We have so much to tell you first time visitors, it’s hard to be brief. Here is a condensed version of the basic information you’ll need to plan a terrific first time holiday in London. Keep in mind that much of it you can find in a guidebook in greater detail, but really all you need is a few of the important bits of information to have an exceptional travel experience. These are the things we feel will serve you well, and provide you with a great trip, even if you don’t learn anything else prior to your arrival in London (not that we are recommending this, but if by necessity or happenstance, you would be fine with only the following info lodged safely in mind).
Things to know before you go to London, England:
Passport/Visa/Permission to enter the country - You do need a passport to enter England, and a visa as well, however for Americans and passport holders of certain other nationalities, the visa is issued by the stamping of your passport on arrival, and is valid for 6 months. If you are not an American or European Union member nation passport holder, check the simply named “Do I Need A Visa?” section of the UK Border Agency to find out if you’ll need to apply ahead of your trip for a visa to enter the country.
Currency – the monetary unit is the British pound Sterling (£), and has been hovering at about $1.60 – $1.70 in US dollars for a while now. It can change on a dime (or more appropriately, ten pence), but has been enjoying a steady and moderate rate of exhange, which will hopefully continue. So, if something costs a pound, figure you’ll be spending at least a dollar-fifty, more like a dollar-sixty or a dollar and sixty-five cents. At the highest exchange rates of the last decade, the rate was nearly two dollars to one pound, and that was a huge bummer for the old travel budget.
They rely pretty heavily on coinage in the UK, so plan to be overwhelmed by the amount of change that will begin to collect in your pockets and purses. Coins come in denominations of £2, £1, £.50, £.20, £.10, £.05, £.02 and £.01. There are no paper £ notes under £5.
Access to money - if you have 4 digit ATM pin number and you have let your bank know you’ll be traveling overseas, you should have no problem withdrawing pounds directly from any ATM. (There is usually a fee associated with this, anywhere from $2 – $10 per withdrawal, depending on your financial institution, so check before you go and think about the right balance of how much cash you want to carry versus how many withdrawal fees you want to rack up).
There are also TravelEx and Bureau de Change all over London, from the minute you land and walk through the airport to many of the train stations and many strategically placed retail currency exchange storefronts dotted around the city.
Time – 24:00 clocks in the United Kingdom, so bone up on your military time now if you will be using trains or going to the theater or trying to make it to certain museums before they close. 5:00pm is 17:00, for example, and 11:00pm is 23:00.
Electricity - The voltage in the UK is 220 – 240. You will need an adapter to plug in your electronics. They can be purchased online, from travel stores, and in many hardware, travel or supply shops in London.
Driving & Pedestrian Caution – Cars drive on the opposite sides of the road from places like the United States and continental Europe. All the rental cars have little reminders on the dash that say “Keep Left!” You most likely will not be driving in London (no really, please don’t drive unless you absolutely have to), but as you walk through the city, be mindful that cars travel the opposite directions, so you must look right instead of left when stepping into a crosswalk.
Transportation - The London Underground or Tube, as the underground train system is called, is comprehensive and easy to navigate once you’ve familiarized yourself with the system.
Where to Stay - We tend to think that the busy, crowded, bustling and quite loud areas of the city around Oxford, Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square, etc, are a bit too much for the first time traveler to commit to as a base. Instead we suggest any of the lovely boroughs or neighborhoods fanning out around the parks – Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, even St. James Park.
First time visit to London:
There are a few different ways to approach your first trip to London. Actually, there are infinite ways to approach a first trip, with regard to planning and reservations and activities, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stick with a favorite few, that we’ve casually named, and include: The Top Ten Everything Whirlwind Tour; The Slow Travel Best Of The Best; and The Wandering Wonders.
Top Ten Everything Whirlwind Tour of London
We at Elegant Retreats are big fans of the Eyewitness series Top Ten Guides from DK Publishing. Some first time travelers enjoy devouring the thick, wordy, wonderfully informative travel tomes. Others, initially wary of exploring a new city can be unnerved by the pages and pages of tiny-printed text in some of the thickest guide books. In such cases the simplified and picture-filled Top Ten Guides are life-savers.
To be continued…