The term Ugly American has been around for a while to describe shitty tourists, but that’s really not a fair moniker. Americans aren’t the worst of the lot – not by a longshot. That honor goes to the United Kingdom, and has for the better half of a millenium. If those #ladsontour aren’t puking on a beloved national monument in matching, custom made neon tanks, they’re subjugating a native population with brutal, imperialistic policies. So don’t feel bad when you get a little too drunk and make an idiot of yourself on the night bus. At the very least, they deserve it for the East India Company.
One problem. The Queen’s last form of dissuading the visiting peasants after the deluge of royal baby gossip fails. I’m talking, of course, about the British Pound. In a time where every economy on the planet is committing seppuku, the Pound has somehow managed to sip its tea from the top of the dogpile, giving every other currency a firm tutting. If you can afford to get into the country in the first place, you’re gonna halve your savings just by stepping off the plane. As of late-August 2015, here are the exchange rates.
£1 GBP = $1.54 USD
£1 GBP = $2.03 CAD
£1 GBP = $2.14 AUD
£1 GBP = €1.37 EUR
It seems only fitting that they kicked all the Australians out originally, and now they’re pricing them out of visiting the homeland. What’s even worse is that, even with such a strong currency, London is still one of the most expensive cities in the world. And sure, you can go to other cities in the United Kingdom besides London – Edinburgh is still one of my favorite cities – but London is the only city in the British Isles that every visitor is sure to pass through at some point. So we’ll be setting this Budget Guide there, but recognize that there are cheaper parts of the country.
The Cheap Day
- Personally, I’ve been converted to couchsurfing, especially if you’re trying to be cheap. But if you’re new to traveling, or it’s last minute, or you just want to bang another traveler without feeling rude, then get a hostel. The cheap ones in London are going for around £10-15/night. Keep in mind, though, that while these hostels will never be as grimy as they can get in a third world country, you are sacrificing proximity. Time and money add up when you’re moving through three zones just to get to lunch.
- Since you’re being cheap, it’s safe to assume you probably spent a chunk last night and are now frothingly hungover. Your best bet for breakfast is going to be Tesco or Aldi, the main London supermarket chains. You’ll have to pay more to buy actual packs of food, but if you balance it over a few days, you’re only going to wind up spending around £1.50-2.00 for a modest breakfast of cheesy beans on toast. Hell, get some eggs if you’re feeling like Jay-Z up in there.
- If you do take one of these cheap-ass hostels out in the boonies, where the language goes from pish posh proper Queen’s to gargling marbles, then you’re gonna need to take public transport to get just about anywhere. It’s super convenient in London, but crossing zones can build the price up quickly. If you’re cheap and only take the Tube in and out of the city, you’ll pay between £2.30-3.90, depending on where you’re going, each ride. It’s pretty easy to hit the daily fare cap of £6.40 this way.
- Luckily, there’s a shit ton of free stuff to do in London, even in the heart of the city. The Kensington area has plenty of free museums (the Victoria and Albert Museum is great, as is the Tate Modern), and biking through the parks (like Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath) will burn off that hangover you earned. Or at least make you puke it up. Either way, losing weight!
- There are fewer opportunities in London for cheap, street-style food than in places like, say, Cambodia or even New York. There are small food stands in touristy spots like the London Eye, but if you want a real meal, you’ll need to dish out and sit down. For a cheap day, and a hungover day, you’ll probably wind up skipping it.
- Now, as for dinner. As it’s a cheap day, and you look like an embarrassment to mankind (did you even shower?), you’ll probably want to get home early, have a nice, hostelcooked meal, and chill (Netflix and chill?) with some of the other people in the dorm. If you were smart, you picked up a little dinner food while you were at the store this morning, and you’re living large on a meal of Spaghetti Bolognese that you whipped up with nothing but £1 worth of supplies and an Alton Brown level aptitude at boiling water. Guzzle down a bit of that tap water and spend the rest of your night relaxing and maxing all cool.
It’s not gonna win you “Explorer of the Year,” but it’ll get you some postcard worthy moments. And best of all, it’ll let you fall asleep without the crippling anxiety of realizing you can’t possibly afford to be abroad as long as you originally planned. That’s always nice.
Total: £18.40 – £24.40
The Average Day
- You don’t have to move into a fancier hostel. If you’re reading the reviews, you’re sure to find one that meets your standards no matter where you go. The only benefit to be gained is to move closer, maybe into another Tube zone or a cooler area, like Camden. But, make sure the added price is worth the convenience, because it won’t save you much money if you’re already buying an Oyster card. These hostels will probably be between £12-15/night. Not a huge increase.
- Now, it’s an average day, but you’ve still got food left over from your cheapest day to eat. Can’t bring eggs on the Megabus to Scotland, can we. Scarf those down, and you’ve made another installment of £2 into your grocery payment.
- You’ll be taking the tube again, and since it’s an average day, there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing more than one part of the town, meaning, there’s a good chance you’ll hit that fare cap of £6.40 after just three rides. Of course, maybe you’re a born outdoorsman, known for running supermarathons and squatting cars, but if you do feel like walking absolutely everywhere, then you can do your own math.
- Of course, you get hungry whether or not you’ve walked across the Outback barefoot. You can get snack-type food on the street for a relatively cheap price, usually between £3-7 for things like ice cream or pulled pork sandwiches. The Borough Market is a popular place to go for snacks, and if you’re on a bit of a wander, you’ll probably come across other markets with the same kind of offerings in that price range.
- It won’t be an everyday occurrence, but more often than not you’ll find yourself wanting to pay for an attraction. Could be an exhibition at a museum, a tour, entry to some old run down building people died in or something – it’s gonna cost. On an average day, you’ll probably skip the expensive tours, but you’re still good to spend around £10 for something fun. It’s definitely worth it on occasion, but you’ll be able to see the full spending range in the total.
- As for nighttime, that’s entirely up to you. What I consider an average day could consist of anything from more SpagBol (another £2 worth of groceries) and a Netflix session with the crew, to a decent dinner out (costing around £20 for a meal with drinks). You could even hit the pubs afterwards, but I wouldn’t consider boozin’ an average night. It’s just not affordable in London. At first, maybe, when you’re still wide-eyed and looking to lay anything with an accent and a pulse. But unless you have incoming money (thanks dad), that habit’s gonna be beat out of you viciously posthaste.
As you fall asleep after an average day, you may get the pangs of worry about the state of your bank account, but you should be having enough fun that it doesn’t dissuade you from carrying on. London’s a tough town to spend time in. A few days like this and you’re golden. But you’re not only going to have days like this, are you?
Total: £35.40 – £60.4
The Splurge Day
- If you really wanted to, you could easily move into a decent place in the center of London. Dorms there go for a modest £20-35 for a dorm. But if you’re dropping paper, why not go all the way up to a private room? You’ll find those from £35-60/night. But if you’re springing for those, chances are you don’t need this budget guide to begin with. Being perfectly honest, you’re better off just staying in your Average Day Dorm. Nowhere in London is so central that you can get away without using public transportation at all, and the increase in quality is hardly worth the increase in price. So it’s settled. We’ll stick to the £15/night sleep shack, and we’ll toss on the standard £6.40 public transport cap, because you’re a fucking king.
- You can’t leave London without indulging in a Full English. It’s the most important contribution to the world the British have ever made, followed closely by America and the Magna Carta. Start the day with bacon, sausage, eggs, beans, mushrooms, half a tomato (because why not?), black pudding (not as good as it sounds), and hashbrowns. Luckily, breakfast foods seem to be cheaper than everything else in London, and you can get a decent Full for around £8, and even an extravagant one won’t set you back more than £12 for the lot. Spring for the twelver. You’ve earned it.
- Now’s the day to try out one of those more expensive tourist attractions, like the Tower of London (£25) or the London Eye (£20). If you’re really planning on going crazy today, you could try a timely day festival, like the Chelsea Flower Show (£27+) or Ceremony Festival (£30). Of course, going to a festival is going to throw off your whole day’s spending habits, but you’re not gonna find the person who went to a festival every week this Summer telling you to stay away.
- You spend most days either eating snacks for lunch or avoiding the meal altogether. But don’t you know that it’s the third most important meal of the day? Can’t miss that, can we? Head out to somewhere the likes of Covent Garden or Shoreditch for some cool cafes and pubs, where you can get lunch for around £8-15.
- As for the night, it’s up to you. You’re obviously going to want to go for dinner on a Splurge night, and that’s gonna carry you around £20 at least with drinks. you’re getting drinks, right? You’re traveling. You’d be an alcoholic under any other cultural scenario. And if your nights on the sauce are anything like mine, they usually involve the drunken confidence that your credit card holds enough money for a round of shots for everybody at the bar. We’re talking at least £40 worth of drinks, and that’s an estimation based on myself trying desperately to seem less irresponsible to you readers. Let’s just not even talk about the possibility of late night drunchies, because at this point, a cheeky Nando’s run is like an unspoken shame that your wallet doesn’t want to face.
Does that look bad to you? Because believe me, in London, I could make that day look so much worse. I could bankrupt you in 24 hours in London and leave you begging the credit company to unlock your card. This city is a black hole, so cold that people think burning money will make it tolerable. You can survive a few days like this, but don’t get in the habit. It’ll only leave you crawling into to bed, lying awake and thinking just how awkward it will be to ask your parents for money again.
Weekly & Monthly Budgeting
Obviously, you won’t spend weeks and months in London unless you’re trying desperately to stay in the country, at which point, you’ll probably have some form of income (legal or not) to alleviate the pain of the splurge day. For everybody else, there’s places like Edinburgh, Brighton, Bristol, Loch Ness, Cardiff, not to mention all of Northern Ireland. Since they’re technically all separate countries, you can expect some economic fluctuation between them all. Wales, for example, is a whole hell of a lot cheaper than England. But you probably won’t spend a month in Wales, either. Here’s some rough numbers, just for example.
- Rent: £90/week in some of the rougher hostels. Apartments, if that’s what you’re after, can get up to £150-200/week, and that’s just in the areas your broke ass can even consider affording.
- Groceries: £50/week, if you’re splitting between friends and eating conservatively (that means no lobsters, Mr. Moneybags).
- Phone: £10/month at EE is the best deal I’ve found. Unlimited calls and texts and a fair amount of data (at the time of writing, there’s a signup bonus of 10 gigs for the first month). EE is also the easiest network for getting overseas coverage if you’re hopping over to the rest of Europe.
- Travel: £150/month should be more than enough if you’re booking the right Megabuses. Trains are costly (see below).
- Drinking: £400/month is a pretty conservative estimate since nights out in the UK/London can get costly. You’ll need to determine your own habits, especially if you tend to take Ubers home instead of night trains/buses.
- Restaurants: £300/month is another conservative estimate, but maybe you have better self-control when it comes to eating out than I do.
- Tours: You won’t need much money for tours, but England is loaded with music festivals (see any of my Elsewhere Plans). Leave yourself at least £200 extra (to average between months with and without festivals or tours) to attend the ones you want, like Glastonbury.
- Assorted Buffer: £100/month. Shit happens, and you’ll probably lose some money at one point or another.
Cost of Transportation
- Intracity Bus/Subway: £2.30-£4/trip, depending on which zones you’re moving between.
- Intracity Taxi: Black cabs in London take a lot of training to drive, and the prices reflect that. You could easily find yourself paying £100 for a ride. Then again, they do have to have the London map memorized. Uber is cheaper, but the drivers often get lost. Stick to the awesome public transport if you can.
- Intercity Bus/Train: Megabus is a godsend – you can get a cross-country ticket for as little as £1. Yes, a single pound. However, these prices are usually reserved for the first six seats on the bus, so if you don’t book early, you can expect to pay between £10-30 for the same ticket. Trains are usually exponentially more expensive, and considering Megabus has free WiFi and plugs on their buses, you needn’t bother with the rail.
- Intercity Airline: Why bother flying when buses are so cheap and easy?
- Car Rental: You can rent a little beater car for as little as £3/day, but I have no experience with their quality. Gas, meanwhile, is 120p/litre.