Conquering London: Travel Planning Guide

There are great cities and there are world class cities.  London is a world class city.  Very few places can combine a great history and yet sit at the cutting edge of technology, education, and commerce.  The city is an economic powerhouse and remains one of the most desirable places to live and to visit.    

Get To Know London

London is the capital of England, the United Kingdom and once most of the known world.  Its history is incredibly rich.  However, unlike other world class cities that rely heavily on the past, London is a dynamic modern city.  Standing a few feet from a building with roots to Roman times, you will find a sleek modern skyscraper.  London is a center of finance, culture, politics, media, education, and more.

London has an absolutely fascinating history.  It has been ruled by the Romans and the Normans.  It also took a tun at conquering much of the known world.  Because of its vast empire, it amassed a massive collection of treasures from all over the world that now sit in various museums around the city.    

With all of this history it comes as no surprise that London is one of the most heavily visited places in the world.  It topped the world tourism rankings in 2015 with over 65 million visitors.  There is no doubt that London sits as one of the most engaging and amazing cities in the world. 

When To Go

The best combination of acceptable weather and lower crowds is early spring.  Late spring into Mid September is better weather and longer days, but large crowds and more expensive room rates.  The winter is the slowest tourist season, but also the coldest time and shorter days.  No matter what time of year, be sure to pack your umbrella and expect rain during your visit. 

How Long To Stay

No matter how long you stay, you won’t see it all.  London has an embarrassment of cultural riches.  If you only have 2-3 days you will be extremely limited to the biggest sites in central London.  It is advisable to stay at least 5 days to a full week to get a good feel for the city with a possible day trip outside the city. 

Language Barrier

Naturally the official language of England is English.  However, the vocabulary used between the England and America is different and takes a little getting used to.  Visiting London you are on holiday not vacation.  You will take the tube, not a subway and you will stay in a flat not an apartment.  You are more likely to be identified as an American after speaking in London than in a country that does not speak English because of the differences in vocabulary and grammar. 

Getting To London

London is one of the most connected cities in the world.  Six International Airports combine to make London the busiest airport system in the world.  You may also arrive by train or vehicle from overseas thanks to the underground Chunnel connecting the island to mainland Europe.    

By Plane

  • London Heathrow (LHR) 20 miles west of the city center, Heathrow is a mammoth airport.  Most International visitors will arrive via Heathrow.  From the airport the fastest way to the city is the Heathrow Express, which takes approximately 15 minutes to Paddington Station in Central London.  Heathrow Connect also arrives at Paddington Station and is half the cost of the Heathrow Express and takes about 25 minutes.  You may also take the Tube into London and travel time is a little under an hour.    
  • Gatwick (LGW) Gatwick is approximately 30 miles south of London.  It has become a popular choice for budget airlines Norwegian, Ryanair, and easyJet, but you will also see major carriers such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic use this airport.  The Gatwick Express is the fastest way into the city taking 30 minutes to arrive at Victoria Station.  Thames link and Southern also operate trains to and from Gatwick.  A bus will be the cheapest transport, but also the slowest at over an hour transit time.
  • London City (LCY) The closest airport at just over 6 miles from Central London.  The small airport with only one runway primarily services domestic business travelers.  The airport is connected to the Tube and Docklands Light Railways (DLR.) You may also take the bus or a taxi into the city.    
  • Luton (LTN) located 35 miles north west of London, Luton is serviced by many budget airlines including easyJet Ryanair, and Wizz Air.  You must take a shuttle bus from the airport to the train station and then take the Thameslink train to London.  Total travel time is about 40 minutes.  You may also take a bus to the city in a little over an hour.    
  • London Stansted (STN) 40 miles north east of London is Stansted.  The Stagnated Express is the quickest way into the city at approximately 45 minutes travel time.  You may also take a bus which takes a little over an hour.
  • London Southend (SEN)  40 miles from London sits Southend.  EasyJet is the primary carrier here.  Train is the primary form of transport at a little less than one hour into London.

By Train    

Train is a popular form of transportation in the United Kingdom and all over Europe.  Trains arrive from all over the United Kingdom.  High speed trains also connect London and Europe through St. Pancras International.  Arrive from Paris or Brussels in just over two hours.  If you are going to or coming from France, Belgium, or The Netherlands, it is probably faster and easier to take the train over flying.  

 

Getting Around London

With nearly 9 million residents and millions of tourists, trying to move people around the city can be a challenge.  Thankfully London has many ways to get around.  Cars are highly discouraged in central London and are charged a congestion tax.  This allows public transportation to move more efficiently. 

No matter what method of transport you use, be sure to get an Oyster card.  The smart card allows you to simply tap in and out of buses, trains, boats, or the tube and is much cheaper than purchasing single tickets.  You may get a regular Oyster card like a local or a visitor Oyster card.   A visitor Oyster card can be ordered online and delivered to your home before your trip, but has a non refundable 5 pound fee.  It also includes discounts at some shops and restaurants.  A regular Oyster card includes a 5 pound fee that is refundable.  Either card may be topped up whenever needed.

Tube – The famous London tube or subway system is the fastest way to get around.  It is very efficient and extensive, but also more expensive than other ways around town.  As they famously say be sure to mind the gap when entering and exiting.

Bus – You haven’t visited London until you have sat on the top level of a double decker bus.  It is slower to get around than the tube much roughly half the cost and you get to see the sites of this amazing city.    

Train – Rail is another form of transportation around the city.  This can get you to some harder to reach outline areas of the city where the tube doesn’t go to and will take to long by bus.  The Docklands Light Railway can get you out to areas like Canary Wharf and Greenwich. 

Boat – There are two ways you can ride the Thames River.  You can take a leisurely river cruise with narration of the sites at an expensive price.  You may also use it as local transportation to get to sites along the river at an economical price with the locals.  River services are a great way to see London while on your way to and from places like Greenwich.     

What To See

The list of places to see in London is extensive.  You simply won’t have time to see it all.  Assuming you have a week or less, try and hit up as many of the things below as you can. 

  • Buckingham Palace – The home of the royal family is right in the middle of it all.  The changing of the guard is popular and if you want anything close to a view requires hours of waiting.  Unless you have time to burn, come at another time. During parts of the year you can tour the inside.    
  • Westminster Abbey – The famous church in London has a stunning exterior that matches the nearby Palace of Westminster and many ties to royalty including the weddings of many royal family members.   
  • Palace of Westminster and Big Ben – Perhaps the most famous house of parliament in the world.  Officially the Queen Elizabeth Tower, Big Ben is the famous bell inside for which the average person knows the name of this iconic tower.    
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral – The Christopher Wren designed church is a stunning architectural feat and one that came to symbolized British resiliency during World War II.   
  • The Tower of London – It has been everything from a royal palace to place of execution.  Currently it is home to the Crown Jewels.  Be sure to take a tour with the famous beefeaters.    
  • Museums – London has some of the best museums in the world.  The British Museum, National Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and Tate Modern are only a fraction of great museums this city has to offer.  
  • Greenwich – The home of British Naval history  resides in Greenwich.  In addition you can straddle the Prime Meridian at the royal observatory, tour the fastest ship of her day in the Cutty Sark, or relax and have a picnic in the park.    
  •  Churchill War Rooms – Tour the underground where Winston Churchill ran the war.  See both the military and personal effects that give a human touch to the war.

What To Do

  • See a West End Show – Soho is known for theater.  Whether you take in a big or small production, there is nothing like seeing a London show.  
  • Hang out in the parks – London has some of the great urban parks in the world.  Hyde Park, St James Park, and Regents Park are among them.  
  • Stroll the River Thames – Either side of the river has a pedestrian promenade to stroll and take in the great views of the city.  With so many historic sites close by it’s a great way to go from place to place.  
  • Eat and Shop at London’s Markets – London has wonderful markets.  Eat and shop in Borough Market, Brick Lane, Portobello, Camden, Greenwich Market and more.  It’s a great place to hang out with locals.   

Money

The United Kingdom uses the Pound.  ATM’s are all over and provide the best place to exchange money.  Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere.  European credit cards use a chip and pin system as opposed to the United States which is chip and signature.  American’s should rarely have an issue, but some machines may only accept chip and pin, so you may have to to use a ticket window and buy directly from an agent. 

Budget Tips

London is an expensive city.  Accommodations, transportation, and food will be higher compared to most other cities you will ever visit.   That being said London has a lot of experiences that are free or discounted that can provide visitors with a lot value once you have Pais the steep price of staying here.   

Accommodations

  • Stay outside the high season.  Avoid the summer and holidays as prices skyrocket.
  • Eat the hotel breakfast.  Most London hotels will include breakfast at no additional charge.  Take them up on it and avoid paying extra for one of your meals.
  • Stay outside the trendy spots.  Avoid the area known as the City, Soho, and around Trafalgar Square.
  • Stay in a hostel or budget hotel.  There are lots of options.   
  • Use Airbnb.  There are a lot of options in and around the city on a variety of budgets.
  • Use hotel reward points.  If you have hotel points you won’t get much better value than using them in an expensive city like London. 

Attractions And Food

  • The London Pass maybe a great value if you want t see a lot in a short time.  Yes it is expensive, but price it out.  It could be worth it. 
  • Visit free museums.  Some of the best museums in the world are in London and many of them are free.  The British Museum, National Gallery, National Maritime Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern and Natural History Museum.  All free.
  • Take a free walking tour.  There are plenty to choose from and are very informative.
  • Buy West End Tickets in Leicester Square.  They advertise half price tickets.  That maybe stretching it, but they are cheaper than buying from the box office. 
  • Eat and shop at the markets. Borough Market has wonderful food at an affordable price.  Discount shopping can be found at Camden Market, Portobello Road Market, and Brick Lane Market.
  • Eat at a pub or hostel.  Pub food is cheap and even if you aren’t staying at a hostel the food can be a good value.
  • Buy food at a supermarket.
  • Eat at happy hour.  Pubs and even near west end productions will offer happy hour pricing.

Transportation

  • Get an Oyster card.  It saves time and money over buying individual tickets. 
  • Hop on Hop off bus tours can be a great value if you plan on seeing a lot in a day.  They hit all the most popular tourist spots.
  • Don’t take a taxi.  They are very expensive.  Use the tube, bus, or rail system.
  • Walk around central London.  The center of the city is very compact with lots of places close together.  It’s free and you may stumble upon something not on a tourist map.

 

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things to know

  • The United Kingdom has a different plug than most of the world.  Buy an adaptor before arriving.
  • Try different kinds of food.  London has a lot of cultural diversity and lots of different kinds of food.  London has some of the best Indian food you will find. 
  • Tipping is not mandatory.
  • They drive on the left.  Even if you aren’t driving be careful when crossing the street. 
  • Stand on the right on an escalator.  The left is a passing lane.  Standing on the left will result in an angry local.

Things to avoid

  • Don’t do too much.  London is expensive and there is so much to do.  Know you won’t see it all and give yourself a reason to come back.  Don’t rush your trip.
  • Don’t buy from Harrods or Oxford Street unless you like blowing money.  They are overpriced.  Window shopping is more than enough. 
  • Driving.  It’s crowded and confusing as they drive on the other side of the road.   

Time Saving Tips

  • Buy tickets to attractions online in advance.  You don’t want to be stuck in line (or as Londoners would say queuing) for hours in this amazing city.
  • Make a rough itinerary.  A little planning will allow you to be more efficient with your time.
  • Book accommodations in advance.


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