How to enjoy being abroad in London on a limited budget?
January 1, 2011 10:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm studying abroad in London for six months, starting this Wednesday, as in three or four days from now. I need advice on how to live cheaply in London and still enjoy myself. Rent and two meals a day are covered, but I need advice on everything outside of that (Very long, sorry!)

I'm studying at UCL until June. I'm living in university accommodation- Ifor Evans Hall, near Camden. It's a catered hall, so my fees cover breakfast and dinner on weekdays, but I'm on my own outside of that.

My budget, after tuition and fees for the residence hall, is about 2,600 pounds ($4,100 USD). This needs to cover lunches and weekend food, traveling- both inside London and elsewhere, doing fun things in London, and random expenses like shampoo and buying things for my room. I also have a (US) credit card with a $3,500 (USD) limit and my parents can help me out to an extent, but these are last-resort sources of funds I'd only use in an emergency or if I run out of money completely.

I normally attend a college in a really small town, where there's almost nothing to buy and I've been on a 21 meal a week meal plan and living in a dorm, so I have very little experience budgeting- I've never had to figure out how much I spend in a week. General advice on how to get by on a fixed income for a short while would be great, like how to parcel out my funds so I don't run out by the end of the term.

More specific questions, roughly by subject:

Food: I think I'll have access to a stove/microwave/refrigerator equipped kitchenette and a Sainsbury's. I can cook OK, but I don't want to invest in pans and spices and things. Ideas for cheap, portable lunches would be great, especially UK specific things.

I'd also like to eat things other than homemade sandwiches, whatever the UK equivalent of ramen is, and dining hall food. What places are worth paying what I understand to be high London restaurant prices? Are there super-cheap places to get lunch in London if I don't bring my own food?

Travel in London: There's a bus route from my residence to the main campus of the school, or it's a 30-40 minute walk. Is walking this route a feasible thing to do in the winter, or should I plan on taking the bus most days? I'm used to the cold since I go to school in the northeastern US but you can walk across my campus in 20 minutes. I know about Oyster cards, but I'm trying to figure out if I need a student travel card and monthly passes, or just a pay-as-you-go option.

I'm also hoping to explore London. I've seen advice on cheap fun things to do in London, but I've done the touristy thing (although I'll be revisiting most of the museums) and I'm more interested in cheap, day-to-day things to do, since I'll be there for a while and I don't need to pack in the "London experience". Good coffee shops I can sit around in and do school things that are near where I'll be living, fun neighborhoods to wander around in, things like that. This website has a lot of the sort of thing I'm looking for, but location-specific advice would be great.

I have hipster-ish tastes but I don't dress like one- I like indie music, old buildings and architecture, interesting out-of-the-way parks and neighborhoods and places to explore. I'm not a food snob, I'm not really into the theater or classical/jazz/etc. music, I'm not an alcohol snob, I like magazines and journals, I like modern art but not necessarily contemporary art. I'd feel uncomfortable in places where everyone is excruciatingly cool.

I'm also really hoping to travel outside of London. Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all on the list, as well as other areas in the UK.

If it's at all feasible, I'd like to visit Paris, Amsterdam, and maybe Portugal or Spain (more or less in that order of preference). I'm looking for the cheapest ways to get to those places over the long Easter holiday I have, from the end of March to beginning of May.

tl;dr: Advice on living in London cheaply, but experiencing as much as possible. Advice specific to the UCL/Camden area would be particularly appreciated. I'm also looking for advice on traveling cheaply from London to other parts of the UK and the nearer parts of Europe.

I'll be monitoring this thread, so please let me know if I've left out any vital information. If my expectations are completely at odds with my budget, I'd like to know that as well! Any advice on adjusting to UK university practices (as opposed to US liberal arts college practices) would be appreciated as well. Or any advice on anything at all, really- I'm leaving very soon and I'm freaking out slightly. My mother's British aunt and uncle will be picking me up from the airport and helping me get settled a little, but I want to gather as much information as possible before I go.
posted by MadamM to Travel & Transportation around London, England (42 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I'm an American who lived in London for a college semester about 20 years ago. Two meals a day and housing were covered for us, like you. I lived in Kensington, so I can't say anything specific about Camden.

Some of the cheapest food (and beer) was to be found in the local student union. Other than that, we tended to eat in pubs for lunch, or Wimpy's after too much drinking.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend finding some good Indian food while you're in London.

As for transportation, we were lucky enough to have unlimited tube passes good for the duration of our stay. I would regard this as a necessity, and it's a marvelous thing. I never figured out the bus system since the tube got me anywhere I wanted to go.

London is fantastic and I know I only saw a small portion of it, but I do regret not seeing more of the rest of the country. Getting around by bus was fairly cheep, and the country is small enough to make bus travel practical. Trans were nicer though (and more expensive). You university may have a travel office that can book cheap travel to wherever you want to go.

I wish you all the best. I look back very fondly on my time in London. Enjoy!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 10:48 PM on January 1, 2011

Best answer: Studied in the UK for a year (not London though, but I am familiar with UCL and the surrounding envrions), so I'll do the best I can to help you out:
  • Your budget is fine. More than fine. (Depending on how much you want to travel). If most of your food/lodging is already taken care of, that's a fairly generous budget for any adult living in a city!
  • You're a student, and you're going to have time to cook proper lunches? Colo(u)r me surprised. Are your friday/weekend meals catered as well? That arrangement actually seems fairly unusual to me. Being a good cook isn't hard. Stir-frying some veggies and a tiny bit of meat is a piece of cake. Pasta is also an old standby. Some ingredients can be outlandishly expensive, while others are fairly cheap compared to US prices. The exchange rate is now much more favorable than when I was there (2007-8), so you should be fine. Also note that grocery stores have lots more (surprisingly decent) pre-prepared foods than they do here. Trader Joes is the prototypical european grocery store. Also, pots/pans are likely present in the communal kitchen (or are surprisingly cheap to buy -- I got a set at Wollworths (now defunct) for around £15). Again, this is lunch we're talking about. No need to go crazy!
  • Also, the UK Equivalent to Ramen is Pot Noodles. It's not identical though (and kind of nasty IIRC).
  • Eating out for lunch in London can vary wildly by neighborhood. Don't expect it to be healthy.
  • Camden Barfly has good music. Remember that British musical tastes are not the same as American musical tastes. What's indie there is sometimes mainstream here, and vice versa. You'll fit right in, don't worry -- it's not Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- there's only one of those in the world, Thank God. Lots of stuff to do in London....basically another AskMe for a different date.
  • Don't sweat "Experiencing" a place -- you're apt to miss the forest for the trees, and spend too much time stressing about that! You're there for 6 months, so there's no rush!
  • I think there are student bus passes? Look into that.
  • IIRC, UCL doesn't have a "campus." Don't use that word. Don't bother trying to lose your accent, but do try to learn the right words. If you pay attention, you should figure things out pretty quickly. I see you've already caught on to the confusing "college vs. university" thing.
  • If you'll be doing a lot of rail travel, buy a UK Young Persons' Railcard. It'll save you 33% on almost any train in the UK. Fares vary tremendously, and can be very inexpensive if you're willing to be flexible with your schedule. There are also plenty of discount buses (Megabus being the main operator)
  • As a general rule, Eurail passes for travel on the European mainland are a very bad deal unless you're planning to do tons of travel in a ridiculously short period of time. Still, American tourists buy them all the time for reasons that I'll probably never understand Seat61 has great (nay, amazing) advice for traveling to Europe from the UK by train. EasyJet and RyanAir flights are also extraordinarily cheap compared to air travel in the US. They often fly to very inconvenient locations (their "Paris" airport is 3 hours from Paris), but can't be beat for the price. Paris/Amsterdam are very easy to get to by train. Spain/Portugal are probably worth flying to. You'll probably have a 2-week spring break, which should give you plenty of time to explore. Hostels are generally cheap, and pretty safe as long as you're smart about things. (That's another AskMe in and of itself). I'd recommend the train over flying, as it lets you see more! If you book in advance, and are willing to put up with slightly weird train times, you can do this very cheaply as well. Book with the train companies directly, as it'll almost always be a cheaper ticket than going through a travel agency. Also, if you're using Eurostar (train from London to Paris), it is (or at least was) inexplicably cheaper to book your train on their American site with US dollars.
  • Seems silly, but leave some extra room in your suitcase. You'll have more stuff coming home than you will when you're arriving.
  • Also, take your coursework seriously. The UK system of examination and grading is very different, and it's easy to fall behind without realizing it. I (Physics student) had cases where my final exam accounted for my entire grade in a course.
Oh, and if you've got family in the UK who are helping you settle down, you'll be FINE. Don't stress at all!
posted by schmod at 11:47 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

(PS. Ignore the first answerer, and get to know the bus system, and surface (street) routes. The tube is great, but not the best method to use for all trips. There are stations that look quite distant on the map that are in reality 100 yards apart from each other on the surface. The map is not remotely drawn to scale. This will be maddeningly confusing at first, but you'll start to get used to it. Travel on the tube is not a necessity, and can end up being quite expensive if you rely on it exclusively. Those stereotypes about bus travel in the US generally do not apply in London. Most buses I traveled on were full of well-dressed businesspeople. Buses come very frequently, and are meticulously clean. The bus routes themselves, though, look like they were planned by Escher)
posted by schmod at 11:55 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I spent about 45 minutes typing out an epic iPhone answer, but it's gone. I'm weeping.

Oh well, I'll go with the tl;dr version:

London can be really pricey. Be really careful with your money. Get a PAYG Oyster and guage what you need. Buses are the way to go generally. There'a loads of good food, but it's not cheap, so try to live off packed lunches. There are tons of great free events - and are your friends here. Make use of Regent's Park and Hampstead Heath. Don't judge London on Camden - it's a bit… off-putting on weekend evenings. Travel can be cheap on Easyjet and Ryanair, but book ahead as far as possible.

posted by Magnakai at 2:29 AM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: If you're at UCL, you're very close to the Indian YMCA, which does extremely inexpensive Indian meals. There is also a Keralan place on the Euston Road which is very cheap and comes highly recommended by my food-loving Keralan friend.

For raw materials for foods, shop at ethnic stores. Kentish town has some. So does Drummond Street, next to Euston station. They are much cheaper than supermarkets.

Keep an eye on Freegle (the UK equivalent of Freecycle) for things like pots, curtains, etc. Also, look at charity shops for that sort of thing. Argos is another place for inexpensive semi-disposable housewares.

TimeOut is good for letting one know what's on, what's free and what's nearby.

Cheap flights -- do you know about the budget airlines? If not, look up Easyjet and RyanAir. Often the most expensive part of a flight to Europe is getting the train to the airport (and even then there are cheaper ways out).

You may also find Martin's Moneysaver newsletter useful, though it is long and occasionally confusing. It gives deals, has lots of financial tips.

I personally think your budget would be fine if you live frugally most of the time and have 1-2 vacations. Travelling in the UK is much more expensive, at least if you're like me, and refuse to stay in hostels. Booking trains as far in advance as possible is important to get a decent rate. You should get student discounts as well. As a rule there are far more student discounts here than in the States -- even cafes and restaurants near universities offer them.

I personally would walk from Camden to UCL regularly, but I like walking. 30-40 minutes is not very long. You may also wish to look into the Boris Bikes which are basically free if you keep the journey short. Winter here is nothing compared to the north-east of the US. It's basically damp, humid and chilly, not cold and snowy.

Camden is a fun place to live, with plenty of genuine old school punks still hanging around (it came to a standstill for Malcolm Mclaren's funeral), but if you want achingly hip you'll go further east, to Hoxton.

I live in Bloomsbury and spend a lot of time wandering around the city, and am on an austerity binge. London's a great place, especially if your room and board are taken care of. MeMail me if there are any further questions I can help you with, or just ask here, as I believe others also live very close by.
posted by tavegyl at 2:30 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and a weird, wonderful place near Camden/ Regent's Park: the Royal College of Physician's garden of poisonous plants. Especially splendid to stumble across it without realising it as I did, but also fun to visit especially.

I agree with those who say use the bus system. It's good, it's efficient, it's easy to find out what's where.

And I'd also suggest investing in a Pocket A-Z, unless you have a good fast map on your smartphone. It'll make you much more confident about navigating the city.
posted by tavegyl at 2:35 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It looks like you've got about £100 per week to live on which should get you by ok if that isn't needing to cover accommodation and all your food. I'd suggest the following:

- Sainsburys do a basics range which is just cheaper versions of their standard food range - pasta, rice, fruit and veg - buying that will save you money. Otherwise cheapest places to get lunch are probably the non-chain sandwich shops - avoid Pret, Eat etc and search out the places that will make up a sandwich for you.
- UCL student union is your cheapest bet for beer etc - Camden has a lot of bars and restaurants as well ( is a good starting point for finding out which ones are good - plus pick up the magazine occasionally when you are over here for ideas on where to go).
- coaches will be cheaper then trains for travelling - you can get coaches to Europe as well. National Express coaches for the UK (or Megabus which has fares from £1), Eurolines for travel to Europe. If you want to go away over Easter book well in advance for best fares.
- Buses around London are great - use the Transport for London website to look up bus routes ( or just look at the posters at the bus stop. Ask at the tube station about discounts for students - maybe get a weeks travel card initially and then see how much you use it. I mainly use buses so find pay as you go a better option - but you might get a student bus pass which could be better value.
- A 30/40 minute walk will be fine all year round - it rarely gets so cold in London that walking isn't an option (rain though is another matter!). Camden is very central so you can pretty much walk anywhere - walk North to Hampstead for Hampstead Heath, walk across Regents Park and find yourself at Oxford Street quite quickly. Just walk and explore on foot which will give you a much better sense of London than getting on and off the tube.

Enjoy - you'll have a great experience and London is a great city.
posted by smudge at 2:40 AM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: -Young Person's Railcard, definitely. Mine paid for itself in 3 train journeys (and I commute from Reading to London 3 days a week, so it has saved me a bundle). If you register it with your Oyster card, it will also lower your daily price cap for that too.

-I vote for walking to class, when you have the time. You'll get to know the area better and find nearby cafes/restaurants/shops/etc. If you're prone to getting lost, like I am, keep an A-Z handy or look for the nearest map on the street (they're plentiful).

-Definitely revisit the museums. Most are free and there's probably many you missed. Close to you and awesome are the Wellcome Collection, John Soane Museum, and Hunterian Museum.

-There are TONS of places that do student discounts. It never hurts to ask somewhere if they offer a student discount. Many require an NUS Extra card, which you have to pay upfront for but, if you think you'll use it enough (check the website to see what stores offer a discount), is probably worth it.
posted by Gordafarin at 4:21 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few things

Walking 30-40 minutes is perfectly feasible in London in winter, the weather's usually pretty mild. You'll probably want to get a Pay As You Go Oystercard: there's a £3 deposit, you add a certain amount of money, fares are deducted when you touch it to the reader. Individual tickets are vastly more expensive than Oyster charges, so it's better to keep an Oystercard handy.

Just off Trafalgar Square, St Martin-in-the-Fields church has free classical concerts, and has a fairly cheap canteen in the crypt.

Eating out is very expensive in London. Stockpot in Soho is pretty cheap. In general fast food, fish and chips are the cheapest options. Pub food can be good value if you check the menus, but is sometimes very expensive and overpriced. Wagamamas is a chain of noodle bars, but it's not that cheap.

If you have access to a kitchen, you can buy cheap food in the supermarkets: look for the value ranges or economy supermarkets like Morrisons, Lidl, Aldi. For cooking implements, you can look in charity shops or church jumble sales for second hand stuff; but if you look in discount shops like Poundland, Poundstretcher or the 99p Store you'll find new stuff very cheap too.

For cheap flights, check Lastminute, Expedia and Easyjet. Then check the websites of the destination airports, see which economy carriers fly there, and check their websites directly.

Rail travel within the UK is expensive. You may be eligible for a Railcard, there's a 16-25 one which may help. Also try to book in advance on a specific train. National Express lets you book train tickets without a fee, but concentrates on coaches. Coach travel (i.e. long-distance buses) is generally cheaper than rail. Try National Express or Megabus. Youth hostel dormitories are generally the cheapest places to stay, then Bed & Breakfast places (B&B).
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:21 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm just going to pick out one thing from your list in order to pimp one of my favourite places:

Good coffee shops I can sit around in and do school things that are near where I'll be living

The British Library has free wifi and coffee shops.
posted by robertc at 4:58 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sainsbury's is one of the more expensive supermarkets so try to do most of your food shopping elsewhere.

Student discounts are often also available for things like hair cuts and clothes as well as pub promotions so get an nus card.

Get a rough idea of when you want to do your travelling and book your trips to get the cheapest air and train fares - chances are it's cheaper to fly to Scotland than to catch a train for example.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:02 AM on January 2, 2011

Oh, and if you're not used to the concept of budget airlines beware that you pay a fee for each of the following: paying by card, checking luggage, more than one piece of hand luggage, which you will have to check, printing your boarding pass at the airport, any refreshments on board. So please don't make assumptions about what is covered by a fare and read the fine can travel very cheaply but you have to know what the extra are to avoid them!
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:11 AM on January 2, 2011

I studied in London 6 years ago at nearby-SOAS.

Some tips:

- You'll mostly likely have a shared kitchen with your dorm flatmates. Someone will be more local than you and will buy pots and pans. Or you could go in together and buy a set from a thift store or Ikea (although getting out to Ikea is a huge pain in the ass.)

- There are many options for cheap food on-the-go. As far as dinner, great that you're near a Sainsbury's. Decide ahead of time what your opinion is about sharing food (I go with no sharing. Less drama.) and what the policy is going to be about cleaning up. (I didn't live in the dorms, but I visited friends and saw massive drama.)

- Don't bring sheets, pillows and stuff. Just buy once you get to London. People in the UK mostly do duvets (no flat sheet), which I really like. I got rid of these when I was done. (You may be better off asking your UK-based relatives to get you some and then leave them with them.)

- Get an unlocked GSM phone off of eBay. Get a pay-as-you-go phone subscription.

- As far as travel, there are tons of deals from Student Universe, STA Travel, etc. There will be ads all over the place. Once you get there, (foreign) people will be constantly asking about going on little holidays. Or be the person that helps organize the trips. Don't underestimate your classmates being FROM places and you being able to stay at their folks'.

- Don't be afraid to get a part time job if you think that you can swing it. I did and it was awesome getting paid in pounds. You're a native English speaker, which gives you a leg up on a lot of folks looking for part time work in LDN.

Academically, the biggest differences from my American education:

- The assigned readings are what the professors expect you to draw from in your papers (called essays) and in your exams.
- The essays are worth almost nothing toward the class grade (like 10% sometimes).
- The exams are worth A LOT. I spent months studying for them. IMHO the best strategy is to divide the weeks of the course (although it sounds like you're only doing 1 term versus a whole year), and give a week to each person in a study group to become an Expert on. (And probably it would be smart to write your essay on the topic of your Expert week.) Then the Expert shares his/her notes with the rest of the team.
posted by k8t at 5:13 AM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: DrumsIntheDeep: "Other than that, we tended to eat in pubs for lunch, or Wimpy's after too much drinking. "

Pubs (especially around UCL) are incredibly expensive for eating. Avoid them if at all possible.

DrumsIntheDeep: "I highly recommend finding some good Indian food while you're in London."

Brick Lane is the answer to this.

schmod: "the UK Equivalent to Ramen is Pot Noodles. "

Avoid Pot Noodle like the plague. Disgusting flavours and costs almost £1. Get cheap ~10p noodles from Sainsbury's and throw in your own spices, flavourings, etc.

koahiatamadl: "Sainsbury's is one of the more expensive supermarkets so try to do most of your food shopping elsewhere."

In Camden and Bloomsbury you won't have much choice other than getting your fruit and veg from markets or cheap grocery stores. Sainsbury's can be done very cheaply if you're sensible.

DrumsIntheDeep: "As for transportation, we were lucky enough to have unlimited tube passes good for the duration of our stay. I would regard this as a necessity, and it's a marvelous thing"

Do not buy a tube pass especially if you live in Camden. Bus routes are plentiful, easy and a bus pass is much cheaper than a tube pass. It also gives you a much better idea of the city's layout and makes it obvious when it's better to walk than get on the tube. Also, they run 24 hours which is kinda necessary.

schmod: "I think there are student bus passes? Look into that. "

Yes, go through TFL and you'll get 30% off a bus pass.

DrumsIntheDeep: "Getting around by bus was fairly cheep, and the country is small enough to make bus travel practical. Trans were nicer though (and more expensive). You university may have a travel office that can book cheap travel to wherever you want to go."

The only bus worth taking for long distance trips is megabus. Even then, trains + Young Persons is usually a better bet. Book online at not through any travel office. Always try to book as far ahead as possible.

smudge: "UCL student union is your cheapest bet for beer etc"

The UCL union is pretty manky and has a pretty poor choice of ales. You're better off heading a few minutes into town and looking for a Sam Smith's pub. Better beer, often cheaper, but rammed on Fridays.

tavegyl: "TimeOut is good for letting one know what's on, what's free and what's nearby."

I'd actually recommend avoiding TimeOut, especially as you have "hipsterish" tastes. It caters more for the fannypack and SLR-type tourist rather than locals. Word of mouth will do you much better.

In general, there's a lot going on near where you are. In your neighbourhood, the Underworld, the Electric Ballroom, Dingwalls, the Purple Turtle, Koko (although many people hate it), the Barfly and the Roundhouse have a great choice of gigs and clubs.

For transport, I'd actually recommend dropping £100 on a bike. You're lucky to be so centrally located. You can get into school every day in about 10-15 minutes for free and most of the best locations in London are all easily accessible on two wheels: Finsbury Park, Hoxton/Shoreditch, King's Cross/Islington, Kilburn, Dalston/Hackney. Also, central London (Covent Garden/Leicester Square, Oxford Street, Kensington, London Bridge, The City, Holborn, Westminster, Barbican, etc.) is easy on a bike.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:14 AM on January 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

A budget? You're just going to have to build it up line by line; item and cost per day / week / month will be sufficient. I've done this for years, and can tell you that it costs Mrs Mutant & I £27 a day to live in London, fully loaded. Caveat: we don't have a mortgage or pay rent as we own free and clear, but the biggest line item in our budget is food at £70 a week for two. But you don't have to spend so much and in fact we don't; that sum represents a worst case scenario. In any case, strict budgeting is a good practice to develop early and maintain throughout life.

If you remain flexible in terms of what produce you're willing to purchase & consume, London street markets are a frugal way to get fruit and veggies. In the East End (where we live) the typical deal is one pound for a rather largish bowl of whatever it is they are selling. Usually works out to maybe two bundles of grapes, perhaps ten tomatoes, half a dozen peppers, etc. Criticise the quality of the produce and they'll usually toss in a couple extra peppers, whatever for free. Ask them to top off the bowl and they'll usually do so. I try to shop towards the end of the trading day as they'll sometimes dump two bowls for one pound rather than take the stuff home with them.

These vendors also sell soap and other household goods, but before you buy anything from the street know what you're looking for and make sure you've compared prices to the major retailers. Sometimes you can get an items on sale at Sainsburys far lower than the street vendors and vice / versa. Generally it depends on what you're buying and when, but stuff like toilet paper is almost always about one third of what the stores want, and I buy a lot of it at one time to get it even cheaper.

Always be nice to these people! They're just trying to earn a living and they are far, far better hagglers now then you or I will ever be. So I always make sure I joke around and even if we don't do a deal I like to think I've made their day a little better.

And don't be afraid to purchase store brands - I almost always do and you'd be surprised at how cheap they are compared to name brands, with little or no quality difference. Case in point: I can get Sainsburys banked beans for 0.17p / can compared to 0.69p / can for Heinz. A little ketchup and honey and we can't tell the difference between the two and I've blind tested the notoriously selective Mrs Mutant. Some of the store brand soups are shakey on their own, but add some of those cheap veggies you purchased and you'll be ok.

Also take advantage of the sales. Anytime something we regularly use is on sale we'll stock up. Bagels are normally 1.29 for a bag of six, but I wait until they are on sale and then I'll buy ten or more bags. Same thing with fresh fish - Salmon will cost 4.99 for 200g, but once a month or so they'lll have it on sale, two for one. I almost never pay full price as I've usually got some in the freezer that I bought on sale.

Get your clothes at street markets and be prepared to not only purchase more than one or two but also haggle haggle haggle. I'm damaged goods as I spent years working in Africa and The Middle East, but I love to haggle!

Finally, Sainsburys and Tescos will negotiate in spite of what you be hear otherwise - just ask for a manager. I've cut deals with them when I've come in and they didn't have an item that was advertised (a serious no no in the UK), generally getting better quality goods at the advertised and much lower sale price. I've even cut deals at M&S (bought seven cases of champagne for my team at the bank during Christmas). Again, just ask! No harm in trying.

I teach finance part time at a few Universities in London and I've noticed the Hare Krishnas offer up free lunches, outside SOAS. I've never partaken but haven't seen folks complaining so if you'd like to augment your dorm food give it a try (or at least give them a donation).

I hope this helps! London is expensive but you don't have bleed money to have a high quality of life. As others have pointed out, there is lots to do that's cheap or even free.

Oh yeh - once you've settled in meetup!
posted by Mutant at 5:24 AM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another cheap way to get around, if you use the system as intended: TFL's Cycle Hire system, aka "Barclays Bikes" or "Boris Bikes". For 1 quid a day (or 45 quid a year) you can ride the rental bikes around London paying usage fees. The trick is that the system is designed for short term hire and keeping the bikes in circulation, so they are free for under 30 minutes, and 1 quid for under an hour (it gets, rapidly, rapidly more expensive after that). Each bike hire kiosk has a nice map of the area within the distance you can expect to cover in 30 minutes, so it's really easy to plan your trip, and you can cover a *lot* of distance in 30 minutes in London, even when busy with traffic, making it faster than buses or the tube since you don't have to wait. If you need to go further than 30 minutes, you can do it stepping-stone style: checking your bike in, waiting 5 minutes, and checking out the same or different bike again (or walking in that five minutes, or having a coffee, etc).

I used the bikes both of my last visits, and was quite happy with them.

However, make sure you know the UK rules of the road, the UK cycling customs (are subtly different from some other places), and have a helmet.
posted by kaszeta at 5:26 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm back with a couple more thoughts. Excellent suggestions from turkeyphant, except I would dispute 2 things:

1 - the need to buy a bicycle. The nearest Boris Bike stand is no more than a 10 minute walk from you, and if you're going anywhere in Central London, you can bicycle away without worry that it'll get stolen, where to park it, how to take it on the tube or bus if you change your mind, etc. Any number of my friends who have bicycles just don't use them any more when moving around the centre of town. That said, one of the most fun ways to go along the east-west axis is along Regent's Canal, which cuts through Camden and is a great walk or cycle-ride. Bonus: you get to see bits of the ridiculously expensive London Zoo for free.

2- Brick Lane. It's fun to walk around on a Sunday afternoon, when the craft and vintage stalls are out and trendiness is in full force, but the main street is really not where I'd recommend anyone go for a decent South Asian meal. For Pakistani, at least, Whitechapel near Brick Lane has a couple of very good places, and there is the quite decent Raavi Kebab on Drummond Street in your own neighbourhood (recommendations: nihari and seekh kebab). I hear East Ham is the place for South Indian and Gujarati street food, but it's quite out of the way.

If you're thinking in noodle terms you may also wish to try going to the Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown, about 20 minutes from UCL. Cheap produce, extremely cheap mega-packs of noodles. Baked beans, of course, is the great British student staple.

Another potentially fun weekend food trip: there are farmers and food markets in several areas which offer good grazing. There is one in the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, and produce-oriented ones in Angel (with bus link to Camden), and Marylebone. Opinions vary on whether they're too expensive: my own feeling is that if you buy locally and in season, you can get by for much less than equivalent produce at a supermarket. This does mean that you eat parsnips and kale throughout winter. Camden is a little mad on weekends, but I hear some of the street food stalls are nice.

Street markets are also a good way to get cheap housewares. There is one in Angel next to the farmer's market, and another in Somers Town on Fridays, which is a small diversion from your university-dorm route. They even sell packs of toiletries, but I've never dared try them. There are also plenty of 99p stores on Camden High Street.

If you choose food shopping at a supermarket, there is the Sainsbury's of course, but there is also a Morrison's (cheaper) in Chalk Farm, a few minutes beyond Camden.
posted by tavegyl at 5:46 AM on January 2, 2011

clearly I should have previewed. Sorry for the repetition.
posted by tavegyl at 5:59 AM on January 2, 2011

Biking in London is not for the meek, fwiw.
posted by k8t at 6:04 AM on January 2, 2011

Another tip -- your dorm is likely full of other Americans. Do yourself a favor and try to befriend some non-Americans. :)
posted by k8t at 6:05 AM on January 2, 2011

Forgot to mention: your budget sounds positively luxurious compared to most students in London. As long as you keep your food expenses down by cooking sensibly, you should find you have more than enough cash to survive. Of course, if you want to travel abroad a lot in only six months, that will make a significant dent in your budget but can still obviously be easily done on the cheap.

tavegyl: "1 - the need to buy a bicycle. The nearest Boris* Bike stand is no more than a 10 minute walk from you, and if you're going anywhere in Central London, you can bicycle away without worry that it'll get stolen, where to park it, how to take it on the tube or bus if you change your mind, etc. Any number of my friends who have bicycles just don't use them any more when moving around the centre of town. That said, one of the most fun ways to go along the east-west axis is along Regent's Canal, which cuts through Camden and is a great walk or cycle-ride. Bonus: you get to see bits of the ridiculously expensive London Zoo for free."

I agree - the bike hire scheme is perfect for travelling in Central London. However, as it currently stands, it's next than useless for anything outside that (which would make up the vast majority of most student's trips). There simply aren't enough (if any) bike stands outside of the tourist hotspots and it can often take most of your 30 mins trying to find one. For going out or visiting friends, they often not a viable option. Getting your own bike is cheap and pays for itself quickly, plus you can recoup much of the cost by selling when you leave.

*I'm frustrated beyond belief with the fact that Boris (who for all his hot air about bikes has been useless in making the city better for cyclists or encouraging bikes) has co-opted the scheme to the extent that Ken's idea is now named after himself instead.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:30 AM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: Most of what I would have said has been covered (I agree with turkeyphant about the union). Ifor Evans is great: when I was at UCL us folks in other halls were slightly envious. UCL is relaxed and urbane, and the best thing you can do is make a lot of friends straight away: most of the rest will then sort itself out quite naturally.
posted by Segundus at 7:07 AM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: "Also, the UK Equivalent to Ramen is Pot Noodles. It's not identical though (and kind of nasty IIRC)"

Nope. Chinatown will sell you actual ramen, but the equivalent would be 'supernoodles' or 'instant noodles' which are on the same shelf in the supermarket. Find a large Asda or similar supermarket - or a Wilkinson's - and get plates, pans etc there. As others have said, Pret can be expensive.

Hair by Fairy in Covent Garden do the cheapest haircuts in London - £13. But they can be very variable.

Cheap books are to be found at Skoob in the Brunswick Centre (v.near you) or at the book and comic exchange in Notting Hill Gate. If you have indie/vintage tastes, MeMail me and I'll let you know where the best charity shopping (thrift store shopping) and retro places are. I'd also recommend Chapel St market in Islington and Leather Lane markets.

As far as stuff goes - Primark sell cheap clothing but it's not always great quality. Uniqlo is my favourite store for basics, and you may also like H+m (Topshop is comparatively expensive). Gap is more expensive here than in the US and the same is true for many international brands. Boots and Superdrug are the main chemist chains but supermarkets also sell toiletries very cheaply too. (If you can find a Poundland or Savers, go there.)

Brick Lane is great for street art, but has the arsey vibe you're anxious to avoid in some of the bars. What another poster said about music tastes is correct - Dave Matthews Band and plays the same tiny venues as Jens Lechman does here, and countless other big bands/records there are unknown here, but White Stripes, Scissor Sisters and The Killers fill stadia.

What do you consider to be 'expensive' in terms of restaurants? If we want a bite to eat we go to Pizza Express, Gourmet Burger Kitchen or Wagamama, but this is about £30 for two which can be expensive. Remember that the smaller Tesco and Sainsbury's can be more expensive than the large branches of the same chains. Get a copy of the Time Out guide to cheap eats in London - I have one and I've lived here for five years. Really useful if you want to meet up with someone or treat yourself a little.

London has beautiful old cemeteries which are worth travelling to, and you'll want to visit the major galleries too - which are free to enter!

Book your train tickets in advance on If you're going cross-country, NEVER buy them oin the day.
posted by mippy at 7:17 AM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was there pre-oyster cards in 2001-2002. You will love the Tate Museum if you like modern art, and you live near Camden Town so you can go to that market (Camden Lock?) on the weekends. I would definitely recommend walk as much as possible- it's cheap, and you see more. Buy the A-Z guide so you can figure out the streets. Have fun. Just try to spend as little money as possible and make sure you hang out with fellow students/locals in same mindset! Have fun, what a great experience.
posted by bquarters at 8:02 AM on January 2, 2011

Book your train tickets in advance on If you're going cross-country, NEVER buy them oin the day.

If you have an address in the US that's attached to a credit/debit card and has someone available to forward mail, you might be able to wangle a BritRail "flexipass" for UK rail travel, or a EurRail pass for the continent, which will give you some flexibility for travel without the astronomical cost of buying open tickets.

Biking in London can definitely be intimidating, especially at this time of year, but you shouldn't discount it for commuting, especially once you learn the quieter routes. The bike hire scheme is great, but has its limitations once you get out of central London; if you buy a bike, spend money on a good lock, but assume that it'll get pinched and insure/budget accordingly.
posted by holgate at 8:28 AM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: Just popped in to add a few things:

- If you're into that sort of thing get a bike. It's such a great way to get round London. But don't spend much if you can avoid it. There is a lot of bike theft in London and there is a fighting chance anything decent will get nicked. Camden offers free cycle training to its residents, by the way.
- If you're looking for cheap, secondhand stuff, Freecycle, Loot and Gumtree are good resources.
- Private label (store brand) food is generally good quality, as Mutant says. Morrison and Asda are cheaper than Sainsbury and Tesco. Waitrose is the most expensive but best quality of all. The cheapest of all is discount retailer Lidl, of which there is one on Camden High St. Convenience stores are, like everywhere, expensive.
- Make sure you get your student card quickly: it entitles you to a bunch of discounts. If you plan on using the railway network, get a young person's railcard and book as far ahead as you can. Be aware that pricing on the UK rail network can be opaque and confusing.
- Martin Lewis' money saving site is a fantastic resource for anyone who cares about not spending over the odds. I'd highly recommend browsing before you start spending money or signing up to things like mobile phone contracts.
- Hotels and so forth can be eye wateringly expensive. Two cheap chains are Premier Inn and Travelodge. Better still, consider becoming a YHA member.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:43 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi! Welcome to the neighborhood! I loved living on Camden Road (I live elsewhere in Camden now) and I bet you will too.

Your budget is fine. I'm a student too and I'm living off less. I find that when you have a big block of money like that, creatively finding ways to save is key. You can afford to say, 'OK, I really want this dress, so I'll buy it now but skip going to the pub this week.'

The Sainsbury's on your road is brilliant -- it's huge and open till midnight during the week. You can buy Sainsbury's own brand food to save money, and to save even more, go for the Basics range in the orange and white packaging. I buy a lot of their things and what I think it's best for is food where you don't have to have it, you just kind of want it (i.e. snacks). The Basics 10p noodles are fine. There are several types of biscuits in the Basics range, my favorite being the huge package of ginger snaps for like 37p. Another great way to save money is to buy food from the reduced section (it's near the ready meals, in the same aisle as the meat -- look for the yellow stickers). It's for food that's going to expire that same day, so it's often half price or at least greatly reduced. I always check there first to see if I can grab something for cheap. Often people wait there while the guy prices the food so they can jump on it right when it goes on the shelf. Sometimes there are things you can buy now and freeze and have later, like fresh pizzas or meat. Also, I've found that supermarkets here seem to have a more random sale process than in America -- if there's something you need or really want, wait a while, because eventually it will go on sale. Even super nice things, the type I'd never see on sale in the US, will be on sale eventually.

A great cheap snack-type thing that often serves as a meal for me is bruschetta. This might be good for you cos you don't need lots of equipment to make it. What I do is buy a loaf of Sainsbury's Basics white bread (40p or so), cut the crusts off, and toast the slices (toaster or oven). Chop up tomatoes, mince some garlic, and tear up a few basil leaves and mix it all with some olive oil. Then spread the mixture onto the slices of warm bread and enjoy. I bought a basil plant from Sainsbury's in October and it's saved me so much money -- it only cost like 10-20p more than buying a packet of fresh basil, and if you just water it and keep it on a windowsill, it'll last for ages. And it's so nice having fresh basil as opposed to the stuff in a jar. For bruschetta, you can buy cheap everything, but if you want to splash out on one ingredient, buy nice olive oil. If you want to make it a little nicer, spend a little more on tomatoes (Sainsbury's has a great range, from Basics to various lovely types to the fancy and expensive Taste the Difference line).

Walking to school is totally doable. It might be a bit cold now, but it will be glorious in the spring, and your school is very close to Camden. (Also that's like half of the walk into town, so if you want to check out Oxford St or thereabouts after class, you're already nearly there.) My school is an hour's walk from here and I generally try to walk and either walk or get the bus back. I've only taken the Tube when it's been really cold and icy (the Tube is super crowded and full of commuters in the morning, too, so avoiding it is a bonus). I love walking to school in the morning because it's free (another great way to save money!), London is amazing to walk around, I get to know the city so much better, and I walk with my iPod so I really enjoy having a big block of time alone with my music before settling down to focus on the school day.

My favorite Chinese place around here is on Camden Road -- Swallow House at 75 Camden Road. They deliver (quickly) and it's cheap and great. It's so near to your halls you could easily collect it yourself if you fancy it.

You'll be near Regents Park, which is huge and great for wandering around. I like to go at the weekends and watch the dogs. Primrose Hill is a lovely little area with posh shops, pubs, and restaurants, with lots of super expensive flats. If you spend enough time here you're pretty much guaranteed to see a celebrity (I walked past Alan Rickman on the street once). You can also walk up Primrose Hill, which is in Regent's Park, for a great view of the city. (If you're a Blur fan you have to do this.) Belsize Park is worth a wander -- some nice pubs and shops there. Plus, if you walk up Haverstock Hill to get there (the main road there, coming from Chalk Farm), you'll get a great view of the city on your walk back.

Camden is one of the best places in London for going out and I know pretty much all the pubs around here so MeMail me if you have something specific you're looking for. (Many of them have live music and club nights, so if you want to see some bands, there's tons of options for you here. Quality varies wildly but you'll never run ouf ot bands to see.) I really like the Elephant's Head -- they have a DJ on weekends who plays some amazing older music. The Good Mixer on Inverness Street is where I usually go with friends, but I don't know if I'd really recommend it to people -- it's a pretty dingy dive bar and there can be some rough people in there sometimes. But they're fixing it up now, the bar staff are friendly (all Aussies or Kiwis), and it's ridiculously cheap (£2.50 for a mixed drink). The Old Eagle on Royal College Street is very nice (also not far from you) and a good slightly out-of-the-way place which tourists generally don't stumble upon. Sometimes there's a guy playing cards in the pub who brings his really cute dog, Sally. It's still a novelty for me to see dogs in pubs so I love this. (The bar staff at the Mixer own a dog and you can sometimes see him behind the bar -- they all live upstairs so if you go there you'll probably see someone taking him out for a walk once in a while.) I arranged a MeFi meetup at the Old Eagle a few months ago and that was really fun. Um, the Hawley Arms is somewhere you want to avoid as that's where all the excruciatingly cool people go. (Well, they're not, they just think they are.) The Lock Tavern is heading in this direction but is still fun to go to sometimes, especially in the spring/summer -- they have Fruli (delicious strawberry beer from Belgium!) on tap and there's a lovely garden and a roof terrace. The Edinboro Castle by Parkway is also great for spring/summer with a huge outdoor seating area, lovely roasts, and Fruli as well. Proud is a huge venue with various live gigs and club nights. It can be worth going to, but there's a lot of crap on too, and some Hawley-type people sometimes unfortunately. The gigs are something to look out for -- I've seen Pete Doherty play there, but I've also seen my friends' bands play there, so there's a big variety there. Club nights can be fun to go to with friends sometimes -- the stables area is nice for sitting and talking with friends. The Dublin Castle on Parkway is well-known for gigs, so it's worth checking out if there's something you want to see. I find it a bit crowded and expensive for just sitting and having a pint, though, so I wouldn't go there unless you're going to a gig. Koko, near Mornington Crescent, is a huge old (100+ years old) theatre with some great gigs, mostly indie type stuff. There are so many more places around here to go to (Bartok, Monarch, Barfly, World's End..) and I could go on forever, but just know that you're in a great place for going out and live music.

Camden is a great location transportation-wise. Many, many buses go through here or even start/end here. I usually consider the bus first if there's somewhere I need to get to that I can't walk to. There are a ton of bus stops right on Camden Road. The 134 starts at Tottenham Court Road and goes through Camden, so I usually use that or the 24 to go into town and back. The C2 stops just off Oxford Street. Double-decker buses are a great way to see the city -- go up to the top and just look out the window the whole time. The buses that aren't double-decker can get a bit crowded, as can the bottom level of double-deckers, but the top generally isn't too bad. A great way to save money and get to know the city better is plan a journey where you take a bus somewhere and then walk the rest of the way to your destination. The Tube can just be a huge hassle sometimes, especially when you have to change lines more than once. Getting to know the buses around Camden will definitely change your experience of living here for the better.

I recommend checking out Temple sometime. It's stunningly beautiful there and amazing to just wander around.

Since you're into music I highly recommend checking out Denmark Street. It's an amazing little street off Charing Cross Road with guitar shops. I play guitar so I like to head down there every few weeks, but even if you don't play it's worth seeing, trust me. It's just really enjoyable to see so many nice guitars in all the different shops -- there are some beautiful things there, always. (There's a stunningly beautiful White Falcon in the window at Wunjo at the moment.) One of the shops only sells vintage guitars and it's super expensive, but amazing to just look through. I also enjoy hearing people try out the guitars -- if you go in every shop you'll most probably find at least one ridiculously talented guitarist playing at any given time. If you do play, well, you are going to be in heaven. (Bonus: the 134 drops you off right there -- its last stop. Other bonus, for Americans: the UK's only Chipotle is a minute's walk away, on Charing Cross Road.)

Do you like sports? A great thing to do, especially if you really want to get to know England, is going to a football match. I think this would be fun even if you're not into football. I played soccer as a kid and I'd been to some MLS games in the US, but man, this is on a whole other level and it's awesome. It's completely different than going to a sports game in the US. You will probably be sitting next to someone you'd never have met otherwise. You will hear hilariously creative and often offensive songs and chants. You will see some amazing physical ability. I don't think the importance of football in the UK can be overstated. There are lots of football teams in London, from the Premier League down to the lower leagues. You're lucky in that you'll be living very close to Emirates, home of one of the best clubs in the Premier League, Arsenal. Tickets are hard to come by but totally worth it. If you can't get a ticket to see Arsenal, there are other teams you can go see that won't sell out as quickly. This is also a great way to get to know other parts of London. In 2010 I went to matches at Craven Cottage (Fulham), White Hart Lane (Tottenham), and Upton Park (West Ham). All great experiences, and a very different, very English thing to do. (There are a few American players in the Premier League, too, so it might be fun for you to see some of them.) This is just about the midpoint of the season, so if you pick a team now, you'll get to follow it throughout the twists and turns of the season until May. Huge bonus: if you want to meet English people, paying attention to football is a great way to do so. It's a great conversation starter with a huge percentage of the population. Going to the pub to watch the match on TV is a big part of English culture and it's really easy to meet people just by going to a pub when a game is on and commenting on the game. Most games are on the weekend, and most of these are on Saturday afternoon, so the atmosphere can be more casual than late night going out drinking time, which also makes it easy to meet people.

There are tons of different clothing stores to explore here -- Topshop (there's one in the US, yeah, but only one), River Island, Mango, Next.. The sales are on now so this might be a good time to pick up some clothes that will make you stand out to Londoners less and that your friends in the US will be jealous of -- and that no one will have when you go back home. There are some amazing, huge department stores in London -- there's Harrods in Knightsbridge, but most are on Oxford Street. Selfridges is my favorite -- it's beautiful, just breathtaking to wander around. Even if you can't afford anything there, it's just an activity in itself to go see everything and browse. Usually when I visit there I look around and then pick up something that's not terribly expensive from the food hall. The food hall is great if you want to buy something at Selfridges, but can't afford a Burberry trench coat or whatever -- you can just pick up a really adorable cupcake, or a gorgeous loaf of bread, or a bottle of unusual fruit juice. They also have a neat bookstore on the lower level that has tons and tons of foreign magazines -- I think they have every foreign edition of Vogue that there is, and many other magazines. These can be fun, cheap things to buy -- even if you can't read the language, looking through the pictures can be enjoyable. Fortnum & Mason is another great department store -- like something from another time. Staff in cutaway coats, glorious ice cream parlour &c. Other great department stores to visit are Liberty, Fenwick, House of Fraser, John Lewis, and Debenhams. In Camden, there's a nice H&M that just stocks their Divided line. There are also lots of charity shops in Camden if you want to look for used clothes. All of my female English friends shop regularly at charity shops.

Walking around the South Bank in the spring is really fun. I never fail to be amazed by the sight of all the beautiful, famous bridges over the Thames. Buy a 99 from a street vendor and wander around the South Bank when it gets warmer for a classic English experience.

Camden Market is worth checking out occasionally. Most of the stuff there is crap, but you can find some nice things if you take the time. Don't be afraid to haggle with the salespeople. You can find some nice jewellery, vintage clothes, interesting t-shirts, and more. Most of the food there isn't great, but there is one amazing Chinese place I've found -- near the stables bit of the market, with a few chairs if you want to eat in.

If you walk up Camden Road in the other direction, you'll get to Holloway. It's worth a wander and can be good for food (the fruits/veg in bowls Mutant talked about). There's an amazing shop, Vivien of Holloway, that sells gorgeous vintage-style clothes on Holloway Road.

As far as buying everyday things like shampoo, you can get this stuff at Boots, Sainsbury's, the pound shop on the high street, wherever. But I'd recommend checking out Superdrug (there's one on Camden High Street). I went there a few weeks ago and with my receipt they gave me a piece of paper with a link to a survey about shopping there. It took about 3 minutes to fill out and when you finish you get a voucher for 25% off Superdrug brand products and 10% off everything else. (You must spend at least £10.) Superdrug's own brand products are cheap anyway, and are fine, so I stocked up on toiletries for the next few months. I spent around £17 and got £6.50 or so off -- all on stuff I would have bought anyway. So I'd recommend going to Superdrug and buying one cheap thing to get the voucher, then do the survey, come back, and spend the voucher -- you'll then be set for your whole 6 months here.

Well, I think this answer is getting a bit long now, so I'll end here. If you have any more questions about Camden or London in general, MeMail me and I'll be happy to help. I'd also be happy to show you around the area or go out for a drink sometime, so contact me if you fancy it. I hope you enjoy Camden as much as I do and I hope you have an amazing time in London!
posted by Put the kettle on at 11:46 AM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

You seem to have had lots of good advice!

Two things I'd add - go to a 99p shop when you first arrive, and buy essentials. You may even be able to get saucepans there. Also, Poundland.

Also, buy one of the Time Out books of London Walks - Volume 1 or Volume 2 - both are excellent, and will show you lots of different parts of London. Nothing is cheaper than spending an afternoon exploring on foot.

Good luck - and if you want to get in touch when you're in London I'm @dancall1 on twitter
posted by DanCall at 11:48 AM on January 2, 2011

BorisBikes: Helmet, helmet, helmet. Did I mention that you should own and wear a helmet?

Also, seconding Superdrug. No idea how Boots stays in business. It's cheaper, and carries the same stuff. No-brainer. Argos is also good for general household goods. It's a very strange, and very British establishment. Stop in at least once to marvel at it.

If you'll be train-ing around the UK, definitely get a Young Person's Railcard as others here have suggested. Pretty sure UCL's Student Union will have a place where you can buy one.

Please, please, please read Seat61's guide to railpasses before you buy one. Often, booking in advance will be a lot cheaper than using a railpass, especially if you plan to stay in the same city for more than a day.

On the British Rail Network each train company is obligated to sell you tickets on any other company's trains at close to the best price, so shopping around shouldn't be necessary or too painful. Some operators offer a small discount for booking with them directly.

When booking European train tickets, doing it directly through the train company is almost always the cheapest, unless your train will be crossing multiple international borders. In that case, Eurostar or RailEurope are your best bet. (To add to the confusion, you can often save money by breaking your trip into a few legs). Deutsche Bahn sells tickets for Germany, SNCF for France, RENFE in Spain, Trenitalia in Italy....

I planned my trip across europe by booking the "major" trips in advance, and filling in the minor journeys along the way, at my leisure.

Most of the low-cost airlines don't appear on price comparison sites (RyanAir especially). AirNinja is a great way around this, as it'll tell you what cheap airlines fly what routes, and let you do the comparison yourself.
posted by schmod at 12:38 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Re: Budgeting, when I was planning my trip to Ireland, I used Yelp to get a bead on what I could expect to pay for different types of meals--check out a few restaurants that have their menus online. I also found this site that says it compares grocery prices in the UK.

The more time you spend budgeting for the meals you're accountable for, the more money you'll have for side trips!
posted by smirkette at 12:54 PM on January 2, 2011

Totally agreeing not to buy too many clothes. There are such good deals on cuter clothes in London and you won't stick out as much.
posted by k8t at 1:36 PM on January 2, 2011

Book online at not through any travel office.

I'd beg to differ - if you have time, go and book in person at the ticket office in one of the mainline stations like King's Cross or Euston. Admittedly, I haven't been to either of these specifically, but based on what I know of other rail stations - There can be long queues, but the guys are generally well informed on special deals you wouldn't know about just browsing online and can show you really easily the price of different journeys on their screen, which makes it much easier to work out, for example, if a journey will be much cheaper if you make it at 8am rather than 11am. The assistants vary, but if you're lucky you'll get one who enjoys the challenge of helping people work out their journey. If you get one of those, tell them if you're happy to split a long journey in two and they might help you do some split ticketing (where, for example, weird pricing/timing quirks might mean that instead of buying a single from London to Edinburgh, it's cheaper to get a single London to York, then a second single from York to Edinburgh).

Nthing that your journey to college is walkable, and that buses are probably better than tubes - cheaper, more pleasant at commuter time, much better for discovering the city and understanding your whereabouts, and provide a great window from which to watch the city go by. Don't be intimidated by them, start out learning one line at a time and don't be afraid to sit on the bus with an AtoZ discretely open on your lap working out where you are. The TfL journey planner can help you work out which bus to take.
posted by penguin pie at 2:19 PM on January 2, 2011

Response by poster: Thnak you all so much! This is all incredibly helpful. A few bonus questions:

I know that UCL courses tend to be graded almost entirely on the final exam or paper undertaken during the third term. There's a five week or so break between second term (ends at the end of March) and the beginning of third term (starts the first week of May). The examination term lasts seven weeks on its own, and I'll be taking half the normal number of exams since I'm only there for second term. Should I plan on spending some time working on school things over the holiday, or is it a real break? That's when I'm hoping to do most of my traveling, esp. to mainland Europe. Any other insight into UCL undergrad academic life would be appreciated :)

Clothing: any clothing I should expressly avoid packing because it will mark me out as an American? Answers mentioning "fitting in" clothing-wise worry me a little :). I dress pretty typically for a semi-stylish American undergrad- not too trendy, but no sweatpants and Uggs either.
posted by MadamM at 3:16 PM on January 2, 2011

Just a coda to my comment above - when I say to book train tickets at stations, I mean book in advance at the stations, not on the day - they have tickets on the system up to 3 months ahead of time, the earlier you get in, the cheaper they are.
posted by penguin pie at 4:14 PM on January 2, 2011

penguin pie: " if you have time, go and book in person at the ticket office in one of the mainline stations like King's Cross or Euston. Admittedly, I haven't been to either of these specifically, but based on what I know of other rail stations - There can be long queues, but the guys are generally well informed on special deals you wouldn't know about just browsing online and can show you really easily the price of different journeys on their screen, which makes it much easier to work out, for example, if a journey will be much cheaper if you make it at 8am rather than 11am. "

So you're the person who blocks up the queues for transactions that can easily be done online or using the automated machines (kidding)? I've always found the "cheapest fare finder" online to be orders of magnitude simpler and faster than trying to get a person in the ticket office to navigate through various menus testing various permutations. Seriously, if you really want to save money on train tickets, it's really not fair to ask a ticket office to test all the different possibilities when the online tools do it so well. Furthermore, if you're not booking a complex journey, there are several online-only discounts available.

MadamM: "Should I plan on spending some time working on school things over the holiday, or is it a real break?"

It depends how long you usually take to prepare for exams. There are people who can skip all the lectures during the term then cram on what's likely to come up with two 12-hour days (or nights) before the exam and others who require a solid week or two of revision. You'll find both doing well and not so well on UCL exams. Frankly, travelling through Europe sounds a lot more appealing and there should be ample train journeys or flights if you feel the need to get some work done.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:30 PM on January 2, 2011

>it's really not fair to ask a ticket office to test all the different possibilities

Of course it is, that's what they're there for! (Especially in the advance booking office - it's not like you're holding up someone who's trying to get a ticket for the next train). You don't have to stand banging the desk and demanding a lengthy extra service from them, that's just what the good ones do, fairly swiftly, when you tell them what trip you're after. I've had good results that way when they've suggested cheaper routes/changes I wouldn't necessarily have thought of, and I'm guessing that might be even more the case for someone who doesn't know the train system as well. But clearly everyone's MMV :)
posted by penguin pie at 5:39 PM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: In terms of clothes - think more restrained style than the preppy that seems to be popular in the US. I wouldn't stress too much about it for now. You don't sound like you're going to be wearing anything ridiculous.

By the way, you're also near Camden Road overground, which can take you east and west. This means you can easily get to Dalston, home of the hipster, but more importantly the awesome Rio Cinema, one of only two or three genuine indies in London. Their tickets are only £5 with a student card if you go the right way. You can also go further east to Hackney Wick, and wander down the canals, past the awesome Counter Cafe, and have a gander at the amazing, ever-changing architecture of the Olympic site. It's a lovely walk, IMO. You can also take it all the way west to Kew Gardens, which is beautiful in the warmer weather, but is kinda pricey. Also, add me to the list for MefiMailing for more info - I'm in my mid-late 20s, but have grown up here with largely little disposable income, so I might be able to help with cheap and decent options.
posted by Magnakai at 7:37 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Clothing: any clothing I should expressly avoid packing because it will mark me out as an American? Answers mentioning "fitting in" clothing-wise worry me a little :).

Dude, you live in Camden. Camden is crawling with goths/alternative types (who tend to be quite friendly.) I think you can wear whatever you want and no one will look twice.

The food stalls in Camden Market are cheap, and there are enough of them that you can shop around for whatever you're craving. Camden Lock and the Stables Market are the best bits. The peoplewatching is second to none!

When visiting this or any other street market, usual market rules apply: be aware of where your wallet is; keep your handbag zipped. I've never had trouble there, but you never know.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:42 PM on January 2, 2011

Boots and Superdrug do not carry the same stock. Boots is where you will find more makeup ranges (they tend to the mid-market), Soap and Glory and a lot of their own-brand stuff which is really good. Most brand names are shared between both chains but one or two aren't, which may or may not make a difference to you.

If you're really worried about clothes and fitting in, have a look at some street photography on Flickr (nb NOT Vice or the like - it'll have you thinking all British people wear leopard-print jeggings.) or UK shop websites like Topshop, New Look etc and this might give you an idea. Honestly though, in London and particularly in Camden nobody will care. If I recognise US tourists on the tube, it's because they're carrying a guidebook and a bum bag.
posted by mippy at 1:54 AM on January 3, 2011

There's some good advice here, but a lot of absolutely terrible advice too.

-You should definitely eat regularly at the Hare Krishnas' free vegan food stall outside SOAS.
-Camden market food is neither cheap nor nice. (BONUS TIP: Camden market stuff in general is neither cheap nor nice. It was once, but now it's just full of t-shirts saying 'UR THE WEAKEST LINK GOODBYE!' or 'iPood'. )
-Avoid Sainsbury's which is horribly expensive and good for nothing but Mozzarella.
-Look out for short-dated food, which will usually be at one location in the supermarket and have absolutely loads of vegetables, ready meals, puddings and lunch foods, plus the occasional joint of beef, at a really serious discount (look for a messy pile of food covered in yellow labels). You need to get to the supermarket at the right time, though. Around 6-6:30 is generally best, but later in the evening can work too.
-Almost all UK supermarkets will have a little note below the price that displays the price per 100g or price per unit. This is your best friend. Pay no attention to anything else, particularly labels that say 'Value' or 'Bargain'.
-Don't attempt to get a curry on Brick Lane, for Pete's sake.
-Lots of little places in Chinatown, not on the main drag but in the little side streets, that are very cheap to eat at.

-For god's sake avoid the buses unless it's late at night or you're going to South London or you don't care what time you get there (fine for sightseeing, not fine for getting to lectures or meeting up with people). Nobody I know who is from London uses buses, just my foreign student friends who keep ringing me up surprised that they're three hours late and still only halfway there.
-You can walk to Central London from Camden if you want to, but it'll mean you'll avoid a lot of fun stuff that you can't walk to. Get a Travelcard and use it to travel to free attractions all over London. You'll have a much better time.
-I wouldn't get a bike unless you are used to cycling in a very big city, as you'll probably be terribly injured or killed. If you buy one, it will get nicked. If you attempt to use Boris Bikes, you'll find they are useful only for smug city executives and are unavailable anywhere a normal human being would like to go.
-Don't try to 'do Europe' in the middle of your six month trip. If there's one thing that makes you sound like an American, it's that. Use your break to do university work and enjoy London - six months isn't nearly enough to take the city in.

University stuff (as a Londoner who went to study in America for a semester once):
-The register for British academic writing is very different to that for US academic stuff, in ways that are difficult to sum up neatly here. You might want to buy some of those little books Blackwell's do about academic writing or something.
-British academics are a lot less approachable than American ones, and don't take as kindly to being asked for things. It's a lot more Guess Culture, I suppose.
-It will be made much less clear what you are supposed to do, and so it will be far easier for you to fall behind on your work without even realising it. Be very careful, and don't assume that not being 'set' work means you're not supposed to be doing a million things.

-Get a cheap PAYG phone the minute you step foot on British soil.
-Nobody in London will give a toss what you look like, ever, even if you went out dressed as a gladiator all day.
posted by Acheman at 5:15 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Acheman: "You should definitely eat regularly at the Hare Krishnas' free vegan food stall outside SOAS. "

There's one much closer to you on Inverness Street.

Acheman: "Avoid Sainsbury's which is horribly expensive and good for nothing but Mozzarella. "

This is really harsh and not really true at all. Where else would you recommend for someone who lives in Camden? There's not much to choose at all between Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrison's and the Camden Sainsbury's is one of the best ones around. As long as you don't buy your fruit and veg or "specialist" food there, it's as good as you're going to get for the money. Supermarket mozzarella is horrible but so cheap it's bearable for pizzas, etc.

Acheman: " (BONUS TIP: Camden market stuff in general is neither cheap nor nice. It was once, but now it's just full of t-shirts saying 'UR THE WEAKEST LINK GOODBYE!' or 'iPood'. )"

This is correct.

Acheman: "Nobody I know who is from London uses buses"

This is obviously far from representative.

Acheman: "I wouldn't get a bike unless you are used to cycling in a very big city, as you'll probably be terribly injured or killed. If you buy one, it will get nicked. If you attempt to use Boris Bikes, you'll find they are useful only for smug city executives and are unavailable anywhere a normal human being would like to go. "

And this is needless scaremongering. It's not hard to cycle in London and, while there's a lot of work still to be done, it's not terribly unsafe either if you ride sensibly. Buying a posh bike will get it nicked; if you just get a cheapie second-hand and remember to use your locks, you'll probably be fine.

Acheman: "If you attempt to use Boris Bikes, you'll find they are useful only for smug city executives and are unavailable anywhere a normal human being would like to go. "

This is also true.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:46 AM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: You've had some amazing advice so far. Even where it may seem contradictory, it's all valid. This is because London is as confusing as it is exhilarating. Some notes on your academic experience:

I was an undergraduate at UCL in the 90s and taught history there till 2007, when I moved to Queen Mary in the East End of London. It's an amazing college, but huge; its buildings are spread all across Bloomsbury. It hasn't really got a campus 'identity' as such, though Ifor Evans is really a community of its own. Do take advantage of the federal University of London as well as UCL, such as its Library in the Senate House and the olympic swimming pool, bars, and gigs at the University of London Union (ULU). Both are just round the corner on Malet Place, so most people there tend to be UCL types anyway.

British academics are not, in general, any more or less approachable than American academics. In fact, they're becoming more and more responsive to undergraduate students, not least because of the new student fees regime. Students are far more aware of themselves as consumers of a product and are more confident (far more so than I ever was) in demanding better treatment.

Almost all university administration is far more ramshackle than in the States and you should expect a couple of queues and some moans while getting all the paperwork sorted. If you don't understand what's expected of you on each course, you should feel free to ask. One of my American students this year thought she had to produce an essay for every single course she was on - including language courses and the like - and spent two weeks worrying about it before she actually found out she only had to write two for the whole semester.

However, the most immediate difference you will find between academic life in the UK and the US won't be the essay:exam ratio (tho' courses tend to be far more heavily examined, an increasing number of papers are coursework-assessed, especially the one-semester courses) but the library provision.

Library opening hours are limited, holdings are not especially brilliant, and borrowing rights can be heavily restrictive (some books can only be taken out for four hours at a time). Despite this, all teaching tends to assume that everyone will have done the reading. One of the most important things to do when you start a course is to make arrangements with other students to share books. Turning up to a seminar and saying that you couldn't find a particular reading will lead to raised eyebrows from the course teacher at best, ejection from class at the very worst.

Have fun! Oh, and get your bagels from Brick Lane, not your curries. Go to Drummond Street for them.
posted by bebrogued at 10:11 AM on January 3, 2011

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