Money & costs
London can be a wincingly expensive experience, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. The main expense any visitor will have to bear is that of accommodation. To make your life easier, try hard to befriend a Londoner who has a spare room, otherwise you’ll need to budget an absolute minimum of £25 per night for a hostel dorm, rising sharply to at least £60 for a room of your own almost anywhere, and further to £120 for a room you’re actually likely to want to spend any time in. Booking in advance is always a good plan, and most hotels will offer reductions on the room prices if you’re staying for more than a few days. Most hotels also do excellent web deals that dramatically undercut their rack rates, and websites such as www.lastminute.com filter out the very best of these.
Money is an issue in other aspects as well, with the general cost of living in London being far higher than anywhere else in Britain and, unless you’re Norwegian or Japanese, probably higher than where you’ve arrived from.
Eating out can be done on a budget, with plenty of good cheap eats to be had in every neighbourhood. However, even at the cheapest of the cheap, it’s no trifle – a decent sandwich will cost you around £3, and you’re unlikely to get much change from a tenner for a sit-down meal. London’s fashionable eating scene is a huge draw in itself, and it’s not cheap. A good meal for two with wine is usually around the £80 to £100 mark, jumping rapidly to more than £150 for any of the city’s leading establishments.
Getting around London can also be expensive. One obvious step to save cash is to get yourself an Oyster card immediately upon arrival (or even order one at home before you travel; see the VisitBritain Shop (www.visitbritainshop.com), as this will dramatically decrease the cost of using the public transport system.
Entertainment is likewise not cheap: cinema tickets in the West End have long since crossed the £10 threshold and many cinemas in further out areas are following, meaning seeing a film for under a tenner is becoming a bargain, although art-house and independent cinemas do still offer much more competitive prices. The big-name gigs are also fairly expensive, usually starting around £20 and going up to £150 for a superstar at Wembley or Earl’s Court. Clubbing is a mixed bag: a Saturday night at Fabric will set you back £20 just for entry, while some of the best clubs in town are free or very cheap, it’s just a question of research. Flyers with discounted entry rates are available all over the West End in music and fashion stores.
One surprising boon for such an expensive city is that all state-funded museums are free, meaning you can quite happily spend days in some of the world’s best exhibition spaces and galleries for absolutely nothing, although it’s always good to make a donation to each space to help keep them free (£3 is usually the standard suggested amount). Other sights are variably priced: some may balk at paying £16 for the Tower of London, but you can spend the most part of a day there and see one of the UK’s top attractions, while a big commercial attraction such as Madame Tussauds is just plain overpriced at around £20 per person.
Many restaurants now add a ‘discretionary’ service charge to your bill, but in places that don’t you are expected to leave a 10% to 15% tip unless the service was unsatisfactory. Waiting staff are often paid poorly. It’s legal for restaurants to include a service charge in the bill but this should be clearly advertised. You needn’t add a further tip. You never tip to have your pint pulled in a pub but staff at bars often return change in a little metal dish, expecting some of the coins to glue themselves to the bottom.
If you take a boat trip on the Thames you’ll find some guides and/or drivers importuning for a tip in return for their commentary. Whether you pay is up to you. You can tip taxi drivers up to 10% but most people round up to the nearest pound.
Despite being a member of the EU, the UK has not signed up to the euro and has retained the pound sterling as its unit of currency. One pound sterling is made up of 100 pence (called ‘pee’, colloquially). Notes come in denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50, while coins are 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1 and £2.
ATMs are a way of life in London, as the huge queues by them on Saturday nights in the West End attest. There is no area in London unserved by them, and they accept cards from any bank in the world that is tied into the Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus or Maestro systems, as well as some other more obscure ones. After a national campaign, most banks now allow their cardholders to withdraw money from other banks’ ATMs without charge. However, those without UK High-Street bank cards should be warned that there is nearly always a transaction surcharge for cash withdrawals. You should contact your bank to find out how much this is before using ATMs too freely. There are nonbank-run ATMs that charge £1.50 to £2 per transaction. These are normally found inside shops and are particularly expensive for foreign bank card holders. The ATM does warn you before you take money out that it’ll charge you so you don’t get any surprises on your bank statement.
Also, always beware of suspicious-looking devices attached to ATMs. Many London ATMs have now been made tamperproof, but certain fraudsters’ devices are capable of sucking your card into the machine, allowing the fraudsters to release it when you have given up and left.
The best place to change money is in any local post office branch, where no commission is charged. You can also change money in most High-Street banks and some travel-agent chains, as well as at the numerous bureaux de change throughout the city. Compare rates and watch for the commission that is not always mentioned. The trick is to ask how many pounds you’ll receive in all before committing – you’ll lose nothing by shopping around.
American Express (Amex; 7484 9610; 30-31 Haymarket SW1; 9am-6pm Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm Sun; Piccadilly Circus)
Thomas Cook (0845-308 9570; 30 St James’s St SW1; 9am-5.30pm Mon, Tue, Thu & Fri, 10am-5.30pm Wed; Green Park)