London 101: What You Need to Know Before You Go

Get the scoop on London before you head out!

Familiarize Yourself With the Tube
It’s almost impossible to get lost on the Tube, London’s underground subway system. In fact, be prepared to encounter an overload of directions; you’ll find maps all over the station, next to the track and inside the cars. An automated voice announces the train’s direction and the driver will announce the name of each station as you approach. The lines are also conveniently color-coded. You’ll find the Tube clean and safe during the day, but be on your guard against pickpockets and purse-snatchers at night.

For tourists on the go, day-passes are the most economical route.

Most ticket machines give change, but it’s always faster to have the proper coinage handy. If you only have big bills or you have questions, buy your ticket at the window.

London 101: What You Need to Know Before You Go

Overhead monitors give you a schedule as to when your train will be arriving and also note the train’s terminus so you can double check that the train you’re about to board is going in the right direction.

It’s approximately three minutes between stops, so it’s relatively easy to calculate travel times.

“Mind the gap” means watch your step!

Budget Extra for Taking Taxis
You’ll love the cab service. The big Black Cabs haven’t changed much since the 1930s. They’re roomy, warm in winter and cool in summer. London streets are notoriously twisty and complicated, and even native Londoners get lost every day, so often, the quickest route to difficult-to-find addresses is best left to the professional drivers.

British Cuisine
While England bears a stigma for tasteless, bland cuisine, London is the antithesis. Of course, you’ll find traditional meat pies, cod and chips, and mushy peas, but thankfully, London menus are also bursting with culinary innovation and world-class epicurean delights. Don’t miss the melt-in-your-mouth Scottish salmon. And indulge in a “pudding” for dessert, which really isn’t a pudding at all but more like a delicious heavy cake in a sweet, sticky sauce.

Restaurant service is slow and poor compared to U.S. standards. Don’t take it personally, it just comes with the territory.

Tipping: It is said that the only people who tip in London are Americans. If you’ve received particularly good service, feel free to leave 10 percent, but it is by no means obligatory as it is in the U.S.

Craving curry? Brick Lane is the place. You’ll find this White Chapel district street lined with Indian restaurants. Take your pick — they all have well-deserved reputations for quality.

Drinking in London
Many travelers are surprised to learn that pubs close at 10 or 11 pm, just the time most cosmopolitan Americans are ready to go out for a drink. However, restaurants and bars in hotels have special licenses that enable them to serve liquor late into the night. There are also private members-only drinking clubs, but they are usually inaccessible to tourists who don’t have a connected friend or acquaintance.

Pints are generally served at room at room-temperature, so you’ll have to learn to love warm beer.

Ordering ‘girlie’ cocktails is also a no-no in all pubs (they simply don’t make fancy mixed drinks), but not necessarily in trendy restaurants or hotel bars.

Shopping in London
All shops used to be closed on Sunday, but now the hipper neighborhoods bustle seven days a week.

All tax is already included on the price tag. If something costs £9, you’ll pay exactly £9.

Visitors can recoup 20 percent of their shopping purchases since they are not citizens and therefore not required to pay tax. But claiming your tax redemption requires a few extra steps at the airport, saved receipts and lots of paperwork. The refund isn’t immediate, but if you’ve shopped to excess, it can be worth the hassle.

You’ll find Visa, MasterCard and American Express widely accepted. Using credit cards in ATMs and for your purchases will get you the best exchange rate. But don’t count on credit cards exclusively — should they accidentally get demagnetized, you’ll be stuck.

London’s Neighborhoods
London is divided into districts. Each has its own style and sometimes its own dialect or accent. Camden Market is the theater district and the center of the city’s chic nightlife. Portobello Road is the antique shopping district. Kings Road has great trendy shopping, while Sloan Square is the posh shopping district. Stick to your guidebook or wander around and get lost in these tiny cities-within-a-city.

Culture Shock
Mind your P’s & Q’s and be on your best behavior. The British are scrupulous in their manners, loathe casual familiarity, and for the most part, are perfectly charming. When in doubt in terms of dress or etiquette, it’s always better to err on the conservative side.

London’s traffic can be downright crazy.Remember to look in every conceivable direction before crossing the street — and then check back again before you step off the curb. Traffic will come whizzing by to the right, unless of course, you’re on one of London’s many one-way streets…

Exchange $100 into British pounds while you’re in the U.S. The lines at the airport money exchange booths are always hideously long.

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