London, like New York, is a city that never sleeps. With major sporting events, trade fairs and festivals throughout the year it is never too early to start planning for the trip of a lifetime - whether that be for Wimbledon, the Notting Hill Carnival or the last night of the Proms.
Here are 10 tips to ensure your London visit goes swimmingly.
1. It is never too soon to secure flights and accommodation. July and August are peak holiday times in Europe and flights are invariably full at that time of the year - as they are at Christmas/New Year because of family reunions. Book and confirm your flights as soon as possible to make sure you are not disappointed – and try to select your preferred seats in advance if that service is offered by your airline. Consider flying from Australia to other destinations in Europe and then using rail or budget airlines to get to London if that is cheaper. When it comes to accommodation, do as much research as possible before making a payment. Check out the www.tripadvisor.com website for reviews and try to get friends to take a look at your choice. There can be many untruths on websites and it is all too easy to turn up to a luxury hotel and find there is a building site next door, or the promised room refurbishments are still underway.
2. Turn off data roaming on your mobile phone and do not turn it back on again until you are safely back on Australian soil. Data roaming charges can come to thousands of dollars on just a short overseas trip if you send a few emails and check a few times for local news. Look at the possibility of getting a British or global roaming SIM card and leave a message bank notification for anyone calling you that they should ring your new number. Even a handful of calls and a few SMSs made in the UK can add hundreds to your bill. Companies like TravelSIM (www.travelsim.net.au) or GoSIM.com issue you with a new SIM card that simply replaces your regular Telstra, Optus or Vodafone SIM. If your service is locked, however, you will need to contact your service provider to get it unlocked so it will accept another SIM. Do this well in advance, however.
3. If you are arriving at Heathrow Airport, as most Australians do, splurge on the Heathrow Express train. If you are tired and jet-lagged you are an easy target, so it pays to avoid traffic jams, taxis queues or a long trek into town with commuters on the tube. The express train travels between Heathrow and central London's Paddington Station in just 15 minutes. Trains leave every quarter of an hour and you can even buy a ticket on board. www.heathrowexpress.com.
4. Look at commuting from regional areas to London to save money. There are several attractive region cities with direct rail access to central London within a one or two-hour commute. Attractive towns within an hour of London on the train include St Albans, Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and Oxford. Find a hotel or rental accommodation that’s close to a station and you will spend as little time travelling as someone crossing from one side of London to the other. Rail fares in Britain are best booked as far in advance as possible, and rise dramatically for travel on the same day as you book – but most can be booked online. Many of the trains have free, or affordable, pay as you go wi-fi so you can send some emails or catch up on what has been happening back home on the internet.
5. Be prepared for transport delays and plan ahead. While the London Transport system has been much improved and offers seamless links between bus, underground and overground, there can be works going on, particularly at weekends, with lines sometimes completely closed. There are usually alternative routes available, but it can take time. Allow plenty of time if you absolutely, positively have to be anywhere at a specific time - and suss out an alternative route in advance.
6. Don’t be afraid of fast food. There are several fast food outlets in Britain that offer affordable and palatable meals without breaking the bank. The sandwich chain Pret a Manger has outlets all over London and while its sandwiches are wrapped in plastic they are, in fact, made on site at each restaurant every day and choices like Tandoori chicken and cucumber with yogurt sauce are actually quite tasty. Fish and chips, although it can be hard to find the traditional cod, is also often a good choice, while kebab restaurants are another good option – with London having a large Turkish population.
7. Do your research as it can be hard to find internet cafes. They are often hidden up dodgy-looking stairways or in gloomy basements, but when you discover one they usually offer an hour of internet access for between £1 and £2. Often, however, the printer will not work, or the guy manning the facility will have minimal English. Britain is using a lot of imported labour from places like Poland and Estonia. The good news is that you can find a lot of free wi-fi, sometimes offered by local councils. Fast-food outlets like Starbucks and McDonalds offer free wi-fi, so you can check your emails for the price of a cup of coffee, or use software like Skype to phone home. Also check out tourism offices and local libraries. Many will offer free internet access (usually limited to an hour) to visitors.
8, Look out for lunchtime specials – and don’t be afraid to try hotel restaurants. Many British restaurants offer lunchtime deals, or set menus at far below the cost of dinner, so it can pay to have your main meal in the middle of the day. Good pubs often serve very palatable food food to their lunchtime clientele, while good hotels often offer bargain dining.
9. Unless you have several suitcases or are in a screaming rush avoid traditional London black cabs. While they are clean and fast and the drivers are wizards at avoiding traffic black spots or hold ups, nothing can burn a hole in your budget like a couple of trips in a cab – particularly at night. A trip from central London to a suburb like Southfields can cost £35 or more – and the underground stops just after midnight. Buy a pre-paid Oyster card which works on all buses, underground and overground trains and saves you money on standard fares. Oyster cards be recharged at most stations and can also be used on the very useful all-night bus services. And despite what you might have heard, public transport in London is quicker and more efficient than you might imagine – just don’t expect a smile in the morning from your fellow travellers.
10. Get online and download maps, apps and more to your phone or laptop before you leave Australia. Not all London hotels are expensive – it just essential to pick the right one. My current favourites are The Capital Hotel (right) and The Athenaeum at the top end and Tune Hotels for a budget experience. It's all down to research - and also make sure you have the apps you need before leaving Australia. Trying to download a new app at Maccas will not be fun.