A Penny-Pincher's Guide to the Games - Olympic Week


Written by Lisa Han

As the city prepares to open the floodgates for the 2012 Olympic Games, Londoners are raising the price tags on just about everything imaginable. Hotel costs are outrageous, transportation is tricky, and increases on food and drink prices are virtually guaranteed. Needless to say, unless you are going for the once in a lifetime experience, ordinary tourists would be wise to steer clear of the 7.50 Euro pint of beer this time of year. Still, in spite of the impending gold rush, a frugal traveler can find ways to enjoy the excitement of the summer games without breaking the bank. BTR spoke with a few of the city’s travel gurus to gather tips on how to budget out a trip to the Olympics this summer.

Getting There

Ryan Air, photo courtesy of Thomas Nugent

Finding an inexpensive way to get from North America to London will undoubtedly be the most challenging part about planning the trip. Robert Reid, the US travel editor of Lonely Planet, explains, “the flight is the one that people are going to have to bite a little bit of a bullet on.” When it comes to travelling into Europe, it pays to get a little bit creative.

Spend some time researching web-only fares on consolidators like Expedia or Kayak.com. If you book them early enough, you can get tickets to London’s Heathrow Airport for about $750 on a one-way flight with a transfer. Look for a red eye flight and you can get to Britain around 9 am—a perfect time to make the most of your first day.

For those who are willing to be more adventurous, Reid recommends checking for cheaper flights into cities like Berlin or Madrid and then making the transfer onto a budget airline like RyanAir, where you can conceivably then get plane tickets to London for as low as $50. Just keep in mind that you will want to pack light to avoid hassle with the airline, and prepare for the costs of transportation from secondary airports into the city.

If you do end up in Heathrow, think about taking public transportation into London. Sean Andrew Chen, writer for Next American City and recent student at London’s Bartlett School of Planning, explains that a ride on the Piccadilly Line into the city center is a mere 7 pounds for an hour and a half trip. A taxi, on the other hand, could cost up to 70 pounds. Of course, when dealing with any public transportation, having fewer bags goes a long way.

Where to Stay

Abbey Hotel, London

During the Olympic season, hotels will be a monetary quicksand. Beware of package deals that give you little more than an airport pickup for as much as $1000 a night. Reid’s suggestion is to rent from a host on airbnb.com or housetrip.com. With these sites, you can book a flat for yourself or share it with someone else for around $100 while remaining relatively close to the city center.

Young travelers like Chen cite Generator Hostel London in Russell Square as another good source of accommodation with free access to Wi-fi, free tours, and cheap breakfast. Other hostels in the area as well as detailed reviews can be found on hostelworld.com.

All the same, do not rule out areas outside East London, including neighboring towns. According to Reid, some of the best options are located near the black line on the London Tube or even around West London. Oyster cards for the Tube will be available at most airports, and can be purchased as a day pass. However, always check the Transport for London website for updates, and make sure you leave a couple hours in advance for delays—congestion on public transportation could make it difficult to predict just how long it will take to get from place to place.

Being the Spectator

Photo courtesy of Paul Farmer

Once in London, it is feasible to enjoy watching the games without shelling out more than a few pounds. In fact, several Olympic and Paralympic events can be accessed for free. Head towards The Mall between Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace for prime viewing of Road Cycling from July 29-31 and the Marathon on August 3 and 12, or pack your own lunch and picnic in Hyde Park for the Triathlon on August 4 and 7. A list of free events can be found on the official London city guide, and full routes for all events are on the official website at London2012.com.

For other sports, tickets to preliminary or secondary rounds are often hundreds of dollars cheaper than medal rounds. CoSport still has individual tickets left for certain events, but you would be wise get to them quickly as they will sell out sooner than you might expect.

If you lack the funds to go to the final rounds in person, what could be a better alternative than catching the hype on the big screen with crowds of die-hard locals? Live sites are scattered all over London and the UK, and are listed on the London2012 website. The largest screen and likely the liveliest location will be in Hyde Park.

Finally, make sure you stop by Olympic Village for a 10 pound entry fee and a chance to glimpse the epicenter of Olympic fever.

“You’re going to see athletes and all the ridiculous TV coverage,” says Reid. “How could it not be worth the 10 pound admission to spend a day there and see what happens?”

More from London

London National Gallery Photo courtesy of John Winfield

Aside from the Olympics, London is a bustling cultural hub and an attraction in its own right. The British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, and National Gallery are all available to visitors completely free of charge. Palaces both inside and outside London are also open to the public for an admission fee.

For the hipsters, Chen recommends sticking around East London to see the Boxpark Shoreditch—a shopping mall made entirely out of shipping containers. Afterwards, fill out your day by making a pit stop in Brick Lane for its renowned curry houses, or spend the night bar-hopping in Hoxton Square. All in all, you may have to break open your wallets for the logistics, but when it comes to having fun in London, there are few cities better suited to thrift.