Tips for enjoying your own expedition to the UK
Thursday 28 Jul 2011 65 °F
I have been home for a while now and, reflecting back, here are some tips that might help make your own expedition to the UK more enjoyable.
First, check with your bank and let them know when you will be away and where, otherwise they may lock your account the first time you make an overseas credit card purchase.
Second, ask them if they have a partnership with a bank in the UK. If they do (B of A is partnered with Barclays) then you can probably use the partner bank's ATM without incurring additional fees. This means that when you draw money out, you will get the amount you asked for in local currency, converted using the conversion rate of the day. This can save you big bucks over the long run.
Using your credit card will probably get you a small conversion fee, but some retailers (not all) can charge you in dollars rather than pounds or euros. This is more trouble on the part of the retailer, so it may not be an advertised service, or their credit card processor may not be able to do it. I discovered it was possible near the end of my trip from a retailer in Ballyvaughan. He did the conversion on his calculator and then charged me the dollar amount.
If you really want to, you can find Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King in any major city and several smaller ones, but…why? Try the local food. British food may have a bad rap, but I enjoyed it. Scottish food is not all haggis and neeps, but they really are quite tasty. Be brave; try some.
What seems to be popular right now with the Brits is the concept of fresh, packaged food. You can find cafes with names like "Eat", "Pret A Manger", "Fresh", and so forth, that are dedicated to sandwiches, salads, yogurt, snacks, wraps, etc. that were prepared recently and then packaged in neat little boxes and plastic dishes. This is just like the food you might get at Starbucks, though more British. These places tend to close early in the evening, and most of them are sit-in or take-away.
It seems that no matter whatever form of transportation you choose, there will be delays. Planes? Delayed. Trains? Delayed. Underground? Delayed. Bus? Late. Taxi? Expensive and stuck in traffic with the meter running. Walking? Rained on.
My advice is to accept it and move on. Readjust your plans, or better yet, keep your plans flexible to begin with and you will probably have a better time. If you are taking the train, look into a BritRail pass. For the underground, get an Oyster card.
Something to keep in mind when you are traveling is that street signs are different in the UK. I don’t mean the warning signs, but the actual street name signs. This can be a real difficulty when trying to orient yourself. The name of the street is usually mounted on a building near the intersection. This means that if you are at the wrong angle you won’t be able to see the street names. Also, if you are on a main thoroughfare, there may not be a sign at your intersection; I suppose they expect you to know what street you are on. So look for street signs on buildings and if you cannot find one, try the next intersection or guess. Or use a GPS (but see the Cellular section below).
My best advice is to look up. European cities have existed for centuries and except for the occasional disaster, many buildings have existed just as long. Most buildings at street level have had a facelift to make them more modern and appealing to shoppers, but if you look above, you will see an amazing array of architectural styles and decor. There are statues, gargoyles, faces, saints, notables, and miscellaneous beasties sculpted into the buildings. You might also find that there are underground city tours, like in Edinburgh, where you can see what the city was like prior to renovation.
To decide what you actually want to see, consult a guidebook. If this is your first trip, then leaving London without seeing Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and so on, is simply wrong but also dig a little deeper. Talk to people you meet on your trip or join an online travel community to get an idea of the smaller, hidden gems that the guidebooks don’t cover.
Unlike the US, most of the UK seems to charge for wifi. It is possible to find a cafe with free wifi, but it is not easy, and they are not on every corner. Often, I believe it is based on the size of the establishment. Britain has a longstanding tradition of take-away shops (or "food to go") that are not quite fast food as we know it. These shops are generally very small, often just a counter to order from with no chairs or tables inside. When they do allow sit-in, there are often only two or three tables, so it makes sense at a place this small wouldn't want people hanging around all day using the Internet. The larger, newer cafes will usually have Internet, but not always free.
Furthermore, you cannot count on getting the same Internet provider at each hotspot. So if you purchase a month's worth of service from BTOpenZone, the next cafe you stop in might be using Boingo, and you'll have to pay again.
Your hotel or hostel will probably have wifi, but again it may not be free. I had to pay at two out of the five places I stayed on my trip. Also, wifi is often restricted to a common area and may not reach to your room. This makes things like Skype or other VoIP services a little impractical (although the time difference pretty much made this irrelevant).
So, don't count on free wifi or being able to access it from your hotel room, but you will be able to find wifi somewhere. I wrote a good portion of this blog offline and posted it from my hotel.
I always had cell service, but the carrier changed depending on where I was. Since I have an ATT iPhone, I did some research ahead of time. Some phones you can unlock and then replace the Sim card which will allow you to use your own phone on a local carrier and plan. This will probably save money if you want to use your phone to keep in touch with your home, office or traveling partners. But alas, ATT will not allow their iPhone to be unlocked. ATT also charges egregious rates for roaming, as well as for data services.
Because I was on an extreme budget, my solution was to turn Data Roaming off and only use my iPhone's data services over wifi. This essentially made it into a dumbphone rather than a smartphone. If you choose to do this, I suggest you download some good offline map apps before you arrive. Features I find useful are: ability to place your own pins in the map and label them; street name searching; ability to select an area and bring up restaurants, shops, sites etc. The one I found, CityMaps2Go works okay, but not great. There may be better ones out there.
If you do have network access, you will be glad (at least until you get the bill). Without 3G, there are no location services so your mapping software cannot find you. If you are going to spend a lot of time in one country, you might look into getting a smartphone that works there. Apparently iPhones not on the AT&T network can be jailbroken, unlocked and used in other countries with the right SIM card. I imagine other smartphones might work with just the change of a SIM card, but do your own research before trying this.