When I hear of budget travelers visiting London, the thing they almost always skip is the theatre. This is such a shame. When you talk about value for money, if you know how to buy cheap tickets, there are few better deals you’ll find while traveling. These are often the same shows with similar talent and production value to Broadway shows in New York at a fraction of the cost.
I’ve seen more famous celebrities at the shows than I can even remember and never missed a show I was dying to see. Over the last decade or so, I’ve gone to see literally dozens of shows and always have managed to find a great deal. I’ve seen everything from the chamber dramas up to the bombastic musicals. There are many many great ways to save money. Unfortunately most guide books only focus on the TKTS Half Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square. Although there are some decent deals there, I’ve rarely found this booth to offer the best deals. They routinely offer half price on the best available seats. This will still often amount to a £30-£45 ($45-63 USD) ticket. Even for the shows offered at TKTS, there are often better ways to get tickets.
So, I’m sure the next question you’re asking is how cheap do the tickets get. I’ve found the range for my options here are £5-£20 ($7.50-$30 USD) with the low end getting you bad seats that you can almost always improve on and the high end getting you front row center to the biggest show in town. So, here are my techniques for finding great discounts to the best shows in London.
Go right before the show
Assuming the show you’re going to isn’t sold out, this is a great way to see a show at a discount. The way it works at most theaters right before the play is you pay for the cheapest ticket they have and you get moved up to the best seat they have available. On my most recent trip to London, this worked for 8 time Tony winner “Once” where I bought a £19.50 ticket and was moved up to the 7th row, a ticket that lists for £69.50. At the TKTS booth, this seat would probably sell at half price of £34.75 plus a processing fee. Checking across the pond, “Once” is playing at the time of this writing with similar seats on Broadway for $142. The plan is to walk up about 10 minutes before the show and ask what they have available. This technique is easy and reliable as long as you are confident that the show will not sell out.
Sit in the cheap seats and move up
Many times I have bought the cheapest seat in the house, which is often £10 or less even getting as low as £5. I’ve used this technique especially to get in to dramas with famous actors. Often the seats are listed as obstructed view, but even sitting in my assigned seats, I have never had a view that was severely obstructed. These designations are often used to protect against complaints. If there is the slightest obstruction in the area, selling the seats as obstructed view limits the complaints and fortunately for you, scares off people from buying a perfectly good seat at a phenomenal price. Then there’s the other unspoken truth that the seats around the obstructed view are often not bought so you can slide over or forward into a much better seat with no obstruction whatsoever.
£5 at Shakespare’s Globe Theatre
Another great technique and something fun to tell your friends about back home is being a groundling at a Shakespeare play in the Globe Theatre. There are tons of tickets to every show for £5. For a £5 ticket, I’ve seen Vanessa Redgrave genderbend and play Prospero in The Tempest and had Prince Charles in the audience with me to see Hamlet. The location is terrific as well and you will get one of the closest spots to the stage. Notice I’m not using the word “seat” and that’s the drawback to being a groundling. You have to stand to watch the play, but it’s such a fun experience that if you are able-bodied, I highly recommend you do this at least once. One last tip is to get there early so you can have the best view in the house.
Generally if you are a student, child, or senior there are various discounted tickets to the shows. The policy varies from theater to theater, but generally cheaper tickets are offered or better seats are offered at the cheap ticket price. You’ll want to contact the theater directly or check out their web site for more information on their specific policy.
Most of these tricks focus on London’s West End, where the biggest shows are, but if you wander further out into Zone 2, there is an edgier theater scene with more offbeat and colorful offerings. If this is your cup of tea (pun intended), then most shows have tickets starting as cheap as £5.
Generally a show in London will have two matinee shows a week. Find out when those are and usually you can get seats more easily for the shows by not fighting the evening crowds. Although the matinee strategy works fine for getting tough tickets, it also works like a champ combined with other strategies. For example, if you’re doing the 10 minutes before the show strategy, try it on a matinee for even better seats.
Occasionally, some of the most popular shows will hold a lottery for discounted tickets to a show. On my most recent trip to London, this paid off in the best way possible. The toughest ticket I’ve ever seen in London was for “The Book of Mormon”, winner of 9 Tony awards. Every seat seems to sell out shortly after they are released and it is nearly impossible to get a seat anywhere in the theater. However, two hours before every show they release 21 front row tickets through a lottery for £20. For reference, these seats list at £127 and sell out immediately. On one of the major third party ticket selling sites, these seats were selling as high as £700. I combined my strategy of using the lottery with trying for the matinee and was selected third, getting front row center tickets to the biggest show in London for £20.
Pay What You Like
Some shows around town will have tickets set aside to pay what you like for specific performances. These are usually for slow days of the week to help fill the seats. Although you are allowed to pay what you like, it is generally expected that you pay at least £5, as that is the bargain-basement rate around town.
Call the theater and ask
For my final tip, if you’re not sure how to get tickets to a show you really want to see, call the theater and ask. I’ve found the ticket sellers are generally very forthcoming for information on how to get in to a tough show. For the most part, they are in the same boat as you probably are if you’re reading this…a theater fan short on cash. Be kind and appeal to the better nature of the workers there…a good travel strategy in any part of the world.