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UK Honeymoon Mystery Adventure Time
May 11, 2011 12:39 PM   Subscribe

UK Driving Tour Honeymoon - 3 technical questions Re: US cards in a Chip & Pin world, UK power conversion with 110v power strips, and things to know about congestion fees, and tolls, etc.

We're leaving for the UK for a driving tour next week for about a (hastily planned) fortnight's stay, and I am having a bit of trouble finding current answers to the following questions. There have been several helpful askme threads. I feel I almost get the answer I need, but as times change, so do answers, and I could really use some help.

1. US debit credit cards in the UK - I understand that ATMs are the way to go, and that there was still some amount of support for the mag stripe US cards, but can I go to a store and purchase a prepaid /gift Visa/MC cards, put a hundred pounds or so on it, to make some transactions easier (i.e standalone automated toll/public transportation things, etc)? The last answer was from 2008, I think, and I'm figuring there's even less places that can take mag stripe cards now.

2. Power Conversion - Binging several 110v devices, like a laptop, iPhone, etc. I thought that buying one or two UK power outlet converters, and using an American 110v power strip might save some cash and make things easier. Is this a good idea?

3. I have a rental car through Hertz, and it seems I'm responsible for all tolls and charges, like the London Congestion Charge. I assume at least for tolls I can pay cash in dedicated lanes, but how would I make sure that I am not skipping or missing tolls?

Forgive me if any of these are ridiculously easy to answer questions that makes me look like I have no Google-fu, but with the wedding in 4 days, and the trip right after, my mind feels like a boil-in-a-bag dinner with all the to-do lists to finish.

Also, who would like some 'new friends from out of town' to crash with them? (just kidding, but it would be cool to meet a mefite or two along the way to share a drink and get some cool destination suggestions)
posted by chambers to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total)
 
Regarding #2, the voltage going through the power strip will be 230V. Most power strips have at least some kind of circuit breaker or surge protection, and will likely be fried by the higher voltage. A super-dumb triple tap without any circuitry or lights or anything would probably work, but the adapters are so cheap it's probably not really worth worrying about.
posted by zsazsa at 12:58 PM on May 11, 2011


1. Don't quote me on this, but the only place I can imagine a Visa or Mastercard without a chip being a problem is on the London Underground (and I'm not even sure about that). Everwhere else (shops, train stations) you can just find a live person to pay, and they'll take your signature instead of your PIN. American Express is seldom accepted though.

2. Yes, that's a good idea. (The problem is not the 110V, by the way. Modern devices and their AC adapters can almost all handle 110-250V. The problem is the socket design.)

3. Basically, with the exception of the Second Severn Crossing from Bristol to South Wales, the Humber Bridge, the Dartford tunnel across the Thames, and the M6 (toll) near Birmingham, tolls are a non-issue. Check prices for these ones and have cash ready if you plan to use them.

There are a handful of tolls on local bridges, (e.g. The Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Swinford Toll). These charge nominal fees (Swinford is 5p for cars). If for some reason you don't have this then you can just turn around. These aren't on motorways.

If you're going to the coast you might encounter the odd ferry crossing (e.g. Kingswear to Dartmouth). These will be cheaper than major bridges/M6, but probably more than the local bridges (e.g. I think Kingswear—Dartmouth is about £2). These will be obvious on any road map of the UK, but if for some reason you don't have the cash then again just turn around.

Apart from the London Congestion Charge, you can't skip or miss the tolls: there are barriers (and gates that take cash). You're not going to get a letter in the post a couple of weeks later because your numberplate.

"4." Go to Chatsworth House and the Peak District :-)
posted by caek at 1:00 PM on May 11, 2011


I can't answer authoritatively all of your questions, but I would say that cash is your friend - MUCH more so than prepaid gift cards. Many pubs (at least where I live, way outside London) won't take credit cards and cash is still very much used. Cash points are relatively easy to find, so, provided your bank doesn't charge you too much per transaction, I would suggest taking out money every few days as necessary.

As for your (sort of?) question at the end - the South West of England has been sunny and warm the last few weeks.
posted by brambory at 1:03 PM on May 11, 2011


I'm figuring there's even less places that can take mag stripe cards now.

Based on my recent experience, the only place I couldn't use a non chip-and-PIN card was a mobile phone shop, where their card-processing equipment simply wasn't able to do swipe-and-sign. It was marginally more hassle in some shops (one had to dig out an old manual card imprint machine) and I didn't use plastic for low-value purchases, but as long as you have some cash on hand, you should be fine.

On that point: before you leave, see if your bank has a UK partner with lower ATM fees: Bank of America, for example, dings you much less if you use Barclays cashpoints.

using an American 110v power strip might save some cash

I'd be very very wary of that. Standard American power strips are really pretty crude, and not rated for higher voltages. Better, if you can, to buy swappable power cords with UK plugs.
posted by holgate at 1:25 PM on May 11, 2011


RE: the 230v/110v issue, I'm wary of putting my faith in the 'almost all' part of it.

With the power strip idea, do they still sell wall adapter/transformers that drop the current to 110v? Only because we will be staying at B&Bs and Inns of various qualities and the surge protection would be my last line of defense before power supplies get fried. If it were all 'name brand' or 'known' hotels and such, I wouldn't be so concerned, but I rarely trust steady, balanced power currents in out-of-the-way places even here in the US. (I mean no disrespect. I'm sure your power grid is just fine, folks, it's the possibility of older wiring in converted large houses I'm speaking of.)
posted by chambers at 1:25 PM on May 11, 2011


Hotels and Hertz will happily swipe your US cards and let you sign. To avoid delays I'd use cash for everything but large purchases - ticket machine, car parks, toll lanes, pubs or restaurants, shops and B&Bs will happily accept cash. Most places that accept credit cards will also swipe your card as long as you go to a person to pay rather than a self service check out but it may take a bit longer.

You can't miss or skip tolls - there are either barriers or, in case of the Congestion Charge, the signs are massive and everywhere. And you can pay that online. To be honest though try not to drive through central London if you can help it...driving is not normally the quickest way to go.

Have fun.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:27 PM on May 11, 2011


do they still sell wall adapter/transformers that drop the current to 110v?

A multi-plug adapter with a surge protector from Maplin or similar would do the same job, without the faff of stepping down for power supplies that don't need it.

I rarely trust steady, balanced power currents in out-of-the-way places even here in the US.

From experience, the electrical grid in the US is much flakier than that in the UK, even in less remote places. That's partly down to geography and infrastructure choices.
posted by holgate at 1:40 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


With the power strip idea, do they still sell wall adapter/transformers that drop the current to 110v?

They do, though you really don't need one.
Be aware that there are generally two varieties, a low-wattage (50W) and high wattage (north of a 750W), some are autoswitching, some use a physical switch, some only do 50W. Be aware of which one you are buying.

You should note, though, that just about every high wattage transformer is not meant for things like electronics. They produce crappy power, and are probably more likely to damage your electronics than just using straight wall power.
posted by madajb at 1:46 PM on May 11, 2011


Your phones and laptops will charge safely at 220v. If you check the power supply on your charger it will show you the voltage range. You will need an adaptor to accept US plugs and they're available at any electronics store for a couple of bucks. If you're bringing aother appliances (such as hair dryers) you'll need to make sure that any transformer you buy will produce adequat wattage.
posted by Neiltupper at 1:50 PM on May 11, 2011


RE: the 230v/110v issue, I'm wary of putting my faith in the 'almost all' part of it.
For mobile phones and laptops, it's just not going to be an issue. Don't worry about it. For other stuff, check the hardware. It will say the voltage range supported.
Only because we will be staying at B&Bs and Inns of various qualities and the surge protection would be my last line of defense before power supplies get fried. If it were all 'name brand' or 'known' hotels and such, I wouldn't be so concerned, but I rarely trust steady, balanced power currents in out-of-the-way places even here in the US.
As holgate says, the UK home electrical system is generally more reliable (and certainly more consistent) than (my experience of) the US system. If you run into problems with the distribution/sockets anywhere, including 12th century castles and cheap B&Bs, you'll see something I've not seen in 30 years of living here.

If you're hoping to find sockets like you get in US motels, the kind that won't charge your device for unknown reasons, or that make a fizzing sound when you turn a light on, then you're coming to the wrong place.
posted by caek at 2:07 PM on May 11, 2011


Interesting. Good point about the wattages. It looks like my Apple stuff should play nice with 230v. Once I check the other stuff to make sure, just the cheap plug adapters should be cool.
posted by chambers at 2:07 PM on May 11, 2011


If you're hoping to find sockets like you get in US motels, the kind that won't charge your device for unknown reasons, or that make a fizzing sound when you turn a light on, then you're coming to the wrong place.

The concern is more of force of habit, being more sensitive than most people to the issue from installing and maintaining IT stuff all over the Midwest USA. Little power spikes here and there, and the problems they cause, seem to be the gremlins that hit you when you least expect it. 99% of the time, its never an issue, but I only get the calls to deal with it when that 1% hit them, so it has kinda messed with my perception of the real size of the issue.
posted by chambers at 2:20 PM on May 11, 2011


If you have power bricks that require the US grounded three pin outlet, then a power strip would work, but (unless you use an overpriced "travel" version) they are bulky and a nuisance. What I do is use one UK to US adapter plug and a cheap six foot extension cord -- the simple two prong kind that has three outlets on it. They cost about two bucks, they allow you to use two wall warts at once and they allow you to plug things in even when the outlet is not in the most convenient place. Given that many things will charge off USB, I've never found that I've ever needed to connect more than two wall warts at once despite traveling with five or more devices -- one or two laptops, a camera, a couple of iPods and a couple of phones. If you get two converters and two extension cords, you needn't spend more than ten bucks and you won't mind too much if you leave one somewhere.

As everyone else has noted, almost all fairly recent power bricks (except the cheapest no-name brands) will handle both US and UK voltages though some of them take careful reading to make sure. For instance, my Nikon charger lists the input voltage in large type as 110v, then in tiny type in a small box underneath says: "Foreign: Input AC 100-240v".

As for credit card use, you sometimes need to tell the person serving you that the card needs to be swiped; on a few occasions I've watched them puzzle over why the non-existent chip won't work, but once the message got across, the only time I had a problem was with someone who was so new to the job that they had never had to process a card that way, and even then they eventually just went and someone to help them.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 3:50 PM on May 11, 2011


1 - Please don't freak out when you see how little our roads are. Really.
2 - Please don't freak out when you see how fast people drive on them sometimes, too. We have an inappropriate speed addiction. So...
3 - Automated speed cameras (big yellow box on a stick at the side of the road, plus graduated white strips on the tarmac) and more familiar hand-held police radar guns/cameras are pretty common. Hertz will add about $100 handling fee to any fine you accumulate for passing on your details.
4 - Hire a sat-nav if you're used to a grid layout. You'll be too busy trying to deal with roundabouts the first few days.
5 - The gas pump isn't broken - there's no lock-on at UK pumps so you just have to stand there, and pay-at-the-pump is rarer (although getting better).
6 - YMMV (literally) but I can't be bothered driving in London except at weekends when there is no congestion charge. Or much of SE England between 7.30 - 9am and 5-7pm, really. Too much traffic to be enjoyable.

Sorry if this is stuff you know -
posted by cromagnon at 4:47 PM on May 11, 2011


Sorry if this is stuff you know -


These little bits and pieces that come in handy, too. It's knowing those little things that can keep me from looking, for at least a moment, like a damn yank fool (like that gas pump tip) that can't figure out a gas station. Sure, it's funny even for me the first few times with those moments, but after two weeks of an assortment of them, it would wear on me. A few of those moments are part of the fun of travel anyway. I'd be a fool to think I'll avoid all of those while I'm over there, but if I can minimize them, so much the better.

I have heard many people warn me about the narrow roads and such, but I at least have had experience driving when I was young on winding narrow country roads, keeping an eye on out for that way to wide tractor/school bus/random escaped large grazing animal that's hiding just around the bend.
posted by chambers at 5:32 PM on May 11, 2011


I really would not worry about the debit/credit cards. My chip-and-pin card broke and I had to swipe my card and sign the receipt for a few weeks, and pretty much everywhere was fine with this. (It did seem very old fashioned though, as I am young enough to have always had chip-and-pin cards!) But there are definitely places that don't take cards at all, so also carry cash.
posted by maybeandroid at 1:06 AM on May 12, 2011


The driving on the left thing takes a bit of concentration. You'll find yourself on the right side typically when there is no traffic to remind you (quiet side streets, and night).

Seriously, hire a GPS device. You don't want to have to worry about how to get there, you have to worry about keeping left and not getting killed. Roundabouts ARE tricky when they're new to you!
posted by Goofyy at 2:08 AM on May 12, 2011


The standard advice: 'post-it with "LEFT <———" on centre console. And while it's probably set in stone now, I'd suggest picking up your car from an airport Hertz rather than, say, the ones in central London, even if that means heading back out there after a few days in town. You really don't want your first roundabout experience to be Hyde Park Corner. There's really no reason to drive in the Congestion Charge zone.
posted by holgate at 3:36 AM on May 12, 2011


Driving in London sucks. Seriously.

You have to pay the congestion charge (£10) by midnight on the day that you enter the charging zone, otherwise it goes up to £12, which you have to pay before midnight the next day, otherwise you face a £120 fine! Hertz also will bill you a hefty "processing" fee if you forget to pay.

You can pay online here: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging/

Hotels and friendly Londoners (believe me, there are a few) will help.
posted by col at 5:57 AM on May 12, 2011


Yes, don't drive around London, you'll be stuck in traffic all day. Park up at the hotel and get yourself a day ticket or an Oyster card, which you can top up and use to pay for travel as you use it - more cities should have them!
posted by mippy at 6:45 AM on May 12, 2011


You'll get more problems from using a voltage converter that can't handle the power you're trying to draw than from simply using your devices with a socket adapter.

As long as your device's power brick says it's good up to 240V, then you will be blessed with a MUCH more reliable supply of juice with less spikes, etc. in the UK than you would be in the US.

I'm continually surprised by how much of a junky electrical supply the US puts up with.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:28 AM on May 12, 2011


Yes, don't drive around London, you'll be stuck in traffic all day.

When we visit London, we may stay somewhere on the outer rim of the city, perhaps around the north, or west sides, (just out of geographical convenience, as being in London proper is more at the end of our clockwise trip around Great Britain) and use public transportation to go into the city. Any recommendations on a good place to get a place to stay that his close to a commuter transportation center (with overland trains, busses, and an underground station that, if not directly there, one that's nearby or a single bus trip) that would give us easy access to multiple ways into the city.

I'm just looking to strategically place us so we minimize the amount of places we park, and maximize the amount of area we can cover during the day.
posted by chambers at 9:02 AM on May 12, 2011


Any recommendations on a good place to get a place to stay that his close to a commuter transportation center

Richmond, Kew, Twickenham? Leafy outer London, nicely situated for some touristy things (Kew Gardens, Hampton Court), on the District Line and well served by buses, the railway network and even a boat service.
posted by holgate at 9:48 AM on May 12, 2011


Spent Six months in England late last years.

No problems with the voltage of your equipment; power adapter plugs are essential. Consider getting one and then plugging a multi-socket english extension into it. These are available from supermarkets for a couple of quid.

If you are driving, stay away from driving in Central London. The congestion charge is murder, the traffic is worse. There is no need for it. Arrange to pick up the car at the airport or outside of the central zone.

Get a GPS (SatNav is the term used in England). Understand that Postcodes in the UK are a vital and important resource. The format will tell you a great deal of where you are going, and in a SatNav, will get you there precisely. The format of AAn nAA gives you the county/city area (eg. SW1) and the second set of numbers will take you to the location.

Don't expect that travelling on Motorways are necessarily going to be quick. Traffic Jams for endless miles are common. Be prepared.

The picturesque winding country roads are not limited to the thinnest lines on the map. Many of the 'A' and 'B' roads are like that too. Hedgerows can be extremely high and make the roads very narrow, not even wide enough for one car to travel in each direction, and it is open for two way traffic with curves. Be prepared, and when coming out of one way streets and car parks especially, remember to drive on the left hand side.

The money card thing.
This is the most important.

We were initially surprised by this when we arrived. Cards without a chip were not accepted in many places at all. It was that or cash. Even our overseas cards with chips and PINs would not be accepted much the time. We needed cash.

Of course hotels and higher end restaurants would be fine with foreign cards. Local places, not so much so. (And they are usually the most fun).

Don't consider Discover, stick to Visa (preferred) or Mastercard. Debit cards are really widely used, and although linked to bank accounts, it is very hard to set up an English bank account. See if some of the large national/multi national banks (HSBC, Lloyds, Santander etc) sell prepaid cards. Transferring small amounts frequently is expensive.

We found
posted by Flashduck at 4:26 AM on May 13, 2011


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