Travel Tips for Americans Visiting London from an American Expat

London Travel Tips

London is an incredible city for many reasons. You’ve made an excellent decision in choosing to visit here. It has been said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Having lived here for over a year now, I am inclined to agree with that sentiment. These London travel tips for Americans will help you make the most of visiting this remarkable bastion of culture, history, art and food.

For Americans traveling to London, our shared language makes it easy to communicate and orient yourself as soon as you land in the UK. Though we share a language and many cultural references, you will find some differences, even on a short trip. The differences are nothing to be intimidated by, in fact, many are fun to discover. With these travel tips, you’ll be well-equipped to navigate London and all it has to offer and delight in its quirks and unique culture.

Top Tips for Americans Visiting London

When to Visit London
How Long to Visit
Beating Jet Lag
Getting Around London
Money and Paying for Things in London
Staying Connected and Cell Phones
What to Pack When Traveling to London
Eating in London
Book in Advance
Some Words to Know Before You Go

When to Visit London

Honestly, like most of Europe, there are pros and cons to visiting at different times of the year. Many people choose to visit London in the summer when the weather might be better, but then you’re visiting when everyone else is here. In the winter there are fewer people, but it can be cold, rainy and dark.

Rainy day at Buckingham Palace, London

If you want the best deal, winter is your best bet. If you want (maybe) the best weather, late spring or early fall is a good time to try your luck without running the risk of encountering a heat wave. Some things to note are the crowds, which really pick up in the summertime, and daylight. London is as far north as Calgary, so winters are quite dark and the summers are very light.

London from St Pauls
London trying to decide what the weather should be on this autumn afternoon…

My recommendation would be to visit during the fall or spring. Bottom line: it’s fairly temperate, it rains all year and there are always a lot of people here. There is never a lack of things to see and do in London!

St Pauls in Springtime

How Long to Visit London

More than travel time, it’s the time zone changes that make it difficult to travel to London from the US for a short period. There is so much to see and do here that a short trip will leave you mostly wishing you were better rested to see the bare minimum, especially if you are coming from the West Coast.

Four to five days would be my shortest recommendation for a first-timer. I recognize that I say this as someone who is extremely biased, but there are so many major sites to see and to truly soak up all the history and art, you need time to experience them. You need time to have enough meals to experience the highlights of London’s dining scene and more time still to have leisurely days exploring one of the many beautiful neighborhoods throughout the city.

Notting hill Colors London

If you have booked a shorter stay, fear not. My tips will help you make the most of your time in London!

Jet Lag

The best advice I can offer on jet lag is to fight through it. Every visitor we have who succumbs to a nap after a red-eye never gets on the time zone. When I have done that, it takes me more days to get on than you will have during a trip.

The ideal thing is to sleep on a red-eye, but for people like me, that’s just not possible. Luckily, I can usually stay up and push through on coffee and adrenaline when traveling. Try to stay awake the first day, drink coffee, stay active, get sunlight if there’s any to be had, go to bed at 9pm and by day two you’ll be rearing and ready to go on London time!

To ease your jet lag while you’re in transit, stay hydrated, try to eat your fruits and veggies and lay off the booze pre-and mid-flight. Treating your body well during a long-haul flight makes taking off touring the next day much easier!

Getting Around London

Before you arrive in London, download the Citymapper app. This is the best source for directions in London and it has much more up-to-date options for getting around the city than GoogleMaps. Directions come complete with accurate bus times, costs for the different journeys and many different routes to take. Citymapper will work offline if you put in your route before you lose service. This is helpful on the Tube or if your phone plan doesn’t work in London.

Trafalgar Square, London

When trying to get from point A to point B by any means other than on foot, I’ve found Citymapper much more useful than GoogleMaps. I do use both in my day to day here in London. Google has more information about locations, including photos, reviews and the ability to save things to your maps (we both have many, many things saved!). I prefer GoogleMaps for walking directions around London over Citymapper (which will take you down weird alleyways).

Once you have the Citymapper app, you’ll realize that the Tube is generally the fastest way to get anywhere in London. Using the Tube and buses is quite easy once you get the hang of it (and with your Citymapper directions telling you exactly where to go!). Luckily the Tube is quite sophisticated and reliable, especially compared to the subways of the eastern US. It’s a treat unless it’s super crowded or summertime, since many lines do not have A/C.

tube station london
My favorite Tube station!

Get an Oyster Card when you land for a refundable £5, and fill it up with some money. Most ticket kiosks in the Tube station will have them available. Then you’re good to go!

With an Oyster Card, you can easily tap in and tap out of the Underground and tap onto the bus. It even works on the Southern and Gatwick Express out to Gatwick! Don’t bother with a daily or weekly pass, the card will automatically be capped if you exceed the daily limit and you’ll travel for free beyond then. If you are coming from Heathrow, a Zone 1 weekly pass would not cover that journey, so you’d have to add value to your card anyway. In most cases it makes sense to just pay-as-you-go.

I met an expat new to London recently and she refused to take the bus based on her experiences from wherever she lived in the US before. I have only ever felt safe on the Tube and riding the bus, and, in fact, I tend to prefer riding the bus if possible. The rush of snagging a seat in the front row at the top of a bus has yet to wear off. Riding the top deck of the bus is a must-do for visitors!

Bus in front of Kings Cross

London is a wonderful city for walking, with its many parks and many historical sites close enough together. One of our favorite things to do with visitors is a walk along the Thames from the Tower, stopping to visit the highlights along the way. We easily have racked up around 10-12 miles a day on foot with visitors. Whether it’s through the Royal Parks or along the Thames, there are so many great places to explore in London on foot. Pack walking shoes!

A note for walking: pedestrians do not have the right of way here unless you are in a crosswalk with flashing lights atop black and white poles. Anything outside that and the car has the right of way. You must yield to cars or risk getting hit or inciting a road rage incident.

Dollars and Pounds: Money and Paying for Things in London

Like many US cities, you can pay for most things on a credit card in London. Unlike the US, many transactions here are Contactless or chip-and-pin. Signing for a credit card has been rendered almost obsolete, except when American tourists pay. American debit cards are not compatible with UK pin systems, so those transactions will need to be signed for as well.

We’ve had a few visitors voice their frustration at being beholden to signing receipts once they discover how difficult it can be for sales staff or waiters to track down a pen!The easiest work around for this is to add your card to Apple Pay or Android Pay before arriving so you can pay for smaller transactions via Contactless. I absolutely love using my phone as my wallet and it really speeds up the process. Almost everywhere around London will let you pay with Contactless for purchases under £30, and some will let you spend more.

Buckingham Palace

ATMs around London don’t typically have fees to use them, regardless of your bank. If you find one that charges transaction fees, look for the nearest grocery store. Those ATMs will not charge fees. Your bank back home may charge a foreign ATM fee and will definitely charge you an exchange fee, but the ATM in London will not.

When paying in cash here in the London, get ready to use coins! Ha! Denominations of £1 and £2 are in coin form in the UK, so you will definitely be using them. It is heavy and feels cheap, but that’s how it goes! It’s a funny sort of cultural association to shake, feeling cheap when paying by coin, but it is the norm here.

Another cultural gap that pertains to money is the practice of tipping. Tipping is not nearly as much of a thing in the UK. At the pubs, you don’t tip at all! In restaurants, it’s a 12.5% service charge, which is often automatically added to your bill. Read your bill carefully before adding a tip, it may already be on there. For cab drivers, you just round up.

Staying Connected and Cell Phones in London

There is free wifi all over London. If you really need to be in touch with the outside world, it is pretty easy. The quality of the wifi will depend on the place, but just about every cafe, restaurant or museum has it available for free.

If you choose not to get an international add-on for your phone during your visit, my hack is to keep your phone on Airplane mode so you don’t accidentally send and receive international texts or use international roaming data. You can still connect to wifi on Airplane for iMessage or emails.

There is no cell phone service on the Underground which feels like Boston circa 2010, but you adjust. Make sure to grab a free newspaper for entertainment and to catch up on the latest London news!

What to Pack When Traveling to London

Like any huge city, London is a fashionable place. Also like any huge city, you will find that there is something for everyone here, and that is reflected in what people are wearing. Pretty much anything goes, especially since there are so many tourists here, but here are a few key points to help you blend in a little better while you visit.

Bring your “smartest” coat. This British word means “sharpest” or “nicest” in American English. The outwear game in Londoners is strong, so you’ll want to have a nice to coat to blend in. Oddly enough, Londoners don’t often wear rain jackets (or rain boots). It does not often rain hard here, but it does rain frequently. An umbrella should be sufficient in keeping you dry.

London Travel Clothes

As I mentioned above, walking shoes are a must. Many people around London wear “smart trainers” or, in American, “nice sneakers” out and about in the city. Some popular examples are Nikes, Stan Smith adidas, Converse, Supergas and Vans. You’ll see some pretty funky metallic sneakers and hi-tops, too. A safe option is a pair of black Nikes with a white check mark. I have a pair like that and I wear them everywhere, all over Europe. Not many people wear athletic sneakers. If you see someone in Brooks wandering around London, chances are they are en route to the gym or an American, ha!

Layering is key in the London climate. The weather can be unpredictable and though it never gets all that cold in the city, there is a rawness to the cold here. Especially if you’ll be sightseeing, layers are essential for staying warm, dry and comfortable. The Tube is hot, so if you visit in the colder months, you’ll want your layers to be easily removable if you’ll be traveling by Tube frequently.

Neutrals and black are safe bets for a color palette. The added bonus of packing colors in the same family is that you can easily mix and match to avoid overpacking!

Compared to home in Boston, I would describe London style as being more tailored and generally more refined. Ladies, break out those skinny jeans and everyone, please leave the logo t-shirts, baggy pants, baseball caps, sweatshirts and sweatpants of any kind at home.

I’ll mention again that there is something for everyone in London, and so, the style is very varied. You will look great in whatever you bring!

Eating in London

Contrary to very outdated stereotypes, the food in London is amazing. Amazing. From what’s available to grab-and-go to the variety of cuisines and dining experiences, London has truly become a foodie destination.

Dishoom Food London

For British food, you can’t beat the pub! When ordering food at the pub, most of them will have you seat yourself and order everything from the bar. You’ll see a number on your table, which you’ll give to the bar staff and they’ll bring your food out to the table when its ready.

Churchill Arms London

Many pubs have fabulous menus, but some of the larger pub groups have menus that aren’t as delicious. We try to avoid Greene-King and Fuller’s for food, since we’ve found that their food is more akin to an Applebees or Friday’s. A pub with distribution from Sam Smith’s or Castle will have delicious British food on offer.

When you are finished dining at a restaurant, ask for the bill not the check. Bill is the term used in the UK. And, again, don’t forget to check your bill to see if they’ve already added the tip!

Dining in London does not have to break the bank – in fact, there are many deals to be found! Check sites like Bookatable and OpenTable for special menus, as well as the restaurant’s sites to see if there are any offers or vouchers (aka coupons) available. We’ve tried several set menus that have all been really tasty!

Book in Advance

I tend to fly by the seat of my pants while traveling, but London is one of those cities where that can really come back to bite you if you have your heart set on a certain restaurant or exhibit. With so many people living and visiting here, things to tend to sell out or book up in advance around the city.

Luckily, many places have online booking systems and upfront policies that make booking from afar pretty easy. For the most popular or trendy London restaurants, don’t be surprised if you are required to put down a credit card to hold your booking so that they can charge a fee if you miss it. For things like a nice dinner, special exhibits at the museums, afternoon tea, etc. definitely book ahead.

Because things book up, check the calendar for events and festivals well in advance of your travels. You don’t want to miss out! My parents visited during the Lord Mayor’s Show, so I stalked the Sky Garden website each Monday for weeks to snag 5:00pm tickets to watch the Lord Mayor’s Fireworks from there. So worth it!

Lord Mayor's Fireworks from Sky Garden

Some Words to Know Before You Go

The English speak English (obviously), but there are some phrasing differences from American to British English. Here are some common phrases you may encounter during your trip and some to avoid.

If you are asked “You alright?” Know that you probably do not look sick, this is a common greeting in the UK, similar to “how’s it going?” In American English. “Fine, thanks, you alright?” is an appropriate answer.

Right from the airport, you’ll notice that they use the word “queue” instead of line. Queue is an excellent word as its both a noun and a verb. British people love to queue.

Tower Bridge London

Most everyone will know what you mean if you ask for the bathroom, but in the UK its referred to as the toilet. I know. I know. This is a very weird term to use as an American, but that’s how its said here. It took me months to get used to and I honestly prefer to say “loo.”

Some others to note are bill instead of check at a restaurant, booking instead of reservation at hotels, restaurants and attractions and one that British people seem to be most passionate about – rubbish bin not trash can. I don’t why that one is particularly sensitive, but try to say rubbish and not trash.

An American phrase that is confusing for British people is “all set” or “all good.” We still sometimes say this and we always confuse people, ha! Another American thing to note is your volume. Americans speak very loudly compared to the British. Try to be aware of your volume when out and about around London, especially the Tube. I still struggle with this, especially if I’ve been to the pub!

London is truly a fabulous city and I hope these tips are helpful to you when you visit! If you have more questions or tips to add, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

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