Visiting London means you have to take in a show. It might not quite be the law, but you’d be mad to miss the opportunity to take in a show or two. But seeing what you want, when you want can appear dauntingly expensive. So how do you go about getting cheap tickets to London theatre, without having a “cheap ticket” experience?
But surely, you say, the best shows are all sold-out!
Never fear: there are a few key tricks to snagging those show tickets you’re hoping for. (Even if, like me, you’ve not planned ahead!)
1. Beware the Obstructed View
Many London theatres are “quaint”, wonderful places…built before engineering could quite cope without support pillars and open stages. Be sure to check you’re not being parked behind a pole or around the edge where you’ll lose a third (or even half!) the stage.
Obstructed view tickets should be clearly indicated and come with a decent discount.
2. Learn the Levels
Finding the sweet spot between ticket price and seat location is so important, and not getting bamboozled by what seat you really want is a big part of that. So what do the names mean? Starting from the ground floor you’ll find:
The least classy sounding name brings the highest price and the chance to be front row. You’ll be looking slightly up at the stage in most places and you’re paying the highest price for it. If you’re in the first 20 rows this can be great for a play, but for a musical you’ll be missing anything beyond the first row of performers and any further back and you’re just paying a lot for…the privilege?
As a rule, I don’t get the Stalls, I don’t like the Stalls and I’m not going to pay for the Stalls. For a third to half the price you get to see the same performance with a better view. This is an easy choice.
Royal or Dress Circle:
First row up and this is my sweet spot. I’ll always go for a front row seat here (if the price is right!). No obstructed view and just the right elevation to appreciate most staging and performance elements.
On average, these seats should set you back about £40, but buying early, on sale or a return can get you a real bargain.
Grand or Upper Circle:
Now you’re up in the nosebleeds. If you’re buying tickets at the last minute or you’re shopping on a budget, this can well be where you end up.
There’s no shame in that! But there can be a lot of stairs to get there and the performers can wind up looking very small… For the right performance and price, who cares?!
Personally, I set an upper limit of £20 for these seats. Beyond that and you should be nudging into Dress Circle.
A great reference is this collection of seating plans for the major West End (and Fringe) theatres.
3. Beware the Booking Fee
Officially, the booking fee can reach even as high as 25% of the ticket price; but even then beware. This is an age-old tourist trap. Anything over 5% and my scam’o’meter would be pinging.
4. Buy from Reputable Sources
Which brings us to where you buy from. More tips below, but as you walk around Leicester Square and Piccadilly you’ll see plenty of booths selling tickets (and the occasional scalper). I’ve not heard of fake tickets being sold by any of these vendors, but I have heard of steep fees.
These ticket sellers aren’t official! They’re ticket traders, and if they’ve got just the right last minute ticket you’re after and you’re happy to pay the price, then go for it: but be very wary of the seating location (ask to see the seat map!) and be prepared to line their pockets.
There is one official booth: the TKTS Booth located in the south east corner of Leicester Square itself. They’ll be able to provide you with information on returns for most of that day’s shows and can sell tickets for up to a week in advance.
Otherwise, check that your vendor is a member of The Society of Ticket Agents & Retailers (get it? STAR); this will at least assure you of some accountability should anything go wrong.
So, how do you actually get good tickets?
OK, let’s start with the obvious. You’ve already googled “cheap London tickets” and seen that there are a host of options. Most will lure you in with big discounts and even bigger booking fees, so who should you trust?
TodayTix: This is a great and easy online option. Try for a lottery option and you can pick up front row seats for as little as £10! Failing that, £15-£25 rush tickets are available on many (surprisingly) big name productions looking to fill empty seats on any given night.
London Theatre Direct: I’m a big fan of LTD as they have a broader scope than just West End theatre, and their prices are on par with other discount sellers.
Love Theatre: This is a close second, especially is you’re looking for tickets in January and February as they start discounting New Year’s tickets in December. This is a great way to get cheap tickets in the doldrums of the theatre-going year!
Visit London: Up to 40% off on the biggest, most West End-y productions. Hardly the widest range of options, but if the goal is just to see one of the most “West End” musical productions currently running (and you can do worse than having that as a goal!), then this can well be worth checking out.
And other than “the web”?
TKTS on Leicester Square:
Our second mention of the TKTS Booth and it deserves it! Ignore the other booths and vendors. Assume scams and overcharging at ever turn! But TKTS will give you a real idea of what last minute tickets are available, and then they’ll sell them to you at a very fair price.
What’s the catch?
You have to buy them in person!
Check the website for availability though. They’ll tell you there what’s available for the next 3 days, and that way you’re not even at risk of wasting time in a queue.
What about the London Pass?
Yep! If you’re spending more 3 days or more touristing around London, you really should get yourself a London Pass; and when you do, you’ll also get yourself access to a good discount on many of the biggest productions.
If there is a particular show you really want to see and you’ve got a limited number of days to see it, you might just have to be the earlybird! Queues for Day Seats will form as early as 8am (or earlier for really popular shows) in the hope of snagging whatever tickets have been returned to the box office or held back for that day.
Be a Student or Senior Citizen
This is especially important if you’re going to Standby route: almost all London theatres will extend the local discounts for students or over-65s to you if you can prove they apply to you back home. Just remember to bring your proof!
Go to a Matinee
If you can be flexible with your show time you’re likely in for a bargain! Mid-week Matinees regularly have seats left over, so a simple box office enquiry will often be rewarding.
Organise (or join) a Group
Got 10 friends? Go for a group discount! This is a great way to reduce your per seat cost and ensure a lively post-show debate!
Go beyond the West End!
I’ll do a separate post for this because, let’s face it: the best London theatre isn’t on the West End!
Scandalous, I know, and what makes it to – and survives – on the West End will rarely waste your time, but if you really have a passion for great theatre, you’ll want to stray a little further afield.
And one such experience is right up there on the tourism scale: standing tickets at The Globe. Situated down on the Southbank, taking in a performance here is an absolute must for any first time visitors to London between May and September. Standing tickets will set you back £5-£10 and will put you in the heart of the action.
The only gotcha?
Try to get in early and stand against the outer edge. You’ll be grateful of having a wall to lean on by the time Hamlet enters his 5th round of will-he-wont-he do anything!