15 Essential Travel Hacks When Visiting London

One of the top places to visit in Europe or the U.K., London is a bustling city with ample things to see and do. Perfect for history lovers, theatre enthusiasts, luxury brand shoppers, foodies, and spa-goers especially, the Big Smoke has all the makings of a fabulous vacation, any way you slice it. Of course, with countless attractions, must-see museums, incredible restaurants, various entertainment districts, and a party till the sun comes up kind of nightlife, a trip to this iconic metropolis can seem overwhelming at first.

Even if this is not your first time heading to the Big Smoke, planning your itinerary is no small feat. And, regardless of what you decide to get into while vacationing, there are several important odds and ends, including lodgings and transportation, that still need to be sorted ahead of time. So, to ensure your whirlwind getaway goes off without a hitch, here are 15 essential travel hacks that are absolute game-changers when visiting London.

Visit during the shoulder season

When considering a trip across the pond, timing is everything. In the warmer months, London is overflowing with tourists and locals, which means many wonderful attractions are harder to enjoy, waiting in long lines is the norm, and popular activities sell out fast. What's more, travel prices tend to be higher across the board. So, booking a trip to London during the shoulder season is the more pragmatic way to go.

London's shoulder season is usually from September to mid-October and around March till the first half of May. During either time, the weather tends to be more amenable, and things are often more affordable. Plus, travelers do not need to concern themselves with the summer or winter holiday crowds. Though there are spectacular events during the holidays and more than a few outdoor concerts, sporting tournaments, and other happenings going on from late May to September, if you want to experience what this city has to offer sans the masses and without breaking the bank, then the shoulder season is definitely one of the best times to visit.

Look for accommodations in central London

With dozens of options available, if you prefer a hotel, an Airbnb, or a hostel, the Big Smoke has no shortage of places to stay. That said, the area you choose to stay in is actually more important here. As you are likely aware, London is a rather large city, so choosing the right area or neighborhood matters. If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, shopping, and more, then you should definitely look for accommodations in central London or the West End.

Though the center of London is a little pricier than, say, Victoria or Paddington, it is well worth the extra money, as you are closer to all the fun and entertainment. Of course, depending on the desired price range, travelers can peruse hotels and lodgings in West End and Westminster neighborhoods like Mayfair, Trafalgar, Soho, and Covent Garden. Here is where you will find fabulous options with ample convenience and nearby transportation, plus a range of attractions, pubs, and popular restaurants practically around every corner.

Pack for the destination

Packing for a London getaway is pretty straightforward, no matter the season. Smart casual layers will work for almost any kind of weather. However, it is worth noting that people tend to dress well here, so make sure you have the proper attire for any nice dinners, plays, or nights out on the town.

In the shoulder season, you can expect, for the most part, mild weather that may require a jacket or fleece at night. Waterproof windbreakers and scarves are always a must in the U.K. If you happen to be visiting in September or October, gloves and a hat are also great to have with you. In addition to warm layers and seasonal accessories, your footwear is crucial in London. Even if walking tours are not your thing, there is still a lot of ground to cover in this thrilling city. Therefore, a pair of comfy, ideally waterproof shoes will ensure you can go the extra mile if need be.

Prepare for rain

London is no stranger to rain, and a light shower can happen at any time as the weather in the city is often unpredictable. Thankfully, prolonged periods of rain or all-day showers are not all that common in the shoulder season. And the Big Smoke typically gets the bulk of its rain in November. Nonetheless, most months experience rainfall, approximately 11 to 15 days each month, to be exact.

As a result, preparing for rain, even at the start of the shoulder season, will make you a savvy traveler. A raincoat, an umbrella, or an alternative activity such as a museum day, afternoon tea, or a spa retreat for two in the event of a prolonged downpour is really all one needs here. Travelers can easily spend a few hours browsing art and ancient artifacts, enjoying a spot of tea with finger sandwiches, or catching up on self-care if they so choose. But remember, with the necessary preparation, you can always go about your day as planned, too.

Get an Oyster card

There are more than a few ways to get around London, such as walking, taxi, or Uber. But when your destination is clear across town, it is highly recommended that you explore other modes of transportation. When doing so, you will quickly see that most options accept Oyster cards. If you are unsure what an Oyster card is, it is a convenient smartcard that allows you to quickly and effortlessly pay for your fare — for buses, on the Tube, as well as when taking trams, riding the National Rail, and aboard the River Bus.

The Visitor Oyster card, specifically, makes getting around London much more straightforward and is the more budget-friendly choice. Available in various amounts, travelers can order these handy cards before their trip and receive them at home. Even if you only plan on taking advantage of the Tube or the tram occasionally, you won't have to waste valuable vacation time waiting in line to purchase a ticket or trying to access the city's underground train. So, do yourself a favor and get a Visitor Oyster card.

Navigate the city like a local

Learning to navigate the city like a local is yet another travel hack to keep in mind when strolling about London on foot. The easiest way for visitors to take to the street like a Londoner is with a quick review of the walking etiquette rules, which you can find on the GOV.uk website. Of course, you are not expected to memorize all 30-plus rules. But you definitely should keep to the left when walking and match the pace with other pedestrians (most locals walk promptly, assertively, and without being glued to their cellphones).

Other useful rules, like thoroughly looking out for oncoming traffic and staying a reasonable distance from the curb for obvious safety reasons, are also important to know. Similarly, minding the gap on train platforms, obeying pedestrian crossing lights, and reading the relevant signage make getting around the Big Smoke much more pleasant and less hazardous. Plus, with millions of people out and about in London almost every day, being considerate of others comes with the territory and is not something visitors should overlook.

Remember you're on military time

When deciding what activities or excursions to book, it is vital that you pay attention to the date and time. The U.K., in general, uses both the 12-hour and 24-hour notations. But you will see more 24-hour clocks while on vacation in London. And, to avoid any confusion regarding daytime versus nighttime hours, people tend to stick to military time for departure times, business hours, showtimes, and more. So, get ready to do a quick math problem in your head if you are not used to the 24-hour clock.

Similarly, London visitors need to be on the lookout for how the date is written. Typically, you will see the date as day-month-year. Therefore, it never hurts to double-check your bookings and make sure your reservations are for the right day. Both the date format and the use of military time may throw you off at first. But you can save yourself a lot of trouble, especially when making travel arrangements online, by simply recalling these fun facts.

Book everything in advance

Speaking of bookings, there is a wealth of entertainment available in the Big Smoke, often only a few clicks away. From enjoying the royal jewels and afternoon tea bus tours to appreciating the arts and the iconic figures of yesteryear, you can indulge in it all. In fact, with so many things to do and see here, you may find you are short on time before you have even begun.

A tried-and-true travel hack to ensure you get the most out of your trip to London is to book everything in advance. Why spend valuable time waiting in long lines? The harsh reality is that seating for most activities and dining experiences is never first-come, first-serve, and everything tends to cost more the day of or at the box office. Likewise, popular events, day trips, and highly rated excursions are bound to sell out fast. So, take a second when planning your London getaway to book reservations, tours, plays, spa treatments, and anything else that piques your interest beforehand.

Make the most of free admission

Adding free-entry art houses, the best museums in London, and larger-than-life libraries to the itinerary is also a great travel hack, especially if you prefer to stay on a budget. Saving money in such an expensive city is always a win, and you can explore fine art spaces, world history, science, fashion, and more while you save. Several must-sees like the British Museum, the British Library, the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, the National Gallery, the Science Museum, and the Design Museum do not charge admission.

And even though there are just a dozen or so museums, galleries, and libraries in London that are free to the public, they are some of the most renowned. But free admission does not stop there — the Royal Parks and the City of London churches are also wonderful other no-cost options. Plus, the Big Smoke is known for its gratis events and festivals that happen all year round — providing more opportunities for visitors to make the most of free admission.

Hit the shops during the week

For luxury brand enthusiasts and avid shoppers, London does not disappoint. In fact, this city is home to some of the best brand-name outlets around. Spectacular shopping districts that will have you spending your vacation pennies include Oxford Street, Regent Street, Covent Garden, and St. James's. Unsurprisingly, these high-end shopping areas, in particular, are overflowing with people, especially on the weekends. As a result, if you come to shop, it is better to do so during the week.

Besides these above-mentioned districts, London visitors can also find incredible shopping at Bond Street and Mayfair, Westfield Shopping Centre, King's Road, Carnaby, and Seven Dials. Though these spots are often less crowded on the weekends in comparison, they still offer quite the selection and attract the masses. However, instead of luxury lifestyle brands,  shoppers will find emerging designers, the latest fashions, and one-of-a-kind home goods — making a weekday spree the better choice for snagging highly coveted items before they are gone.

Order at the bar when in pubs

Table service at a pub is quite uncommon in London. To avoid not being served, patrons must order and pay at the bar. The same goes for snacks or pub eats — ordering happens at the bar. Typically, patrons order drinks, pay, and then carry their pints and cocktails back to their seats. For food requests, you will likely be given (or have to provide) a table number for your grub so it can be brought to you.

Ordering at the pub bar while doing the complete opposite in restaurants or other dining establishments may initially seem odd or slightly annoying. But when you think about it, it actually makes life a little easier. You do not have to worry about giving a tip and flagging someone down for another round. Patrons also do not have to sit around aimlessly waiting for the bill so that they can pay and leave. Instead, when you are ready to move on to the next pub or call it a night, you simply get up and go.

Try the cuisine

The British are not necessarily known for their cuisine, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try the food. The culinary experience you can have while visiting the Big Smoke may just surprise you. Not only are there diverse options in this multicultural mecca, but there are some classic dishes such as fish and chips, Beef Wellington, bangers (sausages) and mash, Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding, and other must-tries.

In addition to some quintessential Londoner eats, travelers who have never sat down for afternoon tea should add a classic London afternoon tea or two to their to-do list. Foodies willing to try it all can savor the hearty full English breakfast, shepherd's pie, Scotch eggs, and bubble and squeak (potatoes and cabbage fried to perfection). What's more, for travelers with a sweet tooth, London has more than a few desserts like the sticky toffee pudding, Eton mess, and a trifle that will satisfy your cravings.

Skip the tip while eating out

Tipping in London is definitely tricky business. Many restaurants have a 12.5% service charge automatically added to the bill. So, tipping is not necessary there. Alternatively, drinking establishments do not have a service charge, and tipping isn't really part of the process. Therefore, skipping the gratuity when eating out or grabbing a few drinks with friends is perfectly acceptable.

However, tipping does come into play in hotels and with certain hospitality services — spas, taxis, and private tours. In these instances, the general rule of thumb is to tip somewhere between 10% and 15% for hotel dining, porters, door staff, massage therapists, and so on. When taking a black cab, leaving gratuity becomes a little more discretionary. At the end of the fare, travelers can decide to tip or not — though it is considered polite to either round up or add on a few pounds if you are happy with the service.

Budget accordingly

When visiting London, going over budget or getting carried away on Regent Street is not difficult to do. From eating out every single day and excursions (both near and far) to shopping, treating yourself, and transportation, things can start to add up quickly. Most travelers budget for flights, accommodations, and entertainment and aim to spend a reasonable amount of money per day per person in this famous old city.

Still, those same travelers forget to consider the exchange rate and are often shocked at the cost. London isn't cheap by any means. Thus, budgeting for any trip across the pond should incorporate the exchange rate, money-saving tips, and everyone's individual travel style. You should also factor in last-minute price changes in your itinerary and unforeseeable expenses (lost items, medicines, other modes of transportation, and more). And remember, when creating your travel budget for London, you need to be honest with yourself — are you trying to splurge or save? This way, there will be no surprises.

Make room for day trips

Lastly, for travelers who have already seen most of the city sights, making room in your itinerary and budget for a day trip or two is highly recommended. Spending days on end in the Big Smoke is exciting, fast-paced, and full of amazement. Nevertheless, this may be one of the only times you are this close to the English countryside, fascinating ruins, castles, quaint seaside villages, vast hiking trails, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the whole of Europe.

Even if all you need is a mini-break from the hustle and bustle of the city, more than a few phenomenal destinations (including other countries) are only a train ride away. Paris, for example, is only two hours away. Plus, wanderers staying for a couple of weeks can spend their weekends in other far-off and magical places. Ultimately, a semi-lengthy London getaway can be whatever you decide to make it — and with these travel hacks at your disposal, you can make visiting London and its surrounding bits an exceptional experience you will never forget.