Ironing out London logistics
February 7, 2012 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Help me confirm logistics for my London (& side trip to Paris and Belgium) trip: money, phones, maps, tickets. Bonus question on finding fountain pens.

After getting some very good substantive advice on my trip, I have a number of logistical questions. I've done my Googling and reading other forums, but answers are often contradictory and many of those threads are old. I've ironed out most of the logistics but wanted to confirm the following.

(1) (Where) is there a Barclays ATM in Heathrow Terminal 3 and a BNP Paribas ATM in Paris Gare du Nord?

(2) I am planning on purchasing an Oyster with a 7-day travelcard (£29.20) for Zones 1-2, and PAYG for a zone 2-6 roundtrip (Heathrow>Hammersmith, £2.60 off peak one-way). Does the travelcard "kick into effect" on my first zone 1-2 trip? Do you have to tell it to start? And did I interpret the TFL fare chart correctly?

(3) I will be transferring Eurostar > RER at Paris Nord and Thalys > SNCB (Belgian local train) at Brussels Midi. I assume RER and SNCB tickets are not sold on Eurostar/Thalys, respectively and I'd have to purchase these at the station?

Phones and maps
(4) I am figuring out options for a mobile phone in the UK. Normally I wouldn't go to the hassle, but I am staying with a friend, and it will help tremendously to be able to contact her. I plan to text mainly; data is not necessary. In the US, I have an iPhone 4S with Verizon. It looks like I have three options:

(a) Based on the website, if I use the GSM roaming per minute it will cost $0.05 to receive an SMS/text and $0.50 to send.
(b) Purchase a super cheap, as bare bones as possible pay-as-you-go phone with just texting and voice. How much would this be? I did this in China, but clearly the UK and China have wildly different costs of living.
(c) I can also try to do the Verizon "international unlock" and get a local SIM card (in which case I might be able to get data), but for personal reasons I might not be able to do this.

Which would be best in terms of pricing and hassle? (4a) and (4b) are definite options, and I'm curious how much a local SIM card for (4c) would cost if I could do it.

(5) Are there any iPhone London map apps (paid is fine) you would recommend? Roaming data on my iPhone would be $20.48/ don't want to pay for data just to check maps.

Random: the fountain pen
(6) I had a friend, a student, from Germany who gave me a cheap fountain pen and I was enchanted. Are there these mid-range fountain pens, marketed towards students for instance, in the UK? If so, where can I find them?

Thank you! I'm very excited.
posted by andrewesque to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Tickets Eurostar > RER:

Are you staying in Paris, or heading directly to Thalys? The Thalys train to Brussels also leaves from Gare du Nord, if you are going directly to Belgium.

If not, Paris metro and RER tickets (zone 1) are available from machines in the station, many of which take bank cards directly, in case you have not found your preferred ATM yet. Consider buying a 1-day pass if you will be on-and-off all day, or a carnet (book of 10) to save money. The carnet tickets are valid indefinitely, if you or a friend will be making another trip. Day pass: about 6 Euro. Book of 10: approximately 12 Euro, or 1,20 each. Individual ticket: 1,70. You can check these fares and the prices for other RER zones at

I have been on trains within the last few months that sold Paris metro/RER tickets on-board, but not Eurostar. So, it is possible that Eurostar also sells them. The lines to buy tickets at the train stations are often very long.
posted by whatzit at 11:24 AM on February 7, 2012

Here is a cheap, talk and text only phone from O2. Looking further down the page it looks as if O2 offer PAYG with data included. The other major providers (Orange, Vodafone, and T-Mobile) may do so as well, so unlocking your phone for a local SIM card sounds good. Free WiFi is pretty common (although you often need to ask the deskperson/bartender/barista for the password) if you want to get a cheap phone and use the iPhone only with WiFi.

Barclays ATMs at Heathrow.
posted by K.P. at 11:32 AM on February 7, 2012

Carphone Warehouse has a payg phone for 3 quid, for which you buy a 10 pound voucher. You should be able to walk into any mobile shop and pick up something for around that, at least I did a couple of years ago last time I needed a cheap phone.

The Lamy Safari fountain pens are great, you can get them from Cowling and Wilcox. Not sure if that's what you mean by cheap, they're around 15 pounds.
posted by Erasmouse at 11:46 AM on February 7, 2012

Does the travelcard "kick into effect" on my first zone 1-2 trip?

Yep. And if you have PAYG credit, it should automatically be taken from your card for the trip to Heathrow.

Are there these mid-range fountain pens, marketed towards students for instance, in the UK? If so, where can I find them?

Not as easy to find as in either Germany or France, where they're still considered student essentials. There's Penfriend in Bush House (Aldwych) and Pennifeather out in Hampstead, but they lean towards the higher end. (Pennifeather does has the student Lamys.) I'd suggest waiting until you get to Paris (scroll down), where they're hardcore about their pens and stationery.
posted by holgate at 11:49 AM on February 7, 2012

Free WiFi is pretty common (although you often need to ask the deskperson/bartender/barista for the password)

Though not as common as many American cities: in practice, a lot of "public" WiFi hotspots in London are tied to umbrella networks like BT OpenZone and TheCloud that are affiliated to specific carriers.
posted by holgate at 11:56 AM on February 7, 2012

have a look at Cult Pens -- lots to browse through, they offer free UK delivery for orders over £10, and are very quick and helpful.
posted by davemack at 12:14 PM on February 7, 2012

Random: I buy disposable fountain pens regularly at my local stationers. They are the Pilot Varsity. For the price they are better than a lot of the lower end refillable fountain pens. Non-scratching nib, though they only come in medium width.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:31 PM on February 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all! To clarify some questions:

whatzit: Are you staying in Paris, or heading directly to Thalys?
Staying in Paris. To be specific, arriving on Eurostar in the afternoon and then transferring directly to an RER train to Noisiel, then headed on Thalys to Brussels the next day.

I mostly ask about the tickets because I've read that the ticket machines won't take American swipe-and-sign cards (I live in the US, so no chip-and-pin for me), which is why I was wondering if there was a way to buy RER and SNCB tickets before arriving at the stations to avoid those long lines you mention.

Erasmouse: Not sure if that's what you mean by cheap, they're around 15 pounds.
That sounds totally fine -- I'd say anything up to about £20 or so? Perhaps a better way of explaining is what I don't want -- fountain pens in the US are high-end, expensive, luxury items, so it was a revelation to me that there were fountain pens in Europe that you would be merely disappointed/annoyed to lose, instead of feeling like you just lost a huge investment.

oneirodynia: I buy disposable fountain pens regularly at my local stationers.
Forgive this very dumb question, but are these common, say like drugstores/pharmacies? I've grown up most of my life going to big-box stores in the US so I'm not too familiar with more localized/specialized retailing options.
posted by andrewesque at 12:49 PM on February 7, 2012

Response by poster: Actually, make that £30 for the pens -- that's edging into "not exactly cheap" territory, but I'd be amenable to picking up one nicer item.
posted by andrewesque at 12:56 PM on February 7, 2012

1) Yes, purchase at the station.

2) The weekly travel pass kicks in for the day you buy it/or the day you choose for it to kick in (which you can do at the Oyster/ticket machine).

4) I like GiffGaff - £10 pounds for 250 minutes, unlimited texts and unlimited mobile Internet / a month. The sim is free - but there is a con, you have to cut it down to size.

6) I bought a German-brand, beautiful, cheap-ish fountain pen at Labour & Wait in East London, if you are going to be visiting Shoreditch/Brick Lane. They do mail order too.
posted by teststrip at 12:57 PM on February 7, 2012

(Oh and even though I live in the UK, I still use my swiping New Zealand credit card all around Europe - works fine!)
posted by teststrip at 12:58 PM on February 7, 2012

a lot of "public" WiFi hotspots in London are tied to umbrella networks like BT OpenZone and TheCloud

I didn't think TheCloud was tied to some specific carrier. I just signed up to it over local wifi, for free - only had to give them an email address. I was then able to access free wifi from just about every pub.

...and I spent a lot of time in pubs
posted by Diag at 1:09 PM on February 7, 2012

Your german friend, assuming they are a man/women of taste, almost certainly bought you a Lamy fountain pen.

These are readily available throughout most of Western Europe in many stationers, and are definitely the pen of choice on a modest budget - there are excellent metal bodied ones available from about £30, and I am in love with the Lamy Studio which is £45 - but the lamy safari is only £13 or so and has the same nib on a plastic body. Be sure to try a range of nib sizes as you may well find the generic "M" nib is rather large - I prefer the Fine nib or even the Extra fine for use in small notebooks.

Offmaps is an iphone app that allows you to download an offline copy of the relevant googlemap at the detail level you require before your trip, I've used it in many destinations and it works well.

If you do find you need data access it is worth noting that all branches of McDonalds in Britain and France have free wifi - so if you are in a city it might be cheaper to navigate to a Mcdonalds and make use of that!
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:41 PM on February 7, 2012

I didn't think TheCloud was tied to some specific carrier.

It used to be tied somewhat to O2, but it looks as if that deal ended, so I'm probably behind the times here. I had absolutely no joy with their hotspots a year ago,

Your german friend, assuming they are a man/women of taste, almost certainly bought you a Lamy fountain pen.

Or a Pelikano, which is slightly harder to find. Or the Kaweco Sport that teststrip mentioned.
posted by holgate at 2:13 PM on February 7, 2012

Re fountain pens, the ubiquitous (and these days increasingly grotty) WHSmith sell a fairly decent range, not too expensive. Shops all over the place.
posted by ComfySofa at 2:19 PM on February 7, 2012

There's a refundable deposit for the Oyster card. £5 IIRC. Turn it back in to any (?) station agent to get your money back.

I had a lot of trouble finding actual free Wi-Fi in London. Oxford was much more amenable in that regard (and several others, like finding a room for under £500 a night on short notice, but that's a different story). I used a guide book and the pocket Tube map to get around.
posted by clorox at 3:31 PM on February 7, 2012

Re: The Cloud
I also have a Verizon iPhone. Their system simply would not let me register. I don't remember the specifics, but I think it asked me to put in my phone number, which it rejected. It might work for you, but I would have a back-up plan in place.
posted by clorox at 3:37 PM on February 7, 2012

London: I use a Tesco mobile pay as you go as my standard phone carrier in the UK. The cards are sold in any Tesco, and include a sim as well as a credit card-sized card which you can use to top up your balance at any ATM (called "cashpoint" in the UK). The card is free if you can order it online but rather cheap (under 5 pounds if I recall correctly) in the shop. They used to have weekly data bundles for 2 pounds but now it's just a monthly bundle. However this is not so bad because the monthly bundle is only 5 pounds and you get 500 MB of data, which should mean you'll be ok for the time you're there. I recommend you ask for the phone to be unlocked and use Tesco or another SIM while you're there. Another extremely useful site, if you're having any trouble getting the settings correct for the SIM you've bought, is You put the new SIM in your phone, get wifi (should be easily possible in any of a number of pubs or even standing near a hotel in London), go to the address in your phone's Safari app, and choose your carrier. You then click a button and the correct settings are sent to your phone (either via email or direct download), and the phone then works with the new carrier. I've used this site with a number of different carriers in Europe and it's been a lifesaver.

You can not use a non-chip bank card in the machines in Gare du Nord, so you'll have to go to a counter. However you can get to a different window (i.e. not the nearest Métro window to where the Eurostar gets out) where the lines may not be as long. When you exit the glass doors at the end of the Eurostar platform, turn left and keep walking. You'll see a sign on your right for an escalator to go down to the metro, but go past it and to the end of the building, where you'll see more stairs (and I think an elevator) going down; this leads to the Saint Denis end of the station where there are more ticket windows that will have fewer tourists. Here's a site where you can get a pdf map of the Gare du Nord station. Your RER ticket will also work on the Metro, so you can transfer from a Metro train to an RER train using the same ticket. Such is my hatred for the Chatelet/Les Halles station that if I were doing this trip myself I would take the 5 metro from GdN to Oberkampf, switch to the 9 line (you can also switch at Republique but there's less walking at Oberkampf) and switch again to the RER A line. But I've never transferred from the B line to the A line there, so it could be less horrible. Oh if you haven't found it yet, this site is great:

As far as I know there is not a BNP Paribas ATM in Gare du Nord but I do know that you can find one just outside the station half a block away (I used it a few weeks ago). It's on Blvd. Denain, which is the street you will be on if you walk outside the main front door of the station and keep going. It's maybe a one minute walk from the station. I assume you're looking specifically for those banks because you have a BoA account; be sure to be vigilant about the lack of fees when you get home from your trip. A number of times I've had to call BoA to have them remove charges that are not supposed to be there from foreign ATM withdrawals. So keep your receipts.

If you haven't found the pen of your dreams in the UK, go to the pen section of BHV, a massive department store near the Hotel du Ville. I have a friend who is mad about pens and we spent about 90 minutes there. She ended up with all sorts of fountain pens with cartridges in loads of colors. The prices at the lower end were not outrageous as I recall, because I bought a pen as well and I wouldn't have spent more than ten euros. You can spend as much as you'd like there, up to the hundreds of euros.

You can buy your Thalys ticket in Gare du Nord. The ticket agents are located basically right in front of you when you get off the Eurostar, keep walking straight ahead past the cafes and they're the last thing between you and the outside. The location is labeled on the map linked above (International Ticket Window). The agents will speak English, and you should ask them for the "addon" that gets you free transit anywhere in Belgium if you're not staying in Brussels. This just prints an extra line of text on your Thalys ticket, which you then show to the conductor on whichever train you use in Belgium. I did this for going to Ghent from Paris and it was much cheaper and easier than buying two tickets. As I recall, your Thalys ticket will be good for any train in Belgium, any time on the day of your Thalys journey, so if you want to pop in to get some beer and moules frites somewhere in Brussels you can do this before going on to wherever you'll be.

I'm an American who lives in the UK and travels to Paris every month so I'm happy to answer any additional questions you have about logistics.
posted by tractorfeed at 4:04 AM on February 8, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, everyone!

teststrip: that looks gorgeous, is in my price range, and is exactly what I want. It looks like I will be dropping by Shoreditch while I am in town!

Another Fine Product..., I believe that is in fact what my friend gave me -- I was sad to lose it, but I'll definitely be picking up some more!

tractorfeed: Wow, thank you so much for the detailed answer -- the phone information is very useful. A couple of follow-ups:

Paris- I've heard bad stories about Chatelet Les Halles, but if I understand the Wikipedia page correctly there should be a very simple cross-platform transfer from RER A to B there. Thanks also for the heads-up about the BNP Paribas ATMs at the BOA charges (which I do bank with) and for the BHV pens.

Belgium- I thought about purchasing an "Any Belgian Station" ticket, but didn't: Aside from the SNCB single ticket being very marginally cheaper, the Thalys website didn't seem to have an option to print out the paper ABS ticket (versus the standard Paris-Brussels ticket I bought, for which I'll be able to print out my email confirmation in the US before leaving for my trip). The only options provided were mail to a French address or picking it up using my credit card, neither of which I felt comfortable with in case I ran into last-minute difficulties.
I'm also under 26, so can take advantage of Youth fares -- wouldn't waiting until I arrived in Paris mean the tickets would be very expensive?
posted by andrewesque at 12:53 PM on February 8, 2012

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