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London: Six tips for staying sane, saving money, staying in touch

May 25, 2012|By Catharine M. Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor
  • The bus system in London is not quite as intuitive as the Tube, so you may need to turn to the London Transport Planner for help.
The bus system in London is not quite as intuitive as the Tube, so you may need… (Catharine M. Hamm )

It’s going to be an incredibly busy summer for London, starting with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee June 2-5, followed by World Pride Week in June, the Olympics in July and August and the Paralympics in August and September.

I just returned from four days in London -- so action-packed that I spent part of one day in Greenwich and then went to Paris for dinner and was back in London by midnight. (You can read about this and other suggestions for a different view of London in the Sunday Travel section or online.) Here are the strategies and lessons I learned on this trip, my third to the city. You will know some. You may scoff at others. Or you may have some of your own. If you do, send them to me at travel@latimes.com or share in the comments section below. Herewith, ideas on what travelers should know:

--Two words: Oyster card. That’s the card you need to buy the minute you get off the Heathrow Express that will allow you to use the London subway, trains and buses to get almost anywhere in the city. You buy the card, load it with some pounds and then you have only to plop the card on the ubiquitous round circle on every mode of transport to gain access. Also, you can get some discounts for having an Oyster, sort of like a AAA card but for urban transport.

--The subways are pretty intuitive, but the buses are not. The answer to that: The London Transport Planner. It is explicit about what bus, what stop and where. Pay attention when it says Stop Q or whatever. Otherwise you will, as I did, end up going the wrong way. (A stop may have your bus number but it won’t be going the way you want it.) The detailed instructions make the buses manageable.

--Two more words: chip and PIN. U.S. credit cards sometimes will not work abroad even in cosmopolitan-caters-to-tourist London (vending machines -- which is where I bought my Oyster card -- can be tricky) and having a chip and PIN card, which is the international equivalent of a U.S. credit card but with different security system, will come in handy. (The chip transmits data, and you verify your identity by using a personal identification number.) U.S. MasterCard and Visa are hoping to have this by 2013. Till then, some other options are available -- Chase British Airways, JP Morgan Select, among others. Other companies are testing them. I used a preloaded chip and PIN card, and it got me out of a couple of jams. Mine came from TravelEx, which  gave me two in case I lost one. Pretty slick system.

--Phone home but be careful. This gives me such a headache, what with swapping SIM cards and all. Here’s what I did: I left the smartphones at home and bought an inexpensive Samsung phone for about $30. I topped it off with about $8 (5 pounds) of airtime and bought an international phone card for 3 pounds (about $5). This worked fine, but I burned through my time pretty quickly. By the end of my four days, I couldn’t make a call without retopping my phone with some time, but I could send text messages. I decided to stick with text messaging.

--Here’s why: I always travel with a netbook, my small laptop that I bought years ago for less than $300 and which has taken a huge amount of abuse (like dropping it on concrete, which shattered the screen but was easy to replace). Without a smartphone, I needed my mini-laptop (see transport planner above), which also allowed me to edit pictures in my free time.

My best purchase was a Huawei USB wireless stick with a SIM card, a mobile broadband modem. This allowed me to connect wirelessly to the Internet. With my Skype account and earphones with a microphone, I could call home when I wanted, which I did every day. My total phone bill using Skype was about $2.

Having the Internet allowed me to buy advance purchase tickets to some attractions (saving time and money), although I then had to find a place to print them out, which is another story.  (Think thumb drive/USB stick.) You won’t find the proliferation of Internet cafes you once did (doesn’t everyone have a home computer or a smartphone?),  so here’s what helped me out: Mail Boxes Etc.  (Thanks to the kind folks at the MBE at 95 Wilton Road.)

--Wear two pairs of socks. Sean O’Neill, an ex-pat living in London,  gave me this bit of wisdom: “London is like a track and field event every day.” He’s right. You’ll do a lot of walking, and your feet will need the protection. If your shoes won’t accommodate two pairs, well, then, reconsider your choice of footwear. The streets are uneven in many places; there’s construction everywhere and if you want to walk in stilettos, it’s your funeral.  (I also packed Band-Aids and used all of them.)

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