News flash: London is expensive. With the pound currently trading at $2, you’ll be looking for ways to keep a handle on your costs (unless you travel in a different tax bracket than me). Of course, you can pinch pennies by doing nothing, but then why did you come? My strategy is to mix a healthy dose of the substantial number of free attractions (which include some of the foremost museums; see Free and Easy in London) as well as experiences. Walking around this city is an education in itself, and that ‘oh-my-gosh-I’m-standing-in-front-of-Parliament’ moment is, indeed, priceless.
Although London attraction prices are high, you do have a few options for reducing your costs. First of all, some of the world’s best museums are here and are free (as noted elsewhere in this journal). But there are a number of places that you’ll just have to visit, and where you’ll have to pay—but not necessarily full price.
For that list, be sure to investigate the chances of discounts or 2-for-1 admissions. If you’re traveling alone: sorry, your options are very limited. It’s others traveling with you that might be cheaper. First, of all children may be discounted, or even free (no surprise there). But the definition of ‘child’ usually stops at age 15, which only captured one of my three kids. Family rates will often give you two adults and two kids for a reduced rate: for example, adult admission at both prominent churches is £10. At Westminster Abbey, a family ticket is £24, which gets one adult in free. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, children are a more reasonable £3.50, but a family ticket only saves you the price of one child. (St. Paul’s is also rare in extending children to 16.) But remember, it’s going to a good cause: these buildings depend on the monies from admission for their upkeep and renovation.
A few departures from the norm: the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are free for all those 15 and under. The Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe both have a conventional 5 to 15-year-old definition of ‘child’, but their family ticket includes 2 adults and up to 3 children.
Most venues offer discounted admission for students, often stating that IDs are required. The International Student Identity Card (ISIC) is the standard, but it costs $25. With two students to outfit, I decided to take my chances, pack an extra high school ID (we’ve bought a few of those), and figure that we’d already saved £25 by not buying two ISICs. When I remembered to ask for student tickets (often only £1-2 below full price), some places didn’t ask for IDs (Tower Bridge and Cabinet War Rooms) and the Tower (evidently the pickiest venue on such matters) asked for and then accepted the high school IDs I gave them.
Memberships are another strategy. English Heritage runs hundreds of sites, but most are in the greater UK. Joining EH is £42 an individual and £73 a couple (discounted by 25% or more for seniors), and gives you free admission to all sites. But only a few are in central London: Apsley House (Wellington’s Home) and neighboring Wellington Arch at Hyde Park; Jewel Tower, the last remaining piece of Westminster Castle. Further afield are Ranger’s House in Greenwich, and art-deco Eltham Palace south of there. Admission prices at each are a modest £4 or £5; some others (such as Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath) are free. As I discovered, joining this organization only makes sense if your trip includes extensive visits to Heritage properties around the country.
A more relevant organization may be Historic Royal Palaces, who are the ones taking your money at the Tower of London (£16.50), Banqueting House (£4.50), and three Palaces: Hampton Court Palace (£13.30), Kensington (£12.30) and Kew (£5, and this not the Gardens at Kew; that’s separate). An adult membership is £38 and £59.50 for two adults, so this might make sense if you have several of these places on your list. For a while, Kensington Palace was on ours, and we thought about a day’s expedition up the Thames to Hampton Court.
In the end, we only visited the Tower, using 2-for-1 coupons that are probably your best bargain. This offer is sponsored by the railways. If you purchase a rail ticket, then you’re eligible to download and print coupons to present at the ticket window. You need to register at the website, and you may need to show the receipt for your rail trip at the attraction. The list of eligible sites is long, and also includes a number of theatre performances and a few restaurants.
For visitors, a 7-day Travelcard for the Tube, buses and network of Transport for London also allows you to take part in this program (it is not available for those with the shorter 1-day or 3-day cards). On our trip, this saved us money at Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tower of London, the Cabinet War Rooms, and Tower Bridge. If I remembered to bring the coupons, it also would have saved us money on the London Walk we did on Sunday afternoon.
We saved £107 at these five places over the four adult, one child prices we might have paid. Even if we’d been given student prices at every venue, we saved £86 over the 2 adult/2 student/1 child prices. Other places on the list that we considered visiting include Apsley House, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Foundling Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, Samuel Johnson’s House, Hampton Court Palace, Jewel Tower, Kew Gardens, and Wellington Arch (yes, I know this was unrealistic). The full list is too long to reproduce here, but also includes special exhibitions at the Museums, some hotels, and the places whose popularity I can’t fathom (London Dungeon & Madame Tussaud’s—if you are set on going, won’t you feel better at half price?)