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When I was getting ready to leave for England, I told myself not to be disappointed if it wasn’t anything like they depict in the movies.
And then I got there, and it was exactly like they depict in the movies.
I mean, not really. But it was close. There are rolling green hills covered in sheep, people talk with amazing accents, and they drive on the “wrong” side of the road. See? Exactly like Pride and Prejudice.
But there was still a lot about visiting the country that I never could have learned from watching movies, so here are my top ten tips for traveling to England.
1. Learn how to use public transit
If the thought of driving on the left side of the road intimidates you, rest assured: you can get around pretty well using only public transportation, at least in the more metropolitan areas. You may have to mix and match a bit to get there—use a bus to get from A to B and a metro or a train to get from B to C and then walk a bit—but it’s definitely doable.
It’s fairly easy to learn the tube system. When waiting for a metro or a train, look for LED announcement boards near the tracks. These will tell you when the next train will be coming. Remember that trains are designated by their final destination, not by their next stop, so make sure you know what line you’re on so you don’t miss your train. You’ll also want to make sure you’re on the right platform so that you end up on a train going in the right direction. But don’t worry—the British love maps, and they’re very good at posting good signage. If all else fails and you get a bit turned around, just ask for help. People are usually very happy to help.
2. Public Transit isn’t cheap
It’s not super expensive, either, but it’s certainly not as cheap as the 60¢ bus ride I took to work during high school. There are a few ways to save a couple of pounds while using public tranportation, though:
- If you’re going to be riding a bus, metro, or train more than once in a day, get the day saver. It’s cheaper than buying individual tickets, even if you’re only going to ride twice. Some lines even have combo tickets that let you use one pass for different types of transport. Check the transit companies, though—you can’t use a Stagecoach bus pass on an Arriva bus, for example.
- If you’re headed to London and you’re going to be riding the underground a lot, definitely get an Oyster card. There’s a small deposit (£5, I believe), but once you don’t need it anymore, you can return it and get your deposit back. Oyster cards have a daily price cap (£7.60 for zones 1-3), and once you’ve reached that limit, you won’t be charged for any additional trips that day. Depending on how much you anticipate using the underground, this can be really cost effective.
- If you’re going to be traveling by rail at all, definitely get a railcard. It reduces the rail fares by 1/3 and pays for itself in only a few trips. If you’re traveling with a buddy, you can get a Two-Together Railcard. You both have to travel together (so no solo day trips), but it costs the same as an individual railcard (£30/year).
3. Hoof it
England is a very walkable place. Not only are there maps on every street corner to orient the befuddled American tourists, but there are also a plethora of public walking trails all over the countryside. Make sure you dress for cold, wet weather, though, because even if the day starts out sunny and beautiful, you’re bound to get rained on at some point. I bought a pair of rain pants to wear on field trips and it was honestly one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
4. Pubs aren’t just for alcohol
It’s true that you can order a pint in a pub, but you can also order a nice bacon butty or some gammon ham. Mmmm. If you’re looking for a dining experience that is distinctly British, a pub is the place to be. When eating at a pub, don’t expect a waiter or waitress to come around to your table and take your order. You’ll get a menu when you’re seated, but then you have to order at the bar. Make note of your table number—it’s usually a small metal disk with a number pressed into one corner of the table—because you’ll need to tell them where to deliver your grub.
And speaking of food…
5. To Market, To Market
Before moving to England, I had never lived in a place where doing your grocery shopping at a market was a viable option. The only markets I’d ever experienced were overpriced, yuppie kind of places. They’re fun—don’t get me wrong—but shopping there was a novelty, not a regular part of life.
Not so in England. Markets are a great place to get some fresh food for (usually) reasonable prices. You can buy fresh fruit, veggies, meat, cheese, bread, and more, and market food is (usually) friendlier for a traveler’s budget than a sit down restaurant.
6. How to score cheap (or free!) entries
If you’re a student, make sure to bring that ID with you. It’s almost always good for a decent discount on entry fees. Price boards won’t give you “student prices”, though—you have to look for “concession fees.”
Otherwise, if you know you want to visit a lot of historical sites, you may want to look at the English Heritage Overseas Visitor pass. It’s good for either 9 or 16 days, and it gets you in free to over 100 sites across the country. It’s a bit pricey, so it’s worth spending a bit of time figuring out exactly what you want to see and how much it would cost to do it without the pass to determine whether it’s cost effective.
Some sites, like Alnwick Castle, also offer a discount on entry if you can show a valid bus ticket from a participating bus company. If you have to take a bus to get there anyway, you might as well take the bus that gets you in the cheapest.
Want some more tips? Check out this great post by Jess at Young Rubbish about how to score free tickets in London.
7. Learn what things are called
While American and British English aren’t that different, there are some common words that can get a bit confusing across the pond. Like, why is everyone always saying “cheers”? (It’s their way of saying thanks, or goodbye, or any number of other things. It’s contagious. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
A few examples:
|American English||British English|
|Trash can||Rubbish bin|
|Highway||Motorway or Dual Carriageway|
|Hood (of your car)||Bonnet|
|Trunk (of your car)||Boot|
|Fanny Pack||Bum Bag|
|Parking Lot||Car Park|
8. I’ve mentioned this before, but Hot and Cold taps are. the. worst.
Seriously. Brace yourself. (On the plus side, I went to Yellowstone recently and they have double taps in the public restrooms in one of the shops near Old Faithful. I felt completely prepared, and even chuckled a little when I overheard other women expressing angst over their handwashing.)
9. Pounds are heavy
I realize how obvious that sounds, but I mean that British Pound Sterling coins are heavy. They’re also quite thick, which makes it difficult to carry more than a few of them in a thin wallet. I bought a little coin purse after my first week of struggling to get my wallet zipped shut and life was so much better after that.
10. British history isn’t just about castles
England has a long and fascinating history, yet most people tend to focus mostly on the Middle Ages. I love castles as much as the next anglophile, but it was also really fun to learn about the Roman period, turn-of-the-century living, maritime history, and historic literature. When you’ve had your fill of castles and cathedrals, I highly recommend visiting one of England’s many free museums.
Accommodations – Although we stayed with a friend in London (and I lived in Newcastle for a year), Booking.com[A] and Hostelworld[A] are both great resources for finding cheap accommodation anywhere you travel.
Train Travel – You can check train schedules and book tickets on the National Rail site. But remember: you can always book tickets at the station—and that removes the stress of having to get to the station at a particular time.
Flights – Leslie and I booked our flight from Ireland to London through Ryanair. I have also booked cheap flights from England to the Netherlands and Portugal through EasyJet. You can get cheap tickets (~$25-35) to and from many places in Europe from main hubs in the UK.