London for first time...questions

Apr 3rd, 2002, 07:46 AM
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London for first time...questions

My wife and I will be going to London the first week in May and staying at the Marriott County Hall. It is our first time to London, and actually our first time outside of the US. We fly in to Gatwick on USAir and arrive at 8:00 a.m. (0800 in UK timespeake?) If anyone can assist with some general questions I'd greatly appreciate it:

1. What is the best way to get to the hotel? We will likely be fairly well loaded with suitcases so I am thinking about taking a taxi.

2. What are some things that people like us (read 'sheltered') tend to overlook or forget when going abroad, specifically to the UK?

3. Can I get by on a little cash and a lot of credit card? If so, are the fees for using the credit card excessive? Finally, are Visa and AMEX both widely accepted?

4. Any tips for travel back to Gatwick? We depart on a Saturday at 1100. Any idea how much time we need to allow for (a) travel to the airport and (b) time in the airport to get checked in and clear customs?

5. Speaking of customs, any comments there? We've never had that pleasure so I'd like to know what to expect.

6. I would like to do something romantic for my wife. Any suggestions on memorable things to do?

7. Are there any outside of London excursions we can take that don't require an overnight stay away from London?

8. This is my last one, and perhaps the most silly. I'm a bit unsure of how difficult the currency conversion works. I'm afraid that I'll panic and end up paying $5.00 for a newspaper and not realize it until I get home. Any pointers on working with the pound?

Any and all additional help is appreciated. I've hit a number of websites and am gathering information on siteseeing and other such items. I've purchased four books on London and am working my way through them as well. The more information the better.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 07:52 AM
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Mike, try reading the past posts here at Fodors, especially the ones for the UK; you'll find plenty of discussions of airport transport (Gatwick Express vs taxi vs private car), currency conversions and credit cards.

Since the pound is worth about $1.40 - $1.45, you can just multiply a price in pounds by one-and-a-half to estimate the cost in dollars. Actually, the cost of living is so hich in London, you'll often find that things that cost a dollar at home cost a pound (i.e., $1.45) in London.

Electricity is so different over there, don't bring any electircal appliances (hair dryers etc.), even with a converter.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 07:55 AM
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Visa is far more widey accepted than AmEx. If you have an ATM card, you can get cash readily from the many "cashpoint" machines over there, and this might cost you less than your credit card; many credit cards build-in a 2% conversion fee when they convert your purchases to dollars. But first find out what your bank charges for an overseas ATM withdrawal; apparently these fees can range from nothing or $1 to $5.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:11 AM
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Some things ppl sometimes forget when visiting UK: to look the opposite way when crossing the street; that you have to go to the counter to order your pint and food in most pubs; that you rarely tip in a pub, if you've gone there a few times and perhaps have chatted with the barperson can offer to buy them a drink (they may only take the price of one out of your money); try and stay clear of the doors in the tube as much as you can, that's where all the action happens and you can sometimes get bounced about; don't panic if the tube stops and the lights go off, it can happen; ketchup is extra at McDonald's; many museums in London are free but you will be expected to make a donation; in our experience London cab drivers rarely get out of the cab to help you with luggage, altho we don't usually travel w. much and you are expected to put the luggage in the back of the cab with you (these are the black cabs I'm talking about, if you order one to take you to the airport for example they work much as they do in U.S. or Canada), you tell the cabbie where you are going thru his window before you get in; don't be afraid to watch a little telly in the U.K., they have some great game shows and the news will be a refreshing change because it is obviously England-European-centered. We tend to get enough cash for the first day then use the ATM (make sure you have a four digit code, some machines won't recognize anything more). Re: customs - the obvious advice is if you haven't got anything to hide, you've got nothing to worry about. You probably will have no problem with English customs (unless there's an IRA scare and you might get patted down - only happened to us once). The only thing we do when returning home is to pack all of our purchases in one bag/suitcase and I make a list of everything in it and how much it cost. The two times we were stopped I think they were overwhelmed with how anal-retentive I was and let us go after a brief look through. Something romantic: the Basil Street hotel has a lovely restaurant w. someone fr. the Royal Conservatory playing, there are dinner cruises on the Thames and I think Camden Lock as well; if you don't mind spending a bundle you could take train to Windor, walk around, then cab to Les Quat a Saisons (I hope I have the spelling right). Lovely food and setting but very expensive. And you can always hire a boat in Hyde Park and row her about and perhaps have a picnic afterwards. (You can do this in Oxford as well, and take a day trip to Stratford, see a play and row her about on the Avon.) You will love England.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:19 AM
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E-mail me. Wife and I were in London for 10 days last summer and really loved it. Also flew into Gatwick. Lots of construction going on, Parked plane on tarmac, got on bus and wound around and around airport, underneath and through for what seemed like an hour until they let us off. Customs was OK, just watch the lines and try to get in one thats is short. We got behind somebody who realy got the once, twice and three times over. Customs guy barely even looked at us, I was kind of disapointed. Guess we are too average looking. We arranged through the hotel for a private car and driver to meet us just past customs. We was driving a small Mercedes. Cost was about 40 GBP and gave small tip. About the same cost as taxi without all the waiting. Trip into London was about 45 minutes as I recall. Same company back to airport, driver was much more friendly and talkative. Have his card someplace if you're interested.

Good advice above on conversion, thats just what I did X1.5. Suggest that you not fixate on costs too much. I didn't find prices too far out of line from what I would spend at any other touristy type place in the US, probably even less. How about those $4.50 sodas at Disney World?
A number of excursion just outside of London that I can reccomend for day trips, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, etc. Let's talk.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:24 AM
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Hi Mike
First, congratulations on your first trip. I have a long file on London that may be helpful; if you'd like to see it, email me. It has airport transport, day trips, general hints. Most popular and easiest daytrips are
Bath, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens (should be a great time for Kew.)
Aside from a taxi, you could arrange for a car service to pick you up and help handle the bags.
Here are some car services that I've read good things about, I have not used them:
From International Travel News Sept 01
London Service, 8a Christchurch Park, Sutton Surrey, phone 44 0 20 8296 9363. Email [email protected] cost is about half the price of a taxi to London. 2001 prices are 24L for Heathrow for the first two passengers and 10L each for each extra passenger. For Gatwick, it's 45L for the first two.
Same magazine, Dec 01: Black Cab London, phone 44 0 208 663 6400 email [email protected] or visit recommended on Fodor's Europe forum March 02: " We have used several times - very good, reliable company. I have recommended them a number of times and everyone has been pleased. Flat fee - no sharing van.
North London Hire, phone 2 81 340 3630
Driver can meet you at Customs23 pounds, including parking fee.
This is a large company with over 100 drivers with their own vehicles.
Jan 2001 Fodor's forum: “We used a transport company, Solar Cars and were very happy we did. They meet you at the airport, take you right to your hotel, and assist with luggage both at the airport and the hotel! In addition to the convenience, our driver was a wonderful "tour" guide, pointing
out the sites as we passed by on the way into town. I would highly recommend thier service. Contact Mr. Alan
Sage at his fax number of +44(020)8874 3228."
A little cash (replenished from atms from time to time) and credit cards should be perfect.Know your atm codes in numbers, not just letters.
I've never been good at handling
"strange" currency, even in countries where I've visited many times.
Just take your time, be patient with yourself, and don't hurry because you feel embarrassed. If you didn't hear clearly what the price is, politely ask that it be repeated. Remember that single pounds come in coins, so you may be handling only coins for a small transaction. Take your time! If you don't currently live in a big city, you have to develop some street smarts. London is statistically quite safe, but pickpockets and such have careers all over the world. Keep your wallet in your front pocket, not the back.
Put your money away and have your wife firmly close her purse or totebag before you leave the cashier or ticket window, even if this takes an extra 5 seconds. On crowded subway (Underground) trains, keep wallets and purses closed and close to you. If you have to stop somewhere to read a map, "pull off" to the side of a building or doorway where you are not blocking foot traffic and where you won't be a distracted target.
If you end up carrying a lot of packages, consider making a stop back at the hotel to get rid of them. They can become a burden quickly, and sometimes an overloaded distracted visitor looks like a target.
When you are about to leave London, keep only enough British cash for the taxi or car service to get you to the airport, and perhaps a little extra for a magazine or bottle of water. You can exchange the remainder of your local cash at desks at the airport, but in some places they accept only notes, not coins.
Have a wonderful time.

Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:35 AM
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Day trips from London are easy to do with the trains, just remember to check which station they leave from, there is more then one station. Also remember to check that the car of the train that you are on is going to your destination because some times trains pick up or drop off cars, just double check. As for day trips I recommend most highly Bath and Dover. Dover has one of my favorite castles, and I love castles. Tips for first time travelers: read the travel literature, and some of history and literature of the country before going and it will be more enjoyable. Another tip is to ask for the toilet or in the U.K. "W.C" because if you ask for a bathroom you will get odd stares and at time directions to showers. As for getting from the airport to your hotel, look to see if your hotel has a recommendation. Have lots of fun!
Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:39 AM
wes fowler
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So many questions! Where to begin?

At Gatwick, you'll pass through passport control (immigration). There are separate lines, clearly marked, for travelers from other European Communities and for non-European Community travelers (you and your wife).

Pick up your luggage than go through customs. With nothing to declare, follow the green lines and arrows. If you've something to declare, follow the red exit routes.

The Gatwick express train runs from the Airport to Victoria station. The trip takes about 30 minutes; trains run frequently. As you exit customs, directions to the train are clearly marked. Trains have ample space for the storage of luggage within your sight.

At Victoria station, take the escalator to the upper level, walk straight ahead through the main terminal waiting area to the taxi stands. Be prepared to stand in line to get a taxi. When your turn arrives, tell the driver your destination by talking to him through the driver side window, then enter the cab with your luggage.

A bit of advice: rethink being "fairly well loaded with suitcases". Pack them in advance of your travel, carry them up and down stairs five or six times and you'll soon find you can discard much of their contents. Repack and carry them around the block or down to the corner store; return and you'll easily find more that you can discard.
In other words, PACK LIGHT!.

Gatwick handles a lot of charter flights and tour flights which can cause significant delays in their processing through immigration and customs. Be prepared for delays both coming and going.

Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:46 AM
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Firstly, from a Londoner, welcome. I hope you really enjoy your trip here and your first journey so far outside of the US goes very well for you.

To answer a few questions:

When I am not sure about doing currency conversions quickly in my head I print off and take with me a cheat sheet. Look at

For something romantic, if the weather is nice you could get a great picnic and take her to some lovely park, or perhaps a bottle of champagne up into the London Eye (though you only have about 25 minutes on there and I doubt youd want to open the bottle inside the capsule).

Most restaurants, coffee bars and shops take credit card, so do tube ticket counters (though they will moan at small amounts they will take it).

Buses and smaller snack bars may not take CC.

I would imagine you won't need much more than £20 or £30 cash a day for smaller items, entry fees (although most take card) buses etc.

Apr 3rd, 2002, 08:55 AM
wes fowler
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Regarding day trips; Windsor is within a half hour train ride from London. Oxford or Cambridge an hour, Bath, Salisbury or Canterbury about an hour and a half. Ask for "cheap day return" tickets for the most economical rates. Their only drawback is that they're usable only after 9:30AM.

Regarding the Value Added Tax (VAT). It's recoverable for significant purchases of goods (not services, i.e., accommodations, dining). The benchmark in shops seems to be purchases valued from 50 to 75 pounds. You'll have to present your passport to the shopkeeper. You complete a form in the shop that you give to customs when you depart Gatwick. Customs may ask to see your purchases, so pack them so they're readily accessible. The form can be dropped off at customs and you'll receive a refund by check or a credit to your credit card account in four to eight weeks or so.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:03 AM
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Mike - first of all you started out great. The County Hall Marriott is in a FABULOUS location - you couldn't have done better if you had been to London many times.

1) The best way to get to the hotel - as others have said -- with a lot of luggage (but you really should cut back) a car service is best, and with reasonable luggage the Gatwick express and then a taxi from Victoria is best.

2) Some little things that sometimes bug people until they learn the ropes. The waiter will not bring you the bill until you ask for it. I can't tell you the number of my friends who have complained about waiting 45 minutes for the bill - when it was their responsibility to ask for it. Over there it is considered rude to appear to rush you out by bringing the bill early.

Also, coffee is an after dinner drink - you woun't be offered a cup until the desserts or even after that.

3) Credit cards (primarily Visa and MC) for big purchases and cash for little ones. Most UK merchants pay a substantial fee to accept cards so it really isn't fair to charge 1 and 2 GBP items. But cash is readily available at ATMs everywhere. Just get what you need as you go along - UK banks won't charge you, but your bank probably will.

4) Same answer for the trip back to Gatwick - car service if you are loaded down and taxi/Gatwick Express if you aren't. Don't worry about pre-ordering a cab since you are staying at a major hotel there will always be a few in the forecourt for the doorman to hail for you.

5) Customs already answered - you won't have any problem as long as you get in the correct line.

6) There are so many romatic things - but a good one for your location is a sunset ride on the London Eye (right outside your hotel) and then a stroll down river to the OXO Tower. Book a table near the windows and you will have a view across the river to the illuminated St Pauls Cathedral. You can book both of these ahead of time - but I'd wait and have the Concierege do it so you know the weather is good for the Eye.

7) Easy excursions include in this order: Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens, Windsor Castle, Oxford, Canterbury - Take any one but don't try to do too many since London will more than fill your time.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:04 AM
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Mike--I loved London and found it to be an easy place to visit. Here are a few suggestions:

1. From Gatwick Airport, I found the Gatwick Express train to be very easy, even with a full size 29" rolling suitcase. You don't need to reserve ahead, and tickets can be bought from the conductor, saving you a wait in line. Once you get into London at Victoria Station, I recommend taking a cab to your hotel. The biggest advantage of the Gatwick Express train over a cab from the airport is that London traffic can back up and the cab trip can take well over an hour, while the train is only about 35 minutes. It will be about 10 pounds, or around $15 each. The cab from Victoria to your hotel will be about 5-6 pounds.
3. We found an atm right near baggage claim and there was also a Travelex booth. Your best bet is getting cash from atm's and you'll find them all over town. We found American Express to be accepted in most places, with our MBNA Mastercard almost everywhere that didn't take Amex. We get Delta Skymiles on Amex, so we do use that first. We also like to get by on a little cash, and most places will take credit cards, but do have some cash just to be sure. We needed cash when we bought tickets from the Leicester Square Half Price Booth, but that was last year. I think I read that they now accept credit cards--maybe someone here can update us on that.
4. We returned to Gatwick on the train as well, since we were leaving on a weekday morning and didn't want to risk backed-up traffic. I haven't been in London with the increased security, but I always feel safest allowing 2 hours once I'm at the Airport, so work back from there.
6. London has many lovely, elegant restaurants. We ate at Mirabelle and loved it. If your wife likes ballet, the performances are at The Opera House in Covent Garden, which is gorgeous. We also attended an opera and 2 plays--any of those should be a special treat.

I liked AAA's Spiral Guide to London. It is very thorough on sites and is broken down by area. Also good is Dorling Kindersley, which is great for the architecture. A great website with a lot of links is
Have a great trip! By the way, my favorite museum is The Courtauld Collection at Somerset House.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:06 AM
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Mike, do heed Wes' advice about minimix-zing your luggage. Many of us never travel wtih more than a carryon, and you can, too!
Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:12 AM
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Have a great time! One thing we wished we'd packed for our recent trip to London/Amsterdam was a supply of over-the-counter cold medications. I got a horrendous cold and it was difficult to get medications I was familiar with. When you're sick in Europe and facing a major plane flight home, you don't feel like experimenting.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:17 AM
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For a nice way to start the vacation use a car pick up service. It's not cheap, but the comfort and convenience of not dragging luggage on and off trains makes up for it. We use - they are the best! We are using them next week again as a matter of fact. Tell them Lori recommended them. It's a flat fee, plus tip and they meet you as you exit immigration (they hold a sign with your name on it). It beats dragging luggage around anytime!! Scrimp on something else.

ATM machines are all over the place, you can use credit cards for most things. We always take some British pounds with us (to pay driver, etc.) and yes, it costs a fee from our bank to get them, but it's worth it to us.

Trim down the luggage - I back heavy too, but it's not necessary. Take dark colored clothes, you will blend in better and dirt does not show. Unless you are going out with The Queen fancy clothes are really not necessary. Even for the theater you can go in "regular clothes". Take 2 pair of comfortable shoes tho, that I highly recommend -- and umbrellas!

The previous poster who gave you the website for the currency cheatsheet is correct. Just print some off and carry them in your pocket, you will be able to convert easily with them if you can't "think" in pounds right away.

Leave some time in you schedule for enjoying the small things (flowers in the parks - Spring is great in London). Rushing from one sight to another can be exhausing.

Day trips are easy - everyone has given you the major destinations of tourists already. I'd suggest Hampton Court (30 min by train from Waterloo Station) as a must. Warwick Castle is good too, just 90 min. from Marylebone Station (you take the Bakerloo Tube to Marylebone). Train ride is through pretty countryside too.

London Eye is a must - you are staying very close to it anyway. You can make reservations online.

Get a 7 day tube pass - nearly all stations sell them. it's the biggest bargain in London, you can use them on the Tube and buses. You will need a passport sized photo tho to get one.
Try and stay out of the Tube at rush hour - for your own sanity, but mostly for those who work in London and are rushing to their jobs! Nothing worse then a tourist at the top of an escalator looking at a map!!


Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:35 AM
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Mike - dont' forget to post a report when you get back. It's always fun to read about a first timer's impressions (or even 10th timers!). I often wonder if posters take any of the advice given, it is so nice to get responses after the trip.
Apr 3rd, 2002, 09:36 AM
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Mike, if you REALLY want to know a lot for your trip to London, take Elaine up on her offer to send you her London file. I did, and I am still reading it. It covers most everything I have read on the internet in the past month, and it is all gathered together in one place.

Elaine, thanks a million.

To the person above who wrote about asking for the check, thanks. Did not know that.

Here is Elaine's post excerpted:

"Author: elaine ([email protected])
Date: 04/03/2002, 12:24 pm
Message: Hi Mike
First, congratulations on your first trip. I have a long file on London that may be helpful; if you'd like to see it, email me. It has airport transport, day trips, general hints."
Apr 3rd, 2002, 10:56 AM
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Apr 3rd, 2002, 11:40 AM
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Ok, a little self-advertisement. I have several travelogues of London and England posted at
Apr 4th, 2002, 07:34 AM
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