London 2012: 6 Tips for Saving Money at the Olympics

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David Goddard / Getty Images

An aerial view of the Olympic Park in Stratford on July 12, in London, England.

If you’re heading to London for the Summer Games, it was expensive enough just getting your airfare, tickets and lodging. So once you’re in the Motherland, there are a number of ways you can enjoy the Olympics without digging too far into your wallet. Here are TIME Moneyland’s six tips for saving money in London.

1. Shell Out for an ‘Oyster’ Card

Despite the $8 deposit, this credit-card sized creation called the Oyster can save you around 40% on London’s Underground system, which is without a doubt the best way to travel. Resist the temptation to jump on a famous London Bus – it seems like a great idea now but you’ll soon realise that the closest thing to culture on these things is the blanket of bacteria lining the dirty floors. Taxis will be expensive and slow as a large part of the 109-mile Olympic road network will contain lanes secured exclusively for Olympic VIPs.

2. Beat the Banks

Perhaps that’s not entirely possible, but you can at least make sure you’re getting a good deal from your bank. The first step is to ensure you’re earning rewards like cash back on purchases, airmiles or loyalty points for spending abroad. It’s easy to get swamped in the sea of credit card small print, so comparison sites like Card Hub and CardRatings.com can be useful tools for deciphering the best deals. Also, make sure you’re being given a good exchange rate. “If you have the right card, you will almost certainly save money when compared to exchanging for foreign currency,” says money saving expert Martin Lewis. So with the right piece of plastic, you can avoid getting clobbered with commissions for changing dollars to pounds before you leave.

(MORE: Why Are Some Olympics Women’s Teams Flying Coach?)

3. Always Carry a Bit of Cash

The second step is to plan out how you’re going to pay for things. The U.K. banking system uses a different credit card technology called “Chip & PIN.” Cards in the U.K. carry a microchip and require a PIN code for transactions, making it trickier to pay for things with a U.S. credit card. Technically, you should be able to swipe your credit card and sign, but many workers won’t be used to this system and complications may arise. In addition, many machines set up for Chip & PIN, like ticket dispensers at train stations or luggage lockers, don’t accept U.S. credit cards at all, leading to another potential headache. So while it may feel like you’re taking a trip back to the 1990′s, cold hard cash is probably the best option. ATMs are ubiquitous in London, so as long as you’re getting a good deal on exchange rates, you’ll never be far away from a reliable source of funds.

A few more points to consider:

  • Some sneaky ATMs will try to charge you as much as $3 to use them. Avoid these like the plague and if you do find yourself using one, cancel the transaction as soon as you’re asked to confirm the charge. You can be sure to find a free ATM just around the corner.
  • American Express cards aren’t widely accepted in London as they cost retailers more to process, so AMEX users are better off cashing up or seeking an alternative credit card for your trip.
  • In a classic example of British irony, the only place you may struggle to use an ATM is in the Olympic Park itself. Games sponsors VISA have a monopoly on money dispensers, meaning anyone without a VISA card will have to withdraw their cash before arriving at the venue.

4. Uncover Secret London

Whether 14,700 lycra-clad athletes are there or not, London remains a world leader for arts, culture and partying. As English language godfather Samuel Johnson once proclaimed, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Hopefully neither sentiment will be proved right during your trip. Free museums, stunning day walks, bustling markets and innovative art exhibitions abound aplenty in the U.K. capital, which as well as the Olympics, will also be continuing festivities to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this summer. Put simply, there will be a party on every corner, but for fans of organised fun, websites such as londonforfree.net and TimeOut London will have detailed itineraries of all gratis gatherings, including the giant movie screens that will be set up to screen Olympic events in all of London’s major parks.

(MORE: Survival of the Fittest)

5. Don’t Keep Your ‘Bees and Honey’ in Your ‘Skyrocket’

They may have been romanticised in Charles Dickens classics like Oliver Twist, but sadly today’s London pick-pockets are more likely to break your nose than break into song and dance. Despite overall crime falling across the capital, robberies are up 13% in the last year, so it’s vital to keep your wits about you. Obviously travel insurance will be able to cover any thefts (make sure you’re only carrying as much cash as your policy covers). As well as pick-pocketing, London’s Metropolitan Police expects cell phone theft to be a big threat this summer and advises all tourists to keep public cell phone use to an absolute minimum. Other than that, their advice is pretty standard stuff. However, we recommend signing up to the Metropolitan Police Service’s alert service for up-to-date information before and during the games.

6. Coupons Are Your Friends

While the world’s premier athletes are gearing up for Herculean-sized competition, London’s businesses are fighting an equally fierce battle for the custom and cash of the 12.7 million tourists expected to visit this year. And regardless of the outcome, the swathes of deals due to appear on voucher or coupon sites such as Groupon and Travelzoo will mean that a little bit of homework is all it takes for you to be a winner every time. Restaurants, bars, attractions and leisure facilities will all be offering online promotions to entice tourists. “Even independent retailers will be offering discounts as they need to compete with larger retailers,” says Mark Pearson, Chairman of MyVoucherCodes.co.uk. “I strongly recommend searching for money saving deals during the Games. You’ll be surprised by the amount of money you can save.”

(MORE: U.S. Hurdler Lolo Is No Choke)

Many of the sites (including Pearson’s) now offer smartphone apps, meaning you won’t even need to print off coupons. For a list of the U.K.’s top sites, click here. And remember, these businesses are desperate for your dollars, so even if there isn’t an offer, haggling is well worth a shot.

2 comments
Kay AndBaby
Kay AndBaby

We planned our trip months in advance, but here's how we're hoping to save a little cash on our trip next week: we're flying into Paris (there is cheap transport from the airports to central London, but we knew the airports in London would be packed and decided to bypass them altogether) and we'll take the Eurostar from Paris to Ebbsfleet International in Dartford. 

We've never stayed in Dartford before but it's much cheaper than central London as far as hotels are concerned. From Ebbsfleet International in Dartford we're taking the Javelin (high-speed domestic train) to Olympic Park in Stratford. 

When it's all over, we'll take the Eurostar from Ebbsfleet back to Paris and fly out. Is anyone else planning on doing it this way?