Advice from intl'l travelers

I know for a fact that a few of you who read this have traveled outside of the country, unlike me. I’d like to solicit your advice regarding my trip to London with Mom in August. Specifically, here’s the sort of info I’d like:

  • I want to blend in. I already know: no jeans, fanny packs or white American sneakers. Do you have recommendations regarding travel books or websites that I should look at for more of this kind of info?
  • My Mom is booking a lot of tours/excursions while we’re there (like, a thing each day). I am particularly interested in putting together a list of not-for-tourists, hit-and-run type stuff. Parks, shops, districts, streets, historic buildings, libraries (yep), yarn stores (uh-huh), cafes, restaurants, etc. The sorts of things you can do anytime, like after a half-day tour or whatever. Any good books or websites? If you have been there, recommendations for places to eat will be especially welcome.
  • I was looking through a travel stuff catalog that the tour company sent with the confirmation package. In London, will I really need to wear one of those waist packs to stash valuables in or will a purse/day pack (not a backpack) suffice? I know I won’t want to leave my passport in the hotel, but I’d prefer to be able to put it in my bag rather than strap it to my midsection. If you do think I should get one of those, what’s your recommendation for brands or features to look out for?
  • What’s your strategy for paying for things while you travel? I’m thinking I’ll find out from my credit card companies what their deal is for international use. (I know sometimes they charge hefty conversion fees.) I’m not much of one for carrying lots of cash, and since I am traveling with Mom I won’t have to worry about splitting the bill all the time.
  • Anything else you think I should know about London would be great. 🙂

If you’ve got a lot to say, you can email me (spinstah at gmail dot com) or chat with me (allykathrn on AIM). Or chat with me in actual life if possible. 🙂

7 thoughts on “Advice from intl'l travelers

  1. My cousin lived in London for six months. I’ll ask her if she has any advice for you.

  2. I cannot say enough about using a moneybelt. The freedom it gives you is enormous. Basically, put your passport (which you must have on you at all times by law in many countries), your ticket home (or e-ticket receipt), your credit card and any large bills you have in the moneybelt. In a wallet you put preferably in a front pocket (nice deterrent to pickpockets), you just have that day’s cash, the address of your hotel, and any receipts you pick up on the day.

    I’ve travelled all over Europe and the UK in the last few years, and I’ve never worried a minute about where my main money was or getting stranded. You can always get to your money belt when you need to (that’s what ladies rooms are for!) and you can stride out of your lodgings with confidence each morning.

    As to money, I put money into a checking account for which I have a debit card. Be sure you know the PIN and that it’s just 4 digits. Get money in the local currency as you go – it’s much easier, and you don’t have to carry around so much. Traveler’s checks are a big hassle these days – just use Visa if you don’t want to pay cash! You get a decent exchange rate and again, you’re free and easy to go.

    As a world traveler and fellow librarian, I cannot recommend Rick Steves’ books too highly. They’re for the moderately funded, culturally open-minded and slightly geeky, which fits me (and I suspect you) to a T. He also gives about a ton of practical advice – go to his website to get nearly ALL of that advice for FREE! Seriously. ricksteves dot com.

    Email me if you want more tips and enjoy your travels!!

  3. I spent a month in the UK, including a week in London a couple of years ago.

    I don’t think that the no jeans/no tennies rule applies like it might in the rest of Europe. Other than in the more posh areas of London (we stayed in Notting Hill – lots of fashionistas on the tube there), people were very casual – hardly felt like I was out of the midwest. Jeans, Tees, tennies. People were driving Fords, smoking Marlboros, and drinking Rolling Rock. There’s a McDonalds, a Burger King or a KFC on every block. I really don’t think you’ll have trouble “blending in”.

    Fanny packs are a definite no-no everywhere in the world, though!

    As far as what to see, I second the Rick Steves comment. The only thing I would say is DEFINITELY see St. Paul’s. It’s a million times prettier than Westminster, and far, far less crowded.

    Money – definitely plastic. The exchange rate from your bank will be way better than at an ATM. Make sure it’s Visa or Mastercard, they won’t take Discover anywhere. And make sure your pin is 4 digits and doesn’t start with a zero, for the occasional time you might want to stop at a cashpoint. But nearly every tourist attraction, restaurant, hotel, etc. will take credit. The only thing you’ll need cash for is cabs, street vendors, etc.

    As far as the money belt, I don’t think it’s a necessity in the UK. If you were in southern europe, asia, africa, I would say yes. But if you would feel comfortable carrying a normal purse in a city like Boston, Chicago or New York, you’ll be fine in London. If you do choose to use the money belt, be sure to bring a big supply of ziploc baggies. The money belt will get really sweaty during the day, and you don’t want your passport or tickets ruined from the moisture.

  4. Three places I’d recommend: The Tower of London–yep, it’s touristy but it’s great. Also, if you can make it out to Bath on the rails you will have a fabulous time. Well worth the trip out there. Canterbury’s also a great place to go if you’re looking to get out of the city and want to walk around alone at night. It’s super-safe and comfy. As for food, if you can make it to Wagamamas (a noodle bar) near Piccadilly you’ll get lots of great food for cheap. Order by number, sit on long benches, watch the crazy waitrons, and don’t be offended if you only get a ladel to eat with and you’re served separately from the rest of your party. It’s got that Medieval Times meets Japanese noodlebar flair. When are you going? I could recommend a few seasonal things to do if you’re going in June… And where are you planning on staying? Budget B&Bs are the way to go in England/Scotland/Ireland rather than hotels. Usually cleaner, cheaper, and more interesting. Just be prepared to walk down the hall to the toilet or ask for a room with a bath (they don’t all come with them you know). Avoid hostels of all kinds unless you want to bring tiny itchy friends back home with you. ewwwwww.

  5. I second everything L-Mac had to say. I spent a week in Bath and it was lovely. But, if you’re planning on staying in the London area, you’ll have more than enough to do. I’ve been thinking on this for the last few days, and have a few more recommendations.

    If at all possible, try to arrive at the big tourist attractions (Tower, Westminster, etc.) half an hour or so before they open. We were there in august as well, and this worked out so well. It seems most of the tourists slept in, had a leisurely breakfast and then hit the attractions in the late morning. We were waiting at the gate every morning when things opened, and we never had to wait in a line. At the Tower of London, we got to see the crown jewels with no one else around. By the time we left the Tower around noon, the lines were hundreds of people deep. At St. Pauls, we got a docent all to ourselves for a private 3 hour tour. We went to Westminster in the afternoon, and it was shoulder to shoulder. Definitely go in the am.

    Kensington Palace isn’t worth it at all. Unless they’ve made big changes, the whole thing is empty. No furniture, nothing, just empty rooms. Big disappointment. Same thing with Buckingham.

    If you’re there on Saturday, head to Notting Hill and check out the Portobello Road market – the earlier the better. You can find just about everything in the world there. I had some of the best pastries of my life, found a cute outfit, lots of gifts. And it was a ton of fun.

    Be prepared for insane crowds if you plan on going to Harrods. We could hardly walk where we wanted to, we were just moved along by the crowds. It was literally shoulder to shoulder. There was no way to actually look at any of the merchandise. We actually left after about 5 minutes it was so overwhelming.

  6. Fun fun fun! I haven’t been to London, but I’ve traveled a fair bit. If you’re looking for frank advice with budget traveling in mind, I recommend The Lonely Planet books. Sometimes you have to pick and choose things to ignore in them, but I still never travel abroad without their guide (they have great maps in them, too).

    I’ve worn a money belt, and they’re pretty great (mine’s Eagle Creek. It’s got a soft lining that wicks moisture – never had to deal with a sweaty passport). That said, even though I haven’t been to London I second the advice re: New York or Boston — if you’d carry a purse there, use the same street smarts in London. I’ve been to Amsterdam and Tokyo and packed my stuff just like I would in New York. In fact, I’m rarely as concerned about my stuff as I am when I’m in New York, and even then I just carry a purse.

    See if you can find a copy of Selvedge magazine. They’re UK-based and often have ads and info about cool textile-related exhibits, events, and shopping.

  7. I’m a London Knitter so feel free to email me with questions! Clothes wise most things are wearable in London but you do need to be wary of pickpockets in the very busy areas.

    Somewhere I have a list of knitting shops and groups if you are interested.

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