How to eat, sleep and get around the UK on the cheap

Recently, I’ve embarked on a grand tour of the UK to make up for the gap year I never took after High School. Great Britain has lots of culture and history to offer, but one thing it is not known for is being a budget location. In a country where even going to a public toilet can cost you the equivalent of two Aussie Dollars, your pounds can dry up depressingly quickly. But, like with anything, with a bit of pre-planning it’s perfectly possible to go to the UK and return with some loose change in your pocket. I’ve arranged what advice I can give based on the three most essential categories of tourism – accommodation, transport, and food.

Accommodation

The UK can be notoriously expensive to stay in, and, sadly, there isn’t really any silver-bullet solution to this problem, unless you have relatives with spare beds. Even youth hostels aren’t always a solution – in bigger cities they’re often just as expensive as a hotel (Tune Hotels is one brand trying to hit that sort of price range).

Camping is an option, if you’re willing to cart a tent around the country or if you’ve hired a car. But I’ve found that the best option, especially for a young person, is to stay in university accommodation. Every major city in Britain has a uni, and basically all of them open their doors to tourists in the Summer months. You don’t have to be a student, or even a young person, to take advantage of this offer, but if you meet the former criteria, you can sometimes stay at a British uni during school term. I stayed at some Uni digs in a great location in London for a fraction of the price of hotels in the same area.

Transport

The big advantage the UK has over Australia is that everything is so packed in. You can get from London to Liverpool in 2 hours, without having to go through the nightmare of an airport trip. The trouble is, it can be pretty pricey, particularly if you take a route that requires a few connections, or leave it to the last minute. Your best move here is to take shorter trips between towns that are closer together, rather than trying to cross the whole country in one go, which can be a costly exercise.

Also, don’t buy a return ticket with a set return date – for some reason, in the UK, the more flexibility you allow yourself, the cheaper the ticket will be – depending on the company of course. Off peak tickets with open returns can actually be a lot less pricey, and you have the flexibility of catching the next train if you miss your connection. Buses can also be an option, particularly if you’re going a long way – you can sleep on the coach and save a night of accommodation. And the earlier you book your trips the better. Trains in particular will offer things like special 5 quid deals for 30 days or more advance booking, while buying it on the day can often cost you five times as much. Generally, buses are the cheaper of the two for last minute booking.

As for when you get into a particular city, prices for local transport vary drastically. Generally, the cheapest option is to get a tourist pass, although even these can be expensive – a 6 day pass for the London tube will set you back 28 pounds. Even a one or two stop journey will cost you 3 quid anyway, so it may be worth getting a tourist card if you plan on making use of London’s subway – which you should. It’s the most affordable and reliable way to get around the city.

Food

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that the worst part of holidaying in the UK. From fried Mars Bars to greasy chicken, Great Britain has a reputation for food that’s as expensive as it is inedible. But that doesn’t have to be the case!

The UK has improved its standards (although the fresh fruit is nowhere near the quality Australians will be used to), and there are actually some good options on the lower end of the price scale. The UK has a tonne of good quality restaurant chains where you can eat for roughly $20 Australian.

Of course, if you’re really short on pounds you can always eat supermarket food. Basically every high street supermarket has a deal that’ll get you a sandwich, chips and a drink for between 3 and 5 pounds. Personally, the idea of buying a sandwich from an Australian supermarket isn’t exactly appetising, but the hipster-fication of English food has paid dividends on the low end of the price scale – it’s all pulled pork and roast vegetables in capsicum bread these days. I’m very partial to a beef brisket and coleslaw roll from Marks & Spencer.

If you want something a bit more substantial, pubs are always a good option. The best way to avoid the dodgy ones is to go to a pub that’s owned by a brewery, as they enforce food standards on their establishments.