27 December, 2012

Stamps in My Passport : United Kingdom

I am a hopeless Anglophile.  I love the United Kingdom and exploring every corner of it is still the siren song of my life.  So far I've had opportunities to get acquainted with a few of Britain's loveliest cities: London, Oxford, Bath, Edinburgh, and Glasgow (actually, Glasgow has some 'splainin' to to do before it makes it onto this list -- but that's a story for another post).

Partly because a number of people have asked me for "favorites," "best-ofs," or "don't miss-es" -- and partly because I simply clutch at any opportunity to talk about the U.K. -- here are some general things to know before you go.  In a follow-up post I'll start sharing favorites...they are many...


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Ah, the mother tongue.
Brits pronounce the letter "Z" as "zed."  So don't be thrown off by being told to consult your "A to Zed" guide or to take care when crossing a "zehbra crossing"...I'll admit that one threw me a few too many times...

Simultaneously adorable and confusing (at first), Brits take shortcuts when giving telephone numbers.  For instance, the telephone number 07744 177494 would be said, "Oh double seven double four, one double seven four nine four."  Buckle up and listen closely.

"Gimme money / That's what I want"
If you're just in town for a little while, I'd recommend withdrawing a wad of cash upon arrival in the UK, and relying primarily on that rather than using your credit card for everything.  You'll avoid what can be significant foreign transaction fees and fluctuating exchange rates, and obviously this is the only way to accrue some awesome coinage in your wallet.  Call your bank before you travel to let them know you'll be abroad, but also to find out if they partner with any British banks from whom you can withdraw cash without a fee.  Bank of America, for example, partners with Barclays.

Bring your student ID or other photo ID, because there are loads of discounts available for students and under-25s!  If you fall into one or both of those categories you can get reduced prices on things like train fare, theater tickets, museums and other attractions.  London is an expensive city if you let it be...but you don't always have to let it be.  :)

Mix & mingle
Don't be shy about talking with cabbies, cashiers, museum guards, etc.  They are absolute gold mines of stories, jokes, and advice.  Cabbies will tell you exactly what they think, but they also want to know about you, too.  At the very least, ask a cabbie to name some of the famous people he's picked up, and sit back ready for some priceless stories.

"And the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain / Very strange"
No, it doesn't rain all the time.  :)  And I've found that even when it does rain, showers generally seem to pass just as quickly as they came.

"We must allow her to be an excellent walker!"
Be prepared to walk a LOT.  London's public transport system is fantastic, but you should still expect to spend quite a bit of time on your feet.  And I don't say that ominously; it's an extremely beautiful city with many stretches that are honestly best enjoyed on foot (I'll share a few favorite walks in a future post).  All this is to say, if you pack nothing else, pack a pair of shoes you'll be comfortable spending a lot of time in!  This spring I invested in this pair of Clarks -- more than I'd normally pay for a pair of shoes, but proved worth every penny and then some.  They carried me around London, Germany, and Italy, and I'm still wearing them!

Where are we, Jeeves?
Use a map!  This may apply more to people like myself who are still living life sans smart phone, but maps are your best friend in many British cities!  Many of them are so old and have built outward over centuries, so they're not necessarily laid out on neat & tidy grids like Washington, DC, with numbered streets running north to south and lettered streets running east to west, etc etc etc...

In London, it's good to have a basic understanding of the postcodes because, without a DC-style grid system to orient you, they can provide a vague notion of where you are!  The postcode EC1 8EX, for example, indicates a location in East Central London.  Get it?  Yeah, I see that glimmer of realization in your eye.  Try another one: SW1A 1AA.  Yup, that's a site in South West London -- Buckingham Palace, to be precise!


Do you have a question about traveling in/around the UK that I didn't get to here?  Leave me a comment -- ask away!

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