Experience · Travel

Traveler Information – London

I’ve just returned from a trip to London. Yes! London. As you have read on my previous post about how to apply visa to UK, finally that day has come!

London is a HUGE city! I was confused by how to make my itinerary there because I didn’t know any area in the city. I got help from some friends who lived there before, so that was convenient. They pointed out some places to go and I marked it on my google map app. I also did some researches on website. One of the them that I used more was the official visit London website. They have many things to learn about your trip to London. Although some are confusing until I arrived there and tried it myself.

If you’re too lazy to read that link and wonder how did I do my trip, keep reading. Psst, it’s easier to understand 😉

What currency should I bring?

London uses Poundsterling (£) as currency. You can either have it before your trip or after you arrived there. I always bring USD whenever I traveled, and exchange it to local currency on destination’s departure hall. So for this time, I brought some USD as usual and exchanged it to GBP (£ ) at airport. At Hearthrow terminal 2, there are 2 money changer. They are from the same company, which is Travelex. Their rate is pretty bad though. For my trip, 1 GBP = 1.43 USD, while on online listed 1 GBP = 1.27 USD. Such a big difference! But I still recommend you to do it there. First, it is easy and convenient. Second, if you exchanged more than USD500, no commission fee. And lastly, if you have leftover £, you can exchange it back to USD with same rate by showing the receipt. They gave me receipt on paper and via email.

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Where to buy a Prepaid Simcard?

Okay, this one is important. Everyone wants internet haha. There are many fending machine at airport selling simcards. How cool is that?! A simcard fending machine. If you want to buy there, select vodafone or lycamobile or 3. And not more than £20. It depends on how long is your trip as well. But for £20 you can get internet access for a month period. So if you’re staying less than a month, it would be more than enough.

There is a booth as well where you can buy a simcard with internet package included. I was interested to buy there but I saw the price was not reasonable (more than £20), with a very minimum package of internet data. So I waited until I reached my hotel before buying a simcard.

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If you want to buy it in the city, try finding a Tesco (or Tesco Express). It is a supermarket and they have prepaid simcard. I bought mine at Tesco Express. £0.99 for cards only. Then I bought a top up voucher there as well, for £20. The guy at the shop might not know how to activate the package. But don’t worry, just connect to wifi and go to the provider website, and follow the instructions there. I bought simcard from Lycamobile, you can read it here on how to activate the data package.

How to Reach my Hotel if I don’t have any internet connection yet?

This was what happened to me as well. I didn’t have any connection on my phone. And trying to connect to wifi at airport was taking too long (then failed in the end..). But I wasn’t worried because I have been searching the route to reach my hotel before my departure. I took some screenshots on my phone on all possible route with train. I didn’t want to take taxi or Heathrow Express. So tube train was my only option.

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Citymapper route

I downloaded Citymapper app on my phone. It is available for both iPhone and Android. For London, it is easy to use this because it is listed as one of the city. This app doesn’t have some cities. Only big cities in the world. Changed your city to London, then find your way from Heathrow to hotel. Take some screenshots on every possibility (not too many though! Or else you’ll get overwhelmed or confused by it lol). Once I arrived in London, I opened the screenshots and followed the fastest route (less stations to reach my hotel). I went to ticket machine and bought a one way ticket to nearest tube station from my hotel (it was Tower Hill). The ticket price was £6. It would be cheaper if I used Oyster Card ( I will explain about this on next section below).

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One-way tube ticket

Another way to reach city from airport is by Heathrow Express. They claimed to be faster than tube train or taxi, which is true but not by far actually. You can buy the ticket online or on the spot. For on the spot ticket, it was £27.

The last resort to reach your hotel is by taxi. They are the easiest but most expensive way to reach your hotel. For my case, it would be around £70. Or you can use Uber as well which is much cheaper, would be around £40. These rates were from estimation on google map. It could be higher as well depends on the traffic.

It takes almost 1 hour to reach my hotel from airport by taxi, which is about the same if I take train. That is another reason why I choose train. About the same time to reach hotel but a lot cheaper!

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Piccadilly Line from Heathrow Airport

But after I rode the train, I found out that the train was narrow and was packed with people along the way to my destination. So if you have a big suitcase, you might want to find a place in the corner to make it easier for others (and to not getting on people’s nerve..). Also it would be easier for you to get off of train. I sat on the seat with my suitcase in front of me, and it was hard for people to pass by (and for me to get to the door). I got up to reach area nearer to door 2 stations before my first destination.

Another thing you need to consider is how many time you will change the line. If your hotel is located near one of station on Piccadilly Line, it is easy. Mine wasn’t at it. I needed to change line to reach my final destination. So it was not much a hassle. If you are unlucky though, you can get off at station without elevator, stairs all the way to exit. I have no idea which station has no elevator. I only know Tower Hill has it 😀

How to get around in London?

One thing I like about big city in a developed country is they have a really good public transport system. London is one of them. It is very easy to get around in the city. There are many ways you can take :

Taxi

The easiest and the most expensive transport in the city. Some area will cost you a lot if you take taxi, because of the bad traffic. Area around Westminster Bridge to Westminster Abbey is always busy. There are 2 type of taxis in city, the normal taxi (fit about 4-5 persons) and large taxi (it fit up to 8 persons). Their rate also different, the large one is more expensive.

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Tube (Underground Train)

Tube is a convenient way to travel around the city. Their routes cover most of the place in the city especially for visitors. To ride a tube, you need to buy a ticket or oyster card or travel card. This one I read it before on visitLondon website. Rest assured I’m gonna suggest you which one you should buy. My friend suggested me to buy 7-day travel card for zones 1-2 because there are where all the attractions mostly at. From the website, I read about Visitor Oyster Card and I tried to buy it before my departure date (because it is said you can only buy it via online and not in London). Sadly, they don’t deliver to Vietnam. So I was thinking to get a travel card instead once I was there.

For zones 1-2 and 7-days travel card, it costs £38. I arrived on Wednesday and would leave on Monday. Not exactly 7 days but I thought still okay. When I was about to buy it, I saw a notification paper next to the machine, where they encouraged people to buy Oyster card (pay as you go) because there is no limit on the usage per day. I thought travel card was like that, wasn’t it?! In the end I bought Oyster Card. And after using it during my trip, I highly recommend it! Buy Oyster Card when you travel to London.

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You can download the map first to your phone. Or if you are using Citymapper app like me, you don’t need to carry map. Another thing to be considered is walking tube map. It provides you on how long will you take to walk between the tube station. And why is it important? Because some stations are very far to reach the train. Sometime it takes the same amount of time to reach the train and to reach the next station. So, you can plan ahead which mode of transport are you gonna take.

How to ride a tube : If you have experience with subway system in big city, it won’t be a problem with you so you can skip this part. When you entered a station, tap your oyster card and wait until the light turned green and the portal opened. If you have ticket, put it inside a slot, and take it at top side of the gate, then you can enter the portal. Do not forget to take your ticket because you will need it to exit the station on your destination. For oyster card, tap again on the gate once you reached your destination. So, tap > enter > find your train > get on on the train > get off > tap > exit station.

How to buy Oyster Card : Oyster Card can be purchased at any tube station. There are 2 types of machine, small and big. The small one only accept card and coin, and doesn’t give change. You need exact amount of money, or else the leftover won’t be returned to you. The big one accepts anything (coins, notes, card). On the machine, press “Next Customer” if it is not the main page. There is a split screen on main page. On the right side, pick new oyster card. Then pick how much money you want to be in it. They will charge £5 for the card. And later on you can return the card and get your money back before your departure from London.

How to Top-Up Oyster Card : On main menu, choose top up oyster card on the right side. Then tap your oyster card on the machine. Pick how much you want to top up. Lastly, tap your oyster card at the machine again, and it’s done. Very easy.

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Boats (River Bus)

I only tried this one time during my stay. I traveled from Tower Hill pier to Embankment Pier. I could traveled with train as well, but decided to take this boat just to try. The one-way ticket was £8 per person. Quite pricey indeed. We went to the waiting line with a bunch of people there who wanted to go to the same direction. The boat was big and convenient. It has a small shop that sells snacks and drinks. We (the boats) stopped by at several piers before we reached our destination. You can use oyster card to ride this as well (the reason we bought one ticket was because we haven’t had enough credits on our card haha).

Bus

Bus is one of my favorite public transport. You can only ride a bus with oyster card (and easiest way anyway). When you get on on a bus, tap Oyster Card on the machine and take a sit. The bus will have announcement of which number is it and where is it heading when you boarded it. If you want to stop on next station after they announced it, press the “Stop” button nearby. When the bus reached your destination, the driver will open the door and you can get off the bus. No more tapping! I was confused when I first ride it haha, apparently for bus in London they charge flat rate everywhere! £1.5 for each ride everywhere.

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Inside the bus in London

Bicycle

There are many bike for rent in the city. We didn’t try it. But I saw one of the machine, and you can pay with bank card. To read more information about it, you can check out their website.

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A bus and bike docking station.

Cable car

If you want to travel between Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks, then you should try Emirates Air Line Cable Car. It is said to have a magnificent views over East London. We didn’t go to those areas so we didn’t have a chance to try it. If you want to read more about it, check here.

Walking

London is a nice city to walk around. If you plan to walk far, make sure to wear a comfortable shoes and don’t bring too many stuff on your bag. I walked so much there that my feet sore… On 2nd day of my stay, my friend was visiting me from another city, so we walked around the city (rode train in between). I checked my step counter that day and it was 28.942 steps! But I really enjoyed it 🙂

How to pay on Self Check Out in supermarket?

This is for just in case you go to local Supermarket like we did 🙂

I never done this before. Coming from Vietnam and Indonesia, I haven’t seen something like this. But I guess there is always something to learn when you travel!

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We were at Sainsburry’s local supermarket, buying some snacks. We didn’t bring any bag, so we just clicked on “Start”. Then we scanned our item one by one. Each time we finished with scan, we needed to put the item on the metal area. After we finished scanning all of them, the machine asked if we want a plastic bag for 5 pences. We didn’t take it because it was still manageable with my bag. And finally we had to pay for it. This machine accept every payment; coins, bank notes, cards. Very convenient!

How to get tax refund in London?

No, I’m not gonna buy anything in London. Really?? Even I didn’t think that! I knew I’m gonna buy something there. Therefor I need to know about the process for tax refund. What you should know about tax refund in London are : 1) not all shops participating in this scheme; 2) different shop will have different minimum purchase condition. Make sure to ask the shop attendant about this. I had an experience where the shop attendant didn’t know the minimum purchase condition but she gave me tax refund form. It was more than £100 though.

These are the step by step on how to claim tax refund : 1) Ask for tax refund / tax free form; 2) The shop will need to put signature and stamp on it, so make sure your form has it; 3) Before leaving to airport, fill in the details on form and sign it; 4) At the airport, go to tax refund claim BEFORE checking-in your luggage. If your total purchase is more than £5000, then you can do it after check in (that was what I understood from the officer, but better check it again here); 5) Present your goods to the officer and they will check all the form, passport and boarding pass; 6) They will pay you the tax minus administration fee in currency other than GBP. I chose USD instead.

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The queue at tax refund office

If you want to get your tax refund, make sure to arrive at airport at least 3 hours before your flight.

How much should I give for a tip?

Tipping is unusual for me, that is why I liked it in Netherlands when they don’t normally give a tip 😀 In London, tipping is ‘optional’. Most restaurants put it as service charge included on bill (some put it as ‘optional’ under your total spending, which is a bit awkward if you don’t pay that..). Few of others don’t put it on the bill but it will be at the machine when you pay with card, then you can choose how much you want to add as a tip for them. The average service charge in London is 12.5%. It is quite high, but overall their services were great.

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Example of service charge on receipt

 

Should I buy ticket (shows, trains, attractions) on the spot or online?

Online. Plan your trip and find everything on internet, from musical shows, train tickets to another city, madame tussauds, warner bros studio, etc. Everything is better to do via online booking. Some tourist attractions need you to queue to buy their ticket. Come early if needed.

What if I have another question that is not listed here?

Then ask the receptionist at your hotel or Google 😀 I put everything that I know and experienced here. Hopefully this can help you and your upcoming trip.

Most importantly, enjoy the city! Explore, Experience.

Extra tips! If you’re planning to take picture of Tower Bridge, do it in the afternoon before sunset. If you joined a tour though, it will be tricky since they usually go to that area in the morning to visit Tower of London.

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Tower Bridge at sunset

Extra tips #2! If you want to take picture of Tower Bridge on sunrise, you can do it at London Bridge. The view will be Tower Bridge with sun in the background.

I will post about places to go in London soon! Until then, ciao!

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