London is the third most visited city in the world. A tourist from another continent is very likely to include this city in his first time European itinerary and it’s a popular city break for the Europeans. Whether you’re drawn to this place due to the iconic landmarks or its unique vibe, London could keep you hooked for at least a week. Furthermore, other attractive destinations such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Stonehenge, Canterbury and Brighton are all within an easy reach from London.
The biggest problem with visiting London are the prices. It’s really an expensive city, both to live in and to visit. I know what I’m talking about since I lived in the UK’s capital for 6 years and I acted as an unofficial guide for dozens of friends and Couch Surfers during that time.
If you live in a country whose currency is much weaker than GBP, you might feel London is simply too expensive to visit. Do not let those fears stop you from coming! With this very practical guide you’d be able to save a lot and see the less-touristic places in and around London.
Getting there: borders
Visas for non-EU
Arranging a tourist visa to the UK is a bit of a pain, particularly if you are arriving from a less affluent country. Organising a visa for my Indian father-in-law required showing not only his income and expenses (!) but also proving he has sufficient family and financial ties to return to his country (dependent family members, property). On a positive note, unlike the visa to the Schengen Zone, you don’t need to worry about showing any hotel or travel bookings (the flight to the UK included). A proof of sufficient funds and a travel health insurance would suffice.
For the time being, Brexit situation is still unclear. It looks like it’s going to take a longer while to actually come if effect (if ever) which means it’s still a very good time to visit the UK if you’re an EU citizen.
If you come to London from another continent, the factor which would determine the price of the flight ticket the most would be the season. The tickets in the summertime are the most expensive. In May and September the flights would be cheaper yet that would usually still be relatively warm and pleasant time of the year. The cheapest would be the March or November tickets but bear in mind you’d have a much shorter day and most probably quite an awful weather.
Arriving from Europe
Flying from Europe could be VERY cheap. There are four airports you might consider when you are on a budget. Two of them- Stansted and Luton – are used almost exclusively by the budget airlines. Gatwick also has some budget flights but usually there are more expensive. London Southend has a couple of budget connections as well but has terrible connectivity with London so I’d really discourage flying there. Heathrow and London City Airport are used only by the regular airlines so there will be of no use for you if you are on a budget.
Budget airline hacks
The best time to buy the tickets with budget airlines is around 1.5 months before the trip- that’s when usually the offers appear. It’s worth to sign up for a newsletter to make the most of the discounts. Choose the minimum luggage option- being minimalist pays off with budget airlines. Check if a journey to the airport located in a neighbouring city wouldn’t be cheaper than flying directly from your city. For example, flying from Katowice airport is cheaper than flying from the nearby Krakow- a major tourist attraction. If you follow all that advice, you could get to London for as little as £20 for a return flight (even in the summertime!).
Which airport to choose?
Getting a cheap flight ticket is just half of success. The journey from the airport to London could cost you almost as much (if not more) than the flight ticket! It’s good to be strategic about choosing the airport, especially if you don’t have much time on hands.
The two cheapest carrier companies: Ryanair and WizzAir- operate mainly from Stansted and Luton, which are both located north of London. Easy Jet flies mostly from Gatwick (located south of London) but that company is usually more expensive than the other two.
From a strictly financial perspective the choice might seem obvious but if you are going to stay in southern London and you’re coming just for a short time, you might consider Gatwick.
Most of the intercontinental flights use Heathrow, but some airlines utilise Gatwick, too. Both airports are well connected to the city centre so unless you know you’re based in the west (Heathrow) or south (Gatwick), the choice wouldn’t make much difference.
How to get from the airport to the city CHEAPLY?
If you’re flying to Stansted, Luton or Gatwick there is just one answer to that question: Easy Bus. As soon as you buy your flight ticket, get a corresponding Easy Bus ticket.
You might have heard some horror stories about Easy Bus vans which are one hour late or don’t arrive at all. Rest assured: nowadays Easy Bus uses the fleet of National Express: luxurious and reliable coaches. There is no risk there: you buy a ticket for as little as £2 (!!!) one way and you can use it to board any bus up to one hour before or after the time indicated on your ticket. It gives you the flexibility you need in case you leave he airport sooner than expected or your flight is late. Even if you missed your bus, you’d lose just £2, so not a big deal!
Besides Easy Bus, National Express sometimes sells advance tickets for £5. That’s slightly less than £7-£11 you’d pay for a ticket for any coach bought on the day.
You have to be very careful when choosing your destination. A bus from Stansted to London Victoria takes 1.5 hours, due to heavy traffic. A bus to King’s Cross could take up to 2 hours! Getting to Liverpool Street or Paddington would take just over one hour. Be sure you travel to the destination closest to your accommodation to avoid paying extra for a travel within London.
If you have limited budget, I certainly wouldn’t recommend using trains. Special express train connections between airports and the city centre are very pricey. You could save a bit only if you use regular train connections and avoid travelling to zone 1. For example, Southern has connections from Gatwick and Thameslink from Luton. However, that would still cost more than a regular bus ticket, not to mention Easy Bus.
All the Heathrow terminals have tube stations (Picadilly Line). It takes around one hour to get to the central London using underground. At the time of writing [Oct 2019] the cost of a journey was £3.10 off peak and £5.10 in the peak hours (Monday to Friday from 6.30 to 9.30 and between 16.00 and 19.00).
The red buses connect Heathrow only with some destinations in west and south-west London (Uxbridge, West Drayton, Southall, Kingston, Surbiton, Twickenham and Richmond). The bus ticket is very cheap [£1.50 in 2019] and if you changed for another bus within one hour from boarding, you would still pay the same fare. You can check all the bus routes and plan your journey on Transport for London website.
Interestingly, red buses within a small perimeter around Heathrow are totally free so if you’re planning to spend your first night at a hotel near Heathrow, you would be able to get there for nothing.