The United Kingdom is undoubtedly a country (or four countries, actually) that everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. There’s a wealth of history, culture, and natural beauty that makes for fascinating exploring.
But it’s also one of the richest countries in the world, which can make that exploration on the expensive side. And while there are ways and means of exploring the UK on a budget, it can be a little tricky unless you’re in the know.
Without further ado, let’s get started on the ultimate guide to traveling the UK on a budget.
How to Find Cheap Flights to the UK
The good news is that there are lots of direct flights to London from most major cities around the world, and these tend to be inexpensive. For example, a round-trip flight from New York to London costs on average $500. Flight costs usually depend on the season, airline, and how far in advance you book.
Traveling during the off-season will help you save money on your UK flight. November through March is usually considered the off-season for travel.
While November may not be ideal, especially for those of us who hate the cold, March is not a bad month for exploring the UK. Experiencing the first days of spring and watching flowers bloom across the country could be a unique experience.
Booking a roundtrip flight to and from London will also help you save on travel costs. Flying into London, for example, will be cheaper than flying into another city’s airport that may have fewer international inbound and outbound flights daily.
Try booking your flights in advance. Use travel websites and apps such as Google Flights or Hopper to check on the best times to book your tickets. You can save multiple searches and get notifications on when prices drop or are expected to rise.
You may also like: How to Experience London on a Shoestring Budget
How to Save Money on UK Transport
When visiting a country for any particularly lengthy amount of time, it pays to think about your transportation options.
For a country the size of the UK, you’re probably not going to consider flying, as you’ll spend more time checking in and clearing security than you will in the air. That leaves ground options – namely a car rental, rail, and bus.
The issue with rail in the UK is that, unlike mainland Europe, the UK does not have a great railway system in place. Cancelations and delays are frequent, and it’s very expensive in comparison with other cities.
Instead, then, you should travel by bus. Intercity buses in the UK are seldom late and far cheaper than traveling by rail. Megabus, which offers intercity routes between all major UK cities, is extremely cheap. A ticket from London to Manchester, for instance, costs between £20-30 (roughly $25-37). That same trip by train? Around double that for economy class.
If you still want to explore the UK by rail and you have a travel partner to come with you, then get a Two Together Railcard. You’ll save 1/3 of the regular ticket cost, which makes it very affordable. Using our previous example, a ticket from London to Manchester with a Two Together railcard will cost approximately £33 – 35, just a bit more than taking the bus.
Staying in London for a few days? Get the Visitor Oyster card. This pre-loaded smartcard will give you access to the London bus, Tube, and other public transportation. With daily caps of approximately £8-10 per day, you will save money and never overpay for transportation.
How to Save Money on Accommodations
This advice for budget travel is, in a travel-savvy age, somewhat trite, but it bears repeating: stay in youth hostels wherever possible.
Youth hostels are obviously far cheaper than hotels, but they do come with their caveats. If you really want to save, you’ll be in a shared dorm room. If you’re a fan of your own space, that might be an issue. This extends to bathroom and shower facilities, so it can be hard for people who don’t like to share close spaces. If this is the case, then private rooms are generally available but will cost about double what a spot in a shared room would.
However, youth hostels present a chance to socialize and meet new people that you simply don’t get in hotels. They will often organize activities and games to give guests a chance to get to know one another. And they will quite often be able to hook you up with discounted tours and sightseeing trips.
There’s also something of a fraternal feel between youth hostels, with hostels in different cities more than willing to cooperate with one another. This means they can often recommend places to stay in other cities, or even call ahead for you and help you out with your booking.
Summer Hack: Some university dorms across the UK offer affordable accommodations during the summer. Since students move out in the summer, student residences rent out these rooms to travelers. Just do a search for “[insert UK city here] residence summer stay” and you’ll find a few options. Prices may range from £35 to £80 per night with access to kitchen facilities.
You may also like: How to Study in the UK and Apply to UK Universities
How to Get Free Tours
British cities are, generally speaking, pretty old and have grown organically over hundreds and hundreds of years. While this often makes for quaint and charming city centers full of intriguing nooks and crannies, it also makes for a somewhat intimidating sprawl to explore.
One of the cheapest (and best ways) to explore the UK is to join a free walking tour. Not only are these great for exploring major cities like London, Edinburgh, or Liverpool, but they’re also really good for getting detailed and informative explanations of landmarks and hidden treasures as you walk around. Furthermore, they don’t cost a penny!
Note that it’s still considered good form to tip your guide at the end of any such walking tour. How much you tip is up to you, but around £5 ($6) is considered acceptable.
How to Get Free Museum Tickets
Did you know that all UK national museums and galleries are free? Some of the best museums in the world including the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum in London are completely free to the public. Other museums worth visiting are the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Scottish National Gallery, and the Museum of Liverpool.
If you’re visiting university towns (eg. Oxford or Cambridge), keep in mind that most universities also offer free museum admissions. For example, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum offers lots of archeological and art displays for intellectual and curious travelers.
You may also like: The Ultimate Student’s Guide to Visit Oxford
How to Eat Cheaply…
If you’re a college or graduate student traveling on a budget, you might also want to keep your meals cheap, and this goes for the UK the same as anywhere else.
A meal in a British restaurant can cost anywhere from £10 ($12) in a cheap restaurant to more than $100 per head in an upscale place. That might be alright as a treat from time to time, but when living day to day, you’ll want to keep things cheaper.
Fortunately, supermarkets are slightly cheaper in the UK than in the USA. This means that you’ll be able to pick up essentials like bread, meat, cheese, and beverages for around 80% of the price you’d be paying in the States.
If you keep things frugal and stick to homemade sandwiches, then you’ll be able to stretch your budget out that much longer.
Of course, one of the perks of traveling involves trying new food experiences and tasting new dishes. So, it’s completely normal to want to go out and try some British food once in a while.
Some popular dishes you need to try while traveling the UK include Fish and chips, Yorkshire pie, English breakfast, Roast dinner, Pie and mash, Afternoon Tea, and Shepherd’s pie. Pies usually cost between £7 – £13, and most British foods won’t break the bank. Just go to local pubs or fast-casual restaurants to keep your spending on track.
And if you do decide to go out to eat, keep in mind that you’ll at least be saving on additional tipping and taxes. There’s no tipping in the UK and taxes are already included in the price of your meal.
… And Drink Cheaply
The UK is a country that has a big drinking culture, so it’s not a bad idea to partake in a social drink when there. When in Rome, after all!
In order to ensure that you’re not breaking the bank, however, you should try to stick to cheap places. Avoid touristy pubs or bars, and avoid upscale nightclubs (which are very expensive).
Keep things cheap by heading to student haunts, indie nightclubs, and cheaper pubs and bars. One extremely cheap chain pub in the UK is called Wetherspoons, and they’re ubiquitous throughout most major cities.
It’s incredibly cheap here for a pint of beer – around £3-4 ($4-5), and they offer reasonably cheap “pub grub” too. What’s more, there’s no tipping in bars in the UK, so your money will stretch a little further.
Another good idea is to head to pubs/bars for happy hour. As in the States, “happy hour” usually lasts for much longer than an hour. And it’s not uncommon to get two drinks for the price of one, or other similarly generous deals. Happy hours in the UK typically run from mid-afternoon until early evening (usually finishing at 8 pm at the latest).
How Much Should I Budget For A Trip To The UK?
Depending on how cheaply you’re prepared to live, a budget trip to the UK will set you back between £700-1000 ($840-1250 approx.) per week (excluding airfare).
It’s not the cheapest place to explore on a budget, but it is one of the most beautiful and interesting. Just be sure to book your flight in advance, take the bus, stay in hostels, join free tours, go to free museums, and avoid those expensive restaurants wherever possible.
The UK is a place you should definitely visit at least once in your lifetime. So, start planning your trip and bon voyage!
About the Author: Denisse Romero is the founder of MacQuil.com. As a frequent traveler, she’s always looking for the best travel opportunities.