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Eating In London…How To Do It On the Cheap

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Jon enjoying a great beakfast special after landing in London.

One of the best things about being a college student was the ability to travel. My husband I made it a point to visit England every spring while we were in college. These trips would be short little jaunts on a shoe string budget. It wasn’t so much the fancy hotel and food that we were interested in but rather being in the UK taking in the culture, sites and new experiences. Believe it or not, your hotel will most likely be  your second most expensive cost, next to food. Let’s face it, we all have to eat and a vacation is not much fun when you are starving. Through these  were tightly budgeted trips here are some tips that we have learned to not blow your entire vacation budget on food.

1. Eat Breakfast.

It is the most important meal of the day for a reason. It gets your metabolism going allowing  you to have energy to see the sights.  You can go about having breakfast in a couple different ways. If you hotel offers a  free complementary breakfast, eat it! Some hotels also offer free tea or coffee in the room that you can make yourself, take advantage of this as well. If your hotel does not offer a free breakfast, venture out and find a bakery or corner shop. You can also do a sit down breakfast but just take a look at the prices before you do. Some places have a breakfast special. Breakfast should not cost more than £7 per person. If you are over slightly don’t worry too much about it. Also if you are coming in on an early morning flight, breakfast is a MUST. Not only does it help reset your body’s clock but it also helps kill some time until you can check into your hotel. (Most hotels do not let you check in until mid to late afternoon, no matter how long you’ve traveled to get there!)

2. Go Grocery Shopping.

This is perhaps the best money saving option when it comes to eating while in London. Let’s face it London is a very expensive city and you can go broke eating if you do not watch you wallet. You can help offset by the costs by taking a quick trip to a grocery store or corner shop. You can even do this before you leave home if you prefer. Please note however, you cannot bring food in to the UK that is not sealed! Good things to bring from home may be a box of cookies, crackers, and other snack foods. Not only are these great snacks, but foods like cereal bars can be breakfast! If you decide to visit a corner shop in London, often referred to as an “off license”  have fun. It is a great way to experience some British culture. Keep in mind, you most likely will not have refrigerator to keep items cool so try to avoid perishable items.

3. Lunch Options.

Lunch can get tricky when visiting London. You are often out sight seeing and realize it is lunch time. Most of the big tourist sites do offer a cafe that serves lunch, be careful here. You can easily spend a small fortune on lunch at one of the sites if you are not careful, believe me I speak form experience. Instead try to get away from the tourist sights for lunch. You have a couple inexpensive options for lunch while in London. The first is fast food. It isn’t gourmet, but it’s quick and cheap. I have to say it can be a welcome treat after eating British food, it’s a little taste of home. Don’t fret, fast food is generally healthier than here in the US. and there are healthy options on the menu if a burger and fries aren’t your thing. Another option is try a pub. Be careful here too.  If you are mindful of the budget you have to spend on lunch you can get a good deal. Also take a look at the specials they have for the day, it’s a great way to save some cash. One of the best ways to do lunch on the cheap, and perhaps my favorite way to save money is to do take-away or pop into an grocery store. The British love pre-made sandwiches. They are super easy to find. You can go pick up a whole lunch and eat like royalty for only a couple of pounds. The best thing about this option is that you can picnic in a park or next to the river. This is a really inexpensive way to make a really nice memory.

4. Look for Specials.

Wither you are doing breakfast lunch or dinner look for daily specials. This may be the one case when it is okay to eat at your hotel, especially for dinner. Most eateries in London do have a menu outside the door or you can go in and ask if they are having any specials for the day. Not only is this a great way to save money, it can be a great way to have some authentic British food.

5. Little Ways to Save that Add up.

One thing you will quickly notice is that Londoners are big drinkers. While it can be fun to throw back a few with the locals be mindful that drinks aren’t free and add up quickly. I will say that on average a glass of wine with dinner is often less expensive in London than here at home. Also note that just about any sit down eatery will offer wine. Go ahead and indulge you could probably use it after a long day of sightseeing. Another way to save money especially on dinner when you are super tired, is to order a pizza in. Most hotels will allow you to do this, however all may not be friendly about it. It is an inexpensive and relaxed way to have dinner. One of the biggest ways to save some money is not to tip. No I am not being stingy, tipping servers in the UK is generally not done. These people make a nice hourly wage, and it can be perceived as rude if you tip. I cannot tell you how many tourists we see tip. You are throwing away money by tipping.

London is a great city with amazing dinning options. While eating in London can quickly drain your pocketbook, with these few helpful hints you can hopefully save a bit and get that really cool souvenir instead. I will say that do try to make a point of having at least one nice dinner out while you are there. We’ve always had one nice dinner while on vacation, a bit of a splurge. Still budget for this dinner but set aside a little extra. Some of our favorite dinning memories have come from these nights.

Let’s face it we all have to eat. Vacation is not going to be much fun if you are starving. If you are smart about where you eat and do it on the cheap, you can eat like a king without going broke.

Author: jackie

Jackie is the co-creator of Anglotopia and Londontopia. She became an Anglophile after meeting her husband Jonathan. They travel to London as often as possible, despite Jonathan's continued promise to take Jackie on a tropical island vacation.

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  1. Just wanted to point out one thing, “off license” is the British term for liquor store so while many corner shops ARE off licenses, not every one is and vice versa not every off license will sell a wide range of food since many of them are dedicated to the sale of alcohol. The term “off license” means that alcohol bought there must be taken off the premises to be drunk, (a restaurant that serves alcohol is “on license”).

    Common small shop brands are Spar and there are also Tesco Expresses, which if you can find one are perfect for getting a cheap meal. It basically a Tesco grocery store squeezed into a convenience store format, so you’ve got a convenience store selection with Tesco prices.

    And I definitely echo your advice about tipping, and I also wanted to add that in many cases if you DO tip, the server does not get to keep their tips, it all goes into a common pot. You may think you are showing them some American courtesy and giving them a little treat, but more often than not they have to hand the money over to the restaurant.

    If in doubt, and you want to leave a tip, ask your server specifically if they keep their tips. Wording is important as many staff are instructed by their bosses to answer “yes” if you ask if they ACCEPT tips, of course they accept them, they just don’t keep them but they won’t tell you this unless asked directly. I have found that if a restaurant encourages tipping and allows their staff to keep their tips this often will be on the bottom of the bill, so check the bottom of the bill and if there is a little message about tips being appreciated for good service, thats a sign that the server will get to keep their tips and its a good idea to tip them for good service (if you can manage to find good service in London, but thats a whole different post!)

  2. Other tips include:
    – If you are not in it for the full experience (food wise) Pizza Hut has great all you can eat buffets (check times, but we ate there for lunch the time we had a hotel with no breakfast) for a pretty reasonable price.
    – I would also try for a bigger grocery store – real Tesco instead of corner stores – shop where the locals shop and things definitely get cheaper.
    – Sandwiches are always a great idea, fresh pre-packed sandwiches are sold in most grocery stores and start at about a pound for a simple cheese sandwich and then go up to real fancy stuff – if you go for a sandwich look for meal deals – sandwich of wrap with a drink and a small bag of crisps or similar – can safe you money.
    – If you go for fast food, you don’t need to go with the big chains you know from home – look for smaller stores that often have some great – sometimes ethnic- fastfood –

    Personally I like to take advantage of a full English Breakfast whenever I get a hotel that offers it, because that means I won’t need much of a lunch and can safe that way.

  3. As a Londoner myself, I just want to clarify the situation regarding tipping. The bill will normally say whether or not a service charge has been included. This is typically 10-15%. If this is the case, there is no need to tip, unless you feel that you want to.

    If service is not included, you should tip 10-15%, unless service has been especially bad (the waiter/waitress may potentially have to deal with an angry boss). You may leave more if you wish, but it isn’t expected.

    Whilst staff aren’t quite as reliant on tips over here as they are in the US, waiters and waitresses are amongst the lowest paid staff in London and often spend almost all the money they earn on accommodation and transport (which is why so few of them are British). Even if the tips do end up being divided up and re-distributed by the restaurant, they do make a difference!

    However, never let a restauranteur pretend that it is totally mandatory to tip. Also be aware, when paying by card, that some machines automatically ask if you want to add a tip, even in restaurants where service is automatically included -don’t pay twice!!!

    A couple of other small points:

    Whilst the ‘daily special’ can be good value, in some places it is actually just the stuff they want to get rid of that day, before its expiration date.

    Restaurant prices are more reflective of the ethnicity of the food being served than they are of the price of the ingredients, service or ambience. Therefore, despite French and English restaurants (not pubs) serving food that grows here, they generally charge far more than Vietnamese or Thai restaurants that have to import most of its food. It also pays to do your homework and look up somewhere cheap and delicious on a site like Time Out, rather than just hoping to stumble across a bargain in a touristy part of town.

    Pub food is seldom great value, because it largely caters to people who primarily want to drink -or are already drunk! It’s a bit of a truism amongst British people that pub food is a bit rubbish (it isn’t expected to be good).There are exceptions, including (but not limited to) some of the many places claiming to be gastro-pubs. Not all of them justify the prices they charge though.

    • I would not agree with the statement that “pub food is a bit rubbish”. I cannot remember the last time I had bad food in a pub and believe me I eat in many of them in and outside of London.

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