Since you didn’t ask: Traveling to London

First, a warning:  this post isn’t about running.  I will write a post about running in London because it’s AWESOME.  But I wanted to write down what I, as a cheap New Yorker, discovered on my recent trip.  There really isn’t anything about running in this article.  You can skip it.  I promise.

First about me and what’s in my head:

  • On vacation from New York with my wife and two kids.
  • Thought to myself, “self, you should write some of the crap down you learned about making your trip easier.”
  • then I thought “where the hell would I write it down? My fantastic running blog? But it’s not really about running. You should write about running only there. Maybe a blog post about running in London. OK in a minute.”
  • I am a control freak, so I’m going to tell you what to do. Just do what I tell you. You’ll thank me later.
  • Do these things:

Oyster Card

Oystercard-1Buy an Oyster card. They’re fantastic. These little magical cards are like New York’s Metrocards (prepaid cards for the subway and bus), but they’re even better because they cap you at the maximum amount you should pay for a day.

What’s this, you say? Well, there are discounts for buying a railcard — a card that allows you to travel as much as you want in a day at a fixed price (not sure what that is, but let’s say it’s £7). But the thing is at the start of a day you may not know you’re going to spend the day on the train, so you buy a single use ticket. Later on you buy a second, and later on a third — as soon as you spend more than that theoretical £7, you’re card is capped and you won’t be charged more than £7. Fantastic!

You should buy your Oyster card before you leave, and they’ll ship ’em to your house. And you can even get a refund on any amount you’ve got left over.

Kids travel at a reduced rate (and kids under 11 are free) but they don’t make it easy to get them an card. We tried to just buy a full fare Oyster card for our 13 year old but they wouldn’t sell it to us because it was unimaginable to the ticket agent that we’d overpay for convenience. I love these cheap people! We wound up buying her a ticket every day (which must be purchased after 9:30am).

Once you’ve got your card, you’re good to go. Watch the video on the visitor site explaining how to use the card because the Londoners will go batshit if you hold up the line while you try to figure out what the hell you’re doing. They are like New Yorkers, without an intrinsic fear of getting shot, so they just start screaming at each other. It’s absolutely awesome.

Basically, just tap your card on the yellow circle. Then when you leave the station, you tap out again. On the bus, you just tap in. Don’t tap out.

One thing that I was amazed by as that the stations are actually staffed with people who can answer questions and seem actually willing to help with issues. Not like New York. Where the only people in the stations that will help you with issues are issues you’d rather not have help with.

Buy a SIM Card from 3

SIM Pack as seen at airportThis is a good one. For this to work you must have an unlocked phone. How do you know if you have an unlocked phone? Well, there are some horrible websites that try to help you figure it out. You could google it.

But if you use Verizon and you have an iPhone 5 or later, it’s probably unlocked. If you don’t use Verizon and don’t have an Iphone 5 it’s probably not unlocked, so you may be screwed. You can buy an unlocked phone on Amazon for $300 or so, but if you’re just making one trip it doesn’t seem worth it.

Once you buy a SIM card from 3, you, for £15 get a shitload of texts and local minutes for calling in the UK (3000 texts, 300 minutes) and wait for it, unlimited data.

And it’s rocking unlimited data. I can create a hotspot that my ungrateful kids can use so they can post to instagram about how miserable a time they’re having.

It’s great — so we can walk around and google map to figure out how lost we are, we can upload videos to youtube showing the long lines we’re waiting in, etc. It’s really cool.

The coverage on 3 isn’t great, and if you google them, they get some horrible reviews for customer service. But for me, it worked great in our flat, and when the coverage dropped out it came back.

You can also call the States on the phone for £.02 per minute — that’s super cheap. In order to do that, you need to add a little value to your phone (you an buy a top up at any convenience store). I went to a Tescos Express and tried to add £5 and they told me the minimum was ten, so there you go. To take advantage of the cheap rates, you have to prepend (that’s a real word) 424 and 001 to whatever number you’re calling. So to call a fantastic US based lighting design and media firm, you’d dial 424 001 212 414 1502.

You can get the SIM for free at any 3 store, but at heathrow there are machines that sell them pre-loaded with the all-you-can eat data £15 plan. Alas they cost £20, so you’re giving away five pounds for the convenience, but that was well worth it for me. The SIM package comes with an adapter to fit any size card slot but it doesn’t come with a tool to remove your current SIM card. This tool is typically called a paper clip. Or rather, a paper clip works just as well as a removal tool.

Download Citymapper

screen shot from citimapperCitymapper is freaking fantastic. iPhone and Android. It knows where you are, you tell it where you want to go, and it tells you how to get there. By foot, by bus, by train, etc. It tells you how long each will take. It tells you how to walk the least (if it’s raining, for example) and how long each route will take. It also gives you the cost of each option.

London is an old city. And there is no way to learn your way around without living there. Forever. When I was in London 20 years ago, everyone — everyone — carried a map (the “A to Z” which they of course called the “A to Zed.”). Maybe they still do. But with this app there is no destination too obscure to find.

And it also takes into account traffic — so it might suggest the bus at night and the train during the day. It uses the database from Foursquare so it can find some obscure places by name.

We took the bus a lot — it makes sense in London because the Underground just doesn’t go everywhere. The app tells you which letter stop to stand at (so “Oxford Circus” may have six bus stops around it, you need to go to a letter stop, like, well ‘G’)

Airbnb

We booked our flat on Airbnb and it was great. A hotel would have been a lot more for a lot less space. It’s fun to research where you’re staying. We loved our spot. You should stay there.

Cash

Do what I do. Don’t bring any local currency with you. Go to an ATM when you land. It might make sense to call your bank and tell them you’re going to be doing this so they don’t have a cow.

I know that I’m in the minority here. People go to horrible currency exchange places in the States and get robbed. Or they hand dollars over at the airport at an equally usurious rate. But they do have the comfort of knowing that if the ATM network is down they can still get cash. But they are getting robbed.

If you use your ATM card, you are typically charged a much lower rate and hopefully no foreign exchange fee.

Realistically I did have US dollars in my pocket and if the ATM was messed up I could have gone to a currency exchange and gotten currency that way. But still, that’s a backup. Use the ATM.

Credit Cards

Credit card companies also get good exchange rates, but many of them also charge a foreign exchange fee, which is an additional percentage beyond what the transaction would cost. So you’re paying 3% more for everything. If you have a credit card without a transaction fee use that. American Express’ platinum and skymiles reserve don’t have transaction fees, but they are costly, like $450 a year, so they aren’t worth it unless you’re getting other benefits.  There are lists online of cards that don’t charge these fees.

Minicabs

Black Cabs, the famous london taxis, are very expensive. It cost us £80 to get from the airport to our flat. The thing to do is pre-book a minicab which would have been just a little more than half that. There are many apps to do this on your phone, or just book with Addison Lee, who is a huge minicab company. A final alternative would be to ask wherever you’re staying for their favorite local minicab company and call them; the companies service one or two neighborhoods and are a little cheaper than Addison Lee.

Heathrow Express

There is a fantastic train which takes you to Paddington station. The problem is you’re not staying at Paddington station. So you’ll have to take a train or a bus or book a minicab from Paddington. Which is totally fine.

London Pass

We didn’t do this. It’s a discount card that gets you into I think everything. But it costs a fair amount (£70 a day?) which is fine as long as you’re going to do three or more big things a day.

Finally

London is expensive. Everything will cost a shitload, you gotta get over yourself. Make your kids eat fast food (that’ll be a challenge. Not.) Or get pre-made meals at supermarkets and heat them up at your flat.

Also, one more thing:  it’s a crowded place.  More so than New York, if only because the streets are more narrow and less straight.  There is often only one direct road between wherever the heck you are and wherever you want to be, so you’re often trudging down a narrow road with a bunch of people who look way cooler than you . It happens.

Have a great time.  It’s a great city.  Add any additional advice or corrections of my errors in the comments!

 

 

Written by Greg Cohen

10 Comments

Annette Barnes

I thought to use credit cards in the UK you have to have a 4-digit PIN number, isn’t that right? I know I ran into that problem when I tried to use my American Express card a few years ago. Thx for all the info though – it is good. I used to live in the UK so I know my way around pretty well, but this is all useful info. Also, as of yesterday, all buses now only take the Oyster card I understand.

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Greg Cohen

Pretty much every place will take US cards — they’re not “chip and PIN” like the UK or European ones. They have to swipe the cards and make you sign a slip of paper, which they kind seem to look upon with judgemental distain, but they’re happy to take your money.

I did some research a few years ago looking for US based chip and PIN cards so I could go to Europe without the judgment. But I couldn’t find any. So I let them judge. Hell, I judge them, so let them judge me too!

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Greg Cohen

Just saw your note about the Oyster card — yeah there were signs on all the busses saying “No cash after July 8th!”.

One thing I should have mentioned is that although kids under 12 are free, you are supposed to carry ID for them. That’s not so practical if you don’t want to carry around your passport. We had a bus driver make us pay for our youngest and we kind of held up the line, with for the British is a horrible crime!

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Brady Duga

Hah – we made a similar trip last summer, and I would give the same tips (we bought a full-fare Oyster card for our youngest because it seemed too complicated to get the child one). Also, if you are going outside London, a railcard may be useful – we took the Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland and saved a tidy sum (plus various other trips – less [or not] important if you are just staying in London). I also had no trouble with my archaic US credit cards (no chip, no PIN), though I did have one cash machine in Oxford try to give me US dollars! Apparently, it defaulted to dispensing cash in the native currency of your account (pounds, euros or dollars).

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Chris Hooper

Hi

What you’ve written here is really helpful for visitors. I’m English and live in London and I think it’s great to see so many visitors to London every year.

I just wanted to add something. At some sites around London you may see Team London Ambassadors in bright pink t-shirts. We started helping visitors during the Olympics in London 2012 and we’ll be welcoming our visitors again this summer. Do look out for us at Trafalgar Square, More London, The Tower of London and some other locations too. If you have any questions about London, we’ll be happy to help. If you have questions about anything, really, we’ll do our best to find out. If you see us, do come over and say hello!

Have a good summer! x

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Greg Cohen

That’s awesome Chris! In general, I found that people are super helpful. I can’t get over how everyone is anxious to not have anyone spend any extra money.

I’ll look for the pink shirts on my next visit!

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Jenn Latham

Greg, you are so hilarious. Great post… And you should plan to visit us in Iowa next. You don’t need an Oyster card, the streets are wide and not crowded, and you can have a family meal including margaritas for the adults in the local Mexican place for under $35… Elizabeth would like it because kids can get drivers licenses at 14.

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jodi

In more residential areas the local pub or curry shop will have decent and less expensive food. Great gifts to bring home is cadbury chocolates from the local supermarket – inexpensive and no one knows the difference

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Greg Cohen

Jodi such good advice! We actually didn’t eat any pub food, which is amazing given that I’ve spent a great deal of time eating bar food. And the Cadbury chocolates didn’t work out for us as we would have just eaten them as we are now in Germany. And what doesn’t go better with Germany than chocolates?

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Greg Cohen

Brady, that’s a great point — we took a train out to see Ruben (an old mutual friend!) and due to an unfortunate turn of events, I had to rebuy our train tickets. I went to Paddington and they were able to find me a way cheaper fare by using a railcard.

Sometimes the ATMs ask if you want them to bill your account in US Dollars rather than Pounds Sterling, but that is also a rip-off, and you’re better off having your bank do it, as far as I know.

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