I was recently in London for 10 days. The week was mostly business but I had the weekend to enjoy the city. I thought I would share the things I learnt and some tips that might help you next time you visit.
I am a cautious traveller and expended a fair amount of effort trying to buy some cash Pounds before I left. I didn’t want to arrive at Heathrow and find my ATM card and credit cards were not working. I was particularly nervous because 1. My ATM card is a Capitec card so I wasn’t sure if it would work 2) My credit cards are not enabled for cash withdrawals locally so I would assume they are not enabled for cash withdrawals internationally either and 3) I am on prepaid (Cell C) so my phone would not be working that side. So there was a potential worst case scenario of being stuck at the airport not being able to use my cards and not having access to a phone.
In the end the mission of trying to organise some cash currency was so great (I hate banks even more now), that I decided to just risk it. I did call my credit card company (Discovery) to tell them I am travelling so they could enable my card for transactions overseas as it is usually disabled to prevent fraud. I needn’t have worried. My Capitec ATM card happily withdrew money from the ATM at the airport (R45 transaction fee) and my credit cards worked fine. I purchased an Oyster card for the Underground but I needed have worried as my Standard Bank credit card supports contactless payments and so I could just use that on tubes and buses and it costs the same as the Oyster card would.
Lesson: Our tech works fine in London. Don’t panic about cash but do let your bank know you will be using your cards overseas.
People tell you that in Europe there is free WiFi everywhere. Don’t believe them. The modern traveller is dependent on a cellphone, apart from calls and messaging, being able to access maps and navigation and to be able to Google things is a necessity. There are many free WiFi spots around but you have to register and if your sim is not working (like mine) you can’t receive the sms code you need. Basically it’s not worth the effort required to try and access free internet all the time and when you need it most it won’t be there. I recommend buying a local sim with a substantial data package. I paid £10 (about R200) for a prepaid O2 sim with 1.5 gigs of data and a huge amount of local call time and texts. The very interesting thing is that some prepaid sims can roam in some other European countries. For instance I could use my phone in France for a small daily ‘roaming fee’. Ask about this if you will be going to several countries.
Lesson: Don’t bank on free WiFi, buy a local sim card with data.
London is expensive, even for locals, but groceries are not bad. Even considering the exchange rate I could pick up some cheese, chorizo slices and baguette for less than I would pay in South Africa! We always thing of France as the place for baguettes and cheese but it’s also a good way to save money in London so you can stay in your trip budget. As for coffee, ignore the big chains which don’t have great coffee and look for the independent coffee shops which are quite prolific now. Get ready to pay R60 to R100 for a cup of coffee though! I mostly avoided those ‘lifestyle expenses’ and saved my money for eating at decent restaurants in the evening. There are a ton of great restaurants and getting to experience them is an important part of experiencing London. Don’t even ask about the price of drinks! Beers range from R60 to R120 and cocktails range from R160 to R400! Wine, about R400 to R800 at entry level.
Lesson: Save your money for one good meal a day and for the rest just buy a sandwich from a grocery store.
Most people in London are carrying a bag of some sort. When you leave home / hotel in the morning, you must take everything you will need for the day because going back to fetch something is expensive on time and money. I was recently sponsored by Samsonite and they gave me a laptop backpack which is expandable. Backpacks are easy to carry over long distances and leave your hands free to check your phone or fish out your Oyster card, etc. My Spectrolite laptop backpack was able to hold my DSLR camera bag in addition to my laptop, tablet and other paraphernalia.
London will require you to walk a lot. Getting from the airport to the place I was staying and back again at the end of my stay would have been a mission if I didn’t have sturdy luggage on wheels. I used my Samsonite cabin luggage because it could easily hold enough for my 10 day trip as it is also expandable. It obviously exceeded the 7kg weight limit which is why I had to check it, but it is still small enough to be very maneuverable and unobtrusive on crowded trains and buses.
Lesson: Get yourself a good set of luggage, it will mean the difference between a pleasant or painful trip. Check out the new Lite-Locked range of super-light and modern looking luggage from Samsonite.
I went on the Eurostar for the first time. I travelled from London to Brussels and it was much better than flying which I usually do. It’s a quicker check in and the train is a million times more comfortable than the plane. You can easily work on your laptop as there is plenty of space, or you can enjoy the views as you’re only underground for a short part of the journey. I highly recommend this option even if it’s slightly more expensive. Do remember that you can take several bags and there is no weight restriction.
Lesson: Consider other transport options between European countries. Flying is not always the best bet.
That’s it, my tips for your next visit to London. I can tell you that I really enjoyed my visit. It was my first time there in winter and I can see why they take Christmas so seriously, without all the lights and decorations it would be drab and depressing. Especially as it’s dark by about 4pm, even with daylight saving!
I ate at fabulous restaurants, I enjoyed an amazing art exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I walked in parks and I drank beers in pubs. But mostly, I walked the streets and soaked up the energy of one of the great cities of the world.