A Week in Paris and London
February 4, 2016 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Traveling to Europe for the first time ever, and I'm super excited! Have most of a plan mapped out, but not sure on details and would appreciate any advice.

My wife has a work conference in Brighton in March, so I'm joining her in the UK as soon as her conference ends and then we're taking Eurostar into Paris for 3 nights and then coming back to London for 4 nights before flying back. Hotels are set (finally getting use of those credit card points I've saved up for years!) and I've got Eiffel Tower tickets, Eurostar tickets, and In The Heights (West End) tickets so far.

I'm flying into Heathrow, so I'm thinking about taking the Heathrow Express to Paddington, getting a SIM at the Vodafone there, and then taking the tube to St Pancras for Eurostar. Is that doable? Will a Vodafone SIM be useful for roaming in France too? Or should I just get the AT&T International add-on and be done with it?

I assume I'll be able to purchase an Oyster card either at Heathrow or at Paddington?

What's the best way of getting around Paris? We're staying at the Hyatt Vendome and the main places we'd be going would be the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, maybe Notre Dame and/or Moulin Rouge.

What are some of the preferred apps for getting around London and Paris? I'll have Google Maps and Google Transit already, obviously.

Last main thing I'm worried about, money: I'll have a Visa with no foreign exchange fees and Chip and Pin, but there's no PIN actually set on it, will that be a problem? Also should we get Pounds and Euros before we leave, or take them out from ATMs once we're there?

Any other gotchas or whatnot we should watch out for? General tips?

posted by kmz to Travel & Transportation (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh god, just noticed I forgot to mention in re apps that I have an unlocked Android.
posted by kmz at 1:55 PM on February 4, 2016

Get your money from atms there.
Chip and pin credit card readers have a slot to insert the shorter chip side.
posted by brujita at 1:59 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I assume I'll be able to purchase an Oyster card either at Heathrow or at Paddington?

I have a vague memory of flying into Heathrow, taking a train to Paddington, and not being able to figure out where to buy an Oyster card at either place. However I was also so tired after the red-eye that when I saw a cab and did not see a driver in the left front seat I thought "hey, they have self-driving cabs here!". YMMV.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:13 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had my bank send me some Euros for a reasonable fee before I left. This was overcautious and thankfully unnecessary, but it made me feel good (I always take cash on road trips, too).

I didn't have any trouble at all using the Metro to get around Paris with Google Maps and the Metro documentation itself. If that's how you plan to get around, I'd get a 3-day Visite pass for the zones you'll be in at the first station you go to. It'll save you so much hassle.
posted by hollyholly at 2:13 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I used these guys to book a cab in from Heathrow.

This is by far the best app for navigating the Paris Metro, but looks like you need to enable third party apps for Android. Buy a "carnet" of 10 tickets to save a few Euros. Yes, Google maps works good for transit and getting around as well.

For those few days you're probably better off paying a bit extra for cellular roaming on the Vodafone SIM. I know for my Dutch Vodafone SIM you can pay €2/day for lower roaming fees.

Agreed, just use ATMs. Be sure to contact your bank and tell them you will be using it in Europe. I always keep cash on hand incase there's any issue using a card.

Why don't you contact your bank and assign a PIN? I don't understand the issue.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:14 PM on February 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

What's the best way of getting around Paris? We're staying at the Hyatt Vendome and the main places we'd be going would be the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, maybe Notre Dame and/or Moulin Rouge.

* Pulls up chair and sits down *

Okay: if you're only going to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and Moulin Rouge, you would be just fine with the Paris Metro. It is really fast and efficient, and I think the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame are all on the same line (in fact, Notre Dame and the Louvre are sort of walking-distance from each other, even), and you can easily connect to a second line that'd take you to the Moulin Rouge. You're looking at centrally-located places, so it'll be a really fast trip. (Literally the only problem I had with the Metro was that I kept forgetting that the doors don't always automatically open at each stop; at some of them you have to open the door yourself, and I'd stand there like a ninny for a couple seconds wondering why the door wasn't opening before remembering "oh, right".)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:14 PM on February 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Unless it's really easy to get money before you leave (i.e. you're near some giant banks) you can just get it when you are there. I found CityMapper to be great for getting around London, giving me transportation options and letting me walk or bus or tube around. You can get Oyster cards at Heathrow and you may as well load them up with money because you can get a refund of your unspent money when you leave (?! socialism!). You could even get one sent to you before you leave if that is useful for you.

You can get SIMs basically anywhere including right in the airport (which has free wifi so you don't need it) and I got mine at Carphone Warehouse, can not speak to roaming in France.
posted by jessamyn at 2:15 PM on February 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Heathrow Express is the most expensive train in the world in terms of cost per mile. If you are going to Kings Cross (for St Pancras), take the tube direct from Heathrow to Kings Cross. No change needed and a lot cheaper.
posted by TheRaven at 2:15 PM on February 4, 2016 [15 favorites]

Chip and Pin, but there's no PIN actually set on it, will that be a problem?

Is it actually Chip and Signature? Those don't work in Chip-and-Pin ATMs. I got by in the UK using an ordinary magstripe debit card. A lot of machines there are just fine with them. Buying things from actual humans, my chip-and-signature credit card worked fine and so did using a magstripe, though at one place they had to get out their ka-chunk manual card machine so that was fun.

Definitely tell your banks where you're going to be. If you have cards with more than one bank, tell all of them, in case one card stops working and you need to use another for some reason.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:19 PM on February 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Can you set up the PIN before you leave? If you got your Visa from a bank then you should be able to set it up at a branch. I have a MasterCard that wasn't issued by a physical bank and it lets me change my PIN online once I log into its secure site.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:22 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also should we get Pounds and Euros before we leave, or take them out from ATMs once we're there?
It is really nice to have them when you land so you don't have to hunt for an ATM and you can avoid the first ATM fee.
It is not essential, but since you will probably be in a large metro area to catch your flight, you will probably be close to a branch that can sell you foreign currency and their rates are good. The rates you get from a UK or French ATM will also be good, but try to keep the number of withdrawals low since you will pay a fee on each one. When you call to tell your bank that you will be traveling, ask about your daily limits and figure out how much that is in pounds and euros.
posted by soelo at 2:31 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would just use ATMs.

I would, however, bring a sufficient amount of cash -- either pounds or a sufficient amount of US dollars that you can exchange at an exchange booth -- for that very first ticket, whether it be the special Heathrow trains or the Tube trip to London.

Finding out that your bank card doesn't work (for whatever reason) in the airport's ATM, while encumbered with all your luggage, and not having any cash on hand to buy a ticket to get to your hotel where you can breathe, reassess, and make the necessary telephone calls is just a really stressful situation. (Ask me how I know...)

There is a 99% chance this will not happen to you, but at least for me, knowing that I have enough money to make that first necessary trip into the city, where I'll have Internet, phone access, lots of ATMs and bank branches if necessary, etc., is essential to my peace of mind.
posted by andrewesque at 2:42 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Heathrow Express is convenient and you pay for that convenience, but they often run specials on their website for advance purchase return tickets for two people that bring the price down to 25 quid per person. Totally worth it for me; YMMV.

Alert your banks that you will be traveling overseas and just use ATMs there. Chip and signature credit cards (which all of my chip cards are) work just fine in Europe. When prompted at stores, if they ask you whether you want to pay in the local currency or USD, always pay in the local currency. Your bank will absolutely give you a better rate than the store's rate.

Also in London: basically just go eat at any/every restaurant run by Jason Atherton.
posted by bedhead at 2:50 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

What's the best way of getting around Paris? We're staying at the Hyatt Vendome and the main places we'd be going would be the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, maybe Notre Dame and/or Moulin Rouge.

EmpressCallipygos is on the mark when it comes to the Paris Metro; I just wanted to add that Paris is one of the great walking cities of the world and unless you have mobility limitations/are carrying lots of stuff/the weather is atrocious, etc., that you should really spend at least some time just walking around the city. All of your attractions are less than an hour's walk away -- the Louvre is about 15 minutes! Pedestrian infrastructure is uniformly excellent in any neighborhood that you are likely to find yourself in.

I also think London is a wonderful walking city, though not in the same way that Paris is (I in fact prefer London to Paris on this front, but that's just me)
posted by andrewesque at 2:56 PM on February 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

You can buy an Oyster card at the airport tube station.

I normally prefer the Heathrow Express to the Underground (mostly because a bad back makes managing luggage a bit stressful), but in this case I'd agree with TheRaven above: if you're going to take the tube anyway to Kings Cross/St. Pancras, it makes more sense to go directly there from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line.
posted by Azara at 3:11 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Since you're going to be in Paris and London, I cannot recommend Sandemann's New Europe Tours enough. They have both free and paid; the free ones are excellent and the paid ones are worth every penny. In Paris, ask for Alex; he's a hoot, especially on the Versailles tour, which is amazing and you should absolutely do.

I was deeply underwhelmed by the Louvre; the Mona Lisa especially is a let-down, doubly so because when I was there some damnedfool idiot of a curator put it directly opposite the Wedding at Cana. Even the memory makes me facepalm. In all honesty, I would recommend a smaller museum like the Orsay, or even the Catacombs instead. If you must go to the Louvre, however, the entry that's via subway is much less crowded.

Seconding the recommendations to just walk around the city. I spent a week there, and walked an insane amount- and I discovered so many little cafes and tiny little shops and places of interest that I would never have seen. Most Parisians do speak a little bit of English, but brush up on your French and always remember to greet people when you enter and leave shops, it makes a world of difference in the service you get. Also, there's excellent food to be had at the markets, better than anything I've had in the States.

This guy is an American expat in Paris and has great recs for stuff to do and see around the city. I can recommend L'Etoile d'Or for excellent chocolate and the nicest owner you ever met on either side of the Atlantic.

The walking thing also applies to London; the Tube map is pretty but absolutely wretched at telling you the actual distance between stations. Stuff that looks super far is sometimes a couple of blocks away. I had a lot of fun just walking around the city and taking it all in. The markets were my favourite, though, especially Camden market. So much kitsch, and a surprising amount of quality stuff.

I'm Indian and so don't have a particularly high opinion of British food, but when I was there Pret à Manger was a pretty decent bet, as were the pasties you'd get for a couple quid.

Yes, have some Euros/pounds on hand, for peace of mind if nothing else. The last thing you want to deal with when in an unfamiliar place (and there can be a surprising language barrier even between US and UK English) is futz about with a card that's not working.

That's all the advice I have off the top of my head; feel free to MeMail.
posted by Tamanna at 3:11 PM on February 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Heathrow Express is expensive, but it's a pretty huge time savings. Paddington to St. Pancras is only five stops on the Circle or Hammersmith and City Lines, while going directly from Heathrow to St. Pancras on the Piccadilly Line is something like twenty-odd stops, depending on which terminal you leave from. It can be really exhausting if you've just gotten off a transatlantic flight. It's up to you, but I've found that the Heathrow Express has been worth it the two or three times I've used it.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:11 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can get a 3 day pass at paris metro ticket machines.
posted by brujita at 3:13 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with all the advice so far and would just toss in that:

1. Sim card at the airport, inserted in your unlocked phone, is by far the cheapest and easiest way to go. Just don't lose your U.S. sim card.

2. I never bring cash to Europe. I don't use a lot of cash either. I take out a fair amount via an ATM and use credit for everything I can.

3. A foreign-fee free credit card is DEFINITELY worth it. If you don't have one, get one. I particularly like Chase's Freedom and (for a first time user) Capital One's Quicksilver Cash Rewards cards. Lots of good comparative information here.
posted by bearwife at 3:16 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think others will cover the logistics - I just want to share random highlights from my time in Paris last year in the hopes that it might be helpful to you.

In spite of the excellent metro system, we took Uber a few times - worked great and the ability to input the exact final address was very helpful given my atrocious French. The drivers were all very nice and accommodating.

Favorite places to eat:

La Bottega Pastavino//L’Etage de Pastavino, 18 Rue de Buci, 6eme.
Tiny Italian place above a deli - only a few tables and you'll need reservations. We made them in the deli a couple of days in advance because I don't like to call people.

L'Avant Comptoir, 9 Carrefour de l'Odéon, 6th arr.; Métro: Odéon
Yves Camdeborde's hors d'oeuvres bar - small, kind of hidden

Yoom, 20 rue des Martyrs, 75009- dim sum


Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine - small museum focused on architecture. Awesome building in a good location. Good cafe on site.

Localers Photo Shoot Tour - totally self indulgent but we now have so many amazing photos of us in Paris. No selfie stick required. The photographer was very nice and knowledgeable as she led us around the city. We had a lot of fun pretending to be famous.

Wine Tasting - touristy but again, really fun
posted by cessair at 3:16 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I would just walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre to Notre Dame. The Seine is always interesting to walk by, and it's not too far of a walk from each attraction to the next. But take the metro to the Moulin Rouge, it's a bit of a hike especially if you go there after the Louvre. As for the Louvre, it might be helpful to research it first and decide exactly what you want to see. It's a huge museum, and has so much to offer besides the more conventional tourist attractions (though I think it's worth seeing the Mona Lisa just to see it at least once, plus the other art in the same hall is pretty amazing too. But watch out for pick pockets, they can frequent the more touristy exhibits.) Check out the basement for the old medieval ruins, they're pretty cool.

In Paris you should be fine with Google maps if you stay inside the peripherique, it's helpful with metro routes.

If I were you, I'd just get the AT&T add-on for your phone to save myself the hassle. And I'd use ATMs in each city to withdraw money- I always took out quite a bit of money at a time to minimize foreign ATM fees from my home bank, but always discreetly and in a public place.

Have fun!
posted by mollywas at 3:19 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Really just use ATMs and assuming you have a decent cell provider the cost of international data has come down massively so it might not be worth doing the sim card thing. I say that as someone who did the sim thing for years.
posted by JPD at 3:20 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was deeply underwhelmed by the Louvre
posted by soelo at 3:28 PM on February 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, a few more Paris things:

1. The Louvre is actually great -- like all the art museums in Paris -- but ENORMOUS. You have to be disciplined. Allow enough time (i.e. at least a day) for any collection, e.g. their fabulous Egyptian art collection. Remember you can come back. Take a break at lunchtime and relax. If something is crowded, and Mona Lisa area can get crazy, drift away and come back.

2. There is nothing quite like music in one of Paris' great churches. Consider picking up tickets for one of the evening classical music concerts or visiting Notre Dame when there is a service and the wonderful organ is playing.

3. Don't miss the Seine at night. Walking or floating along in one of the many dinner boats, it is truly magical and ridiculously romantic.
posted by bearwife at 3:33 PM on February 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

What's the best way of getting around Paris? We're staying at the Hyatt Vendome and the main places we'd be going would be the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, maybe Notre Dame and/or Moulin Rouge.

I'd walk along the Seine for the first three but I'd definitely take the metro to the Moulin Rouge. From there it is a nice walk around Montmartre.

London is a better walking city than Paris. It is much more compact, more greenery and you are less likely to get stuck walking down some huge boulevard.
Here's my walking guide to Central London.
posted by vacapinta at 3:42 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Any other gotchas or whatnot we should watch out for? General tips?

If at all possible, go out a day early so you can spend a day relaxing and fighting jet lag. My first time over was a fantastically rude awakening -- I was so thrown by the time difference that I lost most of my first day and sleepwalked through the next. By the time I felt normal again, I was three days in and felt like I'd missed a lot. So every time I've traveled overseas since, I start out a day early, call the first day a wash, and start Day 2 feeling fresh and energized.
posted by mochapickle at 3:57 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I usually change about $100 to pounds sterling before entering the UK in case my US cards don't agree with UK readers (none of my cards, for example, worked with the Oyster readers this last summer, including the one with a chip, and my bank debit/credit card went about 50-50 at retailers; ATMs, however, were not a problem). As others have said, you can buy an Oyster at Heathrow. Be sure to put a fair amount of cash on it, because tube and bus fares add up very quickly.

I always take the Heathrow Express in and out--it costs a lot more than the tube, true, but it's ever so much faster.

Also, to nth what other posters have said, absolutely put a travel alert on your cards, as banks are getting more active about putting holds on cards that appear to be in places they shouldn't be. This is often something you can do online.

For trip planning on public transport, the Transport for London site is extremely helpful.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:02 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a ton of fun on a Paris Walks tour. It was not strenuous (I'm a college student, but it was me and a lot of retirees :) ) and it was very informative. I would have done more had I had more time. The one I did was on the Parisian Resistance and the guide pointed out a bunch of seemingly non-descript buildings and we ended right by Notre Dame.

Also, definitely eat good French food, but there's transcendent falafel and Lebanese food around if you want to save a little money. Eat some crepes and grab a baguette, too- the bread, wine and cheese won't be as good in London.

If you have time (especially if you're a Tudors buff) Hampton Court Palace is about 30 min outside of London IIRC and it was a highlight of our trip, but it'll take a chunk of time, so YMMV. I was less fond of Versailles, comparatively. The British Museum is like the Louvre: go in with a plan. Eat lots of shepherd's pie and fish and chips.

Also for London: the Tower of London is incredible, and so was Les Mis on the West End, so I'm really glad you have tickets to a show! Look forward to it.
posted by clarinet at 4:16 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh - there are a couple Paris bus lines that go on "scenic routes" just by virtue of where they go. One runs right along the Seine and bypasses the Eiffel Tower, the Jardin de Tuilleries (which is the park right by the Louvre), and Notre Dame all in one fell swoop. The bus was pretty efficient too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:19 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

This FPP had a bunch of historical film footage of landmarks in Paris and London, in case that's of interest in planning what to see.

I was wandering around London a couple of years ago and I found it really cool just to walk down the south end of Edgware Road, where half of the signs on the street are in Arabic, and see all the shisha cafes and poke around a Lebanese bakery.
posted by XMLicious at 4:26 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

going directly from Heathrow to St. Pancras on the Piccadilly Line is something like twenty-odd stops, depending on which terminal you leave from. It can be really exhausting if you've just gotten off a transatlantic flight.

It can be at rush hour. But in quieter hours, it can actually be a decent way to decompress, get your bearings, because it's above ground for a lot of the way. Conversely, changing can be stressful. I'm pro-Tube in this case. And Citymapper is a revelation.

Show up EARLY EARLY for the Louvre. Knock off the famous stuff, then focus on a smaller area. I always harp on about the Paris Museum Pass, but its big advantage is that you often skip queues and go in through group entrances. (I think you have to go via the Pyramid into the Louvre, instead of the old Passage Richelieu route off Ligne 1, but the pass gets you on the fast track.)
posted by holgate at 4:50 PM on February 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Google Maps works for public transport for both cities. It makes getting around a breeze. It'll also tell you how long it will take to walk, and approx uber fare. I used it to choose to take buses in London, because you see so much more, and I'm still find child-like glee in red double decker buses.

Both cities also have bike share programs. You do have to be fairly brave to ride in the traffic in both cities, especially as the street layout is complicated and it's hard to check a map on a bike to find out what the next turn is. But cycling is a great way to see both cities. Cycling tours can be really good too.
posted by kjs4 at 4:54 PM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

You'll save a ton of time if the line at the Louvre is long by entering at the Carrousel du Louvre (underground mall) instead. I've entered there with my Paris Museum Card.
posted by humboldt32 at 5:16 PM on February 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh - consider the Musee d'Orsay as well. It focuses on a much narrower time period (mainly just the Impressionists up to the beginnings of Modern Art), but it does a really deep dive into that period. Also you can get a combo ticket to the d'Orsay and the Orangerie, which is at the other end of the Tuilleries from the Louvre - the Orangerie is a sister museum to the d'Orsay and has a smaller collection fro the same period, but two whole rooms at the Orangerie are devoted to Manet's Water Lily murals.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:23 PM on February 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

A note on SIM Cards that I haven't seen anyone mention yet: a Vodafone SIM bought in London will not help you at all in France. Roaming charges have come down, but data charges for using a UK SIM in France are extortionate and free WiFi is nowhere near as widely available in Paris as I found in the states. From 2017 we'll get free roaming EU wide but that hasn't happened yet...

I agree with people that the tube to King's Cross is way more direct; I can't speak for if you can pick up a SIM card as easily there though, so do check that out.

As for London itself, I find central London to be pleasantly walkable, but definitely pick up an oyster because paper tickets are extortionate.

My favourite part of London is definitely Soho; it's central, full of good food and good drinks, and has a lovely 'Everyman' vibe you don't get elsewhere. Personal favourite pubs there are the Duke of Argyll or the Lyceum tavern, and for food I can't recommend Koya Bar, Honest Burgers, and Atari-ya sushi (near bond street) enough.

Paris wise, my favourite district is Le Marais. A must is to get falafel on Rue des Rosiers; L'As de Falafel is the most popular but I always preferred Mi Va Mi across the street(for their lemonade), and Chez Hanna for their shawarma.

Bar wise, in Paris you're good picking most any busy café (touristy places are easy to spot), but I used the time out 'Top 100' list while I was there and found it most excellent.
posted by no-real-alias at 1:59 AM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh,more Paris things too; also check out the Butte Aux Called, and the area around Abesses metro. Those are some of my favourite spots.
posted by no-real-alias at 2:05 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Trip to London last November:

- I ordered an Oyster card by mail in advance (it took about a month, I think), on the theory that I was doing a red-eye flight and the fewer things I had to figure out in advance on the other end the better. (I preloaded 50 pounds for a 9 day trip, which was not quite enough, but pretty close: it does cap at a maximum per day).

- I did the Tube to my hotel from Heathrow: it took a little longer, but was not at all difficult. I came in Saturday morning, so it wasn't busy.

- Getting money: I had a debit card which I used at bank ATMs to get cash periodically (which was most of what I spent for things like food and entry fees), and used a chip and signature a couple of times for purchases in stores. There's an ATM right in the luggage collection at Heathrow that worked great. The place most difficult for chip and signature cards is unattended kiosks (like the Oyster kiosks at Tube stations) from everything I've read.

- I used a combination of CityMapper, Google Maps, and the Transport for London site for advance planning, and mostly Google Maps on the go. I found London buses to be a revelation in terms of how frequently they run and how well marked the stops are, and my big regret from the trip is not figuring out using them earlier on.

- I recommend the London Walks folks for walking tours in London: they run dozens, and the two I did were both really well done, interesting, and worth it. Keep your eye out for tours at other sites - I ended up getting a private tour (only person signed up!) of the spirit collection (i.e. specimens in jars) at the Natural History Museum that was one of the highlights of my trip and about the best 10 pounds I spent.

- Besides the buses, I also really enjoyed doing one of the Thames cutters from Greenwich back to the Tower stop - lovely way to see the city from the river. (Oyster cards work on them too, you just want to make sure you have enough on the card.)
posted by modernhypatia at 5:45 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, how could I forget? Do you like ice cream? Then you are in for a taste sensation if you go to Berthillon in Paris. The word has been out for ages, the lines are long, and there is more than one location but I always hit the one at Ile de la Cité/Île Saint Louis, a charming area in its own right.

I also second that you should get a second sim card in France (and turn off your British sim card as soon as you approach the border.) I take it for granted when I travel in Europe that it is a different sim card for each country. It still beats by a lot paying the data rates on almost all international travel plans on U.S. cell phones. (Exception: T mobile seems truly to travel well.)
posted by bearwife at 10:38 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Unless things have changed, The Louvre stays open later in the evening one day a week. (When I went years ago it was Wednesdays.) If you're there that day, take advantage of that. The place starts to clear out in the extra evening hours because people who don't know about it expect it to be closing. I got to wander some of the lesser known upstairs galleries almost all by myself for a while. It was delightful.

And yes, walking around the Louvre/Notre Dame areas. You should take a stroll across the Pont des Arts bridge, it's pedestrians only and it's right around there. Amazing view up and down the river. (Just don't be tacky and add any more padlocks to the railing.)
posted by dnash at 12:54 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you do get some money before you go make sure to get smaller bills. I made the mistake of arriving in Glasgow early in the morning with a bunch of 50 pound notes and it was really hard to get change made. I use equivalent value bills in Canada and Japan all the time without issue so didn't think it would be a problem in the UK, but it was.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:40 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you do get some money before you go make sure to get smaller bills.

The same applies with Euro notes in France: if you get the option at the bureaux de change or ATMs, prefer 20s and 10s to 50s.

On the flipside, remember that both the UK and France have coins that you can actually use to buy things, so check your pockets for shiny pounds or euros before opening your wallet for notes. That way you won't end up with a lot of high-value shrapnel that you can't change back to dollars. Also, because sticker prices include VAT, it's easier to pay with exact change.
posted by holgate at 5:37 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

The least confusing place to get an Oyster card is probably one of the TfL (Transport for London) visitor centres - Heathrow, Paddington and King's Cross St Pancras all have one. I believe the Heathrow one is in the Terminals 2 & 3 Underground station. There are places to buy them at the other Heathrow terminals too - Tube ticket machines sell them, and so will staff at Tube ticket windows, if they still exist at Heathrow. (The people selling tickets for Heathrow Express and the cheaper Heathrow Connect mainline rail service to Paddington may well not, though.) Worst case, a single Tube ticket from Heathrow to King's Cross St Pancras is £5.70; using an Oyster, the journey costs £5 at peak times, £3 off-peak, so you wouldn't be losing much on that particular journey. Definitely worth getting one for the rest of the stay though.

To me, the major advantage of taking the Tube straight to King's Cross St Pancras is that you're getting on when the train is empty (or nearly empty), so not only do you get a seat, you can bag a seat near the doors and have space for your luggage. Less of a concern if you're travelling with hand luggage only.

If you find yourself at St Pancras trying to pick up a SIM, the likeliest candidates are Boots and W H Smith, both of which are tucked away near platforms 11-13. The TfL visitor centre might sell them too.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:11 AM on February 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

That way you won't end up with a lot of high-value shrapnel that you can't change back to dollars.

I don't know if there are any others around London, but at least at Blackfriars Station next to the escalators to the Underground there's a machine that will change UK coins into any of the more popular currencies. It might be a little out of the way and I don't know what kind of commission it charges, but it might be worth it with enough change.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:37 AM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

That way you won't end up with a lot of high-value shrapnel that you can't change back to dollars.

Yes!! As an American who empties his pockets of change every time he comes home, I actually bring a special wallet that has a coin purse/pocket whenever I travel abroad. I once counted my pocket change when I was in the UK and discovered that I had £20 (!!) which was worth over $30 at the time!
posted by andrewesque at 9:33 AM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just left London via Heathrow today.

I would normally advocate for the Heathrow Express (I took it myself!), but in your case, just take the Tube. (Assuming you don't have a ton of elaborate luggage.) It should take about an hour to get to King's Cross.

I also saw "In the Heights." It was great! We saw a table of cast members eating downstairs at German Gymnasium (a very close restaurant) beforehand. (I ate upstairs due to my friend's reservation mixup. It was delicious, somewhat pricey: £23-36 mains. Downstairs doesn't have white tablecloths and seems more casual.)

Google Maps works fine in London. I downloaded CityMapper on MeFi advice, but didn't need it. Don't be afraid to take buses. I preferred them to the Underground.

Happy to chat over memail about London.
posted by purpleclover at 3:12 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

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