From medieval cathedrals to postmodern towers, from prehistoric stones to one-pub villages, England is a spectacular tribute to the strength—and flexibility—of tradition. In the capital city of London and beyond, you can explore grand manors and royal castles steeped in history, and also discover cutting-edge art, innovative cultural scenes, and trendy shops. Quintessentially English treasures like the Georgian town of Bath, academic Oxford, and eccentric Brighton remain vibrant, and silvery lakes and green hills provide enduring grace notes.
The least expensive airfares to England are often priced for round-trip travel and must usually be purchased in advance. Airlines generally allow you to change your return date for a fee; most low-fare tickets, however, are nonrefundable.
Flying time to London is about 6½ hours from New York, 7½ hours from Chicago, 9 hours from Dallas, 10½ hours from Los Angeles, and 21 hours from Sydney. From London, flights take an hour to Paris or Amsterdam, 1½ hours to cities in Switzerland or Luxembourg, and 2 hours to Rome.
If you’re flying from England, plan to arrive at the airport 90 minutes in advance for flights to Europe, 2 hours for the United States. Security at Gatwick and Heathrow airports is always fairly intense. Most people can expect to be patted down after they pass through metal detectors. Travelers are randomly searched again at the gate before transatlantic flights.
Most international flights to London arrive at either Heathrow Airport (LHR), 15 miles west of London, or at Gatwick Airport (LGW), 27 miles south of the capital. Most flights from the United States go to Heathrow, with Terminals 3, 4, and 5 handling transatlantic flights (British Airways uses Terminal 5). Gatwick is London’s second gateway, serving many U.S. destinations. A third, much smaller airport, Stansted (STN), is 40 miles northeast of the city. It handles mainly European and domestic traffic.
London City Airport (LCY), a small airport inside the city near Canary Wharf, has twice-daily business-class flights to New York on British Airways, as well as flights to European destinations. Luton Airport (LLA), 32 miles north of the city, is also quite small, and serves British and European destinations. Luton is the hub for low-cost easyJet. Manchester (MAN) in northwest England handles some flights from the United States, as does Birmingham (BHX).
Heathrow and Gatwick are enormous and can seem like shopping malls (Heathrow even offers a personal shopping service). Both airports have bars and pubs and dining options. Several hotels are connected to each airport, and both Gatwick and Heathrow are near dozens of hotels that run free shuttles to the airports. Heathrow has a Hotel Hoppa service that runs shuttles between the airport and around 25 nearby hotels for £4 each way. A free, subsidized local bus service operates between the Central Bus Station serving Terminals 1, 2, and 3 and nearby hotels. You can find out more at the Central Bus Station or at the Transport for London (TfL) Information Centre in the Underground station serving Terminals 1, 2, and 3. Yotel has budget pod hotels in both Heathrow and Gatwick with cabin-size rooms to be booked in advance in four-hour blocks or overnight. Prices begin at about £50, depending on how long you stay and the time of day.
In comparison, other British airports have much more limited shopping, hotel, and dining options; a delay of a few hours can seem like years.
London has excellent bus and train connections between its airports and downtown. Train service can be the fastest, but the downside is that you must get yourself and your luggage to the terminal, often via a series of escalators and connecting trams. Airport buses (generally run by National Express) may be located nearer to the terminals and drop you closer to central hotels, but they’re subject to London traffic, which can be horrendous. Taxis can be more convenient than buses, but prices can go through the roof. Minicabs are more economical but go with recommended companies.
The Transport for London website has helpful information, as does Airport Travel Line. The official sites for Gatwick, Heathrow, and Stansted are useful resources for transportation options.
Heathrow by Bus: National Express buses take around one hour (longer at peak time) to reach the city center (Victoria Coach Station) and cost £6 one-way and £11.20 round-trip. Buses leave every 5 to 75 minutes from 4:20 am to 10 pm. The National Express Hotel Hoppa service runs from all terminals to around 25 hotels near the airport (£4). Alternatively, nearly every hotel in London is served by the Hotel By Bus service. Fares to Central London begin at £22.50. SkyShuttle also offers a minibus service between Heathrow and any London hotel. The N9 night bus runs every 20 minutes from 11:35 pm to 5 am to Kensington, Hyde Park Corner, Trafalgar Square, and Aldwych; it takes about 75 minutes and costs £2.20.
Heathrow by Train: The cheap, direct route into London is via the Piccadilly line of the Underground (London’s extensive subway system, or “Tube”). Trains normally run every three to seven minutes from all terminals from around 5 am until just before midnight. The 50-minute trip into central London costs £5.70 (cash), £5 (Oystercard peak times) or £3 (Oystercard off-peak). The Heathrow Express train is comfortable and very convenient, if costly, speeding into London’s Paddington Station in 15 minutes. Standard one-way tickets cost £26 (£21 in advance), or £29 for first class. Book online for the lowest fares. If you arrive without tickets you should purchase them at a kiosk before you board, as they’re more expensive on the train. There’s daily service from 5:10 am (5:03 am on Sunday) to 11:25 pm (11:53 pm on Sunday), with departures every 15 minutes. A less expensive option is the Heathrow Connect train, which stops at local stations between the airport and Paddington. Daily service is every half hour from 5:23 am (6:07 am on Sunday) to 12:01 am. The journey takes about 30 minutes and costs £9.90 one-way.
Gatwick by Bus: Hourly bus service runs from Gatwick’s north and south terminals to Victoria Coach Station with 14 stops along the way. The journey takes 70–120 minutes and costs from £8 one-way. Make sure you get on a direct bus not requiring a change; otherwise, the journey could take much longer. The easyBus service runs a service to Earls Court in west London from as little as £2; the later the ticket is booked online, the higher the price (up to £10 onboard).
Gatwick by Train: The fast, nonstop Gatwick Express leaves for Victoria Station every 15 minutes 4:35 am–1:35 am. The 30-minute trip costs £18.70 one-way online. Tickets cost more on board. The First Capital Connect rail company’s non-express services are cheaper. Trains run regularly throughout the day until midnight to St. Pancras International, London Bridge, and Blackfriars stations; daytime departures are every 10–25 minutes (hourly between 1:30 am and 5 am), and the journey to St. Pancras takes 30 to 60 minutes. Tickets are from £10 one-way. You can also reach Gatwick by First Capital Connect coming from Brighton in the opposite direction. First Capital Connect service is on commuter trains, and during rush hour trains can be crowded, with little room for baggage and seats at a premium.
Stansted by Bus: National Express Airport bus A6 (24 hours a day) to Victoria Coach Station costs from £10 one-way, leaves every 15 minutes, and takes 90–120 minutes. Stops include Golders Green, Finchley Road, St. John’s Wood, Baker Street, Marble Arch, and Hyde Park Corner. The easyBus service to Victoria via Baker Street costs from £2. The Terravision bus goes to Liverpool Street station every half-hour and costs £8. Travel is extended to Victoria Coach Station between 8 pm and 6 am, and the fare is £9. Travel time is 60 minutes (Liverpool St.) or 75 minutes (Victoria).
Stansted by Train: The Stansted Express to Liverpool Street Station (with a stop at Tottenham Hale) runs every 15 minutes 5:30 am–12:30 am daily (until 1:30 am Friday and Saturday). The 45-minute trip costs £18 each way if booked online. Tickets cost more on board.
Luton by Bus and Train: A free airport shuttle runs from Luton Airport to the nearby Luton Airport Parkway Station, where you can take a train or bus into London. From there, the First Capital Connect train service runs to St. Pancras, Farringdon, Blackfriars, and London Bridge. The journey takes about 40 minutes. Trains leave every 10 minutes or so from 5 am until midnight, hourly at other times. One-way tickets begin at £15.50. The Terravision Shuttle bus runs from Luton to Victoria Coach Station, with departures every 20 to 30 minutes during peak hours. The journey takes around an hour, and the one-way fare is £10. The Green Line 757 bus service from Luton to Victoria Station runs every 15 minutes between 7 am and midnight, takes 85 to 100 minutes, and costs from £10, while an easyBus shuttle has tickets starting from £2. National Express runs coaches from Victoria Coach Station to Luton from £5 one-way.
Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton by Taxi: This is an expensive and time-consuming option. If your destination is within the city’s congestion zone, £10 will be added to the bill during charging hours. If you get stuck in traffic, a taxi from the stand will be even more expensive; a cab booked ahead is a set price. A taxi trip from Heathrow to Victoria, for example, can take more than an hour and cost more than £58. Private hire cars may be the same price or even less—at this writing, the fee to Victoria Station is about £50 from Heathrow and £100 from Gatwick and Stansted, not including the congestion charge. Another option, if you have friends in the London area, is to have them book a reputable minicab firm to pick you up. The cost of a minicab from Heathrow to central London is approximately £47. Your hotel may also be able to recommend a car service.
Transfers Between Airports
Allow at least two to three hours for transferring between airports. The National Express Airport bus is the most direct option between Gatwick and Heathrow. Buses depart from Gatwick every 5–35 minutes between 5:35 am and 11:35 am (every hour from 1:50 am to 5:35 am) and from Heathrow every 5–35 minutes from 2:35 am to 12:35 am. The trip takes 80 to 100 minutes, and the fare is £25 each way. Book tickets in advance. National Express buses between Stansted and Gatwick depart every 40 to 80 minutes and take between 3 and 4½ hours. The one-way fare is from £18 to £31.80. The National Express bus between Stansted and Heathrow takes about an hour, runs every 60–100 minutes, and costs from £24.60. Some airlines may offer shuttle services as well—check with your airline before your journey.
The cheapest option—but most complicated—is public transportation: from Gatwick to Stansted, for instance, catch the Gatwick Express train from Gatwick to Victoria Station, take the Tube to Liverpool Street Station, then hop on the train to Stansted. Alternatively, take the Thameslink train to Farringdon and transfer to the Tube bound for Liverpool Street. From Heathrow to Gatwick, take the Tube to King’s Cross/St. Pancras, then take the Thameslink train to Gatwick, or else transfer from the Piccadilly Line to the District/Circle Line at Hammersmith, head to Victoria Station, and take the Gatwick Express.
All this should get much easier when the new Crossrail service debuts in 2018. It will travel directly from Heathrow to Liverpool Street Station for Stansted connections and directly to Farringdon for the Thameslink to Gatwick.
British Airways offers mostly nonstop flights from 20 U.S. cities to Heathrow, along with flights to Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Glasgow and a vast program of discount airfare–hotel packages. Britain-based Virgin Atlantic is a strong competitor in terms of packages. London is a very popular destination, so many U.S. carriers have flights and packages, too.
Because England is such a small country, internal air travel is much less important than it is in the United States. For trips of less than 200 miles, trains are often quicker because rail stations are more centrally located. Flying tends to cost more, but for longer trips air travel has a considerable time advantage (you need to factor in time to get to and from the airport, though).
British Airways operates shuttle services between Heathrow or Gatwick and Manchester, while Virgin’s Little Red takes you from London to Manchester, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen.
Ferries and other boats travel regular routes to France, Spain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. P&O runs ferries to Belgium, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands. DFDS Seaways serves France, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Stena Line serves Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Netherlands.
Low-cost airlines and Eurotunnel (which lets you take a car to France on the train) have cut into ferry travel, but companies have responded by cutting fares and upgrading equipment.
Prices vary; booking early ensures cheaper fares, but also ask about special deals. Seaview is a comprehensive online ferry- and cruise-booking portal for Britain and continental Europe. Ferry Cheap is a discount website.
Transatlantic and Other Cruises
Most cruise ships leave from southern England—particularly Southampton and Portsmouth. Some ships leave from Liverpool and Dover as well, or from Harwich, near Cambridge.
Britain has a comprehensive bus (short-haul, multi-stop public transportation) and coach (more direct, plusher long-distance buses) network that offers an inexpensive way of seeing England. National Express is the major coach operator, and Victoria Coach Station, near Victoria Station in central London, is its hub in the region. The company serves more than 1,000 destinations within Britain (and, via Eurolines, 500 more in continental Europe). There are 2,000 ticket agents nationwide, including offices at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airport coach stations.
Green Line is the second-largest national service, serving airports and major tourist towns. A budget option for long-distance travel, Megabus has double-decker buses that serve cities across Britain, with seats that turn into bunk beds on routes to Scotland. Greyhound has a low-cost, long-distance bus service to five destinations in Wales. In London, the latter two companies depart from Victoria Coach Station as well as other stops, while Green Line buses also stop at Baker Street and Hyde Park Corner.
Bus tickets can be much less than the price of a train ticket (even lower if you take advantage of special deals). For example, an Oxford Tube bus ticket from London to Oxford is £14, whereas a train ticket may be £22. Buses are also just as comfortable as trains. However, buses often take twice as long to reach their destinations. Greyhound and Oxford Tube have onboard Wi-Fi. All bus services forbid smoking.
Double-decker buses, run by private companies, offer local bus service in cities and regions. Check with the local bus station or tourist information center for routes and schedules. Most companies offer daylong or weeklong unlimited-travel tickets, and those in popular tourist areas operate special scenic tours in summer. The top deck of a double-decker bus is a great place from which to view the countryside.
Discounts and Deals
National Express’s Young Persons’ CoachCard for students age 16 to 26 costs £10 annually and gets 20% to 30% discounts off many fares. Most companies also offer a discount for children under 15. A Senior CoachCard for the over-60s cuts many fares by a third. Apex tickets (advance-purchase tickets) save money on standard fares, and traveling midweek is cheaper than over weekends and holidays.
Fares and Schedules
You can find schedules online, pick them up from tourist information offices, or get them by phone from the bus companies. Fares vary based on how close to the time of travel you book—Megabus tickets, for example, are cheaper if ordered in advance online.
Tickets for National Express can be bought from the Victoria, Heathrow, or Gatwick coach stations, by phone, online, or from most British travel agencies. Reservations are advised. Tickets for Megabus must be purchased online or by phone (avoid calling, as there’s a surcharge).
Most companies accept credit cards for advance purchases, but some companies require cash for onboard transactions.
Book in advance, as buses on busy routes fill up quickly. With most bus companies (National Express, Megabus, Green Line), advance payment means you receive an email receipt and your name is placed on a list given to the bus driver.
Britain can be a challenging place for most foreigners to drive, considering that people drive on the left side of the often disconcertingly narrow roads, many rental cars have standard transmissions, and the gearshift is on the wrong side entirely.
There’s no reason to rent a car for a stay in London because the city and its suburbs are well served by public transportation and traffic is desperately congested. Here and in other major cities, it’s best to rely on public transportation.
Outside the cities, a car can be very handy. Many sights aren’t easily reached without one—castles, for example, are rarely connected to any public transportation system. Small villages might have only one or two buses a day pass through them. If you’re comfortable on the road, the experience of driving between the tall hedgerows or on country roads is a truly English experience.
In England and Wales, your own driver’s license is acceptable. However, you may choose to get an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver’s license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the Automobile Association of America website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves. These permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you a problem with the local authorities.
Gasoline is called petrol in England and is sold by the liter. The price you see posted at a petrol station is the price of a liter, and there are about 4 liters in a U.S. gallon. Petrol is expensive; it was around £1.35 per liter, or $2.10 per liter, at the time of this writing. Supermarket pumps just outside city centers frequently offer the best prices. Premium and superpremium are the two varieties, and most cars run on premium. Diesel is widely used; be sure not to use it by mistake. Along busy motorways, most large stations are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In rural areas, hours can vary. Most service stations accept major credit cards, and most are self-service.
Parking regulations are strictly enforced, and fines are high. If there are no signs on a street, you can park there. Many streets have centralized “pay and display” machines, in which you deposit the required money and get a ticket allowing you to park for a set period of time. In London’s City of Westminster (www.westminster.gov.uk) and some other boroughs, parking machines have been replaced by a pay-by-phone plan, enabling you to pay by cell phone if you’ve preregistered. In town centers, your best bet is to park in a public lot marked with a square blue sign with a white “P” in the center.
If you park on the street, follow these basic rules: Do not park within 15 yards of an intersection. Never park in bus lanes or on double yellow lines, and do not park on single yellow lines when parking meters are in effect. On busy roads with red lines painted on the street, you cannot park or stop to let a passenger out of the car.
Rental rates are generally reasonable, and insurance costs are lower than in the United States. If you want the car only for country trips, consider renting outside London. Rates are cheaper, and you avoid traversing London’s notoriously complex road system. Rental rates vary widely, beginning at £30 a day and £117 a week for a midsize car, usually with manual transmission. As in the United States, prices rise in summer and during holidays. Car seats for children cost £5–£20, and GPS is usually around £10. You can also arrange for cell phone hire or a portable Wi-Fi hot spot with your rental.
Major car-rental agencies are much the same in Britain as in the United States: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, Thrifty, and National all have offices in Britain. Europcar is another large company. Companies may not rent cars to people who are under 23. Some have an upper age limit of 75.
There’s a good network of major highways (motorways) and divided highways (dual carriageways) throughout most of England and Wales. Motorways (with the prefix “M”), shown in blue on most maps, are mainly two or three lanes in each direction. Other major roads (with the prefix “A”) are shown on maps in green and red. Sections of fast dual carriageways (with black-edged, thick outlines on maps) have both traffic lights and traffic circles. Turnoffs are often marked by highway numbers, rather than place names. An exit is called a junction in Britain.
The vast network of lesser roads, for the most part, old coach and turnpike roads, might make your trip twice as long but show you twice as much. Minor roads are drawn in yellow or white on maps, the former prefixed by “B,” the latter unlettered and unnumbered. Should you take one of these, be prepared to back up into a passing place if you meet an oncoming car.
On major highways, emergency roadside telephone booths are positioned at regular intervals. Contact your car-rental company or call the police. You can also call the British Automobile Association (AA) toll-free. You can join and receive assistance from the AA or the RAC on the spot, but the charge is higher than a simple membership fee. If you’re a member of the American Automobile Association, check before you travel; reciprocal agreements may give you free roadside aid.
Rules of the Road
Driving on the left side of the road might be easier than you expected, as the steering and mirrors on British cars are designed for driving on the left. If you have a standard transmission car, you have to shift gears with your left hand. Give yourself time to adjust before leaving the rental-car lot. Seat belts are obligatory in the front and back seats. It’s illegal to talk on a handheld cell phone while driving.
Pick up a copy of the official Highway Code (£2.50) at a service station, newsstand, or bookstore, or check it out online by going to www.gov.uk and putting “Highway Code” in the search bar. Besides driving rules and illustrations of signs and road markings, this booklet contains information for motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians.
Speed limits are complicated, and there are speed cameras everywhere. The speed limit (shown on circular red signs) is generally 20 or 30 mph in towns and cities, 40 to 60 mph on two-lane highways, and 70 mph on motorways. At traffic circles (called roundabouts), you turn clockwise. As cars enter the circle, they must yield to those already in the circle or entering from the right. If you’re taking an exit all the way around the circle, signal right as you enter, stay to the center, and then signal and move left just before your own exit.
Pedestrians have the right-of-way on “zebra” crossings (black-and-white-stripe crosswalks between two orange-flashing globe lights). At other crossings, pedestrians must yield to traffic, but they do have the right-of-way over traffic turning left.
Drunk-driving laws are strictly enforced. The legal limit is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, which means two units of alcohol—approximately one glass of wine, 1–1.5 pints of beer, or two shots of whisky. However, these figures will vary according to the alcohol’s strength, your size and weight (so women tend to reach the limit on less), and how much you’ve eaten that day.
Operated by several different private companies, the train system in Britain is extensive and useful, though less than perfect. Some regional trains are old, and virtually all lines suffer from occasional delays, schedule changes, and periodic repair work that runs over schedule. All major cities and many small towns are served by trains, and despite the difficulties, rail travel is the most pleasant way to cover long distances.
On long-distance runs some rail lines have buffet cars; on others you can purchase snacks from a mobile snack cart. Most train companies now have “quiet cars” where mobile-phone use is forbidden (in theory if not always in practice).
Most rail lines have first-class and second-class cars. In virtually all cases, second-class is perfectly comfortable. First-class is quieter and less crowded, has better furnishings, and marginally larger seats. It also usually costs two to three times the price of second class, but not always, so it’s worth comparing prices. Most train operators offer a Weekend First ticket. Available on weekends and holidays, these tickets allow you to upgrade for as little as £5.
Fares and Schedules
National Rail Enquiries is a helpful, comprehensive, and free service that covers all the country’s rail lines. National Rail will help you choose the best train, and then connect you with the right ticket office. You can also book tickets online. A similar service is offered by the Trainline, which provides online train information and ticket booking for all rail services. The Man in Seat 61, a website, offers objective information along with booking facilities.
Ticket prices are more expensive during rush hour, so plan accordingly. For long-distance travel, tickets cost more the longer you wait. Book in advance and tickets can be half of what you’d pay on the day of departure. A journey from London to Cardiff costs £18 if you buy a ticket two weeks in advance, but the fare rises to £42 if you wait until the day of your trip.
If you need to report an emergency, dial 999 for police, fire, or ambulance. Be prepared to give the telephone number you’re calling from. 101 is the number for non-urgent police calls, such as reporting a stolen car. You can get 24-hour treatment in Accident and Emergency at British hospitals, although you may have to wait hours for treatment. Prescriptions are valid only if made out by doctors registered in the United Kingdom.
Although England has a subsidized National Health Service, free at the point of service for British residents, foreign visitors are expected to pay for any treatment they receive. Expect to receive a bill after you return home. Check with your health insurance company to make sure you’re covered. Some British hospitals now require a credit card or other payment before they’ll offer treatment.
If you’re traveling with a laptop or tablet, carry a spare power cord and adapter. If your hotel has dial-up (a rarity these days), get a telephone cord that’s compatible with a British phone jack; these are available in Britain at airports and electronics stores. Wi-Fi is increasingly available in hotels, and broadband coverage is widespread in cities. You can also buy a dongle or MiFi device from a cell-phone network’s retail outlet to create a personal Wi-Fi hot spot. Many London Underground stations now have Wi-Fi (for a fee). Outside big cities, wireless access is relatively rare in cafés and coffee shops, but its popularity there is growing.
All calls (including local calls) made within the United Kingdom are charged according to the time of day. The standard landline rate applies weekdays 7 am to 7 pm; a cheaper rate is in effect weekdays from 7 pm to 7 am and all day on weekends when it’s even cheaper.
A word of warning: 0870 numbers are not toll-free numbers in Britain; in fact, numbers beginning with this or the 0871, 0844, or 0845 prefixes cost extra to call. The amount varies and is usually relatively small—except for numbers with the premium-rate 090 prefix, which cost an eye-watering £1 per minute when dialed from within the country—but can be excessive when dialed from outside Britain.
The country code for Great Britain (and thus England) is 44. When dialing an English number from abroad, drop the initial 0 from before the local area code. For example, let’s say you’re calling Buckingham Palace—0207/7930–4832—from the United States. First, dial 011 (the international access code), then 44 (Great Britain’s country code), then 207 (London’s center-city code—without its initial 0), then the remainder of the number.
Calling Within England
For all calls within England (and Britain), dial the area code (which usually begins with 01, except in London), followed by the telephone number.
There are two types of payphones: those that make calls to landlines or mobiles and those that also let you send texts or email. Most coin-operated phones take 10p, 20p, 50p, and £1 coins. There are very few of either type left except at air and rail terminals. SIM cards for your own cell phone and inexpensive pay-as-you-go cell phones are widely available from mobile network retailers such as 3, O2, T-Mobile, Vodaphone, and Virgin, as well as the Carphone Warehouse chain.
For pay and other phones, if you hear a repeated single tone after dialing, the line is busy; a continuous tone means the number didn’t work.
There are several different directory-assistance providers, all beginning with the prefix 118, such as 118–888 or 118–429; you’ll need to know the town and the street (or at least the neighborhood) of the person you’re trying to reach. Charges range from 75 cents (118–811) to $3.70 per minute from a landline. Cell phone networks may charge even more. For the operator, dial 100. For genuine emergencies, dial 999. For non-urgent police matters, dial 101.
Calling Outside England
For direct overseas dialing from England (and Britain), dial 00, then the country code, area code, and number. For the international operator, credit card, or collect calls, dial 155; for international directory assistance, dial 118505. The country code for the United States is 1.
You can buy international cards similar to U.S. calling cards for making calls to specific countries from post offices, some supermarkets, cell phone network retail outlets, or on the Internet. Rates vary, but the O2 network charges as little as two cents per minute to call the U.S. Where credit cards are taken, slide the card in as indicated.
Any cell phone can be used in Europe if it’s tri-band, quad-band, or GSM. Travelers should ask their cell-phone company if their phone fits in this category and make sure it’s activated for international calling before leaving their home country. Roaming fees can be steep, however: $1 a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call since text messages have a low set fee (often less than 25¢).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (your provider may have to unlock your phone for you) and a prepaid local service plan. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. You can also rent a cell phone from most major car-rental agencies in England. Some upscale hotels now provide loaner cell phones to their guests. Beware, however, of the per-minute rates charged. Alternatively, you may want to buy a basic pay-as-you-go phone for around £15.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
You’re always allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. But there’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can bring back duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of so-called duty-free goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.
Fresh meats, plants and vegetables, controlled drugs, and firearms (including replicas) and ammunition may not be brought into the United Kingdom, nor can dairy products from non-EU countries. Pets from the United States with the proper documentation may be brought into the country without quarantine under the U.K. Pet Travel Scheme (PETS). The process takes about four months to complete and involves detailed steps.
You’ll face no customs formalities if you enter Scotland or Wales from any other part of the United Kingdom.
The stereotypical notion of English meals as parades of roast beef, overcooked vegetables, and stodgy puddings has largely been replaced—particularly in London, other major cities, and some country hot spots—with an evolving picture of the country as foodie territory. From trendy gastro-pubs to interesting ethnic-fusion restaurants to see-and-be-seen dining shrines, English food is now known for an innovative take on traditional dishes, with an emphasis on the local and seasonal. In less cosmopolitan areas, though, you’re still looking at lots of offerings that are either stodgy, fried, sausages, or Indian.
In general, restaurant prices are high. If you’re watching your budget, seek out pubs and ethnic restaurants.
Discounts and Deals
Eating out in England’s big cities, in particular, can be expensive, but you can do it cheaply. Try local cafés, more popularly known as “caffs,” where heaping plates of English comfort food (bacon sandwiches and stuffed baked potatoes, for example) are served. England has plenty of the big names in fast food, as well as smaller places selling sandwiches, fish-and-chips, burgers, falafels, kebabs, and the like. For a local touch, check out Indian restaurants, which are found almost everywhere. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Tesco, and Waitrose are chain supermarkets with outlets throughout the country. They’re good choices for groceries, premade sandwiches, or picnic fixings.
Meals and Mealtimes
Cafés serving the traditional English breakfast (called a “fry-up”) of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, half a grilled tomato, toast, and strong tea are often the cheapest—and most authentic—places for breakfast. For lighter morning fare (or for real brewed coffee), try the Continental-style sandwich bars and coffee shops—the Pret-a-Manger chain being one of the largest—offering croissants and other pastries.
At lunch, you can grab a sandwich between sights, pop into the local pub, or sit down in a restaurant. Dinner, too, has no set rules, but a three-course meal is standard in most mid-range or high-end restaurants. Pre- or post-theater menus, offering two or three courses for a set price, are usually a good value.
Note that most traditional pubs don’t have any waitstaff and you’re expected to go to the bar to order a beverage and your meal. Also, in cities, many pubs don’t serve food after 3 pm, so they’re usually a better lunch option than dinner. In rural areas, it’s not uncommon for pubs to stop serving lunch after 2:30 and dinner after 9 pm.
Breakfast is generally served between 7:30 and 9, lunch between noon and 2, and dinner or supper between 7:30 and 9:30—sometimes earlier and seldom later except in large cities. These days high tea is rarely a proper meal anymore (it was once served between 4:30 and 6), and tearooms are often open all day in touristy areas (they’re not found at all in non-touristy places). So you can have a cup and pastry or sandwich whenever you feel you need it. Sunday roasts at pubs last from 11 am or noon to 3 pm.
Smoking is banned in pubs, clubs, and restaurants throughout Britain.
Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and pubs, though some require a minimum charge of around £10. Be sure that you don’t double-pay a service charge. Many restaurants exclude service charges from the printed menu (which the law obliges them to display outside), and then add 10% to 15% to the check. Others will stamp “Service not included” along the bottom of the bill, in which case you should add 10% to 15%. Cash is always appreciated, as it’s more likely to go to the specific waiter.
A common misconception among visitors to England is that pubs are simply bars. Pubs are also community gathering places and even restaurants. In many pubs the social interaction is as important as the alcohol. Pubs are, generally speaking, where people go to meet their friends and catch up on one another’s lives. In small towns, pubs act almost as town halls. Traditionally pub hours are 11–11, with last orders called about 20 minutes before closing time, but pubs can choose to stay open until midnight or 1 am, or later.
Though to travelers it may appear that there’s a pub on almost every corner, in fact pubs are something of an endangered species, closing at a rate of 14 a week (as of 2013), with independent, non-chain pubs at particular risk.
Most pubs tend to be child-friendly, but others have restricted hours for children. If a pub serves food, it’ll generally allow children in during the day with adults. Some pubs are stricter than others, though, and won’t admit anyone younger than 18. Some will allow children in during the day, but only until 6 pm. Family-friendly pubs tend to be packed with kids, parents, and all of their accouterments.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) Online reservation services aren’t as popular in England as in the United States, but Open Table and Square Meal have a fair number of listings in England.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Although hundreds of varieties of beer are brewed around the country, the traditional brew is known as bitter and isn’t carbonated; it’s usually served at room temperature. Fizzy American-style beer is called lager. There are also plenty of other alternatives: stouts like Guinness and Murphy’s are thick, pitch-black brews you’ll either love or hate; ciders, made from apples, are alcoholic in Britain (Bulmer’s and Strongbow are the big names, but look out for local microbrews); shandies are a low-alcohol mix of lager and lemon soda. Real ales, which have a natural second fermentation in the cask, have a shorter shelf life (so many are brewed locally) but special flavor; these are worth seeking out. Generally the selection and quality of cocktails is higher in a wine bar or café than in a pub. The legal drinking age is 18.
Ecotourism is an emerging trend in the United Kingdom. The Shetland Environmental Agency Ltd. runs the Green Tourism Business Scheme, a program that evaluates lodgings in England, Scotland, and Wales and gives them gold, silver, or bronze ratings. You can find a list of green hotels, B&Bs, and apartments on the GTBS website. Also check out the VisitBritain website, which has information and tips about green travel in Britain.
The electrical current in Great Britain is 220–240 volts (in line with the rest of Europe), 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take three-pin plugs, and shaver sockets take two round, oversize prongs. British bathrooms aren’t permitted to have 220–240-volt outlets in them. Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “For shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Specific Issues in England
If you take prescription drugs, keep a supply in your carry-on luggage and make a list of all your prescriptions to keep on file at home while you’re abroad. You won’t be able to renew a U.S. prescription at a pharmacy in Britain. Prescriptions are accepted only if issued by a U.K.-registered physician.
Over-the-counter medications in England are similar to those in the United States, with a few significant differences. Medications are sold in boxes rather than bottles and are sold in small amounts—usually no more than 24 pills. There may also be fewer brands. All headache medicine is usually filed under “painkillers.” You can buy generic ibuprofen or a popular European brand of ibuprofen, Nurofen. Tylenol isn’t sold in the United Kingdom, although its main ingredient, acetaminophen, is found in brands like Panadol.
Among sinus and allergy medicines, Clarityn is the main option here; it’s spelled slightly different but is the same brand sold in the United States. Some medicines are pretty much the same as brands sold in the United States—instead of Nyquil cold medicine, there’s Sudafed or Lemsip. The most popular over-the-counter cough medicine is Benylin.
Drugstores are generally called pharmacies but sometimes referred to as chemists’ shops. The biggest drugstore chain in the country is Boots, which has outlets everywhere, except for the smallest towns. If you’re in a rural area, look for shops marked with a sign of a green cross.
If you can’t find what you want, ask at the counter; many over-the-counter medicines are kept behind the register.
Shots and Medications
No special shots are required or suggested for England.
England has a low incidence of violent crime. However, petty crime, mostly in urban areas, is on the rise, and tourists can be the targets. Use common sense: when in a city center, if you’re paying at a shop or a restaurant, never put your wallet down or let your bag out of your hand. When sitting on a chair in a public place, keep your purse on your lap or between your feet. Don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches, and don’t flash fancy smartphones outside Tube stations, where there have been some thefts. Store your passport in the hotel safe, and keep a copy with you. Don’t leave anything in your car.
Although scams do occur in Britain, they aren’t pervasive. If you’re getting money out of an ATM, beware of someone bumping into you to distract you. You may want to use ATMs inside banks rather than those outside them. In London, scams are most common at ATMs on Oxford Street and around Piccadilly Circus. Watch out for pickpockets, particularly in London. They often work in pairs, one distracting you in some way.
Always take a licensed black taxi or call a car service (sometimes called minicabs) recommended by your hotel. Avoid drivers who approach you on the street, as in most cases they’ll overcharge you. Always buy theater tickets from a reputable dealer. If you’re driving in from a British port, beware of thieves posing as customs officials who try to “confiscate illegal goods.”
While traveling, don’t leave any bags unattended, as they may be viewed as a security risk and destroyed by the authorities. If you see an unattended bag on the train, bus, or Tube, find a worker and report it. Never hesitate to get off a Tube, train, or bus if you feel unsafe.
Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public.
HOURS OF OPERATION
In big cities, most banks are open weekdays from 9 until 5 or 6. Some are open until 7, and many are open Saturday morning until 1 and some until 4. In smaller towns, the hours are 9:30 to 3:30. Saturday hours are 10 to 2 if they’re open at all. Normal office hours for most businesses are weekdays 9 to 5.
The major national museums and galleries are open daily 9–6, including lunchtime, but have shorter hours on Sunday. Regional museums are usually closed Monday and have shorter hours in winter. In London, many museums are open late one evening a week.
Independently owned pharmacies are generally open Monday through Saturday 9:30–5:30, although in larger cities some stay open until 10 pm; local newspapers list which pharmacies are open late.
Usual retail business hours are Monday through Saturday 9–5:30 or 10–6:30, Sunday noon–4. In some small villages, shops may close at 1 pm once a week, often Wednesday or Thursday. They may also close for lunch and not open on Sunday at all. In large cities—especially London—department stores stay open late (usually until 7:30 or 8) one night a week, usually Thursday. On national holidays most stores are closed, and over the Christmas holidays, most restaurants are closed as well.
Holidays are January 1, New Year’s Day; Good Friday and Easter Monday; May Day (first Monday in May); spring and summer bank holidays (last Monday in May and August, respectively); December 25, Christmas Day; and December 26, Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). If these holidays fall on a weekend, the holiday is observed on the following Monday. During the Christmas holidays many restaurants, as well as museums and other attractions, may close for at least a week—call to verify hours. Book hotels for Christmas travel well in advance and check whether the hotel restaurant will be open.
Prices in England can seem high because of the exchange rate. London remains one of the most expensive cities in the world. But for every yin there’s a yang, and travelers can get breaks: staying in bed-and-breakfasts or renting a city apartment brings down lodging costs, and national museums are free.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees—generally referred to as “concessions” throughout Great Britain—are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Banks have limited amounts of foreign currencies on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
Make sure before leaving home that your credit and debit cards have been programmed for ATM use abroad—ATMs in England and Wales accept PINs of four or fewer digits only. If you know your PIN as a word, learn the numerical equivalent, since most keypads in England show numbers only, not letters. Most ATMs are on both the Cirrus and Plus networks. ATMs are available at most main-street banks, large supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco, some Tube stops in London, and many rail stations. Major banks include Barclays, HSBC, and NatWest.
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad (unless you use your bank’s British partner); the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
The Discover card isn’t accepted throughout Britain. Other major credit cards, except Diners Club and American Express, are accepted virtually everywhere in Britain; however, you’re expected to know and use your pin number for all transactions—even for credit cards. So it’s a good idea to do some quick memorization for whichever card you intend to use in England.
Keep in mind that most European credit cards store information in microchips, rather than magnetic strips. Although some banks in the United States, such as Chase and Wells Fargo, are starting to adopt this system, you may find some places in England that can’t process your credit card. It’s a good idea to carry enough cash to cover small purchases.
Inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity. Record all your credit-card numbers in a safe place. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before traveling.
Currency and Exchange
The unit of currency in Great Britain is the pound sterling (£), divided into 100 pence (p). The bills (called notes in Britain) are 50, 20, 10, and 5 pounds. Coins are £2, £1, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, and 1p. If you’re traveling beyond England and Wales, note that Scotland and the Channel Islands have their own bills, and the Channel Islands their own coins, too. Scottish bills are accepted (often reluctantly) in the rest of Britain, but you can’t use Channel Islands currency outside the islands.
British post offices exchange currency with no fee, and at decent rates.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank. XE.com, Oanda.com, and Currency have popular conversion apps that are available for both Android and iPhone.
England can be cool, damp, and overcast, even in summer. You’ll want a heavy coat for winter and a lightweight coat or warm jacket for summer. There’s no time of year when a raincoat or umbrella won’t come in handy. For the cities, pack as you would for an American city: coats and ties for expensive restaurants and nightspots, casual clothes elsewhere. If you plan to stay in budget hotels, bring your own soap. It’s also a good idea to take a washcloth. Pack insect repellent if you plan to hike.
U.S. citizens need only a valid passport to enter Great Britain for stays of up to six months. Travelers should be prepared to show sufficient funds to support and accommodate themselves while in Britain (credit cards will usually suffice for this) and to show a return or onward ticket. If you’re within six months of your passport’s expiration date, renew it before you leave—nearly expired passports aren’t strictly banned, but they make immigration officials anxious and may cause you problems. Health certificates aren’t required.
Public restrooms are sparse in England, although most big cities maintain public facilities that are clean and modern. Train stations and department stores have public restrooms that occasionally charge a small fee, usually 30p. Most pubs, restaurants, and even fast-food chains reserve their bathrooms for customers. Hotels and museums are usually a good place to find clean, free facilities. On the road, gas-station facilities are usually clean and free. Toiletocity and Find Toilets both offer helpful iPhone apps, while ToDaLoo for Android provides guidance about public toilets in London.
If you plan to visit castles, gardens, and historic houses during your stay in England and Wales, look into discount passes or memberships that offer significant savings. Just be sure to match what the pass or membership offers against your itinerary to see if it’s worthwhile.
The National Trust, English Heritage, and the Historic Houses Association each encompass hundreds of properties. English Heritage’s Overseas Visitors Pass costs £24 for a nine-day pass and £28 for a 16-day pass for one adult. You can order it in advance by phone or online, or purchase it at a participating property in England. The National Trust Touring Pass, for overseas visitors, must be purchased in advance, either by phone or online. A seven-day pass is £25; a 14-day pass is £30.
The London Pass gets you into more than 60 attractions and tours in the capital and can help you bypass some queues. Packages range from one day (£49) to six days (£108). Annual membership in the National Trust (through the Royal Oak Foundation, the U.S. affiliate) is $65 a year. English Heritage membership is £48, and the Historic Houses Association is £45. Memberships entitle you to free entry to properties.
Vacays4U can help arrange all your sightseeing passes and excursions ahead of time.
Air Passenger Duty (APD) is a tax included in the price of your ticket. The U.K.’s APD fees, currently the highest in the world, are divided into four bands: short-haul destinations under 2,000 miles, £13 per person in economy, £26 and £52 in all first and business class; medium-haul destinations under 4,000 miles (including the United States), £69 economy, £138 and £276 first and business class; long-haul destinations under 6,000 miles, £85 economy, £170 and £340 first and business class; ultra-long-haul destinations over 6,000 miles, £97 economy, £194 and £388 first and business class.
The British sales tax (Value Added Tax, or V.A.T.) is 20%. The tax is almost always included in quoted prices in shops, hotels, and restaurants. The most common exception is at high-end hotels, where prices often exclude V.A.T. Outside of hotels and rental-car agencies, which have specific additional taxes, there’s no other sales tax in England.
Refunds apply for V.A.T. only on goods being taken out of Britain. Many large stores provide a V.A.T.–refund service, but only if you request it. You must ask the store to complete Form V.A.T. 407, to be given to customs at departure along with a V.A.T. Tax Free Shopping scheme invoice. Fill in the form at the shop, have the salesperson sign it, have it stamped by customs when you leave the country, then mail the stamped form to the shop or to a commercial refund company. Alternatively, you may be able to take the form to an airport refund-service counter after you’re through passport control for an on-the-spot refund. There is an extra fee for this service, and lines tend to be long.
Global Blue is a Europe-wide service with 270,000 affiliated stores. It has refund counters in the U.K. at Heathrow and Gatwick, as well as on Oxford Street and in the Westfield Shopping Centre. Its refund form, called a Tax Free Check, is the most common across the European continent. The service issues refunds in the form of cash, check, or credit-card adjustment. The latter is useful for small purchases as the cost of cashing a foreign-currency check may exceed the amount of the refund.
Tipping is done in Britain just as in the United States, but at a lower level than you would back home, generally 12.5% to 15%. Tipping more can look like you’re showing off. Don’t tip bar staff in pubs—although you can always offer to buy them a drink. There’s no need to tip at clubs (it’s acceptable at posher establishments, though) unless you’re being served at your table. Rounding up to the nearest pound or 50p is appreciated.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.