Sometimes we get caught in reading and thinking about the same old same old when it comes to London. So many people have come and gone, and have written about it, that it's hard to find something new.
Nevertheless, I learned some things on our recent trip there that I didn't know in our previous eight to ten trips, so I thought I'd share some of these with you. I hope they'll give you a unique perspective!
Heathrow Airport – most of us fly into Heathrow (not to denigrate Gatwick or any other UK airports, but Heathrow is by far the busiest), and it can be confusing at best. The important thing to remember is that it is five terminals strung out over quite a good distance, and that necessitates a train system (among other things) to run between terminals. This train is NOT intuitive. You have to be very careful that the train you are boarding goes where you need to go, especially when you are coming off a long, overnight flight from the US (as most of them are) and you are not thinking clearly. Watch the signs (posted above the platform) and don't be afraid to ask the Heathrow Express attendants – they are ubiquitous and anxious to help!
One of the first things we do after we land in another country is seek a safe ATM from which to get some local cash. In this era of scams and hackers, we are extremely careful that the ATM we choose is safe and tamper-free. This isn't always easy to do and we have heard horror stories of those who have been hacked and it ruined their vacations. We always try to find a bank ATM, and not just one outside a bank, but one INSIDE a bank. It's worked for us.
Check all your options to get from place to place. With the advent of “app transportation” – Uber, Lyft and the like – prices can vary a great deal from option to option. Don't just consider price, either. It may be worth a few extra dollars not to have to maneuver on the London Underground with suitcases, or make too many changes. For instance, from Heathrow to center city London, you can take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, but unless you are staying in that neighborhood (not a bad one to stay in) it could take a lot of jockeying around to get to your hotel. An Uber is likely cheaper than a taxi, depending on locations and number of people, but maybe not. The tube (London Underground) is likely the cheapest option, but you'll have to navigate escalators, long walks and possibly even steps. An app like Rome2Rio can be of great help in figuring this all out, not just for London but for other places.
Once you're at your hotel, you could still be exhausted, especially if you flew in from the US overnight. Should you sleep or wait it out? There are a lot of differing ideas about this. For us, the option that seems to work best is to walk ourselves silly in the morning, eat a decent lunch and then have a quick nap, generally only an hour or so. When we get up we are still tired, but find that eating an earlyish dinner or high tea has us good to go for a few more hours. We try to go to bed about 10 p.m. on the night we get in, after an evening of walking and – when we're lucky – enjoying the company of good friends. Although we often have an hour or two of sleeplessness in the middle of the night, by morning we are almost on our regular schedule.
I have been struggling with packing light forever! This past trip to England and France I tried hard to get all our stuff into one checked suitcase apiece – and not the monster checked bags we use when we are cruising. That meant that we were going to have to do some laundry, and we did (mostly socks and underwear but some shirts and bottoms). It worked! We actually came home with a handful of items we hadn't worn at all, which tells me that we could have packed even tighter. Remember, unless you are different than the rest of us and are a fashion model or famous in some way, no one will remember what you wear from day to day, likely even your traveling companions. The trick is to keep it simple – two or three colors with maybe one more colorful item thrown in that complements each. I like the advice of those who say to lay out your clothes, then remove some of them. I'm learning – and I have moved far away from the woman who packed six suitcases for three people (one a teenaged boy) on a train trip around England in 2003...
Food allergies are much easier to navigate in England than they used to be. In years past, our statements of my husband's severe food allergy were met with at best, resignation, at worst, disdain. But on this recent trip, it seemed the restaurants in London were aware of the seriousness of these issues, and we had total respect and help in teasing out complicated menus. There was only one place that pretty much ignored our requests, and that was a substandard one in many ways.
Especially if this is not your first trip to London, be open to trying some out-of-the-way places that are not always listed in the “top ten” lists. For your first trip, the Tower of London, the Eye, Westminster Abbey, St.Paul's Cathedral, Harrods, Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square seem to be the iconic places that you need to see, (at least to us) and there probably won't be time for too much else except some fun eateries. However, if you are lucky enough to have more than one trip in you to this lovely city, there are lots of other places, even some that few people go to. Eschew places like Madame Tassauds for the Imperial War Museum. Replace kitchy, touristy places like the London Dungeon with Greenwich or the British Library. Take a walk on Hampstead Heath for views over London, and skip the Shard. Check out the bookstores on Charing Cross Road or the canals in Little Venice. Instead of the Borough Market, find your latest favorite food at the Maltby Street Market. Try something new.
Have high tea. There are numerous sites that can tell you where - “the best places in London for high tea,” is often the title of the piece. I'm not going to tell you where to have it, I'm going to tell you what it is, because it can be a little confusing. You see signs everywhere for “cream tea” and “high tea,” and to the uninitiated, they seem similar. In fact, however, high tea is a meal, and cream tea is a smaller meal. They vary of course, but in general, cream tea is a pot of tea (generally of your choice, from a list), one or two scones, and clotted cream and jam. High tea is more – tea, scones, cream, jam, but also sandwiches or small appetizer-size entrees (think baby quiche), and several desserts or cakes. Sometimes champagne or other alcoholic beverages are also added. Cream teas can be in the L5-10 range, but high tea can cost L30-70 or even more. We once spent about $150 on high tea for two at the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon in Fortnum and Masons, and a similar amount in the Georgian Restaurant of Harrods.
When your visit is over, and you return to Heathrow, remember the difficult train system, and make sure you find the right terminal for your departure. When you hit up WH Smith or Boots for your last chance to stock up on UK products, they'll ask you for your boarding pass. You don't have to give it to them – they will scan an all-purpose one. We used to run back to our partner and grab our pass before checking out, but it's been unneccesary so many times, I think you an safely eliminate the need to carry it around the airport. And the stores in the B gates area of Terminal 5 (British Airways) are much less crowded than those in the main Terminal 5, so if you are sure your flight leaves from there, go there early and wait instead of staying in the cattle stalls in the main terminal.
One easy way to find out early where your gate will be is to ask at the BA desk in T5 that checks carryon luggage. Actually, this place is a hack all it's own – you can check in any carry-on luggage directly from the terminal, for free, here, and they will tell you (if you ask) what gate your flight I going to leave from, eliminating the need to wait until half an hour before boarding and then run for the gate with everyone else.
Make sure you always have change with you…because you’ll need it to use the toilets in various locations like train stations. You don't want to me caught without the needed change, usually a pound, when nature calls.
Be prepared for ever-changing weather. That sunny day can turn windy and wet very quickly. A small travel umbrella comes in very handy.
I've tried to give some unique London travel tips here. Please feel free to leave your best tips in the comments!