Let's Go To London!
But before the trip...
My first trip to Europe only lasted 96 hours. It wasn't enough time to wander far outside of London, but it was enough to teach me some important lessons about traveling overseas, especially in England. I'll tell you about all the places I visited in London, starting on the next page. But first, I'll cover a few things that Americans should know about a trip across the pond.
What Country Is This?
England, Britain, the United Kingdom -- what are you supposed to call the country that London is in? It's a bit confusing, but here's how it breaks down. There are three countries in Great Britain: England, Wales, and Ireland. England and Wales (the western side of the island) were combined in 1284, and in 1707 Scotland (the north end of the island) joined them, to form Great Britain. The United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland. Many English folks consider themselves to be English first, and British second. So, while you're in London, you can use any of the three terms to describe where you are, and you will be accurate -- but the preferred term is England.
Americans need a valid passport to get into the UK, however, you do not need a Visa.
I arrived at Heathrow Airport, which is located west of London. Some other international flights arrive at Gatwick, which is south of the city. I've heard some frequent travelers prefer Gatwick, since smaller and easier to maneuver through.
If you end up at Heathrow, you'll have to walk through a long series of tubes and passageways, to get to the customs area. On the way out of town, you'll have to do it all again. As I headed to my departing flight, I saw a sign that estimated a brisk walk would take 10 minutes, and offered a shuttle.
One benefit of arriving at Heathrow, is that it's better connected to London than Gatwick. The London Underground subway system has a route that ends at Heathrow. A ride into the city will cost around $5, and take about an hour. You can also catch the Heathrow Express train, which runs 4 times an hour, and shortens the trip to Paddington Station to 15 minutes (but, it's more expensive). I opted for the slower and cheaper trip on the Underground.
The Underground doesn't serve Gatwick, but there is train service available (the Gatwick Express). Those trains also run four times an hour, with a travel time of about 30 minutes.
Getting Around, Once You're There
If you're planning on spending most or all of your time in London, you don't need to rent a car. The city's network of Underground subways (the "tubes") and buses (including the famous double-deckers) are more than adequate to get you anywhere you want to go. Get a one-day or multi-day travel pass, and you have unlimited access to the tubes and buses, as well as some "heavy rail" routes out of downtown.
If the public busses in your hometown are a little, um, sketchy, you might shy away from London's busses. But, you shouldn't. London's busses are clean and easy to ride. And, if you're lucky enough to get the front seat on the upper deck of a double-decker bus, you're in for a real treat. I took my Drivelapse camera and filmed several rides around the city, from the upper deck. Here's one of them:
|Transport for London #24 Bus|
You'll find more London Drivelapse videos on MyDrivelapse.com.
If you do decide to rent a car, keep in mind that you will be driving on the "wrong" side of the road. In England, like many other countries that were strongly influenced by the British Empire, drivers use the left side of the road. Rental cars will have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. You can get an automatic transmission vehicle, but the cheaper rental cars are stick-shifts, which means you'll be shifting with the "wrong" hand, while trying to drive on the "wrong" side.
Even if you're not driving, you'll still need to get used to left-side traffic. You must remember to look the opposite direction before crossing the street. And, if you want to catch a bus that's headed a certain direction, it will probably be on the opposite side of the road than your instinct tells you.
Oh, and I also noticed that Londoners carry over their left-side tendencies when walking on sidewalks and through subway terminals. Many escalators are also oriented to left-side traffic. But, since many visitors are from countries where the right side rules, you'll probably run into a lot of people that tend to walk against the flow of traffic -- leading to a lot more "dancing" than in other places around the world.
In addition to trains and busses, you can rent bicycles throughout London. These aren't really for relaxing sightseeing trips, though, since the rental rate increases exponentially as the hours tick by. The bikes are best for short trips that end quickly.
England is a good country for an American's first European trip, since you already know the language! Of course, England's English sounds a lot classier than American English. I found the best way to imitate a good British accent is to start with the word "can't". Change it to "kohnt". It will all flow from there.
Understanding England's English is a little more tricky. I noticed that when many tube stops were announced, I barely understood them. So, pay close attention, and accept the fact that you're going to look like an idiot at times.
While most of Europe uses kilometers, England still uses miles. So, if you're driving, mileage distances and speed limits will all make sense. In other places, though, you're likely to see metric units used, including in the weather forecast, where Celsius temperatures take the place of Fahrenheit measurements.
If you're driving, and buying gas, it's a bit tricky to figure out how much you're actually paying, since it's priced in pounds per litre. One gallon is equal to 3.79 litres (or the American spelling, liters). So once you do that calculation, then you must convert pounds to dollars. Once you do all that multiplying, you'll discover that British gas is very expensive -- possibly $8 (USD) a gallon or more.
The UK does not use the Euro -- it still sticks to the British Pound Sterling. At the time of my trip (May, 2011), 10 pounds was roughly equal to 16 dollars.
There are money conversion desks everywhere, not just at the airport. You could always start out with American dollars, then change them into pounds as needed. Or, you can go to an ATM and make a withdrawal from your account. I took out £200, or about $320, when I first arrived, which was enough cash to survive (on a thrifty budget) for four days. Remember that using a foreign ATM will probably rack up two fees: an exchange fee, and an access fee. So, the less you use your card, the better.
England uses paper currency for denominations of £5 or greater. Coins come in 1p (p=pence, the plural word for penny), 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, and £2. Store clerks won't be surprised if you stare dumbly at the change in your hand. I even had one point to the correct coinage -- even after I thought I had it all figured out!
Britain uses a big, bulky 3-pronged outlet that supplies 220 volts of juice -- twice what you find in American wall sockets. Most of the items you'll be traveling with (cell phone chargers, laptop adaptors, etc) can accept 220 volts without any problem, and all you will need is a prong adaptor. Just be sure to check the label on your electronics, and make sure it accepts volts from 110-220. If you want to plug in some other kind of American item, one that doesn't accept 220v, you'll need an adaptor -- a much bigger, bulkier "brick" that plugs into the wall and brings down the voltage to 110.
Another peculiarity -- many British wall outlets feature a switch, right next to the socket. Make sure it's switched on, or else your phone will be dead the next day.
Your cellular phone, or "mobile" as they call it in Britain, may not work overseas. In most of Europe, the cell network operates on the GSM standard, while in the US, the CDMA system is used by some carriers. I have a Verizon phone, which uses CDMA, so I had to get a loaner phone from Verizon. The phone was free to use, for up to one month, and all I had to pay for was shipping.
Even if your phone is a GSM, you should call your cell phone company before traveling. They may be able to switch you to a cheaper international plan, just for the time you'll be gone. With Verizon, my phone calls from London to the US were 99 cents per minute, incoming texts were 5 cents, and outgoing texts 50 cents.
I never made a single cell-phone call while in London, and only sent one text -- to say my plane had landed. Instead, I used Skype to phone home nightly. If you have a high-speed internet connection in your hotel, Skype will allow you to call another computer for free, or call a US phone number for a small charge. Even if you must pay for internet access at your hotel, Skype'ing will save you money.
British food isn't known for being, well, exciting. Of course, you'll probably buy at least one order of Fish and Chips while in London, and maybe eat a meal of British beef (which, I'm told, tastes different than American beef). I didn't have either, for a couple of reasons.
For one, I didn't have enough time to slow down and enjoy a meal. I had a lot to see, and only 96 hours to see it in. I often thought about going to a sit-down restaurant, but I wasn't done with the day's sightseeing until 10 p.m. or later, and by that time, I was too exhausted to do anything other than crash at my hotel.
But the main reason I didn't eat much was the price of food in London. On the couple of occasions when I did sit down for a meal, I noticed that items that would have cost $10 in the US cost about £10 in the UK, and while the numbers look the same, the price was much more expensive. So instead of full meals, I skimped by with sandwiches from fast food "take-away" shops, like Pret A Manger, which offer truly delicious and fresh sandwiches at small stores on just about every block (including one at the tube stop nearest my hotel, which was open until 11 p.m.). The sandwiches weren't nearly as filling as a footlong sub that you'd get in the US, but at least they were cheap, about £3.
For breakfast food, I stopped at a Tesco (a grocery store chain), as well as the "food hall" basement at Marks and Spencer (a department store that falls somewhere between an American "Target" and "JC Penney" store). Food Halls are like grocery stores, and are attached to many of London's department stores. (I highly recommend you pick up some dark chocolate Digestives!)
Admission prices to individual attractions in London can quickly empty your wallet. For example, entrance to Westminster Abbey costs £16 per person, or about $26 USD. That's a lot of cash to walk around inside a church for an hour. If you're going to visit more than just one or two attractions (and trust me, you are), you should pick up a London Pass. For £89 (or $144 USD), I purchased a 3-day pass that covered 55 attractions (including almost all of the big ones, like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, a River Thames boat cruise, and Windsor Castle) and 3 days of transportation (tubes, buses, and some rail). It paid for itself on the first day, giving me two more days of access to major and minor attractions that I would have otherwise skipped. If you want to buy one, check the Visit London website first. It offered a 10% discount.
Okay... now you're ready to plunge into London, starting with the structure that keeps all of England on-time: Big Bend, in the Westminster district.
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