There’s no getting around it – London can be expensive! Living in London on a student budget can sometimes be tough, but the reality is that there are so many ways to live in London on a student budget without feeling like you are compromising.
Hi, I’m Natalie and I’ve been a student in London twice – once for my degree and a second time for my graduate degree. When I first came to London, it was my first time living away from home and in a big city. I wish that I had taken the time to do a little digging into how to make living in London a little more affordable. Now living in London for the second time as a graduate student, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on where to spend, where to save, and what are the best resources to help you live and travel in London without breaking the bank or going over budget. Keep reading for some top tips for students in London.
1. Free things to do
Who doesn’t love a good city view? The London skyline is so beautiful, but £30 for a ticket to the London Eye? £25 for a ticket to The Top of The Shard? I don’t think so. I will admit, I went on the London Eye with my parents when they came to visit, and while it was nice, there are other views in London that I have enjoyed much more that are significantly cheaper! Or even free! Check out this list of Best FREE views in London.
Bus Tours – If you have spent any time in London, you will know how many bus tours run around the city! From Big Bus Tours to Golden Bus Tours, Afternoon Tea Bus tours to Ghost Bus Night Tours, there seems to be a bus tour for every occasion. While those bus tours are great for some, they really are not student budget-friendly – most cost around £30-35 a ticket!
London has an incredible public transport system. I’d recommend you make use of London’s big, red, double-decker public transport busses instead! At just £1.50 a ride (bus-only travel with an Oyster Card is capped at £4.50 maximum a day) you can hop on any of the buses running throughout London and they are sure to take you by some of the major must-see sites. I would recommend starting in/around Central London and hopping on the 88 bus, the 159 bus, or the 15 bus.
Here is a handy map of bus routes in London that go by some key sites that you might want to see!
Walking Tours – Let’s talk walking tours. I think that one of the best ways to learn about a city is by doing a walking tour! They are also a great way to see areas of the city that you haven’t explored before. Like the tour buses, there are dozens, if not at least a hundred different walking tours through the city that you could go on. My absolute favourite walking tour group in London is Free Tours By Foot. Free Tours By Foot is a pay-what-you-can tour that operates in tons of cities around the US and Europe (so great if you’re travelling elsewhere too!). They have so many tour options and you can book a spot on their website for free! Once the tour is over, you have the option to pay, in cash, what you can. I have done the Harry Potter walking tour as well as their Dark Side of London Ghost tour. I could not say enough great things about my guides and the tour as a whole. Next on my list is the Jack the Ripper and World War II walking tours. If you’re on a budget, no matter what your interests, Free Tours By Foot will have you covered.
Here is a list of the walking tours that Free Tours By Foot offer in London! You can also check out the NOTSOBASICLONDON’s Free Sight-seeing Walking Tour which takes you past 20+ major landmarks in London that you’ll definitely want to see while you’re studying here.
Did you know London has over 3,000 parks? How crazy is that? Exploring London’s parks are a perfect way to see and experience different areas of the city. Of course, it’s free too! I’ve spent many an afternoon studying and relaxing in the park and it makes you feel like you’ve done something without spending money. Check out this list of London’s best parks and green spaces. It even includes 17 hidden gems so you can explore the more unique areas of London.
General things to do
NOTSOBASICLONDON’s list of 100 totally free things to do in London was a blessing for me. It had so many great ideas which I used to tick off every week. Download your copy here.
2. Tips for living & health
Reusable bags – I know it sounds silly, but always carry a small reusable bag with you whenever you’re out and about! I have a few that I use anytime I go shopping, because in London if you don’t bring a bag with you, they cost an additional 5 or 10p. Why pay for bags if you don’t have to? It’s also a great way to do your part in being a little more eco-friendly!
Argos – I hadn’t heard of Argos before I moved to London, and I’m so glad that a friend mentioned it to me! Argos is an online retailer where you can purchase various odds and ends that you might need such as bedding or kitchen for a very affordable price. At the beginning of the school year, I had to purchase some pots and pans for our kitchen and I was able to score a whole set of 5 for just £20! With Argos, you can have your purchases delivered, or in many cases, you can have them ready to pick them up that same day at your local Argos store.
Tesco Club Card – I do most of my grocery shopping at my local Tesco Metro. When I moved to London and found my local Tesco, one of the first things I did was sign up for the Tesco Club Card. You can do it right online or on your phone for free, and it won’t take more than five minutes. With your Tesco Club card, you earn points with every shop and you are able to redeem those points towards some money off of future purchases. Every little bit counts! Other supermarkets also do their own version of a loyalty card.
FLATSHARING OR GUARDIAN HOUSING
London is one of the most expensive cities in the world for buying or renting a house. Your average flat here costs around £400,000 to buy and the average rent on a one bed flat is about £1,400 a month. That’s kinda possible for a couple but nearly impossible for a single person, especially a student! Of course, most universities come with their own form of housing. However ,if for whatever reason this is not suitable for you there is also the option of flat-sharing or guardian housing. Flatsharing or house-sharing is where you share a flat with different people and split the cost between you. Most people use a website like SpareRoom . NOTSOBASICLONDON has an incredibly detailed post here covering everything you need to know about flat-sharing.
Alternatively, there are schemes such as Property Guardians. Property Guardians are a scheme that offers cheap rent of rooms or houses in return for you acting as the guardian property. As a guardian, your primary responsibility will be to provide protection and maintain the property, reporting any issues you encounter during your stay there. Occupancy can be for as little as one month up to a couple of years. The main thing with being a property guardian is you need to be flexible. There is a lot more information on being a property guardian here.
QUIT ’BOUTIQUE’ GYMS
If there is one thing that always shocks me in London is how expensive gyms and gym classes are. I looked into a few ‘boutique gyms’ and they are no short of £100+ a month or around £15 – £25 for one class! INSANE. If you want to stay healthy in body, mind and pocket, sign up to a budget gym like PureGym or The Gym Group . These are called budget gyms because they have none of the fancy shampoos in the shower or fresh smoothies to buy in the gym kitchen but if none of that bothers you, these will be perfect for you. FYI – even though these gyms are cheaper than boutique gyms, the closer you get to central London the more expensive they get so get further out of the centre of the city if you can.
Signing up with a GP
This is so IMPORTANT! Depending on the length of your stay and study in the UK, you will have different options for what to use for medical care. As a Tier 4 Student from the US, I am eligible to use my BRP (bioresidence permit/visa) to sign up with a GP near where I live. It is quick and easy and took me no more than fifteen minutes. So now, when I get sick, I can pop on into my local doctor and they can make sure that I have everything I need to be happy, safe, and healthy.
Top Cashback seems too good to be true – but it’s not. It’s really simple. Every time you purchase something from one of their 4,000 major retailers, the retailer pays them a commission for referring you to their website. TopCashback then passes 100% of this commission back to you as ‘cashback’. It’s especially great for bigger purchases like electricals, holidays etc. You can make hundreds a pounds a year from just shopping as you usually would.
3. Tips for eating
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SET MENU’S, VOUCHERS AND OFFERS & PROMO CODES
Eating out can get expensive but there are a few tricks you can use to dine out a bit cheaper.
Early bird menu’s – Many restaurants in London offer a cheaper version of their menu if you can get there a bit earlier or eat later. When I say earlier/later, that’s usually anytime between 5 – 6:30 pm or 9:pm -10:30 pm.
Pre-theatre menu’s – This is where a restaurant offers a set menu (usually 2 or 3 courses) for a cheaper price than if you bought from their regular menu. Remember, you don’t have to be going to the theatre to take advantage of the pre-theatre menu.
Offer websites – Always have a look at websites like TimeOut, OpenTable or Bookatable. These websites usually have offers and set menus at a reduced price which are exclusive when you book through them on their website
PLAN AND BUDGET
This may sound like an obvious suggestion but you have no idea how much planning your week of eating will save you money. Think of your meals, make a list of what you need and stick to it. By doing this it means you won’t be spending a random £5 in the local supermarket on random crap that adds up at the end of the month. (I’m so guilty of that!)
First Table seems too good to be true, but it’s not! The idea is you book the ‘first table’ of the night and you get 50% off your food bill. It costs £5 for the privilege of signing up, but what’s a fiver when you could potentially save a lot of money. There are so many good restaurants available too and the process is very simple.
A mystery dining guest is someone who is ‘employed’ to eat out and give feedback about their visit usually via an online report. Sometimes they even pay you for the ‘work’ you’ve done as well as your free meal. You can apply to do so via a website such as Mystery Dining and Market Force. T’s and C’s apply!
If you haven’t heard of Approved Food before they are an online supermarket that only sells products that are near or past their best before date at a knockdown price. Yes, that sounds bizarre and who on earth is going to want to buy them but every year in the UK over 7 million tonnes of food and drink is thrown away, a lot of which has past its ‘best before’ date, but is still perfectly good to eat. Another great concept that could potentially save you money off your weekly shop.
Early closing offers
If you’ve walked down literally any street in London, I can almost guarantee that you’ve walked by an Istu. Itsu is an Asian fast (but healthy-ish!) food chain. Every night, at all Itsu locations, 30 minutes before they close, they mark all of their sushi and salads in the refrigerated cases to 50% off! My favourite is the salmon teriyaki and rice bowl which ends up being discounted to only £2.49! When I go, I always pick up two or three for lunch or dinner for the next day or two. Make sure you check the Itsu website for the hours of your local Itsu because each store has slightly different opening and closing hours! Lots of other places do this too so keep an eye out.
SEEK OUT VALUE & RESEARCH
I think this a really important tip for everyone – do your research & make sure you spend your money wisely! One can assume that chain restaurants or fast food establishments are cheaper to eat in but that’s not always the case. I always use the example of somewhere like Pizza Express (which I love by the way) where a pizza or salad will set you back £10-£15. Instead, you can go somewhere like Homeslice which is a really cool independent pizza place in London and you can get a giant 20-inch pizza for £20 that will feed 2-3 people. Another example would be breakfast at Duck & Waffle; one of London’s most desired breakfast spots due to its views over the city. You can book at Duck & Waffle and have a very extravagant and expensive breakfast … or you can just go for eggs on toast and a cuppa tea which will set you back about £10-12. It’s HOW you order that’s the most important thing and remember if you’re going to spend your money spend it wisely!
4. London hacks
There is a fantastic scheme in the London theatre world called ‘Day Seats’. A lot of shows offer 6-12 seats at a highly discounted rate to the full ticket price. To get them, customers can queue up at their chosen theatre by 10 am on the day they want to see the show. Then they purchase them in person at the box office. Not all theatres do day seats but you can find the list of theatres and shows that do them right here. My tip? Queue early! Some shows have a queue from as early as 5 am whereas others hardly have a queue. Personally, I would go in and ask the box office the day before what time they suggest getting there or judge it by how popular you think your chosen show is by looking at reviews, social media etc. NOTSOBASICLONDON has a great blog on how to score cheap theatre tickets here.
FIND SNEAKY WAYS AROUND THINGS
This is one of my favourite tips to share – Rather than pay for The View from the Shard experience, instead, visit Aqua Shard . It’s the bar a few floors down from the official viewing gallery. The bar is free to visit and you can see the view and buy a drink for the same price (if not cheaper) then The View From The Shard experience.
BE A HAIR MODEL
To get a cheap trim, blow-dry or even a totally new look, salons across London offer discounted haircuts if you are willing to have it done by a student or someone in training. Call your local salon, local college or a hair academy like RUSH and ask them if they do something like this and sign up!
BRING YOUR OWN COFFEE MUG
Most coffee shops in London will offer 20p or so off your coffee if you bring your own mug. I know that doesn’t sound much but every little helps.
I’m one of those people that at the start of the month I have every intention of keeping a budget tracker to help me spend more wisely in the month. Five days in, I’ve failed. Monzo has literally been a game-changer in my financial situation. You can set budgets on different areas of your life like groceries, entertainment and, eating out. When you buy something Monzo knows what pot it falls into and automatically deducts it from that particular pot. It’s very clever. It also has this great feature called ’round-up’ where it rounds up all your transactions to the nearest pound and saves the pennies. I’ve saved £135 in the last 5 months without even trying. That’s enough for a pair of Dr Martin boots I’ve had my eye on! I think that as a student, it is important to have professionals from companies like SoFi helping you with your finances.
5. Travel tips
Bus v. Tube Travel
When I first studied abroad in London, I was always tempted to use the underground to travel around the city. The more time I’ve spent in London, however, the more I’ve come to appreciate the amazing bus system! A one-way journey on the Underground is around £2.40 if you are travelling within Zone 1 (not sure what is considered zone 1? Check out this post for a full breakdown on London’s transport system), whereas you can bus hop for a full hour on any of the buses in London for £1.50! That’s nearly £1 saved, for spending only a few extra minutes travelling by bus! Another perk of bus travel is that you get to see all of the neighbourhoods and areas that you travel through on your way to your destination. I often take the 11 bus to Liverpool Street Station, and the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the bus never gets old!
Oyster Cards & Student Oyster Cards
On that note, if you are travelling around on any type of London public transit, bus or tube, get yourself an Oyster card! For a £5 one time purchase fee, you can get your Oyster card and reload it at any of the Underground stations when you travel! One of the best things about the Oyster card is that it is capped at £7 a day. That means if you have family or friends visiting and you are jetting all around the city, no matter how many rides you take, once you hit £7, you will not be charged any more for the day. If you use your contactless debit card instead, you will have to pay for each ride, including any rides in excess of £7.
If you are a student, you also have the option of getting a student Oyster card! Student Oyster cards save you 30% on all adult-rate Travelcards and Bus & Tram Pass season tickets. I would only recommend this, however, if you will be travelling via tube a LOT – back and forth to class every day, for instance, because there is a£20 application fee. You can apply online here and your Student Oyster card will be issued to you once your school confirms your student status!
Student Rail Card
If you plan on travelling a lot around the country via train, check out the Student Rail Card. It costs £30 to apply, but saves you 1/3 on all train and rail fares throughout England for a whole year! The Student Rail Card is only valid for those ages 16-25.
If travelling outside of the UK and around Europe is something you want to do while studying in London, I would highly suggest using the website Skyscanner when looking for flights. Student schedules tend to be a bit more flexible than 9-5 schedules, so you can search by the cheapest month or days within a certain month. Skyscanner pulls from all different travel sites and gets you the best deals for flights in and around Europe! I scored a round trip flight on Skyscanner a few months ago to Italy from London for just £23! That’s cheaper than a ticket for a 30-minute ride around the London Eye!
Whether you are looking to take a bus to somewhere around the UK for a weekend trip or day trip, or if you need quick and affordable transportation to any of London’s many airports, I would recommend taking the National Express bus! Most every time that I’ve travelled to and from an airport, I’ve taken a National Express bus. They depart from stops all over the city and head to each of London’s major airports. If you book far enough in advance, you could score a round trip bus ticket to and from the airport for only £5-7.
One of my favourite parts about London, and something I think people shouldn’t take for granted or underestimate, is just how walkable the city of London is! Where I live in London is very central, so I often find that is is not only cheaper to walk, but it takes the same amount of time to get to my destination by walking there as it does taking the bus or the tube. I’ve also found that by walking most places, I’ve really come to learn all the different neighbourhoods of London and how to get to and from each of them without having to rely on my GPS.
If you’re out and about and plan on doing a lot of walking, don’t forget a pair of comfy sneakers (or as they call them in London – trainers) and some headphones! I love to use my time walking around the city to listen to some music and catch up on some of my favourite podcasts.
6. Apps & Resources
London is one of the world’s top theatre destinations, so you can’t live in, study in, or visit London without taking an evening and going to a show! Theatre tickets are pricey – many shows sell tickets for upwards of £100!! One of my favourite discoveries has been the TodayTix app. Available on iPhone and Android devices, the TodayTix app always has great deals for seats to shows all over London. Each morning at 10 am sharp, last-minute tickets for that afternoon/evening go up for seriously discounted prices! What is great about these tickets too, is that they are often seats closer to the stage. The rush tickets are usually around £20-25 a ticket which is a bargain. Especially if you get a seat that normally would cost over £100! TodayTix has great sales too. I got a ticket for a show starring Daniel Radcliffe (Yes, THAT DANIEL RADCLIFFE!) for only £20 during their Black Friday sale! And I got tickets for Harry Potter and The Cursed Child in June for just £20 per part!
If you’re interested in more ways to score cheap London theatre tickets, check out this post!
When I tell you that I would not be able to survive living in London without CityMapper, I am not even for a second being overdramatic! CityMapper is an app that I use every single time I am out and about in London. You pop in your starting point and your destination, and CityMapper gives you several ways to get there. Whether you want to get there on the tube or the bus, or if you need to get in some extra steps and you want to walk, CityMapper gives you a bunch of options. One of my favourite features of CityMapper is that is synced up with the public transit system in London and gives you real-time estimates of when the next bus or train is coming, and it also makes you aware of any delays or disruptions that might affect your journey.
Need some more information on the ins and outs of public transportation in London? Take a peek at this post for a full breakdown of how transportation in London works.
There are several different London blogs and websites that I use as resources for finding out what is happening in the city, what restaurants I should try, and for lots of great deals to fit a student budget! Of course, you know about this blog, because you’re here! Even before I started working with Charlotte, this was one of my absolute favourite blogs to follow and use as a resource. There are literally hundreds of restaurant recommendations and ideas for things to do in London. Check out these posts for food inspiration and these for ideas of things to do.
TimeOut London is another one of my go-to resources. Each Tuesday morning, TimeOut employees hand out that week’s edition in front of most major tube stations in and around London. In the magazine, you’ll find tons of recommendations for things to do in and around London that week – from free art exhibitions to great pop-up markets all around the city. If you can’t get the magazine, don’t worry! Just head to their website for all their best recommendations. While you’re there, take a minute and sign up for some of the TimeOut email newsletters. One of my favourites is the TimeOut Offers newsletter. It is filled with a bunch of great deals for London based activities and restaurants.
Well, that’s it!
I hope you enjoyed and learned something new to help you navigate life in London as a student. London is one of the most incredible cities in the world, and being able to study in London is truly an experience you’ll never forget. So whether you are here for a few months or a few years, make the most of it! Eat all the delicious foods, go to the theatre, and explore as much of London as you can.