About London – Practicalities

Winston Churchill purportedly said that “America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.”  It’s funny, because it’s true (and you can read more about this “Brit Speak” in a brief list of terms that leans toward proving his point). It’s also true that one of the great things about travel is discovering the ways that a society or culture is different and the ways in which they are the same as your own.  In London, you’ll notice many things that are just a bit different than you might be used to, and some fun can be had in discovering those differences. Sometimes, though, it helps to come prepared with information about a few things relating to accommodations that, if unknown, might stymie your enjoyment of the place, or cause problems for you while on holiday.  Here are a few examples:

Floors/Stories – In the UK and many parts of Europe, the first level of a building is referred to as the ground floor, and the next level up is known as the first floor. So a 4-story building would contain the following floors: Ground floor, First floor, Second floor, Third floor. If you were going to the top floor and there were an elevator in the building, you’d push the button for floor 3. If the building had a sub-ground floor or basement level, that is known as Lower Ground floor, or sometimes Garden level, depending on the type of building.

Elevators – Speaking of elevators, they are known as “Lifts” in England and they are hard to come by in the older buildings of London. Some Georgian and Edwardian buildings have managed  narrow elevator retrofits within, but they are not the standard. If you see a flat listed as a walk-up, you’ll know there is no lift.

Boroughs – Essentially another name for neighborhood or area, the boroughs of London all stem from historic villages the grew up around the city, eventually blending into the whole of Londontown. There are official designations like “The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea” or “The Royal Borough of Westminster” while neighborhoods like Chelsea, South Kensington, Belgravia & Notting Hill are contained within those official governing borough designations. Some of the borders are now rather loosely defined, with bits of one blending into another in different areas. You can refer to a map or peruse our neighborhood guides for reference.

Postcodes – Most boroughs or neighborhoods can be identified by the first 3 letters of the post code (like zip codes in America), and a full 7 or 8 digit post code can identify an exact building in a particular area. It’s quite a smart system, really.

Hobs –  This is what they call the stovetop or cook top in the UK. Sometimes they sit on top of an oven, but often they are separate, built into a counter top in another part of the kitchen. So if your Greeter is showing you how to work the appliances of your vacation rental property, you won’t have to stop them to say, “Wait, the what?” when they wave toward the kitchen and say something about operating the Hob.

Washer & Dryer versus Washer/Dryer – A lot of the appliances in Europe are high efficiency, designed to save energy and be more efficient. Washers and Dryers are usually smaller and more compact. Dryers don’t always get clothing bone dry.

Many London self-catering properties have a small combo Washer/Dryer that allows you to put in a load, set the wash settings and the dry settings and walk away. Come back many hours later and your washload is done, though again, not necessarily completely dried out. Expect to have to hang things like towels and jeans for a bit of an extra air out, and try to plan accordingly.

Air Con – Air conditioning is practically unheard of in the City, even after those few summers with a couple of scorching weeks over the last few years. If a property does have A/C it is often just in one or two rooms, rarely central air. There’s just no need for it most of the time and during the relatively rare hot periods, Londoners make due with opening windows and using fans.

Screens – Speaking of opening windows, screens are not commonplace. Bugs are not particularly rampant, though, so don’t worry too much about it and just throw those windows open when you feel so inclined.

Plugs/Adapters – Voltage in the UK is 220 -240 and the outlets are large three prong. You will need adapters for your electronic equipment. You can buy these online, from a travel store, or in drugstores (Chemist), hardware shops and supply stores.

Plugs/On & Off Switches – Londoners, and Brits in general, are conscientious about energy consumption. Heating oil and gas costs much more there than in the US and as a result there are many more efforts to conserve. One of the conservation efforts is not leaving appliances or electronics plugged in when not in use. Sometimes this requires literally unplugging something from the wall, but more often you’ll see a small switch, like a light switch, built in to an outlet that allows you to turn electricity to the outlet on and off. It took a day of cursing “all the broken appliances in this place!” in one of our first rentals to realize that we simply needed to flick the switch on the outlet to let the current flow to the toaster, the hot water kettle, the microwave.

Bathroom fixtures and terms – Shower room, tub, hand-held shower versus shower-over-tub.

Things to know before you go to London, England:

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 exchange, 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. Many a time we’ve gone to pay for something small with a £10 note and been handed back a fistful of £1 and £2 coins. Incidentally, £1 coins are of a very satisfying weight and thickness – they feel quite substantial in your hands. Though too many of them in the pocket of an unbelted pair of pants can also spell disaster, so there’s that to watch out for in your travels.

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. Read more about getting around London here.

Where to Stay – We suggest any of the lovely boroughs or neighborhoods fanning out around the parks – Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, even St. James Park – as good places to base on a visit to London. Chelsea, Notting Hill, Kensington, South Kensington, Belgravia, Knightbridge… Beautiful and lovely, but not overwhelmingly busy or crowded as in the very center of the city. Each area has such a rich history, and a unique feel that comes from the architecture, the shops, the garden squares, and the locals who populate the place. Browse our neighborhood guides or self-catering vacation rental property listings for options to fit your group size, budget and itinerary.