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London 101: A Travel Agent’s Guide for American Travelers

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Written by Jill Fischer.

“Fries are chips and chips are crisps.”

You’d think that since you’re going to an English-speaking country, you won’t have a language barrier issue. Guess again! When I had the pleasure of escorting a group to London, it was my first time to this wonderful city. I had come along to keep everyone running on time and re-confirming all of the arrangements to ensure a smooth, positive experience.

I have compiled a quick guide below that covers some basic language barrier issues, navigating the Underground (AKA “The Tube”), and my experience getting various entrance tickets to some of London’s attractions.

Language Barrier

It will help you a great deal to understand that there are many types of British accents. You may encounter some people that you won’t quite be able to tell they’re speaking English! Many sounds are dropped out of words, so don’t assume that every syllable is pronounced. For example, Tottenham is pronounced “tot-num” and Leicester is pronounced “lester.” There’s really no way to know unless you ask and listen! Learning about such differences is one of the best parts about travelling.

Everyone naturally talks very fast, but are always happy to slow down a bit for you. There are some different terms that you’ll want to be aware of while you’re there in order to avoid any confusion. Many of their everyday words are different than ours, but here are some of the most common that should be helpful.

AMERICAN ENGLISH BRITISH ENGLISH
French Fries Chips
Chips Crisps
Cookie Biscuit
Baked Potato Jacket Potato
Dessert Pudding
Apartment Flat
Vacation Holiday
Sweater Jumper
Hungry Peckish
First/Ground Floor Ground Floor
Second Floor First Floor
Line (as in a line you wait in) Queue
Elevator Lift
Restroom Loo
Television Telly
Trash Can Bin

The Tube

If you have ever looked at a map of the tube system and was instantly overwhelmed, don’t be. Of course it will look confusing seeing all of the lines that go through such a large city, but you don’t need to memorize all of them. Get yourself a tube map (or download one of their apps on your phone). The first time you go to use the tube, you’ll want to allow an extra couple of minutes to get your Oyster card set up, assuming you’ll be in the city for at least a few days. You load money onto the Oyster card and you can use it at any of the tube stops, plus the buses.

I only used the tube, which worked perfectly. You’ll have to scan your card into a station, plus scan your card when you leave a station, so they can track how far you’ve travelled to charge your card correctly. If you have less than £10 left on your Oyster card at the end of your trip, you can get that refunded to you at any station kiosk.

Once you get your map and figure out where you need to go, make sure to stand to the right side of the escalators. There will be other people in a hurry who will pass you on the left. Just follow the signs to your appropriate line, and keep in mind that all of the lines run very frequently. If you miss your stop, just get off at the next one and take the same line back the way you came.

Obviously, be aware of the fact that you’ll probably be squished in with a lot of people at one time or another. I wear my crossbody purse under my jacket, which helps me to keep everything concealed. For the most part, everyone else is just trying to get to work, school, etc., but you want to be aware of your surroundings no matter where you happen to be.

Where To Stay

This is always a somewhat difficult question to answer when you’re talking about such a large city. It truly depends on what you’re focus will be on while you’re there, especially where you think you’ll want to be for the nightlife. I stayed just north of the British Museum with this group, and I thought it was a beautiful, quiet area. It’s not a long walk to get to Regent’s Park as well. Personally, now that I know that I’d want to see a show just about every night, I’d be staying in the theatre area near a tube stop. It’s definitely not quiet, but very convenient and the safest option when getting back to the hotel after an evening show. While it’s easy to get anywhere during the day on the tube, you won’t want to have to go far at night.

Attractions

While this list does not cover all of London’s attractions, I wanted to share my experience with the sites I did manage to see in my week there.

The London Eye

There were so many people packed around the London Eye area! I was very glad that we had included this in our groups’ tour ahead of time. It was great to do on our first full day since you can kind of get a birdseye view of the city. I would definitely recommend booking your ticket ahead of time.

Westminster Abbey

During my trip-planning process, I did not think about getting entrance tickets to anything outside of my group’s itinerary. I wish I had researched this a bit more and definitely didn’t have enough time to fully see this beautiful church properly. The line was long and you have to check for any closings before you go, because they’ll close the church to tourists for events sometimes. Once you get in, they have a very easy path to follow through the church to see everything. I had to skip seeing a few of the offshoot rooms because I was running out of time. I’d allow at least a couple of hours inside the church. They have an official audio guide that you can download right to your phone, which I’d highly recommend.

Tower of London

Another must-see while on your visit to London is this historic castle on the river. I did not wait in line long for a ticket and also opted for the audio guide that you pick up right inside. The crown jewels are displayed there, plus they have interesting restorations of the various bedrooms. This castle was also used as a prison at one point too so there were all kinds of exhibits. There’s something for everyone to see there, and I suggest allowing a half day. We had a leisurely lunch in the cafe as well.

West End Theaters

My husband and I love to see plays, so I wanted to make sure to see a show while in the city. Since Phantom of the Opera has been playing at the Her Majesty’s Theatre for more than 30 years, this was an easy choice. We did not pre-book tickets; we walked right into the theatre a couple hours before our chosen showing and took care of it then. I’m not too particular about where I sit and didn’t want to pre-book tickets then have something else potentially come up at that time. We are not huge opera fans, but this show was incredible. They have certain seats that are marked as a limited view, and I didn’t think it could be too terrible, but was wrong. I thought they had those seats marked that way in an effort to be overly cautious. I’d recommend purchasing tickets not too far to either side because the seating is much more rounded than the pictures portray (practically a half circle) and I couldn’t see the stage very well at all.

We ended up seeing two more shows during our time there! Many of the shows rarely sell out since they run for so long and have so many showtimes. Of course, this would probably be different for a new show. We had no problem at all when we bought our tickets less than an hour before we saw The Lion King and Aladdin, and even got a discount on the last minute Aladdin tickets and ended up in the eighth row!

Stonehenge

Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric monument, takes more than two hours to drive to from the city. This does not consider traffic, which can be expected to cause a considerable delay in your journey. Obviously, this is outside of London, but I wanted to include it since it’s such a common attraction. You cannot take a train, so you’ll want to pre-book a tour to get there and back. If you find this kind of history interesting, I’d consider it a must-see!

Jill Fischer About the Author: Jill is a recent graduate of Michigan State University and is Classic Travel’s Group Travel Specialist. She’s a PADI certified scuba diver and also enjoys heading “up north” to ski and snowboard. Some of her favorite destinations are Spain and the Virgin Islands. Email Jill: jill@classictravelusa.com