How to spend 12 hours in London on a budget

Looking for proof that travelling can be cheap as chips?

I recently made use of a €2 Ryanair flight by spending a day in London – I’ve definitely eaten more expensive chips than that.

Obviously the whole trip couldn’t stay that cheap, but with a little forward planning my day in London cost less than a return train from Cork to Dublin.

Our flight out from Cork arrived in Stansted just after 8am, and our flight home left at 8.30pm, so we had roughly 12 hours to spend in London. We did something similar last year, so we knew how to make the most of our time there.

Be warned though, you will do a lot of walking.

Here are my top tips for spending twelve hours in London (skip to the end for some practical travel advice):


Take the Tube from Liverpool Street to Hyde Park and check out the Winter Wonderland within.

Now in its tenth year, Winter Wonderland includes a large variety of stalls in a  German-style Christmas market, an ice rink, and an impressive funfair.

It opens at 10am every day, so if you’re a little early you can spend an hour or so browsing in nearby Harrods, and posing for photos with all the weird and wonderful stuff it is home to.


Once you’ve had your fill of currywurst and festive cheer, head through Hyde Park towards Oxford Street.

You’ll find plenty of mainstream shops here if you’re planning some Christmas shopping – I can never resist a look in the Disney Store – and the shopping experience only gets better as you turn onto Regent Street.

If you’re shopping for children (or big kids) you have to stop at Hamley’s Toy Shop and explore all seven floors of fun.

The lights on Oxford Street this year are stunning, even in daytime, so if you’re avoiding the shops there’s still plenty to enjoy along this route.


If you walk through Piccadilly Circus and veer towards Leicester Square, you’ll find another charming little Christmas Market in the centre of the square, which is more often home to glitzy film premieres.

It has a lovely festive feel and as you wander through it’s hard to believe you’re in the middle of such a busy city.


Slip down to Trafalgar Square to enjoy some buskers and performers.

While it’s not specifically festive, it’s a great place to pass through thanks to the abundance of singers and street acts.

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If you’re interested in art, there are a few free galleries you can also pop into around here if you feel like a cultural break from the frantic festive fun.

From Trafalgar Square, you can easily navigate your way to either Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, or, as we chose, Covent Garden.


Covent Garden, December 2015. Photo: Denise O’Donoghue

Covent Garden is well worth a visit around Christmas. You’re bound to find a unique gift her – that is, if the gorgeous decorations don’t distract you.

It’s another area famous for buskers, so you know there will be plenty of Christmas carols to be had here.

Grab a takeaway hot chocolate and stroll through the stalls to finish of your day.


If you’re not up for shopping, you can have a whirlwind West End experience without blowing your savings by squeezing in a matinee.


Turn up at the theatre two and a half hours before the show to enter the lottery for £25 stall seats, which are drawn two hours before the performance.

The Book of Mormon

Just like Aladdin, the Book of Mormon offers a daily lottery if you show up two and a half hours before the performance. Winners can buy tickets for £20.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

You can see this play for £15 if you pick up day seats at the box office from 10am.

Jersey Boys

Front row tickets are available for £25 for every performance of Jersey Boys.


Les Miserables

See the West End’s longest-running musical for just £12.50 if you buy your tickets on the day from the box office.


If you’re aged between 16 and 25 you can buy an £5 ticket to Matilda from the box office from 10am. Only eight tickets are available at this price and you will have to show ID to prove your age.

Phantom of the Opera

Now in its 30th year on the West End, you could see Phantom for just £25 if you call to the box office on the day at 10am. It’s so good I’ve seen it over half a dozen times.

War Horse

You can get a limited number of £15 day seats for this play from the box office from 10am.


Head to the Apollo Victoria before the box office opens and join the queue. Every morning at 10am the theatre sells front row seats for just £10.


If you don’t want to join a queue at one of the above venues, you could stop off at the TKTS booth on Leicester Square. They offer daily deals and bargains, and are the only place outside a theatre you should buy your tickets.


We landed in Stansted Airport, so we booked our train into the city a few days in advance and availed of a group travel offer with Stansted Express, allowing us to travel £8 (€9.50) each way.

A valid Stansted Express ticket also allows you to gain 2 for 1 entry to many top London attractions, including the London Eye and ZSL London Zoo. Click here for more information on this.

In the airport, we picked up some Visitor Oyster Cards too. These are different to ordinary travel cards as your journey around Zones 1 and 2 are capped at £6.50 (€7.70). There is, however, a £3 (€3.60) activation fee on all new cards. They are only available at London’s airports, or you can order one online here to be delivered to your home.

A Visitor Oyster Card also entitles you to a range of discounts and offers at many restaurants and shops.


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