When Andy and I went to London earlier this month, I thought I was prepared.
Turns out, Dr. Who, Top Gear, Graham Norton, Inspector Lewis, and Downton Abbey may leave gaping holes in your education that authors P.D. James, Helen Simonson, and Elizabeth George cannot quite fill.
The internet doesn’t exactly do London justice, either. But for those of you who are either looking to laugh at the clueless Americans or hoping to visit London and NOT look like clueless Americans, I’ve made this handy list:
16 Things Americans Oughta Know Before Landing In London
#16: The Oyster Card Is Indispensable. If you have 2-3 months notice before your trip, go online and get an Oyster Card mailed to you. This card enables you to ride the London Underground and the buses (which no longer accept cash, BTW). You can add more cash to your Oyster Card when necessary, and London Transit is kind enough to cap your Underground spending at £6.60 per day. If you buy a bunch of single trip tickets, there is no cap. You can spend £5 per trip, £10 for a round trip! (Think of it as London’s hidden “tourist tax.”)
While you can get an Oyster Card at Underground Stations, you can’t turn it back in for the remaining cash left on the card until you’ve had it for at least two days. Even if your trip is short, it’s worth the savings to do the advance planning.
Also, having the Oyster Card when you arrive in England means you don’t have to do basic math or cope with alien vending machines after a ten-hour redeye. This is especially important for a sleep-deprived brain reduced to jello by being awakened every half-hour by a kid kicking and screaming in the next seat. [Author’s note: Parents, telling the bruised person one seat over that your child suffers from night terrors is less helpful than packing some goddamned BENADRYL in your carry-on.]
The other plus side? With an Oyster Card you can also zip right by the huge line for Underground tickets at Heathrow. See? Already you look less like a tourist than…some people. No one I know.
#15: The United Kingdom wants you to pay the Value Added Tax — even if you aren’t supposed to. VAT is a 20% tax levied on most goods bought in the UK and EU — including your rental car. As U.S. Citizen, you are exempt from this tax…supposedly. Once upon a time, you could send in your receipts and forms after leaving Italy, Canada, etc., and get a VAT refund. Not anymore. Tucked away in a hard-to-find, dark corner of Heathrow Airport, is the VAT Office. Before you leave England, you must bring your receipts, passports, and plane tickets to the VAT Office to prove you are not a UK/ European citizen.
But finding the office is not enough. You must have had the foresight to have asked every single store where you bought an item with the VAT tax for a form. Ostensibly, the UK will refund your money.
In reality, they are counting on clueless Americans to:
a) Be unaware that they must hit up every single retailer for a VAT form.
b) Be unable to find the VAT office.
c) Be unwilling to miss their flight waiting in line at the VAT office behind the Sultan of Brunei and his fifteen carts of designer luggage.
Clearly, the British are determined to recoup lost American taxes from the last 240 years. Be sure and stick it to them by demanding your VAT form — because the retailers are in on it, too. None of them will OFFER you a form, no matter how outrageously American you look.
Ironically, the British learned at least one lesson: there is no Value Added Tax on tea.
#14: Trade in some of your dollars for British pounds before you go. Most places accept currency, and if you take a big wad of British bills before you go, you won’t rack up a bunch of “foreign transaction fees” every time you use your credit card. Even if you wait until you get to LAX, you can trade in hundreds of dollars for only one flat rate transaction fee, versus tons of them later.
#13: Spend a little time on the plane memorizing all the British coins you were smart enough to get ahead of time. If we’d done this, we wouldn’t have annoyed every single person queued up behind us as we wasted valuable time differentiating between 10 pence and 20 pence coins. Or hunting for a non-existent 1 pound note, because, haha, there IS no 1 pound note. It’s a COIN. FYI, there’s also a 2 POUND COIN.
#12: If you have a Capital One Credit Card, you can use that sucker practically everywhere (except for pottery stores out in the countryside, which is why you’ve got to bring cash, no matter what your husband says) without incurring transaction fees. It’s worth it to get one if you’re going to be overseas for more than a week. The fee for the card will be canceled out by the savings on foreign transaction fees. If you use a debit card, the same rule applies.
#11: Notify ALL your credit/ debit card companies of upcoming travel. You may think your credit card company runs algorithms that automatically realize that buying a plane ticket to London means you will be traveling to London. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, it’s not. And if you buy your tickets on Visa, American Express has no algorithm to run and is going to think “Fraud! Freeze everything!” when you go all crazy in the chocolate/ tea department at Harrod’s. Your charge will be declined and maybe your husband will use this as an excuse to keep you from your cute little Harrod’s tea mugs. Or the Queen’s preferred chocolate, Prestat.
#10: Do not listen to your husband if he promises to get you Prestat Chocolates somewhere else at a later time. There are only 2 other places that sell those lovely chocolates, goddamn it.
#9: Prepare yourself for sticker shock on everything from mass transit to casual dining. In the U.S., fares on subway lines in New York, Boston, and D.C. run $2-3.60. In London, the Underground starts at £5. Which, depending on the exchange rate, is $7.50. Dinner at a decent restaurant with drinks runs £100, more than double what Andy and I might pay in Los Angeles after the conversion rate.
#8: DRINK CIDER! You know what’s not expensive in London? Hard cider at Tesco’s (the local supermarket). Only £1.50 for 38.5 ounces of Magners (two 19.2 ounce bottles in Tesco’s 2 for 1 deal). You can’t get Magners in LA, but in NYC it will run you at least $6.00 for 36 ounces (half of a $12.00 six-pack). So skip the £6.00 Aspall’s cider at dinner and stock up at the store. Andy says this is also true for some beers; however, the man is bitter because my cider was 9% alcohol, and his ale was only 4%. He’s still bitching, “Where’s my 9% ale?!” So drink Magners: You will a) feel thrifty, b) be buzzed more quickly than with wimpy ale, and c) soon find yourself less anxious about your increasing credit card balance.
#7: The Queen has a lot of freakin’ palaces. And castles. Some of them have really cool changing of the guard ceremonies between April and October. Make sure you check with the royal websites before you, oh, I don’t know, confuse Kensington and Buckingham in a fit of jet lag and are only saved from huge cab fare and humiliation by a kindly old British cab driver who ignores your request for Kensington Palace and dumps you at Whitehall with instructions to follow the horses up to Buckingham Palace. Because even an ignorant American tourist can manage to spot horses in the middle of London and follow them.
#6: Staying in a charming old London townhouse? Be warned — the bathrooms are TINY. If you are claustrophobic, bring your meds. Seriously, I’ve seen bigger showers on cruise ships and submarines. Expect your sink to be smaller than a breadbox.
#5: Bring a bathrobe. Not just because the cheaper hotels may expect you to share a bathroom at the end of a hall or down some stairs, but you may need the bathrobe tie. And not for kinky stuff. In old houses, the floors settle. Unless the hotel has adjusted the bed accordingly — and 10 quid says they have not — the floor — and bed — may be at steep angle. Tying yourself to the bed is preferable to falling out of it. (Little known scientific fact: indulging in Magners may increase the gravitational pull of the floor.)
#4: England numbers floors differently. The first floor is the ground (or numberless) floor. The second story is considered the first story. So when the clerk at your quaint little hotel enthuses about how you are on the top or fifth floor, what he really means is that there’s no elevator and that’s SIX flights of stairs you’ll have to climb.
#3: THERE ARE NO LONDONERS IN LONDON. Look, I grew up shoving my way through the inevitable tourists in Washington, D.C.. Since then, I’ve spent years dodging tourists in Burbank, Hollywood, and Santa Monica. I’ve never seen a tourist
infestation crowd like the one in London. They radiate out, in lines at least ten people deep, from every historic palace, tower, cathedral, or clock. Everyone is a tourist, I tell you. Even the British people are from Yorkshire or Cardiff.
Some reader is sure to say, “But what about all the people serving the tourist industry? Surely there are some Londoners there?”
Our hotel staff? Russian.
Wait staff at most restaurants? Italian.
Tower Warden? Plymouthian.
#2: Prepare yourself for inevitable collisions. It’s not just driving on the wrong side of the road that causes problems in the UK. Foot traffic has the same issue. The polite tourists from the UK/ Australia move to the left on the sidewalk to go make room for the pedestrians coming at them from the opposite direction. The problem is that most of the pedestrians coming at them are from America, Canada, Europe, or Asia. The polite non-UKers move to their right to avoid the oncoming UKers. Some sort of collision, confusion, or dance is inevitable. I had a two-minute cha-cha at the Tower of London with a young woman from India, punctuated with “Excuse me,” “So sorry!”, “I’ll just go–” “Terribly sorry!” “Again?!” It wasn’t until I asked if I should dip her that she squealed and ran in the other direction. Problem solved.
#1: London Tourists Are Mostly Assholes. The polite tourists you wind up dancing with are few and far between. Mostly, we ran into the impolite, entitled tourists. They don’t believe in sharing the road. They walk five abreast, taking up the whole sidewalk, paying attention only to each other, and expect even women pushing strollers to veer into the street if necessary.
They’re not only on vacation, they’re on vacation from MANNERS. And they spanned every culture: young Australians on walkabout or school trips, Italian families, Eastern Europeans smoking like chimneys, and, of course, the Chinese tourists who were FOB (“Fresh of the Bus…Tour”).
I joked with Andy that the next time I saw a big group with arms linked, I was going to yell, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Autumn right over!” and charge straight at them. (For those of you who grew up in kinder, gentler times, the goal of the once-popular — now banned — recess game “Red Rover” is to crash through a wall of your classmates holding hands. It was my favorite. Today’s shadow tag can’t compare to mowing down Miss Holier-Than-Thou Holly Melquist.)
Andy, on the other hand, glared at the offending tourists, lowered his head, and plowed his way through the middle of every single skirmish line he could find. (At first I warned him that he might make someone mad. He laughed and reminded me that England has a nifty little thing called GUN CONTROL.)
At the end of the day, Andy gleefully tallied up the number of people he forced to break ranks.
His record was 9 in one hour, and he gave himself bonus points for sending one into the street. I high-fived him.
Thereby proving that some of the asshole tourists were, in fact, us.