Planning a Trip
If your documents are in order, flying into London is one of the most effortless undertakings in global travel. There are no shots to get, no particular safety precautions, no unusual aspects of planning a trip. With your passport, airline ticket, and enough money, you just go. In general, if you're not bringing any illegal item into the British Isles, customs officials are courteous and will speed you through entry into their country.
Of course, before you lift off the ground in your native country, you can do some advance preparation. That could mean checking to see if your passport is up to date (or obtaining one if you don't already possess one), or taking care of your health needs before you go, including medication. In the case of London, you might want to make reservations at some highly acclaimed restaurants or even buy tickets in advance to hit plays in London's West End.
The major airport for arrivals from North America is Heathrow (LHR) outside London. This is the hub of most airlines, including British Airways and American carriers, and has the best transportation links to London. Gatwick (LGW) is the second major airport outside London, but it is much farther from the heart of the city, requiring longer and often more expensive hauls into the city.
Chances are you will not land at London's minor airports, certainly not if you're making a transatlantic crossing; however, you might land at one of these airports if you're winging in from the Continent. They include Stansted (STN), London City (LCY), London Luton (LTN), and London Southend (SEN).
From the U.S. -- British Airways (tel. 800/247-9297; www.britishairways.com) offers flights from 19 U.S. cities to Heathrow and Gatwick airports, as well as many others to Manchester. Nearly every flight is nonstop. With more add-on options than any other airline, British Airways can make a visit to Britain cheaper than you may have expected. Ask about packages that include both airfare and discounted hotel accommodations in Britain.
Known for consistently offering excellent fares, Virgin Atlantic Airways (tel. 800/821-5438; www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies daily to either Heathrow or Gatwick from Boston, Newark, New York's JFK, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington's Dulles, Miami, Orlando, and Las Vegas.
American Airlines (tel. 800/433-7300; www.aa.com) offers daily flights to Heathrow from half a dozen U.S. gateways -- New York's JFK, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, and Dallas.
Depending on the day and season, Delta Air Lines (tel. 800/221-1212; www.delta.com) runs either one or two daily nonstop flights between Atlanta and Gatwick. Delta also offers nonstop daily service from Cincinnati.
Northwest Airlines (tel. 800/225-2525 or 800/447-4747; www.nwa.com) flies nonstop from Minneapolis and Detroit to Gatwick.
Continental Airlines (tel. 800/231-0856; www.continental.com) has daily flights to London from Cleveland, Houston, Newark, Orlando, and San Francisco.
United Airlines (tel. 800/864-8331; www.united.com) flies nonstop from New York's JFK and Chicago to Heathrow two or three times daily, depending on the season. United also offers nonstop service from Dulles Airport, near Washington, D.C.; Newark; Los Angeles; and San Francisco.
From Canada -- Air Canada (tel. 888/247-2262; www.aircanada.com) flies daily to London's Heathrow nonstop from Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. There are also frequent direct flights from Calgary, Ottawa, and St. John's. British Airways (tel. 800/247-9297) has direct flights from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
From Australia -- British Airways (tel. 1300/767-177) has flights to London from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Brisbane. Qantas (tel. 612/131313; www.qantas.com) offers flights from Australia to London's Heathrow. Direct flights depart from Sydney and Melbourne. Some have the bonus of free stopovers in Bangkok or Singapore.
From New Zealand -- Air New Zealand (tel. 800/262-1234 in the U.S., or 0800/737-000 in New Zealand; www.airnewzealand.co.nz) has direct flights to London from Auckland. These flights depart daily.
From Ireland -- Short flights from Dublin to London are available through British Airways (tel. 800/247-9297), with four flights daily into London's Gatwick airport, and Aer Lingus (tel. 800/IRISH-AIR [47472-247]; www.aerlingus.com), which flies into Heathrow. Short flights from Dublin to London are also available through Ryan Air (tel. 353-1/812-1676; www.ryanair.com) and British Midland (tel. 0870/607-0555; www.flybmi.com).
By Car from Continental Europe
If you plan to transport a rented car between London and France, check in advance with the car-rental company about license and insurance requirements and additional drop-off charges before you begin.
The English Channel is crisscrossed with "drive-on, drive-off" car-ferry services, with many operating from Boulogne and Calais in France. From either of those ports, Sealink ferries (www.ferrysmart.co.uk) will carry you; your luggage; and, if you like, your car. The most popular point of arrival along the English coast is Folkestone.
Taking a car beneath the Channel is more complicated and more expensive. Since the Channel Tunnel's opening (commonly called the "Chunnel"), most passengers have opted to ride the train alone, without being accompanied by their car. The Eurostar trains, discussed below, carry passengers only; Eurotunnel trains carry freight cars, trucks, and passenger cars.
The cost of moving a car on Eurotunnel varies according to the season and day of the week. Frankly, it's a lot cheaper to transport your car across by conventional ferryboat, but if you insist, here's what you'll need to know: You'll negotiate both British and French Customs as part of one combined process, usually on the English side of the Channel. You can remain within your vehicle even after you drive it onto a flatbed railway car during the 35-minute crossing. (For 19 min. of this crossing, you'll actually be underwater; if you want, you can leave the confines of your car and ride within a brightly lit, air-conditioned passenger car.) When the trip is over, you simply drive off the flatbed railway car and toward your destination. Total travel time between the French and English highway system is about 1 hour. As a means of speeding the flow of perishable goods across the Channel, the car and truck service usually operates 24 hours a day, at intervals that vary from every 15 minutes to once an hour, depending on the time of day. Neither BritRail nor any of the agencies dealing with reservations for passenger trains through the Chunnel will reserve space for your car in advance, and considering the frequency of the traffic on the Chunnel, they're usually not necessary. For information about Eurotunnel car-rail service after you reach England, call tel. 0870/535-3535, or go online to www.eurotunnel.com.
Duty-free stores, restaurants, and service stations are available to travelers on both sides of the Channel. A bilingual staff is on hand to assist travelers at both the British and French terminals.
By Train from Continental Europe
Britain's isolation from the rest of Europe led to the development of an independent railway network with different rules and regulations from those observed on the Continent. That's all changing now, but one big difference that may affect you still remains: If you're traveling to Britain from the Continent, your Eurailpass will not be valid when you get there.
In 1994, Queen Elizabeth of England and President François Mitterrand of France officially opened the Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel, and the Eurostar express passenger train began twice-daily service between London and both Paris and Brussels. In 2003, the completion of a new section of high-speed rail in England, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, shaved 20 minutes off the trip between London and Paris, reducing it to just 2 hours and 35 minutes (or 2 hr., 20 min. to Brussels). This extension allows Eurostar trains to go at the rate of 482kmph (300 mph). The multibillion-pound tunnel, one of the great engineering feats of all time, is the first link between Britain and the Continent since the Ice Age.
So if you're coming to London from say, Rome, your Eurailpass will get you as far as the Chunnel. At that point, you can cross the English Channel aboard the Eurostar, and you'll receive a discount on your ticket. Once in England, you must use a separate BritRail pass or purchase a direct ticket to continue on to your destination.
Rail Europe (tel. 888/382-7245; www.raileurope.com) sells direct-service tickets on the Eurostar between Paris or Brussels and London. A one-way fare between Paris and London costs £156 to £292 in second class and £292 to £425 in first class.
In London, make reservations for Eurostar by calling tel. 08705/186-186; and in the United States, it's tel. 800/EUROSTAR (387-67827; www.eurostar.com). Eurostar trains arrive and depart from London's Waterloo Station, Paris's Gare du Nord, and Brussels's Central Station.
By Ferry/Hovercraft from Continental Europe
P&O Ferries (tel. 08716/645-645; www.poferries.com) operates car and passenger ferries between Dover and Calais, France (25 sailings a day; 75 min. each way).
By Public Transportation
The London Underground and the city's buses operate on the same system of six fare zones. The fare zones radiate in rings from the central zone 1, which is where most visitors spend the majority of their time. Zone 1 covers the area from Liverpool Street in the east to Notting Hill in the west, and from Waterloo in the south to Baker Street, Euston, and King's Cross in the north. To travel beyond zone 1, you need a multizone ticket. Note that all single one-way, round-trip, and 1-day pass tickets are valid only on the day of purchase. Tube and bus maps should be available at any Underground station. You can also download them before your trip from the excellent London Transport (LT) website www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl. There are also LT Information Centres at several major Tube stations: Euston, King's Cross, Oxford Circus, St. James's Park, Liverpool Street Station, and Piccadilly Circus, as well as in the British Rail stations at Euston and Victoria and in each of the terminals at Heathrow Airport. Most of them are open daily (some close Sun) from at least 9am to 5pm. A 24-hour public-transportation information service is also available at tel. 020/7222-1234.
Discount Passes -- If you plan to use public transportation a lot, investigate the range of fare discounts available. Travelcards offer unlimited use of buses, Underground, Docklands Light Railway, and National Rail services in Greater London for any period ranging from a day to a year. Travelcards are available from Underground ticket offices, LT Information Centres, main post offices in the London area, many news agents, and some newsstands. Children younger than age 11 generally travel free on the Tube and buses.
The 1-Day Travelcard allows you to go anywhere throughout Greater London. For travel anywhere within zones 1 and 2, the cost is £6.70 for adults or £1 to £3 for children 5 to 15. The Off-Peak 1-Day Travelcard, which is valid after 9:30am on weekdays, is even cheaper. For two zones, the cost is £5.10 for adults and £1 for children 5 to 15.
The system now features a 3-Day Travelcard, allowing adults to travel within zones 1 and 2 for £18 to £21, and allowing children to go for £9.20 to £21.
One-Week Travelcards cost adults £26 and children £13 for travel in zones 1 and 2.
Consider purchasing the Oyster Card (www.oystercard.com), a travel discount card that's all the rage. You can prepay for single fares, which cost considerably less than a paper ticket -- usually about half the price. Oysters are valid on the Tube, DLR, tram, and National Rail services within your chosen zones and across the entire London bus network. For 24-hour information, call the Oyster hot line at tel. 020/7222-1234. The card has a daily price cap, meaning you never pay more than £3 regardless of how many trips you make in 1 day. You can buy an Oyster Card at any ticket office.
The Underground, or Tube, is the fastest and easiest way to get around. All Tube stations are clearly marked with a red circle and blue crossbar. Routes are conveniently color-coded.
If you have British coins or a credit card, you can get your ticket at a vending machine. Otherwise, buy it at the ticket office. You can transfer as many times as you like as long as you stay in the Underground. Children 4 and younger travel free if accompanied by an adult.
Slide your ticket into the slot at the gate and pick it up as it comes through on the other side and hold on to it -- it must be presented when you exit the station at your destination. If you're caught without a valid ticket, you'll be fined £20 on the spot. If you owe extra money, you'll be asked to pay the difference by the attendant at the exit. The Tube runs roughly from 5am to 12:30am (7:30am-10:30pm Sun). After that you must take a taxi or night bus to your destination. For information on the London Tube system, call the London Underground at tel. 020/7222-1234, but expect to stay on hold for a good while before a live person comes on the line. Information is also available on www.tfl.gov.uk.
The Jubilee Line Extension has been extended eastward to serve the growing suburbs of the southeast and the Docklands area. This east-west axis helps ease traffic on some of London's most hard-pressed underground lines. The line also makes it much easier to reach Greenwich.
The comparably priced bus system is almost as good as the Underground and gives you better views of the city. To find out about current routes, pick up a free bus map at one of London Transport's Travel Information Centres, mentioned above. The map is available in person only, not by mail. You can also obtain a map at www.tfl.gov.uk.
As with the Underground, fares vary according to distance traveled. Generally, bus fares are £2 to £3. If you want your stop called out, simply ask the conductor or driver. To speed up bus travel, passengers have to purchase tickets before boarding. Drivers no longer collect fares on board. Some 300 roadside ticket machines serve stops in central London. You'll need the exact fare, however, as ticket machines don't make change.
Buses generally run 24 hours a day. A few night buses have special routes, running once an hour or so; most pass through Trafalgar Square. Keep in mind that night buses are often so crowded (especially on weekends) that they are unable to pick up passengers after a few stops. You may find yourself waiting a long time. Consider taking a taxi. Call the 24-hour hot line (tel. 020/7222-1234) for schedule and fare information.
London cabs are among the most comfortable and best-designed in the world. You can pick one up either by heading for a cab rank or by hailing one in the street. (The taxi is available if the yellow taxi sign on the roof is lit.) To call a cab, phone tel. 0871/871-8710.
The meter starts at £2.20, with increments of £2 per mile thereafter, based on distance or time. Surcharges are imposed after 8pm and on weekends and public holidays. All these tariffs include VAT. Tip 10% to 15%.
If you call for a cab, the meter starts running when the taxi receives instructions from the dispatcher, so you could find that the meter already reads a few pounds more than the initial drop of £2.20 when you step inside.
Minicabs are also available, and they're often useful when regular taxis are scarce or when the Tube stops running. These cabs are meterless, so you must negotiate the fare in advance. Unlike regular cabs, minicabs are forbidden by law to cruise for fares. They operate from sidewalk kiosks, such as those around Leicester Square. If you need to call one, try Brunswick Chauffeurs/Abbey Cars (tel. 020/8969-2555) in west London or Newham Minicars (tel. 020/8472-1400) in south London. Minicab kiosks can be found near many Tube or BritRail stops, especially in outlying areas.
If you have a complaint about taxi service or if you leave something in a cab, contact the Public Carriage Office, 15 Penton St., N1 9PU (Tube: Angel Station). If it's a complaint, you must have the cab number, which is displayed in the passenger compartment. Call tel. 0845/602-7000 or 020/7222-1234; www.tfl.gov.uk with complaints.
One of the most popular bike-rental shops is On Your Bike, 52-54 Tooley St., London Bridge, SE1 (tel. 020/7378-6669; www.onyourbike.com; Tube: London Bridge), open Monday to Friday 7:30am to 7pm, Saturday 10am to 6pm, and Sunday 11am to 5pm. The first-class mountain bikes, with high seats and low-slung handlebars, cost £12 for the first day and £8 for each day thereafter, or £35 per week, and require a 1p deposit on a credit card, so they will have your credit card number.