When I was still studying at school, I dreamed of visiting Egypt (I am a huge fan of their ancient history) and London. I understand there is nothing in common between these two places, but dreams don’t have to be logical 🙂 So, I went to London in 2011, and … I was disappointed: everything was so expensive (especially considering my meager salary), it rained all the time, it was gloomy and cloudy, so I didn’t enjoy it at all. Then I came across Doctor Who series, and fell in love with the London it showed. I went to London again in several years, and I loved it! I guess the first impression is not the most important one, after all 🙂 I thought it would be nice to make a list of practical travel tips people should know before travelling to London, so that no one gets as disappointed as I was. So, let’s get to some London travel tips! 🙂
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1. Buy all tickets online
This is the tip that will help you to save some money in London. Lots of touristic places (and not only in London) offer 1 or 2 GBP discount if you buy tickets online. In addition to saving money an online ticket means less if none at all time spent in queues as they usually offer priority passage.
2. Panoramic views of London
Sky Garden and London Eye are two of the most popular places to get panoramic views over London. London Eye is really close to Big Ben and is more widely known, but you have to pay if you want to get a ride. On the contrary, Sky Garden is free (so far! I am pretty sure one day they will realize how much money they could get and will start charging a fee), but you will have to book a ticket anyway. Here I come to another point.
3. Book London Eye and Sky Garden tickets online
I put these two separately because of the main specification – they offer views from above – and are therefore extremely popular. A special feature of Sky Garden and London Eye is that when you buy tickets online you have to specify the exact time when you want to visit them, so be careful when booking. Even if you don’t buy London Eye ticket online, you can queue with other people, while when it comes to Sky Garden it is a must to book the ticket on the website as their amount is limited. Something else about the London Eye: if there are many people wishing to get a ride, tickets are sold quicker that the wheel rotates, and this means that at 1 PM the desks might sell tickets for rides at 4 PM or later.
Update: I booked a ticket for Sky Garden a couple of months in advance, and got there! The view from above is spectacular! Like, whole London is before your eyes! So, I have some tips: take warm clothes with you, because it can get extremely windy there. I was there in September, and it was rather cold in London in general, but up there I definitely needed something thicker than a jacket. Everything in Sky Garden is covered in glass, so expect flecks in your pictures.
4. Buy Oyster card
Public transportation, and specifically tube, is very expensive in London: the city is split in several zones, and the cost gets higher with every zone crossed. I advise you to buy the so-called Oyster card that allows saving money on bus/tube rides. You buy it, top it up with pounds and use it every time you get in: it is much more convenient than going around with cash and waiting in lines to buy a ticket.
5. Not tube only
I have no doubts that tube is most likely the only means of transportation that tourists use: after all, it is very convenient and fast, and all the main sights are just next to the stations (or, maybe stations were built around the sights, I don’t know 🙂 ). Tourists get on buses just to experience a ride in the famous double-decker buses they saw in movies, and don’t even think that buses could get them closer to the sights, that they are cheaper than tube, and if they get a seat at the window, they can see London just like in hop on-hop off buses.
6. Airport expresses
It is easy to get to the city if you fly to Heathrow: the tube station is just at the airport. It gets more difficult if you fly to Gatwick or Stanstead, and this is the time to use airport expresses. I know that there are cheaper alternatives – like local trains – and if you are not in hurry, you are welcome to use them. They take longer to get to the city as they stop at lots of stations on their way, so I prefer the expresses, which take usually about 30 minutes to the center of London. Of course, they are more expensive, but you can save some money if you buy tickets online.
7. Free entrance to sights
I know it sounds really weird when someone says that there are free things in London, but that’s true! Almost all museums including Tate branches, the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, and many other are absolutely free. You can get for free in the main churches of London including St. Paul’s and Westminster cathedrals if you visit them during the mass. For other free things to do check here.
8. Careful planning
There are loads of places to see in London, so you will have to come up with a plan. The most popular sights are situated quite close to each other, but it doesn’t mean they all are open the same days, so checking the schedule would be really nice. Other sights like Greenwich or Kew Gardens are far from the city center, and it is going to take some time to get there. First make a list of places you want to visit, check opening hours, and make a rough daily plan. I know lots of people believe that non-planned vacations are the best ones, and they are, but in about 10% of cases: in the other 90% it might be a disaster.
9. Saving on food
Yes, food is very expensive in London, especially compared to my home country. There are two proven ways to save on food while in London:
– You can buy ready salads/sandwiches at supermarkets, or, if you stay in a rented apartment, you can get groceries at supermarkets and cook at home.
– If you are not a fan of supermarket food and are far from being a decent cook, you might try eating at markets: the food is delicious and a lot cheaper than in restaurants.
If you stay outside the city center, far from touristic spots, the food will automatically become cheaper, so find a small café or restaurant nearby your place that locals attend, and enjoy!
10. Take an umbrella
I know how trite it sounds, but it is true: it rains a lot in London, and you will need an umbrella, preferably a sturdy one, because wind blasts might be really strong. Before my first trip to London about 6 years ago, I had read many posts on the weather, and lots of them claimed that it does not rain that much there, it is just an exaggeration, but I took an umbrella with me anyway. Well, it was a very light umbrella, and it broke under the first wind blast, so I had to borrow one from my host. To top it off, it rained every day during my visit! So, just listen to me, and take an umbrella with you 🙂
11. Tea party!
You just can’t leave London without attending a tea party! After all, tea is much of a symbol of the United Kingdom. You can have tea at any place in London, but there are some special places like Parliament building. Yes, that’s right, for 30 GBP you can have a tea at the House of Commons.
And then, are you a fan of fans? 🙂 Sorry for the pun, but that’s a just question: the Fan Museum near Greenwich organizes tea parties at its Orangery.
I will update it here if I hear of any other places.
12. London pass
Just like any other city, London has its card that offers discounts to tourists: London pass. It offers free entrance to more than 70 attractions and fast track entry to major touristic sites. BUT! It does not mean that you have to hurry to buy it: make first a list of places to see and the budget needed to enter them, compare it with the London Pass price and decide which option is cheaper.
Bonus! Mind the gap!
Undoubtedly, the tube is the most popular means of transportation for tourists, but it is not always reliable. The underground in London is very old, so maintenance works take place quite often: this means that lots of stations are closed. If you don’t want to find yourself stranded somewhere with no idea where to go and which bus to take, check Transport for London website: they post information on closures and alternative routes. And mind the gap between the train and the platform!
I am pretty sure there are other things to know before travelling to London, so I will keep this post updated. Do you have any helpful London travel tips?
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