2 People, 2 Days, $200 - Is Extreme Budget Travel in London Possible?
One of my favourite travel adventures is a $200 Challenge. In both the northern mountains of Vermont and in Canada’s legendary Algonquin Park we've challenged ourselves to see if two people could comfortably travel for two days and spend just $200. It's ultra frugal travel at its finest. In both cases, we've had outstanding trips, learned a lot of financial lessons, and gained fresh motivation to attempt this challenge in new locations.
After two camping related challenges it was time to try something new. It was time for a place with a real bed and hot running water! Could that place be London? Everyone want cheap travel in London? But is it really possible? Budget travel, London style, was going to test all of my travel skills.
Budget travel in London: Debating Pounds versus Dollars
Even before arriving in London, the $200 Challenge was facing some... challenges. What currency should I use? London is such an expensive city and it was tempting to establish a 200 GBP challenge! After much reflection, I decided to stay with my home currency of Canadian dollars. As I take this challenge around the world, my income will always be in Canadian funds so for the sake of consistency, so will the challenge. (At the time of my visit, 200 Canadian dollars was approximately 118 GBP. Now, nearly two years later, it's closer to 112 GBP. Time to tighten that belt even more!)
The $200 Challenge was conceived as a two person adventure, but in London I was flying solo. For the sake of consistency, I doubled my figures, assuming the cost of two people is double the cost of one. Of course, this isn't always the case. What if one person has more expensive taste? What about savings from sharing a room? But for the sake of argument we’ll assume the differences balance out.
Budget accommodations in London: Hostels versus EasyHotel
I spent two nights at Clink 216 Hostel (formerly Ashlee House). Just steps from Kings Cross Station, this London budget hostel has been getting a "thumbs up" rating from Let’s Go guidebooks for over 10 years. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it a boutique hostel (like they do), I did appreciate the clean rooms, the key card secured doors, the free breakfast, the helpful staff, and the locked luggage room.
When staying at a London hostel, it pays - literally - to visit midweek and to book well in advance. Using this strategy, my dorm bed at Clink 216 was only 12 GBP a night. If you book at the last minute or on a week, you can expect London hostel prices to double. (Editor's update, Oct 2015: Prices at Clink 216 have risen slightly and the cheapest dorm is now 13 GBP).
Final price: 24 GBP for one person – 48 GBP for two people. This scenario assumes that you aren't planning for a romantic escape, as you’ll both be in dorm beds! If you’re looking to splurge on something more private, the EasyHotel chain has double rooms starting from 40 GBP a night.
Discount dining, London style
London has some world class restaurants and some of them are even budget friendly! In fact, there are plenty of London cheap eats to keep even fussy foodies happy. Here’s what I ate during the $200 Challenge:
Breakfast: Totally free! Breakfast was included at the Clink 261 hostel. While it wasn't anything special, I was happy to fill up on toast and jam, cereal and milk, cheese, orange “drink”, and my favourite –hot chocolate made with hot milk!
Lunch Day 1:
North Star Fish and Chips in Bloomsbury (7 Leigh Street. Note: you want the takeaway shop, not the adjacent restaurant.) North Star is often described as having the best cheap fish and chips in London. I had a massive fried cod fillet, which rested on top of a large cone of chips. It was hot, fresh, and delicious: a real taste of London, all for just 6.50, or 13 GBP for two. They charge for ketchup packages, so I opted for the free, traditional vinegars. I walked in hungry and I was barely able to finish half of my order. The portions are huge and I can’t imagine ordering it “jumbo sized” – unless you want to save a few pounds and split one with a friend.
Lunch Day 2:
The Café in the Crypt at St. Martin in the Field Church (Trafalgar Square). I had a huge serving of gnocchi, eggplant, and sweet pepper cooked in a cream sauce with melted English cheddar, with sides of roasted zucchini, garlic bread, and salad. It cost a mere 7 GBP – and all of it going to a good cause! Frankly, I think it's the best inexpensive meal in London. Two people could easily eat lunch here for 14 GBP, or even 10 GBP if you were careful.
Dinner Day 1:
Back to the Café in the Crypt, where I had baked chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, cabbage, fruit crumble, custard, and a drink for 14 GBP. Assuming you shared a dessert and soda, two could easily have dinner here for 20 GBP. Truly, I think it's London's best cheap eat.
Dinner Day 2:
Aladdin Restaurant (132 Brick Lane). Brick Lane has plenty of economical, tasty options and it has well earned its reputation for some of the best Indian food in the world. Main courses at Aladdin start at 5 GBP, but don’t forget to factor in the cost of rice, naan, and poppadoms. Still, if you’re careful you can probably manage to do dinner for two for about 20 GBP.
UPDATE!!! While Indian food remains one of the best deals (and most delicious food options) in London, I can no longer recommend Aladdin's restaurant. On our most recent visit our bill was incorrect in several places and every travel instinct tells me it was deliberate. There is just a voice in your head that screams when you know you are being scammed.
They raised the prices of several items compared to what was printed on the menu and they also labeled things incorrectly. For instance, I ordered rice for the table and chicken tikka masala for myself. The bill listed the rice and it also listed a more expensive chicken tikka masala combo dish which would normally come with it's own side of rice. They doubled the price of several small items like poppadoms. And while they recommend a certain dish for Ryan to try, they charged him for another, more expensive dish. They said that this was "how it worked here", since Ryan had asked for the dish to be extra spicy and they charged him extra for making it spicier!
When the "this is how it's done here" didn't work on us and we pressed them further on individual line items, they suddenly took 20% off the bill. It was clear that they didn't want us to make a scene and then clear us out since we had caught them red handed! Aladdin likes to boast they are the best Indian food in London, based on an ancient survey. They are good, but not great and there are plenty of good, economical Indian restaurants in London that are honest too.
Where to go, what to see, how to save
London is an immensely walkable city and many of the main attractions are within a reasonable distance to each other. With a bit of advance planning, I was able to consolidate all my longer trips and only needed to by one Travelcard pass for the Tube. Travelcards cost slight less when purchased after the 9:30 am rush and two people can expect to pay about 15 GBP.
When it comes to making a $200 challenge work, you have to look at the best free experiences in London. London’s endless list of free attractions, sights, galleries, and museums could easily keep a visitor entertained for weeks. Hitting up my favourite stops, including the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Library, cost me nothing at all!
When I wasn't in galleries and museums, I was constantly walking and covered everything from small churches in the City to people watching in Trafalgar Square to seeing the horses prepare for the Changing of the Guard.
A couple of tiny splurges...
One of my favourite activities is a walking tour with London Walks. At 9 GBP each, they offer tremendous value and a lot of fun. I especially like their evening selection of tours as they often involve ghosts! Two people could enjoy this activity for just 18 GBP!
I did make one big splurge since I was traveling solo and I visited the Tower of London, which cost me 22 pounds. I normally wouldn't include such an expensive activity in the $200 challenge as it would cost so much for just two people but sometimes budgets are meant to be broken!
My bare bones London budget: Final Verdict!
None! This is London, after all - a good place to break a girl’s coffee dependency. I know realistically that if Ryan was traveling with me this number would be high, as would the cost of beer!
I'm a huge Beatles fan, so it was only fitting that I picked up some cool Beatles themed coasters at the British library for 10 GBP.
TOTAL: 158 GBP or $267 Canadian Dollars.
Sadly, the $200 Challenge extreme budget challenge in London is $67 dollars over budget, but I'm not regarding it as a failure. The $200 Challenge is built around the idea that comfortable, exciting, stimulating travel can be enjoyed even on the strictest of budgets. Considering that there were no tents involved and that I was in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I’m pretty happy. I was able to demonstrate that if you are on a shoestring budget you can still have a clean, safe, comfortable bed, classic and delicious British meals, and access to the finest museums and galleries in the world!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. What's the best bargain you've ever found in London?
Looking for more about London? You'll also enjoy:
The Tower of London for 55 Pence.
Loving London for Less
The 200 Meter Challenge: London Edition
The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries: Book Review
Christopher Wren's London
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