London Travel Tips
London is a wonderful city to visit, since there are so many things to do. If cold weather is an issue for you, then visit London during the spring and summer. If you want to save money and see fewer tourists, then visit London during the winter and fall.
Currency is the British Pound Sterling with major credit cards accepted by most establishments. Time in London is five hours ahead of New York City. English is the official language, but Americans may not understand every word. Hotels have the most expensive rates on phone calls, so purchase a phone card for your international calls. The post offices are located throughout the city. Post office hours are 9am-5:30pm (Monday-Friday) and 9am-noon (Saturday).
Banks are open from 9am-5pm (Monday-Friday). ATMs are plentiful and the most convenient way to get British Pounds. The ATMs only accept PIN numbers with 4 digits. Passports are necessary for U.S. citizens. Most large stores are open 9am-7pm (Monday-Friday) and 9am-5pm (Saturday and Sunday).
Electricity is different than the U.S., so bring an adapter in case your btteries run out or request one from the hotel.
The major Holidays in London are New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, May Day, Christmas, and Boxing Day. For specific dates, go to the Visit London website.
- Confirm your flight at least 72 hours in advance.
- Check the luggage policy for your airline.
- Make a copy of your passport/flight itinerary/hotel reservations and leave it with someone at home. Also, carry an extra copy with you.
- Request an exit row seat for more legroom.
- Pack headache and other medicines in your hand luggage.
- If you have a cold or problems with inner changing air pressure, purchase the ear plugs for air pressure available at most airports or large pharmacies.
- If you are sitting in coach, bring your own cold non-alcoholic drinks and sandwiches/salad for the long flight.
- Bring plenty of magazines and books for entertainment.
- Buy a packing book, so that you learn how to pack efficiently.
- Drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration. Alcohol alone, caffeine and cola drinks are the worst things to drink on a long flight.
- Wear regular pantyhose that fit you properly on long flights. Control top pantyhose may cause swelling in legs and ankles during the flight.
- Circulation is very important. Make sure you walk around a little and keep your legs stretched out in front of you. For the economy traveler this may mean putting everything in the storage compartment above with the exception of your purse.
- To get rest on flights, bring neck pillows and eye masks.
- American English and British English are similar, but key words and the context of many phrases are different. For example, restrooms can be referred to as the WC which stands for water closet, or the loo. Other common differences — lift means elevator, the boot of the car is its trunk, nappy means diaper, fag means cigarette, and football (futbol) means soccer. A circus, as in Picadilly Circus, is a road traffic circle where busy streets intersect. The subway system is known as the Underground or the Tube.
- Some words are pronounced with accents on syllables other than Americans are used to, causing misunderstanding. For example, what we call aluminum in the United States is pronounced aw-loo-MIN-e-um by the British. The Thames River is pronounced Tims River. If you’re going somewhere that has a name with several syllables and you are unsure of the pronunciation, write the name down to show to cab drivers or transportation staff.
- Be descriptive if people give you a blank look (or look offended) when you ask for something.
- Everyone in London will recognize your American accent. Given the changing U.S. foreign policy, its best to avoid political conversations.
A Sister’s Story:
One sister found out that a towel is a feminine napkin. She learned this after calling the front desk of her hotel and asking for a towel. She was wondering why the male front desk clerk sounded taken aback, since he kept saying “Excuse me.” She finally said, “I need a towel to wash my face.” He sounded so relieved when he said, “Oh a washcloth.”
- The Heathrow Express, a non-stop train from Heathrow to Paddington Station, is the fastest and most convenient route into the city. For about $20, the stylish, new-looking trains will deliver you to the heart of London in about 15 minutes. Since it is a train, don’t expect help with your luggage. Paddington is a major transfer station with easy bus, subway and train connections to other parts of the city.
- The Gatwick Express, a non-stop train from Gatwick to Victoria Station is the fastest way to central London. The train ride is 30 minutes with departures every 15 minutes and costs about $20.
- The National Express Airport Bus. The ride to central London takes about an hour, but you don’t have to worry about transferring and walking through huge train stations. Your luggage will be stored underneath the bus. It is a nice way to travel to Central London if you have time and costs about $20.
- The most economical way to get to Central London is to ride the London Underground Train (Tube) but it is the slowest and most difficult. If you don’t have much luggage it is okay. The trick to navigating the Tube with a lot of luggage is to get the Handicap Tube guide that will show you all the stations that have elevators. It will also show elevator access as well as which line has the access (some stations have multiple lines and different ways of access dependent on which line you come in on).
- If money is not an issue, a taxi from the airport to central London costs about $100.
A sister’s story:
While traveling in and out of London during the course of a week, one sister experienced several ways to get between Central London and Heathrow. During off-peak hours, she took the Tube, which proved cheap (2.25 pounds or a little under $5) and easy. Without the crowds of commute hours, the trip was relaxing, though the journey made dozens of stops and took about an hour. The Heathrow Express was fast and moderately priced at about $20, with sleek, clean trains that were a step above their subway counterparts. Another time, after getting lost on the bus system en route to Heathrow, she reluctantly decided to take a cab from Victoria Station to Heathrow and paid 57 pounds or about $100. Paying by credit card meant an additional hefty surcharge. It was a fast ride, but the cost far exceeded the convenience.
- Use the Internet or phone cards for inexpensive communication with home. VisitLondon provides a comprehensive list of internet cafes. Easy Everything has locations throughout London and recommended by several sisters.
- Some hotels offer high-speed Internet service in your room. Ask for pricing and directions at the front desk. In most cases, you just need to plug your laptop into the phone cord provided (you may need an adaptor). Expect to pay about $30 for 24 hours of service.
- Don’t call the U.S. using your hotel’s phone service unless it’s an emergency or saving money is not an issue. You can easily spend more than $15 or more for a 5 minute call.
- You can purchase a pay as you go cell phone almost anywhere, even the grocery store. The provider may have special rates for long distance.
LONDON HOTEL ROOMS
- Unless you’re paying for luxury accommodations, hotel rooms are very small compared to the U.S., so pack accordingly.
- If you are bringing a laptop or hair appliance from the United States, be sure to have an adapter so you can plug into the electrical outlets, which are different from those in the states. You can buy a package of adaptors for various European countries at most large electronics stores in the U.S.
- Confirm that the breakfast buffet is included in your room price before going to the breakfast room.
- If you need to cancel a hotel room, confirm the hotel’s cancellation policy and get the cancellation in writing in order to avoid cancellation fees at a later date.
- For budget hotel recommendations, purchase Hello Britain and Ireland!. The book’s author, Margo Classe is a sister and has a series of books covering budget hotels throughout Europe.
MONEY and VALUABLES
- If your European trip includes visits to other countries, remember the Euro is the official currency in most of Europe but not in Great Britain. You can convert your U.S. dollars into Euros to spend in France, Italy and Germany, but Great Britain only takes the British Pound. Remember that the conversion rates for the Pound and for the Euro are very different and tailor your buying habits accordingly. In November 2004, an American dollar was equal to about half a pound and to about .70 of a Euro.
- Bring at least one ATM card and credit card from the U.S. Use the ATM card to get Pounds, since they usually have a better rate than many currency exchange offices. Your ATM card should have a code of 4 digits.
- If you don’t use a money belt, place your money in hidden pockets or deep inside your bag, so that it’s hard for pickpockets. Pickpockets in London are some of the best in the world, so be careful.
- Put only things that you are willing to lose in your “visible” pockets.
- When walking around London, carry little cash, a credit card, a driver’s license and a copy of your passport for identification. It’s easier to replace a stolen driver’s license than an original U.S. passport.
- Store your original passport, extra money, plane ticket, list of credit card/ATM card customer service phone numbers and other valuables in the locked hotel safe.
- Locals dress from casual (jeans and t-shirt) to ultra chic. Generally, most travel books recommend that you should dress well. This is good advice if you are not planning to ride the Underground (Tube) many times during the day, walking long distances or going to tourist attractions.
- During the hot summer months, wearing jeans and t-shirt is acceptable. In the wintertime, bring lots of layered clothing, i.e. sweaters and scarves because temperatures can dip into the 20s and teens overnight.
- Pack several pairs of good walking shoes, which will help while exploring a city that covers more than 600 square miles.
- After you arrive in London, pay attention to how the locals are dressed on the Underground (Tube). You want to dress in a similar fashion.
- Many restaurants in London have smoking and non-smoking sections. Because the sections often are right next to one another, non-smokers may have to endure wafts of cigarette smoke unless they request to be moved. However, all Starbucks locations — seemingly one on every block of the main touristy areas — are completely smoke-free.
- Steve Martin, a historian of the Black experience in London, highly recommends Bamboula, Brixton, 020-7737-6633 for reasonably priced down-home Caribbean fare. He also suggests the Brixtonian Havana Club, 020-7924-9262 which is more upscale with a huge array of rums and cuisine from a different island every month.
- A local Brixton website provides a comprehensive guide to great food in Brixton, where there’s a large concentration of West Indian eateries.
- If you are missing cuisine from home, go to Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, Trader Vic’s or Cheers, a replica of the bar in the long-running NBC television series of the same name.
- Find the nearest grocery store. Take advantage of supermarket chains like Mark and Spencer’s and Safeway to purchase fruits, snacks and water at reasonable prices. Stock up on your favorite drinks, so that you don’t need to buy the expensive drinks in your hotel’s mini-bar.
- London has a large East Indian population, and Indian restaurants are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. The spicy curries and gravies of Indian cuisine nicely complement the chill of London during the winter months. Two highly recommended restaurants are Gaylord and Mela.
- Fish and Chips are very good in London and are normally cheap. You can choose from Rock, Cod, etc. Don’t be surprised if they wrap it in newspaper because that is their tradition. Also, they may put vinegar and salt on your Chips (French fries).
- An English breakfast consists of Pork and Beans, Meat, Toast and perhaps eggs. Brits love Pork and Beans for breakfast so you may want to customize your breakfast when you order if you don’t want beans.
- One very cheap place to eat a sandwich that you can find all over the place is Benjys. The food is fresh and tastes good, so it is a nice quick meal during your tour of London.
- Steve Martin’s500 years of Black London is a comprehensive tour for groups that requires reservations. During a walking course that wends through Central London, it offers information on the many Black Londoners who have contributed greatly to British society and culture.
- The Big Bus Company offers 24-hour passes that allow you to hop on and off buses that hit all the major tourist attractions in London.The fee, about $40, also includes free tickets to some tourist attractions, including a cruise on the River Thames.The “open air” seats on the top of the bus provide the best views.
- One sister recommends checking out Lastminute.com for some great deals on tours and even short trips outside of London.
Mind the Gap subway warning signs mean Watch out for the gap between the platform and the train. It can be as wide as a foot.
- Stand on the right on escalators – so that people in a hurry can walk on the left.
- Before exiting a Tube station, look at the wall-mounted Tube map and figure out exactly where you are going. Also, make sure that you use the exit nearest your destination.
- Buy an all-day pass so that you don’t waste valuable time waiting in line to purchase individual tickets.
- Don’t read maps or tourist books on the Tube, so that you are not targeted by pickpockets as a tourist.
- When confused or if you need assistance, ONLY ask for help from train station agents or the information booth.
- Use local buses if you have extra time and clearly understand where you are going. It’s easy to go the wrong direction on the bus.
- Street musicians are common on the trains. You will hear a variety of musicians, but do NOT pull out your wallet to give them money.
- The London Black Cab can be fun for a short ride, just so you can experience what it is like to have a well-trained cab driver. The cab drivers in London are required to speak the Queen’s English and go to school for several years of training.
ATTENTION FROM MEN / SAFETY
- Use the normal precautions when dealing with men you don’t know.
- Brits are not overly aggressive compared to men in France or Italy, but always proceed with caution.
- Use common sense when walking around. Sisters traveling alone should assume they are traveling in a major U.S. city and take the necessary precautions.
- Pickpockets don’t fit a profile, so use care when in tourist attraction areas and using public transportation.
- Seek help or information only from official personnel (train station agents, tourist office, tour bus drivers, airport information desk, airline employees, hotel desk clerks, etc.).
- Crime happens but it is not overly violent as in some major U.S. cities. It is illegal to own a gun unless you go through a lot of trouble with permits, tests, etc. Most people don’t own guns. Most police don’t have guns.
- Do remember that many people in Britain and especially London are against the war in Iraq, so you may get questions about American foreign policy. Keep your answers to a minimum.
INTERACTIONS WITH LOCAL PEOPLE OF AFRICAN DESCENT
- Many sisters and brothers living in London are from English-speaking African and Caribbean countries.
- Don’t expect local Sisters and Brothers to greet you the same way that they do in the United States.
- If you want to see many people of African Descent concentrated in one area, check out Brixton and Brighton.
A Sister’s Story:
Step off a bus or subway train in most traditionally Black neighborhoods in U.S. cities, and all you see is us. One sister was surprised at the ethnic diversity of Brixton on a Sunday afternoon. A few Black faces stood out in a predominately Caucasian crowd. She encountered more Black people while walking deeper into the neighborhood, especially after stopping at the Brixton Community Centre.There, children and youth were gathered for a special religious ceremony that was heavily attended by family and friends; everyone was black. Subsequently, she learned that the Caucasian population of Brixton outnumbers its Black population by more than two to one.
A Sister’s Story:
One sister was almost overwhelmed with the size of the collections at the British Museums. She had allocated just an hour for her visit and realized that nothing short of an entire afternoon — preferably a full day — at the museum could do it justice. Likewise, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was exhibiting Black British Style while she was in town, required a visit of at least several hours. A much better approach would have been to allocate a few days to the museum scene and create a planned itinerary based upon Internet research about current exhibits.