London's calling... or the whole country is. And they speak English! So what do else do you need to know before you travel there? Well... a lot! So read this quick and handy guide to make sure you have the best trip!
How long can I stay without a visa?
If you're from an English-speaking country, no visa is required for the UK, and visitors can stay up to six months. If you're not sure if you need a visa, check here. Please note that your passport expiration date MUST be after the date of your intended return if you are a U.S. citizen. Always check the latest regulations before you travel just to be sure. Many countries are moving over to the stricter requirement of your passport being good for at least six months after departure, so it's best to always ensure your passport is up-to-date.
You'll need one blank page in your passport for the entry stamp which they will add at customs.
What's the local currency? Do they take credit cards?
Unlike the rest of Europe, the UK has refused to go over to the euro, because their currency, Great British Pounds, is so strong. They accept euros at some shops, but you get your change in pounds. You will get money out of an ATM in pounds, and you will often be charged a foreign transaction fee of about three percent by your bank, whether you get cash out or use a credit card. This dirty little secret can add up, so make sure you budget for it. Note that some credit cards have no foreign transaction fees.
If you want your debit/credit cards to work in England, or any foreign country, call your bank before you leave! Many times, we have had tour guests calling back to their home country because their transactions were declined. It's a fraud concern for the banks, so they are all pretty careful.
Everywhere will take your credit card, but in England they also have a special protection called "chip and pin" which we really don't use in the States -- a transaction can be refused if you don't have an embedded chip on the card as well as your pin code entered. In that case, you may have to use a credit card, so I would keep at least two on hand as well as checking with your bank in advance. As a safety precaution, many restaurants bring a machine to your table so your card is never out of your sight.
How do I get around?
Whether you are traveling to England alone or as part of a tour, it is likely that you will want to take a ride in one of the famous London black cabs. Just know that they have all changed over time, as have the shiny red double decker buses, though the old style is making a comeback. The cabs are now squarer and come in multiple colors. Your best bet if you are in central London for longer than a few days is to get an Oyster Card as it's cheaper and all you have to do is swipe it to get on all the buses and the Tube (what they call the subway). If you don't have an Oyster Card, you'll have to buy a ticket for most of the buses or the Tube, and at many stops, carry change to do so.
Also, prepare to enjoy walking in London! It's a very big walking/public transport city so take advantage of getting this exercise every day. Note that if you have physical issues getting around that there are many apartment buildings (flats) and even some public places (including some Tube stations) that don't have handicapped access or elevators, though the country is modernizing slowly.
Trains to cities all over the UK are common and easy to use, and there is something truly delightful about taking a train to Bath or to Glasgow and seeing the English countryside; this can be a welcome addition to a trip.
There are three airports that serve London: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead. Make sure you know which one your flight leaves from -- it could be different from your inbound flight! These days the Heathrow Express is the fastest way of getting in and out of London's largest airport, but perhaps not the most cost-effective. If you're more than two people coming with luggage, it is likely cheaper for you to hire a car service, which will meet you at baggage claim, haul your things and zip you into town. The one I've suggested here will take you for about a third of the price of a taxi! Do note that you need to know the terminal] where you will arrive /depart, as the distance between terminals three and five (for example) is several miles and will cost a different amount.
Everybody just speaks English, right?
Well, yes, but... you know how you can't really understand Daisy's accent on Downton Abbey sometimes? That's because she's from Yorkshire, in the North Country; it can get a little dodgy for all of us Yanks in the outer regions of the country (to say nothing if you travel into Scotland or Ireland!) In London, there is an enormous melting pot of cultures, especially in certain neighborhoods. While that means the food has improved considerably in the past 20 years (see below), it also means that there are people who don't speak English in places, so just be aware of common courtesy.
Also, many words have different meanings. One time, my partner was visiting London when his daughter was a child, and she ordered eggs and soldiers for breakfast. He kept asking for the soldiers, and it wasn't until the confused waiter delivered a third order of toast that they figured out he was expecting a painted toy; "soldiers" are what the English call the little toast strips children dip into eggs. Tea doesn't mean there's just tea (though there always is!); it's a daily 4 p. m. meal. Theatres have circles and stalls instead of orchestras and balconies, and there are myriad other examples.
What customs could get me in trouble if I don't follow them?
As you may know, in the UK, they drive on the left. If you're driving locally, make sure you do, too! They also walk or stand on the left, so you need to as well unless you're passing others, especially on escalators. In the Tube during rush hour, you can really mess up the swift, wide streams of foot traffic unless you observe this rule, so keep your wits about you and follow the flow.
Putting your fork and knife together in the middle of the plate is the only way to acknowledge you are finished eating. If you have learned, for example, to cross your fork and knife at the top of the plate, it will sit there because a waiter will presume you aren't finished.
Ask for ice if you must, but beer is drunk at room temperature, and ice means a cube or two, not a glass full of ice. Try not to complain; we just sound like ugly Americans, and it's simply a different custom.
Do they drink/do drugs/party?
Drinking is very big in the UK; practically a national pastime. You will see the bars -- or pubs, as they call them -- overflowing as the locals spill over into the street on a warm evening. Since most people drink, pubs are good for anyone over the drinking age of 18, and you can find every generation enjoining a pint almost everywhere.
Drugs are highly illegal, and though if you choose to visit Notting Hill Carnival you can certainly smell pot drifting over the crowd, as a tourist you are taking a big risk in indulging in any drugs.
There are a lot of places to go clubbing in London, and the nightlife is extremely vibrant, so enjoy! It's relatively safe on the streets, even late at night, but always watch your purse.
Is it safe? Should I buy travel insurance?
England as a rule is quite safe, but please do take all the usual precautions, especially if you are in the larger cities. My mother, who has lived in London since I was 7, is always cautioning me not to keep my cell phone out or even in my hand while I am on the street, and she is adamant about keeping bags zipped up in public and one eye on my purse at all time. So there - you've been warned by my mum!!
Of course consider travel insurance - have you seen the volcanos/tsunamis/earthquakes we've been having lately? A cancelled flight can ruin a vacation. The UK has wonderful health coverage for the locals; even if you have insurance, you may be required to pay out of pocket for any services you need, but excellent medical services are readily available. Note that the travel insurance you buy for a few dollars with your plane ticket may not cover you fully for your trip, especially if you're not on a tour. So read the fine print -- you have a short cancellation period once you purchase the insurance.
What kind of power converter do I need?
The British electrical system uses a huge three-prong flat head plug and a currency of 230/240 volts. In addition, many wall sockets feature an on-off power switch, so you want to ensure the red "on" is showing if the switch seems dead. If you are coming from almost anywhere, you will need a power converter.
Will my cell phone work there (and cost more than I earn in a month to use?
Like many foreign countries, it will be far cheaper for you to buy or bring a small cell phone with no bells and whistles and get a local number than it will be for you to use your own cell phone -- which will likely cost hundreds of dollars in extra roaming charges and fees before you are done. Ask at your hotel, ask your tour guide, etc. It won't be the first time they've gotten the request.
I hear the food is terrible! And can I drink the water?
True confession: I have always loved British pub food, especially steak and kidney pie and bangers and mash. Unfortunately, over the past decade many of the local British pubs have been acquired by chains, so now the food is so consistent, the menu often doesn't vary one iota between places! For a true local experience, you will have to rely on pubs in quieter parts of the country, or look very hard! Fish and chips can still be soggy and dreadful, as well as having gotten too expensive to eat out of a newspaper cone, but you can also find them crisp and delicious. Be a savvy traveler and Yelp anywhere before you go!
In most larger cities, there is a wide variety of delicious food choices these days, with salads readily available, good options for vegetarians, great Indian food. There is a real modern locovore restaurant scene in London, thanks to Jamie Oliver and other British star chefs who have made nutrition and taste their bellwethers, with the rest of the pack following not far behind.
Bottled water is readily available, but tap water is still an acceptable alternative.
I hope you enjoyed this information to help make your trip to England easier & better!
Caveat: this information was accurate at the time of writing, 3/2014
All the photos above are Spirit Quest Tours except Stonehenge.