Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the British Museum are just a few of the sites London is packed with. Although you are certain to find dozens of guidebooks that tell you the best places to go, the best prices, and other touristy information, most of these neglect some real world insight.
Recently I vacationed in London with my spouse. Like most planning obsessed individuals, I bought several guidebooks, read them cover to cover, picked the places I wanted to go, and felt that I was totally ready for the London experience. As far as knowing places to visit, I was ready, but there are a lot of extra necessities on a vacation that many people take for granted. Knowing the tricks of finding lodging and dealing with transportation on a vacation can really make or break a trip.
Planning in advance, I looked online and price checked hotels in both the London and Greater London area. Finding a good price on a hotel wasn’t difficult, and the amenities of the particular hotel I chose seemed fine for what we needed. We knew that we wouldn’t feel comfortable driving in the UK, so I made sure to research public transportation. Several of the books I purchased vaguely discussed how to use the Underground, public buses, and trains. We’d also purchased train passes since we were making multiple excursions (I highly recommend the Brit Rail Flexi Pass). Everything seemed like the pieces were going to fall together seamlessly, but that’s rarely the case with foreign travel.
Mistake #1: Yes, it is by far cheaper to stay in the Greater London area. Realize, however, that “Greater London” means all the little towns, villages, and hamlets that are on the outskirts of London proper. Some of these locations are 30 to 60 minutes by train from Central London. Most of the locals from these smaller towns are used to having trains connecting them to central London, especially since owning a car and paying for gas is so expensive. But usually the trains are used for commuters, which means that Monday through Friday the trains really only travel from Central London to certain locations in Greater London until seven or eight in the evening. So, if you want to really party in London, go to a few plays, drink at the pubs, and go dancing till the midnight or later, you can expect to train to a location that is fairly far away from your hotel and pay a hefty taxi fee.
Solution: Find a reasonably priced hotel in Central London. Yes, it will be more expensive, but if you calculate all the time you’re spending on a bus from your hotel to get to a Greater London area train station, your time on the train to get into central London, and your time either on another bus or on the Underground to get to your tourist attraction, you’re talking an average of 1.5 hours wasted just to get into London. That’s 3 hours out of your day that’s lost on travel. Not to mention the cost of public transportation. Also, if you stay right in London, perhaps near an Underground station, (hint, hint), that means you can party and explore London as late as you want and know that you’ll be able to get back to your hotel without a lot of hassle.
Mistake #2: Public transportation is a blessing and a burden. In the UK most everyone walks and uses public transportation, so the system is incredibly efficient. But when you’re raised in a culture of public transportation, you are trained from early childhood on how to use it. We Americans are so used to ineffective public transportation that many of us avoid it. Also we are brought up in a culture of consumerism, but that’s another topic. Not understanding how to use public transportation and how to pay for it will really frustrate you on your trip, and most likely make a big dent in your wallet.
Solution Part One: How to use it: In central London you will find bus stops and Underground stations very accessible. I highly recommend getting a few maps of London. Most guidebooks come with maps, so you’re covered there, but it’s also advisable to get a map from one of the local train or Underground stations. While there is no way for you to memorize the whole map, you should at least be able to find main streets near where you’re going, and that will make finding public transportation far easier.
Underground station maps are easy to come by, all you have to do is go to a ticket counter. Also, station maps are posted on the walls. When you know which particular Underground line you will be riding on, or which Underground line you will be using to connect with another line, you need to be certain that you follow the signs posted on the wall that indicate the hallway or stairwell you need to take in order to find your platform. Also, since each Underground line can travel in two directions, you will need to know which direction you’re going. Fortunately, as you arrive closer to your platform, Underground stations have very large signs on the wall indicating that the platform to the right is for a particular Underground line stopping at certain locations, and it lists those locations in order. The sign has the same instructions for the platform to the left. Once you are inside of an Underground car, you can look up and see a map of the particular Underground line you are on and the labeled stops on route to your destination. When the Underground train comes to a stop, the name of the station is repeatedly labeled on the walls of the platform, so it is rather simple to instantly know where you are at.
Unlike the Underground, bus maps are not as easy to find. With London buses, you need to know the basic direction you’re going toward. Most buses display the current direction they’re they are traveling in for their final stop. So, if you know you’re going in a particular direction, this may make things a little easier. Also, most bus stops have maps that display which particular buses will stop at that location, the other destinations that those buses stop at, and a timetable showing how often the buses pick up at each location. When you are on the bus, you need to keep your eye on the stops you are approaching. Some buses digitally display the next stop, but don’t rely on that for every bus. Also, especially with buses in the Greater London area, you have to push a button to make the bus driver realize you want to get off. The buttons are generally red and are imprinted with the word “stop,” so you should notice them quite easily.
Solution Part Two: Saving money: In London, it’s all about the Oyster Card. Most places within the UK and Western Europe have their own version of this card/pass, and in fact some places in the states participate in something similar. Think of it as a sort of permanent ticket and/or discount card. These cards can be purchased at any Underground station and even some train terminals. You buy the card by putting a small deposit on it, and then you put any amount of money you want on top of the deposit. Once you already have a card, you can even go to what looks like an ATM to put more money on the card, check your balance, and check to see where you’ve been to make sure you’ve been charged correctly. When you use the buses or the Underground, the card is your ticket. You simply swipe your card or pass it over a sensor, and it deducts money from your account. In London, using the card gives you a reduced flat fee regardless of where you’re going, as long as you properly pass the card over the sensor. On buses you only have to swipe your card when you enter the bus, but on the Underground you have to swipe your card when you enter a station and when you finally exit your destination station. If you only swipe when you enter your station on the Underground, the card will charge you the highest fee, so make sure to swipe it twice. Don’t forget that when you’re done traveling in London you can take your card back to get a refund on the money you didn’t use as well as your deposit.
Vacationing should be relaxing, but not every detail can be perfectly planned. Although most travel guides are informative, they can’t fit every bit of information and they tend to be rather general. My tips are from my personal experiences, so I highly recommend before you go to London or to any other vacation destination you either speak with people who have recently visited, or go online and read some travel blogs. Experiences from people who have similar interests can be more valuable than anything you will find in a vacation guide. All and all, try to accept that strange events will happen when you travel, and it just makes for a better story when you come home.