Surviving London on a Student's Budget

The United Kingdom is one of the most popular places to study abroad, and its capital offers students some of the best cultural and academic experiences. From its wide selection of colleges and prestigious universities to its unending list of cultural and historic attractions, a semester or year in London would seem like a treat if it weren't for the unfavorable exchange rate and its almost unbearable cost of living.

But don't let the high price tag keep you from studying in one of the world's greatest cities!

Follow these tips to make studying in London on a student's budget both realistic and enjoyable.

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Accommodation

Go Through a Program

Studying abroad with an established program or university is usually the best way to guarantee affordable, temporary student housing. Most programs set up your accommodations with an all-inclusive fee in the tuition bill. This means less hassle for you as well as (usually) cheaper overall costs.

If your program or institution does not provide housing, it usually can connect you with a network of students who will have suggestions. If all else fails, there are plenty of student housing Web sites and online classifieds that advertise good housing deals.

Finance

Make a budget

With an exchange rate of nearly $2 to the British pound, prices in London can be deceptive, and an average day out in the city can easily cost $100 if you are not careful. With the right budget, however, you can avoid spending too much and still feel comfortable shelling out some cash when appropriate.

Always have a sense of how much you can actually afford to spend each day, each week, and each month. It helps to think of your budget in terms of pounds, not dollars, so you do not always have to convert in your head. Also, make sure you have a separate budget for fun!

Remember, you may be in London to study, but you can also enjoy yourself. If you know how much you can spend on the fun stuff, you will not feel guilty treating yourself every once in a while.

Get a Part-Time Job

If you have a tier 4 U.K. student visa, you can work legally during your stay in London. A part-time job in your school's student union or at a nearby pub would put a few more pounds in your pocket each week while simultaneously immersing you in the local culture.

Check with your school or program for suggestions, and if they are not helpful, organizations like Just Jobs Students and Employment 4 Students could point you in the right direction.

Food:

Make Your Own Food

The cheapest way to eat in London is to cook your own meals. Anything pre-packaged or cooked will cost more, even if you do not get it at a restaurant. While you may think those microwavable meals from Waitrose or the tempting sandwiches at Prêt a Manger are harmless, they can add up. Instead of wasting your money on food you could make yourself, invest in Tupperware, sandwich bags and a reusable water bottle, and pack your own lunches.

Shop Wisely

Saving money on food does not mean you need to sacrifice your nutrition, it just requires savvy shopping. Buy foods like brown rice, oatmeal, dried black beans, and whole chickens, which are relatively cheap, have a lot of nutritional value, and can last quite a while. Keep an eye out for 2 for 1 deals, especially when they are for freezable foods. Also, where you buy food is very important. Tesco and food markets usually provide the best bargains, but remember that prices in central London are much steeper than in the suburbs.

The best deals as well as larger supermarkets, which sell food in bulk, reside further out of the city center in places like Brixton. Also, if you shop at markets, bear in mind that later in the day the food prices drop and you can usually bargain with the vendors for the cheapest possible prices.

Eat Like a Local

Don't get caught up in American brand names. Imported goods and foods that are not in season, for obvious reasons, are more expensive and not as fresh. Though it may be tough giving up Jiff peanut butter and Heinz ketchup, the food you eat is just as much a part of your cultural experience as the museums you see.

Choose British plums over bananas and Tesco's Digestive cookies over Chips Ahoy. Not only is it cheaper to eat what the locals eat, but doing so will give you a better understanding of the culture. Also, if it gets close to the end of the week and you are running out of money for an afternoon snack, fill up on tea. It's a good appetite suppressant, and it is a U.K. specialty.

When You Eat Out, Eat Ethnic

London has an amazing selection of delicious restaurants, and though eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, it is an essential part of your cultural experience.

Luckily, some of the best food in London comes from the cheapest restaurants. The city's ethnic restaurants, mainly its Indian, Bangladeshi and Middle Eastern eateries, offer great food and generous portions.

At most places you can get a full meal and drink for under £10 ($16). Prices are usually even more reasonable at lunch, especially if you take advantage of a lunch buffet. One way to save big is to turn your lunch into brunch, stuff yourself with food, and take the leftovers home for dinner.

Transportation

Oyster Card The best way to save on public transportation in London is to get an Oyster Card. This London transport pass works on the underground as well as all over ground buses and river services and, as of January 2, 2010, on the National rail as well.

There are several available plans for Oyster Card users, including pay-as-you-go and a monthly pass, but the best deal, if you are eligible, is the Student Oyster photocard, which gives you a 30 percent discount on all adult fares. To check your eligibility and to order your student card, visit http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets/faresandtickets/1014.aspx.

Rent or Buy a Bike

If you prefer your own set of wheels, and if you are brave enough to take on London traffic, you may want to rent or buy a bicycle. Not only will you avoid the crowds, queues, and delays, and you will also get great exercise and reduce your carbon footprint.

You can usually find bicycles for cheap at the U.K.'s eBay, and when you are done riding you can sell it back for a large portion of what you paid. If you cannot afford the up-front cost, you can rent a bike by the hour or day for a reasonable price or you can participate in the bike-share program the city plans to implement sometime in 2010.

Walk

As long as you cross at crosswalks, walking is one of the best ways to get around London if you do not have to commute long distances. Like bike-riding, it is good exercise, it will familiarize you with the city, and it's entirely free!

Shopping

Buy Necessities Beforehand

For many students studying abroad, it is easier to buy toiletries and other basic necessities upon arrival, but for students using the pound, those expenses add up very quickly. Luggage weight limits may be strict, but to save money, it is worth buying your shampoo, toothpaste, and rain boots while the exchange rate is still in your favor.

Buy at Markets and Charity Shops

London is a fashion mecca, and if you walk down Oxford Street, you are bound to get lured in by high-end clothing stores. But before you shell out £35 ($57) on a tank top at Top Shop, take a minute to consider other options. Besides its expensive boutiques, London has a huge assortment of markets and charity shops, or used clothing stores, that offer great clothes for very cheap.

Camden Market and the Market at the Old Truman Brewery in East London have some of the best selections, and there are charity shops in every borough that send a portion of their profits to various causes. Get a vintage leather jacket and support an animal shelter at the same time!

If you are looking for high end clothing, check out the charity shops in posher areas like Notting Hill, or go to dress shops like Pandora, which sell designer clothing for about a quarter of the original price.

Shop Outside the City Center

Whether you are looking for food, clothes, or house wares, you are always better off shopping outside the city center. The further out you get, the closer you are to actual Londoners, which means more local culture and less sky-high tourist prices.

As you reach the outer branches of the London underground you'll find superstores such as ASDA and Tesco Extra, where you can buy in bulk for cheap. While they may take longer to reach, the savings will pay off in the long run.

Entertainment and Culture

Free Museums

One of the best perks to living in London is free entry into all major museums. Anyone, no matter the age, can fill their days with free culture from some of Britain's and the World's best museums, including the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and the National Gallery.

TimeOut

London is brimming with all sorts of entertainment, and just because you are a poor college student does not mean you have to miss out on the city's offerings. Time Out London is one of the best ways to keep abreast of all the activities and performances going on every day, and it has a great student guide, which will help you navigate to the best deals. Time Out releases a weekly magazine, it posts on its Web site daily, and you can even receive live updates on events and happenings from the magazine on Twitter.

West End

If you like Broadway, you will love London's West End, which is home to dozens of theatres that host the latest and greatest musicals and performances. While regularly priced tickets are often far out of a student's price range, there are several ways to get great deals.

WestEnd4£10 is the best way to get a cheap ticket on the West End. Each month Mousetrap Theatre Projects, a non-profit dedicated to bringing theatre to those who cannot afford it, picks one West End show and charges only £10 ($16) a ticket for students between 18 and 23 years old. It is easy to register and you can sign up for as many shows as you like. The only catch is that you must sign up in advance and you cannot chose which show you go to.

If you live a more spontaneous lifestyle, you can go to any West End theatre on the day of a show and get a student discount on great seats for £25 ($40). If you want the best possible deal, go on a weekday when the shows are less attended.

Nightlife

Plan Ahead

Let's face it -- you're a college student, the drinking age is 18, and you're in a city that never sleeps. The temptation to go out on the town and spend your life savings on pints and dance clubs can be overwhelming, but if you plan ahead, you can cut costs significantly.

Instead of starting your night in a pub, start at the grocery store and drink a pint or two at home. This will save you at least £6 ($10) that can later go toward your entry into a club or pub.

Before heading out, make sure to do some research. Don't just go to any old club that will overcharge you. On any given night, there are great pubs and clubs that offer free entry or special deals, and it is worth the extra time in front of the computer finding out where they are. Also, avoid tourist hotspots like Leicester Square; the promoters that roam the streets can be obnoxious, and the clubs overcharge for a subpar experience.

Take the Night Buses

Just because the tube closes at midnight does not mean you have to take an overpriced taxi back home when you leave the club. Take advantage of the night buses, which accept Oyster Cards and run 24 hours all over the city. Remember; do not take the mini cabs offering cheaper prices outside clubs. It is illegal for them to solicit, and not only could they rip you off, but accepting a ride from them could be very dangerous.

International Travel

Book Wisely

You are studying in Europe, so you may as well take advantage of some of the countries right at your fingertips. But be careful, travel expenses can accrue very quickly if you are not careful.

Because Britain is an island, you will most likely need to fly to continental Europe. When booking your tickets, book early and be wary of pre-packaged deals or booking agencies -- these seemingly good deals often involve hidden surcharges. Also, keep in mind where you are arriving and departing from. Sometimes the cost of getting to and from the airport may not be worth the cheaper ticket cost, and other times it is cheaper to fly into a smaller city and take a train or bus to your final destination.

Some of the cheapest airlines to fly with are Ryanair and EasyJet, and EasyBus is one of the least expensive shuttles to Luton and Stansted airports.

Be Flexible

Sometimes getting the cheapest tickets means showing a bit of spontaneity. If you stay flexible about your travel dates and desired destinations, and if you check airline Web sites regularly, you can score great deals to interesting places.

Pick the Right Country

Picking a weekend destination in Europe can be overwhelming. With so many countries to choose from, it helps to narrow down your options based on your budget. Sometimes it's cheaper to spend a weekend away rather than a weekend in London, but only if you pick a less expensive country or city. Look for slightly less touristy destinations that will still accommodate students who many not know the language, such as Berlin and Prague.

Stay with friends Start networking now, so that when you are abroad you can avoid accommodation costs and stay with friends or relatives who may be living or studying in another European country. If you are not lucky enough to have such connections, stay in hostels or couch surf, but always remember to be careful and travel with a friend.