I’ve had time to discuss this and ruminate on it to come up with the best tips to make any trip to London/Edinburgh better. Although, any trip there is already pretty fantastic as it is. But there were some things that I agonized over, that turned out to be no big deal.
Such as the first tip:
While most travel websites praise the Oyster Card for getting around London (the Oyster allows you to travel via public transportation in and around London) and the London Pass for entry into certain attractions free, there’s a little known option called the 2 for 1 Travelcard which can potentially offer even better savings. For our trip to London (two adults), we saved over $100 by choosing the 2 for 1 Travel Card over the Oyster Card/London pass option.
The 2 for 1 Travelcard allows you unlimited travel on the trains in zones 1-2 in London (where most of the main attractions are located) and the red bus network. It also allows you to visit any of the participating attractions (and there are at least 150 – including Kensington Palace and the Tower of London) and only pay admission for one person, simply by completing the included vouchers (or you can print your own) and presenting it and your travelcard at each attraction.
But here’s the tricky part. You can’t get a 2 for 1 travelcard just anywhere. They are not available at any Underground stations (the Underground sells their own travel card, but it’s not eligible for the 2 for 1 admission to attractions). Instead, you can only purchase them at certain National Rail Service stations. We purchased ours at Paddington (again, not Paddington Underground station, but the above ground one).
You can purchase a travelcard for 1 day or 7 days. But please note, that you have to have a passport type photo for the 7 day Travelcard. You can easily take your own photos, upload them to a website such as PassportPhoto4You!, then print them out somewhere like Walmart or Walgreens (which is what I did).
There are plenty of places to exchange currency once you get to the UK. . . Thomas Cook, banks, Travelex, Asda (think Walmart), and the post office to name a few. But the least expensive method is, usually, an ATM.
Tired of walking?
You can rent a bicycle to ride around London. Boris Bikes (nicknamed after the mayor of London, Boris Johnson) rent for ₤2 for 24 hours with the first 30 minutes of the journey being free. With over 700 bike docking stations, there’s plenty of places to rent or return a bike.
Even Hyde Park!
A Quick Tour.
Want to take a quick, sort of inexpensive tour? Hop in a taxi. London and Edinburgh’s taxi drivers are highly knowledgeable about their cities, and have no problem taking you for a little ride around. Not only that, but they’ll give you a little history lesson, or philosophy, or politics, or any number of other subjects, along the way.
Need a doctor, but it’s not an emergency?
Call 111, the NHS’s non-emergency helpline. It’s easy and free to call. Just answer a few questions about the symptoms you’re suffering from and your location, and the staff will advise you on what to do.
Getting Around Edinburgh.
Most of Edinburgh’s main tourist attractions are located on The Royal Mile or nearby, which means that it is a very walk-able city. . . although, comfortable shoes are a necessity (cobblestoned streets, you know?).
Edinburgh also boasts an extensive network of bus routes in and around the city center, with a Plusbus ticket giving you unlimited travel on nearly all Lothian (the largest public transportation company operating in Edinburgh) buses and trams for ₤3 a day.
Changing Your Mind.
We traveled from London to Edinburgh via Virgin East Coast Trains (which were super nice, the trains and the employees, we earned miles). Once we reached Edinburgh, we decided to stay an extra day.
For ₤10 per ticket, you can change the date and time of your advance ticket. Just make sure to do it at least 2 hours before the original departure time. Even earlier than that is better. . . the return train that we changed to was nearly sold out just 24 hours before departure with only 2 adjacent seats remaining. Also, don’t discard your original ticket, you’ll most likely need it when the conductor comes along to check tickets.
By the way, should you need any assistance from Virgin trains, you’ll get a much quicker response by contacting them through Twitter or Facebook (in my case, within an hour versus nearly 2 weeks later when contacted by the contact form).
It’s well known that the flight over is the most expensive part, and the same was certainly true for us. But I saved a ton of money by following a few simple rules. Only searching for flights in private/incognito browsing, leaving and returning on certain days (leaving Tuesday and returning Tuesday was the cheapest for us at that time), searching on certain days and at certain times (early in the week and in the mornings had the best prices during the weeks before our trip, with a lot of websites reporting Tuesday at 3AM as the optimal time), and of course, being flexible about the dates you leave and return.
Other options are budget airlines, such as Norwegian and WOW. WOW, an Icelandic carrier, is currently offering one way flights to Dublin, Ireland from Boston next year for $199. And, yes, there’s a reason why I know that 😉
Pickpockets are everywhere in big cities, especially London. In fact, it was fairly obvious to spot some of them in the crowds near the more popular tourist sights (Westminster and Trafalgar Square), and other times it wasn’t quite so obvious. I’ll admit, even though I’m usually hyper vigilant, I very nearly fell victim to one in an Underground station. Luckily, my travel companion and mother noticed his intentions and spoke up.
Pickpockets thrive on distraction, whether it’s by causing a commotion, targeting the crowds watching street performances, or taking advantage of lost tourists carrying multiple bags.
A money bag or a crossbody purse that zips (worn under your jacket/coat, if possible, and especially if there’s an inner pocket that zips) are both great ideas. As is, only carrying the money that you’ll be using that day, and keeping it in more than one secure place (the virtue, “Don’t keep your eggs in more than basket,” is the perfect advice).
And don’t think that all pickpockets look alike. Some are just as you’d picture, some are well-dressed and blend in with the crowds, and some are, sadly, children. A taxi driver warned us of a particularly popular pickpocketing scam involving children approaching tourists in a cafe. While you’re distracted by one child, the other one is leaving nothing behind but lint.
But the best defense against all of that is alertness. Keep an eye on your surroundings and a hand on your bag.
Navigating The City.
In both London and Edinburgh, there was nearly always free Wi-Fi available, which meant that we easily relied on Google Maps for our directional needs. But just in case, I took a screenshot and sometimes just a photo of the directions and map before we left for each excursion. And in the times, when we were in between signals, I was very happy to have them.
Another reliable tool for navigating about London is the Plan A Journey feature on the Transport For London website.
When you purchase certain items in the UK, you may notice that the amount that you pay is the same as the amount on the price tag. That’s because the tax is already added to the price (VAT – Value Added Tax). Something that I, honestly, loved.
Here’s the actual tip part of this tip. . . . International visitors that meet certain requirements are eligible for a VAT refund.
The requirements are:
You have to have spent less than 365 days out of the 2 years prior to making the purchase living in the UK.
And you must also be leaving the EU by the end of the third month after making the purchase.
Also, not all shops participate in VAT refunds, and shops that do may have varying minimum purchase amounts. You will also most likely have to request the VAT refund form from the shop (shops that participate in VAT refunds usually display signs that they do), show proof that you’re not an EU resident (passport), then present the goods, receipts, and the form at the airport when you leave. Make sure to arrive early at the airport as the one counter that I saw at Heathrow for VAT refunds had an extremely long line.
We stayed in four different hotels, three of which did not stock any bath cloths for guests, only large towels. So, if you absolutely can’t do without one, bring your own.