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Do London taxis take payment in towels?
May 18, 2011 4:11 PM   Subscribe

I am an obsessive worrier. I've just booked short-notice tickets to spend a week with friends in London. I know where my towel is, but that's about it. Help me do this without losing my shit over the many other small things I need to figure out.

I'm the sort of person who plans obsessively. I like to know exactly what will happen at any given point, so that I can make sure I'm prepared for it. I'm used to booking vacations six months or a year in advance, and with someone else doing the heavy lifting for planning. And yet somehow, I've decided to live dangerously and go to London for a week at the beginning of June. I bought my plane tickets today, and I've already started panicking. Mefi, help me figure out the logistics of traveling to another country! Highlights of my panic include:

Visa: Am I correct in thinking that, as an American, for a one-week stay, I don't need to acquire a visa or anything, and can more or less just arrive in the country, get my passport stamped, and go?

Customs & Immigration: Are there any forms or questionnaires I need to have prepared or filled out to submit to UK Immigration when I arrive? Will I have to make a customs declaration? If so, what needs to be declared?

Heathrow: Where should I tell/expect my friend to meet me when I arrive at Heathrow? Is there a clear "here come the disembarking passengers" area where we will be able to find each other without too much trouble, especially if I haven't got a working phone at the time?

Cell phone service: I have a Verizon (CDMA) non-dual-band cell phone. I know this won't work in London. What I don't know is what I can to do arrange things so that when I step off the plane in Heathrow, I have a way to call the friend who'll be picking me up. I know that once I'm wandering London, I could probably walk into a Tesco and buy a pay-as-you-go phone, but leaving it until I'm already where I'm going and get a chance to shop seems alarmingly lackadaisical. What if I need to contact someone about my travel arrangements? Surely it's better to have a phone arranged in my pocket beforehand.

I also know that there is some program wherein I could call Verizon and rent a GSM phone, but the Verizon rep who told me that quickly followed it up with, "But really I'd recommend you just buy a PAYG phone locally", so I suspect that might not be an awesome option.

Any phone I rent/buy to work in London must be able to do calls and texts, but I'd award bonus points for a phone with even rudimentary web access for email and googling.

*Bonus cell-service question: I'm traveling to Haifa, Israel later this summer. If I buy a PAYG phone in London, would that phone be reusable if I bought/rented a local SIM for it in Israel? How does that work?

Money: I have a US debit card. Would I be best off a) withdrawing a lot of cash stateside and changing it to pounds at my local bank or at the airport, b) changing a few dollars before I leave and using ATMs in London to take out cash whenever I need it, or c) getting traveler's checks or something (do people even use those anymore?)

Are there any other logistics I should be aware of? Small pitfalls that someone who doesn't travel alone internationally, like, ever, should know about? Facts about London that would be useful?
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE to Travel & Transportation around London, England (41 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
For what it's worth, I'm an obsessive worrier too, a terrible traveler, and have had more fun in London than anywhere.

You don't need a visa for a week-long stay.
If you need a form, they'll pass it out on the plane, and it will tell you what you need to declare. I don't remember if I got them coming into London or just into the U.S., but the airline hands them out when you need them.

My memory of Heathrow is that there's a very clear place where all incoming non-resident travelers end up.

I managed 10 weeks in London without a phone. Your friend should be able to check your flight arrival time and meet you without you having to call.

Just put your debit card into the ATM at Heathrow. You're probably best off with 2 debit cards, or a debit card and a credit card, just in case you have trouble using one, but banks in the U.S. charge a lot for exchanging money, if they even do it anymore.

Other stuff - know what your credit/debit card is going to charge you for foreign currency fees - it's anywhere from 0 to 3%, which makes a difference if you're spending a lot. Get an Oyster card (lots of info online about it, but your friends there can undoubtedly tell you about it too) and take the Underground everywhere.

Have fun!
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 4:23 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is an awesome question and plays to my nature so I will be following along for answers.

I can answer one thing though - I have used travelers checks any time I went outside the country (last time was in 08). I like that you can register them and if something should happen, you're not completely screwed.

Have a great vacation!
posted by bibliogrrl at 4:25 PM on May 18, 2011


Visa: no you should not need a visa.

Customs: any forms you need you will be given on the plane. You don't need to declare anything unless you have something to declare, which will be on the form.

Heathrow: I'd just take the train into London, rather than having people pick you up at Heathrow. If you need to be picked up, your friends should monitor the flight and leave on time to fetch you. If you call when you get to the airport, it will probably take them a long time to get you.

Cell: If you really need a phone, I'd just buy a PAYG phone when you get there.

Money: I usually just change a few dollars before I go (NEVER AT THE AIRPORT--go to a bank or the Amex travel services place in midtown). Then I take money out of the ATM. Check with your bank to see if they will hose you with fees. I've always gotten the best f/x deals at the ATM. Credit card companies often have surcharges for foreign transactions.

Other: Speaking of credit cards, call your credit card issuers and let them know you're travelling internationally, so they don't decline any charges.

Keep in mind that London is a global capital. You can get anything you could possibly need there. Don't sweat it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:25 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Money: it depends on the bank. You should call your bank to find out if your card will work in London (it should) and what rate you'll be charged (if any) for forex withdrawals. Ideally you should bring about £150 cash and use your card to withdraw the rest, but check and make sure there won't be anything to prevent you.

Phones: maybe worth googling Heathrow and finding out what stores there sell PAYG phones and what the specs are. If you know where to go, you could buy one on your way out.

Visa: your consulate's website should have the answer in plain sight somewhere.

Customs & Immigration: Immigration forms will be handed to you on the plane if applicable. Unless you're bringing in ginormous quantities of booze or consumer goods, you probably have nothing to declare and will go through the "nothing to declare" queue at customs. Your airline's website will have guidelines about which things are and are not okay to take in hand or cabin baggage.

Heathrow: your flight information will tell you which terminal (of 5) your plane comes in at. If you give your friends the flight number they will be able to stay updated on that. Every terminal has a clear departure area and meeting point.

There is nothing strange about any of the questions you're asking, if you're not experienced at international travel.
posted by tel3path at 4:32 PM on May 18, 2011


DON'T PANIC!

here's to hoping your 'towel' reference was about Douglas Adams
posted by Pecinpah at 4:33 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


While still in the US, call your bank and credit card issuing company ahead of time and tell them when/where you will be overseas. That way, it won't be shut off for possible fraud activity while you are traveling.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:34 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Visa: Am I correct in thinking that, as an American, for a one-week stay, I don't need to acquire a visa or anything, and can more or less just arrive in the country, get my passport stamped, and go?

Pretty much, yeah. You're doing what's called a "visa waiver", which means that because the US and Britain have certain diplomatic agreements in place, you don't require a visa to visit the country for purposes of tourism for short periods of time. You will have to fill out a few forms for UK customs and immigration, as well. In my experience these are simple forms just asking who you are, where you're traveling from, how long you'll be staying, etc. as well as what sorts of things you're bringing into the country with you. If you're nominally literate in English and packed your own bags, you should be fine.

Customs & Immigration: Are there any forms or questionnaires I need to have prepared or filled out to submit to UK Immigration when I arrive? Will I have to make a customs declaration? If so, what needs to be declared?

See above. A guidebook can tell you the specifics of what needs to be declared, but unless you're going for business or carrying very large sums of cash or luxury items, this is most likely something you won't have to deal with.

Heathrow: Where should I tell/expect my friend to meet me when I arrive at Heathrow? Is there a clear "here come the disembarking passengers" area where we will be able to find each other without too much trouble, especially if I haven't got a working phone at the time?

Don't remember about Heathrow, but every international airport I've ever been in has had this, yes.

Cell phone service

It's a week and you're on vacation. Don't bother with this. I just got back from a trip to visit friends in Rome and it was no problem. We just pretended like it was the Before Time and planned meeting points in advance, used pay phones as necessary, etc. There was a complicated moment where I had to learn to use an Italian pay phone, but honestly it was no big deal. If you absolutely must, bring your phone from home and send a couple of texts. It's not that astronomically expensive.

Money: I have a US debit card.

My usual tactic is to use my US debit card to withdraw largeish amounts of cash upon arrival at my destination, from local ATMs in local currency. "Largeish" so as to minimize the number of ATM fees I have to pay. Every airport I have ever been in has had a conveniently located ATM in the arrivals area. Once you're out of the airport you can use ATMs as needed, just as locals do. My only bits of advice here are to let your bank's fraud department know you'll be traveling and make sure you have a 4-digit PIN.

Relax and have fun! Traveling in Europe, especially in Britain, is not nearly as stressful or foreign as one would think. They have everything there that we have here. And it's only for a week!
posted by Sara C. at 4:37 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Take a credit card. It's a first-world country. You can purchase your way out of any minor errors like forgetting toothpaste.

(This is my travel-abroad anti-stress mantra: It's a first-world country. They take credit cards. There are very few travel problems that can't be solved with a credit card.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:41 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Admiral Haddock pretty much covers it. When you go through immigration in the UK, they want to know two things: have you shown up expecting to work, and can you prove you're going to go home and definitely not try to stay and work. A return plane ticket covers that pretty well, don't joke about working or not being able to get home. Done.

Your debit/credit cards are probably fine, and your bank should be able to tell you which British bank's ATMs will charge you the least fees (sometimes no fees if they have an agreement), but don't worry about that at the airport, just get some money. If you want to be super-careful, carefully hide $100 in $20s around your wallet, toiletry bag, etc. Don't forget where you put them.

Get a color scan of your passport and mail it to yourself and your mom (or whoever you'd call in an emergency). Print two copies and leave one with your mom, bringing the other one with you but not in the same place you keep your passport. If your passport should be lost or stolen, having the copy will make you look much less shady at the embassy trying to get it replaced.

Another vote for DON'T PANIC. London is a great place for an impulsive getaway, and I'd say the only thing you should even worry about is taking broken-in shoes that don't hurt your feet with you because everything else is entirely manageable.

And London is wonderfully wanderable. Try picking a general area and just going there with no agenda. It's good for you.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:43 PM on May 18, 2011


I'm a travel-panic-plagued person too and have found London to be so easy to navigate even alone. The fact that you'll be there with friends who live there means it'll be that much easier to get around!

Just check that your passport is still valid. Yes, I'm the idiot who once thought I had a valid passport only to find out at the airline counter that it had expired. Zoinks.
posted by cecic at 4:43 PM on May 18, 2011


Two things I can contribute:

If your credit card has a chip but you aren't used to using the PIN, make sure you know the PIN before going. They won't be able to tell you over the phone, and the bank machines there won't be able to change it for you.

Make sure you know your friend's address, even if he is meeting you. You'll need it for the forms you'll have to fill out on the plane.
posted by chrillsicka at 4:48 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you want to be super-careful, carefully hide $100 in $20s around your wallet, toiletry bag, etc. Don't forget where you put them.

I usually do this when I travel to developing countries, but I'm not sure how worthwhile it is for the UK. $100 is what, maybe 50 quid? Is that even a day's worth of money for the average tourist? If something happens, you're still going to be up shit creek. Though I suppose it's something.
posted by Sara C. at 4:51 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


You don't say if your home cell phone is a smartphone, or if you own an iTouch or anything like that, but if you do, I highly recommend offmaps. It allows you to download google maps to your phone/iPod/whatever so that you can access them without being online.

Also, look into free public wifi availability for London (if, of course, you have some sort of device that can use it). A good guidebook should have information about this, or perhaps some helpful Londoner Mefits will happen along and give you the skinny.
posted by Sara C. at 4:57 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seconding the advice about your passport!

Regarding phone: I travel internationally every so often for work and I'm on Verizon. I've found the Global Travel phone program to work well, not sure why they told you not. If you have a smart phone, you can get a fairly cheap data package which means you'll get all your emails, which I've found helpful. If you want to google a lot, that will be more downloading, but you should be ok with one of the data packages when you're just there for a week. You also can transfer all your contacts if you need them into the new phone fairly easily.

When I was in Barcelona without a phone I ended up not being able to meet up with friends because I was late and they weren't there...then it turned out they were even later, so I missed them because I thought they had come and gone. It can just help with that sort of thing. Texts are usually 5 cents to receive and 50 cents to send (it could be a little annoying if you get a lot of texts from people back home, as it can add up, but 5 cents each isn't exorbitant).

If you don't need to worry about meeting up with people, then don't worry about a phone.

As to your other questions:
You don't need a Visa

You don't need to declare anything (as long as you're not bringing a briefcase filled with cash or an animal etc). On the way back, you'll just need to write down on the form anything you are bringing back that you bought in England (i.e. $50 clothes), as long as it's under I think $400 worth of stuff, you're fine.

I would take Heathrow Express into Paddington Station, if that's convenient for your friend. You can follow the signs and buy tickets there, they run every half hour or something. A little more convenient and much faster than taking the underground.

Get cash from the ATMs when you get there. English banks don't charge fees (or they didn't when I was there last year). Your bank will, but it's just easier to get cash there. Get a couple hundren pounds for the first withdrawal and then do a combination of cash & credit card. Your cc company will also tack on a foreign transaction fee on each purchase, but it's still easier than changing money (in which they also tack on a fee).

Remember that England is expensive, but don't stress too much about money and ruin your vacation! You're having a great experience and it's only for a week - ENJOY. There are also many free and cheap things to do. Most museums are free! Good thing to do on a rainy day.

Have fun!
posted by witchstone at 4:59 PM on May 18, 2011


Sara C.: You don't say if your home cell phone is a smartphone, or if you own an iTouch or anything like that, but if you do, I highly recommend offmaps. It allows you to download google maps to your phone/iPod/whatever so that you can access them without being online.

My phone is a Droid Incredible. Anyone know of an Android analogue to offmaps?

I hadn't thought about public wifi. Is it the case that I will be able to tote my Incredible around and, if there's open wifi, use that for email, etc checks without running into the issue of cell bands and carriers and other such ephemera?

witchstone: I've found the Global Travel phone program to work well, not sure why they told you not. If you have a smart phone, you can get a fairly cheap data package which means you'll get all your emails, which I've found helpful. If you want to google a lot, that will be more downloading, but you should be ok with one of the data packages when you're just there for a week.

Are you talking about the rent-a-phone thing, or the temporarily-turn-on-international-service thing? I know people who have Blackberries on Verizon who were able to do the latter, but according to the Verizon guy I talked to, my phone doesn't have that capability at all. I'd have to rent a phone. Witchstone, can you tell me some more about how that works - do I then get a phone that acts like London is its local area, and doesn't cost prohibitive amounts to place calls and texts? Or is it still prohibitive, but hey at least it works? Would they rent me a smartphone? Would the data costs be prohibitive if they did?
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 5:10 PM on May 18, 2011


Is it the case that I will be able to tote my Incredible around and, if there's open wifi, use that for email, etc checks without running into the issue of cell bands and carriers and other such ephemera?

This is how it worked for me, my iPhone 3gs, and AT&T coverage. I wandered around Europe with my phone in airplane mode (so as not to attract international data charges), hopping on wifi networks as available. All free of charge and without using a drop of my data plan. But double check - I know next to nothing about droids.

If this is possible for you (and especially if London is a city with good access to free wifi), look into downloading something that enables you to send SMS via wifi rather than your cellular plan.
posted by Sara C. at 5:18 PM on May 18, 2011


Things I remember about London from the week I spent there in 2003:

1. I wish I hadn't brought a suitcase on wheels, rolling it down the sidewalk to my hotel from the Underground sucked. People did not get out of my way.
2. Every building within a 3 block radius of my hotel looked exactly alike. I wish I'd brought a map every single time I left the hotel.
3. People have no problem standing really, really close to you on public transportation and if you're not used to riding a subway this can be unnerving.
4. It was really hard to find a taxi after midnight, but once I did it was the best taxi ride ever.
5. OMG YOU'RE DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE STREET
posted by desjardins at 5:35 PM on May 18, 2011


Our last trip to England (2009) we rented a phone from Verizon, the charges were reasonable for calls/texts. We didn't use it often but it was great peace of mind to have it. We were out of wifi areas more often than we were in them (may not be an issue in London, we were mostly in the Cotswolds and in Minehead). By contrast, we bought a pay-as-you-go phone in Ireland in 2006, and it was a huge pain to activate it and use it. It was also more expensive than we'd thought it would be. I found the rent from Verizon option the best choice.

Echo the suggestion to call your bank to warn the fraud department you're traveling, but be prepared for them to do nothing with that information and randomly shut off your account halfway through the trip anyway. This happened to my husband on our trip (and it was very handy to have the rental phone for dealing with the situation). Weirdly, I use the same bank and have never had a problem overseas.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 5:55 PM on May 18, 2011


Question to Desjardins...
What do you suggest instead of the suitcase on wheels?
And to the OP: It sounds like you're getting the basics all lined up. I would add that you should take a piece of paper with your friends' phone number and address, and those of others you might know in London. My friends carry that info on their cell phones, but I want to know that I don't need anything electronic to find my London contacts. And because I worry and plan like you do, I would also leave a copy at home along with the photocopy of my passport.
posted by calgirl at 6:06 PM on May 18, 2011


I'm from the US and I've been living in London since January. A few things:

I picked someone up at Heathrow a month or so ago, and all the arrivals at that terminal funneled into one arrivals area. Don't sweat meeting up with your friends there. There's also tube service from Heathrow, and you can take the Heathrow Express into Paddington if that's convenient for your friends.

Phone: I've been here for almost 6 months, using my iPhone 4 without a working SIM and using free WiFi. I also bought a cheapie phone. I'm not sure if it's worth it for a week, but mine cost about £15- 5 for the phone, 10 for buying into the plan although I think you can get one for £5 and for a week, just go with the cheapest. I haven't found London to be that great for free WiFi. There's a few OpenZone things that have coverage a lot of places but you need certain cellphone or home internet plans to use them, and coffee shops vary in their ability to provide real actual free WiFi.

Customs-wise, you get a form on the plane. The scariest part for me was having to face a real live immigration persons and answer their questions. I was arriving with no prearranged visa with just an acceptance email from my university, and I got through. They really only care that you're not going to be working or trying to get sweet socialized medical care while you're there.

Money: No British banks charge on their end for ATM withdrawals, so you shouldn't pay double fees for using out-of-network ATMs like you can in the US. I have Chase in the US, and they charge a fee plus an extra percentage tacked onto the exchange rate.

Random stuff: Everyone seems to love the Tube, but I actually really enjoy using the bus here. It gives you a better sense of place in a huge, sprawling city, and you get to see cool stuff from the window that you'd miss underground in the rabbit warrens. Plus it's cheaper.

In central London, everything is closer together than it seems. It's totally possible to walk from Westminster to the Tower and back in the space of a few hours, and there's stuff to see along the entire route. Finding random incredibly old/famous stuff is one of the really cool things about London.

Go to a market! I've liked Spitalfields and Portobello road, and Borough market for food. Antiques in the UK are so much better than in the US, in my opinion.

Memail if you want area-specific advice or anything!
posted by MadamM at 6:12 PM on May 18, 2011


At least in Terminal 3, there are one or two places selling cheap PAYG cell phones right as you get out our arrivals. You can't miss it. I think the other terminals are similar.

And for those with unlocked SIM card phones, there's a SIM vending machine right there as well.

Regarding a few other topics that have come up in the discussion:

1. Heathrow Express is the easiest way downtown (takes you to Paddington station), but it is pricey. The Tube is much cheaper, but slower, and if you have significant luggage it can be a real PITA (see comment above about people not respecting "personal space" on the tube). However, there are pretty much *always* deals to be had on Heathrow Express. This thread on FlyerTalk is a good place to check them. And don't be concerned about airline-specific deals, since they never check. I pretty much always get either a free bump to first class (all 15 minutes of it, heh...) or 50% off.

2. Get a Bus map. Especially if out late at night (there are Night Route buses running all night). Often much more convenient than the tube, actually.

3. Wifi. If you have a Starbucks Card (which can be procured here or there), Starbucks has free Wifi and 1 quid coffees. (As an aside, the Starbucks card can't tell if it was charged in dollars, euros, or pounds, and instead maintains a point balance, so charging it here in the US gives you a ~40% discount when used in the UK as well....)

4. Customs: Make sure you have your friend's contact info. The immigration folks want you to have that or hotel information handy on your immigration form.

5. Passport: Like mentioned above, make sure your passport is valid for your entire visit (or at least 6 months if you don't have a return ticket... And I've found in the past that arriving without a return ticket gets you a *lot* of questions....)

6. Finding stuff to do: I always think TimeOut makes a good London guide for tourists, and is pretty well geared towards Americans.

7. Be glad that they write "Look Left" and "Look Right" at most ped crossings, since you'll generally look the wrong way by habit. I myself have once or twice come close to meeting a horrible demise with a lorry by forgetting this little fact.

8. Don't panic. London is probably one of the easiest (non-Canadian) foreign cities for Americans to cope in. The language is almost identical ;)
posted by kaszeta at 6:42 PM on May 18, 2011


Just got back from my first trip to London last week. The tube system is amazing - I got an Oyster card and put some cash on it. At that point it's like having a personal teleportation system - go down some stairs, swipe card, go upstairs and you're somewhere else. Works on buses and the overland rail, too. There's an android app that lets you enter where you are and where you want to be, then it generates a route with trains and stations.

I bought a $25 phone while in the US from telestial.com so I could leave a number with some people here. It's a cheap little thing (although a GSM phone for $25 is kinda amazing), but it worked fine for the little calling I did.

Have cash for the cabs on you - I didn't see any that took credit cards.

I had about an hour wait to get through customs at Heathrow. Once I finally got to the desk, it was a few quick questions about my trip and a cheery wave through.

Enjoy the trip - London is a lot of fun! If you can, get out into the countryside too - it's a very different feel than in the city.
posted by bitmage at 7:10 PM on May 18, 2011


Oh! One other thing - credit cards in the UK are generally on a chip-and-pin system that most US cards don't have. This means that smaller merchants and automated machines (like the ticket machines at Paddington) may refuse to take your card. Have some cash on you.
posted by bitmage at 7:17 PM on May 18, 2011


Some of my best travel memories, most of them actually, are from unplanned events. Be willing to deviate from your plans because they won't work in a lot of cases. That's of the fun, and that's coming from someone who's a huge planner. Enjoy! You'll have a blast.
posted by tenaciousd at 7:21 PM on May 18, 2011


If you can get away with packing light, I'd suggest doing so, especially if you plan on taking the tube from Heathrow. I don't think I've ever noticed the people standing too close--it's the *ahem* extra exercise of lugging a suitcase UP SEVERAL FLIGHTS OF STAIRS that sticks in my mind.

Invest in an Oyster card, as others have said. You'll also want a London A to Z, which is a real lifesaver when you're trying to figure out why the street you thought you were on has suddenly disappeared.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:43 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Other: Speaking of credit cards, call your credit card issuers and let them know you're travelling internationally, so they don't decline any charges.

While still in the US, call your bank and credit card issuing company ahead of time and tell them when/where you will be overseas. That way, it won't be shut off for possible fraud activity while you are traveling.


(I used to work for the fraud department at a major credit card company)

Well... kind of. Basically every card company will let you call in and tell them that you'll be traveling, but depending on the issuing bank, this may or may not help, depending on how their risk model is set up. It's always a very complex interaction of variables, but it can make it more likely for your card to get flagged as potential fraud. Think about it - where are you more likely to get your credit card stolen, your hometown, or as a tourist in a place you've never been before?

I think the best advice here is to bring 2 cards, or at least don't rely 100% on having available credit on one card. Odds are very very low that they'll shut you down for potential fraud, BUT if they do, you don't want to not have any access to funds.

As for foreign transaction fees, a lot of the "higher end" credit cards don't charge them. I know Chase and Capital One have cards with no foreign transaction fees, I'm sure Amex does too.

Also - it's really cool that you're doing this! Good for you.
posted by frankdrebin at 7:43 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


bitmage: I bought a $25 phone while in the US from telestial.com so I could leave a number with some people here.

This looks like EXACTLY the sort of phone option I was hoping to find. Thank you so much for the link!
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 7:46 PM on May 18, 2011


Is it the case that I will be able to tote my Incredible around and, if there's open wifi, use that for email, etc checks without running into the issue of cell bands and carriers and other such ephemera?

From my experience at least, while you'll find plenty of wi-fi networks broadcasting in London, most of the "open" ones are commercial (and tied to a particular mobile provider) where you need to subscribe and pay cash money to use them, or hidden behind a password and locked to a particular location. Fine if you're checking email in a cafe, but not so good if you're wanting to use wi-fi as an alternative to mobile networks.

There are mobile phone shops in the vicinity of Paddington or many central London Tube stations: Carphone Warehouse carries phones from all the network providers, but you might get a better PAYG deal from a single-provider shop.

Mentioned in a recent thread: check to see if your American bank has a special arrangement with one of the British banks for reduced ATM fees. If so, you'll still pay a percentage on the transaction, but get a reduction or waiver of the fixed additional fee.
posted by holgate at 7:51 PM on May 18, 2011


What do you suggest instead of the suitcase on wheels?

Don't want to put words in Desjardin's mouth, but I switched to a backpack a few years ago and won't go back until I'm too feeble to lift it anymore. They're so much better in almost every way. Easy to carry, takes up almost no room, walking up stairs is no problem, cobblestones or sidewalks in bad condition are no problem.

I think the main problem with rolling suitcases, though, are that they take up a lot of room as you drag them along. Which makes crowded sidewalks and train platforms and airport security areas really annoying for other people. At the very least, you should have a suitcase that you can pick up and carry (or hold closer to your body) as needed. Which may only mean packing lighter.

Also, if you're taking a suitcase on public transit, you stand and hold your suitcase as close to your body as possible, taking up the least possible amount of personal space. It's rude to take a seat and then have your suitcase either extending out in front of you in others' way, or worse, taking up another seat next to you. (Or worse still, just sort of in a pile two feet away from you for no reason because you're a thoughtless asshole.) Be considerate of other people and make room.
posted by Sara C. at 8:03 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a planner, and fairly similar in approach, but I've also learned that adventure can only start when shit goes wrong.

People like me don't have adventures because everything always goes smoothly.

So my new approach is that truly high-stakes stuff (like visa issues) gets the usual full-on treatment, but other things... I encourage myself to wing it. Then when shit goes wrong, and instead of enjoying myself in an easy vacation, plans fall apart and I have to figure out half-assed ways to rapidly adjust with limited resources on the fly, but I remind myself that this is the thing that they call an "adventure", and note that it's already half a good anecdote, and... for some reason, that makes the misery kind of... fun?

Consider that the worst that can happen is... adventure!
posted by -harlequin- at 8:16 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


make sure you know the PIN before going.

Just want to echo this-- it's surprising how many times I thought to myself, "wow, it would have been useful if I knew my credit card PIN." This comes from the fact that in Europe, telecommunications connectivity to the credit card servers was much less common, so authentication for transactions became more heavily reliant on the credit card PIN.

Other than that, Eyebrows McGree has it right with "There are very few travel problems that can't be solved with a credit card."

Have you been abroad before? If so, you'll find traveling through customs and dealing with financial transactions in London to be pretty much like the rest of Europe.
posted by deanc at 9:34 PM on May 18, 2011


For the phone issue, you might consider something like OneSIMcard.com where you can get a SIM card that will work pretty much anywhere in the world without need to buy/change anything when you arrive. You can use it for further traveling if you want. You can buy or rent an unlocked phone for that SIM card too, or maybe borrow one from a friend in the U.S. Any unlocked GSM phone will do.

Some price info from that website:

Buy SIM card + $10 airtime balance: $39.95
Buy unlocked GSM phone + SIM card + $10 airtime: $79.95
Rent SIM card + unlocked GSM phone + $5 airtime: $19.95 for 1 week plus $1.25 per extra day

To receive a call: free
To make a call: $0.39/minute
To send an SMS: $0.40/message
posted by danceswithlight at 11:15 PM on May 18, 2011


There are a bunch of good London travel and tips threads here on AskMeFi- you've probably seen them, but if not...
posted by cromagnon at 2:53 AM on May 19, 2011


Lots of great advice here. However, be ready to answer detailed questions from the immigration police about where you're staying in London, telephone number and address of the destination, etc. A friend of mine visiting from the US was required to give me telephone number to a custom's official, at which point the official actually called me to confirm my relationship with my friend, that fact he was staying with me, how I knew my friend, etc.

This is especially true considering the recent circumstances with respect to the IRA coded bomb threat and the Queen's visit to Ireland. It'll all blow over eventually.
posted by asymptotic at 4:34 AM on May 19, 2011


If you get an unlocked GSM phone, you'll be able to buy a SIM for it in Israel also. Depending where you are in the States, you may be able to pick up a pretty cheap one before you even leave.

I love having a local phone, even if I'm only in a place for a couple of days. I find it makes my life so much easier. Most places you can get a sim card essentially for free (5 pounds including 5 pounds of free calling/texts, for example).

If your bank/credit card isn't evil with fees, I would just get money from ATMs as I go, first stop, airport, and use my credit card (which doesn't charge extra for foreign transactions) for everything I can.

Have fun!
posted by Salamandrous at 5:06 AM on May 19, 2011


MadamM's right, you get funneled into the meeting place in the terminal where my flights from NYC always arrive; you can't miss it. There'll be car service drivers with signs with their clients' last names on them.

Don't want to give you conflicting info on credit card chips and start freaking you out, but my AMEX never got turned down for not having a chip. They ask, I say it doesn't have one, they put the transaction through anyway.

Lastly, bring one of these.
posted by troywestfield at 6:14 AM on May 19, 2011


One thing I didn't see mentioned, especially by people who haven't been to London recently:

If you're a bit lost in Central London, look for one of the Barclays Bike hire stands or look for one of these Legible London posts. They're custom maps which show you exactly where you are. A lot of tourists still seem to miss them...

Also, since I fly into Heathrow every month or so...

1. Thirding that you should have an address for the Customs form. Many people who are having friends pick them up forget this.

2. As long as you know what Terminal you're landing at, it should be easy for your friend to find you. You'll see a ton of guys holding up cards with peoples names on them. These are guys from car services who have a reservation to pick someone up.

3. After you land, you'll be funneled into some hallways. Either 'Connecting Flights' or 'Arrivals'. You follow the Arrivals signs.
Then, you'll arrive at immigration. There'll be signs pointing you to either 'UK/EU' or 'Non-EU'. You get into the 'Non-EU' line.
When you get to the front of the line you'll encounter a friendly agent (they are really friendly at Heathrow in my experience) who will examine your passport and likely ask you how long you are staying in the UK and what you are doing there.
After that, you grab your luggage, go through a 'Nothing to Declare' exit sign and out some double doors where you should see the aforementioned cab drivers holding signs and, I am sure, your friend.
posted by vacapinta at 6:36 AM on May 19, 2011


Thuis might be obvious, but GET A GOOD GUIDEBOOK. I like Lonely Planet, but there are plenty of fine London guides. It will answer all the questions you listed, plenty that you didn't think to ask, and plenty that you will only have once you get there. Have fun!
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:02 AM on May 19, 2011


Oh yeah, sims are more expensive in Israel, or at least were in 2008, so if you can inherit one from a friend or another travel, it's not a bad idea.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:13 PM on May 19, 2011


A quick update while I'm waiting for my flight to London to board - I bought a cheapie phone from telestial.com, ordered some GBP from my bank to carry me through the first few days (after which I will hit the ATM and suck up the fee as the lesser of the collective money-changing evils), and wrote down the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the people I'm staying with to give to immigration on the other end. My friend is meeting me at the airport whether I call him or not, but I plan to text him when I land.

And hey, my suitcase came in at jusssst under 50 pounds. So, win!

Everyone's help has been wonderful. Here's hoping my trip goes as well as I think it will!
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 4:34 PM on June 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


And a final update, now that I'm back from my trip. Lots of stuff went wrong. Lots. I ended up learning the tube on my own the first day when my friend didn't make it to the airport to pick me up. But you know, with the help of my local phone and some judicious questioning of locals, I figured it out. I figured it out repeatedly, actually, since my friend turned out to be, well, kind of a flake when it came to escorting me anywhere.

Couldn't have done it without that GSM phone for travel emergencies, though. Like when it's 7pm on a Friday and you need to get from Pinner to Tooting with a heavy suitcase, and have no idea where your friend's house in Tooting is...

I'm...proud of myself. I survived London, and I did it largely on my own power!
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 10:15 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


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