Friday, 11 October 2013

Doing London on the Cheap

Contrary to popular believe you can enjoy a budget weekend in the capital with kids in tow. In fact there's lots to recommend London if you're after a change of scenery on a shoestring, and despite some unavoidable costs (eg. travel, accommodation and food) the scope for low-cost and indeed free activities is surprisingly wide. Just be sure not to step anywhere near Hamleys...

First up, travel, and any self-respecting bargain hunter will already know about the Friends and Family Railcard. They cost £30 and entitle you to save a third on adult fares and 60% off kids fares for an entire year. The only thing to remember is that you have to be travelling with at least one child to get the discount on your journey. Once you get to London all children under 10 years of age can travel for free on London's transport network, including the tube, buses, DLR and overground. Bargain. Grown-ups should opt for buying an Oyster card, especially if you'll be making further trips to the capital in the future.
Soldiers at St James

If you're making a weekend of it there are numerous options for overnight accommodation but my personal recommendation comes courtesy of the basic and dependable Premier Inn chain, in particular its branch at Old Street. Located just moments from the tube station, this particular hotel makes a brilliant choice for families. We paid just £69 for a family room on our last visit at the end of the summer holidays. If you're au fait with the Premier Inn model, you'll know that rooms are functional rather than stylish, but usually clean and comfortable. Despite being at the epicentre of trendy Old Street, with all its attendant nightlife, this hotel is really quiet - our room seemed to be completely soundproofed against any late night revelry and we all enjoyed a blissfully undisturbed night's kip. Do take up the offer of breakfast - you pay around £8 per adult but kids eat completely free. We stuffed them with a full English and a variety of pastries so we could keep our lunchtime expenditure to a minimum. I might also have made off with a croissant or two in my bag to cover off any mid-morning snack requirements...

So, what to do in London that won't see you fleeced of every last penny? The free museums are a given, but be prepared to queue for entry to places like the Natural History Museum. They can also get uncomfortably busy. If you want to try something totally different and are prepared to venture out as far as Zone 4 you could visit the RAF Museum at Colindale. Entry is completely free and the place is vast - think hangars filled with everything aviation related, from WW2 fighter planes to flight simulators. There's a great interactive area where kids can get inside models, play at being pilots and have a go at low-level hang gliding. 

I should perhaps mention at this point that we have two boys so if my suggestions seem a little male-orientated I apologise. A more unisex option that we tried out on our last trip was an afternoon of outdoor play at the Princess Diana Memorial Garden in Kensington. It being the last really sunny day of the summer holidays when we visited, we had to endure a one-in-one-out queue to gain entry to this sweet little playground, but I imagine those were unusual circumstances. It's a contained space that provides a bit of sanctuary from the bustle of the West End, and it has some lovely play equipment and nice zones in which to rest and recharge before taking on the rest of the city.
Thames Barrier Park

Having been to London several times before with the kids our choices on our last visit were perhaps a little unconventional, but no less successful and budget-friendly. A ride on the DLR was a huge hit, simply because the kids can sit at the front of a driver-less train and, well, drive it...boy heaven. We rode out as far as the Thames Barrier which my elder, design-obsessed son wanted to see. It is actually pretty impressive when viewed from the tranquil surroundings of the Thames Barrier Park at Silvertown.

The biggest success, though, was a ride on the cable cars across the Greenwich Peninsula. With child returns around the £4 mark and adults at £8 this is a much cheaper way to take in the London skyline than the Eye. Granted the cable cars don't offer quite as much visual interest as the Eye, but when a family ticket on the Eye clocks up a whopping £63 that's a big dent in your spending money. 

London from above - without paying ££s

Our kids loved going on the cable cars and we barely had to queue to get on them. You could buy a single and then cruise back across the river by boat, or just pick up the tube from the 02. We did the latter, stopping off at Canary Wharf so my son could fulfil a life-long desire to see One Canada Square in all its architectural glory. He's a Richard Rogers in the making...

A quick scoot up to Buck House, followed by a climb on the lions at Trafalgar Square and a walk around the refined environs of the confectionery section at Fortnum & Mason for a bag of treats to enjoy on the train journey home, and we were all pretty much pooped. London is exhausting with children in tow. Even when travelling on the tube there are huge distances involved - just changing branch line sometimes involves a convoluted march up and down stairs and across concourses - and you can forget how tired little legs can get. That's why it sometimes pays to avoid the major tourist sights or try to cover unrealistic distances. Taking a more leftfield approach in our choices this time around made for a much less stressful, enjoyable trip, and it certainly helped to keep a handle on costs.

If you'd like to find out more about the Premier Inn at Old Street, visit the website here.

And for more information about the Emirate Airline cable cars, click here.
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7 comments

  1. Great suggestions for a trip to London! They're a bit more unusual than the standard things you might think of doing, plus anything free/low cost is a big bonus as some of the capital's attractions are too expensive for many families. Thanks!

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    1. I couldn't agree more. I wanted to take my kids to the Tower of London but a family trip is just sooo expensive. Think I'll wait till they're older and will appreciate it more.

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  2. Hi great blog! I have added it to my Thrifty UK blogs list :-) Also if you would like to join in with the Thrifty Thursday weekly linky on my blog then that would be great. This post would fit nicely :-)

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    1. Thanks, Gina! That's great, I'll look out for your weekly Thursday linky. Thanks for the support, much appreciated!

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  3. Some great suggestions. We must check out the cable car ride when we return to UK too!

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    1. Hi Kriss!

      Thanks for the comment and glad you've found some useful info for your next trip to the UK. The cable cars are well worth a try, particularly if you're lucky enough to have clear blue skies as we did!

      Luisa

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