Travel and money in the UK
October 24, 2006 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm traveling to the UK over Thanksgiving on vacation and am curious about how to get around and money issues.

I fly in and out of London Heathrow but will be staying with a friend (not a native- she's already on vacation) in Edinburgh for 7 days in late November. Two things I'm curious about:

1) Getting around. Neither of us will have a car, so public transportation will be my mode of transportation. How do I get around London and what's the best way to get to and from Edinburgh? We will stay a day or two in London, so will need some way to get around the city. I imagine I can buy tickets ahead of time, but I'm have a hard time figuring out what the best deal is or what exactly I need. I'm not a student, am 24, and already made my plane reservations.

2) Money. Am I better off just using my CC when I get there (I have both Visa and AmEx)? Or just get a bunch of pounds over here or when I get there? Basically, what's my best option for converting money?

3) Anything else in general I should be aware of?
posted by jmd82 to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
How do I get around London
The tube.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:00 AM on October 24, 2006


1) Use the Tube and the bus to get around London. I haven't used the train system in the UK much to get around (I like to drive there), but I would imagine the train from London to Edinburgh is your best bet. You might look into a rail pass at RailEurope. It looks like you can get a London pass there as well. Another option is to take one of the sightseeing buses around London, as they typically stop just about everywhere you'd want to see and most will let you get on/off throughout the day of your ticket. The easiest place to catch the buses is in Piccadilly Circus, but the tube is just as easy and may be a better deal.

2) I always just use my credit cards and my ATM card to get cash when I travel abroad. Most everywhere in the UK will take one of your cards, and ATMs are easy to find. I usually try not to change money because you'll get a much better rate just withdrawing from the ATM there.

3) Anything else.....getting to London on the Heathrow Express train is easy and fast, but VERY expensive. I like the fact that you can get into the city in 15 minutes, but be prepared for some sticker shock if you buy tickets for it. Edinburgh is a fantastic city. Check out the Scotch Whisky Heritage Center on the Royal Mile. It is very touristy, but they have a tasting room at the end where you can try all different kinds of Scotch. Have fun!
posted by sbrollins at 8:07 AM on October 24, 2006


How do I get around London and what's the best way to get to and from Edinburgh? We will stay a day or two in London, so will need some way to get around the city. I imagine I can buy tickets ahead of time, but I'm have a hard time figuring out what the best deal is or what exactly I need. I'm not a student, am 24, and already made my plane reservations.

Unless you are planning to take train (not Tube) journeys within London, the best thing is to get an Oyster card for a refundable GBP 3. This will result in you always getting the best possible rate for Tube and bus travel. If you are going to take the train, then get an Off-Peak Day Travelcard at the beginning of that day. Don't get tickets in advance.

Am I better off just using my CC when I get there (I have both Visa and AmEx)? Or just get a bunch of pounds over here or when I get there? Basically, what's my best option for converting money?

Ask your bank what they charge over the interbank rate for credit card or ATM transactions. Never get cash with a credit card since you would be hit with hefty cash advance fees and interest. Only use an ATM card. This is possible to be a much better deal than using a currency exchange.
posted by grouse at 8:08 AM on October 24, 2006


Oh yeah, if you are 24, you can get a Young Person's Railcard that is a 34% discount off rail (not Tube) fares. You'll need passport photos and your passport as proof of age. Travelling by train to Edinburgh would be more fun probably, and if you buy in advance can be cheap. Otherwise you can probably get cheap flights as well.
posted by grouse at 8:09 AM on October 24, 2006


1) To get to Edinburgh from London, the most comfortable bet is to take the GNER train. If you book ahead (ie now) there is a medium chance you can snag one of their £25 returns to Edinburgh. Failing that things get pricey - do look at 2 single fares because they are sometimes cheaper than a return ticket. The state of British trains is a fucking shambles - it's almost impossible to make sense of, and is essentially random. Good luck. Failing that, take the overnight bus - cheapest is Megabus. But I'll be honest with you: it's pretty uncomfortable. (If you have time to spare it may be cheapest, in fact, to take an EasyJet flight - but you need to factor in time/cost of travel to Stansted/Gatwick [which isn't actually anywhere near London].)

Once you're in Edinburgh you'll find it's a phenomenally walkable small city, and you can supplement that with buses/taxis if required.

2) Use your credit card - that'll be the best rates. Just take out some cash from an ATM with your debit card if you want some cash. The rate'll be ok and who cares about getting dinged for $2 or whatever if you're taking out $300.

3) Enjoy!
posted by Marquis at 8:11 AM on October 24, 2006


To get to Edinburgh, I'd catch the train. Check the National Rail site - trains leave from Euston or Kings Cross every half an hour or so, taking approx. 5 hours. In addition to EOI's link above, try the Transport for London journey planner>/a href> to get around London, and buy an A to Z at a newsagent - London is a great city in which to walk.

As for money, check your bank/CC's exchange rate, and don't forget to factor in the international transaction charge. You'll need to do the research to determine the cheapest way. For me, it is cheaper to use my CC and debit cards at ATMs, as the rate offered by my bank is always better than high-street currency exchanges, but YMMV.
posted by goo at 8:12 AM on October 24, 2006


From Heathrow to central London - if budget is not a problem, Heathrow Express (expensive) - if money is a problem then you can get the tube which takes longer but costs much less. Ask at a tube station about getting a card for unlimited travel over a certain period (Oyster Card) - this will almost certainly be cheaper than buying single tickets. I don't think you gain anything by buying tickets for London transport before leaving the US (assuming that's where you are).

around London - dead easy, either tube, bus, light railway (in the City) - walking is also great for the very centre. Boats are also sometimes an option. Bear in mind that in the centre, you need to buy a bus ticket before boarding any bus.

All options described in detail here.

To and from Edinburgh - either train from King's Cross which takes about 5.5 hours and is a really nice journey, or you can fly - you might be able to get advance train tickets for cheap, otherwise flying is usually cheaper than the train. Easyjet flies London-Edinburgh but I'm sure other carriers do too.

Money - depends on your bank. Mine does not charge me for cash withdrawals or debit card payments abroad, so I use my debit card as normal when in the Eurozone or the US. Visa is pretty much universally accepted (anywhere that accepts cards at all will accept Visa), AmEx a bit less so but still widely accepted.

Hope you have a great time. And on preview - what everyone else said. Bear in mind, though, that the Young Person's Railcard as described by grouse costs around £20, so might not be worth it just for one trip.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:14 AM on October 24, 2006


Ha! Should have previewed. The link for the TFL journey planner is here and the A to Z is here.

And what everybody else said.
posted by goo at 8:15 AM on October 24, 2006


Trains in and out of London vary in cost according to the time of day. Getting into London before 10am or leaving between about 4pm and 7pm is much, much more expensive. Use the NationalRail website to examine fares and times.
posted by alasdair at 8:21 AM on October 24, 2006


if budget is not a problem, Heathrow Express (expensive) - if money is a problem then you can get the tube which takes longer but costs much less

The HEx will get you to Paddington Station faster. But if you aren't going to Paddington, it frequently takes longer. Really depends on where you are going.

the Young Person's Railcard as described by grouse costs around £20, so might not be worth it just for one trip.

The cheapest possible train journey to Edinburgh would be, I think, GBP 25 each way. The OP would save only GBP 17 with a Y-P Railcard, so if he really is never going to set foot on another train, then he loses GBP 3 on the deal. The card is valid for a year.
posted by grouse at 8:22 AM on October 24, 2006


You can actually take a tube train straight from Heathrow Airport to Kings Cross.

Watch out for engineering works.
posted by randomination at 9:24 AM on October 24, 2006


If you're catching the train from London to Edinburgh, sit on the right hand side and start looking out the window about 1/2 an hour after York. The scenery begins to get more interesting, you pass through Durham (looks lovely from the train, watch out for the cathedral). Just before Newcastle, look at the tops of the hills because you pass the Angel of the North sculpture. Then enjoy the Newcastle cityscape. Out of Newcastle you get the gorgeous Northumbria seaside, with cliffs and waves and occasional seals. Berwick is another beautiful town, then take a nap till Edinburgh. Man I love that journey.
posted by handee at 9:31 AM on October 24, 2006


if you really want to budget check out megabus.
posted by criticalbill at 9:31 AM on October 24, 2006


Another option is to take one of the sightseeing buses around London, as they typically stop just about everywhere you'd want to see and most will let you get on/off throughout the day of your ticket.

Whaat? Nononononono. Just get a normal bus somewhere random. They are free if you have a Travelcard. Try the RV1 from Covent Garden, it goes some nice places by the river.
posted by randomination at 9:32 AM on October 24, 2006


On buying an advance train ticket to Edinburgh -- you can't get them posted to addresses outside of the UK, I'm afraid. You can pick them up if you have a code and the card you booked them with, from an automatic ticket console at Kings Cross. The code only fails 10% of the time, so you're in with a good chance.

I will be quiet now.
posted by randomination at 9:36 AM on October 24, 2006


Most people here have already given some good advice, so I'll just add that if you buy American Express traveller's cheques in sterling, you can exchange them for free at any Lloyd's branch (and, of course, at any American Express office). It's worth your while to wait until you get to one, because any other bank (and currency exchange booths, it goes without saying) will rob you blind with their commission.

Anything else in general I should be aware of?


Watch those marauding urchins!
posted by war wrath of wraith at 9:46 AM on October 24, 2006


1) Train fares in the UK are like plane fares: traveling on different days/times makes a difference as to what you pay, as does purchasing in advance. Getting a London to Edinburgh train ticket is not something to do by going to the station right before you travel.

Traveling in London by public transport is easy; many people take the Tube because is is easier to comprehend how to get around, but you will see more from the top of a bus. Get a travel card.

2) Credit and ATM cards are easy and convenient (though beware hidden charges with the ATMs). I gave up getting pounds or travelers checks in the US about 20 years ago

Credit cards issued in Europe are all "chipped" now rather than swiped (they have a machine that uses a chip in the card to verify that you are you by PIN rather than signature). They can still handle swiped cards just fine, especially anywhere used to tourists, though a couple of times this summer the process confused an inexperienced cashier who wasn't used to dealing with the old method. As more time passes since the mandatory use of the chip/pin method for cards with chips, I expect that there will be more of this, but I don't suppose it will cause real problems for several years.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:51 AM on October 24, 2006


If you book the Caledonian Sleeper in advance from the ScotRail site, you can get the overnight to Edinburgh for £19. It's comfortable, but there are no showers on board.
posted by bonaldi at 10:02 AM on October 24, 2006


Everyone has said pretty much what I'd have said; though in terms of money, use your ATM card to get some cash out, but most people are happy with Visa. Bargain on a £10 minimum per transaction, though many take less. (AmEx costs lots more for the retailer, and many won't take it). Don't bother with traveller's cheques: they're far more trouble than they're worth.

One thing people haven't said is that Scotland and England uses different money. The coins are the same - but the notes you'll get from a Scottish ATM are Scottish. All Scots accept English notes with no problem, but Londoners won't generally take Scottish notes, even if they are legal tender. So, try to finish all Scottish notes before leaving Edinburgh. (No harm in asking for English notes in your change from Scottish shops - I do in central Glasgow, and have yet to be killed).

In general, most places take credit cards except some pubs and some small stores.

Budget flights may be cheaper and will be far quicker than the train to get up to Edinburgh. British Airways, BMI and Easyjet are all fairly cheap if you buy carefully online and choose your times carefully; but be careful of the costs of getting to the airport and the time involved. And the security will drive you nuts.

Your mobile phone will work over here if it's a GSM phone, but not a CDMA one. You might find that Skype is a good plan, though, if you want to stay in touch.

Paris, if you fancied a day out, is only a few hours' train out of London's Waterloo station. Alternatively, the Northern French town of Lille (much less touristy) is closer. Don't underestimate your closeness to France; a return ticket to Paris starts at £79-ish.

Finally, it's a good idea to slip into the conversation, every now and again, how you Americans saved our bacon in the second world war. We'll really enjoy being told this, and will give you many slaps on the back as a result. Some slaps may be quite hard, and may not be on the back, but don't mistake them for us beating the shit out of you. Other things you can say to elicit the same response are "George W Bush, what a swell president, eh?" and "Haven't you Brits ever seen a dentist?" You could also try calling Scots 'English', or talk about Scotchland, and enjoy the endless humour your Scottish companions will show you, before a tour of the local hospital facilities.

One of the above paragraphs may not be what it seems.
posted by jamescridland at 1:10 PM on October 24, 2006 [2 favorites]


Your mobile phone will work over here if it's a GSM phone

Given that different frequency bands are used is it possible that it might not? After all, not all British GSM phones work in the U.S.

Londoners won't generally take Scottish notes, even if they are legal tender

Scottish banknotes are not legal tender anywhere in the UK. But legal tender has no relationship to whether a business will accept a method of payment—that is entirely up to them. I find it is not too hard to get rid of Scottish banknotes in the Southeast.
posted by grouse at 1:33 PM on October 24, 2006


Something I would recommend above all else in London is to walk - it's an incredibly walkable city, especially the more popular areas. I was there for about a month and relied on the tube for 3 weeks of my trip - I realized how much I missed once I got above ground.
posted by ellebee at 1:43 PM on October 24, 2006


I would say avoid the rail pass. They're generally only useful if you're travelling among many countries in Western Europe (excluding the UK). I really like the train ride from London to Edinburgh, it only takes 4 or 5 hours, they leave really frequently from central London. You can also get an overnight (but I never sleep very well on those). But they really are like plane flights - book early for the best deals and reserved seats. I've had good luck with GNER in the past. For local transport around London and Edinburgh, you can buy those tickets on the spot. London bus and underground are fabulous and will get you everywhere you need to go. Oyster can be a good deal. Edinburgh has a week pass for their busses that you can get in their travel shops (Waverley Bridge, Hanover St, Shandwick Place). But it's a small city so if you're staying in the centre you'll probably be happy to walk it. Most things are within a mile radius. For money, I'll just tell you what I do. I buy a bunch of pounds (about $200 or so) before I leave, put them in a money belt of your choice, and bring an atm/debit and a credit. I call those card companies a couple of weeks before I leave and let them know I'll be using them abroad (some companies will not let you use them abroad unless you notify them) and at that point ask what their fees are. Then, abroad, I put most big things (hotel, big dinners, large transport costs) on my credit card. I use the cash to pay for a bus ride, a pub lunch, a coffee, a magazine, the small stuff. If I run out of cash, I get more. The reason I take so many options is that one of them invariably doesn't work. So if I have three options (cash, credit card, debit/atm), I will always be able to access money somehow.

But now on to what I think is the most important. BUY A GUIDE BOOK. But, you say, that's 20 or 30 bucks I could be spending on my trip. But think of it this way. You're spending an awful lot of money on this trip. The flight over, the hotels, etc. You seem to have a lot of general questions about this trip. A guide book is the best place to look for answers. If you're going to London and Edinburgh, I would buy a London book and an Edinburgh book. The information you get in those books will help you get so much more out of the trip that it's totally worth the money. Whenever I take a trip, I go to a store for an hour or so and browse all my options. I usually go for the most up to date, most specific to my trip book that I can find. If I'm going to visit all of England, I'll get the England book. If I'm just going to London, I'll get that. You don't want to buy and carry all the unnecessary info about the rest of England when all you need is London specific stuff. Then read it before you go. It'll tell you about history, culture, food, habits, not to mention restaurants and hotels and general info about the different neighbourhoods. It'll tell you about the best way to get around London, the best way to get to and from airports, probably even the best way to get from London to Edinburgh. It'll tell you about money and what cards are currently most accepted there. I have always been so so so happy to have a guidebook (and to have read it before I went). It has always made my trips go more smoothly. And I always end up sharing my knowledge (and my book) with fellow travellers who don't seem to have a clue. If you have never been somewhere before and need answers to questions like the ones you're asking, please buy a guide book. Not that this isn't a good place to ask these questions. And if you have more (I just moved back to the States after a year of living in Edinburgh), please send them to my e-mail (in profile). But a guide book will answer questions you haven't even thought of yet.

And, have a great trip! You'll love it.
posted by mosessis at 1:54 PM on October 24, 2006


Scotair fly from London City Airport to Edinburgh, the last time I did this it was £45 - vastly cheaper then a normal GNER ticket.
posted by hardcode at 1:48 AM on October 25, 2006


Wow, lots of great advice!! Everything is really a "best answer" so I'm going to leave it at that.
I definitely want to take the train- I'll be flying from Minnesota so no desire to hop on another plane. Plus, I like the idea of being able to see the countryside along the way.
Good idea on the phone. I will have to check into that.
posted by jmd82 at 5:47 AM on October 25, 2006


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