Backpackers – take my word as gospel or mop up your tears with your £150 train receipt.
Top things you need to know:
- Public transport is total madness. Recently I flew into Manchester via Poland as it was a quarter of the price of the train. WHAT THE.
- Black cabs are a great and useful option ONLY if you have spare eggs or organs that you can use to pay for them.
These horrors aside, the UK is beautiful and you should still go! From the colourful streets of Notting Hill to the dreaming spires of Oxford and the countryside of Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, you’re going to love it.
I’m here to help you see it while not passing out in shock at the sight of your £50 drinks bill.
Listen up and listen good as this is where you’re most at risk of overspending. Trains are your most expensive option and coaches are far cheaper. Even internal flights and private limos can be cheaper options than the train (but don’t put that limo theory to test as I may be the queen of exaggerating!)
There’s no two ways about it – trains are ridiculously overpriced in the UK.
The railways are privatised which basically means there’s no one company that offers journeys for the same price every time. There are lots of rival companies and booking a ticket is a bit like playing the lottery as the prices vary so much. Here’s a screenshot of a train 4 minutes later being 5 times the price:
So, on the plus side, there are cheaper tickets to be found when you put in a bit of work.
Book your journey online to save money – it’s usually a lot more expensive to buy tickets at the station on the day. Check open returns but also see if it’s cheaper to select individual times. You’ll be restricted to the time you choose but at least you’ll save money. Use the following websites to shop for good deals and try and book your journeys a week in advance:
Hack #1: go on Trainsplit. This website books you on the individual legs of your journey to save you cash. You end up carrying eight tickets but I’ve saved £15 per journey before by doing it.
Hack #2: If you’re age 16-25 and plan to make more than two or three journeys it might be worth buying a Railcard. These cost £30 but save you a third off journeys so if you’re making a really long one, for example London to Edinburgh, you might make it back in one trip.
Coach travel can be ridiculously cheap and I’ve made it halfway across the country on a £1 ticket before. Saying that, I’ve also wanted to die stuck in traffic for four hours by the toilet. Pros and cons – you weigh it up.
I’m planning a 10-hour Oxford to Edinburgh journey soon because it’ll cost me £40 for a return rather than £120 on the train. If you never hear from me again, that journey actually killed me 😉
Super hack: travel overnight and you won’t pay for accommodation. Yes, this is the lowest of backpacker lows. But when you gotta…
The coach companies you should use are:
Both these services have toilets, chargers and an online entertainment system of movies and e-books that you can log into via WiFi.
Use Skyscanner to find these but factor in the price and journey length of getting to the airport. From Oxford, I have to include getting to a London airport to reach my budget flight and because I have to get there on a train, sometimes the cheap flight becomes not so cheap.
Use Uber in bigger cities but they’re not available everywhere. As a general rule I’d avoid taxis if possible if you’re on a budget. Usually local buses are the cheapest way to get about.
Eating in the UK
This CAN be pricey but it doesn’t have to be.
One of the great things about my country is the quality of the supermarkets. I didn’t realise ‘til I travelled in other places how good they are. Your best option is not eating out and buying supermarket food instead if you want to save money.
To explain to you the vibe of the main ones I’m going to give you a couple of examples of things their regular shoppers might say:
- M&S – ‘get the butler to pick up some canapés!’
- Waitrose – ‘throw out the rest of the smoked salmon – it’s a day out of date!’
- Sainsbury’s – ‘I buy the Taste the Difference range at weekends and the Basics during the week’
- Tesco – ‘£2 for a sandwich? Bargain!’
- Morrison’s – ‘help me I’m poor’
- Iceland – ‘I don’t know what’s worse, the risk of salmonella or Peter Andre on their TV advert!’
Jokes aside, that should give you a good understanding of the different price ranges. Shop at the cheaper supermarkets and you can live on a few quid a day, honest
BTW – ‘Quid’ is slang for ££ if you didn’t know. Also a ‘fiver’ and a ‘tenner’ mean £5 and £10. I confused a bunch of Aussies with these terms recently so feel I should probably explain.
When you do want to eat out, there are a couple of decent chains which you’ll find in most cities. None of these places will cost you more than £10 per main dish.
- Pizza Express / Zizzi / ASK – these Italian restaurants are pretty similar. You’ll get a decent pizza for a tenner and there are always deals on if you check their websites
- Leon – I love the concept of this place which is healthy fast food. It’s more of a cafe vibe but it’s open in the evenings too. I liked the naked burgers with salads and they do a solid breakfast deal of a coffee and food item for £4
- Five Guys – when you’re hungover and only grease will do it, these burgers are what you want
- Pieminister – a good option to sample hearty English cuisine, this cafe serves different flavour pies with various sides
- Greggs – sausage rolls and pasties for pennies. I’m not saying your waistline will get smaller, but your food bill will!
- Nando’s – the British are obsessed with having a ‘cheeky Nandos’ aka a Portuguese-style chicken meal with peri-peri sauces and various sides
- Wagamamas – reasonably priced Asian food with a casual canteen vibe and excellent katsu curries
There are food markets in lots of UK cities. If you find yourself in London or Oxford, use my guide to find yourself a tasty, cheap lunch:
Cheap eating tips
- Use hostel kitchens to cook your meals or take this a step further and make packed lunches for your days out
- Pack teabags and coffee sachets to save you buying £2.50 coffees every morning
- Grab a refillable water bottle. This is environmentally friendly too but also means you won’t have to spend a ton on bottled water
There’s a big pub culture in the UK but it isn’t cheap to go out. Two drinks usually equate to the price of a main meal in a restaurant (£5 per drink). Buy a couple of rounds and it’ll have a big impact on your budget.
I’m not sure if this is responsible advice but pre-drinking before going out to a bar or club is a big deal for young English people. A bottle of wine that’s £5 in a supermarket will be £20 in a bar so you can see why people drink at home with friends first.
A word about Wetherspoons – it’s not exactly classy but this chain of pubs is damn cheap. I’ve had a bottle of Prosecco for a tenner in there and you can get full meals for £5.
Your room is likely to be one of your biggest expenses but luckily there are hostels and budget chains in most UK cities. Be aware that if you visit countryside areas like the Cotswolds and the Lake District this is where you’ll likely need to budget a bit more. For cities I’d recommend…
Here are some affordable hostels in the UK’s major cities:
- London – SoHostel, Saint James Backpacker Hostel, Safestay, Wombat’s City Hostel, The Dictionary Hostel
- Manchester – Hatters Hostel
- Oxford – Central Backpackers
- Bath – St Christopher’s Inn
- Bristol – Rock N Bowl, Homestay Bristol
- Liverpool – Hatters Hostel
- Cambridge – YHA Cambridge
- Edinburgh – Budget Backpackers
There are a couple of budget hotel chains that can almost be as cheap as a hostel if two people share. These are actually really decent – the rooms will look identical in every branch but they’re clean and have everything you need.
The UK is well set up on Airbnb with loads of private apartments and rooms available. Staying in a bedroom in an owner’s flat is usually cheaper than a budget hotel and only slightly more than a hostel. Use this link to get £25 off your first booking.
Save money on activities by…
How to handle tipping
In the UK we leave a 10% tip in restaurants but that’s about it. Unlike some countries we don’t tip bartenders. You might leave the change at the end of a cab journey and of course you can give a tip to a tour guide if they’ve done a good job but as a general rule, we don’t have a huge tipping culture.
Where to go
I’ve focussed on money saving tips in this guide but if you haven’t decided on your stops yet, check out my 12 places to provide English wanderlust guide and then read some of my other city-specific guides:
- My London guides
- My Oxford guides
- The Manchester weekend guide
- How to spend a day in Margate, Kent
- 10 things not to miss in Bath
- Rose’s guide to Brighton
- How to spend a weekend in Birmingham
- Everything I know about visiting the Lake District
- How to spend a day in Liverpool
Thanks for reading!
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Here’s a final UK gallery…