Traveling To England? 21 Things to Know Before You Go

by Julie Cohn
Traveling to England4

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England is a popular travel destination for people from the United States and for good reason.  The country is rich in history and culture, the people are gracious and accommodating, and there is no language barrier.  Although many of our traditions are similar, England is a different country, with different currencies and customs. Are you traveling to England from the United States? Here are 21 Things to Know Before You Go!

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Traveling To England: 21 Things to Know


21 Things to Know When Traveling to England 2

Money Matters

1.  Currency:  The currency in England is the British Pound Sterling.  This can also be used in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  The British Pound is stronger than the US Dollar right now, so be careful when shopping, because your US Dollar is only worth approximately .59 cents in England.  That is almost half the value, so watch that exchange rate!

2.  Credit Cards:  The credit card you use in the US may not work in England.  Most of Europe, including England, uses a “chip and pin” or “chip and signature” credit card for added security.  These credit cards have a special digital chip inside that is read by chip readers, then you have to add your pin or sign for the transaction.  Check with your bank or credit card company to see if they have a “chip and pin” or “chip and sig” card with no foreign transaction fees.  Also, be sure to let your credit card company knew when you are traveling, so they can lift international restrictions on your card.

3.  Expenses: England, especially London was more expensive than I expected.  Make certain you set a realistic budget for yourself, but be flexible, as the exchange rate fluctuates. Research costs before you travel so you know what to expect, including airfare, rail, lodging, and dining costs. An experienced travel advisor can help you with recognizing expenses and guide you to the best options within your budget. 


Cell Phone/Smart Phone Usage

4.  Do not use your cell or smartphone when traveling to England without contacting your cell phone provider to arrange for global services, with discounted texting and/or calling features, otherwise, you may come home to a very large phone bill!  Most cell phone providers have global features that can be temporarily turned on while you are on your trip.

If you decide not to pay the fees for global data/phone usage, you can use wifi only, just be sure to turn your cellular data off while overseas.  Special apps such as What’s App, Skype, and Facetime can help you stay connected to friends and family via wifi, so you can talk and text.  I purchased a global plan through Verizon, but it didn’t work, and I didn’t need it after all, as What’s App worked best (and was free!).


5.  Unlike the United States, most people in England travel by public transportation, such as trains, buses, and ferries.  Automobiles are expensive to rent, and gas prices are more than twice what we pay in the US. Also, driving a vehicle can be confusing for some, as people in Great Britain drive on the opposite side of the car and road.  If possible, avoid rental cars…although they do make traveling from town to town easier for those with lots of luggage, and lots of stops. Weigh the options for your particular trip, but know that rental cars may not always be the easiest or most economical way to go.

6.  BritRail Passes:  To travel across England, purchase a BritRail pass.  Passes can be purchased to be used for England only or may include other United Kingdom destinations for additional fees.  Passes can be available for consecutive days or flexible travel, depending on your travel plans, and you can purchase first-class or standard seating.  Once the pass is activated, they are easy to use on all trains (except Underground/Tube trains in London), and seat reservations are not necessary (although on busy travel days/times, such as business travel peak times, reservations make life easier).

My son and I used Britrail passes to travel from London to Salisbury, then to Cardiff, back to Bath, up north to Hexham, then back to London, and we never had to wait more than 30 minutes to hop on a train to our destination.  BritRail made traveling throughout England and Wales super easy for us!  Travel Tip:  Be sure to purchase your BritRail pass from the United States at least three weeks before you leave for England.  BritRail passes are only available for non-British residents and must be purchased in advance (three weeks in advance).

London 10

7.  Public Transportation:  In London, the easiest way to get around is by using the Underground/Tube, buses, ferries, and National Rail, and the way to pay is with an Oyster Card.  Oyster cards can be purchased at any Underground terminal or at automated machines.  There is a £5 fee for activating a card, so try to use the same card and re-load it when it gets low.  To use the Oyster Card, wave it over the green pad as you go through a Tube turnstile.  You will also have to wave the card when you exit the Underground, but there is a sleeve you can keep your card in, and you will not have to take the card out of the sleeve, just wave the whole thing over the green pad.

The Oyster card can also be used for the DLR, buses, and ferries, but cannot be used for the Heathrow Express to the airport (be sure to get an Oyster card that is good for all travel zones).  Note:  When you go through the Underground turnstile, your balance will quickly flash on the entrance screen.  You can also check your balance at the automated machines.

8.  Taxis:  Taxi service is expensive in London, but if you have mobility issues, it may be an easier way to get around.  A taxi service can be arranged ahead of time by your hotel concierge, and you may even be able to pay with a credit card if you arrange taxi service in advance, but most of the time you will have to pay in cash (British pounds) for taxi service.  Black cabs are the official taxi service for London, so be careful if an unknown cab service asks for your business.  You can also hire a private service minivan or limousine service, but make sure they are licensed.

9.  Walking:  You will do a fair amount of walking around London, and it is a great way to see the city.  Be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes. When crossing streets, look both ways, then look again.  Cars speed in London and can come from all directions.  Pedestrians do not have the right of way in London!  When using escalators, stay to the right if you are not walking on them, so people can pass you on to the left.

10.  Handicapped Services:  For those with mobility issues, many Underground and National rail stations do not have elevators (lifts) available.  They do have lots of stairs, but sometimes not escalators.  Research your itinerary in advance, to make certain your destination has handicapped services available.  Many of the older hotels/bed and breakfasts/lodging have stairs but may not have lifts, so check before booking.  Likewise, some tourist destinations may not have wheelchair accessibility and may have narrow doorways, so check before arrival.

We are almost halfway through 21 Things to Know Before You Go, have you learned anything new?

21 Things to Know About Traveling To England8

Food and Beverages

11.  Most restaurants will not automatically give you water.  If you would like water with your meal, you will probably have to pay for a bottle of water.  Drink refills are not common.  If you ask for another drink, you will likely be charged for another drink. Water, as well as soft drinks,  may come without ice, so ask if you would like ice cubes added. Beer and wine are usually served at room temperature.

12.  Fish and chips (with mashed peas), and Bangers and Mash (sausage and mash potatoes) are standard British cuisine, but England is a country of diversity, so you will find many Indian, Middle Eastern, Oriental, and other ethnic restaurants available as well….maybe even an American restaurant or two.

13.  British bacon is broiled, not fried, and is more like a thin pork chop than the thin smoked strips we are used to in the US.

14.  Full English Breakfast includes eggs (usually cooked in oil), toast, bangers (sausage), beans, and blood pudding (yes, real blood).  Not my cup of tea (no pun intended), but fortunately most places have other options.

15.  Porridge is the same thing as oatmeal in the US.

16.  There are two types of tea service in England.  Afternoon Tea is a formal tea, with tea sandwiches, pastries, scones, tea service, and sometimes champagne.  Cream tea is a lighter tea service, more common throughout England, and involves tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam. (You can also order coffee.)

17.  Your server will not take your plate at the end of the meal, even if appears you are done unless you place your fork and knife face down next to each other on the plate.

London 9

18.  At pubs and smaller restaurants, there is usually no wait staff.  You are expected to go to the bar, order your meal and pay for it, then wait for it to be served, or pick it up yourself from the bar.

19.  If you ask for lemonade, you will get a fizzy clear soft drink, similar to Sprite.  You will not find iced tea in most restaurants, the British prefer their tea hot.

20.  Tipping:  The general rule of thumb is 10%, but check your bill, as the gratuity (service charge), may already be added.


21.  Must-Have Things to Pack:  If you are using public transportation and trains while traveling to England, pack light. (Take my word for it!)  Plan for 3-4 days worth of flexible outfits that can be easily washed in a hotel sink and dried on a portable laundry line. Lugging big suitcases and extra bags is not pleasant, and takes away from the fun of the trip.

  • A pashmina for the plane and chilly evenings while walking.
  • A three-prong UK electrical converter (230/240 volts) – If you try to plug your regular laptop or smartphone plug into an electrical outlet without the converter, you will fry your electronics!  If you travel a lot, get a standard international converter that complies with several countries.
  • A cross-body handbag or knapsack.  This type of bag will hinder pickpockets and protect valuables easier.
  • Camera:  You are going to want to take photos, lots of them.
  • Cell Phone Portable Charger, iPad or Kindle charger
  • Small umbrella
  • A small package of laundry detergent and a portable clothing line. – Laundromats are hard to come by in England, so learn to do sink laundry and dry it in your bathroom.
  • Backup credit card, extra cash, and a copy of your passport. – Store these in a secret compartment of your purse or luggage, just in case.
  • A few protein bars or kid-friendly snacks.  Sometimes those sandwiches from the train trolly do not look very appetizing.  Have a protein bar or kid’s snacks just in case.


Bonus:  What To Leave At Home

  • Your laptop – You are there to see the country, not work.  Most places have spotty wifi anyway, so leave the laptop at home and enjoy your visit.   If you need to get any work done, you should be able to do it on an iPad or another tablet.
  • Extra sweaters and heavy jackets – The weather can be temperamental, but you should be able to survive on one sweater and a light jacket.  Heavy clothing makes for heavy luggage.
  • Paperback and Hardcover books:  Leave the bulky books at home and invest in an iPad or Kindle.
  • Heels, unless you are going dancing.  With all the walking you will be doing, you will not want or need heels.  Bring 1-2 pairs of comfortable flat shoes.
  • Camera paraphernalia- Unless you are a huge photography buff, you should be able to take awesome photos on your camera phone or the standard lens that comes with your DSLR.  Apps such as Snapseed can make those camera photos look professional. Don’t bother lugging all your extra lenses.

Are you traveling to England?  In addition to these 21 Things to Know Before You Go, what else do you need to know?  Leave your questions and comments below. ♥

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Mary Frances 07/29/2014 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for the tips!

Amber 07/30/2014 at 10:43 am

Great post! Thanks for #2, I’ll definitely call my bank before international travel. Why is the US so far behind when it comes to cc security? You’d think after the Target fiasco the banks would be all over the chip reader!

Mike 08/06/2014 at 10:04 pm

Hey, great article. As a Brit I always find it interesting to see how foreigners view my country.

Just two things that might help –

Cell phones – buy a prepaid SIM card (we call the Pay As You Go or PAYG) for about $25 and you’ll get about 3GB data and a load of free local calls. Just make sure you’ve got a GSM phone and it’s unlocked. If you don’t you can always buy a cheap Android/Windows phone for about $150 inc the prepaid sim.

Water at the table – you don’t need to buy bottled water in restaurants. Just ask for tap water. By law it has to be provided free of charge when asked for.

Christine K 04/20/2017 at 7:08 pm

Such a great list and one that I will bookmark for future reference. There are some very helpful suggestions that you wouldn’t think about ahead of time. And also, the U.S. dollar is now much stronger so probably more Americans making the trip.

Julie Cohn 04/20/2017 at 7:09 pm

Thanks Christine. The US dollar is a lot stronger than when I wrote this! 🙂

Cyril 04/20/2017 at 10:06 pm

Some good information for you guys across the pond. Not sure that I agree with all of them being English living in Spain we have a different opinions on some points.

nativevagabonds 04/21/2017 at 2:44 am

I wish I had this before I studied abroad in London! Great tips!

Antonina 04/21/2017 at 6:49 pm

One of the most informative posts I’ve ever read. Will be very useful if I ever make it to the UK.

thesanetravel 04/21/2017 at 6:51 pm

It’s a lot of advice for traveling to England. I think it’s very useful for the first timers. Thanks for sharing.


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