When you visit London for the very first time, finding your place in one of the world’s fastest cities might be tricky. Contrary to popular belief, London – and londoners – are very welcoming and, if you know what you are doing, you will quickly fall for its efficient services and its smart way of living.
HOW TO GET TO THE ACTUAL CITY
Wherever you land, it is very unlikely that you will be at walking distance from your accomodation. City Airport and Heathrow are both connected to the centre via Underground, therefore the problem is quickly solved. If you land in one of the ‘cheap’ airports – Luton, Gatwick or Stansted – the journey is a bit longer. Do not fall for the ‘fastest trains’ offers – unless you have booked ages ago, it will probably cost you around £20 ($25) for one way. From Gatwick, you can jump on a regular National Railway train, which will also allow you to choose the best stop for your journey. From Luton and Stansted, always check the Easybus, if you are lucky you can buy tickets for as little as £3 ($3.75)
Secret trick: if you are coming from Stansted, get off at Stratford Station. It is the first stop in London, which means you will not be stuck in the traffic while the coach tries to reach one of the central stops (this can take up to 2 hours if you are going to Victoria Station). Stratford is a massive station and you will have plenty of Underground lines to get anywhere you need to be, and twice faster.
No matter which option you are going to choose, there is one basic rule when you are in London: never buying a single ticket. Single tickets will literally allow you to travel from one specific stop to another for the price of half a daily travelcard. Always buy an Oystercard – it is just £5 ($6.26) and you can return it at the end of your stay for a complete refund, which includes any money on the card you didn’t spend. You can top up your Oystercard with a certain amount of money and ‘pay as you go’ (literally, you will pay just for the journeys you take) or, if you plan to stay a few days, you can choose one of the many travelcards (daily, weekly, monthly, bus only, etc.) and upload them on your Oyster. All London transports also take contactless payments.
Secret trick: you are not sure about the travelcard but you are desperate to save as much as you can? No worries, your Oyster is pretty smart, so whenever you reach the cost of a travelcard (e.g. you have taken enough buses to reach the cost of a daily bus travelcard), it will automatically stop paying for your journeys. How amazing is that?
London travel fares are based on distance – the further you go, the more you pay. You might be tempted to book that one incredibly cheap hotel in Zone 6, but bear it in mind that this will make your journey to central London much more expensive if you use the Underground, and impossibly long if you travel by bus. We are talking about a 3-hour-long kind of of journey – we take peak hours very seriously here in London! The ideal move is to plan your journey in advance and check for offers online, especially from big chains. Don’t forget to check the hostels as well, they often have amazing locations.
Secret trick: most of the hotels in the centre are so-called ‘Victorian Houses’ and, although it might sound pretty charming, there is a great chance that they will also be quite old. Hostels, on the other hand, are often brand new and equipped with better services. If you don’t share well, they often offer smaller rooms (e.g. 3/4 people) with ensuit bathroom as well.
ENJOYING THE CITY
On your first visit, you will hardly end up paying for museums. The vast majority of them has free entry and ask for a donation if you enjoyed your visit – they are quite confident you will. National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Modern; these are just some of the most popular museums, all free.
Theatre tickets can be either found at the TKTS sale point in Leicester Square, on the brand new TodayTix app, or in person, if you don’t mind a little morning queue (check for ‘dayseats’ or ‘day tickets’ on your favourite show’s website for more details).
Secret trick: if you are a Shakespeare nerd and you can’t leave without a visit to the Globe Theatre, there is defiitely a cheaper and much more fun way to do it than buying a tour ticket. Instead, buy a £5 ($6.26) standing ticket for one of his plays and have a full Shakespearian experience by visiting the theatre while watching the show.
This is nothing more than a little taster for your first time around. Don’t worry, there is plenty left for the next visit.