This guide will take you through some of our favourite cheap day trips from London to further afield. From well-established tourist spots to lesser-known hidden gems, there’s something for everyone – even on a student budget. And, we give you a few of our top tips on saving money on travel.
Top 8 Cheap Day Trips From London:
Just North of London, St Albans is a commuter town, so you can be assured it’s a quick and easy day trip from London. It’s one of the most expensive places to live in the UK – both because of its proximity to the capital but also because of its beautiful architecture and parks. St Albans is famous for its ancient Roman history and if you visit you will see the town’s Roman wall still intact.
If you enjoy having a mooch around a market, St Albans is home to a number of farmer markets and street markets which operate on different days of the week. The biggest and most famous of them is the St Albans Traditional Street Market which runs every Wednesday and every Saturday. It takes over some of the city’s main streets and squares and has everything from food, crafts and clothing for sale.
St Albans Cathedral is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in the UK, and this cathedral is completely free-of-charge to the public, so it is worth a visit if you’re interested in history.
Another worthwhile thing to do in St Albans (and completely for free) is to take a walk around Verulamium Park. This park is home to some impressive Roman ruins and is named after the city’s ancient Roman title, Verulamium. On your walk, you’ll find the remains of one of four ancient Roman city gates across the city. Apart from the ruins, it’s a beautiful park with views of the cathedral and the River Ver.
How far from London? Just 20 minutes on the train from St Pancras.
Cambridge is famous for the names of some brilliant minds having been educated there – people like Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin and Alan Turing. You can spend a few hours walking around the colleges to take in the heritage buildings. A guided tour of King’s College is currently £9, but the must-see in Cambridge is probably the daily Evensong which you can enjoy in the famous King’s College Chapel. If you happen to be there on a Sunday, attend the Sunday service here. These are both free to the public.
Cambridge has more art galleries and museums per square mile than any other city in the UK outside of London. Some of these will be more expensive than others, but some are free to enter – it’s not a huge city, so you can enjoy wandering around and finding interesting spots to spend some time. You may have heard already of the Fitzwilliam Museum. This museum has been voted the best free attraction in East Anglia and has an ever-changing schedule of popular events that are worth checking out. The permanent collections include fine art and medieval artefacts.
How far from London? Under an hour on the train from King’s Cross.
Hop on the train to Brighton from Victoria, London Bridge or Blackfriars, sit back and you’ll be at the south coast seaside in about an hour’s time.
With it being by the sea, there are plenty of things to do in Brighton to keep you busy without spending a penny. You can walk for miles along the promenade in either direction – and you can walk, cycle, or get public transport back again. A stroll along the pier is hard to beat and if you catch the sunset overlooking the ruins of the old West pier, it’ll be worth sticking around for.
Brighton is also known for its unique shopping opportunities. North Laine is full of bohemian and alternative independent stores selling all kinds of wares. The Lanes are also worth having a walk around in. They are made up of lots of narrow cobbled streets between the main shopping streets and the seafront where you can get lost looking at vintage jewellery and small independently owned art galleries.
If art is your thing, Brighton is the place to be. It’s a colourful city full of artists. There are art galleries everywhere selling known and unknown artists’ work. You can also spend time taking in the street art found on every corner. Brighton Pavilion is a unique royal building where you can sit in the beautiful gardens surrounding it in the summer months or have a skate around the ice rink over the Christmas period.
From here, you aren’t far from the Downs. If you’re a keen walker, the Downs are worth exploring. Just get the number 18 bus to the racecourse (up the hill) and you can set off for a hike from there and enjoy the sea views from a height.
How far from London? Roughly 1 hour on the train from Blackfriars, London Bridge or Victoria.
We’ve added Bath to our list because it has history, beauty, countryside, and charm. This will be a little further outside of London than the other day trips we’ve listed – but it will be well worth the travel time. Just make sure to book your tickets in advance – as this journey is a little longer, the tickets can be especially expensive if purchased on the day.
Bath is in Somerset, a very picturesque part of the UK. There are cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings, including the UNESCO World Heritage Bath Abbey. It’s not a large town so you can explore on foot.
The must-do in Bath is probably the Roman Baths, so don’t forget to bring your swimming costume. The Baths are the foundations of the city – you can see what life would’ve been like thousands of years ago, and the same natural spring continues to pump its healing waters for people to enjoy.
How far from London? About 90 minutes on the train from Paddington station.
A day trip to Margate (in Kent) will be somewhat different to your Brighton one. Like Brighton, it’s on the coast, but it’s much smaller and much less busy. This old town is making a revival and it’s easy to see why. It’s full of characterful old stores and kiosks and traditional greasy spoon cafes. Plus, the beaches in Margate are sandy rather than pebbled, so if you feel like a day of sunbathing on the sand, this is a good choice for you and your friends – head to Margate Main Sands for the best part of the beach.
One of the highlights of Margate is the Turner Contemporary art gallery, which is a huge modern art space relatively newly opened, with wonderful views over Margate. The work of J.M.W. Turner and the gallery is built on what was once his boarding house. It’s free to visit this gallery.
It’s also worth spending some time at Dreamland amusement park. With its vintage rides and Ferris wheel, it’s based on a traditional English seaside funfair. While you’re there, try Dreamland’s candy floss at the Naughty Floss vendor. They serve candy floss in every flavour you could think of and with popping candy on top!
In Margate, you will also find a 30-metre tunnel which is decorated with over 4 million shells. It’s a magnificent piece of art and no one knows who created it or when – quite a mystery. It costs about £5 to enter the tunnel to see it, but it’s well worth it for the picture.
How far from London? About 1 hour 45 minutes on the train from Victoria or St Pancras.
Another coastal town on our list, Chichester is a beautiful town and there are plenty of free things to get up to when you get there.
Chichester has city status in the UK because of the Chichester Cathedral – and it’s a particularly picturesque one. It features a mix of Gothic and Norman Romanesque architecture, and you’ll find an extensive art collection inside which is unusual for a place of worship. The cathedral hosts all kinds of events like concerts, exhibitions and even lectures.
Surrounding West Dean College, you’ll find the West Dean Gardens which are full of interesting and exotic plants as well as century-old cedars and chestnut trees. Take a stroll towards the Edwardian pergola and the fibreglass tree sculptures near the West Dean Gardens café. If you fancy more of a hike than a stroll, you can attempt a 9km walk along the Centurian Way – or bring your bike with you (you can take your bike with you on the train from London, if you have one).
West Wittering has a long sandy stretch of beach where you can find water sports if you want to spend some time in the water. Or, just a little further from here is Bognor Regis – another beautiful place to visit if you do have the time.
How far from London? About 90 minutes on the train from Victoria.
Start your time here with a leisurely stroll down the King’s Mile, where you’ll find lots of unique boutiques to have a look around. There’s an indoor farmers market called The Goods Shed where you’ll find lots of different vendors selling their wares – there’s everything from woodfired pizza and burgers to sushi.
Another cathedral, but this one is also very much worth seeing. Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury and has been a place of worship for mow than 1,400 years. Visitors can enjoy the breathtaking view of the fan-vaulted ceiling, as well as the impressive central nave.
How far from London? About 1 hour on the train from St Pancras station.
Another one famous for its university, Oxford is small, picturesque and unique and there’s s a whole host of free activities to entertain yourself with. The Ashmolean Museum is free entry and is the world’s first university museum. Like much of the architecture in Oxford, it’s Greek-inspired and beautiful. The main collection consists mostly of archaeological items and art. You’ll find everything from Greek pottery to Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi as well as a couple of Picasso paintings.
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a favourite for tourists. You can learn all about the Big Bang as well as the famous now extinct Oxford Dodo.
While you have to purchase a ticket for Christ Church, you can have a wander around the huge Christ Church Meadow just outside the college. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic if you don’t want to splurge out on lunch in a restaurant. Find a spot to sit near the river bank where you might even see some of the Oxford College rowers practising.
If you happen to go to Oxford on either a Wednesday or a Saturday, the Oxford University sports teams usually have matches on, playing at their home grounds against other universities. You’ll find lacrosse or football games in University Parks. If this is something that really appeals to you, try to plan your trips around an Oxford Vs Cambridge match. They’re rivals so the atmosphere is particularly special during those matches.
For a great picture opportunity in Oxford, head to Radcliffe Square. There are beautiful traditional Oxford buildings on all four corners of the square – All Souls College, Brasenose College, Bodleian Library and University Church of St Mary the Virgin. In the middle of Radcliffe Square is the Radcliffe Camera which is probably Oxford’s most iconic building. It’s a round building which is a library and known as Red Cam.
How far from London? Just an hour on the train from Paddington station.
The cost of travelling around the UK
Trains in the UK are infamously quite expensive, and some routes are especially costly for the distance you are actually travelling. As well as that, the prices vary hugely depending on the day and the time you travel. For example, if you travel from London to Brighton on a weekday morning at peak times, you would pay approximately £37 for an open return. If you were to travel to Brighton from London at the same time on a weekend day, you’d pay approximately £26 – which is quite a steep difference. Here are a few things you can do to try to reduce the cost of your train fare when you’re exploring outside of London.
Buy a railcard
You can purchase a student railcard online which gives you a considerable discount on all train travel in the UK. It’s £30 for a 1-year railcard or £70 for one that will expire in 3 years’ time. Even if you’re planning to use train travel only a couple of times, it’s probably worth the investment. You can find this railcard at 16-25railcard.co.uk. If you’re older than 25 or getting close to your 26th birthday, there’s a 26-30 railcard option too, but this one is only available for 1 year.
If you don’t fall into either of these categories, there are other options which have slightly different offerings – like a Network Railcard for example which is just for the south of England. With any of these, you will save approximately a third off your train fare, so it’s a big saving. If you have a friend you often go exploring with, you could always get a ‘Two-Together’ rail card which offers a great discount too, and you could always split the cost of the railcard.
Use the Trainline app
The Trainline app (or using trainline.co.uk) is really useful for checking fares, and you can purchase tickets far in advance after comparing prices. The app also shows you which times fall into ‘peak’ time, ‘off-peak’ or ‘super off-peak’. These are how the train times are categorised by cost based on the most to least busiest times to travel. Generally, you’re best avoiding the times that commuters are travelling into and around London as these will be the busiest and most expensive times to travel on the train.
Using the Trainline app also means that you can get through the barriers with your digital ticket, rather than using the machines at the station to collect or purchase physical tickets. This will save you from having to queue up at the machines and also means you won’t need to worry about keeping your ticket safe along with everything else. Digital tickets can be used at most major London stations, but some routes still require you to print your ticket from the machines. To do this, you just need the code that your booking app will give you when you book your ticket, along with your credit or debit card – London Bridge for example still uses paper tickets only.
The Trainline app is also handy for staying up to date with live departure updates – so you can check if your train is going to be leaving on time on your way to the station. And, using the journey planner feature of the app alongside Google maps or another journey planning service is a great way to plan any trips around the UK.
Usually, it makes more financial sense to book a return ticket as this will be cheaper than buying two singles – but, sometimes that’s strangely not the case. So, take a minute to check this before buying your ticket. As well as this, it’s worth comparing the price of an open return to the price of a particular return train you could get. Often the latter will be a bit cheaper but if it’s not by much, you might be better going for an open return, meaning you don’t run the risk of having to buy another return ticket if you end up not making the service you’d planned to get.
Train companies tend to release their tickets about 12 weeks in advance, and often they’ll be cheaper than if you were to buy them on the day. So if you want to save some money, buy your train tickets in advance as soon as your travel plans are confirmed. Another great feature the Trainline app offers is that you can set up alerts for advance tickets. You just need to drop your dates and travel route into the app and they’ll keep you updated over email. Even paying for your ticket the day before you travel is worth doing – it’s same-day train travel where you’ll notice the highest prices.
It’s also good to know that it can occasionally cost less to travel in First Class if the advance fares are all gone. Have a look – you might end up travelling a bit more comfortably on your travels. Some train providers offer complimentary hot drinks on First Class, but the main advantage is that the First Class carriage is usually quiet and with more tables. You could even try the travel app Seat Frog which lets you bid for reduced upgrades to First Class on the day of travel.
Earn cash back
If you have a Nectar card, you can earn Nectar points on your ticket purchases if you use the Transpennine Express app. If you have an American Express card or a Chase card, you might want to use these to pay for your tickets as you’ll earn cash back. It’s only 1% but this might be worth doing if you’re paying for a longer more expensive journey or making the payment for your friends as well.
If your train ends up being more than 15-30 minutes later than it should have been, you’re usually entitled to get a partial or full refund on your ticket price. The train companies all have varying terms & conditions on this, so it’s a good idea to check the app you booked on (like Trainline), the particular train operator’s website (like Southern Rail), or to ask at the ticket office once you get to the other side. Just bear in mind that if your rail journey was split between two or more different carriers and it was a delay with the first leg of the journey that made you miss the connection, you probably won’t be entitled to a refund for the latter connections.
Avoid a booking fee
We have recommended apps or websites like Trainline or Transpennine Express for getting the best deal on tickets, but if there is no deal to be had, it can be cheaper to get your tickets directly from the train operator you’ll be travelling on. That’s because they won’t always charge you a booking fee or delivery fee when you make the transaction. Saying that some operators will charge a delivery fee if you want your tickets to be posted out to you ahead of time. So, try to opt for collecting your tickets at the station. Just remember to leave yourself plenty of time before your train is due to leave. Or, opt for digital tickets if that’s an option. Either way, you’ll save yourself a couple of quid.
Explore your other travel options
We have gone into a lot of detail about train travel as going by train gives you the most flexibility and will allow you to explore in the most efficient way outside of London. But, there are other options to consider, especially if you want to make every penny count.
National Express coaches leaving from Victoria Coach station can take you to some of the towns and cities we’ve listed above. The prices aren’t consistent, and the services don’t tend to leave as regularly as the trains do, but you might make a saving by travelling by coach. Head to nationalexpress.co.uk to see where they might take you, and for how much. Or, have you heard of Megabus? It’s a no-frills bus service that runs on major routes. You can go from Victoria Coach station to Bath for as little as a fiver!