Whether you’re headed across the pond long term or for a short trip, here is some advice you must know before you go!
1) Have cash on hand
Unlike in America, where most everything can be paid for by card, you will probably want some cash in the UK. It’s not as much of an issue in a big city like London, but many independent shops have a minimum charge if you want to pay by card.
Buses and taxis also typically require cash payment—my first time taking a bus from my university to Norwich city center, I didn’t have any cash, so I had to borrow some from a friend to get my ticket. Lesson learned.
Most importantly, if you’re in a large city, public bathrooms cost 30 or so pence per visit, so it’s good to have some extra change in case the need arises.
I usually take out around £60 cash at a time—that way I don’t have too much on me at once, but I have enough for an unexpected taxi trip or hostel key deposit, just in case. I also try to break big bills as soon as possible, since a bus driver or salesperson might not have change for a £50 or even a £20.
2) Speaking of money, take advantage of international credit cards and “Free Withdrawal” ATMs
To avoid a fee every time you use your card, check with your bank before you go to see if they have an international credit card available.
Once you’re in the UK, your home bank will likely charge you a fee to withdraw cash at an ATM, which, thanks to tip #1, is pretty much unavoidable. Free withdrawal ATMs are all over the UK and only have your home bank’s fee instead of being charged by the bank that owns the ATM as well. If you don’t see a free withdrawal ATM (you can tell by the big sign that says “Free withdrawals”) the second you need cash, just walk around for a few minutes and you will definitely pass one.
3) Brush up on British slang
I never had trouble understanding what people were saying, but when you’re asking for directions, you’ll want to know that a public restroom is called a “toilet” or a “WC” in the UK, the elevator is a “lift,” and so on. (I got a few confused looks when I asked where the restroom was in London—though I suspect most British people do confidently know what a restroom is.)
4) Cars have right-of-way
While no one in the UK waits for a green light to cross the street, you do have to carefully look both ways as cars, not pedestrians, have the right-of-way.
The exception is a crosswalk, also called a pedestrian crossing or zebra crossing, which means cars have to stop for you. Look for the striped posts that denote a crosswalk (seen on the left side of the picture below).
5) Walk on the left
Just like their cars, British people tend towards the left side of the road or sidewalk. This is especially important when you’re on an escalator and people in a hurry will walk past you on the right.
6) BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag)
Some places in America are beginning this practice, but coming from the Midwest, it was a surprise to me that in the UK, bags are an extra cost, particularly at supermarkets. The cost for a plastic bag is only around 5p, but if you can carry your items or put them in a bag that you brought, it will save you a little money.
7) Don’t wait for the waiter
Restaurant dining was a stressful experience during my study abroad program. Unlike the well-oiled machine that is an American restaurant, waiters in England, especially London, can be brusque, and are often nowhere to be found when you want to order or are ready for the check (or cheque 🙂 ). They are not concerned with hurrying you out of the restaurant when you’re done eating, and as a result you can be left sitting for a while waiting for them to appear again.
After a few months, I got into the habit of going up to the front counter when I was ready to pay. It speeds up the process quite a bit.
8) Dress sharp
Europeans are fashionable, so if you are wearing sweats, you will stick out like a sore thumb.
9) Seasonal hours are a thing
Sometimes I would show up to a touristy destination like a park or museum only to find that it was closed for the off-season. The takeaway: always look online first.
10) If New York is the city that never sleeps, London is the city that goes to bed early
While London and other big cities are something of an exception, many shops in England close much earlier than I was used to back home in America—between 4:30 and 8pm. I got used to checking hours online before heading somewhere in the evening. Fortunately, restaurants and pubs stay open later.