If you’re visiting London for the first time, and want to get the most out of your visit with no surprises, I’ve got a few tips for you!
Stay in central London if you can
London is a big city, and sprawls out quite a long way.
Beware when booking ‘London hotels’, as some of these can be a distance from the centre.
Hotels in central London are pricey, but if you can, try to stay near to the centre if possible as it will save you a LOT of travel time (and expense) on the tube every day.
If you’re traveling on a very strict budget I would strongly recommend booking a Premier Inn somewhere in central London – you’re not going to spend much time at the hotel anyway, so this is a good way to cut the cost of your trip while still having a comfortable stay. The Premier Inn at City Hall for example is reasonably priced, and is literally a few meters away from the London Eye.
Take in the views of the London Skyline
There are plenty of places in London to see London from above, but it’s worth spending some time researching what they are, where they are (and thus what you can see when you’re up there) and how much they cost.
To a first time visitor to London, I would recommend booking some tickets for the London Eye to take in the views over Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and central London.
I’d also recommend going to the Sky Garden over in the East if the city – at the top of the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, it’s a totally FREE thing to do and offers great views over the financial districts, the Shard, the Tower of London, Tower bridge and more. It’s free – you can’t pass this up!
London Sky Garden, one of the best FREE things to do in London
The view from The Shard, London – the UK’s tallest building
Sky Garden vs The Shard – Which London viewing platform is better?
The Metro / Subway in London is officially known as the ‘London Underground‘, or ‘The Tube‘, and it’s by far the fastest and easiest way to get around London.
If you have contactless on your debit or credit card, you can use it as your ticket.
Just tap your contactless card on the yellow circle reader as you enter the station, then tap the same card (that’s really important!) on the reader as you exit again at your destination.
The system is smart enough to know how much that journey cost, and will charge your card.
If you continue to use that same card for all your journeys, the cheapest fares will be calculated in the background, and you’ll be refunded the difference in price if you’ve used public transport enough to qualify for a day pass or weekly pass for example. This means you’ll always be charged the cheapest fair for your journeys, and you won’t have to pre-plan which tickets to buy.
Just remember to ‘tap in and out’ with the same card each time.
Alternatively you can get an Oyster card, and load it with money. This works in the same way, you’ll be charged for the journeys you take based on your usage.
Don’t bother withdrawing much cash
Nearly every shop and food outlet here in the UK accepts card payments (contactless preferred), and it’s now unusual to see anyone paying for something with cash.
Visa and Mastercard are by far the most accepted cards in the UK, but beware Amex in’t widely accepted accross much of Europe including the UK, so may be declined or come with additional charges per use.
If you do decide to use cash in the UK, I would recommend withdrawing it from a cashpoint (what we call ATMs!) at a bank, or use one with the ‘Link’ logo. Major banks here in the UK are Lloyd’s Bank, HSBC, NatWest, Metro and Barclay’s. Avoid standalone cashpoints at tourist attractions and shops as they often charge for withdrawals.
When using a cashpoint or making a purchase in the UK with a card from a foreign bank, you might be asked to choose which currency to pay with – ALWAYS choose the local currency, then let your own bank calculate the conversion rates to avoid higher fees.
Tipping in the UK?
You’re not generally expected to tip here in the UK – the service charge is often included in your bill at a restaurant.
We don’t generally tip at a bar or cafe either – the only occasion it’s customary to tip is at a restaurant if you’ve had good service and they haven’t already added the gratuity on to the bill.
Of course tips would be very welcome if you’ve had great service! Just don’t feel obliged – it’s not expected here by default.
If you would like to tip, generally cafes will have a tip jar next to the till for coins, and in restaurants you can either leave cash on the table before you leave, or the credit/debit card machine will give you an option to add an amount of your choice before you enter your PIN number and pay.
The US method of writing a tip amount on a receipt and signing it, to be withdrawn later, isn’t done here in the UK.
Book attractions in advance
As is the case in most big cities, many of the top attractions have long queues for tickets.
Most attractions allow you to book online in advance, and I’d strongly recommend doing that. Not only does it allow you to skip the queues, it’s also cheaper.
Some attractions, Tower Bridge for example, often sell out of tickets days prior. Booking in advance is a must.
Don’t forget that we drive on the left here in the UK, so crossing the road you’ll be breaking the habit of a lifetime by looking the other way – nobody wants to get run over by a double-decker bus or black cab!
Download an offline map in Google Maps
As is the case is most major cities, the mobile network coverage can be patchy, and if you’re coming to the UK from abroad you may not have mobile data while you’re out and about in London.
It’s worth downloading an offline map of London in Google Maps so you can use your phone to get around.
While you’re at it, save a screenshot of the Tube Map!
Speaking of Mobile Networks, data roaming (using your mobile from abroad) in the UK can be very expensive..
I would recommend buying a cheap pay as you go SIM from Giffgaff and using that when you’re here – just order and activate your free SIM, and then when you’re ready to come to the UK purchase a cheap £12 goody bag which will give you all the data you’ll need for a month. You can order a SIM using my referral link and get £5 free credit.
London is expensive, but the prices you see are final with no hidden extras
Something that takes me by surprise when I go abroad is the hidden fees that are so widespread.
Here in the UK, generally speaking, the price you see advertised for things is the price you’ll pay.
Tax (VAT) is included by law, there are no resort fees, facilities fees and city taxes to pay at hotels, and co compulsory tips to pay.
London isn’t cheap by any means, but just remember that you’re always looking at the TOTAL price with nothing hidden!
“Excuse me, there’s a queue”
Us Brits have a bit of a thing about queueing. I would strongly advise against queue jumping here in the UK to avoid any awkward confrontation – the idea that anyone would want to skip a queue is not something we can comprehend.
Unless you’re on an escalator, when it’s fine to walk past!
Make sure you always stand on the right hand side when you’re riding the escalator – the left is reserved for Londoners to angrily walk past at high speed.
Other basics to remember…
- We use Sterling currency (pounds and pence), not the Euro like much of the rest of Europe.
- Don’t mention Brexit or politics with the locals, it’s rather a sore subject! The weather really does make for great small talk though, and yes we really do always talk about it. Constantly.
- Make sure you bring (or buy) a high voltage travel adapter – our power outlets are stupidly strong, and not all of your electronics (particularly hair dryers) will work.
- Tap water is absolutely safe to drink in the UK, and by law all restaurants will give you free tap water when asked. Most cafes will too!
- Bottled drinks are sold in litres / millilitres, but ordering a litre of beer in pubs and restaurants just isn’t right – for reasons unknown to us, that’s still done in pints.
- Bring your most comfortable shoes. It doesn’t matter how much you plan, you’ll walk much further than you plan to.
- The emergency number is 999 and will work (for free) even if you have no coverage on your network.
Thank you for reading!
If you’re coming to London soon, I hope you have a great time!
If you have any questions please ask me below in the comments, or if you have any advice or further tips about visiting London, please share! 🙂
One Comment Add yours
Loved your post. Very informative. It has been a VERY long time since I have been to the UK. At the time, there used to be rooms to let for short stays. Are there still places to do so in London? I seem to remember St Pancreas area. Don’t know which parts of the city are less safe to travel at night – any suggestions or tips. We are OAP and the Premier Inn is way beyond our means. We plan to stay for two nights. I would appreciate any information you are willing to share. Thank you.