There’s always a first time. For anything and everything.
So, recently I went to London and Paris, for the first time. It was a trip DL and I talked about for a long time but never got round to doing it, until a few months ago when several airlines were rigorously promoting their special offers for tickets to some cities in Europe, London being one of them. Once our tickets were purchased, I had to plan the itinerary. I didn’t want a rigid plan as we wanted to have a relaxed time on vacation but there were a few “must do” things, this being my first time to London.
Here’s the gist of what we did, 10 essential tips, especially for first-timers to London and travelling on your own.
Flight to London
Take a direct flight, if possible – you will definitely save on time and big on convenience. Our direct flight to London on MAS was comfortable. The Airbus A380 is spacious and I love the decent-sized personal screens. It’s worthwhile to pay the extra RM150 for a seat on the Upper Deck – so much more spacious there.
Good selection of movies shown onboard and they’re all in HD – I watched 3 movies during the flight! Say what you like, I still think MAS has one of the best cabin crews around and I had no complaints on the food served either. The flight took slightly less than 14 hours with super smooth take-off and landing.
The super-long wing of the Airbus A380
For accommodation, I decided to use Airbnb. I’ve used this several times before, for our trips to Hong Kong and Japan. The cost may not be very much cheaper compared to hotels but then again, that also depends on the type of accommodation you want. Airbnb offers various types of hosting, from shared rooms to whole house/apartment. Since there were only 2 of us, I decided to go for a private room.
In London, we stayed with a host who has a townhouse very near to King’s Cross/St Pancras. My first criteria for choosing accommodation location is proximity to train stations and Paul’s house was just a couple of streets away. Paul was a very friendly and amiable host. Our room was nice and comfortable and Paul even provide breakfast and free-flow of beers and wines. His fridge was stacked with breakfast items – just cook/reheat as you please. We never touched the beers and wines though but we helped ourselves to the bottled water! The other thing that’s good about having a local contact in Paul was that he was very accommodating about helping us confirm local bookings in London. My bookings for a local tour and Dinner with Heston in London required me to call them for reconfirmation of details (before our arrival in London) and Paul helped me to do that. It’s nice to have someone local there to help out with such stuff.
Border Control & Security
Immigration is known as “Border Control” in the UK and despite the big crowd of arriving passengers, I was impressed with the speed of the clearance. There were more than 10 counters opened and passengers were ushered to available ones very briskly. The officers were welcoming, polite and efficient. After a few questions, our passports were stamped and we were waved through cheerfully with the remark “London awaits you – enjoy!” Nice, right?
By the way, when you depart the UK, there’s no need to go through Border Control. You just need to pass through “Security” where thorough screening is done. I actually had to remove my shoes and endured a stringent body “grope”!
MAS lands in Terminal 4 of Heathrow Airport. From this terminal, there’s only one train line out, which is the Piccadilly Line. If you need to get to destinations on other lines, there are many stations along the way with intersecting lines. For us, getting to King’s Cross was simple as the Piccadilly Line goes straight there without changing trains. The ride took about 80 minutes as the train had to stop at every station along the way.
The London Underground is the world’s first underground railway, opened in 1863 – they just celebrated their 150th anniversary in 2013! The Underground is very convenient – it gets you to almost everywhere in London. We used this all the time during our trip. Do some research on their website and you’ll find that it serves you well, getting anywhere in Greater London and beyond. After all, it serves 270 stations with 11 lines totalling 402km. Walking in London, just look out for the big red and blue Underground logo and you are good to go anywhere.
High-speed escalators are common in most Underground stations – remember to stand on the right to allow others who are in a hurry, to pass through
London Underground website here.
Getting around London – Oyster Card
There are a few types of travel cards available in London but the Oyster Card is the most convenient. You can order one online prior to arrival in London but I’d say don’t bother – you can get one easily at the airport. If you are not sure how it works, don’t worry, there’s always staff there who will help you out. At Terminal 4’s Underground station, a service staff was at the ticket machines explaining and helping people to purchase the card – great service, right?
Basically, when you first purchase the card, you have to add in £5 deposit which will be refunded to you when you cancel the card prior to departure from London. So, the best is: pay £15 initially, top up the card anytime it gets low and get back all the balance credit on the card when you cancel it at the end of your trip. Oh, and you can keep the card as a souvenir too!
More information can be obtained from their website here.
I find that nowadays we absolutely cannot go anywhere without being connected online. The moment we land, we already need the internet, to check info and stay connected, of course. The best way to have internet access in London is to get a local SIM with prepaid data plan. There are many service providers in the UK and they all offer data plans to suit different budgets. There’s O2, T-Mobile, Orange, Vodafone etc.
We got the Vodafone SIM package. It cost £20 with a plan offering 2GB data valid for 1 month. That’s more than enough for me for my trip – I still had a balance of 1GB unused data by the time I left London!
Again, do some research online and get the best option that suits your need.
For someone who’s new to London, the best way to see the “must go” tourist sites is to hop onto one of those city bus tours. There are several companies which offer this and we went with “The Original Tour”. A ticket cost £26 and usually it’s valid for 1 day but when I bought it, there’s a special offer which allowed it to be used for 2 days, several free walking tours and a Thames River cruise included as well.
See London on this double-decker open-top bus!
I bought the tickets online even before arrival in London. The confirmation barcode will be emailed to you, just show this to the tour staff at any of the pick-up points and they’ll print out the tickets for you on their mobile device. Show the tickets to the bus driver every time you board the bus. Hop on and off as many times as you like and repeat the next day if you still want to visit the sites!
Website for The Original Tour here.
Besides all the London sightseeing, I wanted to check out some English countryside. We went with Premium Tours for a day trip out to the country, covering Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath and Stonehenge. The tour also drove through The Cotswolds, the beautiful English villages.
There’s a long list of pick-up points by the bus – just pick the nearest to where you’re staying and take note of the time – they are very punctual. The picked up passengers are then transported to Victoria Coach Station to board the actual bus that’s going for the tour.
Both the bus driver and tour guide were professional and punctual and passengers are reminded strictly to respect the timelines. Of course there would always be some people who were late and the guide threatened to leave without them.
Musicals & Plays
One of my “must-do” item was to go for a musical while in London. After all, that’s the Mecca for plays and musicals and should never be missed. If we had more time, I would have gone for more. As it was, I bought tickets for Phantom of the Opera and it was in Her Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket, a short walk from the tube station. This musical has been performing there since 1986, imagine that!
The grand French Renaissance-style Victorian theatre was impressive with its ornate architecture, albeit a bit cramped. While I enjoyed the show, the seating was kinda torturous. The space was so cramped that my legs had to be bent uncomfortably but the show was an awesome experience – grand sets, excellent acoustics and outstanding performers. It’s definitely a “must see” thing in London.
You can buy the tickets online – there are many agent websites selling these. Online purchase would also give you some seasonal discounts. With the email purchase confirmation, you still have to queue up at the theatre to get the actual tickets, so you have to be there at least 30 minutes before showtime. You’d be surprised that despite having played there for so many years, the show is still sold-out for every performance!
If you have done some shopping which I’m sure everyone does while in London, you can get VAT refunds, provided the qualifications are met. For a list of qualifications and procedures, read this.
Considering the refund comes up to 20%, it’s worthwhile to get these savings. If your VAT items need to be packed into your check-in luggage, go to VAT Refunds before checking-in at the airline counter. You need to show the purchased items to the officers at the VAT counter before they issue you the refund.
Shopping at Harrods
I hope the information given here will help smoothen your virgin trip to London. I love the city and of course the trip was too short for me – there are just so much more to do there! I’m saving up for another visit, sometime soon, hopefully.