16 Things Americans Oughta Know Before Landing in London (#129)

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

The Oyster card even comes with a handy case!
The Oyster card even comes with a handy case!

#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.

Always travel with the Queen.
Always travel with the Queen.

#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.

The 1 pound coin, front and back. Don't go looking for a bill.
The 1 pound coin, front and back. Don’t go looking for a bill.

#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.

Mangers on the Mantle
Mangers on the Mantle. Marvelous.

#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.

The Horse Guards start at Whitehall and trot on up to Buckingham Palace.
The Horse Guards start at Whitehall and trot on up to Buckingham Palace.

#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.

Pressed against the tower walls by the mob...of tourists!
Pressed against the tower walls by the mob…of tourists!

#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.

And, finally…

#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.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

48 thoughts on “16 Things Americans Oughta Know Before Landing in London (#129)”

    1. Same in LA. But we had to see the Tower, the British Museum, Buckingham Palace… I mean, we didn’t have to, but honestly, why go to England if you aren’t going to see all the stuff you’ve been reading about your entire life? Also, we don’t have castles in the US. So cool.

      I’m glad we weren’t there in the summer. Spring was bad enough, and it wasn’t even Easter.

  1. But.. what’s the point of a vacation if I can’t let loose my inner asshole?? When else would we have the luxury of blaming it on culture differences? TELL ME THAT.

    Also, thanks for introducing the new game! 😉

  2. Wow! Sounds complicated but travel always is. I always start out as a timid and kind traveler but by the time I get home I’m a raving lunatic. Yep, traveling (and stupid stuff) does that to me.

    1. I think travel and stupidity are really good at wearing us down. Or maybe that’s just me. There are bloggers who have wanderlust and relish each new adventure.

      I also relish their adventures. From my comfy chair at home.

            1. It’s the opposite of narrow-minded, of course. I made it up. Just for you. But you’re right, probably with all the focus on skinny, most people will construe it as an insult. 🙁 It will never take off.

  3. Hilarious, Autumn!

    And now that you’ve conquered London, Australia will be a piece of cake for you 🙂

    Be warned, though. Our $2 dollar coins are smaller than the $1 dollar coins. Go figure.

  4. Of course there are no Londoners in London! They can make a fortune renting their houses and apartments and then live la vida loca elsewhere! 😀

  5. I really like how this piece started of what to know when in London – getting around and money. If you don’t know how the roads or transportation system works or if you think that your credit card will handle it all…chances are you won’t get very far 😀 Haha, no Londoners in London. That is sort of like Melbourne here, where in the city practically ninety percent of the people are, well, non-Australian and either tourists or overseas students on study.

      1. Local Melbournians are hanging out in laneway or rooftop bars – hidden behind dumpsters or unmarked doorways 🙂

        Yes, we have cider and other booze. And wine / winery tour / winery tour with dogs.

        And coffee. Excellent coffee. Though nothing will seem cheap to you on the price tag until you do the conversion.

      2. They are usually out in the surburbs or country parts of the state. But that said, you’d see more of them in the city during morning and evening work peak hours 😀

  6. When I went (mid April) it was mostly French people.

    Also, you don’t need an oyster card, any contactless card will do. So if you have apple or android pay, you can look like a boss surfing the web, approaching the reader, boop and back to the web.

    1. I have heard about the Apple pay — it hasn’t really taken off in LA quite yet. Good to know!

      We did see a few French folk, but they were far outnumbered by Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Italians at the beginning of April. Some of that could have been the area in which we stayed, though.

  7. All excellent tips. I would add that for most major European cities you can also buy a city pass online before you go. They give you admission to all the big museums and sites and lots of the lesser ones as well. Best of all you get full, guilt free line jumping privileges. Special entrance or you can just walk past everyone and get right in. Also the best way to get cash once in Europe is via ATM machine. They’re on every corner and fees are minimal. I sooooo miss traveling all the time. Thanks for letting me come along with you!

    1. London does have a “Palace Pass,” which had items like Kensington Palace and the Tower, but not Buckingham Palace or Windsor. So it’s only worth it if you’re planning on visiting all of the places on the pass, and some are more obscure than others, or only open seasonally. In short, there always seems to be fine print or a catch!

      Yes, the ATM machines are great, but again, it depends on your debit card — some do charge transaction fees/ foreign transaction fees.

      Ride along any time! Only not traveling for a while.

  8. Excellent tips Autumn! I think I’m definitely going to use these when I (hopefully) go to the UK this year! I heard about the famed oyster card, didn’t know you could get one before you go! So savvy.

    I’m really alarmed at the cost of the tube! Dang, is it 5 pounds per ride or 5 pounds per day? And here I thought Japan was expense charging 300 yen (roughly 3 dollars) for one way stops… Eesh! And 100 pounds for the two of you to eat out!? I don’t know, I thought I could live in London, but after hearing this… uh oh

    1. The tube can be 5 pounds per trip, or if you have an Oyster Card, your tube costs are capped at 6 pounds, 60 pence per day.

      As for eating out, remember that we always have dessert and Andy always has a drink. 🙂 Also, they were nice restaurants.

      I am sure there would be some good London expense-chopping secrets you’d figure out if you were there longer, too. I’ve no doubt a post on “How to Live Cheaply in London,” would be in your future.

  9. Now I know why so many Brits live in SE Asia, the UK sounds pretty damn expensive. 100 pounds for a meal? Blimey! I’m sharing on Twitter! Tip #5 is the most useful in my opinion 😉

    1. Ah, the bathrobe tie, yes, a staple indeed! As always, sharing is appreciated, thank you!

      The UK is expensive, but so is health insurance. And knowing that any road rage incident is unlikely to end in gunshots is a really nice feeling. Especially when you’re the offending driver.

        1. It’s not quite that bad, but yeah, it does make you think twice about flipping terrible drivers off. Actually, in SoCal I worry far more about the cops being trigger-happy/ having a bad day than I do most other drivers. Despite being white. Yet I know it’s a mere fraction of the anxiety people of color feel. 🙁

          1. Well, statistically, I think more white people are shot than blacks. It’s just a numbers game, but I hear what you are saying.I think those trigger-happy / road rage days are a thing of the past…I hope.

            1. You are absolutely right, Lani — more white people are shot than black. And most of those shot are brandishing a weapon. However, of those people who are shot while unarmed, 3 out of 5 are black or Latino. Black men make up 6% of the US population, but 40% of the unarmed shot by police. You can check out the Washington Post’s Database: A Day of Reckoning: Police Fatally Shoot Nearly 1,000

              Activist/ Baltimore Mayoral Candidate Deray McKesson refers to it as the police “weaponizing blackness” — the unspoken assumption that even an unarmed black man is lethal. 🙁

  10. Loved this, there are some really good tips here for visitors and you made me laugh.

    I feel like I have to defend the honour of the London Underground here and say that while it might be more expensive than its US equivalents it is also a lot more extensive and better maintained. Here in Boston the transit is relatively cheap but we have delays because bits fall off the side of the trains and cause fires on the third rail!

    I’m glad you are a fellow cider drinker! Cider is definitely much better in the UK and there is much more choice. I’m from Devon where cider is a lot more popular than beer and it’s one of the things I miss the most.

    London is a rather pricey city but there are good ways to save money; for example if you travel by train into London a lot of tourist places do 2 for one entry with the train ticket and you can buy an oversea visitors pass with English Heritage that gets you into a lot of castles and mansions for one price. The meal and drink prices in the touristy areas are pretty steep though!

    Eating out is more expensive in the UK but if you live there things like broadband, phone contracts etc are much cheaper and you don’t need health insurance!

    You definitely went at a good time of year, the tourist crowds are pretty unbearable in July/August. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Tom — great hints to avoid more tourist taxes. 🙂 We actually figured out that if we went just a little further off the beaten track to the local pubs, we could save a lot of pounds. We got some “what the hell are you doing here” looks, though.

      And you are right about the Underground being well-maintained. I didn’t know about Boston, I remember the T being pretty good, but that was years ago. However, NYC has all kinds of maintenance issues and shutdowns, for sure.

      And yeah, I’d be willing to pay more for health insurance. Totally worth it.

      Surely you’ve got Magners in Boston — or is there a better one?

      1. You will get the best food (and often value) in country pubs for sure!

        I’m not a huge Magners fan but I can get that in Boston. I’m hoping my favourite Thatchers Gold makes it across the Atlantic one day! 🙂

  11. 5 pounds for a subway ride? Damn! That’s expensive.

    #11 tip is useful and can be applied to any country. When we tried to buy subway tickets in Lyon, France, our credit cards were denied. We ended up convincing a kind French man to purchase two tickets for us on his credit card and we paid him in cash.

  12. I should have made a list of all the thoughts that ran through my head as I read your story, so that I wouldn’t have forgotten them. Eh, too late now. So, in no particular order, here are some of them:

    About the Rover Rover game, it sounds almost like one that I used to play when I was little too. It was plenty of fun!

    Oh, the currency! Here it seems less frustrating. o-o Unless… you count the small 1 ban coin, ahaha. But luckily, no-one really uses it. Unless one wants to tick off another. xD
    By the way, if you ever decide to pay us a visit too, make sure you use our currency. I strongly believe that it’s a lot cheaper that way. I mean, instead of paying 5$ for a bottle of water, you can pay like 1$ (depending on where you buy it from, but this mostly happens at hotels.) after conversion. ouo

    The subway is expensive in here as well. ._. The prices raised. The bus is cheaper. A lot cheaper, by comparison.

    It looks like you had a lot of fun there! 😀 Plenty to remember and tell.

    1. I’m glad to hear that clotheslining one’s classmates is a universal game. It restores my faith in humanity.

      I guess cash will be universal…at least for a little while.

      1. Well… I have no idea how much of your faith would actually be restored. That happened a gazillion of years ago…

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