London is one of our favorite cities in the world and one that we recommend every traveler to visit.
If you're a student heading to London for the first time and want to know what to expect, this article is for you. In it, we share some of our favorite hangouts, how to save money on accommodation, and how to save money on, well, pretty much everything.
Basic Traveler Information
What to Pack
Think of the U.K. as the Pacific Northwest of Europe. It rains, a lot.
One packing essential, then, is a small umbrella and a light rain jacket that can be rolled into a small ball to fit inside your backpack. Remember to bring a travel adapter with a voltage converter built in so that you don't end up exploding your hairdryer in the hostel dorm. Another good idea is a pair of comfortable walking shoes. London is an enormous city and you'll most likely spend your time walking from one tourist attraction to the next.
Other than that, the U.K. is very similar to the U.S., so you should pack whatever you would take on a domestic trip. If you happen to forget something important, you'll be able to replace it in London without a problem.
How to Get There
You'll find the best airfare to London from student airfare agencies like STA Travel. Watch for specials and you could easily pick up a return from around $500. Don't be fooled by some airlines' "student airfares" -- student airfare agencies have the real deal. Airfare sales do happen, though -- check student airfares against an aggregator's roundup of regular ticket prices.
Where Should I Stay? How Much Will It Cost?
One of the cheapest areas of London is the neighborhoods in the east and south of the city. A couple favorites include Hackney, Shoreditch, and Brixton -- they're all hipster areas with fantastic food, bars, and coffee shops. They're a little way outside of the main attractions, but most things are still within walking distance, and using the underground is easy.
Even though there are cheaper areas of the city, London is still one of the priciest places to visit. Opt to stay in a dorm room in a hostel to save money, but you'll still be looking at $20-30 a night if you do so.
The London tube is a major miracle of modern transportation, and you'll most likely spend a significant amount of time on it. Though it's the oldest in the world, London's subway is clean, safe, and efficient. Although expensive, because... London. If the tube doesn't take you close to your London destination's door, the bus (maybe a double-decker!) will.
Plentiful black London cabs have fixed prices and Uber is everywhere within the city. In short, you'll never struggle to get to where you need to go in London.
British Money and Creating a Realistic Budget
England's currency is the pound and you won't be able to spend any other currency within the country.
London is still expensive, though, so you should plan on spending around $55/day. Food and beds are pricey but museums are free. You can skip out on the food scene by cheaply cooking in your hostel kitchen, but you definitely shouldn't miss out on the food markets like Brixton Village, Borough Market, and Broadway Market if at all possible.
Things to Do
London's history is long and deep -- do tour the Tower of London for an introductory insight into it. Borrow someone's copy of the Time Out music/film/event guide or check Time Out online for a highly comprehensive list of what's happening in London while you're there.
Consider buying a one-day Original Bus Tour pass to hop on and off at major sites.
Spend whole days hanging out in places like Piccadilly Circus or Covent Garden, and check the top free things to do in London.
Safety, Crime, and Travel Healthcare
The artful dodger does lurk in the London tube. You can feel physically safe in all of London provided you use basic travel safety precautions. Terrorism is not a big concern, despite some U.S. hysteria over the '05 tube bombings.
U.S. travelers get free emergency room care in London; all else is pay as you go, though your U.S. health insurance probably covers you. Food and tap water are perfectly safe in London.
Mail, Internet, and Phone Calls
You can buy local SIM card for making calls and using data in England for around $20 USD (for 1 GB of data and some calls and texts) in U.K. convenience stores and phone stores, like Vodafone or EE.
London has free Wi-Fi all over the city, so if you don't have an unlocked phone or don't want to buy a local SIM card, you shouldn't have any problem getting connected. Hostels and hotels typically offer free Wi-Fi to their guests, as well.
Visiting London is so expensive that going with a tour group is a great idea -- it can be cheaper and much easier than visiting on your own. Several companies specialize in student group travel -- try EF Tours for a very decent experience.
Ireland is home to cheap European air champ Ryanair, which departs from many London airports and gets you around Europe and to Ireland. Take the Eurostar to Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam to catch a European train with a Rail Europe pass. Ferries exist, too.