Can you still save while visiting Europe’s most expensive city? I found out.
The working spaces: An industrial-chic brunch spot and a dark hostel room
The last time I was in London, I was a 23-year-old fresh out of college, and the little money I had did not fare well with the exchange rate. I navigated the challenge of seeing Europe’s most expensive city by staying at a hostel and doing as much as I could free, like going to the Tate Modern museum or standing outside Buckingham Palace.
So much in the world has changed since then, including Brexit and Europe Union and a global pandemic, but London remains incredibly expensive, although the dollar goes further than it once did. Still, at 31, I emulated that frugal travel style on a recent visit by staying at a hostel and trying to stick to a budget. Plus, this time I have a full-time job to juggle. I documented the first two days of my trip as I managed work and travel inclinations (eating and drinking, mostly). Working five hours ahead of my team should give me some time to explore the city — as much as my budget allows.
11:08 a.m., a Tube mistake
I traveled to London on Play airlines, a new “low-cost” Icelandic carrier. After departing from Baltimore with a layover in Reykjavík, I arrive in London by way of the Stansted Express airport train ($27.06). I’m sleep-deprived and text a friend who lives here for a breakfast recommendation. He suggests Half Cup, a place with something called “Nude Espresso” that’s just a short Tube ride away.
Before my trip, people recommended the Oyster card, the city’s pass for public transportation, while others warned against it. I juggled that information in my head as I stared with bleary eyes at the Underground’s ticket machines. The train is coming in three minutes, so I panic and buy a day pass instead of the Oyster card. Once I do, I realize I have Big Goofed™. It is $18.83; a single ride would have been about $3.
To add insult to injury, Google Maps says my hostel is walking distance from the cafe.
Takeaway: Don’t buy the day pass.
Testing out Play airlines, a new ‘budget’ option for flights to Europe
12:27 p.m., beans for breakfast
I get to Half Cup, where there’s free WiFi, water carafes full of mint and other people inside on laptops, so I feel comfortable bringing out mine. I order a Cortado and an English breakfast, a hearty meal I always look forward to in the UK
There’s no electrical outlet nearby, but otherwise it’s a perfect place to remote work. In my jet-lagged delirium, I order a second cut. I don’t possess the energy to estimate how this indulgence — and my humiliating Tube ticket purchase — will affect my daily budget.
3:30 p.m., to hostel reality
I walk to Generator London, the police station-turned-hostel I booked, which is described online as “chic” and “modern.”
On my walk, I stop in a grassy park to do some Googling. I love public baths like Korean spas and Russian banyans and wanted to sweat out my jet lag.
Prices are not in my budget (almost $70 for the basics), so I try looking with Wowcher, a British take on Groupon. There were discounts, but the places were either far away, expensive or not available during my time in London. No hammam for me.
When I get to my accommodations, it is not the “poshtel” advertised. The room is painted with bright geometric designs, but there is a warning about the fire-hazard heater peeling off the wall, and my twin bunk bed has sheets that feel like a shower curtain. There’s no time to wallow; I have to start working again. I post up at the table facing the window — and the old sink installed in the middle of the window.
7:56 pm, shower with hand soap
Somehow it’s night already, and I need a change of scenery. I jog through Regent’s Park — something I’d do whether I was here for work or vacation. It’s a joy to see the couples on walks, teams playing cricket and even a fox. I take a quick shower in the communal bathroom; there’s no shampoo or soap provided, so I use a fistful of hand soap from the sink dispenser. I need to find food.
11 p.m., dinner after a lunch of Cheez-Its
The only thing I’ve eaten since brunch were the dregs from a bag of Cheez-Its crackers leftover from my flight. So it’s off to Dishoom, a restaurant that pays homage to the Iranian cafes of Mumbai (which I learned by reading our local’s guide to London). In a rush to eat before the place closed, I went with the server’s suggestion of their famous black dal (lived up to the hype), prawns koliwada (tangy and fun) and an India gimlet (so good I got a second). It’s more than enough food for one, but I’m stress-eating from the hectic day.
Take away: My travel instinct is to always hit the ATM, but I didn’t need any of the cash I withdrew. london is largely cashless these days.
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12:50 p.m., biking on the ‘other side’ of the road
I wake up at noon because of the jet lag, write some emails from my bunk bed and leave to meet a friend near London Bridge. For the three-mile journey, I get one of the Santander Cycles bikes — better known as “Boris bikes” — which cost $2.62 for unlimited rides up to 30 minutes within a 24-hour period. There are great bike lanes, and despite traffic being on “the other side” of the road, it’s easy to get around.
4:30 p.m., oysters on an empty stomach
My friend treats me to a cappuccino (okay, there was also a pint involved). We part ways, and on my way to the closest Boris bike station, I run into Borough Market, another gem featured in the guide to London. There are flower shops, food trucks, produce vendors and a stand for Parma ham and mozzarella.
I join the queue for Richard Haward’s Oyster, a no-frills stall run by seventh-generation oystermen. For $11.13, I get three oysters shucked on the spot and a half-glass of crisp white wine. It’s not what I had in mind for my first meal of the day; it’s way better.
Before I bike home, I pick up some souvenir stationery by British artist Richard Bramble — three cards for $6.18 — and a warm, flaky sausage roll for $6.22 from Ginger Pig.
Takeaway: Download the Santander Cycles apps at home before your trip to save time (or precious international data). Lime and Uber are also good to have on hand for bike or scooter rentals.
5:45 p.m., working from a dark cave
The downside of working from your room at a hostel (or hotel or Airbnb) is that it’s isolating and devoid of the culture you traveled to see. At the cafe I could people-watch between emails and eavesdrop on work gossip. Now there was only a bunk bed to keep me company. The upside is that I already paid for the room.
Midnight, a shockingly expensive cab ride
Nothing good comes from spending six hours working from a dark hostel. One of the two lights in my room is out, and my morale is just as bleak. I haven’t felt like a productive worker. I blame jet lag — my brain is mush.
Earlier in the day, I decided I’d aged out of hostels — at least this type of hostel — and wanted to move to a hotel. Now that I’m done working, I pack my duffel and bid adieu to my cave.
Listen to your dad: Get up early on vacation
I take a black cab to East London, which I know will be expensive — but I didn’t know how expensive. The driver turns out to be lovely; our conversation alone was worth the $35.80 fare, plus I got a dinner recommendation out of it.
12:31 a.m., the cabdriver’s favorite kebab spot
Once I drop off my luggage, I walk to Lahore Kebab House, a Pakistani restaurant the cabdriver called “an institution.” The server suggests the dal chicken. With my bottle of water, some roti and a complimentary plate of lettuce and raw onions, the slightly spicy and deeply comforting dinner is about $13.
1 a.m., the hunt for a proper pub
I’m determined to end the night at a pub and bike to Brick Lane ($0 because I’m still within my 24-hour Boris bike rental window). My Lahore leftovers go flying off the front of the bike.
When I’m traveling alone, I like to find bars and restaurants where I can feel inconspicuous. Casa Blue was not that place. A server plops a stool in the dead center of the bar far away from other people; most are huddled in groups at small tables around the too-bright room. I drink most of my pint ($8.48) on my little island of awkward loneliness.
It’s pushing 2 am when I pass The Castle on my walk home. It’s crowded and dark inside, two details that do make for a good solo-traveler bar. I order a half pint I don’t need for $7.43, talk to a few people and walk home feeling like I made up for my hermit time at the hostel.
Doing London on a budget takes planning and compromise. You may want to splurge on bucket-list experiences — like catching a Premier League game or having a martini at the Connaught Bar — but there are also plenty of affordable (standing tickets at Shakespeare’s Globe) or free (the National Gallery museum) ways to enjoy the city.
My biggest lesson had nothing to do with finances: Clocking in the minute I landed was not the right move. I was on a roller coaster those first 48 hours, trying to juggle my work schedule, budget and travel goals. If you plan to work remotely while traveling internationally, factor in a few days on the front end to let your body process some of the jet lag. You’ll be more productive and less prone to making bad decisions (on Tube fares, for example).