13 Frequently Asked Questions About London

June 19, 2017

The first time I traveled to London, I had so many questions! Having previously visited Asia and Europe where I could speak only some of the languages, I hoped to be able to get around easier in London. Would I need a converter for my electronics? Would my cell service work? How about money? Through my experience and the rest of the London Connection staff, we will try to answer any of those questions you might have.

1. Which airport should I fly into?

When traveling to London, you have the choice of six international airports that are in all directions from the city center. I would start by seeing which airline fares are the best, and go from there. Suppose you are staying in Covent Garden? The distances from each of these airports to your accommodations and the average time (with normal traffic) to travel by car would be approximately:

  • Heathrow Airport – 18 miles/50 minutes
  • Gatwick Airport – 28 miles/90 minutes
  • Stansted Airport – 38 miles/70 minutes
  • Luton Airport – 35 miles/70 minutes
  • London City Airport – 10 miles/40 minutes
  • Southend Airport – 42 miles/80 minutes

2. What if I am coming from a cruise? How long will it take to get into London?

If arriving by cruise ship, the average travel by town car/taxi/train:

  • Southampton Port – 85 miles/2 hours
  • Dover Port – 80 miles/2 hours

3. Should I rent a car?

If you are staying in downtown London, parking is super expensive and very difficult to find. Some areas of the city even have a surcharge to drive through during certain times of the day. If you are from the U.S., you may find it difficult to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road. Some people rent a car for one day to take a day trip out of the city. However, public transportation is so wonderful in the city and there are many tour groups that travel by bus or van to Stonehenge, Bath, Windsor Castle, etc. You may want to skip the additional charges and headaches of renting a car.

I suggest using someone like the professional London driver David Norman to pick you up and drop you back at any of the airports or ports. After that, use the Tube, train, or bus to get anywhere you need!

4. Which London bus tour is the best?

There are many Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours available in downtown London, as well as organized tours for day trips. My suggestion is whichever you choose, make sure it is a live, British tour guide.  A charming, local guide makes all the difference. You don’t want to be on a bus, hoping to experience the thrill of London and just listening to a recording! Be sure to ask when purchasing your tickets if there is a live tour guide.

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5. Will my electronics work in London?

Everything that uses electricity should have the information on the plug or on the item itself that states what voltage it can handle. On the above image, I highlighted the info you will be looking for (Input: 100-240V). This item will work for voltage between 100 and 240 volts. The standard voltage in London is 220V, while North America is 120V. This item shown above would be able to use the voltage in both countries. However, some things (like a curling iron) may only use 120V. Even with a plug adaptor, it would “fry” that small appliance if you tried to use it in London. So make sure and check everything you plan to use to make sure it will be compatible.

6. Will I need a plug adaptor?

You might need a plug adaptor in London because plugs do not look the same as they do in some other countries. To save yourself stress and money, you may want to buy an adaptor before embarking on your trip. If you are traveling from the U.S., you’ll need a “Type G” plug adaptor. You could wait to purchase these in London; adaptors are available in most shops and are typically less expensive if purchased there. Most of the London Connection flats have plug adaptors already there, and you may not need to buy one at all.

7. Will my cell phone work in London?

Three options if you want to stay in touch with your family and business and have access to your apps are:

  • Contact your provider to add extra coverage; most companies have an international plan available on a daily or monthly rate. Verizon and AT&T are $10 per day. Sprint & T Mobile charge 20 cents per minute and have free texting and data (but the data is slower). One time while in Europe, I had decided just to get the $40 per month international plan through Verizon. I got surprised with data fees — I was on a tour bus that had WiFi and I was doing a video call with my kids. Well, the WiFi on the bus had turned off during my call while traveling through Austria, and I missed the notification until I had been charged an additional $75 of data! Don’t you HATE that kind of surprise? Check all the fine print with your provider.
  • If your phone is unlocked (which means you can transfer the actual phone to another carrier while you travel), purchase a sim card once in London. Usually T Mobile, AT&T, Cricket, and Sprint have options to be unlocked (especially if you initially bought the phone through an outside company). If you bought the phone through your provider, and it has their company name on your phone, it is most likely locked. They want to ensure you don’t change providers! As of now, all Verizon phones are unlocked. The problem with using a sim card is that you won’t keep the same number.
  • If your current cell phone is locked and your provider’s international plan has very limited data (like mine did), purchase a simple cell phone and get a local number when you arrive.

The only way to keep your own phone number is with option #1.

8. How do I dial international phone numbers?

Once you have a working phone, the next step to calling internationally is knowing the country code: To call the United States from London the code is +1.  You just hold down the “0” on your phone, and it will become “+”.  Then dial 1, then area code, and the 7 digit phone number as usual. To call London from the United States the code is +44.

9. What about cash and the exchange rate?

Unlike the rest of Europe which adopted the euro, the UK still uses the British Pound — commonly called Sterling. While some shops accept euros, you should always use pounds for safe measure. Most restaurants, tours, and shops will accept credit cards. However, there are some quaint shops and places to eat that still prefer cash. I suggest getting 100-200 POUNDS from your bank before you travel. You can get more there if needed.

Along with currency exchanges at the airport, ATM machines (cash points) around the city also offer cash. Be wary, however, that when withdrawing from a cash point, you will often be  charged a foreign transaction fee of about three percent from your bank, regardless if you use a debit or credit card. Budget for this sneaky secret accordingly so you don’t get sideswiped by hefty fees. With that said, some cards have no foreign transaction fees; the best way to find out about your card is to contact the bank before you leave home.

10. What is an Oyster Card? Is it the same as the London Pass?

These are two separate cards. If you plan on doing a lot of traveling and adventuring through the city, consider getting a Visitor Oyster Card, London’s travel smart card for the fantastic public transportation system. I used my Oyster card on my most recent London visit to get to the Isle of Wight for a day trip. I saved money on my train ticket, and could use my Oyster card for the Tube and ferry. So handy! This card is more than 50 percent cheaper than one-day paper Travelcards or single tickets, and you qualify for a range of food, drink, and other discounts. You can purchase ahead online, or get it at the grocery store or pharmacy upon arrival. To begin, you will preload it with about 30 POUNDS for a week of travel in London. It is really easy to add credit to the card at any Tube station if you need more throughout your stay.

Gung-ho sightseers should also get a London Pass, the ultimate sightseeing package that’s been tailored for visitors to this glorious city. This card will give you the ability to make the most of your trip by saving you time, money, and stress while visiting the city’s top sights and attractions. There is a charge per day, so use it on a day you plan to visit two or three sites to get the best deal.

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11. Do I need to buy tickets for museums and theatres in advance?

If you’re staying in London for a few days or a few weeks, having a tentative plan of what you want to see is suggested if you have any hope of getting the most out of your trip. Most museums in London are FREE and don’t have long lines. Their typical hours are 10am to 5 or 6 pm. There are a few museums that have one or two nights a week that they stay open later. Though some things like theatre tickets can be purchased on the day-of (they will likely be cheaper, too!), you should consider planning big activities and getting tickets in advance. If there is a play you do not wish to miss no matter what, book your seats long before coming to London. All London theater tickets are available online.

Some attractions for which you should purchase tickets in advance include:

  • The Tower of London is an absolutely must-see part of every itinerary. It has been a royal palace, a prison, a zoo, a museum, a site of execution, and a jewel house. Don’t miss the Tower of London with the Beefeaters tour and learn about the secrets and scandals of the court. Admission tickets are £25 at the gate, but £23.10 online. If you book ahead for the Tower or use your London Pass, you will avoid the very long lines of people purchasing on the day. Lines at this popular site can take hours!
  • The Natural History Museum is FREE but also has very long lines. To skip the lines, you can use your London Pass, or you can purchase tickets for the temporary exhibits through the museum website. There are good reasons for the crowds you will find standing in line there. It has 80 MILLION artifacts—including specimens collected by Charles Darwin, dinosaur skeletons and ornate architecture. Truly SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE.
  • The London Eye (pictured above) is a huge ferris wheel that is made up of gondolas which allow visitors to see London in all directions; there are usually 20-25 riders in each gondola, or as they say at the London Eye “CAPSULE.” By early morning, there are long lines waiting, so purchase online in advance and save yourself the agony of the long wait. This experience is one of the few excluded from the London Pass. The London Eye is a photographer’s paradise especially in late evening with a London sunset up the Thames can be spectacular.

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12. Which London neighborhood should I choose to stay?

Well, where you stay mostly depends on what you want to do while in London. Do you want to go to the theatre, enjoy the “big city” life with lots of unique shops and restaurants, and walk everywhere you need to be for the week? Or do you prefer to stay more central to the parks, palaces, museums, and shopping?

When deciding where to stay in London, consider these popular areas:

  • Covent Garden: Open air cafes, pubs, street entertainers, shopping establishments, markets, and theatres make Covent Garden one of the most lively neighborhoods in central London. You’ll also be within walking distance to attractions like the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Coliseum, and many more.
  • Earl’s Court: Known as the bustling “Convention Area”, Earl’s Court offers numerous restaurants, bookstores, cafes, clubs, wine bars, flower stalls, ethnic dining, and shopping for the contemporary styles and taste. This area has easy access to the Tube which means you’re just minutes away from all central London. This is a very vital part of this great metropolis where neighborhoods are filled with beautiful architecture and grand houses which are all in a state of becoming “the place to live” once again. Young people thrive here.  
  • Hyde Park, South Kensington: Located in central London, this is a residential area with many stately homes and foreign embassies. With easy access to two different Tube stations, you can easily access famous attractions like Buckingham Palace, Westminster and Royal London, Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall, the London Toy and Model Museum, and the Saturday market at Portobello Road.
  • Knightsbridge and High St. Kensington: This is your go-to neighborhood if you’re interested in doing some serious shopping during your time in London. Home to popular icons like Harrods and other famous shopping establishments, this neighborhood is also just a short Tube ride away from attractions like Piccadilly Circus, Green Park, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, and Westminster.
  • Mayfair and Park Lane, the Mall: Known as “Royal London,” you’ll be sharing this neighborhood with historic landmarks like Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s Gallery, the Royal Mews, Clarence House, Trafalgar Square, St. James’s Palace, and many others. This central neighborhood is laced with the glory that is London. You might even see the Queen ride out in one of her carriages or in her amazing Bentley limousine. AND SHE WILL WAVE. Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a part of every visitor’s experience while in London. You will find it here.
  • Westminster and Waterloo: This area is living with history and government; get a feeling for what London might have been like through many generations of her history. In this part of London, you’ll find attractions such as Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Horse Guards, St Margaret’s Church, Churchill’s war bunker, Westminster Hall, Westminster Bridge, 10 Downing Street, the Cenotaph, Ruben’s glorious ceiling in the Banqueting Hall, and the pier to take a boat ride down the Thames to Greenwich. These are the places where Kings and Queens have walked and great ceremonies of State take place. This is where “power is in the air.”

For more information about the best places to stay in London, click here.

13. How much do I tip in London?

  • Restaurant: When eating out, it is customary to leave 10-15% in London. Sometimes if you are with a group, there may be a service charge already added to your bill. Check if you don’t want to pay twice. For takeaway, self-service, and pubs tipping isn’t traditional.
  • Drivers: With a black cab across town, many people round up to the nearest pound and tell the driver to “keep the change.” If you have a driver taking you to or from the airport that is helping with luggage, 10-15% is polite.
  • Accommodations: We recommend you tip your let-in person 5-10 GBP at a vacation rental property. Most hotels include a service charge of 10-12%. You can always tip more if you feel that they went above and beyond to help you in some way.
  • Room cleaning staff: Although you may never see this “behind the scenes” person, you can leave an amount you choose upon your departure.

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Those were my top questions when deciding to visit London. Have your questions been answered? If not, feel free to contact London Connection and we will do our best to find the answer to your query.

London is a magical place filled with excitement, history, culture, and fantastic food. The people are friendly, the public transportation is clean and punctual, and I could understand the language. I can hardly wait to return!