London on a Student Budget (Cheap or even FREE)

There was one thing I was freaking out about before I came to London. It wasn’t the daunting class load or the idea of adapting to a western world – it was the worry that all the pesos I have saved up could not possibly survive in the land of the almighty pound sterling. I mean, ₱72 = £1? Really?

Imagine my relief when I learned upon arriving that, while London gets a bad reputation for being among the most expensive cities in the world, it’s also one of the few culturally vibrant places where you can have an endless array of experiences no matter what budget you’re on. This is perfect, for not only are we students – we’re Filipino. It’s our patriotic duty to know the value of our money and try to save whenever we can.

Hence, here’s a guide on how to get the full London experience for cheap or even FREE.

NOTE: Before we go any further, I have to urge you to STOP CONVERTING TO PESO every time you spend. Trust me, it’ll help you keep your sanity.

Entertainment

If you’re Filipino, the first thing you’ll want to do is see a West End play (let’s face it, Lea Salonga is in our genes). You might end up dreaming that dream on your own though, when you realise that most West End shows run upwards of £100 for stall (ground level) seats.

How would you feel if I told you that I got the best seats in the house for Book of Mormon, the hottest show in the West End, for only £20?

The trick is “day seats” – almost all theatres drop their prices for unsold tickets on the day of the performance. They do it in different ways– normally you’d just have to line up at 10 AM when the box office opens. Book of Mormon does it two hours and half before the performance via a raffle – a show in itself.

A few days before my 26th birthday, I got one of eight daily tickets Matilda the musical reserves for 16-25 year olds. Not only did I get an amazing show, it only cost me £5. I’m still in shock.

The trick is “day seats” – almost all theatres drop their prices for unsold tickets on the day of the performance. 

Classical music more your thing? The London Philharmonic Orchestra sells £4 student tickets to selected concerts. They’re not alone. You can say the magic words “student discount” at most cinemas and paid tourist attractions in the city and slash thirty to fifty per cent off the regular price.

FREE options

Even if you have absolutely no dough, you don’t have to be a shut-in. It’s no secret that some of the best museums in the world are right in London. From mummies in the British Museum, to T-Rex skeletons in the National History Museum, to Van Gogh and Monet’s masterpieces in the National Gallery – all here, all free.

If you’re looking for a good laugh, the free-to-enter Angel Comedy in Camden has everything from rising stand-up stars to established improv troupes. For a laid-back movie night, several uni halls, as well as the University of London Union, have their own cinemas for free screenings.

You don’t even have to travel far for a good time. Buskers are everywhere, though my favourites are in the tube stations and along Southbank. We’re talking high-calibre variety and talent to suit every taste – whether you’re looking for the next Ed Sheeran, the next bagpipe superstar, or… just the next guy to have a one-man “five-man” rock group. (Thanks puppets!)

Grooming – FREE

For context, a haircut here usually costs £20 to £50 (that’s about ₱1300 - ₱3300). This explains why many Pinays turn into Rapunzel and Pinoys turn into the Beatles circa Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. An alternative is to let your hair get cut by trainees of establishments like the London School of Barbering, Gents of London, or Vidal Sassoon. The cuts are usually free, though some places have a nominal fee if you want to have your hair coloured. Generations of neatly-groomed students swear by this practice. It’s not as scary as it sounds, as the trainees will be supervised.

Education and new skills – FREE

Now we come to my favourite thing about London–you get to try so many things for free when you would normally pay for classes like these in the Philippines.

If you’re into dance and yoga, halls like Goodenough College and University of London’s International Hall hold free salsa and yoga classes for residents.

From mummies in the British Museum, to T-Rex skeletons in the National History Museum, to Van Gogh and Monet’s masterpieces in the National Gallery – all here, all free.

If you just want to try something new, societies in the respective universities, as well as in the University of London Union, try to attract new members by holding taster sessions for every skill, hobby and sport imaginable (Quidditch anyone?). I even attended an Alternative Market where instead of free food samples, I got to sample unique experiences like making graffiti art, painting on canvas, and making sushi.

If you got inspired by the West End, why not try it for yourself by joining the legendary Old Vic’s Community Theatre Company? The company stages a production every summer and auditions people from all walks of life, even those with no stage experience. It’s a voluntary position, but with free training from some of the best in the industry, it’s an absolute steal.

Finally, why not make your time in London really worthwhile and learn how to save a life? The British Heart Foundation’s free monthly “Heartstart” courses can teach you first responder skills like recognizing a cardiac arrest and performing CPR, as well as dealing with choking and serious bleeding.

So make the most of your academic year – go out and live your city! With these penny-pinching tips, learning in London won’t just happen inside the classroom.

 

About the author

Micaela Papa, one of three UK Student Ambassadors of the British Council, is a cum-laude graduate of the University of the Philippines and has been a recipient of multiple awards, both local and international, in her work as a news correspondent and documentary film maker for a local news network. She is currently taking her MA in Documentary by Practice at Royal Holloway in London as a Chevening Scholar.