Tips & tricks for your London visit!
With round two of London accomplished, I thought I'd share my Top London Travel Tips for those who might be first or second-time goers to this amazing town. It might be some familiar bits for the veteran world wanderers, but hopefully there's a few nuggets of wisdom you might not have heard yet or will inspire your future travels to what is, basically, my current favorite city in the world.
Before you think about dropping a lot of quid on a black cab, or think you absolutely must fly into London Heathrow, take a pause and read on, because you might not necessarily require either things for a great trip, but you should probably still bring an umbrella.
1. Look At Other Airports For Arriving
Sure, London Heathrow is decidedly THE main airport it seems as London goes, but it might actually be cheaper to fly into some of the city's other airports, like Gatwick. Use tools like Google Flights, Skyscanner, and Hopper to check out your options as a lot of the lower cost carriers opt to fly through Gatwick. Gatwick isn't too terribly further out at 28 miles from the city. If you take the Gatwick Express it's about 35 minutes, although it's the priciest option at about 17-18 GBP one way. Southern Trains at times only take 15 minutes longer and are cheaper, and the Thameslink Train at times can take the same time as Gatwick Express for less cost. The benefit of taking other options is you have more choices when it comes to which stations you'll arrive at.
Another nice thing about Gatwick is it's not quite as busy as LHR is. Also, a fairly decent airport with a nice set of shops in the North Terminal.
2. Get App-y
TripIt aside, which is great to have in general for travel, the three apps I probably found most useful in London were the Tube Map, Busmapper, and Citymapper. The Tube app is basically a lifeline for using the Underground, with route planner, real time line updates, map, etc. It will also find the nearest Tube stop to your location. Busmapper (made my same team as Citymapper) will help you navigate the city bus system, which can be a nice alternative to the Tube if you want to see the sights above ground as you get from A to B. It's not as fast as the Tube, but there are times I do prefer taking a bus and sometimes it's more convenient. It will find you nearby bus stops, give you routes, let you pick favorite stops, and more.
And then there's Citymapper, which has a built in map of London, you can save favorite places, ask it to suggest to get from A to B, although it oddly doesn't like to suggest the Tube as an option but will give you real time arrival of next train for each stop and line if you click on the Tube button, and basically it's a good app to get you around the city and help you get your bearings.
3. To Railcard, Oyster, Vistor Oyster, or Travelcard?
London is divided in Zones, and what Zones you'll travel in will reflect in how much you pay for any of your transport options. Zones 1-2 will always be most affordable on public transit. Luckily, almost all the sights/attractions in Central London are within these Zones. If you're going to Richmond Park or Kew Gardens, be advised these are in Zone 4 area and will cost just a smidgen extra to travel to but we're only talking a few quid here. Also, whichever you choose (Oyster or Rail or Travelcard) should work on the Tube/Underground, Overground, Buses, and local rail. Always double check what your options are. Note that these do not cover Thames Clipper/boats, but in some cases will offer a slight discount.
As to which card/option to choose:
If you'll be in London for at least 7 days and are going with at least one other person: I'd recommend you get the 7-Day Travelcard on a paper Rail Card so you're eligible for the 2-For-1 vouchers that work at a lot of attractions like Hampton Court and the Tower of London. If you visit enough attractions, it basically pays off the cost of the 7-Day card, which is about 35 GBP. Here's a little more info on it at The London Tool Kit, but one thing I will absolutely suggest is to FILL OUT AND PRINT YOUR VOUCHERS OUT AT HOME before you go. Because the train stations notoriously run out of them and this way they're already filled out for the specific attractions you want. Also, some attractions have periods in the year where they aren't accepting 2-For-1, so definitely check your options as you plan. Note: 2-For-1 will NOT work if it's on Oyster. You can get Rail Cards at rail stations, and luckily there are quite a few Tube stops that are also train stations, like Paddington, Victoria, and King's Cross. You cannot get rail cards at regular Underground station.
Likewise, if you do not care about attractions you can opt to get the 7-Day Travelcard put onto an Oyster Card so you can tap and go. This will work out to be slightly cheaper than if you did pay as you go Oyster for 7 days. Just be mindful of which Zones you get a travelcard for and understand it will cost extra to travel outside of those Zones.
If you're traveling solo, less than 7 days, and/or don't care about 2-For-1: then you're going to want a pay-as-you-go Oyster Card. But which Oyster is right for you? If you're probably not going to be back in London anytime soon after your visit, you'll want a Visitor Oyster Card. You have to order it and have it before you get to London, but it's easy enough to oder via if you factor in mailing time. There's a 3 GBP deposit and you can opt what amount you'd like to pre-load onto the card, then top it off as you go in London. It's cheaper to use Oyster than single ride, as there's a daily fare cap at around 6.50 GBP in depending on Zones, so after you hit that amount the rest of your rides that day are not charged, as opposed to if you did single you'd have to pay for EVERY ride. There's also some decent discounts that come with using the Visitor Oyster Card such as 2-For-1 on certain West End Theatre tickets or complimentary champagne and cocktails at participating restaurants.
But personally? I'm opting to get the regular Oyster Card this time around. The 5 GBP deposit is refundable, and you can load a 7-Day Travelcard electronically on it, which you cannot do with the Visitor one. I also plan on visiting more in the future, so it's the option that I prefer right now.
4. Rent a Bike!
With bicycles for hire all over the city (nicknamed Boris Bikes), it's worth taking a spin on the weekend or during less busy hours and fairly affordable. It's a neat alternative to strolling and particularly quite nice in the parks with bike paths. You can rent a bike for 2 GBP for 30 minutes, then put it back, then rent another one and it's free for the rest of the day. We sort of figured this out when we rented some to haphazardly bike around Westminster. But, something I failed to do first time around is to learn the rules of the road for London cyclists. Be advised, it does not come with helmets.
5. For Cheap Eats, Head To the Streets
Street markets that is. Borough Market is the most well known and my favorite, home to tasty, affordable gastronomical delights such as Pieminister, La Tua Pasta (the gnocchi of my dreams), and so much more to cater to whatever you fancy. Want to day drink while you eat some gooey, utterly cheesy raclette? Borough has your back thanks to the ever present sangria and other light wines you can sip on! There's also other markets, like classic Portobello Road (which gets quite crowded in peak hours, FYI!), eclectic, edgy Camden Market, Maltby Street, and Southbank Centre to name a few.
Outside of markets, there's the ubiquitous Pret A Manger or Costa for quick, easy breakfast or for a quick soup or sandwich in between a busy day exploring. When I say they're pretty much everywhere, trust me on this. Or, you can take advantage of the many cheap sandwich lunch combo deals at various stores like Boots, Tesco, Sainsbury, etc. and grab something to go. These will usually run between 3-5 pounds and can offset those nice dinners out. Cheese toastie and Walker Crisps, anyone?
Heard of a great restaurant with great food and a killer view of the city and plan on going? MAKE. A. RESERVATION. Do not like be me, do not mess up and not actually book a table at places like Duck & Waffle. Book ahead. Confirm your booking. Breathe easy knowing you won't face a booked out restaurant and then won't have stand on a street corner near Fenchurch trying to Yelp for places to go on a Sunday night while your feet are killing you and you're drowning in the crushing disappointment that you did not actually make a reservation. But luckily know that if this happens to you, there's many other options in London to fall back on. Like the Zizzi that's somehow always around the corner wherever you go. Because London has so much to offer and do, that there's always a backup plan just waiting to happen.