Five Ways To Save Money On UK Travel

More than a century after federation, the UK still remains a popular destination for Australians, whether to catch up on Anglo-Saxon ancestry or just enjoy some of the world’s most populous and diverse cities. Here’s some ways to make the journey more affordable.

This list draws heavily on my own experience: I’ve travelled to Britain at least annually for the last decade for a combination of work and family reasons. (Notably, the fares I’ve paid have actually dropped each year, suggesting inflation doesn’t always impact travel in a wallet-shrinking way.) While all the general rules for cheap travel apply — book in advance, be flexible, pack lightly — there are some specific tricks to bear in mind in the UK.

5. Plan your airport transfers carefully

While it’s possible to arrive in other UK cities depending on your routing, the chances are still high that you’ll begin your British trip by landing at Heathrow Airport, which is the world’s busiest airport in terms of international passengers. Heathrow has five terminals, and offers a sometimes bewildering array of transport choices (leaving aside the options of hiring a car or paying a high price for a taxi).

The cheapest option from Heathrow is to take the regular Underground service (more usually known as the Tube). This isn’t especially quick — you’ll almost certainly spend an hour or more — but it’s cheap (£4.50 to central London, and cheaper if you also follow point 1 on this list) and incredibly frequent). There are three stations — a combined one for terminals 1, 2 and 3, and separate ones for 4 and 5. (Be careful on returning to Heathrow; trains will stop at either 4 or 5, but not both.)

A faster option is the Heathrow Express, which runs every 15 minutes and takes 15 minutes to reach Paddington. You’ll pay for the privilege though: a single ticket costs at least £16.50. The Heathrow Connect service is cheaper for the same route (£7.90), but only runs every 30 minutes and takes 25 minutes. Bus transfers to central London cost around £5.00, but can be subject to extended traffic delays.

London’s other airports all offer train and bus connections; the buses are invariably cheaper, but less frequent and liable to take longer in peak hour. In the case of London City Airport, the no-extra-charge Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is by far the most sensible choice. Luton Airport has a continual free bus to the nearby Luton Airport Parkway station. Gatwick offers both the Gatwick Express service and cheaper, less frequent suburban trains. From Stansted, you can take the Stansted Express, but you’ll pay around £18 for a one-way trip; even if you get on a slower suburban train, you’ll pay a similar premium price.

One point to note: UK train lines frequently have track work on weekends, so if your arrival is on a Saturday or Sunday, check to see if there’s any expected disruptions.

4. Don’t stay right in the centre of London

Staying in the centre of town puts you close to the action, but you’ll pay for the privilege, with even the cheapest rooms setting you back £50 or more — often much more. Given how frequent tube services are, if you can find a hotel on the outer edges of Zone 1 (the transport designation for central London) or even in Zone 2, you’ll save a lot of money even when you factor in the added train fares, and you’ll experience a less tourist-y version of London. The same logic can also work in other regional cities with decent transport networks. If you do end up hiring a car, staying in motorway hotels is often cheaper than historic (and hysterically expensive) city locations

3. Book train tickets direct from providers

Compared to Australia, the UK has a fairly extensive train network, and travelling by train is a good way to see much of the country. It isn’t, however, particularly cheap — and if you rock up on the day of travel and try and purchase a ticket, you’ll be astonished at just how expensive it can get.

The key to getting a better deal is to book online in advance. Tickets don’t go on sale until three months before the date of travel, but if you book at that point, you’ll often score a substantial saving. You will generally be locked into travelling on a particular train, but that shouldn’t be an issue for most leisure travellers.

The other cost-reducing tactic is to book directly via the site for one of the UK train operating companies, rather than using aggregators, who often charge a booking fee. Recently, I’ve been using Virgin Trains for bookings, if only because it seems to handle international addresses better than most of the other operators (it can book for any train service in the UK network, and doesn’t charge any extra fees).

Also remember select the option to pick up your tickets from a kiosk at the station rather than having them sent through the mail — this reduces costs and ensures you’ll get the ticket in time (tickets are only sent to the registered credit card address, which is unhelpful for Australians).

2. Go wild with museums

In 2001, government regulations were changed to eliminate entry fees for national museums. As a result, fantastic facilities like the Tate, the British Museum and the V&A are all currently free to enter and explore (though there may be charges for specific exhibitions). If you’re hanging around it’s good manners to make a donation before leaving, but it still makes for a much cheaper day out than the equivalent experience in many other countries.

1. Get an Oyster card

We’ve pointed out on Lifehacker before the benefits of getting an Oyster card for even brief stops in London: fares are much cheaper, they’re capped for any individual day of travel. Order one before you leave home and you’ll be able to jump straight on the tube at Heathrow without even queuing.

What UK-specific tips would you add to the list? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is feeling a strange urge to book some train tickets. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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