If you only have one night in central London, you can either go big or go budget. You can dress up to the nines, splash your cash, make it rain and generally eat, drink and shop to your hearts content. Or you can go frugal – just make sure you do your research so you won’t miss out on the fun London has to offer. Surprisingly, you can do central London on a budget!
We do love to indulge ourselves, but we are aware that our bank balance would be laughing at us in the background. We opted for a budget night in London the other week, and us Saint sisters packed our bags and pootled over to the Big Smoke. From happy hours to travel hacks, we’ve got some top tips on how to do central London on a budget, without neglecting the fun!
How to do central London on a budget
1. Book your ride on the cheap
If you want to save your pennies for London spending, then be sure to book your transport to the city well in advance. Train fares are extortionate in the UK, but if you book far enough ahead you won’t part with too much cash. Also take advantage of cheap MegaBus or National Express coach tickets where fares can be under a tenner.
Buy an Oyster card as these are well worth the investment. You can buy one of these travel cards from ticket machines in tube/train stations, or you can have it mailed to your home prior to your trip. Either way, don’t even think about travelling around central London without an Oyster card as buying day tube tickets can really add up to a small fortune. Tap on and off buses and tube gates, and the cheapest fare possible will be calculated taking into account the zones you have passed through.
Tubes now run all through the night, but if you want to get home quickly and easily after an night on the tiles, then download the Uber app and give it a whirl. You can order a taxi via the app, you’ll know exactly how much the ride will be and you can pay through the app. No fare surprises here!
2. You CAN find a budget hotel
Looking for a hotel in London is pretty tough. If you are not wanting to stay in a hostel and hotel rates make you weep when you’re looking for a night’s kip, then perhaps look at a surprising option: Holiday Inn Express Next Generation.
We stayed in the newly refurbished Holiday Inn Express Next Generation* in North Acton, just a 15-20 minute tube ride from Paddington, and it surprisingly ticked all the boxes! Fancy London design hotels come at a steep price, so if you’re on a budget in London for one or two nights, this is a great option. Warm colours, thoughtful additions, design lamps and plush cushions adorn the interiors – it certainly looked a lot different to how we expected a Holiday Inn to look like.
Holiday Inn Express conducted extensive research to find out what matters most to short stay guests at every stage of their journey. Every single element introduced to the Next Generation of hotels is based on guest insight and has become an innovative accommodation option to meet the changing needs of today’s short-stay traveller who is looking for a simple, smart and hassle-free travel experience.
With prices for a double room starting from £70, breakfast is included, you get a smart TV in your room so you can stream from personal devices and free WIFI is available throughout the entire hotel. There are even tablets in the lobby for you to use, plus a 24/7 bar and restaurant just in case you’re in need for a night cap or midnight snack!
This is a simple and comfortable place to stay in London which meets the needs of travellers who like their technology i.e. people who need the internet a.k.a us. Oh and one more thing: they even had hard and soft pillow options in the rooms! It’s the little touches, ya know?
3. Hit up vintage stores and thrift markets
Sure, you can get lost in the giant stores in London that are filled to the brim of bustling shoppers and shiny new clothes, and lets face it, Topshop on Oxford Circus is pretty epic and could house half of Bristol! But what we love to do in central London is go rummaging. Vintage stores and thrift markets in London is where I’m in my element and I can get lost amongst the rails of flowered shirts, sparkly jumpers and suede bags for hours on end!
Some top markets to check out include Camden Market, Portobello Market and Spitalfields. Rokit in Covent Garden is a lovely vintage affair with up-cycled materials and authentic pieces that are truly unique. But a classic fave of mine has to be the Beyond Retro stores. Head to the underground store in Soho and play dress-up – did I mention that it’s really reasonably priced as well?
4. Grab lunch at a street market
London is brimming with some amazing places to eat, but if the weather is looking fine then check out some of the many street markets that are around the centre. Berwick street market in Soho and Camden food market in Camden are some top places to wander food stalls. You’ll be spoilt for choice in Camden and you can sit by the canal soaking up the sunshine with your takeaway meal.
Dinerama in Shoreditch also has some tasty optionsand is roofed, so it doesn’t matter if the typical British weather is trying to rain on your parade. Dinerama is open Thursdays – Saturdays, 5pm to late.
5. An afternoon at the museum
Hey now, geek is chic! London museums are brilliant and make for a great touristy thing to do which wont break the bank. Tourists do get the raw end of the deal in this big hairy city as it’s easy to get ripped off or be over charged, but at least you know you’re in safe hands with the museums.
Some of the larger museums charge for special exhibitions, but entrance to the general displays of some of London’s greatest museums are free! Walk with Dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum or peep into ancient tombs in the British Museum. My personal favourite is the V&A as they tend to have a lot more design and fashion exhibitions running here.
6. Know thy happy hour
London booze prices are disgustingly overpriced so you need to work the system. If you want to drink in some cool central London spots, then find out their happy hours and time it so you can take advantage and be happy on a budget!
London Cocktail Club on Shaftsbury Avenue lurks on a nondescript street corner with an innocuous entrance lit up by a subtle black and white sign. When the door swings open, you’ll hear the laughter and pumping music drifting up the stairs, so just follow that staircase down below the pavements of London.
Sailor Jerry tattoo motiffs and deisgns plaster the walls in this venue, and you can bop along to classic 80’s and 90’s tunes while sucking down on the two cocktails for £12 deal. Check out their happy hours as they vary depending on location, but we were in this Shaftsbury Avenue bar from about 5:30pm until 8pm and saved a bomb with our delicious drinks.
Strong, tasty drinks coupled with friendly service and flamboyant cocktail shaking make this place a fave of ours – just watch out when the bar tenders jump on the bar and breathe fire. It is pretty awesome though…
7. Bottomless brunch
The concept of a bottomless brunch involves a decadent brunch with plentiful helpings of booze. From Prosecco to Mimosas to Bloody Mary’s – there’s a few different options out there! But you do have to search for a reasonably priced bottomless brunch as some are crazy expensive and not quite bottomless (that’s cheating).
We discovered Forge & Co in Shoreditch where you can get yourself some tasty eggs and avocado (the ultimate brunch) or syrupy French toast for £7. For an additional £15 you can get bottomless bubbly, which is pretty tempting and we feel is perfectly justified! Definitely book ahead for this treat.
8. Find those vouchers
If you’re really on a tight budget, it might be wise for you to keep an eye on the big voucher sites, such as Wowcher. The odd great deal can pop up, but you are quite restricted by what kind of cuisine you can dine on – not ideal if you’re a fussy eater.
If you haven’t planned much ahead and want to eat cheaply, use Table Pouncer to grab last minute tables that can give you discounted dining of up to 50% off. Table Pouncer has a large range of restaurants that are keen to fill up any spare tables in an evening.
9. London cheap eats
When you’re in central London on a budget, booze can be the biggest expenditure. Well, at least for us. London BYO restaurants are a great option as you can munch on all their delicious food whilst swigging from a cheapo bottle of booze from the corner shop – class all the way with us! See a few BYO eateries here.
However, if you’re after some well-priced grub, I would always recommend Chinatown. The asian restaurants in Soho are my favourites and they’re not too crazy expensive either! Dozo Sushi is an asian foodie heaven where you can chow down on sushi (duh) and bento boxes. So much lovely food was ferried past me by the waiters, it was really hard to focus on the menu and actually pick something for myself. Definitely book ahead or risk waiting in a queue that goes out the door and down the street on weekends.
These few tips on how to do central London on a budget should help you stretch your pounds for a long weekend. It’s hard, but keep your drinking and your accommodation budget and you can spend more in the quirky, independent places that make London great!
To get the lowest guaranteed price on a hotel room join IHG® Rewards Club for free and book direct with Holiday Inn Express. See here for more information.
Do you have budgeting tips to add to our brief London guide?
*we were invited to stay at the new Holiday Inn Express – all thoughts and opinions are our own.
All photographs by Sophie and Alex Saint