Essential Things to know about London before you travel
To make the most of your time in London we’ve made a list of the things you’ll want to think about ahead of time, to make your stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
If you’re flying into London, you’re probably arriving in one of three major airports: Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton. Each of these airports offers various travel options for traveling into London.
If you’re considering renting a car to get around London. A word of advice: don’t. Unless you’re already used to driving on the left, this learning curve is harder than you might think (especially if you’re jet-lagged). Traffic and parking is also a bit of a nightmare, so leave the driving to black cabs or Uber, and save yourself a lot of hassle.
Heathrow is the easiest option, with several coaches that go direct to central London, or you can travel into London on the Piccadilly line which brings you right into West London, Ealing, or Victoria Station, where you may also catch the tube/Underground, or board a train, or, a few blocks away, take a coach. Of course, you may also take a taxi, but the rates from the airport into London can be quite expensive, and there’s no guarantee it will be any faster than public transport. Heathrow Express travels to and from Paddington Station, and is also fast and reliable.
Gatwick is fairly easy too, with an express coach or a short rail ride into central London. Luton is a bit further out, so your journey into central London will take a bit longer. Bear in mind: the days of Britrail are long gone (sad emoji), and there are several independent railway lines competing for your business. Competition means keeping prices low which some say has affected service; so you’ll want to draw upon your inner reserves of patience in case of delays (grab a tea or snack before boarding the train, just in case).
Money Makes the World Go ‘Round
Most people don’t both using traveller’s cheques anymore, but if you do, American Express is the most trustworthy to deal with in case of problems. These days most travellers will exchange a small amount of cash at a bureau de change at the airport (whatever you’ll need for taxi, train, and snacks), then use their ATM card for purchases and getting cash. You can also change money at any UK post office (look for the bright red signs and letterboxes).
Be wary of scammers and pickpockets, which can be an issue in most major European cities. Don’t carry large amounts of cash, and keep some stashed in an emergency pouch worn under your clothing, along with your passport. It may seem overly cautious, but nothing ruins a holiday like a stolen passport: if this happens, find your nearest consulate or embassy, which can also help with visa questions and other travel concerns.
If the exchange rate is good, as it has been in recent years (although with the reality of Brexit approaching, who knows what will happen?), you may find you can get excellent bargains on goods. Packing light and leaving room in your suitcase or duffel means no extra luggage on the way home; if you’re planning to shop for clothes, maybe you won’t need to bring as much. If you do want to bring home an extra bag of purchases, consider bringing a small cloth duffel that you can roll up easily for packing.
Knowing What and how to pack
If you plan to bring or use electric appliances (such as a hair dryer or shaver), you may want to consider bringing your electrical plug adaptor (2 pin to 3 pin). More often than not, your chosen hotel, bed and breakfast, home rental or AirBnB will have what you need, but it’s best to be prepared. Consider simplifying your grooming, too: grow that beard! Let those curls do their thing! You may enjoy having the extra time to enjoy London, as well as the virtuous thrill of packing lighter than usual.
The weather in London can be quite changeable, even if the forecast seems reliable. Layers are best for shifts in temperature. Bring a lightweight wool cardigan or wide scarf, and maybe a rain jacket, and comfortable for walking. Bring at least one pair of shoes that will dry out quickly, in case a sudden downpour soaks your trainers (hint: crumple up paper toweling and shove into your shoes to help them dry out faster overnight). If you do need to pick up an item of clothing, there are plenty of places to shop; if you’re on a budget and/or love to treasure hunt, consider checking out the charity shops (like Oxfam, Save the Children, or Cancer Research UK), which can be a great place to find barely worn (or even new) high quality clothing for a fraction of retail prices, as well as books, CDs and DVDs.
If you find you’ve forgotten something, Boots Chemist stocks a diverse array of necessaries, and also has all your over-the-counter pharmacy needs (remember, paracetemol is the English name for Tylenol). Lush and Neal’s Yard are the go-to for high-end all natural skin and hair care, and will happily give you samples to try (these tiny pots and sachets are great for travel, too). The prices are also much better in the United Kingdom. They’re both located in Heathrow airport, and Victoria Station, among other locations.
Food: It’s Not All Fish and Chips
You may find that central London will try to convince you to try their “authentic” English food (fish and chips, bangers and mash, a full English breakfast) but a good rule of thumb is that if there’s a big colorful sign advertising authentic English cuisine, you should avoid it like the plague. It’s not that the food will be bad, but the place is catering to tourists; and if you want authentic food you want to go where the locals go. These places can be hard to find at first, so in the meantime, where to eat?
The best pub food is generally found in places that don’t cater to the football crowd (hint: no huge screen TVs). Any pub will serve fish and chips, but it’s rare to find it prepared fresh (as opposed to from frozen fish); Time Out published a good guide recently to finding the best fish and chips in London. Consider other homey English specialities such as lamb chops, trout, shepherd’s pie, or beef stew. If you’re a vegetarian, most menus will have a few choices, and there are many international options; London has some excellent Indian restaurants.
Although you may be horrified to see Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s, London also has very good and reasonably priced chains, like EAT (all organic to-go sandwiches), and the Upper Crust (everything’s on a baguette). Starbucks is ubiquitous, but try a little bakeshop for some tea or coffee and a savoury pastry, if you’re on the go, or Pret a Manger which has delicious organic coffee and yummy food. A good cream tea is hard to beat, but of course, they’re not all created equal. Insider’s tip: this is an experience best had in a small village tea room in the West Country. But if you opt for a cream tea in London, remember, jam goes on the scone first!