Budget Travel: How to save on airfare, lodging, sightseeing and more in London

2018-06-05 20:00 - Michelle Locke
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Buckingham Palace. (Photo: iStock)

The sun-kissed scenes from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's storybook wedding at Windsor may have put you in the mood to visit the Old Country.

But what if you're just looking to feel like a prince or princess, not spend like one?

SEE: Tourists from around the world soak up royal wedding fever in London

Here are a few tips on enjoying London on a budget. Just don't count on the sunshine that blessed the royal wedding in a place where on average it rains about one out of every three days.

GO LOW (SEASON)

London's high season is late spring and summer and it's also popular in December. Prices and crowds drop outside those months. I chose March and had typically damp and chilly weather with a few sunny afternoons.

Right now, when all your friends are complaining about how much they're spending on summer trips to Europe, is the time to book your trip for autumn.

FLY FRUGALLY

US-UK tourism is up, in part due to the proliferation of cheap flights to Europe. I flew Norwegian non-stop from Oakland, California. For about $445 (R5 642.47 @R12.68/$) - that included an extra $45 (R570.59) to book a window seat. I had a seat, but not much else. I took my own blanket, pillow, water and snack and slept pretty much straight through to Gatwick Airport. From there, you can ride the Gatwick Express to Victoria station for about $24 (R304.31).

ALSO SEE: UPDATE: Durban secures British Airways for new direct route to London Heathrow

Drawbacks: I couldn't check in online or take advantage of my TSA Precheck status. Note: The luggage limit, one carry-on, one purse-type item, about 10 kilograms total, was enforced. You'll pay a lot for checked bags — nearly $70 (R887.58) each way if you pay for it last-minute at the airport. Another new low-cost but definitely no-frills airline to London is WOW. You can find complaints online about these cut-rate flights, but you can also save a lot of money.

BET ON THE BURBS

The farther out you go from the heart of London, the cheaper the lodging. Just make sure you're within an easy walk from the subway (known here as the underground or tube) and build a little extra time into your itinerary for your commute into town. I chose an Airbnb in suburban Hammersmith, which came to about $80 (R1 014.38) a night.

TAKE A PASS

Since I knew I was going to be visiting a lot of paid attractions, I bought a London Pass, a multi-venue card. The drawback to this kind of option is one can feel pressured to rush around and get maximum value. My goal was to avoid ticket lines and not lose money.

I paid about $200 (R2 535.94) for a six-day pass that came with an Oyster transit card preloaded with about $50 (R633.98). I visited all the places I wanted, including Windsor Castle (train fare is included in the pass) and rode a hop-on, hop-off bus for a day. I didn't max out the pass but did come out about $125 (R 1 584.96) ahead. If you'd rather take a more curated approach, look online for pay-in-advance discounts and combination specials such as the two-for-one ticket to the Queen's Gallery and Royal Mews.

MUST-SEE: WATCH: World's longest city zipline opens in London

West End shows are another area where you can easily drop a bundle. But if you're flexible on times and shows, discount tickets and last-minute bargains are available in-person at the TKTS office in Leicester Square. Click here to book.

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SEE, STROLL, SIP

Most museums in London are free (special exhibitions may cost extra). A good, cheap, expedition is to head for the South Bank and the Tate Modern. Afterward, walk along the river path (past Shakespeare's Globe) to Borough Market Hall (2-4 Bedale Street, closed on Sundays), a trendy spot where you can try specialties like the cheese toastie at Kappacasein.

Keep walking to reach London Bridge and, if you're thirsty, stay on the south side of the river and check out the 17th-century George Inn (77 Borough High Street). Or, retrace your steps to the Tate and cross the pedestrian Millennium Bridge to St Paul's. If it's close to 17:00, you'll catch evensong at the cathedral, which is free.

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HI-LOW TEAS

There are plenty of lavish teas to be had in London, including the swank spread at gourmet grocer Fortnum & Mason that comes to about $75 (R950.98). Harrods, too, has an excellent option if you are in the mood to splurge. Or, you can stop by F&M's more casual restaurant, The Parlour, where for about $15 (R190.20) I enjoyed excellent scones, free Wi-Fi and, quite simply, the best cup of tea of my life. If the weather's fine, consider an al fresco repast, picking up some snacks at Harrods famous food hall and enjoying them in nearby Hyde Park.

ALSO SEE: A sightseeing itinerary for fans of British royals

REACH FOR THE SKY

A relatively new, and free, thing to do in London is visit the Sky Garden, a green space with a bar and restaurants at the top of the 34-story building known as the Walkie Talkie because of its bulging top (20 Fenchurch Street). It's hard to walk in for a look without a ticket but timed tickets are free, though sunset hours go fast. Click here to book.

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You're not obligated to buy anything at the bar, but if you do, the drinks, not surprisingly, come at a premium.

Sometimes, of course, one simply must splash out. For my visit, I paid $20 (R253.59) for a glass of Champagne, sat back, savoured the view, and slowly sipped, enjoying every last, overpriced bubble.

Cheers, indeed.

Plan your trip to London

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