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London is by far the most visited European city for our team. It’s the one city that feels most like New York to us. We really miss the days when winter fares between New York and London with regular airlines would cost $99 each way (about $300 all in with taxes and fees). Now, it’s priced considerably more thanks to high UK taxes and fees, so we’ve been diverting to Spain instead.
Asonta, an American married to a Brit, shares her practical tips to London.
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London is an ideal location for novice international travelers – no language barriers (though a few rounds of cockney rhyming slang may have you think twice), a great system of public transportation, easy access from the United States, and a wealth of cultural and historical sites. For all travelers though, now is the time to go – Brexit has pushed down the pound exchange rate and great prices for flights are cropping up pretty consistently, even in the summer months. So seize the moment – London is definitely calling.
London has six international airports, the two most popular being Heathrow and Gatwick. Most routes will put you through Heathrow and it’s a good starting point if you’re unfamiliar with the city. However, Gatwick is a great option if you are using some of the low-cost European airlines to get around the rest of the continent. It also has a rail station that goes right to Victoria station, a great hub.
There are some airports in the world where you can be a little more relaxed on arriving early for a flight – Heathrow is not one of them. They’re the third busiest airport in the world and they are operating at maximum capacity. Check-in and passport control lines can get long and, in terminals that are large and open, pretty noisy and perhaps a touch overwhelming. Give yourself plenty of time and if you’ve got the chance, try to get a flight that arrives early – there are lots of things to keep you busy if you get in early and can’t check in to your hotel yet.
There is no visa required for American citizens coming to visit. You will need to fill out a landing card prior to seeing the immigration officer.
England uses the pound sterling, also called ‘quid’ in slang. England is experiencing a depressed pound and the exchange rate for Americans is very favorable right now. I can recall one of my first trips to the UK in 2007 where the exchange was £1 = $2.13 – yikes. Currently it’s hovering around £1 = $1.25.
My go-to for almost any travel is to draw money out of a local ATM and London is no exception. The exchange rate will be much better than trying to exchange money in the States first or one of the currency exchanges in the airport. There will be local bank ATMs in the airport as well.
Credit cards are widely accepted; however, you might find limitations with some, like Discover and American Express. The UK has been on chip and pin cards for much longer than the US – I found a bit more of a problem with swipe cards in the past but if you have a chip in your card, you should be fine, though you may still need to sign for it.
There is no reason to rent a car in London. Traffic is terrible and there are so many alternative options to get around that it makes no sense. Even if you want to get out of London during your stay, you can make it work pretty well with the trains.
The British are very proud of their London Underground (also known as the Tube) system and rightly so. It’s a very easy system to use, even if you’re not overly familiar with subway transportation. If you are flying into Heathrow, you can get right onto the Heathrow Express train, which will take you into Paddington station, another major Tube hub, in approximately 15 minutes. Tickets run around £37 for a return but you can get anything from £10 to £55 for a return depending on how far ahead and what time of day you’re booking. There are also four other Tube stations that service the airport on the Piccadilly Line that can get you to other large stations in the city and connect with other lines. This will take quite a bit longer but depending on where your final destination is, could be a better option. My only word of caution is to take into consideration when you are traveling – rush hour during the week while trying to manage baggage on the Tube is not a good idea.
There is also a large bus service that you can use to get into town. You can access the station either by a short walk or free connection train, dependent on your terminal. If you are arriving during a peak time with luggage, this might be a better option.
If you’re going to be using the Tube frequently, I suggest getting an Oyster card. You can top it up with money and simply swipe it at the entry and exit gates instead of fumbling around for a ticket. Economically, it works out cheaper as well, since it will cap the fare each day at a certain amount, no matter how much you travel. If you have money leftover at the end, you can return it for a refund. A Visitor Oyster card will require a non-refundable fee of £3 and you can even buy it online and have it shipped so you’re ready to hit the ground running.
The Tube map is divided up into zones and depending on which zones you’re going to be crossing through is how much it will cost per journey. For instance, travel from Zone 6 to Zone 1 (which would take you from Heathrow to St. James’s Park) could be around £12 whereas travel from Zone 1 to Zone 2 could be £6. For a visitor looking to see the normal London attractions, Zones 1 and 2 will pretty much cover you. Again, having an Oyster card makes this much easier.
If you are going out of the city on a train journey, make sure to purchase your tickets online. You can generally get them for cheaper, although you may be restricted to a specific departure time.
London has a vast amount of options to stay in, from the luxurious like The Beaumont and The Savoy, to homey B&Bs. It all depends on what sort of experience you want and how much you’re willing to pay. There are ways to skirt around London’s expensive reputation but it can get difficult when it comes to accommodations. If being in the thick of things is important, be prepared to spend a bit more. If you’re willing to travel a bit farther, you can book things on the outer areas that aren’t necessarily tourist-driven but still easy to access by Underground. Now that there is some overnight train service, it’s not as hard to coordinate getting back home after a night out.
Eating and Drinking
Everyone thinks they know two things about British food – it’s bland and fish & chips. They couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in London. The city is incredibly multicultural and it’s reflected in their eating habits. You’ll find a lot of kebabs, curries, and influences from the Middle East and India, as well as Southeast Asian, Afro-Caribbean, European, and anything in between. You can have an upscale lunch or pre-theatre dinner at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Covent Garden, a social Korean fusion night at Jinjuu in Soho, or hit local chain Banana Tree for Indochina/Thai/Malaysian. There are endless options.
For the classic pub experience, there are also numerous options. You’ll find some sort of watering hole on virtually every street and some can stay busy with local professionals late into the night. I would suggest rooting out one with history and character – try The Nag’s Head near Harrods, The Cross Keys in Covent Garden, or The Mayflower Pub on the Thames. The British take their ales seriously, so don’t be afraid to ask the bartender for a suggestion (just don’t do it during a post-work rush). Try West Country ciders for something a bit different to your normal lager.
Eating and drinking in London can get pricey too. If you’re looking for an option to keep things a bit cheaper, this is land of packaged sandwiches. Look for WHSmith’s, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainbury’s, or even Boots to carry an assortment of sandwiches ready to go, from prawn cocktail and full English to standard ham and cheese, for a few quid. There’s also numerous takeaways for Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani to keep things a bit cheaper too.
If you’re interested in doing a high tea in the afternoon, there are lots of options; but if you want to go upper class and channel your inner Downton Abbey, try Fortnum & Mason or The Ritz. Both will set you back a fair bit (£42 and £52 respectively) but it’ll be worth it for the experience and ambiance. Fortnum & Mason have an incredible tea selection so you can try something new and exotic. The Ritz is old world traditional at its best; both fill up fast so book ahead of time and dress appropriately.
Those watching their wallets – rejoice! London has a number of museums that are free and open to the public (but do take any donations you wish to give). There’s a fair amount to choose from but a few of the top:
- The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery house wonderful art specimens and are located in Trafalgar Square, giving a bit of a 3 for 1
- The V&A (Victoria & Albert), which contains decorative arts if you’re looking for something different than paintings and is also about a fifteen minute walk from Harrods
- The British Museum, whose collections are legendary – plan for a full day and you still will only scratch the surface
- There are also alternatives if you would rather stray more off the tourist path – the British Dental Association Museum is odd but informative or the Metropolitan Police Heritage Center to get an insight into London’s crime history.
I highly recommend walking through St. James’ Park and up toward Buckingham Palace for the quintessential Changing the Guard ceremony. And oddly enough, a stroll through the financial district on a Sunday, when it’s quiet and most things are closed, is a nice option for respite in such a bustling city. If you didn’t go to Fortnum & Mason for high tea, at least go for a wander around; they opened as a luxury department store in 1707 and it is quite a beautiful place to see.
If you’re going to pay for an attraction, I would suggest the Tower of London. Again, you can get a cheaper rate by booking online in advance (£24) and you do get quite a lot for your money. It’ll take about a half a day to see everything and there is a bit of something for everyone here. I personally wouldn’t recommend the London Eye, as it’s at least £22 for only a half-hour and I think you can get great views of the city while you’re moving around it.
Finally, ‘London’ and ‘theatre’ are synonymous and it’s tough to leave the capital without having seen at least one stage performance. However, a show at the West End is not a cheap experience, even if booking in advance and if you want decent seats. Setting that aside, look at something in the Old Vic, which is significantly smaller and provides an extremely intimate feeling during the show, and also check matinees for bigger musicals and plays for slightly different prices. If you’re looking for something a little different, try The Woman in Black, which is in its 25th year and manages to serve up tension and scares with 2 actors; there are also lots of ticket options for under £30. Note that programs are not included with your ticket – you will need to purchase it separately and it’s traditional to buy ice cream from theatre vendors during the act break. Also look at attending a free recording for a BBC radio or television show – you can keep an eye on tickets online and book.
About the Author:
Asonta Benetti is based in Phoenix, Arizona. When not at her day job or working on scriptwriting, she and her husband are avid travelers, most often exploring his native UK. Having just knocked Iceland off the list, they’re looking for their next adventure. She’s written articles for Highroads magazine on San Diego, the Oregon Coast, Missouri, and Belgium. You can follow her on Twitter/@AsontaMarie or Instagram/@asontabenetti.
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