How We Go to London

We've made a number of trips to England (especially London) since 2001, and have amassed a considerable fund of best practices. Caveats:
  1. We live in New England. The further away you live, the less applicable some of these will be.
  2. As New Englanders--see point 1--we're inclined to be cheap, but we don't object to spending money if it's proportional to the gain involved.
  3. We're both engineers, so we tend to be pragmatic rather than romantic, and value-oriented rather than extravagant.
This page collects our rules of thumb, favorite websites, and how-to tips. What to do when you get there is a separate question; ask in the comments if you want our ideas.


Transportation

The first thing to think about, other than what it is you absolutely must see, is how you'll get around. This decision will inform many of the other ones, including where you go, how much time you budget for getting around, and where you stay.


Rail

The UK has a good rail system. In southern and central England, especially, you can get to or near most places by train. Everything is massively London-centric. It's almost always easy to get to anywhere from London and back—for that matter, you can get from central London to central Paris in 2:15 or so. Getting from one non-London place to another is not always so simple and may involve transfers or significant waits.

You can see ticket prices, train times, and maps at www.nationalrail.co.ukAlways go to this site rather than the individual train companies' separate sites. If you do the latter, you won't be able to coordinate across operators, and you may not get all the options.


Tickets

The train is not necessarily cheap. The cheapest tickets are purchased well in advance. Don't bother with first class tickets; standard class is fine. A "single" is one-way, a "return" is round trip.

Some trains have reserved seating. There may be a ticket saying "reserved" stuck in the seat back, or a small LED sign above the seats. Either way, it'll say something like "reserved between Brighton and Portsmouth". If you sit in one of these seats, the owner will probably ask you politely to move.

Passes

As a tourist, there's a big advantage to staying flexible. If you don't want to purchase advance tickets, consider a railpass. Railpasses allow unlimited travel for a certain number of days, in a certain area, on any train at all. You can either get a pass for n consecutive days, or for n non-consecutive days within a longer period—for example, you  can get a pass that lets you travel on any eight days within two months. The latter are more expensive, but more flexible; we prefer them. For us, they have two primary advantages—one, that you can rearrange your schedule on the fly; and two, you can get on any train, including high speed trains that have higher priced tickets.

To use a railpass, you'll have to activate it. You can do that at almost any train station, including at the airport (the Heathrow Express counter in the terminal, for example). A flexible pass has a space for the date at the bottom. Write in the date before you get on your first train each day. After that, just show the pass to the guard (conductor) or at the platform, as required.

Railpasses aren't available to UK residents; you have to pre-order them. Allow a couple of weeks. Some railpasses also come with coupons for travel to/from the airport by train. Some don't.

Coach (Bus)

Any place that doesn’t have rail will have bus services from the largest nearby town, often but not always frequent. These services are usually pretty easy to figure out. Most of the large towns have a central coach station, usually near the train station, with the bus lines radiating outward. Bus fares for short trips are inexpensive.

There are also inter-city coach services, which we haven't had occasion to use. Some of these, such as Megabus, may have extremely low fares for advance purchases.

Air

There are some very cheap internal and European airfares available on, e.g. Ryanair. We haven't gone this route, as we figure the hassle of airports more than offsets any time savings within the UK. It's worth checking out if you're hopping within Europe, though.

Car

We also haven’t had occasion to rent a car. UK rental cars are, reportedly, almost all stick shifts. Observationally, we can say that:
  • The UK road system is less omnipresent than its US counterpart, with fewer mega-highways. Even main roads may not be 100% divided highways ("dual carriageways").
  • There are a lot of roundabouts (rotaries, traffic circles).
  • City centers are usually not designed for cars. Think Boston, only more so.
  • Village and rural roads are often very very narrow, with poor visibility.
  • Gas is 2x or more its US price.

Our specific advice is: do not take a car into London.
  • You'll pay for the privilege. Central London has a congestion charge zone. Drive in this area, they snap your license plate, and you will pay. It's not cheap, either.
  • The traffic is very bad, even with the congestion charge, and the drivers are no better than big city drivers anywhere else.
  • The roads can be confusing. There's nothing like a grid, there are many one-way streets, roads change names a lot. The signage is pretty good, actually, but there's a lot of it.
  • Parking is scarce and expensive, as with any big city.
  • The public transport is excellent.
Speaking of which, let's talk about …

Public Transport in London

Transport for London is indispensable for planning. It has maps and other useful information about the various public transit options.

The Tube

The Tube, a.k.a. the London Underground, is your go-to transportation mode. It goes pretty much everywhere you want to go. That said, you should know that:
  • It can be extremely crowded at rush hours
  • It's an old system. There are breakdowns, particularly signal failures. Most stations have monitors which will show you the current system status.
  • There is no air conditioning.
The Tube is divided into geographic zones, concentric around central London. Zones 1 and 2 cover 90% of all the touristy stuff. Zones 3 and out are mainly for commuters. How much you pay for a journey depends on which zones you're hitting. Heathrow Airport is in Zone 6.

Rather than buy individual tickets, it's almost always a better idea to get either:
  • An Oyster Card. This is a pre-paid  card. You put money on it. You tap it on the turnstile when you enter the system, and tap it again when you exit. You'll be charged the lowest possible fare for that journey, and there's a per-day maximum charge. When the money runs out, you fill it up again. OysterCards are available in both visitor and resident versions.
  • A TravelCard. A TravelCard is a paper ticket allows you unlimited travel for a certain period of time. You can get 1- or 7-day cards, covering Zones 1 and 2 or all zones. TravelCards aren't available to locals, only to visitors; you have to pre-order them. Allow a couple of weeks for delivery.
We've used both. TravelCards are more expensive, particularly if you're not going to be in the city for more than a few days, but very convenient—who wants to take time to refill an Oyster Card when there are sights to be seen? Info on both Oyster and TravelCards is at visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk/.

Arguably the best of both worlds comes when you put an (electronic) TravelCard on your Oyster Card. This option isn't always easily findable, though.

Do get a street map of London. Even the locals need them, and the tube map is schematic, not geographic. Two tube stops that look far apart on the map may be close together on foot (and vice-versa).
Here’s an interesting trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House ... they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. When eventually they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street ... - Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island

Buses and Boats

There are buses. There are boats. The boats go on the Thames. The buses (ideally) do not. Oyster Cards are good for both buses and boats. TravelCards are good for buses, and give you a discount on boats.

Not all of the bus routes have double-decker buses, but many do. Some of the bus routes take in quite a number of sights, so you can often get a good tour just by hopping on a passing bus and watching out the window. The Number 11 bus route, for example, is well known for this.

Taxis

London's "black cabs" are famous, easy to find, comfortable, and fairly expensive. The cab drivers are experts—you can only become one after a grueling exam. We haven't really needed to use them, but they are universally highly spoken of. There are also "minicabs", which don't hold to the same standards. Guidebooks recommend that if you're going to use a minicab, you have your hotel call one for you, rather than hailing them one in the street, to make sure you get a reputable service.

To the Airport

We've always come and gone via Heathrow. Gatwick is not on the Tube, but the options are otherwise similar.

Driving to Heathrow from London puts you at the mercy of traffic. Allegedly it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Taking a taxi also puts you at the mercy of traffic and can be expensive.

The cheapest option is undoubtedly the Tube. The Piccadilly Line goes direct between the airport and central London. This will take about 45+ minutes. It can be crowded.

There are two rail services, both of which travel between Heathrow and Paddington Station:
  • Heathrow Express is nonstop, takes 15 minutes, and departs every 15 minutes. It's pricey but very convenient.
  • Heathrow Connect makes stops, takes 30 minutes, and departs every 30 minutes. It was originally meant for airport employees, but travelers use it too. It's cheaper than Heathrow Express.
Railpasses (see above) sometimes come with coupons good for either service.

We like Heathrow Express, in spite of the expense. The 15 minutes difference might not seem like a lot, but when you're schlepping stuff around trying to make your flight home, it looms large. However, if you're going to/coming from the southwestern reaches of London (such as Kensington, Victoria, and Chelsea), the Piccadilly Line is right on your doorstep; it may actually be faster to take the tube straight to Heathrow than it would be to trek up to Paddington.

If you use the tube or either rail service to get to Heathrow, make sure you know which terminal you're going to; there are different stations for Terminals 1-3 (a.k.a. Heathrow Central), Terminal 4, and Terminal 5.


Lodgings

European hotel rooms tend to be smaller, older, and more expensive. This is particularly true in London. Bathrooms, especially, are often quite small—frequently they're retrofits. Cheaper hotels may have shared bathrooms, and this may not be obvious to Americans. The words "en suite" denote a private bath. Also:
  • Hotels may not provide shampoo, and usually don't provide a washcloth ("face flannel").
  • Don't assume you won't need air conditioning.
  • If your room faces a main thoroughfare, it may be quite noisy. Check for double-glazed windows.
  • Small hotels may have only one elevator, or none at all.
Larger chain hotels are more likely to be more American-like. Jury's is a good UK/Ireland chain. Premiere Inn is decent, plainer, and likely to be less expensive.

In London, the less expensive hotel areas are (a) in the Paddington/Bayswater districts, particularly along Sussex Gardens (a road), and (b) around Victoria rail station. Both areas are clean and safe; Paddington is perhaps a bit more upscale. South Kensington is a very nice neighborhood with some decent hotel prices as well. (We've liked the Regency and the NH London Kensington there.) You may be able to find good rate in the City (the financial district), particularly over a weekend—just don't expect much in the way of life on the streets outside of bankers' hours. 

There are good deals on bed & breakfast places if you look, but you may have to book well in advance.

Our one disappointing hotel experience was at the Royal National, in Bloomsbury. It's clean enough, and centrally located, but very loud and not especially nice. This one was recommended by British Airways, and in consequence we don't trust them on hotels any longer.

Outside of London, lodgings will be cheaper, but you may have fewer choices. British towns are often smaller and less suburbanized than their U.S. equivalents, so you won't find a Motel 6 wherever you look. Again, consider bed & breakfast lodgings.

Food

To avoid dining shocks, it's worth noting that some ingredients are aliased:
  • "courgette" is zucchini
  • "rocket" is arugula
  • "aubergine" is eggplant
  • "lemonade" is lemonade, but it's fizzy (good, though)
  • "salt beef" is corned beef
  • "mushy peas" are just what they sound like. They are, let us say, an acquired taste
Not all neighborhoods in London are created equal, food-wise. Kensington High Street, Soho and Covent Garden are restaurant-rich. The City and Westminster are not, particularly on weekends. Covent Garden Market itself is not dissimilar to Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market—more retail, less restaurant, but with a lot of options right there.

In our experience, the allegedly parlous state of English food is (at best) ancient history.

Pubs

If you get food in a pub, the usual procedure is to order at the bar. They'll bring the food to you. Some pubs will give you a number to take to your table. Others have numbered tables and will ask you for the number when you order. Some just come find you or call out.

Pub food is said to be highly variable in quality, but we've always been reasonably satisfied with it. Many pubs are part of chains, often owned by breweries. One of the largest chains, J. D. Wetherspoon's, seems to be pretty reliable for mid-range food—look for something saying "A Wetherspoon's Pub" or the like below the pub's name.

Food On the Go

British museums often have surprisingly good food. This is especially true in London, but even outside it we've found that properties run by the National Trust or English Heritage usually have pretty decent grub. The British Museum and the Tate Gallery both stick in our memory as being quite good. Many museums have both a café for quick snacks and a more restaurant-y restaurant.

If you just want something quick, cheap, and reasonably tasty, look for a Pret a Manger outpost. They're ubiquitous in the big cities and feature decent, freshly-made sandwiches, as well as salads and other healthy choices.

Another good option is the Cornish pasty—effectively a pot pie, but in a hand-portable form factor. There are several chains that serve up pasties. Meat pies in general are often a good bet, although we've seen some dubious-looking examples as well. Other noteworthy British foodstuffs include bangers and mash (sausage, mashed potatoes, and gravy) and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding (not a sweet pudding, but more like a savory popover thing).

If you're near Trafalgar Square, the Café in the Crypt underneath the church of St. Martin's in the Fields is decent and sometimes has music.

Places We've Liked

CAUTION: We are not sophisticated foodies; our tastes are at best middle-brow. As long as a dish has decent-quality ingredients and is cooked competently, we like it--especially if it has strong flavors! We also don't particularly care whether a place is "touristy" or "authentic" or "sophisticated". If your approach is different, please take that into account.

The Borough Market is a fantastic place to pick up cool foods. During the week it's a wholesale fruit/veg/specialty foods market. On Thursday/Friday/Saturday they open up for retail trade. They have grade-A foods from all over the UK: produce, hard cider, drinks, sausages, seafood, cheeses, sandwiches, meat pies, bread, baked goods, ice cream, you name it. It can get crowded (deservedly so).

Chimes of Pimlico has good traditional English food, especially meat pies. A large portion of their clientele is American. Drink-wise, they have a good selection of ciders. Their desserts are excellent. Service can be a little slow, though.

The Sherlock Holmes Pub near Charing Cross Station has a downstairs bar (frequented by locals) and an upstairs restaurant (almost 100% tourists). The food is pretty good English cuisine.

Patisserie Valerie has many outlets and does good pastries, teas, and hot chocolate. Many, such as the Marylebone High Street location, serve first-class full breakfasts.

Le Pain Quotidien is a French-ish chain with good breads, breakfasts, lunches, and light meals. There are several in London. There's one near the South Kensington tube station, which is very convenient if you're staying in the area.

Busaba Eathai is, naturally, Thai(ish). If you're cautious about Thai food, this would be a good intro. You generally sit at a large table, which may have other diners at it. The location near the British Museum is a handy one.

Wagamama is a sort-of-Japanese-style ramen bar. Really it's kind of pan-Asian-inspired. It's owned by the same people who own Busaba Eathai, and has a very similar vibe. Many of their dishes are noodle-based, or stir-fry; there are a lot of vegetarian options, as well. The service is quick and the food excellent. There are many, many locations (and there are a couple in the Boston area, if you want to try them out here).

Ask is a reliable Italian chain--not super-high-end sophisticated gourmet, but tasty. It's very similar in overall appeal to Bertucci's in the U.S. Finding an Ask can be an especial blessing in the smaller cities of England, where most places roll up the sidewalks at 5:00 p.m. sharp.

Masala Zone is sort of like Ask for Indian food. It's middle-brow, middle-priced, friendly, accessible, and quite tasty. Quite likely Indian food snobs sneer at it, but I notice that the restaurants are always busy and the chain keeps expanding. If you're an Indian-food novice, this is a good place to try.

Cafe Spice Namaste is a higher-end Indian restaurant. It serves slightly non-standard but very tasty food, based on the cuisine of Goa and some other regions. It's a trifle out of the way for many tourists, being just east of the Tower of London, but not at all hard to get to.

Miscellaneous

Here are some random things we've learned.

Weather

It's not true that British weather is uniformly bad. It is true that British weather is very changeable. London gets less rain per year than Boston, but has more days with at least some rain. Don't be surprised if a day turns from miserable and dank, to windy, to sunny and hot, to overcast and threatening, to sunny (we've seen it).
No matter when you go, don't expect temperatures in the 90s. Daytime highs in high summer will probably be warm but not baking hot. Evenings may be cool. You may want shorts if you're going to be exercising out of doors, but you should certainly think about long sleeves, or even a light jacket, for later hours. Also, remember that London is further north than New England; the sun will stay up until 9:30 or so.

Hours

In general, businesses open later and close earlier than in the U.S. We have rented bicycles on several occasions, for example, and found that the rental places didn't open until 10:00 a.m. and closed at 5:00 p.m. sharp. This is less of a problem in London, but in provincial cities there can be a complete absence of street life after 5:00 p.m.

A "bank holiday" is a public holidays. On bank holidays some things are closed, other things may be open, hours may be different, there are special events, etc. Google for the bank holidays ahead of time if you're planning to see some specific thing on some specific date.

Money and Valuables

Your ATM card should work fine, although the bills may be too large to fit in your wallet. Don't bother to exchange money beforehand if you don't need to; just go to an ATM when you arrive. 

Your credit card should also work fine—in theory. In practice, you may occasionally encounter a glitch. European credit cards have a chip-and-PIN arrangement for security. Many US cards lack chips. The card companies stipulate that merchants are supposed to be able to swipe no-chip cards, but we've found one or two spots—an automatic ticketing machine in a train station, for example—that seemed to have trouble. We've never had any difficulty when there was a person involved, though.

It's never a bad idea to take precautions, although we've never had any reason to feel that we needed them. When you're going to be in a hotel for a while, you can leave your passport in the hotel safe. If you have a money belt that fits under clothing, it's a handy place for emergency backup cash/credit cards/passports.

Packing

If you're going to be there for over a week, don't try to take all the clothing you'll need. There are wash-and-fold places all over London: you can drop your laundry off in the morning, then pick it up in the evening. Avoid checked baggage on the plane if you can. The major London train stations have left-luggage departments, where you can pay by the hour or day to store your stuff. Most hotels will let you drop your luggage there before you check in, and leave it there until afternoon the day you depart. Bed & breakfasts may not be so helpful.

Communications

A few phones will work in both the US and Europe. Some people pick up a cheap prepaid cell phone for European use. We've done fine with Wi-Fi and Skype. 

UK phone numbers are sometimes given in the form (0)20 7373 7878, or whatever. The (0) means that you do dial a leading zero from within the country, but you do not dial a leading zero if you're calling from outside the UK.

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