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.
Passports are necessary for U.S. citizens.
London uses military time or the 24 hour clock and dates are written day/month/year, so don’t get confused by the difference.
Currency is the British Pound Sterling with major credit cards accepted by most establishments. Remember to check the exchange rate before you leave so that you are not in shock when you get your credit card bill.Don’t bring very much cash — simply use one of the many ATMs when you arrive at the airport.
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.
Post offices are located throughout the city with hours at 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. 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.
Black History Month is October which offers a large number of special events, lectures and cultural activities.
Before leaving your hotel, check the weather report. London can have sunshine and rain on the same day.
Bring plenty of anti-bacterial wipes.
Great Britain has universal healthcare, so any emergency room care is usually free of charge. The emergency telephone number is 999 or 112.
Major Holidays in London are New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, May Day, Christmas, and Boxing Day.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Use the Internet or phone cards for inexpensive communication with home. Some hotels offer high-speed Internet service in your room. Ask for pricing and directions at the front desk. 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.
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.
Money & 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 (Metro system). You may 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.
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.
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. Street musicians are common on the Underground 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.
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.
Interactions With Locals 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.
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.