London on a budget: How to eat, drink and work remotely for $100
Can you still save by visiting the most expensive city in Europe? I discovered.
Workspaces: An industrial-chic brunch and a dark hostel room
The last time I was in London I was a 23 year old fresh out of university, and the little money I had didn’t fare well with the exchange rate. I took on the challenge of seeing the most expensive city in Europe by staying in a hostel and doing everything I could for free, like going to the Tate Modern museum or outside Buckingham Palace.
So much in the world has changed since then, including Brexit and the European Union and a global pandemic, but London remains incredibly expensive, even if the dollar goes higher than before. Yet, at 31, I emulated that frugal travel style on a recent visit by staying in a hostel and trying to stick to a budget. Also, this time I have a full-time job to juggle. I documented the first two days of my trip as I dealt with work and travel cravings (eating and drinking, primarily). Working five hours before my team should give me time to explore the city – as much as my budget allows.
11:08, a Tube error
I flew to London on Play Airlines, a new “low-cost” Icelandic carrier. After leaving Baltimore with a stopover in Reykjavík, I arrive in London by the Stansted Airport Express train ($27.06). I’m sleep deprived and text a friend who lives here recommending breakfast. He suggests Half Cup, a place with something called “Nude Espresso” that’s only a short subway ride away.
Before my trip, people recommended the Oyster menu, the city’s transit pass, while others have warned against it. I juggled this information in my head as I stared with cloudy eyes at the ticket machines on the subway. The train arrives in three minutes, so I panic and buy a day pass instead of the Oyster card. Once I did, I realize I have Big Goofed™. It’s $18.83; a single trip would have been about $3.
To add insult to injury, Google Maps says my hostel is walking distance from the cafe.
Takeaway: Do not buy the day pass.
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12:27, beans for breakfast
I get to Half Cup, where there’s free WiFi, jugs of water full of mints, and other people inside on laptops, so I feel comfortable pulling mine out. I order a cortado and an English breakfasta hearty meal that I always look forward to in the UK
There’s no electrical outlet nearby, but otherwise it’s a great place to work remotely. In my jet lag frenzy, I order a second cortado. I don’t have the energy to estimate how this indulgence – and my humiliating purchase of a subway ticket – will affect my daily budget.
3:30 p.m., a hostel reality
I walk to Generator London, the police station-turned-hostel I booked, described online as “chic” and “modern.”
During my walk, I stop in a grassy park to do some Google searches. I love public baths like Korean spas and Russian banyan trees and wanted to get rid of my jet lag.
The prices aren’t in my budget (almost $70 for the basics) so I’m trying to look with Wowcher, a UK version of Groupon. There were discounts, but places were either far away, expensive or unavailable during my stay in London. No hammam for me.
When I arrive at my accommodation, it is not the “poshtel” advertised. The room is painted in bright geometric patterns, but there’s a warning about the fire-risk radiator sticking out of the wall, and my twin bunk bed has sheets that look like a shower curtain. There’s no time to lose; I have to start working again. I post at the table facing the window—and the old sink in the middle of the window.
7:56 p.m., shower with hand soap
Somehow it’s already dark and I need a change of scenery. I jog in Regent’s Park – something I would do whether I was there for work or on vacation. It is a joy to see couples strolling, teams playing cricket and even a fox. I take a quick shower in the shared bathroom; there is no shampoo or soap provided so I use a handful of hand soap from the sink dispenser. I need to find food.
11 p.m., dinner after a Cheez-Its lunch
The only thing I’ve eaten since brunch is the dregs of a bag of Cheez-Its crackers left over from my flight. So off we went to Dishoom, a restaurant that pays homage to Iranian cafes in Mumbai (which I learned about by reading our local London guide). In a hurry to eat before the place closed, I went with the waiter’s suggestion of their famous black dal (lived up to the hype), koliwada prawns (tangy and fun) and Indian tendril (so good that I had a second). That’s more than enough food for one person, but I’m eating under the stress of the hectic day.
Take away: My travel instinct is to always go to the ATM, but I didn’t need the money I took out. east london largely cashless these days.
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12:50 p.m., bike “on the other side” of the road
I wake up at noon because of jet lag, I write emails from my bunk bed and I go to meet a friend near London Bridge. For the three-mile ride, I get one of Santander Cycles’ bikes — better known as “Boris bikes” — which cost $2.62 for unlimited rides of up to 30 minutes in a 24-hour period. There are great cycle paths, and despite traffic on the ‘other side’ of the road, it’s easy to get around.
4:30 p.m., fasting oysters
My friend offers me a cappuccino (okay, there was also a pint at stake). We part ways and on my way to the nearest Boris cycle station I come across Borough Market, another gem featured in the London guidebook. There are florists, food trucks, fresh produce vendors and a parma ham and mozzarella stand.
I join the queue for Richard Haward’s Oyster, a no-frills stall run by seventh-generation oyster farmers. For $11.13 I get three shucked oysters on the spot and half a glass of crisp white wine. It’s not what I had in mind for my first meal of the day; this is much better.
Takeaway: Download Santander Cycles application home before your trip to save time (or valuable international data). Lime and Uber are also good to have on hand for bike or scooter rentals.
5:45 p.m., working from a dark cave
The downside of working from your room in a hostel (or hotel or Airbnb) is that it’s isolating and devoid of the culture you’ve traveled to see. At the cafe, I could people watch between emails and listen to gossip from work. There was only one bunk bed left to keep me company. The advantage is that I have already paid for the room.
Midnight, an outrageously expensive taxi ride
Nothing good comes from spending six hours working in a dark inn. One of the two lights in my room is off and my morale is just as gloomy. I did not feel like a productive worker. I blame the jet lag – my brain is mush.
Earlier today I decided that I had grown old out of hostels – at least this type of hostel – and wanted to move to a hotel. Now that I’m done working, I pack my bag and say goodbye to my cave.
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I take a black cab to East London, which I know will be expensive, but I didn’t know how much. The driver turns out to be adorable; our conversation alone was worth the price of $35.80, plus I got a recommendation for dinner.
00:31, the taxi driver’s favorite kebab spot
Once my luggage is dropped off, I walk to Lahore Kebab House, a Pakistani restaurant that the taxi driver describes as an “institution”. The waiter offers the chicken dal. Along with my bottle of water, roti, and a free plate of lettuce and raw onions, the lightly spiced and deeply comforting dinner is about $13.
1am, real pub hunting
I’m determined to end the night at a pub and cycle to Brick Lane ($0 as I’m still within my 24 hour Boris bike rental window). My Lahore scraps fly off the front of the bike.
When I travel solo, I like to find bars and restaurants where I can feel discreet. Casa Blue was not that place. A waiter places a stool in the center of the bar away from other people; most are crammed into groups around small tables around the overly bright room. I drink most of my pint ($8.48) on my awkward little island of solitude.
It’s 2am when I pass The Castle on my way home. It’s crowded and dark inside, two things that make it a good bar for solo travellers. I order a half pint I don’t need for $7.43, talk to a few people, and come home feeling like I’ve caught up on my hermit time at the inn.
Doing London on a budget takes planning and compromise. You might want to splurge on to-do list experiences – like going to a Premier League game or having a martini at the Connaught Bar — but there are also plenty of affordable tickets (standing room at Shakespeare’s Globe) or free (the national gallery museum) ways to enjoy the city.
My biggest lesson had nothing to do with finances: clocking in the minute I landed was the wrong decision. I was on a rollercoaster those first 48 hours, trying to juggle my work schedule, budget, and travel goals. If you plan to work remotely while traveling abroad, plan a few days in advance to let your body deal with some of the jet lag. You’ll be more productive and less likely to make bad decisions (about subway fares, for example).