London Travel Tips for First Timers
Ahhh London... Home to some of the world's most interesting architecture, culture, fashion, and history. London is a fast paced city (not as fast as NYC, but definitely up there), and you probably want to avoid looking like a lost tourist when you arrive in town. If you're traveling to London for the first time, I'm going to do you a solid and queue you in on a few tips to make your trip much smoother.
1. Get an Oyster Card when you arrive
London's subway system, aka "The Tube", is an extremely effective way (both in time and money) to get around town. To take the tube, you're going to need an Oyster Card, which you can purchase at the airport kiosk or any tube station around the city. Put as much money as you think you might need for your stay and "top off" (refill your card) if you run out.
If you're flying into Heathrow, I recommend getting your Oyster Card right at the airport and taking the Piccadilly Line from the airport into the closest station to your hotel. Trust me when I say you will save A SH*T TON of money by doing this because cabs in London are freaking expensive. It might take a little planning ahead on Google Maps to figure out where your closest stop is, but it is so worth it when you're only paying a few pounds for travel instead of 60+ pounds just to get into the city. It's pretty easy and everyone speaks English so you won't risk getting lost if you just ask someone for help.
2. ALWAYS stay to the right on escalators
This is like an unwritten rule in London. If you're ever on an escalator, ALWAYS stay on the right hand side if you're just going to stand the whole way up. It's a courtesy thing that allows people to pass by on the left hand side if they want to get up quicker. *I personally think that New York needs to get their act together and start doing this because it's actually really nice...
I noticed that the same kind of goes for stairs too. If you're somewhere where there are stairs, always go on the right hand side to allow room for people going in the opposite direction. It's just a courtesy thing and it's much more organized instead of getting lost in the shuffle.
3. Check the sidewalks before you cross the street
Don't forget that people drive on the left side of the road in England when you're crossing the street! You should always look both ways; but in case you forget, just look down at the sidewalks for indicators on where to check for traffic. The sidewalks and streets are well labeled with "Look Right" or "Look Left" to help you remember which direction the cars are coming from.
You can also keep safe by crossing only when the pedestrian walk sign is illuminated. There are also somewhat-safe, designated pedestrian walkways where traffic is *supposed* to stop for people who are walking across (traffic usually stops; but there are a few ass holes who don't, so just be careful). These walkways are indicated by large poles with a large, white/yellow light bulb on top of them. These poles are located on both sides of the street, which you'll notice once you're there.
4. Get acquainted with the city by doing the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
OK... Hang with me for a second here... I know I said that the goal of these tips is to help you look less touristy, but honestly the hop-on hop-off bus tours are one of the best ways to get acquainted with any new city you're visiting. Truth be told, I actually do them all the time and I freaking LOVE them. They allow you to get a better understanding of where everything is located, and it's guaranteed transportation around the city. The hop-on hop-off bus tours in London often come with a "free" river cruise, a couple of walking tours, and the ability to use the pass for 2 days. It's pretty worth it in my opinion...
**If you really want to have an ultimate tourist experience, I'd consider getting the London Pass to grant you access into many of the attractions around town. You'll end up saving money on entrance fees and saving time on waiting in the lines.
5. Know how to tell military time
This tip is for those of you who are traveling from the US, or any other country that doesn't regularly use military time. Be aware that most of the times you see will be displayed in military time! Don't make the mistake of booking a ticket for a train or show that is at 09:30 and showing up at 9:30PM. Know the difference and be on the lookout for it if you're booking events or travel.
6. Tipping is not required
Tipping in London is not really a requirement like it is in the United States and it's almost always already calculated into the cost of your bill. This rule goes for restaurants, pubs, and any other place you'd head in for food/drinks. If you feel like the service you received was really above and beyond, a couple extra pounds is totally fine; but, for the most part, don't sweat the tip or get swindled into overpaying.
7. Download the free Tube Map App
If you're going to take my advice and utilize the Tube to get around, download the free Tube Map App on your smartphone. The map will give you a good understanding about where all the stations are located so you can properly plan your trip. You can also pick up a mini Tube map in most of the stations around the city if you don't want to download the app. I did both and found them to be very convenient! In any case, the Tube really is the most efficient and cost effective way to get around town, so I highly recommend it over taking pricey cabs or Ubers everywhere.
8. Utilize the bus system
The great thing about getting an Oyster Card when you land in London is that it also covers the cost of those iconic, red, double decker buses that you can use to get around town. The bus system is pretty nice and easy to use, especially if you have Google Maps to help you along the way. My personal favorite thing to do is to sit in the front row on the top level of the bus. It's the best seat in the house and you'll get a great view of the area while you're driving!
9. Pack layers
The weather in London is quite unpredictable. It can be really cold when you wake up and really hot by the time you're heading home in the afternoon. The best tip for this is to pack layers that can easily be taken off (or put back on) and won't be a pain in the ass to carry around all day.
You can also plan ahead by packing a small, travel-size umbrella in your bag. It can rain at a moment's notice and it's good to be prepared!
10. Take advantage of FREE things around the city
Much like NYC, London can be a very expensive city (especially for those of us using the US Dollar). Luckily, there are tons and tons of free things you can do around the city that won't cost you any money at all. Just a little planning ahead will go such a long way for your travel budget.
You can browse through markets like Borough Market, Camden Market, or Portobello Market; you can walk around the streets of Notting Hill or Chelsea and admire the architecture; you can people watch and explore the colorful streets of Shoreditch; or you can even get into some of the city's best museums and gardens (which are mostly free)! Make sure you look up some of these spots ahead of time so you can save money during your stay!
11. For my New Yorkers & Chicagoans: Don't expect to have Weekend Brunch
This one really hurt me when I found out. In the states, we take our weekend brunch very seriously. I mean...in New York, Sunday Brunch is practically an institution and something we take pride in! In London... Not so much. Don't expect to head into the city and have a grand brunch over the weekend because you might have a hard time finding it. More places are starting to try and catch onto the trend, but it is nowhere near the full-day event that we are used to in the US.
12. Know the direction your train is going (especially when traveling outside of London)
The tube system in London is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it, especially if you're familiar with subways in a big city. However, it's worth noting that some train lines split off at a certain stopping point and go in separate directions. Just be aware of this when you're getting on your particular tube line and take note of where your train will be heading and stopping. There are usually maps all over the stations to keep you in check.
The trains traveling outside of London are a whole different story though... I made the mistake of not knowing the trains outside of London (i.e. the trains you get at Kings Cross, Paddington Station, etc.) have express lines and local lines. For instance, if you're taking a day trip outside of London to visit York, there are trains that will stop at every single train station along the way and there are trains that will go express and only stop at a couple (or none) of the stations along the way. KNOW THIS BEFORE YOU BOARD/BOOK! It's usually indicated by the number of stops and duration of your trip. I got on the wrong train twice because I wasn't aware of this and it was not fun. A good solution is to make sure you ask someone before you board if you're confused.
BONUS: KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LONDON BRIDGE AND THE TOWER BRIDGE!
A lot of people get this mixed up, but do not confuse the 2 famous bridges in London: The Tower Bridge (pictured above) and the London Bridge (slightly less beautiful bridge closer to Big Ben/Parliament). An easy way to remember this is that the TOWER Bridge is near the TOWER of London, and the London Bridge is closer to London's Parliament. Make sure you know the difference because you'll get confused if you ask where the London Bridge is and they point to the plain looking grey one along the River Thames.
Have you been to London before? If you have more travel tips you'd like to see on this list, comment below with more advice to help our fellow travelers!