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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tips for London

Many of my friends in the U.S. are thinking about summer vacation. The British Pound is down to $1.25, so it's a great time to visit the U.K. To put this in perspective, the pound was $1.70 just several years ago. The all-time low of the pound against the U.S. Dollar was $1.05 in 1985. No one can predict what will happen to the pound, but $1.25 is very attractive from the perspective of history. So if you've been thinking about the U.K., go now.

I have spent about one-quarter of the last six years in or around London. Here are a few travel tips:

  • If you fly into Heathrow and land in the early morning, bite the bullet and take the pricey Heathrow Express to Paddington station where you can easily get a taxi to your hotel. During the inbound morning rush hour, the less expensive Heathrow Connect trains to Paddington are packed, the M4 highway into London is clogged, and the subway ("tube" or "Underground") stations will be congested too. And be mindful that most tube stations do not have escalators or elevators ("lifts"). Dragging your heavy bags up one flight of stairs after another is no fun. With Heathrow Express you will not have to climb a single stairway between Heathrow and your hotel.
  • Instead of the traditional overnight flight eastbound, look for a "day flight" that leaves the U.S. in the morning and arrives at Heathrow in the late evening. These are so much easier on one's body! You may have to connect to a flight at New York, Washington Dulles, Boston, or Chicago, but it's worth the inconvenience.
  • Find a hotel in tube Zone 2. It will probably be less expensive than a hotel in Zone 1, it will probably be quieter in the evenings, and restaurants nearby are certain not to be overrun by tourists.
  • Wherever you stay, don't start a journey on the tube before 9 am or you will compete with a million plus people who commute into the center of London for work. By 9:30 the tube system has cleared out. Many tourist attractions don't open early in the morning, anyway. The evening rush hour is more spaced out and less of a timing challenge.
  • If you have any one-pound coins, be sure to spend them. New coins are being issued, and the old ones will become invalid for commerce in October. Likewise, if you have paper notes from long ago, you may find that they're invalid — but a bank might have mercy on you and exchange them for new notes. Americans are not used to thinking that old money becomes invalid, but that's how it works in most of the world.
  • Before you leave the U.S., order a London Travelcard or a visitor Oyster card. Almost all ticket windows at tube stations have been closed, and queues at the remaining tube stations can be quite lengthy during tourist season. For the Travelcard, zones 1-2 are sufficient. For four days or less, go with the Oyster card. In any event, don't plan to buy individual tickets on the tube; that's the most expensive way to go.
  • The bus may be as fast as the tube for some journeys, and you will see more of the city on a bus. But I mean a TfL (Transport for London) bus, not a tourist bus. I am not fond of the tourist bus.
  • Don't spend your entire holiday in London. It's easy to make day-trips by train. I recommend Brighton, Portsmouth, Bath, Bletchley (for Bletchley Park), Henley-on-Thames (via river from Reading), Whitstable, and Winchester. You can save a lot of money by buying your train tickets in advance. You can retrieve prepaid tickets from a machine at the departing train station in London. By the way, pay attention in the London train stations. Track information is often not posted until 15 or even 10 minutes before departure. When you see the track posted, move quickly.
  • Find a pub that still serves true English beers and ales on tap. Globalization has had its unfortunate impacts, and you will find that Beck's, Peroni, Heineken, etc. are everywhere. Authentic English beer and ale is a national treasure. If a pub sells only the continental European products, move on.
  • London has more things to see and do that you could possibly visit in a week. I've been to the following: Abbey Road Studios, British Library, British Museum, Buckingham Palace (State Rooms), Churchill War Rooms, City Museum of London, Corthauld Gallery, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Hampton Court Palace, HMS Belfast, HMS Wellington, Harrods, Imperial War Museum, Kensington Palace, London Canal Museum, London Symphony Orchestra, London Transport Museum, Millennium Bridge, National Gallery, National Maritime Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Royal Observatory Greenwich, Saatchi Gallery, Shard, St Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern, Thames boat tour, Tower of London, V&A Museum, Wallace Collection, Westminster Abbey, Whitechapel Gallery, Wigmore Hall, Windsor Castle, and 10 Downing St. They're all worth seeing. My favorites? Hampton Court Palace, Kew gardens, Wigmore Hall (closed for much of the summer), National Maritime Museum, London Canal Museum, Courthald, Saatchi, the V&A, and St Paul's.