A year ago at this time, I was in London England for my first ever adventure away from home. I was born and raised in NE Oklahoma and I had always wanted to go to England, but because my family was poor and didn’t have a lot of money, my chances of ever going were slim and none until I got a job that requires me to travel some. It was like a dream come true.
For anyone who has never traveled before, especially abroad, here’s some things I took away from my general experience that might be of help to anyone else wishing to go to London! It is an expensive city to travel in and so you must be prepared to prove to the customs agent that you are covered by credit cards and can foot your own bills for food and lodging. (This is for your personal safety and well-being.) Since the country’s organized health care system covers British citizens only, make sure you have health care insurance just in case!
Most shops, restaurants, tourist attractions, and ATM machines in the UK will accept the major credit and debit cards, especially if they are MasterCard or Visa. It is important that you notify your bank or credit card company AHEAD of time that you are going to be traveling abroad, because otherwise you will find yourself having your account suspended because they might suspect that the card was stolen if activity in a foreign locale suddenly increases so be prepared!
It is also important that your passport is up to date! Nothing is a buzz kill worse than having an expired passport and having to go through red tape and problems with security because of a passport problem. Be sure to have this on your person at all times, or at least a copy of it, and be prepared to produce it upon request.
Anyone who has been to London will tell you about their intricate and elaborate transportation system. London is famous for it. Like most major cities, London has an intricate subway system (known as the tube), the famous red double decker buses (and the less popular bendy buses), as well as different kinds of cab companies. The sticker shock on these rides may set a person back a pretty penny so there’s actually a really cool way to not have to spend thousands of dollars on transportation alone. You can go to sites like Viator.com, and other sites and purchase a London Pass with an optional unlimited travel card. The London pass will get you into over 60 of the main attractions around the city, such as The Tower of London, a wonderful ferry ride up the Thames starting at the Westminster Pier (across from Big Ben) all the way to Greenwich and back if you so desire…and many other great things. So not only is your admission covered with the London pass, you can also get discounts in souvenir shops, restaurants, freebies from participating businesses, and more. And if you buy your transportation pass ahead of time, you can save a LOT of money just on traveling from one attraction to another or simply from your hotel to your restaurant. For example a short tube ride might cost you two pounds (Which is a little over $5 US at the current exchange rate) per segment, and then you will spend another two pounds on taking a bus the rest of the way and it will add up. With a week long unlimited travel pass good for all seven London city zones, purchased in conjunction with your London Pass for about $200, you’re saving a bundle…you can easily spend $100 on transportation alone in one day if you don’t have this. (You can also purchase what’s known as an Oyster card, which is also accepted by all the tube and bus terminals. These are refillable but in my opinion, not as big of a bargain as the unlimited pass purchased in advance for all seven zones.) The only thing these passes don’t cover are cab rides, unless a specific cab company is agreeing to be what’s known as “replacement transportation”…in other words, if the buses or more tube stations are not working than usual, and are unavailable during an extremely busy time the cab companies will pick up the bulk of the loss.
If you get lost in London trying to find something, be prepared to have anyone you ask for directions point and tell you “it’s a short twenty minute walk in that direction.” It is easy to lose one’s sense of direction in London because the streets are like a tangled mass of yarn and not laid out in neat blocks like big cities in the US. Sometimes maps are no help at all because if you follow one, it may take you the long way around to get to a tube station that is closer than you think it is. I had to navigate London by myself pretty much and not finding people who looked like they were in the know to be particularly helpful, I just learned to carefully study the tube and bus maps that are available all over the city. They’re not as intimidating at they look at first, if you only pay attention, as the tube trains have maps inside them that show which platforms they stop at, and they’ll tell you which station is next. The tube stations themselves will have signs that show you which direction they are going and which station you need to go on, so you can get on the correct platform. (And you can always find someone willing to help you if you find yourself going the wrong way on the wrong train….all the more reason to purchase an advanced unlimited travel ticket, because you won’t waste money if you do go the wrong way.) The buses are the same way and the futuristic voices will tell you where you are, and what stop is next. If you make mental notes of what landmarks are near your hotel, what stops are near your hotel or where you would like to go, you can navigate more easily.
It can be a bit disorienting for a person not used to big city traffic and the fact that motorists drive on the left side of the street. This can make it pretty daunting for a pedestrian. People will dart in and out between cars, bicycles will ride alongside the cars on the streets and people will walk between cars like they are nothing dangerous. To avoid being hit by a car or bus, I quickly learned that it’s ultra important to remember the pedestrian safety lessons I learned in elementary school and put them to good use. I always crossed London streets at crosswalks or intersections with stop signs, and would wait until there was a crowd of people ready to cross the street at the same time to join them and cross with them.
Hotels and hostels are another thing you must be careful with. Be sure to check in advance that your reservation is still available. Don’t just assume that because you booked on-line that your room will be there ready for you when you arrive at check-in. Sometimes there’s breakdowns in communication between the travel agencies and the hotels and in the case with hostels, even if you have a reservation, they can be first come, first serve and can vary from night to night. If you’re in a hostel you could find yourself being evicted if all the rooms are reserved for someone else who reserved ahead of you. So be sure to check for availability before reserving to increase your chances of staying in one place. This is something to keep in mind. Weekends and holidays decrease your chances of getting a room even with an advance on-line reservation so make sure you double check and make sure rooms and accommodations are going to be available for the duration of your stay, lest you find yourself being a nomad. (Oh and purchase a power adapter too…and bring plenty of charged digital camera batteries ahead of time. You’re going to need them.)
In case of rain be sure to wear shoes with good tread. I did more than my fair share of pratfalls in the London streets due to my shoes not making a good grip on the wet cobblestones! Also, expect lots and lots of steps and stairs. While many of the more modern businesses, museums, stations and buses are handicapped accessible, some of the tourist attractions and architecture around the city is not. The Tower Bridge Exhibition, for example, does not have a lift in the north entrance. You must climb 206 steps to get to the top and walk across the walkways…they are completely worth it once you get up there, as you get a gorgeous bird’s eye view of the city this way. But there’s lots of steps everywhere so you get a LOT of exercise walking around London.
As far as tourist attractions go, none of them are worth missing. However one should not discount the quaint, out of the way locations either. The first thing I explored when I got there was a centuries old cemetery on the south west part of the city. There is a path in the Rotherhithe district where baby swans will put on a show for you. The park close to Buckingham Palace has very tame squirrels who will climb on you if you sit still enough. Westminster Pier has a pigeon with no feet that amazingly walks around as if he’s not handicapped at all. There are very familiar restaurants and fast food chains in London: KFC, McDonald’s, Subway, and Pizza Hut are all there if you want a taste of home. It is kind of fun to visit one of these foreign fast food chains and compare and contrast the food and layout of the restaurant. Here in the US Pizza Hut has a red roof. In England, it is brown and they offer somewhat different toppings.
London can be quite charming and engaging. It is not really much different than any other large American city…I was surprised to run into a lot of people who did not speak English there! There are all kinds of diverse cultures and backgrounds present. Only the familiar landmarks, the obvious reminders that I was in London such as the buses and red box phone booths a la “Dr. Who”, and tall red oval mailboxes was I reminded that I was in Great Britain and not New York! I hope to go back very soon, as it has a lot to offer and I would recommend to anyone, to go to London if they ever have the chance, because they’ll be glad they did.