10 Mar Visiting London: A Cheat Sheet
Mr. Hola here with a practical reference guide for visiting London. I’ll continue to update it as best I can, so please consider it an ongoing work in progress. The advice below is generally written for an American audience. Also, please review the disclaimer before diving in to any of this. This is just a blog. It is not professional advice.
While technology has made cash transactions less frequent (especially in places like the UK), you will come across plenty of situations in which you’ll need hard currency. I generally recommend the free Schwab checking account. Offering unlimited ATM fee reimbursements (foreign and domestic) and no foreign transaction fees, this is cheap and simple.
I don’t recommend bringing lots of cash over to exchange at a shop. Not only is this method risky, but you’ll get ripped off by poor exchange rates (even if a shop advertises itself as “no commission,”
it’ll make up for it with its rates). Definitely avoid exchanging cash at an airport if you can help it! The airports know you have no other options and tend to give you the worst rates. Withdrawing money from an ATM with a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees will help reduce fees and get you closer to the true exchange rate.
Most shops and restaurants in the UK take credit cards. They will expect you to use a PIN number. Unless you know you have a PIN, you’ll need to tell them you have to sign the receipt. They’ll fumble around for a pen and begrudgingly accept America’s love of the technological dark ages.
In some cases, you may be able to call your credit card company and request a PIN. It’s worth a shot.
In the US, you’re used to handing your card to someone who whisks it away (eventually returning it). This is not how it works in the UK. Instead, a card reader will be brought to you to confirm the expense. While making a transaction outside the states, if you’re asked if you want to pay in dollars, always pay in the local currency (£, never $) – while not technically a scam, it’ll only end up costing you more (the merchant uses a rate much more favorable to them). If someone walks away with your card, you have every right to be concerned.
Tipping is becoming more common, but not generally expected.
Ensure you have a credit or debit card with no foreign transaction fees. I have generally found using a credit card works well when it comes limiting liability instead of a debit card or cash. Be sure to set a travel alert on the card before you travel. If taking cash out at an ATM, be careful the ATM hasn’t been tampered with and keep an eye out for anyone nearby who might be looking over your shoulder.
I see the Chase Sapphire Preferred card recommended frequently, though it does carry an annual $95 fee (as of March 2018) after the first year.
ALWAYS carry at least one or two backup credit and/or debit cards just in case.* Failure to do so will ensure your primary card will fail to work at the most inopportune time. Don’t keep them all in the same place, either.
* Except Discover. Nobody outside the US knows what that is. AmEx is hit and miss.
I’ve covered much of this in my Phoning Home post but have a picked up a few tips and tricks since then.
Ok, so you’re bringing your phone. That’s a given. If you’re on T-Mobile, you should be in great shape to travel already. Sprint appears to have a similar program. The data connection on these plans will be slower than you’re used to, but useable especially for phone calls, texts, and emails. Maps, for example, may load slowly. (Consider downloading a Google Map before you lose wifi). Normal phone calls to the US will cost $$, and calls to the UK will be expensive. If you’re on another carrier, you need to decide how badly you need to be accessible via your US number (this means phone calls and SMS text messages – be mindful of things like two-factor authentication via SMS, as well).
If you can survive without your US number while you’re here, the easiest thing to do is pick up a SIM card once you land. Don’t worry about purchasing some travel SIM from the airport or online ahead of time – these are an expensive waste of time. Likewise, calling up your US mobile provider and asking for their international roaming plan will cost you a small fortune. Taking your phone over and using it normally without adding any sort of international plan will cost you a large fortune.
If none of this makes sense, keep your phone on airline mode for the duration of your trip and enable only wifi. Finding free hotspots can sometimes be tricky; the best advice I can give here is to find a McDonald’s, as they usually offer free wifi.
The better alternative is to buy a Pay as You Go (PAYG) SIM card at a London cell phone shop or at the grocery store – seriously, it’s really easy.
The catch here is in order to swap the SIM cards, your phone must be unlocked. This means you could use it at, say Verizon or AT&T or T-Mobile. Some carriers lock their phones.
Here are some UK PAYG SIM card resources:
The pay-as-you-go options can initially look quite daunting. Here’s an example of how it works on Three:
If you’re at a store, the whole process can be a bit easier, but neither method is too complicated. Here are the highlights:
- Buy the SIM card (£1) at a grocery store or at a Three store.
- Put money/credit on to the SIM card (known as “topping up”), and then instantly turn around and buy an “add on.” Here’s a good explanation. The add-ons tend to be a much better value than using the normal credit. For example, you’d top up the card with, say £15, and then immediately use that available credit to buy the £15 add-on.
- The top-ups are normally good for thirty days. If you buy a SIM card at a grocery store, you can register it online.
- There’s a Three app (Android,iOS).
Dialing UK Numbers:
Dialing a UK number looks daunting at first but is relatively simple. You may be presented with a number such as:
(0)75 1234 5678
Depending on whether you’re making an international or more “local” call, either dial +44 75 1234 5678 (include the “+” symbol on your phone and drop the leading “0”) or 075 1234 5678. Done.
Airbnb (Android, iOS)
Google Drive (Android, iOS)
Google Maps (Android, iOS)- don’t forget to download offline maps ahead of time (instructions for Android, iOS)!
Google Translate (Android, iOS) – you can download the translation packs ahead of time (instructions for Android, iOS! *not as important for the UK, though best to be prepared 😉
Messenger (Facebook) (Android, iOS) – not crucial, but can be occasionally useful.
Rick Steves’ Audio Tours (Android, iOS)
Santander Cycles (Android, iOS)
Splitwise (Android, iOS)- if you’re traveling with friends, this app makes it stupid easy to split up costs
TempMail (Android, iOS) – ever needed a one-use e-mail address? This is good for things like signing up for wifi at airports, or free beer discounts at pubs with a newsletter sign-up.
Trainline (Android, iOS)- if you aren’t familiar with the myriad UK train companies, get this app and save yourself a lot of hassle.
Transferwise (Android, iOS)- useful if you need to transfer money to a foreign recipient
TripAdvisor (Android, iOS)
Uber (Android, iOS)
Whatsapp (Android, iOS)- Europe runs on WhatsApp. Put away your iMessage and download this app. Do be aware a whatsapp account is tied to a phone number – if you buy a SIM in the UK, Whatsapp will use that phone number, not your US one.
If you have a device like a Chromecast or Roku, you might as well bring it (depending on how much time you have). You never known when you’ll want to kick back with a movie. Hotel wifi connections can sometimes be tricky to set up on these streaming devices, but private wifi networks at an airbnb, for example, are usually simple to use. I personally recommend the Chromecast, especially if you have an Android device.
Take a look at the power adapters for the devices you’re bringing over. Look for the impossibly-small text that says something like “Input: 120v-240v.” Does the adapter have that? If so, you’re in good shape. If it only has “Input: 120v” with no indication of 220v or 240v, odds are good you’ll fry the device when you plug in it abroad. If your charger can handle 220v-240v, pick up one or two of these travel power adapters and you’ll be set for any country you visit.
Heathrow – The Heathrow Express and Connect are the expensive options to get you into central London. Salespeople at the airport take advantage of ignorance (and jet lag) and may pressure you to take one of these trains. Unless you need to get to Paddington station quickly, take the tube. It’ll take a similar amount of time and cost much less. You can buy an Oyster Card at Heathrow (see below).
Gatwick – The Gatwick Express is a convenient option to Victoria Station. While there’s no Tube, there are lots of (cheaper) trains with frequent connections into London, though these are admittedly confusing if you aren’t familiar with things. The trains and Gatwick Express do take Oyster cards, though it may be more cost effective to buy tickets ahead of time (for non-Gatwick Express, use Trainline).
Stansted – Cheap connections to Europe, but you’ll often find yourself wishing you weren’t at this airport. Getting to and from Stansted is fairly simple: the Stansted Express train leaves every 15 minutes from Liverpool Street Station in London, while buses like National Express leave from multiple destinations around London.
Luton – See Stansted description. Taking the train to Luton is a bit more complicated: you have to take a train first to the Luton Airport Parkway station, and then catch a shuttle over to the airport (check out how to get to Luton Airport on the ThamesLink website for more info). Luton is a popular enough airport that this shuttle bus dance is pretty streamlined. Buses like National Express and Green Line will also get you to and from Luton.
Southend – a small, relaxed airport. It’s pleasant. For details on how to get to the airport, check out the Greater Anglia webpage.
Birmingham – if traveling within Europe, take a look at BHX. It has its own train station with direct lines to London in about two hours.
City Airport – you almost definitely won’t be using flying in or out of here, but here’s their website, just in case.
An Oyster Card is a prepaid card you use on much of the transit around central London. You can buy one at many tube stations (£5 refundable deposit as of 1 March 2018). You then tap the card on the little yellow readers at tube and train stations, on buses, etc. Tap in and out for the trains, but only tap in on buses.
To acquire an Oyster Card, head to a tube station. Find one of the ticket machines and follow the prompts to purchase an Oyster Card and top it up with some credit. The TFL Fares and Payments webpage is a good resource. The Hopper Fare is a relatively new policy that lets you take unlimited bus journeys within a one-hour period for £1.50.
I generally recommend against buying the travelcard options – while convenient, I don’t think it’s worth the extra expense. Be sure to familiarize yourself with TFL’s capping policies; basically, it will (generally) save you money to take only buses or only the tube in a given day instead of mixing and matching.
Do check out the TFL Oyster App.
Everyone loves London’s famous black cabs, right? Wrong. They’re expensive and the credit card machines don’t always work. Especially avoid taking a cab to central London from an airport.
This is the primary metro system of London and will get you generally anywhere you need to go.*
*emphasis on “generally”
These are the non-Tube rail options that’ll get you around the UK. It’s less likely you’ll be on proper “trains” unless you venture outside of London. If you’ll be traveling around the UK by train, it may be worth getting a UK Railcard. Generally, the most convenient way to buy tickets is via Trainline.
The Buses can be daunting if you aren’t familiar with them. Google Maps is your friend here. The relatively new Hopper Fare lets you take unlimited bus or tram journeys within a one-hour period for the price of a single ticket.
Here are the food spots I recommend checking out:
Fish and Chips
Cantinho da Maya PitDog e Lanchonete – All the yes. Just go here. Get a burger. You will not regret it.
Indian / Pakistani
Apologies if I confuse any regional nuances. Here are some spots I either recommend or want to try:
Dosa World – The best dosa I’ve found so far in London.
Lahore Grill – Order the lamb biryani and some garlic naan for eat-in or takeaway.
Original Lahore Restaurant – A sit-down restaurant, the food has always been good (not a cheaper option, but not unreasonable).
Tayyabs – haven’t been here but have heard good things (restaurant is apparently BYOB).
C&R Cafe – If you’ve never heard of laksa, do yourself a favor and head here. Get the Singapore Laksa and an order of the Roti Canai.
Roti King – Good roti, though we found service quite slow. If there’s any queue, go ahead and skip this one.
Borough Market – Great lunch options and packed on Saturdays.
Just kidding. I haven’t found anything resembling proper Mexican food in London that isn’t prohibitively expensive. There are plenty of burrito places (I prefer Tortilla), but don’t bother seeking out actual Mexican food.
Captain Kidd – Has a great outdoor terrace overlooking the Thames (Samuel Smith pub).
Mondo Brewing Company – Full disclosure: I do some freelance work with Mondo. That said, I like their beers, and the tap room is definitely worth checking out.
The Minories – good atmosphere under the railway arches. Decent daily food deals.
Ye Old Cheshire Cheese – A Samuel Smith pub (see “Pub Chains” below), be sure to check out the twisting and turning cellars.
Draft House – Good food options (surprisingly reasonable pizza prices) and a cheap rotating cask ale each day.
Wetherspoons – Generally cheaper prices (depending on location), but for a reason. The beer options tend to be good, though.
Samuel Smith – Some of the best beer prices you’ll find in central London, they do their own beers.
Questions? Comments? Broken links? Let me know in the comments!