I’m no travel expert, and three trips to London hardly qualifies me as a “London expert” either. But here are some things I’ve learned from those trips that should help you out if you should ever decide to visit London.
Before You Go:
Get a Travelcard. For all the knocks it gets in the British press, London has a fantastic public transport system. The Tube can almost get you within striking distance of anywhere you need to go and London’s famous double-decker buses can complete the journey or get you home after the Tube stops running at around midnight. The Visitor Travelcard works like most any public transportation pass and gives you unlimited travel for up to 7 days on the Tube, most London buses and most non-Underground trains within metro London.
The price of a Visitor Travelcard is based on two factors: the amount of time you need it for and the number of “zones” you want to travel in. The first part of the equation is easy: the longer you’ll be there, the more you’ll pay. The second part – the “zones” thing – can lead to confusion. London is divided into six zones, with central London being “zone 1″ and zones 2-6 surrounding it like a bull’s eye. Almost every travel site on the web states that you can save money by buying a “central zone” card. In a sense, those sites are correct – 99% of the things a tourist will want to see do indeed fall in zone 1. However, the “all zones” card is only a few dollars more, covers a much greater area and saves you the hassle of figuring out if you have to buy an additional Underground or rail fare to get to a particular destination. For instance, if you want to visit Hampton Court Palace by train, you’d need to use your Zone 1 Travelcard to get from your origin to Waterloo station, then pay an additional fare for the South West Trains trip from Waterloo to Hampton Court. With an “all zones” Travelcard, it’s all included. In addition, the extra fare you’d pay to get to Hampton Court on South West Trains is almost equal to the price differential between the zone 1 and all zone cards, so you’re really not saving any money, plus you have to deal with the hassle of waiting in line to buy another ticket – with the “all zones” card you can just go ahead and get on the train.
UPDATE: the prices for the “all zone” card have skyrocketed since my first London vacation in 2000. On that trip, a 7-day “central zone only” card cost around $45 and a 7-day “all zone” card cost around $60. $15 wasn’t all that much of a difference, and it was worth it to not have to worry about which zone(s) you were traveling to. Also, the fares to and from Heathrow Airport (£8 round trip) and out to Hampton Court Palace (£13 round trip) or Windsor Castle aren’t included on the “central zone” card, so the $38 you’d spend on those two trips actually made the “all zones” card cheaper in the long run ($45 + $38 = $83 vs. $60). However, “all zone” cards now cost $103, versus $56 for the “central zones only” card. With the trips to Heathrow and Hampton Court figured in, you’d lose almost $10 by buying the “all zones” card ($103) versus buying a “central zone” card and paying cash for the extra trips ($56 + $38 = $94). For that kind of price difference, jimcofer.com now recommends that you buy the “central zone only” card and pay cash for the trips that fall outside the central zones.
A 7-day card for all of metro London costs around $103. All Visitor Travelcards are now sold online at this site; click the link to buy or to get more information. Keep in mind that you must buy the Visitor Travelcard before you enter the UK. Please allow a month for shipping when ordering your Travelcard(s).
See the “Ceremony of the Keys”. For the past 700+ years, Tower of London has been locked up for the evening in a solemn ritual called the “Ceremony of the Keys”. Visitors are admitted to the Tower at 9:30pm by one of the Yeoman Warders. He then gives you some background information about the Tower and answers any questions you might have as you walk towards Traitor’s Gate. Once there, the Ceremony begins. The Ceremony of the Keys is one of the most exclusive tours that the average tourist can go on – the average number of observers per ceremony is only around 15 people! And not only is the Yeoman Warder’s pre-Ceremony talk about the Tower almost a “mini-tour” in itself (and nearly as good as the £13.50 tour offered at the Tower during the day), walking around the Tower of London at night is just plain creepy.
For more information about the Ceremony itself, click here. For more information about getting tickets to the Ceremony, click here. In a nutshell, you need to send a request to the address below. You need to include your name, address, the total number of people (less than 6) who will require admission and all available dates that you can view the Ceremony, which occurs every day of the year. Note that you will need to send your request well in advance during the tourist-heavy months from March to September. Otherwise, a month or so in advance is fine. The best part is that aside from the postage to mail your request – and a couple of International Reply Coupons to return your tickets to you – it’s free!
Ceremony of the Keys Office
Tower of London
London EC3N 4AB
Buy a secure wallet. Sure they’re dorky, but those wallets that hook to your belt and slide into your pants could save your ass. Judging from the warning signs posted all over London, pickpockets are everywhere – even in churches. For example, there is a café in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church; the tables have hooks on the corners where you can put the straps of your bags to keep someone from running by and stealing them. In a church. Anyway, besides keeping your money safe, I like having a place to keep all my receipts, credit cards, tickets, tube passes, passports and such handy. In any case, I cannot stress enough that while your chances of getting violently mugged are much slimmer in London than in most major US cities, your overall chances of getting “dipped” are much higher there than in the US. Especially if you’re an American tourist – because you know, we’re all rich, right?
Bring an umbrella. Or be prepared to buy one. Granted, my first trip was during the wettest November since 1766, but it’s always good advice.
Buy a guidebook! I can’t imagine visiting a foreign country without a guidebook and you shouldn’t either. As you might expect, guidebooks offer tons of “pure information”, like how much admission to Westminster Abbey is or which days the Victoria and Albert Museum is open late. But what really sets one guidebook apart from one another is its “editorial information” – such as which hotels should be condemned, which restaurants are a good value for the money and which attractions to avoid. Guidebooks come in a variety of tastes to suit every style and budget, but I prefer these:
Time Out London – Time Out is London’s premier weekly magazine for eating, drinking and nightlife. Aside from the weekly publication, the editors also publish a series of guidebooks that provide an excellent point of view. Unlike many other guidebooks – which are written by a team that flies in, checks out the city and leaves – these people live in London, so they know what’s hot and what’s not. Time Out’s London guide (now in its 19th edition) appeals to all types of folks, from retirees with tons of cash to spend or the college traveler stretching every last penny.
Time Out Cheap Eats in London – London is expensive – even a sandwich, chips and drink from a corner shop can cost £10 ($15) or more. This guide is for those who want to save money, yet still want to taste the best of what London has to offer. I purchased this handy pocket-size book for my last trip. I was surprised at how often I referred to it, even if we didn’t eat at the recommended restaurants for every meal. Note that this guide was last updated in 2009 and might be out of date.
Let’s Go (London) – There’s an endless list of Let’s Go guides, and the London version doesn’t disappoint. Aside from appealing to younger folks and budget travelers, Let’s Go offers the best organization of any guidebook I’ve seen. Their London guide is divided into predictable sections like lodging, sightseeing, food and nightlife, and each section is divided into neighborhoods in exactly the same order throughout the book. Having said all that, these books are really aimed at the college crowd, so if you’re too old to stay at youth hostels and aren’t interested in getting around on rented bicycles, then maybe these guides aren’t for you.
Rick Steves’ London – Rick Steves’ books have some of the best tips of any guidebooks, but finding anything useful in his rambling narratives and haphazard organization can be a pain at times. His books are very “destination oriented” and thus make it impossible to simply open to a page or section and find a restaurant in a particular area. It’s more like a travel memoir than a phonebook. Notwithstanding this caveat, all of the tips I have gotten from his books have been spot-on.
No matter which series you decide to go with, spend some time at a local bookstore well in advance of your trip and get the guidebook that’s best for you!
Familiarize yourself with the Tube! Most guidebooks for London include a Tube map, or you can download one here. Spend a couple of evenings getting familiar with the map. Each rail line has it’s own color and it’s quite easy to get around once you know the map. You don’t have to memorize the map, but you should definitely be familiar with it. Any number of things can cause a Tube station to be closed. When Lisa and I were there on our first trip, an unattended package caused the Notting Hill Gate station to be closed, which was our connecting point from the Central to District lines. We had to get back on the Central line heading the other way to get to another station where we could transfer to the Jubilee line and then change trains again to get back to the Piccadilly line and to our final destination at Earl’s Court. This was at 11:45 at night, just before the trains stopped running. We were faced with getting stuck without the Tube and having to figure out the bus system or paying £25 ($45) for a taxi back to the hotel. Because I was reasonably familiar with the system, it was no problem. Oh, the individual Tube lines are referred to by their names (District line, Central line, Jubilee line, Bakerloo line) and *not* the color. Asking a native or Tube employee about the “red line” will only get you eye rolls.
Think before you pack! I guess most of what follows can apply to any vacation, but the thought of carrying heavy bags up four flights of stairs at a Tube station should give you special pause. Check the weather before you go and pack appropriately. Pack clothes like jeans and sweaters that can be worn two or three times without getting too smelly or wrinkly – it’ll save you a lot of luggage space. Consider using travel versions of Space Bags – they can save you a fair (but not great) amount of luggage space.
Buy a Map… A map of London looks something like a plate of spaghetti that fell on the floor, and a good map is a necessity not only for tourists, but for Londoners themselves! Although there are hundreds of maps of the city available, the longtime hands-down choice with Londoners is the A-Z. It’s available in many formats – paperback, spiral-bound, legal-size editions – and is available from Amazon. You can also easily buy the book in London. In fact, you can find the ubiquitous A-Z book piled high in bookshop windows, AMEX offices, newsagents, corner stores… You probably won’t have to walk more than 100 feet from any street corner to find one… the A-Z is everywhere. Oh, and don’t forget – British people pronounce the letter “Z” as zed. Just go to a shop and ask for an “ay to zed” and they’ll know what you’re after.
While You’re There:
If you fly into Gatwick… If you’re flying into Gatwick airport, you pretty much have to take a train in to London (a taxi costs around $80 and takes forever). The Gatwick Express would like you to think that they’re the only way to get to central London from Gatwick, but it’s simply not true. A Gatwick Express train to London’s Victoria Station costs around £17 each way, although several other services run to Victoria and other stations for less than Gatwick Express. And not only are the other trains cheaper, they might be more convenient, too. On our last trip, Lisa and I were staying at Edgware Road, which is only a couple of Tube stops away from the Farringdon rail station, where Thameslink ran a line from Gatwick (this service has since been sold to First Capital Connect). The round-trip fare for both of us was around £22, which is less than half of what it would cost on the Gatwick Express… plus it was way more convenient, too!
UPDATE, NOVEMBER 2012: Just for kicks, I checked my 2005 route for 2012 prices today. Gatwick Express wanted £29.55 for round-trip (return) tickets from Gatwick to Victoria; First Capital Connected wanted £19.80 for round-trip (return) tickets from Gatwick to Farringdon.
If you fly into Heathrow… The Tube runs to Heathrow, so you can either buy a ticket and hop on the train directly or you can exchange your Visitor Travelcard vouchers for the actual Tube pass at one of the London Underground offices located at every terminal at Heathrow. The fare is around £4, which is just about the cheapest way to get from a London airport to downtown (especially if you’ve already paid for it with the Travelcard). You could also use a hotel shuttle like SkyShuttle or the Heathrow Express train (£28 round trip). You can always take a taxi, but the cost (£40-£60) is a bit much. Remember that you’ll probably do some shopping while in London, so although carrying your luggage on the Tube might be manageable on the way in, it might not be on the way out. Your hotel can arrange a shuttle or cheaper “unlicensed” taxi (£35) for your outbound trip if you ask (give 24 hours notice for a shuttle and 15 minutes for a taxi).
Don’t change trains at Bank! On paper, the Bank Underground station looks like an excellent place to switch lines. After all, you can change from the Northern line to the Central, Circle, District or DLR lines there, right? Well yes, you can. But you don’t want to. And that’s because of history. When the Underground started, each line was operated by an independent company. Because the City of London was a popular destination for business commuters, every company built their own station in the City. When the Underground was consolidated into a single enterprise, four individual stations were combined into a single station called “Bank”. Because of this, there is a considerable walk between the different lines. In fact, the walk is so long (and involves so many twists, turns and stairs) that most natives simply exit the station and either walk or take a bus or cab to the nearest station dedicated to the line they wish to transfer to.
Use an ATM to get money. Currency exchange kiosks are everywhere in London, but so are the ATMs – which are called “cash machines” or “cashpoints”. Moneychangers charge you a fee and give you bad rates. If you use your ATM card it’s a “bank to bank” exchange and thus gets better rates, but you might get charged a couple of bucks to use the ATM, just like you would at home. As of the latest revision of this document, the Royal Bank of Scotland doesn’t charge you to use their ATMs, so the exchange is free! Before you leave the US – and this is important – know that with British ATMs you’ll probably only be able to access the money in your checking account, so be sure to transfer any money from savings or investment accounts to your checking account before you go (or use an Internet café to make a transfer). Most British ATMs are also set up for 4-digit numerical PINs only, so if yours if different, call your bank to see if they are accepted overseas. You can get cash at an airport ATM in Gatwick or Heathrow, or you can use your Visa to buy your Gatwick Express ticket and go to an ATM at Victoria Station.
Change Money At the Post Office – Whether you’re a Luddite who doesn’t have an ATM card or if you simply prefer using cash, you can change money commission-free at most British post offices. This is usually the best deal around, although you’ll need to plan ahead since few of them are open after 8pm. As mentioned in the previous tip, it’s easy to find a currency exchange (bureau de change) in London, however if at all possible, DO NOT use the first bureau de change you see in a tourist spot or the one closest to a Tube station. On my last trip, I got burned by changing money at a bureau de change at Piccadilly Circus. Had I planned ahead, I could have gotten a much better rate changing money at a bureau de change near my hotel.
Lose the Scottish Money. Although the UK is a single country, four banks in Scotland are chartered to print money, as are a few banks in Northern Ireland. Although most of the money you will use in London will be “English pounds” printed by the Bank of England, you might get a “Scottish pound” or “Northern [Irish] pound” banknote. Although they’re supposed to be accepted at par with English pounds, some shopkeepers will refuse to take them. So if a shop assistant hands you a Scottish £10 note as change, ask for an English one instead. Also know that some European currency exchanges might attempt to exchange them at different rates; get around this by not having Scottish notes in the first place. For more information, click here.
Get a Time Out! Remember Time Out – the people who make my favorite London guidebook? These people also produce an exhaustive weekly magazine that has hundreds of tips about where to eat, what shows to see, what movies are worth your time, what clubs are hopping, what bands are playing… the list goes on and on. If you can believe the semi-fictional book Hotel Babylon, Time Out is considered to be the Bible for London concierges. Pick up a copy at any news stand! They also have a spiffy web site and an e-mail newsletter that’s worth getting.
Don’t shop on Saturday. Most shops in London are only open until 8pm during the week, so many of the natives reserve Saturday as their “shopping day”. It’s a madhouse, like Mardi Gras in a shopping mall. While I was there during the pre-Christmas rush on my first trip, most shopkeepers in Covent Garden and Oxford Circus swore to me that it being Christmas made it “only a little bit” worse. During the week stores are far less crowded.
Find an EasyInternetcafé. EasyInternetcafé is Britain’s largest chain of Internet cafes and offers at least 25 minutes of T1-speed Internet access for only £1. Their rates are dependent on how busy they are; a poster to the Ars Technica forum noted that he got 128 minutes for £1 on a slow day. And even though you might think of London as “the big city”, EasyInternetcafé is also one of the few businesses open 24 hours. There are EasyInternetcafés in many McDonalds as well, although they aren’t open nearly as late. If you can’t find an EasyInternetcafé, don’t worry – Internet cafés are everywhere in London and most of them are open until at least 11pm if not later.
Call Home for Cheap! Voice over IP (VoIP) is a technology that allows phone calls to be placed over the Internet. Most Internet cafés in London sell phone time in blocks rather than on a per-call basis. Look for signs outside the cafés that say something like “Call the USA – 15 Minutes for £1″. I can’t begin to tell you how insanely cheap this is compared to just about any other method of calling home. Most cafés have little booths along a wall with perfectly normal looking phones in them, so it’s no different than using a phone with Vonage here in the US… except that it’s cheap – really cheap!
Don’t buy anything over there you could buy over here (Part 1) – Things aren’t cheap in England, especially in London. The UK’s VAT adds 17% sales tax, so things you could buy for cheap back home – like books and CDs – are crazy expensive in the UK. At the time of my first visit, Tom Clancy’s Red Rabbit cost around $35 over there, while you could buy it here for as little as $14 if you knew where to look. Likewise, most new CDs cost $22 over there but cost (at most) $15 over here. Obviously, if you can only buy the book or CD over there go ahead and buy it. Perhaps you can use some of your time at the Internet café to check Amazon or Amazon UK and see if you can get it cheaper. I was able to buy this book from Amazon.co.uk and have it shipped to the US cheaper than I would have been able to buy it there and bring it home myself.
Don’t buy anything over there you could buy over here (Part 2) - One of Rick Steves’ favorite tips is to only carry the minimal amount of toiletries. European drugstores, he says, carry everything their American counterparts do, so you can buy what you need when you get there. He is correct, and it is a good tip if you value traveling light. But I’ve found that items like contact lens solution, toothpaste and shampoo cost around twice as much in the UK as they do here at home. Granted, paying $6 for a tube of British toothpaste isn’t likely to break the bank, but it does annoy me to think that I could have paid $1.25 for the exact same thing at home.
Don’t buy books! This is strictly my opinion, but I think modern British books aren’t made all that well. And at least one person agrees with me. I’ve bought several books from the UK over the years, and all of them have started to fall apart, despite my careful handling. If you’re looking at a book you can only buy in the UK (or are just looking for something to pass the time on an airplane or train), then don’t worry about it. But if you want a book that will last, see if there’s an American version you can buy instead.
Video Buyers Beware! Remember that videotapes and DVDs are formatted differently over there. VHS tapes bought in England will only work in your American VCR if the tape is clearly marked “NTSC format”; if it says “PAL format” it won’t work. All major tourist attractions will offer tapes in both NTSC and PAL format, so check your video carefully before leaving the gift shop. Normal video shops like Virgin and HMV typically carry only PAL videos, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. British DVDs will work back home if your DVD player is region-free and can play PAL discs. Check your player’s owner’s manual for more information. If you’re in doubt, go to this page and enter your DVD player’s model number. If you find a DVD that you simply *must* have, note that many of the cheaper Chinese-made DVD players at big box retailers like Wal Mart and Target can be easily “hacked” to play PAL discs from any region. I have this player and love it!
All About Getting Tickets Leicester Square has several “half-price” ticket booths. These are hawked relentlessly on the street and in the type of tourist magazines you’d find in your hotel room. Most of these booths are scams that have discounted tickets for only one or two shows and sell tickets for all other shows at face value plus a 25% “handling fee”. The stand-alone kiosk in the back of the square – the one called tkts – is the one official discount ticket booth. All tickets to all shows are indeed discounted at tkts, but you might have to wait in line a couple of hours to get the goods. But remember – the show that you heard was “hot” a couple of months ago might have cooled off by the time you get to London. On my first trip we walked right up to the Gielgud Theatre box office and bought tickets for that evening’s performance of The Graduate without waiting in any lines. And don’t jump to conclusions about the locations of any seats the box office might have – most London theatres are quite small compared to what most Americans imagine a “theatre” to be. Having said all that, there’s something to be said for being cautious. If you don’t want to gamble, you can buy tickets via telephone or Ticketmaster UK. At the very least, go to Ticketmaster and find out if seats are available for the shows you want to see. I checked Ticketmaster’s site every couple of weeks before my second London trip and noticed that seats to Mamma Mia and the Jerry Springer Opera were beginning to sell out a month or two before our trip. I went ahead and bought the tickets online and picked them up at will call. Do not buy tickets from “ticket touts” (scalpers), be they in a booth, on foot or online. A 2005 study found that “tickets from illegitimate websites cost 69 per cent more than tickets from official sources”. And if you buy on the street, you are *much* more likely to get ripped-off (either by paying far too much for a legitimate ticket or by buying a fake one) than you would be here in the US. Buy your tickets by phoning the theatre directly, from Ticketmaster UK, from links on the theatre or band’s website or from the tkts booth. No exceptions.
Visit the British Museum. It’s free and it’s huge. If you’re a cheapskate you can skip the “requested” £3 donation, but it’s a bargain even at that price. It’s not as big as the Smithsonian and not necessarily any better than its American cousin, but the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles and the museum’s vast Egyptian and Greco-Roman collections are simply amazing. Plan to spend the entire day here. Skip the café inside the museum and pop out to any of the many nearby cheap (by London standards) cafés and pubs for a quick lunch and come back for more.
Spend the extra £2 for the audio guides. Most museums and historical sites offer audio guides for a couple of extra pounds. Some places – like St. Paul’s Cathedral – don’t offer guided tours for individuals and only give you a scant brochure upon arrival. So in these cases you need the audio guides to get your learn on. In fact, I would have felt ripped off at St. Paul’s without the audio guide! The “new” audio guides look like a slim cordless phone. You walk around the site and – when you find something of interest – press a two-digit code on the keypad then press the “play” button. Some exhibits even have “sub-menus” so you can learn as much as you want about a particular object or painting. It sure beats the bulky Walkmen of the past! The guides enhance the museum experience and lets you skip certain things without that “missing it” guilt.
Read Up on the Lingo. Sure, any chump knows that “chips” are fries and “crisps” are chips. But while Americans and Britons both speak English, the idioms that the English use can be confusing to the American tourist, even if you’ve watched Monty Python and Mr. Bean all your life. For example, signs in the Underground that we would expect to say “Exit” say “Way Out” instead; combined with the crush of mass transit, it can be a bit confusing. In fact, you might want to check out my new British English Glossary and get your learn on!
Hmmmmmmm… Speaking of “chips”, London’s restaurants – like those of any major city – run the gambit from “insanely expensive” to “almost reasonable”. Dinner for two at even a moderately-priced restaurant like Chowki runs $70 or more (not including alcohol). For eating on the cheap, stop in at any of the thousands of “kebab stands” in London. Most are open late and offer great grub for not a lot of money. And although most are geared at the “take away” market, many kebab stands have a counter and a few even have a couple of tables in the back. Although kebabs and curries are the specialties, many of these places offer pasta, pizza, burgers and traditional English food like fish and chips. Consider a kebab stand for snacks, lunches and late-night eating. Although kebab stands are the London equivalent of Waffle House or White Castle, they’re sinfully delicious! For more traditional English fare, try eating at a pub. Although fish and chips, meat pies and ploughman’s lunches are standard fare, most pubs also offer “comfort foods” like hot wings and burgers. Although many guidebooks say that pubs only offer food from 11-2 and 4-7, many of the pubs I passed offered food continuously from 12-7. Stay away from chain pubs and remember that you need to order your food at the bar unless the pub has a dedicated dining room. Lastly, if you want to eat as cheaply as possible, consider a sandwich! The English are crazy about pre-packaged sandwiches and you can buy them almost everywhere. Unlike their American cousins – those sad little triangle-shaped packages at the gas station that are the lowest form of American cuisine – the English sandwiches are made fresh and come in a freakin’ galaxy of flavors. You should be able to buy a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a drink for less than £4 at just about any shop. If you’d like a specific recommendation, allow me to suggest The Stockpot, a student and blue-collar favorite for years. There are several London locations, although I’ve only been to the one on Panton Road near Piccadilly Circus. The food is delicious and cheap. Be sure to check out their daily prix fixe special for a complete meal – soup, salad, entrée and dessert – for a totally reasonable price. And while the food is typically British, it is not stereotypically so. They don’t sell fish and chips or meat pies here, but they do have a delicious apple crumble dessert – and what’s more British than that?
Drink ‘Til Late! Thanks to a unique legal loophole, if you are a guest at a British hotel, and that hotel has a bar, you can drink as late as you want at the bar! Note that this specifically means that there is no legal issue with the bar staying open until 6am; your specific hotel might have a policy that closes the bar at a certain time. And you’ll also have to convince the bartender to stay open until 5am. But if the hotel doesn’t have a problem with it, and if you can convince the bartender to stay open, you can drink until you can drink no more. The very first night I was in London I stayed at the Days Inn Westminster (now The Carlton Hotel). The hotel has a tiny bar in the basement. The bartender, a crazy Chinese guy who loved classic American rock and roll, serenaded us with karaoke versions of “Hotel California” and “Born to be Wild” until he decided to close the bar down at 4:15 AM… on a Wednesday morning. And no, it wasn’t a holiday or anything. Likewise, the bar at the Hilton Metropole (where I stayed over New Year’s Eve) was still rockin’ at 4am. I stopped in for one last drink, and when I left the bar was still a quarter full, with no sign of slowing down.
Watch your fingers! Quick: make the “peace sign” with your hand. Now rotate your hand so that your palm is facing towards you. Congratulations! You’ve just learned how to flip someone off in the UK. Yes, this is the British equivalent of giving someone the middle finger, especially if you flick your fingers upwards whilst doing so. I just mention this so you don’t inadvertently flip someone off, especially a bartender (if you use your fingers to “visually” order two beers, for example, make sure your palm is facing the bartender).
Plan your route! Remember that the Tube stops running at around midnight. If all you wanna do is sit in the pub and drink, this is not a problem as most pubs close at 11. On the other hand, if you plan on going to a nightclub you’ll either need to plan a route home in advance or party until the Tube starts running again at 5:30am. Like the Tube, most London busses stop at midnight as well, leaving a skeleton crew of “night busses” to take up the slack. And while regular busses might go past your nightclub every five minutes during the day, you might have to walk several blocks to a “night bus” stop in the wee hours of the morning. Find a route map for the night busses and figure out how to get back to your hotel before you start drinking heavily – it only makes sense. And BE SURE to follow the advice in the next tip!
Beware of Unlicensed Cabs! Most people can instantly recognize one of London’s famous “black cabs”. The people who drive these cabs have been thoroughly tested by the Public Carriage Office in an infamous exam called “The Knowledge”. This test – which can take up to three years to pass – requires that the driver have an encyclopedic knowledge of London’s streets and be able to drive from point A to point B via the shortest possible route at any given time of day. In fact, the test is so thorough that potential cabbies not only need to know where a street is, but what’s on the street too! Any London cabbie should be able to get you to this theatre or that office building by name only… impressive! In any case, all London “black cabs” have the same rates and have meters which are controlled by microchips which cannot be altered by the driver. They are required to stop for you on the street and must take you to any destination you wish – be it 2 blocks or 12 miles away.
London also has private cabs, some of which are perfectly legitimate, some of which are not. Because only “black cabs” are allowed to pick up passengers on the street, legitimate private cabs must work out of airports, have contracts with hotels, or are available via phone call only. Their fares are unregulated, which means that you and the driver must agree on a fare beforehand. However, these cabs and their drivers are regulated; the drivers must get a special “private operator’s license”. This license, which looks something like a NYC taxi license, must be prominently displayed in their cars. These taxis are typically your only travel option late at night; black cabs are quite difficult to find north of the Thames and are nearly impossible to find south of the Thames after 1am.
Unfortunately, there are also some private cabs which are completely illegal. These cabs are basically just a guy and a car. Oftentimes the people who drive these cabs will have neither driver’s licenses, insurance, nor a passable knowledge of London’s streets. There are – on average – 10 sexual assaults per month committed by drivers of unlicensed cabs upon their passengers in London, as well as numerous robberies and muggings. Although much of the “anti-unlicensed cab” hype is just that – after all, thousands of people take unlicensed cabs in London every day without incident – it’s without question much safer to have the bar or club call a legitimate private operator for late-night cab rides. If they can’t or won’t call a taxi for you, walk to the nearest pay phone in a well-lit area and call a private operator yourself. If the phone booth is near a popular club, chances are that it will be covered in stickers from legitimate operators anyway. In any case, if you feel the slightest bit uneasy about an unlicensed taxi driver or don’t see his license displayed on the dash, DO NOT GET IN – WALK AWAY FROM THE CAR.
And last but not least… I know that you know that English people drive on the left-hand side of the road. And I know that you know that this means that you need to look in the opposite direction of what you’re used to when you cross the road. But I’m going to tell you this anyway: BE CAREFUL WHEN CROSSING THE STREET! Look, I know that you’re not an idiot. After all, you’ve done well enough for yourself that you managed to earn the money to buy yourself shelter, a computer and high-speed Internet access. You even figured out how to use Google to find this page. Hooray for you! But I’m telling you that the idea of which way to turn your head when crossing a street is a completely ingrained behavior. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached a crosswalk in London and thought to myself “OK self, you’re in London. You need to look the ‘other’ way before you walk into the street”… only to catch myself at the last minute looking in the wrong direction. And it’s not just me, either. Actress Renée Zellweger looked the wrong way and was almost hit by a car on March 9, 2006 whilst filming a movie called Miss Potter in London. And Renée is no stranger to London, either: she spent six months there in 2001 working on her accent for Bridget Jones’s Diary. Seriously, be careful: I don’t want ya getting hurt or killed for looking the wrong way!
This article was originally written in 2002 and was updated in 2005, 2006 and 2008, heavily edited for style and grammar only in 2009 and 2010, and updated again in 2011 and 2012. Things change over time. The author of this article therefore makes no claims about the accuracy of any information contained therein.