On a budget: cheap shot at London

Tom Reilly, in his hometown and on a budget, can still afford dinner at Claridge's and a bed in Mayfair.

Locals rarely tire of quoting 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson's observation: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." But visitors may relate more to his contemporary, William Shenstone, who remarked: "Nothing is certain in London but expense."

As one of the world's most expensive cities, London is always a difficult place to see on a budget but this year, as the British economy tanks along with the value of the pound, it may prove a little more affordable. Here are some suggestions.

Sleeping

When it comes to assaulting your wallet, London's hotels have a reputation as fierce as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the gangster twins who terrorised the city in the 1960s. Bargains are almost non-existent but there are options that offer genuine value.

The Travelodge (travelodge.co.uk) chain of hotels provides exactly that. You might not want to stay in one on your honeymoon but for affordability they are hard to beat. The company has 15 hotels in or around the city centre, including locations such as Covent Garden, Tower Bridge and overlooking the Thames in Fulham. Doubles start from just ?29 a night ($59, excluding breakfast), with family rooms ?32. All rooms have an ensuite, king-size bed and television. Book online for the best deals.

Youth hostels can be a cheaper option, especially for families who don't mind bunking down in the same room.

The YHA's London Central (yha.org.uk) is just behind Oxford Street in the centre of town and has recently undergone a multimillion-pound refurbishment, while the YHA in Holland Park has one of the best locations imaginable. Sitting in a gorgeous park between the uber-posh inner suburbs of Notting Hill and Kensington High Street, it allows guests to enjoy breakfast while watching the peacocks stroll through the manicured gardens. In both hostels, rooms sleeping four begin from about ?45 a night.

Backpackers may want to check St Christopher's Inns (st-christophers.co.uk), three lively hostels near London Bridge that are perfect for meeting new drinking partners. Dorms start from ?16 and twins from ?25 a person.

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For those seeking something more upmarket or a night of luxury, it pays to haggle. The global financial crisis has seen hoteliers reduce prices, especially on weekdays with the collapse of the business market.

One executive with the Sanderson group of hotels gave this advice: "Phone after 3pm, ask about availability and price and, whatever you're told, reply that it's a bit more than your budget.

"Suggest a figure about 30 to 40 per cent lower and you'll be surprised how often you get the room at the discount price. Lots of places are struggling with occupancy so they're pleased to get people through the door."

We tried this at the trendy St Martin's Lane hotel (stmartinslane.com, 45 St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4HX, +44(0)2073005500) and were offered a double room for ?150 after being told it was ?225.

The same trick scored a room at the Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair (www.chesterfieldmayfair.com, 35 Charles Street, London, W1J 5EB, +44(0)2074912622) for ?120, rather than the initial ?180.

Eating

When Traveller strolled through the West End recently, nearly every restaurant was trying to lure diners with special deals and set menus but some eateries are great value year round.

In Soho, try Busaba Eathai (busaba.com, 106 Wardour Street, W1F 0TR, +44(0)2072558686), which serves delicious Thai food. The smoked chicken and broccoli noodles with a beer came to just over ?9.

Nearby, on Lexington Street, is Mildreds (mildreds.co.uk, 45 Lexington Street, W1F 9AN, +44(0)2074941634), a vegetarian restaurant that serves huge portions of mostly organic dishes that start from about ?8. The vegie burgers are enough to fill even the heartiest omnivore.

For an ultra-cheap Chinese option, try Cha Cha Moon (15-21 Ganton Street, W1F 9BN, +44(0)2072979800), where a spicy Singapore noodle main costs just ?4.80.

The influx of migrants from the subcontinent after World War II has resulted in curry houses appearing on every high street. Brick Lane, in East London, is the most popular spot to enjoy the spicy fare it's had a book and film named after it and has scores of restaurants competing for business. One of the better places is Papadoms (94 Brick Lane, E1 6RL, +44(0)2073779123), where the chicken jalfrezi (?7.50) is nice and spicy.

Masala Zone (www.masalazone.com) is a good chain that has seven sites around the capital (including Soho). Two courses start from ?8.50.

For a good-value meal, although not necessarily a budget price, Gordon Ramsay's eponymous restaurant at Claridge's Hotel in Mayfair (gordonramsay.com/claridges, Brook Street, London W1K 4HR, +44(0)2074990099) does three courses for just ?30, with mains such as sea trout with a smoked shellfish or herb-baked fillet of lamb. The staff are friendly and helpful, even if you don't look like you're a regular.

Another Michelin-starred restaurant with a lunch special is Pied a Terre (pied-a-terre.co.uk, 34 Charlotte Street W1T 2NH, +44(0)2076361178) in Soho. Two courses start from ?25.

One essential stop is Borough Market (boroughmarket.org.uk) for lunch (Thursday to Saturday) or breakfast (Saturday only). A market has been there since Roman times, it is said, and the stalls sell delicacies from around the globe.

For cake and coffee to keep you going on a busy sightseeing day, try Patisserie Valerie (patisserie-valerie.co.uk) on Old Compton Street in Soho. The chocolate mousse cake (?3.75) is scrumptious.

Nightlife

London is awash with bars and pubs, some of which are great and some downright awful.

For anyone intent on a big night with a small wallet, there are places that have year-round specials. Dirty Martini (dirtymartini.uk.com, 11/12 Russell Street, WC2B 5HZ) has half-price wine and champagne and ?4 martinis Monday to Saturday, 5-9pm. At Browns Bar & Brasserie (82 St Martins Lane, WC2N 4AA, +44(0)2o74975050), cocktails go for ?3.50 from 4pm to close every day.

For star-spotting, head to The Grenadier pub in Belgravia (18 Wilton Row, SW1X 7NR). It's a favourite of Gwyneth Paltrow and is where Guy Ritchie held his buck's night in happier times.

To get away from the tourist hub, head outside the West End. One of the trendier spots is Hoxton (near Old Street tube station). This area was once a down-at-heel inner-city enclave but became ultra-trendy in the 1990s as every empty space was turned into an art gallery. Bars such as Zigfrid Von Underbelly and the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen (both Hoxton Square, N1 6NU) are worth a visit even to watch the wannabe cool set strike their poses.

On a warm summer evening, head south or west and enjoy a beer outside. The pubs of Wimbledon village have an old-world charm and if you head to the Crooked Billet (14-15 Crooked Billet, Wimbledon, SW19 4RQ, +44(0)2089464942) you can sit out on the famous Wimbledon Common. Other excellent options in fine weather are the pubs that hug the Thames in Hammersmith.

Grab a table outside the Blue Anchor (13 Lower Mall, Hammersmith, W6 9DJ, +44 (0) 2087485774) or the Old Ship W6 (oldshipw6.com, 25 Upper Mall, W6 9TD, +44(0)2087482593).

With more than 40 theatres in the West End there's bound to be a play or musical to suit your taste. But if you're not hell-bent on seeing one show in particular, head to Leicester Square, where there's a booth selling half-price tickets for that night's performances. It's open from 10am (noon on Sunday), with most tickets about ?20 each.

For the best bargain in theatre, though, head to the Globe (shakespeares-globe.org, 21 New Globe Walk, SE1 9DT, tube: London Bridge), a reconstruction of the playhouse used by Shakespeare, where you can watch a play from the standing area for just ?5.

The easiest way to check club, theatre, comedy or cinema listings is to pick up either the Metro (mornings) or thelondonpaper (evenings), which are distributed free Monday to Friday in the city centre. Also keep an eye on lastminute.com. As well as theatre tickets, the site has late deals on posh restaurants and hotels.

Sightseeing

Don't be afraid to join the tourist throng. Go and see Big Ben, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and spend an afternoon trawling the shops on Oxford Street. The best and cheapest way to get a feel for the capital is by foot. See londonforfree.net for walking suggestions. The Royal Walk is easily manageable in a day and the site gives interesting detail on the landmarks.

Take in a trip on the London Eye (londoneye.com, Jubilee Gardens, SE1 7PB, +44(0)8705000600), which gives a different perspective. At ?15 it's not cheap but you won't feel disappointed as you stare down on some of the best known buildings in the world.

Perhaps the best news for budget travellers is that all the major galleries and museums are free so, even if you're no culture vulture, there's no excuse not to get involved.

The National Gallery (nationalgallery.org.uk, Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN) is home to a world-class collection with paintings by the likes of Monet, van Gogh, Degas and Cezanne. Around the corner is the National Portrait Gallery (npg.org.uk, St Martins Place, WC2H 0HE, +44(0)2073060055) which, being a little smaller, is easier to manage on a one-off trip.

South of the river the Tate Modern (tate.org.uk/modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG, +44(0)2078878888), housed in a converted power station, has works by Dali, Picasso and Pollock.

From there, pay ?5 (or just ?3.35 if you have an Oyster card) and take a boat to Tate Britain. Even if you don't fancy another gallery the trip is worth the cash as you'll pass London landmarks along the way and it's cheaper than a river cruise.

The Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ) has a substantial collection linked to Britain's military past and has lots of interactive displays that will interest all ages. The Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk), Science Museum (sciencemuseum.org.uk) and Victoria & Albert (www.vam.ac.uk) are all within a few hundred metres of each other on Cromwell Road, near South Kensington tube station.

Getting around

Public transport is great value as long as you don't pay for each trip separately. Go to any train station and pick up an Oyster card, which you'll need to snare a discount or use with a Travelcard. See tfl.gov.uk.

Tom Reilly travelled courtesy of Air Asia.

Air Asia from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur is $225 one way, including tax. From Kuala Lumpur to London Stansted the fare is 646 ringgit (about $250), including tax. These fares must be booked at airasia.com. Air France has a fare for $2259 return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, flying Qantas to Singapore with a change of aircraft in Paris.

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