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London travel guide

Your handbook for planning a smashing time along the River Thames.

London is a sprawling city of historical monuments, monarchical artifacts and green spaces, coupled with a cosmopolitan culture that draws locals and visitors alike. Always plenty to do year-round, London’s landscape is dotted with must-see icons: Big Ben, the London Eye, the Shard and Tower Bridge.


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Tips for first-time visitors

1. Use extra caution when crossing the street

People drive on the left side of the road in England, so don’t forget to check for traffic coming from the opposite direction from what you’re used to. Some crosswalks are labeled “look left” or “look right” to remind pedestrians which way traffic is coming from. But to play it safe, check both ways before stepping into the street.

2. Get acquainted with military time

As in most European countries, the 24-hour clock — or military time — is used for public transportation. So if you buy a 9:00 train ticket, you’ll be leaving in the morning. But English people tend to speak using a 12-hour clock, like in the US. So you might hear someone say they’re seeing a 7:30 show, meaning in the evening, rather than saying 1930.

3. Stay to the right on escalators

Follow this unspoken yet strictly followed rule: Stay to the right on the escalator if you’re standing still so others can walk past you on the left.

4. Wait for everyone to get off the train before stepping on.

It’s common courtesy to wait for everyone to get off of the train before boarding. And if you see an elderly person, pregnant woman or someone else who looks like they could use a seat more than you do, it’s polite to offer them yours.

5. Have your Oyster card ready

Like New Yorkers, Londoners like to keep things moving. Have your Oyster card ready before hopping on the bus or other mode of transport so you don’t hold up the line.

6. Know when to tip and when to skip

Tip your restaurant server 10% to 15% of the bill, but check to make sure a service charge wasn’t already added to your total — no need to tip twice! It’s also common to tip your taxi driver and tour guide 10% to 15%, while a smaller tip is sufficient for hotel staff.

On the other hand, bartenders don’t expect tips. If you had exceptional service and want to leave a tip, make it small and say something along the lines of, “Add one for yourself.”

7. Bring an umbrella

Known for its drizzly days, London can have unpredictable weather. There’s no guarantee it won’t rain, even in the summer. So have an umbrella handy just in case.

That said, London receives an average yearly rainfall of 23 inches. Compare that to New York City’s 50 inches of rain per year or Seattle’s 38 inches, and London doesn’t seem so wet after all.

Transportation

Since the capital city is so spread out, the London Tube is the best way to visit most major attractions. While you can walk to many attractions, you can always spot a transit station.

Public transportation

London’s transportation system is relatively easy to navigate. The best way for tourists to pay for public transport is as you go, instead of buying single tickets.

Pay with a contactless card, or purchase an Oyster card or Travel card and preload it. Simply tap the card on the yellow card reader when you first get on the bus or train, then tap again when you depart.

You can buy an Oyster card at most stations and some visitor centers. Use it for trips on any of these modes of transportation:

  • London Tube. Also known as the London Underground, the Tube is an easy, budget-friendly option to get around London — as well as the most popular way. Fares range from £5.90 to £1.50 per adult ticket, depending on which zones you’re traveling through, whether you’re riding in peak or off-season and whether or not you pay with an Oyster card or Travel card. You’ll pay almost double for the same ticket if you buy a single-journey ticket instead of paying with an Oyster or Travel card.
  • Docklands Light Railway (DLR).The DLR is a driverless metro system serving parts of East and South East London. It connects to the Emirates Air Line cable carand the London City Airport, and you can use your Oyster card to pay for your trip.
  • Emirates Air Line cable car.Take a scenic trip above the Thames River to get from Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks. The cable car is open every day, with fluctuating hours depending on the time of year. The car makes trips every 30 seconds, and 10 people can fit inside at once.

    The trip across the river takes around five minutes between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. during the week, with more leisurely 10-minute trips all other times of day. And after 7 p.m., take an even longer night flight across the river — lasting 12 to 13 minutes — and soak in beautiful city views.

  • Buses.London’s bus system covers the entire city, offering 24-hour service. All buses in London are cashless, so you’ll need a contactless card, Oyster card or Travel card to ride. Fare is £1.50, with a maximum charge per day of £4.50 — no matter how many buses you ride. Just make sure you use the same form of payment to cash in on this perk.

    You can also snap up free rides on multiple buses if you transfer between them within one hour.

  • Trains and trams.Trains can be used to access tourist cities outside of London, such as Bath, Oxford, Cambridge and Windsor. Some of the main train stations that can get you out include Paddington, Kings Cross, St. Pancras, Victoria and Liverpool Street stations. Fare depends on where you’re headed and how far in advance you book your tickets.

Taxis, rideshares and tours

  • Tour group.Many group tours are available throughout London and its surrounding cities. While some tours — like the Tower of London and Tower Bridge tour — ask that you meet at the location, others like the seven-hour Harry Potter Studios tour include transportation.

    You can also book a vintage double decker bus tour through the city to get a birds-eye view around town.
    View top London tours

  • Livery service.Although pricey, traditional London “black car” service is available for those who want to get chauffeured in style. Book limos and private cars in advance.
  • Taxi.Hailing an iconic black cab in London is fairly easy, but it can be expensive. Hitch a ride with any cab with a lit “taxi” sign. If the light’s off, that means they’ve already got a customer.

    Alternatively, you can book a taxi ride in advance online or by contacting the company directly.

  • Rideshare.Uber is available from all London airports and costs between £8 to £31 from Heathrow Airport to central London, depending on the type of car you select. Note that these prices may increase during peak hours.

Car rentals

Renting a car in London isn’t very common, since public transport in London is reliable and easy to use when visiting most major attractions. But if you’re staying in London for an extended period of time and want to travel to the outskirts of town, rental cars are available. Keep in mind before you rent:

  • You may need to purchase additional insurance to rent a car in London. Check with your insurance company at home to see if international car rentals are covered.
  • Some cities in the London area are not car-friendly. Bath, for example, is known for having very limited parking, while Westminster is congested and imposes a congestion charge when driving from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week.
  • London’s train system might be able to get you to all your destinations more easily and efficiently than a car. Check to see if there’s a nearby train station before springing for a rental car.

If you decide renting’s the best choice for you, Avis, Hertz, Budget, Europcar, Enterprise, National, Alamo and Sixt are available in London.

Driving in London

Don’t forget you’ll be driving on the left side of the road — not the right like here in the US. Plan your trip in advance, making sure to pay applicable congestion charges when driving through Central London, as well as T-charges based on your vehicle’s emissions to avoid a fine.

International visitors with a valid license from their country can drive in the UK for up to one year. If your driver’s license is written in a language other than English, you may need an International Driving Permit to drive in London.

Transportation from the airport

Getting to and from London airports is relatively easy and straightforward using public transportation.

  • London Heathrow. From Heathrow to the city center, the fastest option is the Heathrow Express, which takes 15 minutes from terminals 2 and 3, and slightly longer from terminals 4 and 5. The most budget-friendly option is the London Tube: The Piccadilly Line runs from all terminals, and the journey takes 50 to 60 minutes. The National Express coach runs to Victoria coach station and takes 40 to 80 minutes. Other options are the Feltham rail link to London Waterloo and Heathrow Connect to Paddington.
  • London Gatwick. The Gatwick Express train reaches London Victoria in the city center within 30 minutes. Coach buses like easyBus and National Express services, which you can find at the lower south terminal forecourt, run low-cost options to central London.
  • London City. A DLR station connects to the London Tube for access to the city. Two public bus routes, the 473 and 474, also run from the airport.
  • Stansted. National Express coach buses have several pickup and drop-off stops in London. The Stansted Express train is the quickest transport, departing every 15 minutes.
  • Luton. The Luton Airport Parkway train departs to central London every 10 to 20 minutes. You can catch the shuttle from the Luton Airport outside the terminal at Bay T to the train station. National Express and Green Line coaches run to and from Victoria London station.

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Frequently asked questions about transportation in London

  • What’s the cheapest way to get around London? Use an Oyster card for low-cost travel by bus, Tube, metro or cable car. You’ll pay about half as much per trip as you would for single-journey tickets.
    Take advantage of free bus fare when hopping on multiple buses within one hour. Just make sure you use the same form of payment.
  • Can I share my Oyster card? Only one person can travel with an Oyster card at any given time. So if you and a friend are traveling together, you’ll need two Oyster cards. But your friend could borrow your Oyster card if you’re not traveling.
  • What’s the best London travel app? Citymapper is one of the best tools for navigating London. TubeMap, UK Bus Checker and the TfL Oyster app are also helpful.

Money

What is the national currency?

The official currency of the UK is the pound sterling — or simply, the “pound.” You’ll see pound abbreviated as GBP when checking exchange rates, and the £ symbol is used like the $ is used for US dollars. Each pound is equal to 100 pence, and one pence is commonly referred to as a penny, just like in the US.

Banknotes — or paper money — are printed in £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100 denominations. £1 banknotes haven’t been printed since 1984. Instead, £1 and £2 coins are widely circulated.

Should I exchange money before traveling?

Have a small amount of pounds on hand before you leave, but it’s not generally recommended to travel with huge sums of cash. Carry only a small amount of US currency — to buy a cup of coffee or snack at the airport — and a small amount of pounds to get by when you land until you find an ATM.

Before your trip, you can get foreign currency from your local bank or credit union, usually for a small fee. But these institutions usually have some of the best exchange rates. You can also use online currency converters and have your pounds sent in the mail, but we recommend comparing exchange rates with your local bank to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

Once you get to London, the easiest and cheapest way to get cash is to use an ATM. If your US bank doesn’t have any locations in London, check its ATM fee policy. Some financial institutions offer ATM fee reimbursements. If yours doesn’t, take larger amounts of cash out each time to minimize your charges.

Are ATMs common?

Yes. ATMs are readily available throughout London, with many worldwide chains like Citibank and HSBC offering fee-free withdrawals.

Are credit cards widely accepted?

Yes. Most London establishments accept credit and debit cards, especially Visa and Mastercard. While more international businesses now also accept American Express, play it safe and have another option on hand just in case.

Don’t forget to contact your bank or credit card company before you leave to let them know you’ll be traveling. Otherwise, your account could get locked and funds frozen.

What should I know about using cash?

You shouldn’t need a large amount of cash while in London. But tipping taxi drivers, hotel cleaning staff and restaurant servers is customary, so you’ll want to have some cash. While larger vendors at Borough Market might accept credit cards, bring cash if you plan to shop.

London’s bus system is entirely cashless, so you’ll need an Oyster card, Travel card or contactless card to ride.

Travel money guide: UK

Travel

What’s the national airline?

British Airways is the national airline and second largest in the UK. Its main hub is London’s Heathrow Airport, which is easily accessible from the city center. Express trains leave Paddington station for Heathrow every 15 minutes, and the trip takes approximately 15 minutes.

You can also get to Heathrow terminals by taking the tube. From King’s Cross, Heathrow Airport is around a 50-minute tube ride.

Want a less crowded option? The closest airport to the city is London City Airport (LCY). Arrivals and departures tend to be quicker and easier at this smaller hub. You can easily reach this airport from London by the tube, DLR, taxi or bus.

Do I need a visa?

No. US citizens do not need a visa to stay in UK for tourist purposes or business purposes less than six months. But you will need a valid US passport.

Health and safety

Is London safe?

Yes, London is relatively safe. As you would when traveling to any city, be aware of your surroundings and keep track of your personal belongings when out and about.

Is the water safe to drink?

Yes! In fact, British tap water continually ranks as some of the cleanest water in the world, thanks to its state-of-the-art filtration systems and testing protocol.

Are there any health concerns?

As of June 2019, there is an outbreak of measles in England, the CDC reports. US travelers are advised to have a current measles vaccine when traveling abroad.

Do I need any vaccinations?

While there are no specific vaccination requirements needed to enter the UK, the CDC recommends that you are up-to-date on routine vaccinations before traveling overseas. Talk to your doctor about other vaccinations that might be recommended for you, depending on what you’ll be doing in London and how long you’ll be staying.

Hepatitis A and B vaccines may be recommended for some travelers. The rabies vaccine is recommended if you plan to work or come in contact with animals especially bats — during your stay.

Top spots

Where are the hot spots for couples?

Enjoy these romantic spots with your sweetie in London:

  • Ride the London Eye, Europe’s largest observation wheel, at night.
  • Sit at a waterside café in Little Venice.
  • Catch mesmerizing views of Big Ben.
  • Go horseback riding through Hyde Park.
  • Enjoy a river cruise on the Thames.

Which places are family-friendly?

Partake in fun for the whole family at these popular destinations:

  • Harry Potter and Warner Bros. Studio tours
  • KidZania London
  • The London Eye
  • Madame Tussauds
  • The British Museum

Where’s the best nightlife?

Soho and Camden Town are best-known for vibrant nightlife in the city. Check out the West End if a night filled with theater and fine dining is your cup of tea.

Where are the best parks?

There’s no shortage of green space in London, with many popular must-see parks:

  • Kensington Gardens
  • Greenwich Park
  • Hyde Park
  • St. James’s Park
  • The Royal Parks

Where should I stay?

It depends on what you plan to do and how much you’re looking to spend. History buffs might enjoy staying in Westminster in close proximity to well-known landmarks. Families with kids might prefer a stay in Kensington, away from the hustle and bustle of Central London.

For more information and specific hotel suggestions, read our guide on where to stay in London.

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Traveling during COVID-19
The CDC continues to advise caution when traveling within or outside the US, However, it no longer requires self-quarantine or a COVID-19 test for fully vaccinated domestic travelers as of April 2021. International travelers need to get tested three days prior to flying out of the US and within three days after returning, even if you are fully vaccinated. It recommends that you delay travel if you’re not fully vaccinated to protect yourself and your family from getting or spreading the virus.

If you’re planning a trip outside the US, bear in mind that many countries have placed restrictions on US tourists. Check the US embassy website for updates before booking international travel.

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