Visiting London for the first time: lodging and navigation questions:
July 13, 2019 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Our family is travelling to London for the first time, and we could use some help with the mundane details of deciding where to stay and how to get around.

This October (*early* October) our family is travelling to London for a week's vacation. We're a quiet, nerdy family of 4: myself, my wife, two kids in their late teens. This will be the first time overseas for any of us.

We've got lots of ideas of things to do. I don't think we need help there. However, we could use some help with understanding the basics about where we should stay and how we'll get around London.

Most of the activities we're interested in are in Zone 1 or 2, so we've been looking at Airbnb lodging in Zone 1 and 2. Airbnbs seem like a good option for us: we'd like kitchen facilities and a little room to relax in at the end of the day (maybe not much, but more than a hotel room). Do Airbnbs make sense for first time London visitors? If we do want an Airbnb in Zone 1 or 2, we're not sure what else we ought to be paying attention to.

Some things we're looking for: safe neighborhood, close to a tube station, not too loud at night, other amenities within walking distance. We're not sure how to tell how safe the neighborhood is, though. Maybe we can't set the bar too high on it being quiet at night. Maybe there's other important things we ought to be thinking about.

Here's a map showing several of the places (map may actually show a landmark close by) that we thought looked promising: all of these are Airbnbs. If any of these leap out as "interesting" for one reason or another, we'd appreciate comments. General advice on lodging is also welcome.

Secondly, how to get around London? The basic idea seems to be "get an Oyster card and use it with the tube or with buses". We can do that, but as people who basically never use public transportation in our normal lives, we might be missing some basics. When should we prefer the tube to a bus and vice versa? Can strangers expect to navigate the bus system effectively? Are there any other gotchas with the public transportation system we ought to watch out for?
posted by mattu to Travel & Transportation around London, England (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You don't even need an oyster card anymore if you how Android/Apple pay on your phone. Broadly NFC penetration is way higher than the US.

I've lived in London and I agree with your thoughts on a rental apartment. I took my family of 4 there last year and stayed in one. I tend to think zone 1 or close zone 2 is perfect. Close to the tube. Bus vs tube is just about where you are going. Also don't forget about the overground. There are apps which will help you optimize for that.

Your imgur map is very blurry for me so hard to judge those listings.

(Also good rule of thumb - you should post questions like this when locals are likely to see it)
posted by JPD at 4:43 PM on July 13, 2019

Public transport is really, really, really easy to use; if you haven't already looked at it, Transport for London is your friend when it comes to finding schedules, mapping out your trip, making sure your tube line hasn't shut down, etc. My one warning would be that you should have multiple credit/debit cards available, as my experience as a Yank has been that the card machines for reloading your Oyster can be mighty finicky. Buses will be cheaper and have the advantage of letting you get a look at your surroundings, but as JPD says, it's entirely a matter of where you're going.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:48 PM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Citymapper app is good for public transport in London - enable location, put in where you're going and it'll show you options for how to get there, via various tube routes, bus, overground etc. along with how long each will take. And it takes out a lot of the guesswork that once used to go with bus travel in strange cities, because you can watch yourself move along the route and have an idea when you're due to get off.

Basically, with buses, you only tap your Oyster once per journey: Tap the card on the sensor near the door as you get on and your fare will be deducted. When you want to get off (ahead of your desired stop) press one of the bells (usually a red button) located around the bus, to indicate to the driver that you want the next stop, but you don't need to tap off with your card - buses are basically flat fares.

With tube and overground, you need to tap both in at the start of your journey and out at the end, so the system knows how far you've travelled (and how much fare to deduct). At most central stations, you'll have no choice but to do that anyway, because you'll have to tap to get in/out through the gates. But some stations don't have physical gates, in which case you need to look out for the place provided on the platform/ticket hall where you can tap, to let the system know you've started or ended your journey (if you don't do this, it'll charge you maximum fare).
posted by penguin pie at 5:03 PM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

as people who basically never use public transportation in our normal lives, we might be missing some basics

Allow me to introduce the joys of a real public transit system!

For the most part, it's simple and you don't need to think about it much. Within central London, the tube is everywhere, you are never more than a few blocks from a station. If you want to go somewhere, find out what station it's near, and then you can just go to your nearest station and then look at the tube map to see which lines you need to take to get there. Sometimes you can save a few minutes by walking to/from a different station instead, but it's not worth worrying about much.

A map of central London showing the Tube lines overlaid on streets may be useful to have handy.

Note that you don't need to stay in zone 1/2, because it's quick and easy to get in and out of central London from further out, as long as you pick somewhere near a tube station. Staying further out will probably be cheaper and you will have more choices to help you find something that suits your requirements.

Honestly, you can probably ignore buses entirely. They are useful in the suburbs, where stations are a bit further apart and less interconnected, but in central London the tube is everywhere and fast, whilst buses move at the speed of traffic which is often a crawl. Take one if you want to rest your feet for a while and sit on the top deck of a double decker watching London slide by for a while.

The one big thing you need to know about is rush hour. On weekdays, between about 7:30am and 9:30am and between about 4:30pm and 6:30pm, everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Trains and buses are packed, often to the point where often nobody else waiting at the stops can get on.

So plan your weekdays to be heading out later in the morning, and to avoid needing to get anywhere during the end of work rush, and you'll have a much happier time. Weekends are fine.
posted by automatronic at 5:09 PM on July 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

We visited in the spring of 2017, and stayed in this rental apartment in South Kensington. (The description was not so punny when we booked, so don't let that throw you.) Your children would need to share a bed or one could sleep on the sofa in the living room, but there are also larger flats available. This agency was very easy to work with and took care of airport transport for us and stocked the fridge with groceries before we arrived. It was spendy, but allowed us to make the most of our limited time.

The location was ideal - a very quiet street, but a quick walk to a small market as well as a grocery store, drug store, restaurants, the tube stop and Kensington Park. We felt comfortable letting our 16 year old son explore the neighborhood, and he even took the tube home from the Tower on his own. We felt very safe, even at night.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:24 PM on July 13, 2019

I'm not sure if the Citymapper app mentioned above has walking directions as well, but Google does. When in Central London I would check walking distance/directions as well as transit. A lot of it is very walkable, and when I was there, I realized some journeys I was doing by tube would be faster on foot.

Also, re: buses. I'd suggest one trip on the number 15. It's run with the old routemaster double decker buses & it's a fun way to see some of the city from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square. This story indicates that the bus is now only running on weekends & holidays.
posted by My Kryptonite is Worry at 5:42 PM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Based on areas I have experience with, on your map I'd take a closer look at the listings near Southwark, Shadwell, and Finsbury. I like the area near Deptford as well, that part of the city is quite active and diverse but not as packed and intense and glass-steel-skyscrapery as central London. Nearby Greenwich is nice too. Check transit directions to places you're interested in though, possibly it's well situated for you (one stop to London Bridge from Deptford rail station) or you might end up spending a lot of travel time and making multiple transfers.

The transit system is overall well marked and easy to navigate and that includes the bus system. I sometimes find it difficult to figure out which tube station exit is best, as larger stations can have several exits covering a big area. For payment it's more convenient to use Apple/Google Pay or a contactless credit card, no need to worry about obtaining and reloading a separate Oyster card. Use Citymapper (preferred over Google Maps) for general directions and also guidance on when to choose the bus over tube/rail. "Gotchas" include weekend construction shutting down parts of some lines, severe crowding during rush hours, sweltering temperatures in un-airconditioned stations and trains during warm weather, and cost (higher charges for crossing zones and any use of National Rail, even short trips).

Contactless payment methods are widely accepted and very convenient to use in London, more so than cash and especially more so than archaic US chip+signature cards. Since you have lead time I recommend ordering a contactless card from your credit card company before you go.
posted by 4rtemis at 6:32 PM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I personally like google maps over Citymapper but download both as ymmv. Although I do know that Citymapper often gives you more route options than google.

You can probably get to all the places you want to go on your list via tube and walking. Prepare for a lot of walking and there are still a lot of cobble stoned streets in random places. Contactless or Apple Pay is great and convenient. TFL will automatically calculate and charge you the most efficient and cheapest rate for the day or eventually the week. But I’m not sure how exchange rates would work and charges for exchange rates. If you buy Oyster cards and load them up they calculate the same way. But the cons are of course having another card, topping up, and having extra credit at the end of the week that you can’t use.

Def try and get a contactless card. I have seen more and more places (particularly restaurants) that won’t even accept cash anymore ugh. But contactless has a limit of £30. After that it’s PIN so make sure you know that for your card. Otherwise it’s a swipe and sign situation and that’s just so uncommon it’s really inconvenient and totally pegs you as a tourist. But the nice thing is that if you’re at a restaurant they will never take your card from you. They bring the payment machine to you and do it all at the table.

Your map is a hard to read. But any places within walking distance of an *underground* station should be okay. Not overground (orange line) or the DLR (teal).

There’s very few places I’ve felt unsafe in London. Maybe if it’s a council estate but that’s hard to tell from a map. But even if it’s a council estate if it’s an ex-council estate lots of them have been resold and remodelled by middle class residents so that’s not really foolproof either. I’d defer to any reviews left by previous guests, look up the area on google street view and go with your gut.

Staying at an Airbnb in London sounds nice. For a classic British experience order way too much Indian takeaway and have it delivered to you! You can use the JustEat app for much more casual places that only support takeaway or, Deliveroo for restaurants (although they also use purpose built things so google the restaurant before you pick one).
posted by like_neon at 7:53 PM on July 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh in terms of amenities being close by, what you want is a place that is a short walking distance from “the high street”. You can pose this question to the host “where is your nearest high street?” But you may want to avoid a place that’s actually ON the high street though. Those are usually above a shop or restaurant and louder.

Things you may find different in a London home: the washing machine is probably in the kitchen, the outlets have switches you need press to turn on the current, bathrooms do not have outlets, the light for the bathroom is usually right outside not inside, (if it’s inside it’s usually a string you pull down), prepare for the possibility of sinks with double taps rather than a mixer (sigh I don’t know why these are still so common here) and bathtubs with shower handles on a telephone hook thing (another thing I really don’t understand), toilets often have two buttons on the top of the tank that flush different amounts of water, closets are small, the kettle is an amazing gadget.

Things that may be handy to know as a tourist staying in a residential area: if you buy milk it’s skimmed, semi skimmed and whole, not the percentages like in America, def buy some biscuits if you make it onto the high street, if you are in need of a convenience store they are called “off licenses”, Boots is a handy place to get to know it’s kind of like CVS.
posted by like_neon at 8:12 PM on July 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: A couple people have mentioned phone payment apps. We don't do phone banking now and don't really want to. We're planning on getting along mostly with credit cards unless that is just a terrible idea. We can get along on credit cards, right?

We do have one contactless card, but I've never used it that way. Good to think about. We'll ask about the PIN, too.

I'm assuming most places will accept VISA. Do we need to be careful about getting hammered with fees for foreign/non-USD transactions? I'd kind of assumed that VISA would convert pounds to USD for us with no extra fees, but I should check that. I suppose this is really a question for the card issuer, but if there is a usual expectation here it would be good to know it.
posted by mattu at 9:13 PM on July 13, 2019

You should check with your bank. There's typically a fee from the credit card issuer and a fee from the bank (because ultimately you'll have to pay your UK transactions in UK currency). For me (VISA and Chase) it was something like 4%.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:23 PM on July 13, 2019

You just put your credit card in the app. If didn't involve your bank account. But credit cards will be fine. You'll need oyster cards for the kids anyway.

ETA: yeah. Make sure your cards have no transaction fees.
posted by JPD at 9:23 PM on July 13, 2019

We can get along on credit cards, right?
Yes, and places that don't take my primary American Express card have always taken my backup Mastercard. It's not like parts of mainland Europe where they will balk at credit cards. Go ahead and set PINs on the cards, but FWIW I have a chip+pin compatible card and it always forces chip+signature when I use it in London, not sure why.
Do we need to be careful about getting hammered with fees for foreign/non-USD transactions?
Yes. US credit cards that do not charge a forex fee are not that common and often come with an annual fee instead. For a short trip don't worry about it unless you have some really high-priced shopping planned—I spent a bunch of time in London in the past year and have only just reached the point where I am seeing paying the annual fee for a free-forex card as a better deal than using my Amex cash rewards program to pay their forex fees.

For ATM withdrawals, my bank charges a $5 flat fee for foreign-country ATM usage in addition to a forex fee. This makes taking larger amounts of cash out less often favorable. In London it's easy to find ATMs that do not charge their own usage fee, even for foreign-country cards.
posted by 4rtemis at 9:38 PM on July 13, 2019

I'm not sure if the Citymapper app mentioned above has walking directions as well, but Google does.

Citymapper does also have walking directions. Transport for London is good if you need to search by accessibility levels too, it lets you search avoiding stairs/escalators/steps.
posted by ellieBOA at 10:24 PM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Honestly, you can probably ignore buses entirely. They are useful in the suburbs, where stations are a bit further apart and less interconnected, but in central London the tube is everywhere and fast

It is true that many tourists can opt to ignore buses pretty much in favour of simplicity and speed. But this does not mean that you should. Buses may be slower sometimes - but they help you orient yourself geographically and the top deck is a perfect place to see new places that you would otherwise miss and that you might want to return to. And you are doing this along with the locals rather than on a tourist only bus. One downside - in the past was that bus routes and times were less easy to grasp that with the tube - but this is not the case now: Google or Apple maps can route you from A to B by bus - and they will tell you where to catch one and how long you will have to wait for it.

You can even choose to follow a bus route just because of its sights. Here are some of the best ones.

The same logic applies to river boat transport - some of which is available on your Oyster card. A trip on the Thames will give you a great insight into how the city is put together.
posted by rongorongo at 11:48 PM on July 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

Honestly, it’s never been easier to use public transport in London. The combination of Oyster/contactless payment, which saves you having to decide what sort of ticket you need in advance, apps that can suggest routes for you and tell you when the next bus will actually arrive, and buses that have electronic displays telling you the name of the next stop; it all removes the need for the kind of local knowledge we all used to painfully acquire when I grew up in London in the 80s.

It can still be stressful: trains run late or get cancelled, it’s unpleasant during rush hour, strangers are sometimes strange. But it’s not difficult. Personally I tend to avoid routes which include buses if possible, but they’re fine really.

If you are planning any day trips out of London (i.e. Portsmouth or Cambridge or something), it might be worth factoring that into choosing a place to stay, because getting across London can add significantly to your journey time. i.e. if you wanted to go to Portsmouth, it would be a bit easier if you were starting from Vauxhall than Blackheath. And obviously, bear in mind that the Oyster network doesn’t extend out beyond London.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:24 AM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Regarding all the recommendations for using contactless cards or Apple Pay on public transport... I assume this is only useful advice for adults with cards or Apple Pay, and not necessarily helpful for teens, who would presumably still need Oyster cards? Maybe they have cards/Pay, but I just thought it worth flagging up; each person will need their own way of paying for each journey.
posted by fabius at 3:02 AM on July 14, 2019

Something that hasn’t been said but which is important to know is that you’ll need a separate Oyster or contactless card for each traveler. When travelling with kids it can be more complex depending on the age of the children: see this page for details.

When using credit cards, Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, but anything else is more hit and miss. Contactless and chip-and-pin payments are the default - swiping and signing is unusual.
posted by parm at 3:05 AM on July 14, 2019

I'd kind of assumed that VISA would convert pounds to USD for us with no extra fees, but I should check that. I suppose this is really a question for the card issuer, but if there is a usual expectation here it would be good to know it.

Unfortunately, if your card does not specifically advertise that it has no foreign transaction fees (which a lot of airline and travel-targeted credit cards advertise, since it makes sense given the presumed use/benefits) it almost certainly will have foreign transaction fees, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3% to 4%.

FWIW I have a chip+pin compatible card and it always forces chip+signature when I use it in London, not sure why.

This is a bit of an aside, and it obviously depends on the card, but a lot of US cards (like the JetBlue Barclaycard that I have) have a PIN capability but are programmed to default to signature at any human-operated point of sale. In other words, the card will default to chip-and-signature at restaurants, shops, hotels, etc. because there is a human there; but the card will go to chip-and-PIN at places like gas stations or train/metro ticket machines because those are not operated by humans.
posted by andrewesque at 6:39 AM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

One thing that might be a little confusing for people who aren't used to public transport is that some of the tube lines split. So if you're on, for example, the District line, and you want to go to Hammersmith, if you get on a train that says Wimbledon, or Richmond, you're on the wrong train. Here's a map, showing the splits and the stops. And the trains don't always go to the end of each line, so the train might say Putney Bridge, rather than Wimbledon, but it's still not the branch you want to take.

But the tube system is great. That it works as well as it does, with parts of it being over 150 years old. Many of the stations have interesting tiling, or design, or just quirky charm. As a nerdy person, I highly recommend it, though probably not during rush hours. Get a week pass and just go everywhere.

As a clumsy, as well as nerdy, person, I would use an Oyster card rather than a phone. Scanning my phone multiple times during the day in crowded places would sooner or later end badly.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:35 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

N'thing Oyster cards. We pick them up at Heathrow, putting 20 pounds on them for starters. They're easy to top off later. The tube and comfortable walking shoes will get you most places. Cabs can get you other places.

Aside from avoiding the tube during rush hour (unless you want to get the sardine experience), one thing that tourists might not expect is that there's a strong social expectation that if you're on an escalator on the way in/out of a station, and you're not walking, you stay to the RIGHT. Above ground, we were never able to discern the social conventions for which side of the sidewalk to walk on. Watch out for bicycles during commute time. They'll come zipping along fairly fast from what will seem like the wrong direction.

Since you may be using Google Maps heavily to help find your way around, I recommend carrying a USB-rechargeable power bank, lest you find yourself with a dead phone at 3pm. You'll also need plug adapters. Check your devices before you go to see if any won't handle 220V. If not you'll need a power converter, which is a different beast. We got by with simple adapters. Some now come with USB charging ports.

Having travel umbrellas could prove useful. We got lucky on last visit, and the umbrellas never left our packs. Cloudy skies don't eliminate the need for suntan lotion if you're be outside for extended periods.

If you're quiet and nerdy, I recommend the British Library. Their room of historical documents has some neat stuff that you can get close to. We also enjoyed taking a tour boat down the Thames, stopping at Greenwich to hike to the Observatory. There's some neat timekeeping history in the Observatory.
posted by dws at 1:21 PM on July 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was there in May and got by on cash for everything but hotel rooms. I don't have a contactless or fee-free credit card, so I paid about a 3% ATM fee from my home bank to withdraw cash, but no fee at the UK ATMs. It was fine. The few times I used a credit card, it was fine too.

Both the Tube and the busses are super easy, and if you're not sure about what to do, the bus driver or a TFL agent can help you out until you get the hang of it. I used Google Maps to get around. I found that I preferred the busses to the Tube because you get to see the sights (Buckingham Palace! Trafalgar Square!) and you were more likely to get a seat.

We stayed in Southwark for the first part of our trip and in Paddington for the second. I highly recommend Southwark. It was convenient to central London and felt a lot less touristy. It's a little less convenient to get to Heathrow, but for four people, just take a cab instead of trying to take your luggage on the Tube. There are usually stairs to navigate.
posted by donajo at 4:49 PM on July 14, 2019

Response by poster: Many, many useful suggestions here that we would not have thought of ourselves. Thank you all.
posted by mattu at 6:52 PM on July 14, 2019

I’ve changed my mind after watching this thread. Get Oyster cards. The gates show how much credit is left as you tap in. Make sure you tap, and not rub or wave like I did, frustrating myself and the commuters behind me ;) You can also check the credit at a top up machine.

But the reason I decided you should get the cards is that I think they could actually make fun souvenirs. I kept a metro card from my first trip to NYC!
posted by like_neon at 7:13 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Get Oyster cards, don't be afraid of buses (great for seeing London, often faster, only £1.50 for as many bus rides as you want in an hour) and stay in either Kennington or the two in St Luke's. I wouldn't choose any of the others.
posted by einekleine at 3:02 AM on July 15, 2019

When traveling, I always prefer to get a daily or weekly pass for transit, and TfL has Travelcards that operate this way. If you are using them at least once a day, they make financial sense, and I personally love the freedom of being able to jump around to multiple locations in a day without thinking about how much each trip is costing me.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:26 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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