With London being such a big bustling city, it is understandable to want to book ahead so you enjoy your time here. You’re probably wondering if you will get into the popular attractions like London Eye, Tower of London, London Dungeon, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge Experience and Tombs and Westminster Abbey without a booking.

Do you really need to book ahead to enjoy London? Potentially this is dependent on the type sights, restaurant, event and things you want to do. In this guide, I will cover how to look out for discounts before you book, what you should book in advance and what you don’t need to book.

Check Potential Discounts Before Booking

We all like to save a bit of money when on holiday. Before you head to an attraction, restaurant or anything in London check whether there is a discount available.

Days Out Guide

Days Out Guide is a great way to save money in London. It offers 2 for 1 price for London attractions. To be able to use the deal you need to book the vouchers online or visit a rail station for the voucher (it needs to be a physical copy) and have a National Rail ticket for each person. I’ve used 2 for 1 on the Tower of London before which save my mum and I £15 each on our entry.

The London Pass

The London Pass has a list of sights you can enter once you have paid for the pass and often with fast track entry. They cover an impressive 60+ attractions including the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge Experience and the Thames River Cruise. It’s key to plan out your day’s you have the London Pass so you can get the total benefit.

Groupon

Groupon will have quite a few deals for restaurants and cafes for the week. It’s not uncommon to see a Michelin Star restaurant offering a Groupon deal. The times are normal weekdays but if you are visiting during the week its such a great way to grab a deal for your holiday.

Buying Tickets Online

Booking in advance can sometimes save you a few pounds. I mentioned in the Days Out Guide section you can get Tower of London under 2 for 1 but if it is the high season this option isn’t normally available. Instead of buying at the door for £25 you can buy an adult ticket online for £22.70.

This is also true of train tickets, some train companies do add discounts to their own websites. For example, a train company may offer a discount for booking on their website which others cannot provide the same ticket. It is more an incentive to get people booking with the train operator they are travelling with and away from the competition.

What You Should Book in Advance in London

Train Tickets

When to book: 12 weeks in advance before you plan to travel.

Planning on leaving London or taking a day trip? Then booking train tickets in advance will save you a ton of money. There are different types of tickets that you can buy:

  • Advance (where you can save the most money) – With the advance tickets, you need to travel at the exact time and on the train stated on the ticket.
  • Off Peak – cheaper tickets than any time and allow you to travel any time off-peak. There may be restrictions on routes so double check beforehand.
  • Anytime – this ticket gives you the ability to travel anytime and will be the most expensive ticket available.
  • Group tickets – if there is more of you travelling and these can be cheaper than the advance ticket.

The tickets will be available in standard and first class. For any short trips like Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton I would suggest not buying first class as it doesn’t give you any added value and going with the standard. If you are travelling to Birmingham, York, Leeds and Manchester and have the cash to splurge on first class then it’s totally worth it. P.s. sometime you can get upgrades on the weekend for £10+.

Check National Rail or Trainline for the latest ticket prices. National Rail is like a sky scanner for the rail industry and will hand you off to train company offering that ticket.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

When to book: Two months +.

For Warner Brothers Studio I would allow at least two months in advance to book tickets or earlier if you can. Getting morning slots will be harder to obtain than afternoon slots! If you want to spend a lot of time at the studio’s book as soon as you know you are coming to London.

An alternative way to get tickets is to use the Golden Tours as they seem to have tickets available when the official website does not. The downside is it costs a little more and only gives you 3.5 hours at the studio before you must return to London.

Shakespeare’s Globe

When to book: A few months in advance for plays. A few days in advance or on the day for the tour.

Plays at the Globe can sell out so look at buying these in advance. Standing tickets are the more iconic way to see a play, as this what people did in the 1600s. There are 700 £5 standing tickets available for each performance in the summer theatre season, which runs from April — October.

There is also seating which are slightly more expensive.

The Globe also offers tours of the iconic theatre. These don’t need to be booked in advance so whatever works for you the best. The London Pass is accepted for entry to the Globe Exhibition and Theatre Tour.

Exhibitions

When to book: A few months to a few days in advance.

Museums and galleries in London have some pretty cool exhibitions and can sell out pretty fast. For example, London celebrated the 20th year of the first release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In October, the British Library launched an exhibition showcasing ‘Harry Potter: History of Magic’.

The event was so popular with the fans that there were no weekend dates left in the first week or so of the event opening. The British Library had assembled a room for every lesson that was taught in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There are classrooms for potions, alchemy, herbology, astronomy, charms, divination, defence against the dark arts and care of magical creatures.

It does make you wish that magic did really exist!

If Hogwarts doesn’t make you excited then look out for other types of exhibitions in London that might spark your interest. Look at booking these in advance as the popular ones sell out pretty quickly. I would highly recommend the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museums which is on every year.

Theatre, Ballet and Opera

When to book: A few months in advance to save money or a few days to on the day if you don’t mind paying the prices available.

Theheatres, Ballet and Opera are best to be booked in advance if you are set on seeing a show and a certain price range. You can get last minute tickets fairly easy as lots of people as theatres do get frequent no shows and sell these spots. It’s more risk of being disappointed with the options available to you and if you are with a group you may not be seated together.

I would recommend buying advance:

  • Book of Mormon
  • Hamilton
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
  • Lion King

To grab last minute deals try lining up at the theatre for stand-by tickets and returns. You can also visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square for cheap, last minute tickets.

Restaurants

When to book: A few months to a few days in advance.

London has a fantastic food scene and with that, some restaurants can book out in advance. With casual restaurants, I wouldn’t normally book ahead of time and some don’t allow booking. If you have a specific restaurant you want to visit, if it takes reservations I’d go ahead and book.

Of course, busier areas will be harder to get tables and even harder if you are a big group of people. I tend to book a table when I head out to Soho, Covent Garden and Shoreditch. Generally, I will have a look a few days before or on the day.

One of my favourite places to recommend people and take people when visiting in London is Duck and Waffle. Normally to get a booking I need to do this 3 months in advance when the reservations are open. I have been lucky some times to get a cancellation a week before I plan on going.

A few ideas to get you started:

  • Sketch – Instagram worthy pink themed 18th-century townhouse tea room turned into a restaurant and cocktail bar.
  • Circus – Serves Pan-Asian food with cabaret performance during courses. It’s great fun for an evening out.
  • Bob Bob Ricard – It’s an ionic Soho restaurant most famous for it’s “Press the bell for champagne” button.
  • Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at Sandersons – Alice in Wonderland is my favourite theme in the world and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is incredible!
  • La Bodega Negra – Mexican restaurant which disguises itself as a sex shop. It’s a bit of fun walking into the door and the food is great too.

Bars

When to book: A few months to a few days in advance.

London has some quirky bars! From cool cocktail bars set in the Victorian era to SpeakEasy, you will be able to find a bar the perfect place to enjoy a drink. Lots of bars in London don’t need bookings but there are a few I would recommend booking, otherwise, you won’t get a table or be waiting hours.

A few suggestions:

  • Bar Termini – Great little Italian bar location is Soho. Due to the size and the fact they take booking it can be hard to get a table so it’s wise to book ahead!
  • BYOC – Bring your own cocktail is a ton of fun. Everyone brings a small bottle of spirits and the bartenders make you drinks based of the spirits.
  • Cahoots – Blitz spirit alive with dazzling cocktails which is set in old style London Underground paraphernalia. Enjoy your drink in one of the tube cars!
  • Mr Fogg’s – Run by the same owners as Cahoots is based on “Around the World in 80 Days” and transport you back to the Victorian era. Enjoy adventurous cocktails like gin safaris to tipsy teas.

Buckingham Palace State Rooms

When to book: Allow a few days to weeks in advance to book.

The state rooms are only open from July to September. Whilst tickets are still available in March the tickets do start to run out towards the summer season so I recommend booking in advance.

Do expect there to be lots of people and the fact you will need to queue.

Ice-skating at the National History Museum and Somerset House

When to book: When tickets are released.

Ice-skating is an iconic thing to do in London during the Christmas period. The National History Museum and Somerset House sell out in advance. Occasionally you might be lucky to get a ticket on the day but it’s not worth the risk if this is something you want to do.

Kew Gardens Christmas Lights

When to book: When tickets are released.

Every year Kew Gardens transform into a magical after dark experience which takes you down an illuminated trail.

Ticket for Kew Gardens Christmas lights always sells out so make sure you get in quick when the tickets are released.

Sky Garden

When to book: 3 weeks ahead.

The Sky Garden is slightly odd where it is a free attraction but to get a guarantee you can go inside you to need to book in advance as a limited amount of tickets are available. Booking opens on a weekly basis with slots up to three weeks in advance.

When booking you will get to choose a date and time which will allow you to enter within that hour.

Shard Viewing Platform

When to book: 14 days in advance to get the discounts.

The Shard offers discounts based on when you book if you book more than 14 days in advance you can get tickets for £24.00, between 1 to 13 days £27.00 and on the day will be £32.00.

The view from the Shard is also on the London Pass and 2 for 1 offer.

To save money you can also skip the viewing platform and head to the bar on the 32nd floor at the Oblix. The view is amazing and a lot cheaper when you’re only paying for a glass of wine or soft drink. The entrance is right next to the Shangri La hotel.

London Eye

When to book: A few days in advance or on the day.

London’s weather can be flakey and booking ahead you could risk a day that has fog, rain or other issues with visibility, making the experience less than ideal. Leaving the booking to closer to the day will give you a better chance of beating London’s weather and enjoying your visit to the London Eye.

School holidays, summer and weekends will be busies times of year to go to the London Eye so it can be worth booking online to skip the queue and get the 10% discount.

Otherwise, it’s easy enough to book on the day if you would like to be flexible.

Tower of London

When to book: A few days in advance to on the day – mainly to get the discounts.

The Tower of London itself has a number of ticket kiosks and the chance of queueing more than five to ten minutes to purchase a ticket is low. By going early in the morning you will get the benefits of fewer people, head to the jewel room first so you get a bit of peace and quiet while admiring the jewels.

I would book ahead if you wish to score the discounts. You can pick up discounts tickets online or during the low season you can get 2 for 1 voucher. The voucher means you will need to queue at the ticket kiosk to get tickets.

Westminster Abbey

When to book: A few days in advance to on the day – mainly to get the discount.

Westminster Abbey doesn’t require booking but booking ahead means you will get a slight discount of £2 and avoiding the ticket queue. The 2 for 1 discount and London Pass is available for the Abbey.

During the summer queues do get long here so make sure you arrive before the opening time to skip the wait times.

St Paul’s Cathedral

When to book: A few days in advance to on the day – mainly to get the discounts.

St Paul’s offers a £3 discount and fast track queue if you book ahead. Online tickets are only available the day before. You can use 2 for 1 discount (if available and London Pass to enter St Paul’s.

I’ve worked near St Paul’s for the last four years and never seen a big queue for the Cathedral. Do expect lots of tour buses!

London Bridge Experience and Tombs

When to book: A few days in advance to on the day – mainly to get the discounts.

London Bridge Experience and Tombs only requires one ticket that gets you into both the attractions. Tickets start from £19.95 which will give you general admission. To get a fast pass this will set you back around £44.95, although I would suggest getting general admission tickets as there isn’t normally a queue and you can save £20!

If you have a London Pass this will get you entry as well. Again there is 2 for 1 option available, this option will only save you about £10.

London Dungeon

When to book: A few days in advance to on the day – mainly to get the discounts or a show time to suit your itinerary.

London Dungeon has set show times so if you need a certain time to suit your itinerary it’s best to book in advance. Booking on the day they will try and provide you either the closest slot or your desired slot.

You can save up to 30% when purchasing online, alternatively, you can use the 2 for 1 voucher.

Map

All the recommendations mentioned in this article can be found on this map. Don’t forget to save to your phone so you can find your way!

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