First-time international travel tips + London recommendations?
March 8, 2018 7:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to go see a show in London in mid-May, and it will be my first time really traveling internationally (not counting a cruise that didn't really count). I'll be traveling solo. I'm generally pretty well-organized and low-stress about travel planning, but could use some advice from seasoned jetsetters for this trip. Specific questions and a recommendation request under the fold.

My burning questions:
  1. I dislike flying (not out of fear/anxiety, but because of the physical discomfort of flying while fat--I'm not big enough to need a second seat, just big enough for it to be very uncomfortable), and I'm seriously considering deliberately booking a flight with a layover to avoid having to be on a plane, in a plane seat, for 10 solid hours. Is this the worst idea ever for some reason I'm not considering?
  2. Is Airbnb really my best option for reasonably-priced accommodations, or are there sub-$200/night hotels along the tube lines I am missing in my research?
  3. What should I be prepared for in terms of customs or other international processing at the airport?
  4. The only electronics I'll be bringing are my phone and camera and maybe a tablet, so I'm planning to just buy an appropriate charger once I'm there instead of buying something in advance and packing it. OK idea or am I missing something?
  5. Any other things you wish you knew on your first international trip? I already know how to handle money and my mobile device, and to get an Oyster card and travel insurance. But any other tips you have would be great!
I'd also appreciate any recommendations for things to eat, drink, and do, especially if they involve bikes, music, art, nerdery, or naughtiness.
posted by rhiannonstone to Travel & Transportation around London, England (37 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
1. I always do this as I also detest flying, it makes me a murderously cranky person. I wouldn't fly to Europe direct if you paid me (I am a bit further away though).
3. Not much. US border control is the worst I have ever been through and I've been through a lot of crossings, including countries like Iran and other quite non-standard crossings. Everywhere else is easier than the US. Be polite, don't do anything illegal. That's it. Oh for UK specifically, bring the address of where you will be staying on your person so you can put it on the immigration card. Not many places need that but UK does.
4. Your devices probably work on 230V/50hz. You'll be able to tell from reading the little plate on them. If that's the case just bring plug adapters, don't buy new things.
5. Be calm. You will run late, you will get lost. That's ok. Watch and learn before opening your mouth, it's not your place or your way of doing things, that doesn't make you right and them wrong.
posted by deadwax at 8:20 PM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

1. I would totally consider the IcelandAir Stopover program. Take a flight from your home city, do a day or three in Reykjavik, and continue to London. Seriously, check it out - No add'l cost for flight (though you will need to spend for whatever time you spend getting to and spending time in Reykjavik).
2. We've had pretty good luck with Trip Advisor. You're never far from the tube.
3. The worst a US passport holder is likely to face is long lines.
4. Odds are, your electronics are all dual voltage, so you will likely only need a UK adapter for your current charger.
5., etc. So much to see in London. Go eat at Borough Market, walk around Southwark, see the Tate. Enjoy.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:22 PM on March 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

(1) Where are you flying from? A layover + jet lag is not super fun. Any chance you could afford to fly in Premium Economy?

(2) Check out the Jesmond Hotel (near Russell Square). Very basic, but clean and entirely adequate.

(3) You will barely notice customs unless you are bringing in unusual items.

(4) Your phone won't work unless you take additional steps. No reason to bring any electronics you think you won't need.

(5) London is super fun and easy!

I assume you don't need to be told about all the famous museums. If you must go to a palace, go to Hampton Court.
posted by praemunire at 8:23 PM on March 8, 2018

Re: the layover - I assume you're starting in Denver, from your profile and the fact that you mention a ten-hour flight. That ten-hour flight is long enough to have a fighting chance at a decent night's sleep. If you flew via, say, a big northeastern US hub airport (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.) then you've got maybe a four-hour flight and a seven-hour flight. On that seven-hour flight you're lucky to get four hours of sleep. I've honestly been happier with the longer transatlantic flights I've done than the shorter ones.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:41 PM on March 8, 2018

Your phone won't work as a calling device, but it'll still work as a wi-fi device, and furthermore as a GPS device - you don't need to be connected to a cellular service to receive GPS data - so you can preload Google maps on your phone over wi-fi and then use it as a navigation device when you're out and about. Buy a basic universal adapter (you don't need one which does voltage conversion) so that you can plug in a US USB charger - better to get one before you go, so that you can charge your low on battery phone when you arrive/ don't have to start out your trip looking for the adapter store.
posted by 7 Minutes of Madness at 8:48 PM on March 8, 2018

Slightly different circumstances, but a few years ago, I asked a question about traveling to London (first time traveling solo internationally), and I got some very helpful and reassuring responses, so maybe you want to skim through the answers I got. Here's my question.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:53 PM on March 8, 2018

Hi there, congrats on your first solo international trip! I'm also American and just left London after living there for a few years. You'll have a great time.

To answer your questions:

1. I understand. Do you have frequent flyer status or can you afford premium or better yet business class? It makes a huuuuge difference. Especially business or higher :) of you can manage that, go for the direct flight. Otherwise the Iceland suggestion is a good one though you'll still have the total flying time, economy seats suck and there's the travel time to/from airport in Reykjavik. If you have to fly economy I've found American Air's 777 planes are better - newer with pretty affordable premium economy, bigger seats. Virgin Atlantic is also pretty good. I was shocked recently by how good delta international was - after I swore off domestic on that airline, did London/Buenos Aires in premium economy and was comfortable.

2. Airbnb tends to be alright in London. I'd also look at smaller hotels away from the centre but within zone 2. For instance I lived in a really nice area called Hampstead and there was a hotel on my old block that looked decent (caveat, never stayed there) and I know was priced under £100/night. Also near two tube lines, around 15 minutes to Oxford Circus. I also learned some pubs have rooms for rent (like an inn, I suppose). In Hampstead one that comes to mind is the King William IV on the high street, but most areas would probably have similar offerings.

3. Echoing others, customs will be fine for you. Depending where you end up staying and airport you're flying to, look into the Heathrow Express (15 minutes to Paddington station) or Gatwick Express trains. Black cabs will be expensive and in my experience Uber can be a pain to locate at LHR but others may have had better luck. Local minicab companies are cheaper than black cabs and usually send a driver with a sign to meet you at arrivals. Example - again based on my experience living in NW London - is Swiss Cottage Taxi, approximately £35 Heathrow to Hampstead.

4. Ditto the adapter advice. If you'll be in town long enough or just want mobile service you can buy a SIM easier in the UK than the US by far. Also much cheaper. Look at Three mobile.

5. As you already know the oyster card, the tube is great, comes often and is clean. Some lines run overnight now on weekends. Uber is also convenient once in town. Museums are free and amazing. Not sure what you're into but happy to make suggestions if you memail me. Pubs do a fantastic Sunday roast meal that's kinda like Thanksgiving every week. Hampstead Heath is gorgeous. Hyde Park is worth a visit. You won't be lacking options :)

Enjoy and good luck!

posted by jacquilinala at 9:10 PM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, something I do which is a bit stodgy, but I enjoy--you can get a Moleskine for London that has city and transit maps bound in and bits of useful reference information. You fill in your own notes and destinations, like making your own guide book. I've taken it on several visits, so it's now a wonderful record of my travels.
posted by praemunire at 9:13 PM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I stayed at an Airbnb in London in December and it was totally lovely, much nicer than a hotel. Part of this was having nice hosts, but price-wise it was a much better room and bathroom than I could find for a hotel at the time and I was a few minutes walk from a tube station.

Having access to a kitchen was great, because I bought M&S and Tescos meals (UK people have really nice quick lunch meals that are super fast to assemble if you like western or Indian meals). I found London food prices in supermarkets cheap and for bistro/cafes fair. Hot coffee and drinks were easy to grab everywhere, so I didn't end up using my thermos/water bottle as much as I do in other countries.

You can buy a local phone SIM card at the airport and 20-35 pounds with plenty of data and use that. SO GOOD. I highly recommend WhatsApp so you can text people at home and being able to google and call people everywhere was just great. I used Uber and tube for everywhere. Make sure you check your Uber account is fine for being in London in advance - I had to email them to get it switched over to London and ended up having to pay for a black cab because my account was registered to Singapore, and it refused to work in London at first.

We flew an overnight flight and slept, and it was way nicer than a layover flight. You need to be able to sleep on a plane (eye mask, headphones with sleep music, antihistamines if needed, blanket) but it worked really well. British Air economy does NOT lift up seat armrests in-between, but Singapore Air still does AFAIK, and has pretty good economy seats.

Heathrow is LONG - like 45 minutes-1+ hour for customs. You need a book or something to listen to while queuing. It's very boring. I'm used to fast-moving customs in most places I travel. Easy but dull. Pee before you queue, advice I dearly wish I'd had.

Also, definitely buy the charger before you go. Or bring a USB battery pack that's full. You'll kick yourself for not doing it, and they're sold at every airport bookstore.

Don't bother with an umbrella, pack light, enjoy the museums which are either free or very cheap so you can go in for a while and then wander off and come back another day, and oh! the London Review bookstore is so lovely and has a delicious cafe attached to it, a really pleasant morning with a row of delightful nerdy shops nearby.

I found London borough market shopping and food pretty boring, but I'm used to open-air Asian shopping so YMMV. Hamley's toy shop has a rather excellent array of Star Wars and other toys that kept me absorbed for some of the FIVE hours I was forced to stay there with my child, and I would go as an adult to browse for fun.

If you are solitary, there are lots of self-guided walking tours you can download audioguides for or just follow online. There are plenty of walking and bike tours in London to join as well. I liked just wandering randomly and then using trip advisor to see what was nearby.

And the tube from Heathrow was really easy. I would not take a cab unless you have children or lots of luggage, the price difference is crazy.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:14 PM on March 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the excellent, reassuring, and inspiring advice so far! In return, an info share: I won't have to worry about buying a SIM or going wifi-only on my mobile device because my service is through Google Fi and data, text, and calls will just work.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:29 PM on March 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

1. As a previous answer said, if you can start the international leg from JFK, BOS, EWR, etc, it will be easier on your body. JFK-DUB (5 hours) in Delta One was phenomenal! But even though I LOVE LOVE LOVE flying, SEA-LHR (9 hours) even in Delta Economy Comfort/Business nearly killed my back.

2. I stayed at more niche hotel because it was literally across the street from an Underground station, but if I had to do it again, I'd go for a more known hotel chain even if I had to pay more. (My main issue was I paid about the same as say, Aloft or Marriott but got a TINY room on the 3rd floor with a view of a brick wall and hardly any water pressure.)

3. Heathrow has been the easiest customs I've ever experienced. Even long lines go fairly quickly. By contrast, Dublin's customs felt almost American in it's.. intensity.

4. I got a 4 port adapter/converter that worked really well for me, and only took up one outlet. Best travel accessory ever.

5. A keychain I take everywhere sums it up for me. "Keep Calm. You're In LONDON." Even mundane things seem magical the first time. Let your inner child and outer adult revel in the joy of it. Getting lost really only means meeting more English people! And finding little places and experiences you might not have found on the known path. :)
posted by Zarya at 9:29 PM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

For hotels, I really like Premier Inn. There are no fewer than 3 locations within a 10 minute walk of King's Cross; they're very clean, astonishingly quiet, and less than $200 a night.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:38 PM on March 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, how's your credit card? Big chain stores can usually handle chip and signature (or heaven forbid, swipe and signature), but it's much easier if you set up chip and PIN.

The transit app of choice in London seems to be Citymapper, which is useful if you buy a SIM with data.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:42 PM on March 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding Premier Inn - very good standard, very quiet and amazingly comfortable beds. They also have the Hub chain that's cheaper for very central locations if you think you might be going back to the hotel multiple times per day, though the rooms are much smaller. Make sure the one you book is on the Tube, some take a bit of walking.

As a random recommendation, if you'll have an Oyster travelcard anyway, you get reduced rates on Transport for London boats that end up much cheaper than the commercial cruises. If the weather's sunny, the views from the Thames are spectacular.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:40 PM on March 8, 2018

Just searching ‘cheap London hotels’ suggests you’ve got plenty of options, though no doubt Airbnb is cheaper still.
posted by Segundus at 10:50 PM on March 8, 2018

Returned to recommend CityMapper but will simply second batter_my_heart. Also consider the Transport For London (TfL) Tube Map app for your phone. Also can recommend Premier Inn.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:51 PM on March 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

You can definitely find central hotel accommodation for under $200/night - has a bunch of options under £100/night for mid-May. Of the chains, Premier Inn, Travelodge and Ibis tend to be on the cheaper side while still offering a clean & decent hotel experience.

If you like Indian food, check out one of the London branches of Dishoom.
posted by terretu at 1:52 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do check the responses to manet. I emphasize: Notify credit cards' (plural!) customer service that you'll want to use these in your destination or layover countries. Also, I've not had to use these precautions, but ne'rth'less: Get enough destination cash to cover a transit/cab fare or an initial meal. Photocopy your cards & passport and secure a copy at home and a copy with you separate from the cards & passport.
posted by gregoreo at 2:20 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just echoing others re: #2: yes to Premier Inn - though I've never stayed in one, multiple friends of mine have and were very satisfied. The few times I spent a night in London, I personally stayed at the Hub chain (specifically the Covent Garden location), and it was very pleasant for just needing a very central spot to crash for a night. I don't know that I'd spend more than a couple of days there, though. The rooms are tiny, essentially just a bed, a chair and a pull-out desk, and there's no windows (or at least there weren't in the rooms I stayed in). If you just plan on going back to the room to faceplant into bed it's fine, if you want to actually spend time in the room not so much.

(An AirBNB is probably going to end up much nicer than a cheap hotel for the same price, but I'm the paranoid "you never know what you're getting" sort and I've always booked a hotel.)
posted by sailoreagle at 2:36 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you have multiple credit cards, be sure to bring them (and, as others have said, notify all of your banks that you'll be abroad). My experience on the last two trips is that, even with chips, my cards will work in some places and suddenly not in others. Having sufficient cash for the first couple of days is important.

The Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, which is a very short walk from the Russell Square tube station, is fine and within your budget, although be prepared for very tiny rooms if you book a single.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:41 AM on March 9, 2018

Looking at flights and your profile location, you can get affordable direct premium economy flights to London* with Norwegian, which are an hour quicker than other airlines due to using a 787. This is probably your most comfortable option. For transiting via Iceland, WOW Air are also an option with cheap premium economy seats. I've not flown on WOW's long haul flights, but the Reykjavík-Europe leg is, eh, unremarkable. The premium economy didn't look great to me.

I wouldn't be 100% optimistic about UK border control being polite or friendly or quick, so if it isn't, don't let that make you feel bad.

For London recommendations: when going from place to place, do think about walking or taking the bus rather than the underground. It's OK to find the underground cramped and noisy, because it is.

There's lots and lots of great food in the UK, in our fast casual chains, our sandwich and lunch shops, our pub chains and also in the premium end. There's also a few places in the West End which exist solely to sell bad expensive food to tourists. Don't eat anywhere in the West End unless you've read a review or it's a national chain.

Also, as you're traveling in May, it won't be dark until around 9pm, and if the weather's good it'll be comfortable outdoors until then. Bring jumpers, warmish jackets and long trousers and expect to sit around on outside tables and in parks and by the river enjoying late spring if that's the case.

*Gatwick, which is far better than the worst terminals in Heathrow but not quite as nice as its best, and actually better and more cheaply connected to central London.
posted by ambrosen at 3:50 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, how's your credit card? Big chain stores can usually handle chip and signature (or heaven forbid, swipe and signature), but it's much easier if you set up chip and PIN.

You generally can't have chip + PIN on US cards. I think there are one or two banks/card issuers out there that do actual chip + PIN and a good number, but far from all, that have cards that try chip + signature and can fall back to chip + PIN (if you google for chip + PIN credit cards, the results are basically all in this category). But, generally, when you call to enquire, they have no idea what you're talking about. I have a card that falls back to chip + PIN and have never seen it fall back, including at a self-checkout with no ability to ask for a signature without staff intervention. Underground ticket machines (where I thought it would surely fall back) ask for neither a PIN nor a signature, at least not at the size of transactions I was doing to refill my Oyster card.

FWIW, having what is effectively only a chip + signature card has not been an issue (other than that self-checkout incident anyway), even in parts of in Britain where mine is possibly the only foreign card they'll see all year, which is certainly not the case anywhere in London. The worst that happens is the person goes "Oh! A pen!" and looks around a bit frantically.
posted by hoyland at 4:50 AM on March 9, 2018

Second hand markets like Portobello Road are fantastic. Cheap foreign tat is way cooler than cheap American tat, for real.

Hamley's is a lovely toy store.

Walk as much as you can -- it's all interesting because it's different.

Ride a double decker bus if you can. Just go around in a big loop.

Things to try eating: chip butties, Todd in the hole, bubble and squeak, bangers and mash

You are going to have a great time!!
posted by jfwlucy at 5:08 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

In terms of paying for things, everyone takes contactless (up to £30) and prefers it to cash, so get your Google Pay or Apple Pay set up, and you be fine for nearly everything. If you're using public transport, make your mind up whether to use contactless or Oyster, and stick with it: that way your daily payments will be capped at a reasonable amount.
posted by ambrosen at 5:28 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I did a trip to London about 2.5 years ago, which I loved.

1) Size: I'm about the same size you are, or close enough. I prefer non-stop flights, because the whole process of getting on and off the plane (and less than great seating on the layover) always makes me feel horrible and exhausted as well as squished. But I was coming from Boston, so it was only about a 6 hour flight.

I strongly prefer window seats, because there's a little more space for me to lean over. I also did a red-eye, which meant people mostly just got on, maybe had food, and weren't inclined to move around a lot anyway. I do try to go for premium economy or look for upgrades, especially on the way there for long trips, which I find helps. I also look for options that let me board early - more time in the seat, but I can get myself set up comfortably before other people board.

2) I stayed at the Ridgemount Hotel, on Gower Street - it's about 2 short blocks from the Goodge Street station, less than half a mile to the British Museum, and several other Tube lines. They run about $100-125 a night for a single en suite, depending. There are bunch of food options in the neighborhood or nearby at reasonable price points too.

It wasn't fancy, and the single rooms are tiny (basically the length of the bed is the width of the room I was in), but it was clean, comfortable, the included breakfast was not fancy but tasty, and they were very helpful a couple of times when I had questions about the best way to get somewhere. Also good hot water and heat.

There's a bunch of other hotels on that street at somewhat different price points (I think most of them do not have elevators, because they're repurposed Georgian houses, but most of them will put you on the ground or first floor if stairs are an issue.)

3) Charger: I bought a charger and packed it, so I could get used to how it worked when I was not sleep deprived. For taking photos, I'd strongly advise bringing a portable recharger with you: I found myself using mine about half the days I was there, because I was just going through more phone battery faster.

4) You can get an Oyster card in advance by mail, and again, I recommend that for not having to deal with too many new things when jet lagged. I found the Tube not horribly crowded, but avoided peak commuting times (since most museums don't open until 10, I left the hotel after 9, and came back around 4 or after 7, and it was fine.)

Seconding the rec to bus: I didn't take buses until about 2/3 of the way through my trip, and I wish I'd started a lot sooner - the process was very easy, the stops are announced in little LED lightstrips, and the modern mapping tools will tell you just where you want to go. (In case of wifi issues, I planned out what stops/etc. I needed, and saved a PDF on my phone as a backup, but in practice mostly didn't need it.)

In terms of what to do, I recommend the London Walks folks (especially any of their special tours), and I particularly recommend looking and seeing if any of the places you're going do special tours or options. One of the highlights of my trip was a behind the scenes tour of the wet storage at the Natural History Museum, for about 10 pounds, and getting to see really amazing natural history specimens was awesome. (This may not be your personal awesome, but I bet you can find yours.)

I loved Hampton Court, which is an easy train trip as long as the trains are behaving (or in May, you can go down the river, which is apparently a fun thing). I also recommend doing at least one bit of transit on the Thames Clippers (I went down to Greenwich, but there are lots of other options.) They take Oyster cards.
posted by modernhypatia at 5:44 AM on March 9, 2018

If you're looking for specific hotels I can recommend this Doubletree near Notting Hill. It's across the street from Hyde Park and within a few minutes walk of two tube stations. It's not fancy, but if you're looking for an clean, modern, American style mid-range hotel in a great location, it does the job. I stayed there with my mom on her first overseas trip last year.
posted by something something at 5:55 AM on March 9, 2018

I flew Norweigan JFK-GTW a few years ago and it was quite comfortable and pleasant. You do have to pay extra to pick your seat but make sure to do this so you don't end up with a middle seat (you'll also get some surprisingly-decent food out of the deal). I don't think booking a layover is a crazy idea, as long as it's not out of the way, but do look into Norweigan.

Definitely train in, whether you are landing at Heathrow or Gatwick. Word of advice on Gatwick: make sure you're on an express train. This may depend on your destination in London, but we wound up on an express train from Gatwick to London Bridge and it was looooong. On the way out, we got the express, which was much, much faster.

I have a US debit card with a chip and it is functionally the same as chip + PIN (because I need to enter my PIN when I use it). I've used it abroad with no trouble. So if you've got a chip on your debit card, you could probably just use that.

Do be sure to get some cash when you land. I've had no trouble at finding ATMs at Heathrow and Gatwick so you could just get some when you land. Cash is rarely necessary these days, but I always make sure to have some on hand when I arrive in a new place.

I'd just buy the charger here so you don't have to worry about it on your trip. You can order international adapters on Amazon.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:32 AM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Bring your charger from home. Electronics and similar items are way more expensive in the UK than you're used to in the USA. You'll also want one to use at the airport.

The only extra thing you need overseas is the physical plug adapter. Buy that here before you go as well. The only people that buy UK plug adapters in the UK are tourists and...well you can guess the rest about how it will be priced.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:35 AM on March 9, 2018

London is a super fun city. If you have already booked your AirBnB, you might ask if they have the transformers or adapters available. No sense buying or bringing them if they aren't needed.
Taxis from and to the airport can be pricey, you might hire a car service and pay up front, that way there's no surprise fees. The AirBnB or hotel can help you find a company.
Bring comfortable shoes, most surfaces are stone or concrete.
Waitrose is a super grocery chain. You can buy premade foods and groceries.
The city sightseeing hop on hop off buses are a fun and easy way to see the sights. You can buy a single day pass or multi day tickets.

Have fun on your trip, enjoy the show.
posted by jennstra at 8:58 AM on March 9, 2018

1) I am also fat-but-not-two-seats-fat, just enough to be uncomfortable both socially and physically when flying. I find it's actually more comfortable to just go ahead and take the direct flight because, as others have said, depending on where you're connecting you are actually just taking 2 very long flights instead of 1 very long flight (for example, on a recent flight I went SFO-PHX-LHR, was PHX-LHR for like 7 hours, when SFO-LHR direct is only around 8). Your total time in a plane may be more like 12-14 hours instead of 10. Check the flight map, length of layover, etc. before making a decision. I especially recommend direct on the way home, because you will be exhausted and dealing with a layover when totally shredded and starting jet-lag is a LOT.
Also: last time I flew Virgin and was able to pay $30 for a seat upgrade to "extra legroom." This actually also ended up being "extra butt room" and it made a huge difference in my comfort.

2) I have no input here as I've usually stayed with friends. But as close to a tube line as possible is important because otherwise you'll spend whatever you'd saved on transportation costs.

3) They will give you a customs form on the plane--fill it out during decent so you have it ready. UK customs is a breeze if you have the answers ready: how long are you staying, where are you staying, what is the purpose of your visit. In and out, really. Coming back home takes longer and US customs people are sometimes dicks. Just be polite and answer their questions as briefly as possible.

4) Buy your plug converter at home. They're cheap here, expensive there, and your phone will be sad when you get off the plane. I picked one up in Target in 2008 that is still going gangbusters! I just keep it in my suitcase all the time.

5) Museums have free entry! There are parks everywhere! The squirrels look different! I spent a ton of time on my first trip to the U.K. just people watching with a sandwich and a coffee. Also, you can get an actually good flat white in pretty much any coffee shop. Edited to add: forgot to say, if you are using chip and signature on your cards, sign your cards BEFORE you go. Mine said "see ID" instead of my signature and a few places refused to accept it--I ended up signing it eventually. And get an oyster card--they last forever so hang onto it when you go home and you can top it up on your next trip!
posted by assenav at 10:47 AM on March 9, 2018

If you want to make your reentry to the USA a little easier, get the Mobile Passport app from USCBP.

You take a picture of your face and fill out your passport details, they're stored on the phone. You can do that any time before or during your trip.

When you land in the USA, you start the app and signal that you are entering the country. Do it before you enter the border patrol area, where tinkering with phones is frowned upon.

When you reach the immigration lines, look for the MOBILE PASSPORTS sign and head that way. People without the mobile app use the kiosks to take their picture and fill out reentry details. You can skip that.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:24 AM on March 9, 2018

Is Airbnb really my best option for reasonably-priced accommodations, or are there sub-$200/night hotels along the tube lines I am missing in my research?

Premier Inn London County Hall is right next to the London Eye and is about $150 per night. I've stayed twice and I'd highly recommend it. Location is excellent for tourism.

What should I be prepared for in terms of customs or other international processing at the airport?

My recent-ish experience was that wait was 60 minutes or so on a weekday morning at Heathrow.

The only electronics I'll be bringing are my phone and camera and maybe a tablet, so I'm planning to just buy an appropriate charger once I'm there instead of buying something in advance and packing it. OK idea or am I missing something?

I don't see any reason for this. Just get a voltage converter on this end. You can buy them for less than $5. I bought this one from Amazon because it seemed robust and had two plugs, which was useful.

Odd recommendation, but I really like Wagamama when I need a quick meal in London. It's a chain place, but it's cheap and fast, the food is fresh and good enough and they're everywhere.
posted by cnc at 8:02 PM on March 9, 2018

One more point - I ordered a SIM card from Three before I went, and it worked great for data in London and everywhere in continental Europe except Swiztzerland (where I had to pay extra). I could never get the calling to work, but I think that might be because of intricacies of international dialing.
posted by cnc at 8:15 PM on March 9, 2018

OK - two more tips. We had zero problems with chip and signature cards in Europe in fall 2017, and were there for a full month. I'm not 100% sure we got any cash in London at all.

Pret a Manger (they're everywhere) is the spot for surprisingly decent, really cheap breakfast (yogurts, sandwiches, etc.). We saved our money for good dinners instead of blowing it on breakfast and/or lunch.
posted by cnc at 8:21 PM on March 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have stayed at the Premier Inn at London County Hall and the Park Plaza County Hall - both are good and very close to many places you can walk. The Park Plaza had an ice machine in the hall, and fridge and a microwave in the room which is quite unusual in the UK. There are some grocery stores nearby and cafes and restaurants and theatres and Waterloo station. It was a half hour walk over the river through many sites of interest - past the London Eye, through Trafalgar Square, up to Piccadilly (near the west end) and to St James Park.

I also often stay at the Travelodge Kings Cross Royal Scot and it is very cheap. It's clean, but basic. If breakfast is extra and expensive I wouldn't bother - there are cafes right across the road. I like a travelodge, but some find them too basic (you don't have to share a bathroom or anything, and they provide towels!). There is one in covent garden as well that is VERY central to the west end theatres. Last time I stayed there i had a giant room to myself and the staff were very nice to me when I twisted my ankle.

I would definitely pick a travelodge or premier inn or similar over a non-chain hotel in central London; the latter tend to have TINY rooms and aren't as clean, but maybe I'm just a soulless corporate type?! Be aware that some of the 'london' hotels can be quite far away from central London - you should, within your budget, be able to find somewhere central enough to walk to many of the places you'd like to see. Usually I prefer an airbnb when I travel, but I would suggest that for first time to London you stay as centrally as possible in a hotel - definitely doable with your budget!

Electronics - I would just get a plug converter (i.e. to three pin) for your chargers and then you'll have it when you are here. If you buy it in the UK at the airport or wherever it will be more expensive. If your devices are from the last few years, they will most likely work on both voltages.

Will be great if you get good weather - enjoy the parks and the river! The Museum of London is often overlooked, free, and awesome!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 1:34 AM on March 10, 2018

Someone mentioned the Heathrow Express and the Gatwick Express trains to get into the city. If you're in a rush and/or don't mind spending the money then go for it... Otherwise you can get a standard Underground train from Heathrow or a standard train from Gatwick. Takes longer, but much cheaper (Heathrow Express can be £25 or so one way - crazy). I'm frugal so think of them as tourist/businesspeople rip-offs :)

Either way, have a great time!
posted by fabius at 1:03 PM on March 10, 2018

Heathrow is LONG - like 45 minutes-1+ hour for customs.

Whut? Heathrow customs is practically a non-event. I once went through customs and there was literally not a single staff member present. If you have nothing to declare it's usually just a walk-through.

Maybe you mean immigration? There can be big queues there - it depends on the number of incoming flights, but I've usually found the wait quite short.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:37 PM on March 11, 2018

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