Friday, March 21, 2014

When You Visit London.....Touring Tips

The tourist high season in London is on it's way.  We have noticed an increase of people standing in the middle of the sidewalk with confused faces & guidebooks in their hands.

When you plan a trip to a foreign country, it is usually a big deal and you want to maximize your time.  I hope some of these tips help you to live your trip to the fullest.

Prepare for the time change!
I first wrote about this tip before we went to Germany in 2010.  In an effort to not sleep until lunchtime the first few days, you should adjust your wake up time by 45-60 minutes each day leading up to departure.  You might want to think about a schedule such as this, if your alarm typically rings around 6:30 Chicago time:

Monday 6:30am (12:30pm London)
Tuesday 5:45am (11:45am London)
Wednesday 5:00am (11:00am London)
Thursday 4:15am (10:15am London)
Friday 3:45ish (9:45am London)

The last two days are really, really difficult to do.  Get a few rom-com movies you've been meaning to watch to pass the time until the sun decides to wake up.  I'm sure you have some laundry to toss in too.  When the sun decides to get up, take a nice walk in the morning air to Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts to keep you going.  When I did this before Germany, it was a particularly rainy weather pattern, and we kept losing power.  It was obnoxiously difficult to stay awake at 4am with only the beam of a flashlight.  If I can do it in a power outage, you can certainly do so with power.

Prepare for the walking!
Chances are you'll walk more on your vacation to London than any vacation in the United States (or maybe rival a marathon day at Disney World).  Many streets are cobbled and narrow so be sure to have sensible footwear for your days of walking.  In addition to the uneven streets, the city is full of stairs.  Many Underground stations have more stairs than others, and the stairs are often full of people so your pace needs to be quick.  Also, if you choose to climb to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral (528 steps) or The Monument (311 steps) there's no stopping once you start climbing.  I recommend you prepare your thighs by climbing the stairs a few times a day at home or work in the weeks leading up to your trip.  Your legs will thank me

Money & Credit 
You'll need some British Pounds to get through your trip.  There are a few ways you can get the local currency: from your bank, the ATM, or the currency exchange at the airport.  You can exchange money with your bank before you leave.  Your bank can detail all of the fees associated with the money exchange, and I would bet the fees are reasonable.  Be prepared to wait a day or so to get your money; they do not always have a supply of British Pounds on hand.  It might be worth it so you have a bit of cash when you arrive at the airport.  Matt and I prefer to get Pounds from the ATM in London because it helps us budget our money better instead of getting a ton of cash before we leave.  We have also learned that getting money from the ATM reduces the amount of Pounds we have left over at the end of our trip.  The travel kiosks at the airport are not your friend, and they should only be a last resort.  You will pay a lot of fees to transfer your travel funds to or from local currency.

**Here's a big tip**
You can use a credit card for most things, which is super.  That is if you have the right card.  Many retailers in the UK no longer accept credit cards with only a magnetic swipe strip.  Why?  Just look up the Target data scandal from November and you will understand.  Retailers in the UK prefer (or only accept) cards with microchips.  This is a new style of credit cards from what's readily available in the US.  At this time US issuers have cards with microchips that still require your signature.  This type of card can get you by at most retailers.  However, if you can get a credit card with a chip and pin you would be golden.  If you cannot procure a chip card (and the retailer won't accept your swipe card) you should have some backup cash ready.   

If you are not under contract with your cell phone, you might be in luck.  It is very easy to get SIM cards for your phone in London which can give you unlimited texting and a decent amount or even unlimited data for about £15/month.  If you rely on your phone for navigation it might be something to look into.  

If you are under contract with your US provider, it's probably not worth it to add international coverage.  However, you can get by with wifi provided at your hotel or some restaurants. Here's a great tip, The Apple Store has free wifi.  

If you end up with a phone that has data coverage or are on a wifi signal, you must have the free City Mapper app.  It provides the best combinations of walking, bus, and Underground routes.  If your trip takes you to Paris, Berlin, or New York it works there too!   

Plug Adaptors
You will need plug adaptors to charge your technology, but leave your hair dryer & flat iron at home.  The 220 volt power in the UK and your hair dryer's motor do not play nicely together.  Your hotel should have one in your room, and that will provide you with more room in your luggage.  I bought a travel flat iron at the Boots (Walgreens equivalent) that was only about £15 that worked just fine.

If you plan to stay in London for more than 3 or 4 days, buy your shampoo & conditioner when you get here.  You will thank me when you're not squeezing the heck out of that tiny hotel shampoo bottle, and you will appreciate more room in your luggage.

Places of Interest
If you've read my blog for a while you already know that London is full of places, large and small, to visit.  So many of these places are free to visit.

If you decide to visit the big attractions that have an admission fee, please look into buying your tickets before you get to the gate.  You'll waste valuable time waiting in line for tickets to find out that the next available tour is 6pm that night or not for a few days.  In Germany we stood in line for Neuschwanstein tickets at 11am only to find out the next English tour was at 4pm.  We busied ourselves with some beer, but it was lost time on our trip.  Pre purchasing admission tickets takes away the spontaneity of your touring, but you'll thank me whilst you reminisce about all you saw that day at the pub with a pint.  The London Eye & Buckingham Palace (summer opening) are two biggies that you should really think about buying tickets before hand, and you might even get a discount if you purchase online.

Check out the Time Out London website a few weeks before you leave.  I grab the magazine each week and always find something to do solo or for the family.  It might help you tour something not many tourists know about!

Navigating the City
The Underground is a fantastic way to get around the city.  While not the most scenic, the trains are an efficient mode of transport.  Keep in mind part of the fun is the journey to get there, and if you spend all of your transport time in a tunnel you might miss something spectacular.  I've learned in the last few weeks that some of the Underground stations are ridiculously close and it is not worth it to get on the train.  Take a look at the map before you leave the hotel for the day to see if your feet are the best mode.

The bus is also a great mode of transport; more sight seeing for only a few pounds.  I've read that it might even be worth your time to take one of those Hop On, Hop Off bus tours.  You can visit major parts of the city whilst riding the city streets at your leisure.  I have not ridden one of these so I have no knowledge of their quality.  

Look into an Oyster card or a travel pass before you leave to see if one of these will save you money on transportation.  If you order & put money on your Oyster card before leaving home, they will even mail it to you.  Then you can easily hop on the Piccadilly line from Heathrow into the city!

If you get lost, use the sidewalk maps of the city!  

I hope these tips gave you some things to think about before making your trip to London.  Many of the tips can also apply to other European countries.  Bon Voyage!

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