Planning a trip to London sometime soon? After living here for more than 10 years – I moved to London from Chicago many years ago – here are some of my favorite tips for making your trip easier and more enjoyable.
- If you have a European debit card, you can use it on the tube and buses! You don’t need an Oyster Card or paper tickets. Just tap in and tap out of tube stations with your debit card, or tap when you board a bus. American debit and credit cards are a bit trickier so you may need to experiment…word on the street is that MasterCard and American Express work, Visa doesn’t. You can also try paying with ApplePay. However — watch out for foreign transaction fees! (Or get a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.)
- Pret a Manger, Costa, and Starbucks will refill water bottles on request! This is a new initiative in London to reduce plastic waste. (And yes, it’s safe to drink the tap water in London.) Free tap water is super handy if you are sightseeing all day and don’t want to keep buying bottled water. (Consider buying a collapsible water bottle too so you have less to carry.)
- The tube map is not geographically accurate so be careful when making your travel plans! For example, Holborn and Covent Garden are minutes from each other on foot. No need to change trains to get to Covent Garden directly! Always check a street map before planning your tube journey. There may be multiple ways of getting to the same place without changing trains.
- Don’t be afraid to take the bus! They are sometimes the easiest and most convenient way to get from A to B in London. They are very well-labelled, which helps. Use Citymapper to help you figure out the best routes, especially if you don’t want to walk to far. The bus is also cheaper than the tube too! And as any Londoner will tell you, there is no greater joy than grabbing a seat in the front row upstairs on one of London’s iconic double-decker buses.
- If you are flying into Gatwick, definitely map out the easiest way to get to your hotel. A lot of tourists will automatically buy tickets for the Gatwick Express, but that’s on the west side of London. If you are staying on the east side of London, taking a regular train to London Bridge may make more sense. (And it will be cheaper too!)
- Nearly all tube stations have free wifi available. Vodafone will even automatically connect. Check out this page for more details. If your phone network is not listed, follow the link on that page to register for WifiPass. Pret a Manger, Starbucks, and Byron all have free wifi as well.
- If you plan on visiting the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and The View from the Shard all in one day, you should definitely get a London Pass. It will pay for itself! Definitely check out all the discounts available to make sure the math works, but if you plan on seeing a lot of stuff during your visit to London, this is a no brainer.
- Purchase one or more plug adaptors before you arrive. You can definitely find them in stores in tourist areas like Oxford Circus but they are never there when you need them! Amazon has tons to choose from and they are pretty cheap too. Might as well arrive and be ready to charge your phone for all those great phots you are about to take!
- You do not have to tip in restaurants and bars. Many nicer restaurants will automatically add a 12.5% service charge directly to the bill, but in general, you don’t have to tip.
- Food in London is great! A common misconception is that British food is terrible. While perhaps this was true many years ago, these days, you are spoiled for choice! Name any cuisine in the world and you will find it here. Name your price point, and you will find it here. Leverage online resources like TripAdvisor, Foursquare, TimeOut, and others to find what you are looking for. You will find it!!
Lastly and most importantly, enjoy! London is one of the world’s finest cities! Take time to explore the side streets and parks and really experience all that London has to offer!