London is one of my favorite cities in the world and one that I recommend every traveler to visit. I may be biased, though, as I was fortunate to spend twenty-three years of my life living there.
If you're heading to London for the first time and want to know what to expect, this article is for you. In it, I share some of my favorite hangouts, how to save money on accommodation, and how to save money on, well, pretty much everything.
Basic Traveler FAQ
Do I need a passport for England travel?
Yes. Read about getting a passport.
Do I need shots before I travel to England?
No. Read more about travel immunizations.
Should I make reservations in London?
Yes -- see places to stay in London below.
What to Pack for a Trip to London
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 to London
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 in London? 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 of personal favorites of mine 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 on money, but you'll still be looking at $20-30 a night if you do so.
- Top 10 London hostels
- Piccadilly Backpacker's Hostel review and photos
- Wake Up London hostel review and photos
Getting around in London
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. And 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 London budget
England's currency is the pound, and you won't be able to spend any other currency within the country. Thanks to the disaster that is Brexit, the current exchange rate is the best it's been for Americans right now (about $1.25), which makes London more affordable than it's been in years.
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.
What to do in London
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 ($28) to hop on and off at major sites.
Safety, Crime and Travel Healthcare in London
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, and you don't need travel immunizations for London.
Mail, Internet, and Phone Calls in London
You can buy local SIM cards 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.
London with a Tour Group
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: I've traveled with EF Tours, and I would again.
Getting Out of London
Ireland is home to cheap European air champ Ryanair, which departs from many London airports and gets you around Europe and to Ireland for as little as $2. Take the Eurostar to Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam to catch a European train with a Rail Europe pass. Ferries exist, too.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.