This was my 2nd trip to London. I really enjoyed it so much the first time that I decided to go back. I did keep a diary of my trip but I decided to post more information for the first time visitor that might not know what to expect. I hope it helps those that have never been to London.General Observations
London is a very big metropolitan city that is very spread out. There is a unique vibe and flavor to this city. There is something for everyone here…. but at a price. The flight isn’t that easy though due to the 8-hour time difference (from West Coast). If you have the extra FF miles upgrade to business/first class. It makes the flight much more bearable. I’ve upgraded the last few times to Europe and it’s hard going back to coach.
You won’t have much down time here because there is so much to see and do here. I’ve said it before about other cities that I’ve written about but I’ll say it again- bring your wallet- because you’ll definitely need it here! London is one of THE most expensive cities in the world. However, people here seem to earn much more than their European neighbors. I didn’t find that to be the case in Paris. The wages seem proportional to the cost of living so these Londoners can’t complain too much. I spent a lot of time with a Brazilian girl I met here (non-hobby) and she has no formal University education and is making £29,000 ($55,000) a year in a normal job there. Although her rent for a really super tiny studio apartment in Kensington is £900 per month. Most people coming here will find it unbelievably expensive. The unit of currency here is the British Pound (GBP). It’s currently £1 = $1.90 so our dollars are almost worthless here. I can’t imagine even more worthless currencies like Canadian dollars here.
People here seem to complain a lot though. I guess not everyone makes a lot of money. I met a few waitresses and bartenders that thought they would come to London and make big bucks but instead they are stuck in a dead end job making about £6 per hour ($11.40) and no one really tips here they told me. I always tip well for good service and the staff always seems to be extra appreciative here. People need to understand how the tipping structure works in many countries. They think since the restaurant is already adding on the tip on the bill the server is getting that amount. That is NOT the case in most countries. The waiter/waitress is getting a salary and that 10% covers their salary. If you get great service tip a little more. If the service is bad than don’t feel like you need to. When I’m in Brazil often times the service is horrible because they don’t get that 10% that you see on the bills. They only get their salary. The good servers around the world understand that it’s not just about being a warm body there working. Good service will earn them more money.
One thing that is clearly evident is there is a big part of the population from other countries. I’m not sure of the actual percentages and I’d be really curious to find out how many people are actually Londoners NOT from foreign countries. I’ve never been to a United Nations convention before but walking around London has to be the closest thing to it. Many interesting people that I met claimed to be “students” but I’m sure that can’t be the case with all of them. I’d venture to guess London has a very high percentage of illegal immigrants. I also met several people that lived here that seemed to be a little down on their own city. When I told them how lucky they are to live in such a beautiful city they told me it’s an entirely different world when you’re just visiting as a tourist and another living here as an actual citizen. Many were itching to move out of London. One girl I met even inquired about the possibility of marrying to “trade passports”. I told her I wanted to live in Europe and she wanted an American passport. I told her I’m quite happy with just my “blue book”. Ha, ha. Seriously though, I know how these people feel. The USA is great but I’m itching for the chance to live abroad. The grass is always greener on the other side. Right?
There is so much history and culture here. I find London to be one of the most historic cities in the world. The architecture, as I pointed out last year in my diary is amazing! It’s also romantic like Paris but in its own way. I find the history amazing in Europe. The United States is relatively new so our idea of history is the corner pharmacy or ice cream parlor that has been around for over 100 years. It’s sad.
A good source of information about city events and the hip places to eat, drink, shop and just about everything else can be found in the weekly edition of a magazine called “Time Out”. It costs roughly £2. If you want to check out some events before you hit London you can visit them online at: http://www.timeout.com/london/index.html
If you’re going to be here a while and can take advantage of a lot of sightseeing then you might want to consider buying a “London Pass” card. I heard it has good discounts but I never bought one since my trip was only a few days. You can check out the details at: http://www.londonpass.comArriving at the Airport
There are 4 airports in London. Actually it’s a little misleading since none of these airports are actually in London. Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted and Luton are all outside of the city. Everyone arriving from the US will be flying into either Gatwick or Heathrow. I’ve always flown into Gatwick but probably should try Heathrow as it’s the only one on a Tube line. I believe it’s on the Picadilly Line but you can go to this site to find out all you would need to know: http://www.baa.co.uk/main/airports/heathrow/
You can also take the Heathrow Express into Paddington station for a quicker journey to London but it costs more at £13. http://www.heathrowexpress.com/
. It runs every 15 minutes and journey time is about 20 minutes. I was told there is an Air Bus for a cheaper alternative but it takes forever and can get quite crowded. I wouldn’t recommend it.
The cheapest option seems to be the Tube via the Picadilly Line. I looked at the map at a station and the airport looked like it was in Zone 6 and the cost was £3.80. The airport code for Heathrow is LHR. Gatwick is about 30 miles from the city. There is a ”Hotellink” bus shuttle (http://https://secure.fast.net.uk/hotelink/index.html
) that you can take with other people. You pay a flat fee of £22 and that includes your ticket on the Gatwick Express (http://www.gatwickexpress.co.uk/
) to the Victoria station. Then a representative picks you up and takes you to your hotel. The airport code for Gatwick is LGW. Since my hotel is close to the Tube I just take the Gatwick Express (first class is £36 or $68 for roundtrip ticket) to the Victoria station, which is on the Circle, District and Victoria lines then walk one block to my hotel. Again, everything you would need to know including buying tickets ahead of time with your credit card can be found on the site.
I highly recommend buying the tickets ahead of time because you can use your credit card. You’ll get a confirmation # and you just go to a ticketing machine and punch in your confirmation and you can collect your tickets. Luton isn’t on the Tube line either. It’s 35 miles north of London. The cheapest way to get into the city I believe is to take the Thameslink train (http://www.thameslink.co.uk/
) to King’s Cross station, which is on the Circle, Hammersmith, City, Victoria and Piccadilly lines. It runs about 8 times an hour and takes about 30 minutes. You can also take the bus which is called the Green Line (http://www.greenline.co.uk/
) You can get special discount offers for about £8.50 from Easyjet.
I included this info because several EasyJet flights are out of Luton. For those of you that aren’t familiar with EasyJet you should check it out. It’s a discount airline that flies all over Europe for cheap. Think the Southwest Airlines of Europe. (http://www.easyjet.com/
). Stansted Airport also isn’t on the Tube line. It’s 38 miles from London so a long haul. I’m including information because it’s the fastest growing airport in London due to the growth of the discount carriers. Easyjet and Ryanair (http://www.ryanair.com/
). All the flights here are European and UK based flights. You can take the Stanstead Express (http://www.stansteadexpress.com/
) into the Liverpool Street station. I think it runs every 15 minutes and it takes about 45 minutes for the jouney. A cheaper option is to take the Stansted Air Bus which is cheaper but takes longer.
Do a search on Google to find out more information. Some other budget airlines for flights here are: BMI – http://www.flybmi.com/
; and Virgin Express (via Brussels) – www.virgin-express.com
When I’m in Europe I try not to take taxis if I can help it. Taxis are expensive and not really necessary most of the time. Unless you are in a big hurry you can easily get around on London’s Underground subway system (the Tube). I was told it is the world’s oldest subway system. There are plenty of free small maps of the Tube at each station. There’s also a big Tube map on each individual train.
There is a small learning curve when getting acquainted with the Tube but anyone can figure it quickly. Take the time to map out your path to your hotel and such before you arrive to London. It’s hard to believe but I never took any means of public transportation like this until last year. My first subway type experience was last March in London. It’s very efficient but the Tubes can get quite crowded during peak times like rush hour at the beginning and end of the workday. It gets surprisingly busy on the weekends sometimes too.
The biggest negative I had with the Tube is that it can get very crowded during peak times. I can’t imagine what someone Closter phobic would do because it would be impossible to take the Tube. Also the ventilation system probably could use some work. I bet in the hot summers here it must be unbearable.
Familiarize yourself with the lines and routes. Each line has a different color. There’s the yellow, green, red, blue, black, silver, brown and navy lines. Although I’ve found that most locals refer to them more by the name of the lines than the colors which I thought would be the opposite. The cost of a 24-hour Tube Pass is £4.30 ($8). I got one each day and got my use out of it. Armed with a small Tube map, I could make my way to anywhere around the city.
Just about everything you would need to know about the Tube is located at the link below. You can download maps of all the lines. It’s a really valuable resource that someone took the time to put together so use it. http://www.geocities.com/themole7/maps.html
Main Tube map from official site: http://tube.tfl.gov.uk/guru/index.asp
You will inevitably use a taxi at one time or another if you’re in a hurry. I’d recommend the black taxis. I’d never been in a taxi like that before. There is a lot of room in them and it’s unique. I think everyone should take one at least once to experience it.Where to Stay
Deciding where to stay can be a difficult decision. My first trip I stayed in the Kensington area and really liked it. I wanted to find an area that was very walk able. I also wanted to be near a Tube line that was convenient and accessible to all parts of the city. It’s near many museums, attractions and great shopping. I think the area is a little more expensive than some other areas but I think no matter where you go it’s not going to be cheap.
Before arriving, decide what’s important for you. It might be smart to note the locations of your favorite attractions, activities, cost and the atmosphere of the neighborhood. You also might want to note areas where there is good dining. I like the restaurants and bars around the Kensington area too. I also like being close to Kensington Gardens and Holland Park. Although London is an expensive city there are tons of hotels and price ranges available. Do a search on http://www.hotels.com/
. Any nice hotel will range from $150- $300+ a night in most nice areas. Remember, those £99 a night deals you see online translates into about $190 a night. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how crazy high the conversion is.Dining Out
As I mentioned, it’s extremely expensive here. There is no shortage of possibilities when dining out but any decent meal in Central London isn’t cheap. Sure there are tons of fast food type places but I like to eat well when I’m traveling. The great thing is there are so many different types of restaurants here. You won’t lack for a choice of what to eat. There are several resources online to help you eat cheaper in London but honestly I didn’t use them. Here is one site that has some advice. http://www.londoneats.com/news/news3.asp
You won’t have a hard time finding a good meal in London. There is something for everyone’s tastes.
Generally I found that the nicer places are priced similar to US restaurants only the prices are in £’s so you have to almost double the prices! One day I spent £25 ($48) on lunch just for me! The meal was good but not that great.Final Thoughts
No matter how expensive any city is, I’m a firm believer you can spend as little or as much as you want. London is no different in this regard. As I mentioned in my Paris report, it costs nothing to walk around the city and enjoy the scenery. London is a very walk able city. Part of the fun of a city for me is walking around looking at the architecture and discovering quaint little neighborhoods. Don’t feel like you have to spend tons of money or hit every museum if that doesn’t interest you. I find walking around a city more enjoyable than viewing pieces of art in a museum. To me, each city is its own piece of art.
Just pick a part of the city you want to tour and start walking. That easy! You can take the Tube to stops like Knightsbridge where Harrod’s is located or areas like Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, or Westminster.
I got no universal feel to London from the people that live there. Some seemed to love it, some seemed to hate it. Some seemed content to be living/working there now but mentioned they won’t be here much longer. The majority of the areas are very clean with no trash in the streets. If you wake up early and walk around you’ll see city workers cleaning up the streets every morning.
I really love London but it’s just such a massive city. It almost has an impersonal feel to it. People really keep to themselves compared to other cities. Even on the Tube it seems like people are scared to even acknowledge each other. Not only do they not talk to one another but also they don’t even look at each other. I like to people watch and watch the world going on around me. I’ve now taken public transit systems in Europe in Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and England and Londoners have their own system of keeping to themselves.
I love shopping when I travel internationally but London is definitely not the city you want to be spending money on a shopping spree. Everything is more expensive here. Save your money for other cities. Even Paris was much cheaper to buy clothes. It seemed like every single store had 50% off sales when I was there a few weeks ago. Even 50% off sales in London make things normal cost for USA. London has a bigger selection and better stores but the stores that I did go into the service was not that great. I didn’t really plan on buying anything but the clerks didn’t know it. I have a few Platinum cards with no limits that I could have done some serious damage with but the customer service I found to be quite bad compared to other cities I’ve been to.
Be careful when walking around here. Pedestrians must not have the right of way here. I’m not sure but it sure seemed like cars didn’t watch out for pedestrians too much so be very careful and look both ways before crossing the street. I only noticed cars yielding at specific crosswalks. However, something that IS helpful is the “Look Left” and “Look Right” lettering at the crosswalks of many streets. It’s probably saved a few dumb tourists’ lives.
The club scene is quite good here although surprisingly it starts and ends earlier compared to a most big cities around the world I've been to. A hip spot right now is a place called “Egg” near Kings Cross. I stand by my opinion that the majority of girls here aren’t as attractive as other major cities. There are beautiful girls here though. I again found that most of the super gorgeous girls here were from Brazil, Spain, Russia, Italy and other countries in Eastern and Western Europe. It truly is a melting pot here.
Something surprisingly great about London is that they don’t charge an admission fee for their national museums and art galleries. They stopped charging a fee a few years ago. In other cities like Florence, Italy and Paris the admission fees can be quite high. The parks are also great here. It’s kind of nice to see all the swans swimming gracefully in the many parks here.
London is one of the great cities of the world. The other great thing is that they speak English so there are never any communication barriers. Everyone needs to come here at least once or twice in their lives. I plan on coming back over and over. Good luck.