I’ve been to the U.K. four times now, studied and lived there for a term, have visited most of England, Scotland and Wales, and driven about 2,500 miles on the wrong side of the road, all in the last seven years. Therefore, I feel fairly qualified to give you some pointers about how to make your British travels a little simpler.
First of all, just get your crying out of the way now, because the conversion from the dollar to pound sterling is going to depress you the entire time you’re away. The dollar sucks, get over it, and just assume everything costs double. It will keep you from spending more even if it’s not explicitly true. Now, onto the travel hacks that will make your trip to the U.K. a better experience.
ADAPTORS: Anything you get out of a travel catalogue is shit. It comes with a giant wattage conversion that fries both your devices and the local electricity. Seriously, I blew out the electricity in a B&B in Oxford using it. All you need is a simple converter that does nothing but have a different prong. Any local ASDA would have it, or the airport on your way over. Subsequently you can get a set of plugs for the world for your Apple devices at the store. It’s pricey but worth it.
DRIVING: Driving on the wrong side of the road isn’t hard and people who say otherwise are probably terrible drivers at home. All you have to remember is to always keep the steering wheel side on the inside lane line. The driver is always on the inside. See? Simple. But seriously, read up on roundabouts, you will do them wrong and know that the fast lane is the right lane, not the left.
U.S. CULTURE: Try to resist making a WTF face the first time you hear “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio there. The same goes when someone inevitably asks you if everyone has a gun in the States.
GET OUT OF LONDON: London is a brilliant, busy, and bountiful city offering countless things to do. You could easily spend an entire vacation exploring the museums, parks, restaurants, shows, and more. You’ll also go broke and get a very limited perspective on the U.K. The rest of England is absolutely nothing like London. It is an international city in the truest sense of the word, and you could go all day without even hearing an English accent. Save a few days for the capital, but then head out into the countryside, take in the cliffs and the history, the ancient towns and the charming culture.
SKIP THE TOURS: While driving through the U.K. is arduous, the entire country is smaller than most American states and is infinitely reachable on your own. You don’t need to be on a coach being told when to look left and right, when to get on and off, and limited exclusively to what they deem important. The most magical places in the U.K. are off the coach roads, far far away from other people, and found only through a bit of daring and strong legs. So go forth and make your own way. Just get a good GPS.
WEATHER: Up until recently I’ve never been to the U.K. when I didn’t need long sleeves. Apparently July is actually quite warm, but for all other times, even if it says it’s summer, pack for cool temperatures, lots of layers, and everything has to be able to get wet. I invested in a London Fog trench coat a few years ago, and it has been my best friend there. One it makes me fit in better and look less like a tourist, and secondly it wicks the rain and keeps the wind from biting. An umbrella is a must, but don’t be partial to it. I tend to go through two to three each trip.
WALKING: You will walk everywhere. Even if you have a car, you’ll be walking everywhere. These are old towns which were built long before cars, therefore the infrastructure doesn’t always exist for parking, so it’s a hike to town, the beach, that beautiful landmark you want to see, etc. It also is 90-percent uphill, so get those calves in shape and, for God’s sake, wear comfortable shoes. Leave the heels at home, ladies.
INTERACTING WITH LOCALS: If you want to see and get a glimpse of what life in the U.K. is really like, you’re not going to find it at anything with “National Trust” on the building. You’re more likely to find every nationality but English, actually. Pop into the local shops and the pubs that aren’t right on the main drag, a Costa, or even the mall.
OLD PEOPLE: There seems to be something in the water in the U.K. in which the pensioners are 80-plus, fit and hiking—and kicking your ass on the trail. I got passed by a woman who was discussing being in her mid-90s and she wasn’t even breathing heavily. They’re also delightful and in my experience, always willing to chat for a moment. At the least, eavesdrop, because three-fifths will eventually start talking about the war years.
HEALTH & SAFETY: In our litigious culture, most things are stupid and lazy-proofed. Anything remotely dangerous is barred off, there are lifts to everything, and in general most ways of being able to hurt yourself are removed. Not so in the U.K. I’ve had many hare-brained drive along cliffside roads that are nearly a sheer drop and have little to no boundaries. The same goes for the walks along the Highlands and Cornish cliffs. You can just slip right off if you’re not careful. The historical tourist sites are also not easily accessible, there are countless narrow and steep stairs, and if you have vertigo it’s vicious. Be careful and don’t expect anything to be simple or even that safe.
CASH/CREDIT CARDS: Most of Europe and the U.K. has gone to the chip and pin credit card. Instead of a swipe and sign transaction, you insert the card, it reads the chip, and you insert a pin. It’s a helluva lot more secure than our swipe machine in the States, but it means your U.S. card may not work (sans London, London will take your money in any and all capacities). This is actually a blessing, because you can get a Travelex cash passport card. It’s a refillable chip and pin and swipeable card that you can fill (and refill) with most currencies. It also means you don’t have the constant conversion fees per charge, nor do you run the risk of identity theft using your card abroad. It’s convenient, safe, and cheaper. You can also order cash from them (often at a cheaper rate than your bank) and have it delivered to your door for $9 on a day of your choice.
CHIPS: Yes, chips (those are fries) come with seemingly every meal. Order a nice steak? Side of chips. A steak and kidney pie? Side of chips. They’re big fat steak fries and come in various forms of deliciousness. But just face the fact that you’re going to have a potato overload before you get home. In the meantime, slather on vinegar or gravy.
WATCH TV: I know, you’re there to see the sights, but when you get back to your hotel at night, turn on the TV and embrace the hilarity and absurdity of British TV. Catch a panel show (there are about a hundred of them) and don’t leave without hearing Jimmy Carr’s ridiculous laugh. You get a better taste of a nation’s culture through its TV than you do in its tourist traps.
SHOP: I’m personally a sucker for a good gift shop, but head to High Street and pop into a Primark. The quality is terrible, but the prices are so low it’s practically free. It’s a great way to grab that missing piece of clothing you forgot to pack or my favorite, picking up another giant sock bun for a pound.
DON’T DO A BRITISH ACCENT: No matter how good you think your accent is, it really isn’t, and especially don’t try to do one to another Brit. First of all, you likely have no idea which region you’re faking, and when someone asks you where you’re from and you pretend it’s London, but you sound like a drunken Yorkshireman, you’re the one who will look a fool. Keep the imitations to your hotel room and car, and far away from English ears who think you’re a walking American stereotype.
BE POLITE: This is the nation that “sorry” comes out before hello, so be nice, say thank you and excuse me, be pleasant and less brusque—kindness matters.
PARKING: In 2,500 miles of driving (yes, I know the U.K. isn’t that big, but it’s cumulative) I’ve maybe come across three instances where I haven’t had to pay to park, even at hotels/B&Bs. Generally there is a “Pay and Display” machine and it costs anywhere from one to four pounds depending on how long you’ll be there. Make sure you have change as many of them don’t take credit cards.
FLYING: Heathrow is massive, so make sure you know which terminal you’re flying in and out of—it’s a whole different Tube/Taxi/Train stop. You also really need the full three hours in advance to clear baggage, security, and wait to get your gate assignment and then another shuttle there. (I’ve never flown out of Gatwick, so you’re on your own there.) It’s also quite expensive to take a taxi from central London to Heathrow (upwards of £70). There is a Heathrow Express train from London Paddington to Heathrow that’s around £20 and a very long and often arduous ride on the Tube for much cheaper, but mind the stairs (and the gap) with lots of luggage.
PEAK TRAVEL TIMES: While it may be warmer and dryer in England during July and August, you will also pay more and see less due to the absurd quantities of people. Go in May or June or even September, it may be a little cooler and wetter, but it’s worth it for the reduction of prices and maybe you’ll be able to actually see those museum exhibits.
BOOKINGS: Walk into a restaurant and ask for a table in a bigger city and generally the first question is, “Do you have a booking?” Well, of course not, you don’t know the town and you stumbled across this place and you’re hungry, dammit. You often get a nasty look or maybe even a “We don’t serve dinner until 6 p.m.” but a lot of times you can get seated. However if you want to be on the safe side, scope your restaurant earlier in the day and pop in and make a reservation. It’s a lot less of a headache.
EMBRACE THE DIFFERENCES: George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Everything there is slightly different in a way to drive you nuts if you let it. It’s like the reaching for a fork on the left and finding a knife instead—muscle memory doesn’t quite work. But instead of losing your mind over the small stuff (like I’ve seen countless Americans do over there), get over it. Just because it may be a bit different than the way we do things, one—they’ve been doing it far longer, and secondly—our way isn’t the only or even always the right way. Besides, who cares if the toilet flushes the wrong way or your new shirt buttons on the opposite side?