A week, a month, a year, a lifetime: There's not enough time to see everything that London has to offer, and we only had a week (less if you subtract jetlag and egress to and from the city) to experience the bustling capital, which is even more tourist-friendly than ever with its facelift for the 2012 Olympics. Even filtering the results by "free" and "cheap" meant an almost paralyzing array of choices, from world-class museums to bargain-priced classical music and High Tea.
A good place to start the search for fun is on the official Visit London website, which lists 101 Free Things to do in London. The choices are heavy on arts and culture, not surprising given the sheer number of museums and galleries in the city. And all of the heavy hitters are free -- the British Museum, National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, etc. Any one of these can occupy a day or three of your time. Make sure to head to the main information desk where free tours generally depart. These volunteer guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic; plus, it takes the pressure off of you to figure out what to see through the miles of galleries.
Another source for finding more timely free and nearly free events, as well as plenty of colorful commentary about life and culture, is the weekly Time Out magazine for London. It's just like your favorite alternative weekly in any big U.S. city.
One amazing place in London that is definitely not free is Westminster Abbey, which has been a religious site for more than a millennium. Royalty have wed there and been buried there, along with notable personages from English history. Mostly Gothic in style, the abbey is amazingly ornate inside, with large marble memorials adorning columns and walls as nonchalantly as picture frames in a house. But it's not free. In fact, it's more than $30US. Unless ... you attend a Sunday service, then it's absolutely free! There is a schedule of services listed, including some with music by real choirboys (insert you own joke here). However, this is an actual service, so respectful participation is expected and there is no loitering to look at stuff and no picture taking is allowed. If you do want to gawk and be a tourist, come back another day and pay the entrance fee.
Fancy a cup of tea as British High Society practiced it? Well, you could pay more than 100 British pounds for some crustless little sandwiches cut into cute triangles or you can search online for discounted reservations like a good frugal commoner. Even basic Afternoon Tea will set you back by at least 20 pounds, so we were excited to come across a deal for 40 percent off at the DoubleTree near Victoria Station.
You can keep on keeping it classy with classical music at St. Martin in the Fields, a lovely church across the street from the National Gallery that has free lunchtime concerts, as well as cheap seats for evening performances, if you don't mind the obstructed view. The acoustics are amazing. The bonus is the free restrooms in the crypt-cum-cafe in a city not known for its plethora of free public toilets.
A visit to London just wouldn't be complete without attending one of its big productions, many of which are housed in historical theaters. The common wisdom is to visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to get discounted tickets on performances. While this is a good deal, you can also visit the respective ticket booth and find even cheaper tickets for the cheap seats. Buyer beware: Many of these seats come with obstructed views. We settled on a ballet performance of Frankenstein, an original production at the Royal Opera House off Covent Garden. To grab the cheap seats there, you have to queue up outside the box office starting around 9 am the day of the performance you want to see (box office opens at 10am).
Getting to and from all of these fabulous locations is easy thanks to London's efficient Underground. We rarely waited more than three minutes for a train; often, we arrived at a platform and stepped right into an arriving train car. We opted for a weekly pass using what's called the Oyster Card (no idea why it's named after a mollusk). This is pretty much essential to have if you're planning to stay for any amount of time. You can head to the Visitor Oyster card website for more details, but if you're staying for about a week, then we recommend you invest in the weekly pass. It's saves you money and stress about having enough credit on your Oyster card as you pop in and out of a Tube station. (We estimate a savings of 15 pounds for the week.) There is also a pay-as-you-go scheme that has a daily cap, which may make sense if you're only in London for a few days. Either way, pay the 5 pounds for the refundable Oyster card. Cash tickets will end up costing you twice as much as trips made using the Oyster card.