London Instruction Manual: How to prepare for a trip to the UK!

Navigating the "ins" and "outs" of overseas travel can be daunting, even for the seasoned traveler. After hosting over 50 visitors since we arrived here in London a year ago, I have a good handle on most of the questions that visitors will ask. Questions like: "What do I do about phone service?", "How do I get to my hotel from the airport?", and "Should I pack a blow dryer?" are legitimate. More tricky are the questions like "How do I get an American prescription filled?"

So let's start with probably the most confusing, 
yet most often asked question: 

1. "What do I do about phone service in the UK?"

This is a question best thought through a few weeks before departure. Generally, as a visitor, you have a few choices--sign up for an international plan, communicate only when on Wi-Fi, purchase a UK sim card, or rent/buy a mobile hotspot.

The easiest method and the one I most often recommend is to sign up for an International Phone Plan with your current mobile phone provider. Often "pay by the day", the benefit of this choice is that if you don't use it on a certain day (that means don't make or receive calls, don't make or receive texts), you aren't charged. Downside is the price: our American carrier, ATT charges $10/day for their International Plan. Once you have signed up for an International Plan, it stays in place until you call them and cancel it, so whenever you go outside the USA, no matter where you go, it will already be in place. And if you don't want to use it, just keep your phone locked on airplane mode, and you will not be charged for that day.
Even if you choose to remain on Wi-Fi your entire trip, it might make sense to have your carrier's International Plan already set up, just in case you need it.

Option 2 is to always remain in airplane mode, until you are in a Wi-Fi zone, and then make phone calls over Wi-Fi. I'm always surprised at the number of Londoners who have no cell-phone plan, and use Wi-Fi only. The benefit of this method is that it is FREE. The downside is that if you are out and about and lose someone, you have no way of reaching them until you are able to connect on Wi-Fi.  What many travelers do not know is that iPhone to iPhone Wi-Fi international calls are free, as are calls on Facebook Messenger, Facetime and Whatsapp. (Yes, there are other Wi-Fi calling options, but these are the ones our guests and we use most often.) Your phone (and the person you are calling's phone) will ring as normal, and you answer the phone as you normally would.  In this scenario, many people think that they will get their texts without Wi-Fi, or without a phone plan. Nope. And you really can't look up anything online either. But you use your phone as a camera, you can take millions and millions of photos on airplane mode!
Option 3 is to purchase a pre-paid Sim card. This option is often used by business travelers who need to actually do business in London, and those who anticipate making local calls and don't wish to rack up daily international rates. Plan to do the most research if you wish to follow this option, as there are many choices to make. Note that you will be replacing your current Sim card with the new one, so you will not have access to your old number unless you have a second phone which you can forward, and that you must have an unlocked phone. Then you must choose if you want to purchase a local or an international Sim card (the benefit for the latter is that you will have a number that you can give to your friends and family in advance of your departure). You can have your calls forwarded to your new number, however, often you will be charged to receive a call from an international location. Again, it's best to thoroughly research the various SIM types and restrictions before you travel. 

Option 4 is to rent or purchase a mobile hotspot. The purchase price ranges anywhere from $200-$600, so this is something to consider if you plan to do a lot of traveling, or if you are a family that is traveling together. You can also rent a mobile hotspot, but since rental cost is $4-10/day, again, it makes more sense if there are multiple people planning to share the hotspot.

Or just jump into one of London's red phone booths and make a call ---just kidding! There are actually very few working phone booths... mostly they're just used for tourist photo opportunities, like this one:

 That was an earful of phone info (pun intended!) 
Now, let's move onto money, another popular topic!

2. Money--The U.K (Britain, Wales and Northern Ireland) uses the Pound Sterling, or "Pound" for short, while Ireland uses the Euro.  

How many Pounds (£) should I bring with me? Probably none! One thing to note about life in London (and this is not necessarily true of life outside of London) is that it is fairly cash-LESS. My husband carries NO cash, and I find that £100 lasts me weeks and weeks and weeks. 

How is this possible? Well, one word: Contactless. This is a universal concept here, but is not well-known in the USA. Basically, if you have a credit or debit card with the contactless symbol, all you have to do is "tap" the card for any purchase under £30, no signature required!

Even better, if you have Apple Pay, then any purchase under £199 is also "contactless", as long as the retailer has the Apple Pay capability (otherwise the limit remains £30).  If they don't have Apple Pay capability, you can still use your Apple Pay but it will revert to "contactless", and you will have to sign for anything over £30. Note: Google Pay works the same way as ApplePay, but I don't have it, and so far, I don't see many Google Pay symbols around here)

IMPORTANT! BEFORE you come, either sign up for ApplePay on your phone/Apple Watch, or contact your credit card company and see if you can be issued a credit or debit card with the contactless symbol. With just a quick phone call to Chase, I was able to order a Contactless card for my USA bank account, shipped overnight for free. 

Where to obtain currency? Over 97% of ALL ATMS in the UK offer FREE cash withdrawals. So quick answer--Put your USA Debit Card into any ATM and watch the British Pounds come out! Note: DO be sure to check with your USA credit card company to make sure that they won't charge you foreign transaction fees. Also, when given the chance of purchasing money or goods in £ or $, choose £. Your credit card company will most often offer the better exchange rate.

And now that you have your money, what is an easy way to do dollars and pound conversions in your head? The pound fluctuates a lot, so it is tough to know exactly how far your dollar is going. Currently, with the pound right around £1.22 per dollar, I find it is easy to use a 1.25 multiplier..which means for every pound, just add 25 cents, and for every 100 pounds, add 25 dollars. But if you find that you don't like all these numbers swimming in your head, do what I did for the first 6 months I was here---just think equal pounds and dollars, and see if you "feel" like you are getting a bargain (because in reality, those £40 pound jeans are really £50, haha!)

What about tipping? In general, you will not need to tip much in London. At restaurants, a 12.5% service charge is added to the bill. If the service is phenomenal, the waiter would be most appreciative of (and would not expect) a little cash slipped to them at the end. (if you put it on the tab, it is split amongst many).  At pubs, you can just leave the coin change. In general for cabs, add the change, or a pound to the fare. 

Now that we've gotten the money part straightened out......
3. Just how do I get around London?

Short answer: Public Transportation. Although Londoners may disagree, I think public transportation is one of the very best parts of living in London. There are a myriad of easy options for getting around: The London Underground has a maze of color-coordinated routes that zip every few moments around (mainly) the area north of the Thames, the red-double decker buses are ubiquitous, as are the famous black cabs. In addition, there is the water ferry, the train system and thousands of almost-free bikes to rent. 

But how to know which means of transport to take?
Download the Citymapper free app onto your phone and it will help you choose the best option. This is an app that Londoners use, and it works well in most big cities around the world. The great news is that it gives you all the transportation options at a glance, you can choose future departure and arrival times, and you'll see if any transport modes are running late or  have canceled. This App has kept me from getting lost since day one here (and in Paris, Berlin, Athens, etc). Download the Citymapper app well before you come over, and make sure to practice a few dry runs! (Outside of London, Google Maps works the best (Citymapper is only available in larger cities). 
If you choose not to download Citymapper for use in London, you can use Google Maps, or TFL (Transport for London) app, which is another locals favorite, but these do not have as many bells and whistles as Citymapper. 

How to pay for your travel around London? Four options: Apple Pay, your contactless credit card, the Oyster Card, or my favorite, the Apple Watch. We've discussed all except the Oyster Card, so let's take a look!  The Oyster card is a blue contactless card which can be purchased at any Underground Station, and allows you to add money to it, in order to pay for Tube, Bus, water ferry and train travel (within the 6 zones of London). It doesn't work for Black Cabs, or for train travel which originates (or travels) outside of London proper--for longer train trips, you must purchase an individual ticket at the train station (or online, through the specific train site or through Trainline).

If you decide to go this route, and you plan well in advance (yet again, it is not necessary if you have a means of contactless payment), you can purchase an Oyster Card on-line, and have it mailed to your home in the USA. When purchasing an Oyster Card (also easily purchasable at an Underground Station), calculate the days you plan to travel in London and how many trips you plan to take each day. A single fare on the Tube is £2.40 in Zone 1 (Note: the majority of tourist areas are in zone 1), and there is a daily zone 1 cap of £7.00. Therefore, if you were planning to take 1 trip during each of 5 days, you might want to put £25 on your Oyster Card to begin with (2x £2.40 x 5 days). If you need more, you can "top off" your card at an underground station.  (note:  be sure to watch the entry screen as you enter the turnstiles--the  screen will show you your Oyster card balance)

If you choose to purchase an Oyster Card, do not fall prey to the various tourist schemes that charge you a premium to get an Oyster Card. 

4. What is Immigration (or Customs) like when I enter the UK?

I have no idea what will happen after Brexit, but with some new procedures in place for 2019, holders of USA passports entering Heathrow and Gatwick speed right through the fast track. You do not even need to fill out an entry form if coming from the USA. Make sure you get in the same line as UK passport holders (on the right at Gatwick). You will scan your passport, then look up--a camera will match your face with your passport image. Make sure that you aren't wearing a hat or sunglasses. Also, if your passport photo has glasses on, you better be wearing them. Then walk right through the exit door! Easy as pie! (and they don't check your bags as you exit)

5. How to I get from the Airport into London.... and back again?
I waited to discuss this question until after I had addressed money and transportation methods here in this big city. Although there are 5 London Airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, London City, London Luton and London Stansted), I'm going to assume that you are staying in Central London, and that you are arriving into London via Heathrow or Gatwick. If you are coming from America, more than likely you will arrive into Heathrow. Because I live very close to the Tower Bridge, I always try to fly into Gatwick. Below is an explanation of each airport and how to get into the city from each.

Heathrow (LHR)--is considered the main gateway to the UK for non-European flights. Located 16 miles from central London, this airport is more convenient to those who live in the central or western part of London. (For me, and for those who live more towards the East or South, Gatwick is the easy choice--1/2 hour vs 1 hour minimum from Heathrow) 

a. The Heathrow Express is a train which travels every 15 minutes, non-stop between Heathrow and Paddington, and costs approximately £26-£30. You can now use your contactless credit card, so there is no reason to wait in the long queues to purchase tickets at the airport. If you want to save a bit of money, Heathrow Express tickets can also be purchased on-line at a savings. The Heathrow Express takes approximately 16 min to Paddington, at which point you can transfer to Victoria (@ 30 min 1 train change), or to London Bridge (at least 45 min with 2 train changes). 

b. Piccadilly Underground Line is the 10-15 minute slower version of the Heathrow Express, and it costs only a fraction of the Heathrow Express Price. You will pay standard underground fare (£2.40-£5.10, depending on where you are headed). This is a great choice if you aren't in a hurry, or if you wish to save money. For me, it saves one train transfer. It's a great choice if you are headed to Kensington, Knightsbridge, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, King's Cross or anywhere on the Piccadilly Line.

c. Cab or UBER 
 This option is best if there are 4 or more of you, if this is your first trip to London, if it is very early or very late at night, or if you just don't want to navigate the underground with all your luggage. The cost of a cab can run you $75-100, depending on how far you are going and just how bad the traffic is. But it will still be less than 4 Heathrow Express tickets (Yes, Uber is in London, and it is maybe 20% less expensive. I prefer to take the black cabs. They are clean, spacious and the drivers know where they are going.) Plus, they are part of the culture here... and so cute!

Gatwick (LGW)--Gatwick, at 30 miles south of London is logical choice if you are staying in SouthEast London, near London Bridge or Waterloo Station. It's London's second busiest airport and is the hub for many low-cost carriers, like EasyJet. This is my airport of choice, and I liken it to flying into Oakland instead of San Francisco--smaller, easier to navigate and quicker into much of the London. This is where you will fly if you take Norwegian Air from the States.

a.TRAIN:There is only one real choice of transportation from Gatwick into London and that is to take a 1/2 hour train ride. You can use your contactless credit or debit card, or you can purchase an Oyster card JUST outside of the departure doors (there is a kiosk there, no line). You can also follow the signs to the train area and wait in a massive queue to buy a train ticket. 
Use your Citymapper App to make sure you are choosing a train that makes few stops. To London Bridge Station, that means 3 stops, not 7.... ugh. a mistake that I make far too many times. 

b. Cab: noooooo. Too slow. We once spent 3 hours getting to London Bridge after picking up our daughter by car from Gatwick. Take the train.

London City (LCY)--This tiny airport is located inside London and is close to both financial districts, thus utilized by business travelers. If you have the chance to fly in and out of LCY, take it! Use Jubilee line, or DLR (overground) to transport yourself into the city from this airport.

London Stansted ( STN )-- This airport is 45 miles Northeast of London and serves much of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It is best served by train from central London. Use Citymapper or Trainline to determine best travel options.

London Luton ( LTN )--London Luton Airport is 28 miles north of Central London, utilizes many of the low-cost carriers and serves many of the shorter European flights. Use Citymapper or Trainline to determine best travel options.

6. What Electronics and Electrics should I bring...or not?

a. European plug adapter with phone ports...This is a lifesaver!
b. Computer cables, charger cables, phone cables 
c. Portable phone charger (you will find that your phone dies Quickly here. idk why)
e. Any electronic item--electronic items are universal and all should work here.
f.  A Curling Iron/straightener will generally work, but is not guaranteed.
g. Hair Dryer. DO NOT BRING (unless you have a combo 110/220 volt dryer! A 110v dryer will blow up. Don't worry though-- most hotels and Air BnB's will provide a blow dryer.

7. Bringing toiletries in your carry-on
When I fly from the USA, I've found that as long as each item is less than 3 oz, and is in a sealed zip-lock bag, I'm good to go. So, you should be fine leaving the USA.

But the UK is a bit more particular about how much you can take in a carry-on bag. When leaving the UK, you are only allowed one very small government-issued sandwich-bag-sized, zip-lock bag, (Yes, you must use THEIR bag) which MUST close completely. No Exceptions--I've seen huge amounts of cosmetics just thrown out because they wouldn't fit in the UK issued bag.  If you have more cosmetic items than one small zip-lock will hold, be prepared to check your toiletries on the return.

8. Luggage size and weight limits.
European budget airlines have slightly different size and weight requirements, and because the requirements often change, I'm not going to list or discuss them here. Just make absolutely sure that your luggage complies with the requirements of the particular airline you are flying. Check their website.

9. How long should I plan to stay in London? 
Although this seems like a silly question, it is a very important one. The answer is: AS LONG AS YOU CAN! I generally recommend at least 5 days, but 7 is better and 10 is awesome. (Personally, I think 3 YEARS is too short.)

I tell people that there are 3-day cities (my home town of San Francisco is one of them), there are 5 day cities, and then there is London. No matter how you slice it, 3 days is NOT ENOUGH. Think of it mathematically:  4-5 days to see the basic tourist sites (Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Churchill War Rooms, Tower of London, London Southbank including London Eye, museums, areas like Covent Garden, Soho, Kensington) and then 2-3 days to take a trip outside of the city--Stonehenge, Bath, Brighton, Cotswolds are all an hour or 2 away by train. 

10. In London, is it necessary to get reservations and tickets in advance for sights, shows and food? 
YES, it is. 
Not to scare you, but there are 9 million people in greater London. And that doesn't count tourists. If there is something wonderful or amazing to do, it will be booked WELL in advance. I agree that it is fun to wing it while on vacation, but if there are sights you are really interested in seeing, exhibits or shows that you don't want to miss, or even a great restaurant you think you'd like to try, book it now (or yesterday). Many top restaurants book out 2 months to the day.

Yes, you can purchase tickets AT the various tourist attractions, but unless you are planning to come in the dead of winter, you will be waiting in a longggg queue. If you purchase the ticket on-line in advance (and especially with a timed ticket), you walk right on. A couple "advance-purchase-recommended" venues come to mind: The London Eye (well worth the extra £4 for a fast track anytime ticket--will save you at least 45 minutes), Westminster Abbey (buy an online ticket (and make sure to add the JUBILEE ROOMS for an extra £5) and you will walk right in. For very special temporary art exhibits (think Christian Dior at the V & A), and the Churchill War Rooms (buy an online timed ticket and you will still wait in line (but once the actual time comes, the line will move). 

One other thing: Try to purchase your tickets on the venue's site, instead of through a third party...that is, unless you like paying more, or have a preference for organized tours.

11. With so much to do, should I even plan to see a show while I'm here? 

London is the cultural center of the UK, and home to world class music, dance and theatre. I have found the theater prices to be much less than what you would pay in the USA for a show, so if you want to see one of the biggies (Hamilton, Come From Away, etc), I highly recommend seeing them in London. I generally like the feeling of knowing that I have an advance ticket, but I've also had success buying same-day tickets. There is a TKTS kiosk in Leicester Square that offers 1/2 off same day tickets, and discounted tickets a week in advance.
You can also get great deals by going directly to the box office the day of an event.

12. How do I fill a USA prescription in the UK?

Quick answer--you don't, unless you have hours to spend on this prospect. Please double check that you have your prescriptions filled before you leave, and that you have them safely with you.  If you must refill a prescription while here, you will need to get a UK prescription from a UK Physician. There are 3 options I can think of for doing this:
a. Contact a pharmacy and ask if they have a physician with whom you can chat with. You will need to make an appointment with the physician and the appointment may cost you £100. The physician will determine whether this prescription should be filled. He may direct you to an Urgent Care facility after all of that.

b. Visit a Private Urgent Care center (Because you are not a resident of the UK, you are not eligible for NHS (public health care). Not to worry, there are plenty of private physicians, urgent cares and hospitals here in London. You should contact your insurance company to determine which private facility you are eligible for. 

(It's a good idea to have your insurance information with you anyway... who knows when you will slip into a rabbit hole while walking on an innocuous path, and break your foot? hmmm... come to think of it, I know the answer to that question.)

c. Your hotel may be able to make arrangements for you to see a physician, or they may have an in-house physician.

Hopefully the answers to all the above questions will set you up for a smooth arrival in London. 

But there is one last question:
...the only question which I CANNOT answer!

13. What will the weather be like while I'm here? 
Who knows?!! Londoner's always expect the worst, and are generally prepared for it. Londoners dress in layers, generally with a sweater (Jumper in Brit-speak) and an umbrella (Brolly in Brit-speak) ready for use!  I would ABSOLUTELY pack a compact travel umbrella AND a rain jacket. 

And watch, watch, watch the weather forecast....which means you might repack your suitcase several times before you go, as the weather forecast changes from 7 days of downpour to 7 days of sun, and then back again! 

This picture pretty much sums it up:

No matter what the weather, this city won't disappoint you! Between the history, museums, sights, shows, as well as innovative food and drink, there are a myriad of amazing things to do in London! 

Welcome to my city!


  1. ugh #7 is soooooo true.....very strict with their cosmetic ziplocs! I had to throw away so much when I was there last!! miss you all!!!

  2. i like travelling especially by car! I didn't actually expect London to be such a great and modern city! I always use car rental service wherever i was! And i did so in London as well! Hope to go there once again!

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