Things you should know before you visit LONDON
For all you first-time visitors to London, here are some tips and advice I've accumulated over my 5 years of living here to make your journey a bit more efficient and smooth-sailing!
It is very easy to navigate around Central London on foot, bus, and underground. London is very well equipped with tourist signboards within every couple of hundred metres, allowing you to get to places of interest and the nearest underground/ train stations with ease.
Buy your oyster card from any London Underground (aka. 'The Tube') station machine and top it up with some £££. This is a contactless payment card which you can use on the underground, London buses, DLR, and Overground trains. Expect to pay £2.40 per journey within Central London Zone 1. Fares increase for journeys across more zones. It’s also not necessarily cheaper to get a one week/ one month (tourist) travel-card because oyster fares are capped at £6.50 daily. You can buy all TfL cards at all Underground tube stations.
I use Uber to get around occasionally when the weather is horrible or when I’m just feeling lazy… it’s the cheapest way to get around by car in London. Black London cabs are too expensive! Use my promo code: 1vncg to get £10 your first uber ride in London.
Santander Bikes are another fun way to get around London. Pay £2 for 24-hr access. The first 30 minutes is free, while it's £2 extra for every 30 minutes. Dock your bike at various Santander bike stations across London within 30 minutes to avoid paying additional fees! Get the Santander app for a map showing you all the Santander bike docking stations around London.
Day trips around the UK
The most popular day/ weekend trips from London would be to Brighton, Bath and Stonehenge and Manchester. If you're looking for alternative suggestions, try Margate, another coastal town with retro vibes; Eastbourne, to understand why it's UK's most popular seaside retirement destination; Bournemouth, for its underrated hiking trails and to visit the UK's most expensive beach huts at Muderford Spit; or Coventry for a countryside break. If you have more than a weekend to spare, you could rent a car and drive up to Lake District to discover the valleys of Cumbria, or to Cornwall or Wales to explore the western shores of the UK. A recent trip to Wales for a friend's wedding in March this year proved to me how insanely beautiful the UK can be - it doesn't always have to be the typical UK landscape of rolling hills dotted with little cottages - Wales had echos of New Zealand in terms of its plentiful herds of sheep, lakes and mountains. I also dare say that the views can rival that of Southern Norway!
For domestic rail travel, I use the Trainline App to book rail tickets.
For car rentals, I usually rent from the usual Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, etc, using rentalcar.com. And I usually pick the car up from Heathrow Airport - it is usually always cheaper than collecting the car from a car rental office in the city.
Central London is generally safe. Just watch out for your belongings as snatch-thieves and pickpockets are not uncommon, especially in touristy areas. Try not to make phone calls by busy motor roads as it is very common for snatch-thieves to steal mobile phones via motorcycles and bicycles. Burglary is also very common, especially in ground floor accommodation - take all valuables with you or lock them up safely in your apartment/ hotel.
Pharmacies: Boots and Superdrug
Groceries: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose are the most common British supermarkets. Budget supermarkets include Morrisons, Lidl, Aldi.
British ‘fast food’: Pret-A-Manger, Leon, Itsu, EAT, etc.!
(For when you need to grab a quick bite. Don’t judge me but I actually really like the food from these franchises!)
Tele-connectivity: There is generally no 3G/ 4G data connection when you are in the underground tube.
Before travelling to the UK, you can pre-order a sim card from Giffgaff (www.giffgaff.com). Create an account and top it up with £££. You can now use giffgaff in the EU with no roaming charges.
In desperate need of free wi-fi:
Most public museums and some train stations.
Most independent cafes and established coffee franchises in London (e.g. Costa, Coffee Nero, Starbucks).
Pret-A-Manget also provides free wi-fi via 'The Cloud' network.
There is sometimes free wi-fi hotspots on the street, e.g. Oxford Street or Regents Street, however the connection is really intermittent and unreliable.
Generally, Thomas Exchange have the best exchange rates for foreign currency. You might get currency for cheaper if you pre-book online, before going to the shop. Not too sure how it works, visit: https://www.thomasexchangeglobal.co.uk/
Cash or card:
You can generally get around London with just a contactless bank card. The only exceptions would be small grocery shops and small family-run businesses and some market stalls (e.g. a t weekend markets).
You can find cash machines (ATM Machine as you would call it in Singapore) at most bank outlets, outside major supermarket chains, and outside most tube stations.
How much to budget: At least £50 spending money a day (not including accommodation).
£50 might sound like a lot of money, but let's remember cost of living in London is very high... let me break it down for you:
Allow approx. £7 for breakfast, £7 for a drink and lunch at one of the 'British fast food' places like Pret/ Itsu/ Leon, £20-£25 for a nice restaurant dinner, £6 for a return journey on the tube/ bus, £3 for a coffee. Even if you’re not planning to dine at a restaurant, note that we have not factored in any costs for admission fees for London attractions.
You must have heard that the British love to talk about the weather – and with good reason: the weather changes in the blink of an eye in this country! Always bring an umbrella (or brolly) with you, even if weather reports suggest it to be bright and sunny throughout the day. Temperature can also drop significantly when night falls, so you might want to pack an extra layer when you head out in the day.
Best time to visit?
There's PLENTY to do in London all year round so it's difficult to pinpoint say when is the best time to visit, but it really depends on what you want to get out of this city.
Summer (June-Aug) would be my favourite time of the year due to lots of summer events like rooftop parties, summer music festivals like Lovebox/ SW4/ Wireless Festival, poetry and music in the park events and outdoor cinemas. Weather is also generally better, where the sun sets after 9pm in June!
Autumn (Sep-Nov) brings all the warm autumn colours which makes it nice to visit as well. The days start getting warmer earlier, and the weather is wetter. It's also a great time to visit more parks for those romantic autumn walks. My favourite is Richmond Park as this time also coincides with the Deer Rutting season (i.e. red stags and bucks compete for females by clashing antlers to fight for female attention and fend off rivals). Soft autumn light and colours of the leaves provide good photography opportunities too.
In wintertime, you can expect lots of Christmas markets, the most famous one being Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. You’ll probably also spend more time indoors, but that’s OK when you’ve got so many world-class museums in this city. London is the coldest in January and February, and it gets pretty miserable when the sun sets at half past 3, so you might want to avoid travelling here during these 2 months.
Where to stay?
I don't have much advice on where to stay in London, just because I've always lived here as a resident instead of a tourist. Accommodation in Central London Zone 1 and 2 is pricey as hell, that's for sure. I always advise thrifty friends who want to visit London to pick an accommodation a bit further out of zone 1 and 2, but within walkable distance to the tube station. Even if you stay at the end of the underground line, you could still easily take a train straight into Central London under 30 minutes (without changing trains). Not based on any scientific analysis, staying along the Central line (red) and Piccadily line (dark blue) can take you to more tourist destinations on a direct tube train. That could be a consideration you could make whilst deciding where to stay.
3* hotel chains like Premier Inn or Travelodge are clean, no-frills, good value for money accommodation near transport links. There are a few YHA hostels around town for youth travellers on a "budget", but bear in mind it's a few times more expensive than YHA hostels in other European cities.
Last words of advice: Be mindful of your “Ps & Qs”
This might sound like common sense and quite unnecessary to bring up, but my dad being from Malaysia where “THERE R NO RULES IN MALAYSIA” got quite a culture shock at how being polite is almost necessary when interacting with people in the UK. Greet people with “hello”, “how are you?”; open doors for people, say thank you…
Finally, the greeting, “You’re alright?”.
This greeting, which does not literally translate into asking if something is wrong with you (unless there is), took me a few years to understand by heart. While it may sound pretty obvious for you guys in the West, for all my friends in the east, this is just another way of saying “how are you?”. You can respond with "good, thanks".