Pro-Travel and Budget Tips in London

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At some point, we’re all virgins to international travel. Although London is in an English-speaking first-world country, here are a few things I wish I’d known prior to my first few commutes. I could have saved a chunk of change and enjoyed myself a little more.

Read the fine print in your credit card agreement and zero in on the words “foreign transaction fee.” If one does exist, it will probably run you around 3% on whatever charges made or $2.99-$3.99 per transaction. Not cool to pull up your statement and see hundreds of dollars of fees. The Bank of America Travel Card is a great option because it doesn’t charge a foreign transaction nor annual fee.

Budget but also mentally prepare yourself for the exchange rate between the US $ and the British £. Even with the strength of the US dollar bulldozing other currencies into the ground & the pound (£) has plunged due to Brexit.  It still bitch-slaps the dollar’s purchasing power by nearly a third, and depending on your credit card or your bank exchange rate and fees, it could hurt you even more

Sometimes it’s best to pay with cash. Businesses abroad can charge credit card users whatever they want, which could range a flat percentage fee or even a flat 30-60 pence. Do you really want to pay an added 50 cents to a dollar for your £2 brownie? Pay in cash and use that savings to tip your barista or bartender instead.

Don’t be hostage to your phone carrier’s expensive international plans. (meme, you want to charge me what per megabite of data?) Upon flight takeoff, put your phone on airplane mode. Upon arrival in London, go to the 3-Store, which have locations right off major Tube stations like Leicester or Piccadilly, and buy a 7-day or even 30-day all-you-can-eat-data, and whatever minutes and texts you need. These plans are really cheap, think $15-$25. You may need to rely on a paper map to navigate you from the station to the store, but remember that era before smart phones? How much of an adventure it was to use a paper map or, you know, rely on the kindness of strangers to point you in the right direction?

Avoid taxis or Uber/Lyft. The Tube station (think a high-tech, super clean, convenient, organized, efficient, and much less archaic version of BART) is nestled right beneath Heathrow Airport, and a single ride into City Center is mere pence per mile.

Segue: getting an Oyster Card (their version of Clipper, only the Oyster Card gets you discounts on rides). The Tube will take you virtually anywhere in the greater London area, and there are plenty of free apps available on the market to guide your trip. Just…please don’t act like any of these people.

Eating and boozing it up on a budget?  

Restaurants and cafes often have two prices listed on the menu, one for one for takeout and one for eating-in. The differences in prices can vary greatly, up to £1 to £2 per item. With the limitless sights, parks, and public squares dotted throughout the city, save a few bucks by getting “takeaway” and taking your meals outdoors.
You’re in the wrong (tourist trap) café if you have to pay more than £1.5 for an espresso and the wrong pub if you have to pay more than £6 for a beer (do the exchange rate math). Porridge is ubiquitous, and sure it sounds novel, “oh, I want to eat what Oliver ate,” but in a cosmopolitan city like London, you’re going to pay anywhere from £5-£8 for what is ultimately doctored-up oatmeal. Get your Quaker Oats on elsewhere.
Dying for fresh produce or healthy grab-n-go packaged meals? Department stores have grocery stores built within them (weird, eh?) called “food halls.” Avoid ultra high-end ones like Harrod’s and Selfridges where a single raspberry can run you a £1, and head to Marks and Spencer, which is like a Kmart with a Target grocery section in the basement. Other options are co-op marts and a chain called Waitrose.
Don’t drop bank on bottled water. Yes, you can drink the fucking water from the tap, and if you absolutely must have filtered, invest in a water bottle with a built-in filter. Bobble bottles look phallic, but they run $10-$20 on Amazon so you won’t feel guilty if you lose or want to toss it later.

Other pro-tips:
• Make sure your passport isn’t 6 months away or less from expiring. You will not make it past the airport security checkpoint.
• Keep hard copies of your wallet contents and your passport in you lodging.
• Fill out the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program form.
• Have emergency numbers on hand like local doctors and clinics.
• Notify your credit card company of travel dates so they don’t shut it down out of a false fraud alert, and always travel with a backup card.
• The Tube stations aren’t ADA friendly so think twice before packing your luggage to your airline’s maximum allowable weight of fifty pounds. You’re going to have to lug it up and down many winding flights of steps.
• Although it’s no fun to haul a pirate’s trove of bullion (dollar bills don’t exist in the UK, instead, there are heavy coins in £1 and £2 denominations—I’ve yet to ask how strip clubs work, but I suppose it brings new meaning to the term “coin slot.”), try to keep a handful of change on hand. Bathrooms are privatized in public areas like train stations, and if you don’t have the exact change, you are shit out of luck. Literally.

Lastly, be humble, try to blend in, and don’t act like a tourist by standing in the way of traffic taking selfies and don’t pull a Ron Swanson. You’re traveling outside your natural habitat to experience a world other than your own so enjoy it, and call me up if you’re ever in Soho.

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Lavinia Ludlow

Lavinia Ludlow

Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer dividing time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven (2016), explores the lives of independent artists coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Both titles can be purchased through Casperian Books. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her indie lit reviews have appeared in Small Press Reviews, The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.