London is often the first destination for Americans when they travel to Europe for the first time because they think it will be familiar and safe. Usually these Americans arrive in London and get shellshocked by how different London is based on their expectations. Movies and TV shows do a great job of portraying a London that doesn’t actually exist and it can be very disorienting for inexperienced travellers.
So in an effort to help our fellow countrymen, we’ve put together An American’s Field Guide to London with ten top tips to make the most of your London trip.
You don’t need to take as much with you as you think. London hotels are small and there won’t be much room for massive luggage. Redefine what you think is essential when traveling and try to keep everything down to one carry on and one checked bag. London has generally mild weather year round so pack accordingly. Also don’t forget an umbrella or waterproof jacket – while it’s a myth that it rains all the time – it COULD rain at any time.
Getting into London from the Airports
Upon arrival in Britain you have to figure out how to get into London from it’s main airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead). You may be tempted to just hop into a black cab and head into town – this is not a good idea if you’re travelling on a budget as it will be a very expensive – and depending on traffic conditions long – trip. Most American arrive into London via Heathrow and you’re best bet is the Heathrow Express train, it’s a direct train that gets you to London Paddington station in just 15 minutes. It costs about a 1/3 what a taxi would cost. From Paddington you can take the tube or a cab to your hotel. If you’re on a real tight budget the cheapest option is to take the Picadilly Tube line directly into London. Though you may get dirty looks from commuters if you’re taking up a ton of space during rush hour with your luggage (see first tip). Both Stanstead and Gatwick also have direct trains similar to the Heathrow Express but they’re not served by the London Underground.
Tourist Attractions You Can Avoid
London has no shortage of tourist traps – here’s a few you can avoid: Madame Tussaud’s (ridiculous lines), London Dungeon (cheesy), Changing of the Guard (you won’t see anything it’s so crowded), HMS Belfast (rusty old ship in the Thames), Picadilly Circus (a very busy – and dangerous – intersection), Portobello Road market (mobbed with tourists) and the London Aquarium (you came to London to see fish?).
Tourist Attractions You Can’t Miss
As a corrlarly to the previous point – you’ll definitely want to see: St Paul’s Cathedral (best cathedral), Westminster Abbey (oozes Royal history), London Eye (great views), Tower of London (more oozing history), Tower Bridge (amazing in person), Covent Garden (plenty of shopping and food), London Transport Museum (most interesting museum in London with the best gift shop) and Camden Lock Market (excellent shopping).
Navigating the Tube
If you’ve never traveled on public transportation before then navigating the Tube can be intimidating. My first recommendation would be to study your Tube map before you travel – plan pretend journeys and get an idea of how it works. That will make is much easier to navigate when you’re underground. Always keep to the right on excalators (signs will remind you). Also, get an Oyster card before you go from Visit Britain Direct, you’re Tube fares will be much lower. If you pay cash to buy a ticket when you get there you’ll pay a lot more for a ride on the Tube. In most cases an Oyster card is also cheaper than getting 1 day or 3 day tourist travelcards. Also, the Tube map distorts reality greatly so check your guidebook to make sure you need to take the Tube everywhere – for example Leicester Square Tube is literally down the street from Covent Garden Tube (which is always mobbed as it’s smaller).
Using a London Cab
As a native Chicagoan I have taken plenty of cab rides. Taking a taxi ride in London is another matter entirely. Here are a few tips to properly hail a cab in London. Like in most cities, the taxi’s light on top of the cab must be on which signals taxicab can be hired. If you are at a busy train station or airport there is a chance that there is queue (line) for a taxi. This system is very orderly and you must wait in the line and be patient. When the taxi has pulled over after you’ve hailed it, or it’s your turn in the taxi rank, politely go to the front window and ask the driver if he or she will take you to your destination before getting in. Most London cab drivers are friendly and be happy to chat during your ride. Generally avoid Mini-cabs – they aren’t licensed Black Cab drivers and you may not be able to trust them.
Decoding 24 Hour Time
Britain uses the 12 hour clock in addition to the 24 hour clock – which is usually used for trains. It’s easy to decode but many Americans are usually unfamiliar with how it works. The easiest way to translate 24 Hour Military Time is this: subtract 12 from whatever the 24 hour time is. For example 23:00 = 11:00pm.
The customer is not always right
The British have a far different conception of customer service than the USA and always be prepared for poor customer service. Especially on the railroads and in restaurants. While most Americans default to verbally assaulting ineffective customer service, avoid doing it in Britain, it will get you no where.
Check for Bed Bugs
The creepy crawlies have made a comeback in London and we’ve seen some real horror stories. So, always check your mattress for bed bugs before settling in. They like to hide behind the mattress against the wall and in between the mattress, box spring and the mattress seams. Don’t be afraid to move things around and see. If you spot a bedbug, immediately pick up your bags and get out of the room before they infest your bags and you bring them home. It doesn’t matter how nice your hotel is – always check!
Look Right, Look Left
Traffic comes from the right in London, not the left as in America. On two way streets, always look right. On one way streets be sure to check the pavement, it will tell you which way to look. And remember what your mother always told you: look both ways!
Have you been to London? Do you have any advice for first time travelers? Let us know in the comments!