An Experienced Journeywoman Helps You Prepare For London
I've returned to London more than a half dozen times. Things change but never my appreciation of London. My enjoyment revolves around the city's ability to continually evolve yet remain the same. It is never boring as old and new meld together, always providing new discoveries to savor. London isn't cheap but it can be done practically. I don't travel on a shoe string nor do I stay in 5-star hotels. I'm an older adventuress who travels solo. Here are my insights for London travel...
Google Satellite Street View: Leave it to Big Brother to provide the best travel resource since laminated maps. Use it to discover how close or far iconic London sites are from you accommodation. With the exact address of where you plan to stay you can find the closest tube stop, Bank ATM,
market, coffeeshop, etc.
The Heathrow Airport Experience: This International hub is huge and busy, busy, busy. If it's your first visit you'll discover it's a bit of a walk from
your arrival gate to immigration.. There are people movers and escalators. Think of it as a good way to stretch your legs after your flight.
Immigration: Lines can be long and tiresome. Be patient. Have your passport handy and be ready to answer simple questions about why you are
traveling to London.
Stairs: Ever wonder why 89 year Queen Elizabeth and 94 year old Prince Phillip can stand for hours at attention? I've concluded it's because
they have legs of steel from climbing stairs all their lives. Stairs are everywhere in London. Steep stairs in BnB's, tube stations, museums, pubs,
etc. Elevators and escalators exist but stairs are a fact of life. You want to see London from the dome of St Paul's. You'll climb nearly 530 steps to do
so. Start practicing now and keep your luggage light.
Traffic Flow: London traffic flows exactly opposite of what most of the world is used to. That reality necessitates a complete readjustment of
your brain. Simple solution is to WAIT for the light at a cross walk. Look at the curb beneath your feet. HUGE lettering will remind you which way traffic
is flowing. Pay attention. DON'T jaywalk. You will also find out that on escalators and stairs it's proper to stand on the right.
Something new: As I mentioned at the start of this post, things change and apparently Underground riders
are being asked to try something new. Click here to inform yourself. (LINK TO: http://www.theguardian.com/uknews/
Language: Yes it's English but not everyone there speaks like the cast of Downton Abbey. Practice the art of listening carefully. You'll also need to
understand some translation differences. When searching for a restroom, ask where the loo or toilet is.
Biscuit is a cracker.
Brolly an umbrella.
Chemist a drugstore.
Chips are french fries.
Crisps are potato chips.
Flannel is a washcloth.
Fags are cigarettes.
Ground floor is first floor.
Jumper a sweater.
Nappy a diaper.
The Beauty of Pubs: Though alcohol is served, pubs are a traditional communal meeting place. In most pubs prior to 9pm you may see families
with babies, children and dogs. Single woman of all ages should feel comfortable in pubs. You'll find it easy to have a drink, some food, pleasant conversation and you can sit for hours reading and relaxing. I'm a huge fan of pub grub as my main late afternoon meal. Enjoying a pint with an early dinner is an excellent respite after walking around the city.
Walking: I adore the London Underground and riding buses but my preferred mode of transport in London are my own two feet. It's the best way to
locate hidden gems down alleyways, enjoy strolls along the Thames path or on parks trails. There are guided walks which are informative and
inexpensive. Highly recommend www.walks.com.
Travel in November: This is my favorite time. Weather is quite pleasant. Yes, a coat, scarf and gloves are often needed but rainfall is minimal. Gorgeous sun filled blue skies can also occur. Accommodations are a bit cheaper and if your travel dates are close to Thanksgiving you'll enjoy watching London's Christmas preparation begin. You will also find that at some sites crowds are minimal. Other than a group of school children I had Hampton Court Palace all to myself last November. It was bliss. If you do travel in Winter or Fall be aware that the daylight hours are shorter with the sun starting to set around 4pm. Plan your day accordingly.
Airfare Savings: Research, research, research. Sign up for airfare alerts on websites such as Kayak and Skyscanner. If you prefer a specific
airline sign up for their alerts. Be persistent. Use miles if you have them.
Accommodations: Here are some options I've tried and enjoyed.
Vancouver Studio Apartments in Bayswater. Vibrant neighborhood,
option of two tube stations, plentiful restaurants, cafes, close to Kensington
Gardens, Hyde Park and a 20 minute walk to Portobello Market. Fair price,
safe and secure building. There's good water pressure, flat screen tv's,
comfortable beds, free wifi, small refrigerator and kitchenette, complete with
plates, cutlery, mugs and glasses. http://vancouverstudios.co.uk/en/home
People with mobility issues beware of stairs. Steep stairs.
Airbnb: I'm a great believer in AirBnB. Have never been disappointed. On most trips I rent rooms in a house. Last year I rented a 2 bedroom flat on the outskirts of Nottinghill. It was only two blocks to Portobello Market but on a very quiet street. My rule of thumb for booking an Airbnb property is that there is a picture of the owner, not their pet, or some iconic image (like Big Ben) and given the time zone differences that they respond to my initial inquiry within 24 hours. I also insist that there are at least 12 positive customers reviews posted. I engage the owner, asking them a bit about themselves and sharing vice versa. If the owner answers my questions (i.e., what's the closest tube stop, ATM, describes the neighborhood and tells me the exact address so I can do a google satellite image search) I'll most likely book. https://www.airbnb.com
Room size in London even in expensive hotels can be small. Honestly, a room at a Best Western in the States is larger than most hotel rooms in London. Once and only once I stayed in a Russell Square hotel that charged $250 a night. The room was smaller than the studio apartment I have in Los Angeles (USA). If you want more square footage, book a suite. Otherwise consider a flat or apartment.
Getting cash: Sadly, there aren't any ATM's at Heathrow that aren't owned by TravelEx so there will be a transaction fee for withdrawing cash. However, this is the easiest way to get cash when you arrive so get enough to make you feel secure. I suggest 40 pounds. After checking in and unpacking, locate the closest bank ATM and make a larger withdrawal. It's your bank that issues any ATM transaction fee so before you leave home find out what those fees are. Capital One is the only credit card I know that (so far) doesn't have a fee but that may soon change soon.
Credit Cards: Visa and MasterCard are the most recognized. Transaction fees are usually between 1%-3%. American Express has gained a bit more acceptance in recent years but some smaller shops may not accept them or might add a surcharge. In my opinion, Diners Club and Discover cards are worthless to take. Pin and chip cards are the best to travel with these days. Always contact your credit card issuer and your bank to notify them in advance of your travel. Lastly, use a travel belt to secure your money and passport.
Travel From Heathrow to London: If you wish to save money then take the one hour tube ride into the city. (LINK:http://www.heathrow.com/transportand-directions/underground) If you are as eager as I am after my lengthy overnight flight take the comfortable 15 minute Heathrow Express train. (LINK: https://www.heathrowexpress.com/tickets-deals/prices-fares). It's pricey but if you search in advance you can often find a ticket deal. I travel light, one bag and a small back pack and merely want to get into London as soon as I'm through immigration so I invest my money in the Express Saver to Paddington Underground Station. Other transport options are the Heathrow Connect train, bus, car hire or cab. See information here: LINK TO: http://www.heathrow.com/transport-and-directions/getting-to-central-london. Decide what option is the best value for the way you prefer to travel.
Embrace Public Transport: First investment, the Oyster Card. Buy it when you arrive at Heathrow. Buying the Visitor Oyster card advertised on line in advance sounds convenient but you won't get your deposit back when you leave. Be a smart JourneyWoman, buy the card after you've arrived. Five pounds saving is five pounds saving! All things Oyster are explained here: LINK: https://tfl.gov.uk/fares-and-payments/oyster/what-is-oyster Having an Oyster Card is the proverbial 'Key to The City.' Load 20 pounds onto it and away you go. I've kept mine over the years and simply top up when I return. Works like a charm.
London Underground: This is one of the easiest means of public transport in the world. Lines are color coded, signage of routes plentiful, large reference maps on walls. Yes, it's crowded during peak times but it will whisk you around London in a manner of minutes. A great travel accessory to have are the pocket sized tube maps which you can find on the counters in nearly every station. Over the years I've found the wee print getting harder to read but I never travel around London without one of these invaluable maps in my coat pocket. They can help you plan your day the night before or change a route the day of. Once inside an underground (subway) car you'll notice it's quiet. This seems to be when Brits enjoy their down time. You'll find riders with head phones in place, reading a book or newspaper or dozing off. Even during commuter times when you are packed in like sardines there isn't much conversation. Lastly, one bit of advice is try not to change trains at Bank or Monument station unless you must. Otherwise you'll feel as though you've walked the entire length of Great Britain. If there is someone in your party who has ambulatory issues this link (LINK TO)http://content.tfl.gov.uk/avoiding-stairs-tube-guide.pdf is helpful.
Buses: are an excellent means of transport. It's much slower as traffic in London is dismal. Try to sit in the front seats on the upper level where the windows are nearly floor to ceiling. It's an absolutely wonderful way to see London pass by. In November, I especially love taking a bus down Oxford or Regent streets at night to see the Christmas lights. It's not a fast ride but who cares. Seeing the hustle and bustle in the glow of the lights is memorable. See: https://tfl.gov.uk/maps/
National Rail 2 For 1 deal: If traveling as a couple this is helpful in defraying costs for visits to The Tower of London, The London Eye, Hampton Court, St Paul's, Tower Bridge Exposition and countless other sites. For more information see this site. (LINK TO: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/times_fares/2334.aspx ). Remember the majority of museums are free in London but sites like The Tower and St Paul's are pricey. This is a money saver if used properly.
Plan a Journey website. I find this site (LINK:https://tfl.gov.uk/plan-ajourney/) invaluable.
Black Cabs: One truly great experience is taking a Black Cab (LINK TO: http://www.theknowledgetaxi.co.uk.). Their drivers are known for their comprehensive familiarity of the city. Use the Halio Taxi app on your cellphone or hail one using proper cab etiquette. This means standing on the curb (not in a bus zone or crossing) and if you see a Black Cab with its TAXI light illuminated raise your arm. They should stop. No yelling or whistling, please. Approach the driver's window and explain where you wish to go. Hop in the back. These very knowledgeable drivers are happy to engage in conversation. Feel free to inquire about the sites.
What's Going On Where?: Timeout magazine online (LINK: http://www.timeout.com/london) is a superior reference guide to all things London, is. You'll find information on theatre, museums, markets, music, churches, restaurants, libraries, iconic sites, etc. Denotes hours of operation, days closed, what tube stop is closest. Use it, you'll love it.
Then, read flyers on church and museum bulletin boards, ask a cab driver, the person pouring your pint, or a store clerk to discover what local festivities might be happening. Last November while in the Royal Academy of the Arts I over heard two people chatting about an artist's collective open house on Eel Pie Island. How does a Journeywoman not go to that? It was a train ride to Twickenham and a six- block walk but an absolutely wonderful day of discovery. Who knew of the lovely York House gardens? A hidden surprise I found while I strolled along the river path!! A wow moment. Good websites: http://www.visitlondon.com and http://www.skiddle.com/whats-on/London/
Theatre: Ih highly recommend seeing a play while in London. Buy same day tickets at the half price booth (LINK TO http://
www.tkts.co.uk/leicester-square/) in Leicester Square.
And Now For Something completely different: Click here! LINK TO: http://
Food: You will never go hungry in London. It's a cosmopolitan melting pot where there are countless ethnic restaurants to choose from. There's pub grub, food trucks and pop up restaurants. There are North American chains (Subway, KFC, Burger King and Starbucks) and restaurants serving traditional British fare. Check out London food blogs before you go. Burger bars seem to be a rage at the moment. If you want non fizzy bottled water make certain the bottle reads Still water.
Pub Grub: Offers time to rest tired feet while enjoying a pint along with a pot pie, or a salad, or bowl of soup, or bangers and mash, or Thai food. Often there are specials posted on sign boards in front of the pubs. It's a good way to enjoy a respite that's not harsh on the pocket book.
Picnicking: Pret a Mangers cafes are plentiful. Their sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads are made fresh daily. You can also find inexpensive packaged meal deals at Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose supermarkets and at Boots Chemists. Be prepared to find sandwiches such as: egg mayonnaise, salmon and cucumber, Atlantic Prawn, Ploughman's cheddar, roasted chicken and chorizo, and British Salt Beef.
Like Vivienne Westwood, the famous London designer, I, too, believe that '"There's nowhere else like London. Nothing at all."
For oodles of more travel tips
||First Time Visitors
London can be daunting. It's noisy, crowded, and expensive. Weather can be temperamental. Don't let that deter you. It's one of the planet's greatest cities! Do your research. Planning ahead will hopefully lower your costs and add to your enjoyment..