return change in a little metal dish, expecting some of the coins to glue themselves to the bottom.”
Know where to get your souvenirs. The huge Camden Markets aren’t quaint – they comprise the fourth-largest tourist attraction in London – but if you want to knock off some all-purpose souvenir shopping at once, this stop could save you time. For more eclectic finds, Reid suggests Islington’s Camden Passage Markets (not to be confused with the Camden Markets) where you might find antiques, toy soldiers, and other thoughtful souvenirs that won’t break the bank.
Think hotel alternatives. As in any major city, try to curb your lodging costs by renting directly from an owner through a site like Airbnb. Or, if you’re a family looking for a value alternative to a pricey hotel, a vacation rental through London-specific onefinestay might work for you. Reid says if you are fixed on booking a hotel, consider staying about 15 minutes outside the city center, which will yield more reasonable rooms rates as well as the opportunity to explore the city on the inexpensive city buses.