Hello Everyone! So happy to be back!
As you may have seen in early October I took a trip to London and it was absolutely fabulous! My goal from the beginning was to be as frugal as possible while still maximizing the fun and adventure I experienced and honestly, I think I did a pretty awesome job. England is notoriously expensive. Prices are very similar to the US in many regards but the British Pound is stronger than the US dollar (even though the rate was at a significant low while I was there, 1.22 USD to 1 BP) so when all is said and done goods in general are slightly more expensive for Americans.
I saw this as a challenge I was more than ready to accept.
From the moment I stepped on the plane in Austin until I walked back into my apartment door 8 days later I had my little Moleskine notebook out taking notes on things I saw, did, and the money that I spent.
So when all was said and done how much did this 8 day London adventure cost me? Exactly $1062.58 (give or take for fluctuations in the exchange rate). That’s everything. Flight, lodging, food, etc., everything. I knew my low number was pretty impressive, but it wasn’t until I returned home and spoke to a friend who had been to London a couple months earlier that I felt how truly impressive it was. He had spent more on a London hotel for a week than I did on my entire trip. Holy Smokes! I told you England is expensive!
So I thought I’d give you all a little breakdown of how much I spent on each category and how I accomplished it so that maybe I could inspire some more of you amazing budget savvy travelers out there.
I’ll start with the subject that started it all….
I’m definitely one of those weirdos that likes to search for cheap flights and dream of travel in my spare time. Usually these searches don’t come to fruition but this time I decided to go for it. One day I was perusing Kayak.com (one of my favorite travel search engines) and came across a non-stop flight from Austin to London for <$500. I immediately started picturing London in the fall and ooo it seemed dreamy. Every part of me wanted to go, but I’m on a debt free journey and travel is frowned upon. So I sat on the idea for a few days but couldn’t get it out of my head. Finally I decided that if I could make the rest of the trip as cheap as possible I would take the plunge, be spontaneous, and go for it! So I headed back to Kayak and found the same flight on British Airways for the same price. Score! I then clicked over to the British Airways site, because personally I prefer booking through an actual airline vs. a third party vendor when I can, and found the flight there for even a little bit cheaper!
In todays air travel society airlines are splitting up classes more and more. Domestic airlines started using a class called “basic economy” a few years ago and slowly international airlines have started to catch on. In general these are no frills fares where you give up a lot of “perks” in exchange for paying less money. I’m proud to say that I flew to London in British Airways Basic Economy and my frugal self didn’t give in to one single upgrade. Quite a feat considering during the booking process they try really hard to make you give in.
So what did Basic Economy on British Airways look like?
- Carry On luggage only… For more expensive fares you get a free checked bag but for basic economy you have to pay if you want to check a bag.
- No pre-selecting your seat… If you’re allergic to middle seats on airplanes this probably isn’t the best fare for you because with a Basic Economy fare you’re nearly guaranteeing yourself a middle seat. The first chance you get to pick a seat is at online check in 24 hours before your flight. That is what I did and I still got a middle seat. Luckily the other middle seat next to me (I was in the middle section of a 747) was empty on the way to London so really it meant more space!
- Boarding the plane last… Really this just means you’ll have to fight a little harder for space in the overhead bins.
- Food, entertainment, blankets on seats etc. are all the same as the other economy members of the flight. No sacrifices there.
If I had chosen to upgrade to choose my seat I would have spent an extra $70 each way (at least), and by sticking to a carry on bag only I had less to carry around with me in London and less space to buy junk I didn’t need while I was there. Even being in the middle seat wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. If you’re a budget traveler I definitely recommend Basic Economy.
I’ll add into this that London is a really big walking city. Everyone walks here so invest in comfortable shoes that aren’t going to kill your feet. Even women walking down the street in a business suit wear tennis shoes because they know footwear matters. I really screwed up in this matter. I thought I had good shoes but didn’t and I paid for it physically (Blisters, shin splints, etc.) and literally because I ended up taking public transport a little more often than I’d planned due to the pain.
Here are some other tips I have…
- Getting to the city from Heathrow Airport: The “Heathrow Express” train is highly advertised but also super expensive. We’re talking about $42 (£37) round trip for the 30 minute ride to Paddington Station. I instead elected to take the Tube aka London Underground to the city. It takes a little bit more time but it is soooo much cheaper. I spent £3.10 to get to Kings Cross Station (off peak hours) and £5.10 to get back to the airport (peak hours) which if you’re keeping track is about 1/4 of the cost of the Heathrow Express. The tube station is also right in the terminal at the airport and there are tons of signs to help you find it.
- If you’re going to use the Tube (and you should) then invest in an “Oyster card.” The Oyster card is a multi use card that you can preload money to so each time you go to use the tube you just tap the card on the entrance gate instead of paying for single tickets each time. Fares using the Oyster card are also discounted from single ticket costs so even more worth it. You can easily get your Oyster card from a tube ticket machine (I got mine at the airport). You do put down a £5 deposit when you get the card but this, along with any other money you still have on the card, is refundable when you leave. The only exception is with the “Visitor Oyster card” that they market to tourists and you can order before you arrive in country. The deposit on that is not refundable (so what I’m saying is you should probably just get the regular Oyster card).
- London is split into different zones and tube fares are different depending on what zones you travel between. Most places I went to were within Zone 1 aka central London so it was just a flat fee (£2.40 per ride I believe) but there is a full breakdown of costs available online.
- This area also includes the train I took to Watford Junction (£18.10) where I caught a shuttle bus (£3) for the Harry Potter Studio Tour as well as the train I took out to Oxford (£27.40) for a day trip.
- Finally this area also includes the Lyft ride I took from the airport to my apartment when I got back to Austin ($34 after coupon and including tip). Luckily I got a ride to the airport from a friend when I left, but they were in class when I got back so I had to find alternative options.
You read that right, $116. Pretty stinking cheap right? Well it’s because I stayed in a hostel. I know that the concept of hostels is pretty scary and foreign to a lot of people but I don’t mind them, especially if it lets me travel for cheap. Thankfully London is very rich with a lot of amazing hostel options. Really there is something for everyone. You can get anything from a private room for £60/night in a hostel to a 20 bed dorm room for £13. I researched for a good week before I finally made my decision which I made based on 4 factors: price, location, reputation, and communal kitchen. The place I really wanted to stay was about £30/night for a bed in a 6 bed female dorm. Man it looked nice but it was so much more than I wanted to pay. After all was said and done I finally chose to stay at a hostel called Clink 78. Set in an old court house it really is a super cool building. I’m going to be posting a video review of my time there soon but here are some of the specific reasons I picked it…
- Location: The hostel is about a 10 minute walk from Kings Cross station. It’s not right in the middle of all the tourist activities but Kings Cross is a good launching point for almost anything London has to offer.
- Communal Kitchen: I wanted the option to be able to cook my own food to save money. Not all hostels have kitchen so this was huge to me.
- All female housing: I’ll share a dorm with guys if I have to, but I really do feel more comfortable when I can be in a room with only women. This hostel not only had girls only dorms, but it had a girls only wing which I really liked.
- The price was right: They had a promotional sale going on which brought the room down to about £14/night. For 6 nights it was about £85 (or $105 according to my bank). That’s cheaper than one night in most hotels! I also decided to spend $11 extra to guarantee myself a bottom bunk. When I was 10 I loved top bunks, now I don’t. Money well spent.
Overall my experience in the dorm this time was pretty good. The bunk beds all had privacy walls between them which was nice. There was some snoring but it was bearable. It was a bit cluttered with suitcases but passable. There was a lock box for me to put my important/expensive items into so I didn’t have to worry about them. Best of all though I made friends. When you’re traveling alone and spend all day in your own head sometimes it’s nice to have people to talk to. We were all from such different walks of life (not to mention different countries) but we had some awesome conversations.
Eating can definitely get expensive if you’re not careful. There were some staple British dishes I wanted to try like fish and chips and meat pie and mash that I let myself splurge on but other than that I was very careful. Restaurants can get real expensive real fast. I would estimate that prices for similar dishes in most establishments are 20%-30% more than what you would pay for a similar dish in the US. Thats just how it is. Some dishes are worth it, some aren’t. Just make good choices.
Here are some other things I did do save on food:
- I brought some food with me from the US. I had a gallon ziplock that I filled with items I had at home. Oatmeal packets, easy mac, peanut butter packets, little restaurant condiment style honey packets, granola bars, hot chocolate… Usually most mornings I would throw a granola bar in my purse and eat that for breakfast as I walked about. I also bought some bread from the grocery story and used the PB and honey to make sandwiches to take with me.
- Convenience stores are everywhere. They sell cheap premade sandwiches and easy microwavable meals for a few pounds. Most nights I would stop by one of these stores in Kings Cross on my way back to the hostel and would pick up a drink, snack, and some sort of microwave meal like Shepherds pie then take it back to the hostel and cook it in the kitchen. I saved a ton of money this way.
- I found street markets have pretty cheap food. My first day I got some stir fry and fresh juice at Borough Market and later in the week I got an awesome almond tarte at Portobello Rd.
This is one of those areas where I have so much to tell you that I’m definitely going to have to do another post on it. Keeping with the theme of London being expensive this area is no exception but if you’re smart about it you can having an amazing time without spending a lot. Before I left Austin I heavily researched everything I could see and do, priced them and prioritized them. I may have only spent just over $100 on fun but I was throughly entertained the entire time, I assure you.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown (without going into to much detail) on where I spent my money and what I saved on:
- The biggest chunk of this was the Harry Potter Studio Tour which was £45 ($55 according to my bank). This was the number one thing I wanted to and I booked my ticket basically the day after I got my flight. I decided it was going to be my one big splurge and it was soooo worth it.
- Going to see a West End Show… I absolutely love musicals and knew I had to try to see one if the price was right. I tried really hard to win the £10 ticket lottery to Hamilton but no such luck, so instead I got up early and waited in line for a “day of” ticket for “Waitress.” I got a 5th row center ticket for £25 ($30 according to my bank) and it was so worth it.
- Admission to various colleges in Oxford… On my second to last day it was a bit rainy in London so I decided to get out of town and Oxford was a pretty affordable day trip by train. I absolutely love historical architecture so I picked a few different colleges in Oxford that I wanted to go into and check out what they had to offer (like the Cloisters at New College and the Divinity School at the Bodleian Libraries). Tickets to get in varied between £3 and £8.50, so not really breaking the bank but not free either.
- In London I elected to not go into any of the big monuments like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London because the entrance fees were so steep. Maybe one day, when I’m debt free, I’ll go back and check them out, but for now I was pretty content looking at these sites from the outside. Instead I took advantage of the dozens of free activities London offers like the changing of the guards at Buckingham palace or the museums. Dang they were cool.
Because sometimes little things that don’t fit in any other category come up. In this category I included the bandaids I had to buy after my shoes gave me horrible blisters and the slippers I bought because of the same foot issues. I also included any other clothing items I bought for myself (like socks because it was cold) as well as some small souvenirs I got for my family.
So there you have it. My breakdown of how I spent a week in London for just over $1000. I know that my way of travel isn’t for everyone but man, seeing how affordable I could make it while still experiencing maximum enjoyment was a lot of fun.
Stay tuned in the next week or two for more on free/cheap activities I recommend in London and Oxford as well as a full review of my hostel!
*** Disclaimer: I am on a debt free journey and paying of debt is my #1 priority right now. I work a lot (between 56 and 115 hours a week on average) in a career that can be both physically and mentally taxing. I hadn’t taken a real “break” since I moved to Texas almost two years ago. I was totally worn, physically and mentally. While I’m not an advocate for big extravagant vacations while paying down debt I do advocate doing what you need to do to make sure you’re healthy mentally and physically. In my case I needed to get away, rest, recharge, and reset so that I could start tackling my next chunk of debt and not shrivel into a depressed, anxious, prune. So just in case anyone out there feels like commenting on the fact that I shouldn’t be traveling right now I just wanted to get it out there that this is my why, it’s something I needed to do for me and as should be obvious I did it all while spending as little as I possibly could so not to get me completely off track. Thanks!