Many people think of London as an expensive destination – and… that’s because it is. Below I’ll help you estimate a budget for London with kids, and suggest 9 ways to make a family trip to London with kids more affordable!
One thing to note – this is a conservative budget. There are certainly savings opportunities – but my intent in putting this together was to give families understand a reasonable lower threshold for estimating the cost of a trip to London. There’s no question that you could easily spend twice this amount on a high-end trip.
We’ll cover the main cost categories for your trip, including:
- Daily Expenses for food, sightseeing and travel
- Day Trips
- Miscellaneous & Special stuff – like cellular service, nice meals, a West End Show, and other unique London experiences. Gifts for family or the kids, etc.
Airfare: This is without a doubt the most expensive part of most trips to London from the US – so getting a good deal on flights is where you have the most leverage if you’re looking to save money.
Below are charts of historical fares from August 2015 through August 2016 from Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD) and New York to London Heathrow (LHR). If you live near a major international airport, your fares will likely be in the same range. If not then you’ll pay a bit more for a connection through one of these places. Since London is one of the largest global hubs in the world, most International airports will have daily flights to Heathrow (or Gatwick). So even if you live in a place like Austin, which usually connects through Dallas for international (and even many domestic) flights – you can still fly direct to London!
Looking at the charts below, the first thing that stands out is the seasonality. Flights are always more expensive in the summer – because that’s when everyone wants to go to London! The kids are off from school, and the weather is (relatively) warm. So the easiest way to save money is to go some time other than the peak months of July and August.
Tip 1: To get the best fares from the US, go to London as soon as your kids get out of school. Or take them out of school for a week if you can manage it! Late May or early June will have cheaper fares – and also less crowds since British and European kids usually don’t get out of school until July. The weather isn’t guaranteed to be warm – but that’s pretty much always the case. You’ll save money on lodging then as well. Early September is also a great time to go if that works for your family.
The second thing that I notice from the charts is that while flights from New York are remarkably stable, the flights from Chicago and LA tend to have more peaks and valleys – so if you have any flexibility it definitely pays to be checking different possible dates about 1-3 months before you would depart. Research shows that that can be the best lead time to get the best deal. But prices are always changing, and I haven’t seen any definitive data on how far in advance is best for buying – other than that you should definitely buy at least two weeks before you plan to go. When traveling with kids, you’ll almost certainly book well before that. I would actually suggest that booking six months in advance is best, because that will make it more likely that you’ll find a good deal on lodging after you are sure of your travel dates.
Tip 2: Don’t try to save money by taking international connecting flights. For London, since direct flights are so easy to find, it’s just not worth it to do an international connection with kids – unless your trip is longer than 2 weeks (so you’d have time to recover!). Sometimes you’ll see cheaper fares with one, or even more than one international connection. So instead of flying straight to London, you might connect in Frankfurt, or Amsterdam, or Reykjavik. In my opinion, with kids, this is just not worth it. When you’re flying across the Atlantic, most flights will be overnight (or “redeye”) flights, and the thought of having a layover with exhausted kids, and then arriving in London late in the day, is a terrible way to start a trip. Plus more connections means more things can go wrong – delays, lost bags, etc. Better to keep it simply and fly direct if possible – even if it costs more.
I just checked flights to London from Houston (where we live) for November (Thanksgiving break is a great time to go to London with family). Nonstop flights on BA are pretty expensive – $1200. But look! I can get tickets for $800 with one connection, through… Turkey! On the way there it’s a 2 hour layover. But on the way back, it’s a 15 hour layover. No thanks! Plus they recently had a military coup there, which is something that I generally try to avoid.
What you might look at though are connecting flights in which the connection is domestic. So you take a morning flight to a large international hub – like NYC, ORD, ATL or LAX, and then you fly from there direct to London. Those can sometimes be much cheaper than flying from a smaller city. Sometimes you can get the domestic leg on miles without using too many miles – and then take advantage of a much cheaper trans-Atlantic flight.
So while the cost of flights will vary significantly, for the purpose of our budget, I’d estimate that you’ll pay somewhere between $800-$1200 / ticket for your flights. Anything lower than that is a great fare – anything higher and you should keep looking, or consider a different date. We’ll do this budget for a hypothetical family of two adults and two kids – so on average that’s $4000 in airfare.
Tip 3: You can sometimes find good deals to fly to London on airline miles – however make sure that you go all the way through the pricing process to see if there are any fees, as London is unfortunately a notoriously expensive place to fly in/out of. I just checked miles for flights to London from Houston – and while there were very reasonable mileage tickets available (45K!), there were “carrier imposed fees” of $700 / ticket! Be sure to look out for this when you’re booking fares. Some airlines tend to have more reasonable fees than others. On United, for example, the same flight was 60K miles – but with “only” $180/ticket in fees.
Total: $4000 – or since the rest of the expenses will be in GBP, £3100
Lodging. After the flight, this will be the second largest category for expenses. If you’ve read the other posts on WithKids.world, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of renting an apartment for traveling with kids, instead of one (or multiple) hotel rooms, a flat has many advantages: you have more room to spread out, you have a living space in which to relax (especially useful if your kids go to bed at 8PM, and you don’t want to be whispering to your spouse in the dark!), and you have a kitchen which is great especially for breakfast, and even some dinners.
Check out this post or this map to see where to stay, and here’s another in which I highlighted 10 examples of fantastic rental apartments in London.
Like flights, the cost of renting a flat will vary dramatically based on when you go to London. But in general, I’ve found that you can usually find a good 2BR flat for £175-£200/night – and a great one for £225/night. This may sound like a lot, but when you compare it to the cost of a hotel room you’ll find that it comes in at around the same cost as a 3 star hotel in Central London.
If you want to get a flat for <£150/night, you can do so but you’ll just be farther outside of London. This can work just fine if you have a fast train into Central London – but then you’ll be “commuting” like all of the other millions of Londoners do, which isn’t ideal. We lived in Ealing which was a great place to be. It took me about 45 minutes to commute into work in Covent Garden on the Central Line. This wasn’t bad – but if you’re only in London for a week, you probably don’t want to spend 1.5 hours a day on a train with kids just to get into Central London.
Lodging: £225 x 7 = £1575
Food. Food in London is expensive. When we lived in London, the guide that I would typically give visitors from the US is that food costs the same as it does in a typical US city – it’s just that it’s in GBP instead of USD. Which used to mean that it was roughly 50% more expensive. However, now that the pound has weakened significantly in value after the Brexit vote, things cost only about 30% more.
So you’ll find that a typical coffee will cost about £2.50 ($3.25). A sandwich from Pret about £6 ($8). A pint in most pubs
will cost £3 – or up to £5 if it’s a particularly posh spot.
Breakfast: Eat in the flat (cereal, fruit, porridge, eggs, coffee – whatever you like). £80 for the family for the week. Plus treat yourself to a few flat whites from Costa. Total: £100
Tip 4: Find a fruit stand near your flat and go a couple of times during the week to get fresh fruit for breakfast and snacks.
Lunch and Snacks: Most days I’d recommend getting lunch from one of the many quick and tasty places that Londoners love: Pret or Eat for sandwiches, salad and soups. Wasabi or Itsu for sushi or noodles. Pod or Leon for organic/healthy/veggie (but still good!). Paul for a crouque monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich with cheese melted on top – amazing!). Get lunch at a market for at least two of the days. Borough Market, Southbank Centre Food Market and Greenwich Markets are some of our favorites. Lots of choices. On average for 2 adults and 2 kids lunch (and some shared snacks throughout the day) will cost you £35/day. You could get stuff to make sandwiches at the flat and pack them – in which case you’d pay only about £60 for the week for half of the days, and £35/day the other days. Total: £245
Tip 5: For lunch for the kiddos, Pret and Eat both have kids’ sandwiches (simple ham and cheese, turkey, egg salad (our kids favorite), and sometimes even PB&J. They also have fruit cups or apples/bananas.
Tip 6: When you’re spending the day seeing a new city with kids, and you’re doing a lot of walking, you need to have a few sweet bribes that can be strategically deployed through the day for when things start dragging. We’ve found that these lollipops, which are usually 5 for a £, are perfect. You can usually grab a handful of them at any quick-mart or train station in London. Lollipops take a while to eat, they’re usually not too messy, and it’s very difficult to whine with a lollipop in one’s mouth. Just make sure to get all the same color. Chocolate by contrast, takes 4 seconds to eat, and can be very messy. Always lollipops, never chocolate. You’re welcome!
Dinners: A dinner at a pub, or a mid-priced chain like Wagamama for a family of 4 (including a couple of beers / wine, and/or a shared appetizer) would cost about £50-£75. A nicer dinner with a bottle of wine about £75-£150. (So in general, roughly the same as prices in Manhattan or San Francisco.) You can get some great take out meals to eat in the flat on a busy day for £40 (Thai or Indian are our favorites!). Don’t get pizza if you can avoid it. Pizza in London is mostly terrible. And you can make some cheaper meals (pasta) for a night or two if you’d like to save a bit. So on average, I’d estimate £80/day for dinner – assuming that you’re eating out 5/7 nights. Total: £560
Sightseeing: See my post on the LondonPass for an overview of that option, and as well as the entry costs for most of what you’ll probably want to visit with kids in London. If you follow our 8 Days in London with Kids itinerary, you’ll spend £495 on sightseeing – and can save some money by buying the 6 day LondonPass at £436. But I think that for most families, they should pick several of the days from that itinerary that look like the best fit for them, and then enjoy a couple of slower-paced days in London – visiting parks, coffee shops, free museums, markets and soaking up the flavor of London. So I’d estimate that you’ll spend £300 for the week on admission to sights. If you’re on a tight budget, you can absolutely get by just doing the Tower of London, and Windsor (or Oxford) day trip, and spend <£200 on paid-sights. There is no shortage of free places to visit to fill your trip with fantastic experiences. Total: £300
Travel: In London, get around as the Londoners do. That is, by walking, tube and bus – and occasionally by Uber. But (almost) never by black cab. Despite their iconic look, and their knowledgeable and sometimes charming drivers, black cabs will cost you far more than one of the previously mentioned methods. To get the experience, take one once for a short trip, rather than walking – but if you’re on a budget don’t make a habit of it.
When you land at Heathrow (or Gatwick), get two Oyster cards for the adults. If you’ll stay within Zones 1-2 (Central London), then the daily cap is £6.50/day for Underground, Overground, local trains and busses. A weekly travelcard costs £32 (per adult). So if you think that you’ll be doing a lot of London travel for more than 5 days, then get the travelcard for the week. If you’re not sure, just load £30 onto each card and see how it goes. Any balance under £10 you can get back when you leave (along with your £5 deposit on the card). Or if you don’t want to worry about it, go with the weekly travelcard for Zones 1-2.
While buses and trains can get you almost anywhere in London – sometimes they don’t make sense for shorter trips. And what looks like a nice, 30 minute walk with just the two of you is a daunting, vital-energy-sapping-trek with kids. In that case, take an Uber. If you have a local phone number, be sure to add that to your Uber account so that they can call you if necessary. Budget about £30 for three or four rides.
Day trips: London is amazing, and you could easily fill a month with interesting activities every day without leaving Greater London. But there’s also so much to see around London. So if you’re there for a week – I would recommend one day trip outside the city. You could also do two if you fancy it (as the locals would say)!
The day trips that I suggest for families are: Windsor, Oxford (or Cambridge), or the Harry Potter Studios in Leavesden. In addition to the food expenses that you’d pay regardless of where you are, you’ll incur some additional expenses on these trips.
- Windsor: Family entry into Windsor Castle (£52), Off-peak (leave after 9:30AM) anytime return tickets (2 adults, 2 kids over 5 – £32): £84
- Oxford / Cambridge: Off-peak anytime return tickets (£75), College Tour (£25 for family entry), 3 hours of punting (£60): £160 (or £100 if you don’t go punting)
- Harry Potter Studio: Family Entry (£107), return transportation (£20): £127
So on average let’s estimate that a day trip will cost you about £130. A bit less if you go to Windsor, a bit more if you go punting in Oxford (which you absolutely should if it’s nice weather!).
Miscellaneous: You’re going to spend money on things other than what’s listed above. Some of that may be practical expenses – like local cellular service. This is the one thing that’s cheaper in London than in the US – you can get a local SIM card with plenty of data, voice and text for £35 at Heathrow, or £20 in London. Gifts for friends and relatives, as well as a few souvenirs – £200
Tip 7: Portobello market is a great place for affordable gifts and souvenirs. You can find replica English Premier League jerseys for £20 each, as well as lots of cute little tchotchkes, scarves, Beatles stuff, etc. Much better than the crappy London Souvenir shops – although the Cool Britannia store isn’t terrible). Another great gift: British chocolate! It’s different (better) than what we have in the US, and you can get a big box of Cadbury Heroes for about £5 at the airport on your way home. Want something a bit nicer? Try the gift section at John Lewis if you’re on Regent Street.
You should get at least a couple of nicer meals, since London has so much great food. Expect to spend an extra £50-100 per meal on top of what’s already been budgeted for a great Indian or Thai dinner. Try Inamo (Asian), Dishoom (Indian), or the Blue Print Cafe. Or get Afternoon Tea at the Wolseley.
For these miscellaneous expenses, as well as others that will undoubtedly come up, I’d suggest budgeting £400.
Theater: Many people consider going to a West End show in London. The best of the big productions for kids are probably the Roald Dahl Classics: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Matilda. There’s also the new Harry Potter show – which might be good for older kids (who are big Harry Potter fans), and is probably not great for younger ones. This is a hard ticket to get. I think that the best show in the West End is still Les Miserables – and if your crew is all older than 10 or so I’d choose that one. But a West End show is expensive – with tickets running from £70-£120/each. So make sure that it’s something that your family will really enjoy!
Tip 8: Another theater option that I recommend, especially if you have younger kids, is children’s theater. These tend to be much smaller productions, aimed at kids, at much lower prices – more like £20/ticket. You’ll spend far less – and younger kids will likely enjoy the show far more. Plus if you’re going to a show you should budget £15 for the adorable mini-tubs of Haagen Dazs ice cream that they always offer at intermission (the “interval”).
If you go to a West End show, budget £350 for the tickets (I told you that it’s expensive!).
Total (optional): £350
So then, in summary:
- Airfare: £3100
- Lodging: £1575
- Food: £905
- Sightseeing: £300
- Travel: £90
- Day Trip: £130
- Misc: £400
- Total: £6,500 (or at today’s exchange rate in Aug 2016 about $8500… let’s round it up to $9000 since it seems likely that the pound will strengthen over the coming months)
For many, that’s probably about what you expected. For others, that may induce sticker shock. If you’re looking to save, I’d point out that about half of the cost of the trip – and possibly more if you stick to a budget on the in-trip expenses – is the flights. So if you can find a good deal on flights, or use miles that you have saved up (just watch out for those fees), that’s the best way to do a London trip with kids if you’re on a tighter budget.
I’ve been fairly generous with my estimates here. You can certainly find lodging for £150/night, and you can eat for £50/day if you work at it. But while there are definitely ways to save money while you’re in London, the upfront cost of the flights will make a trip from the US at least a $6000 endeavor even for the most frugal of families.
Tip 9: When budgeting for London, keep in mind that all prices have taxes already included. Also, in most cases, you don’t need to tip (10% is customary at a sit down meal, but no need to offer large tips to bartenders, drivers, etc.). So that will save you some money!