I've only spent a few nights in London before and it's always been with school, university or with family so New Designers was the first time I was organising my trip myself. I think it must be something everyone who lives outside of London feels, but staying in the city seems like it needs much more planning because it's so big and complicated. Since staying there and working it all out by myself I decided maybe it isn't as complicated as everyone thinks.
This is a list of things I found when staying in London and organising my trip. This slots in some sort of chronological order of how I did things.
1. When To Stay- Obviously if like me you are travelling down for something specific like an event, you are bound to when you can stay, but if you just fancy a long weekend or a city break for your hols, try and book out of season. Best times to avoid are Christmas, New Year, school half terms, Easter and any time in July and August. When I've stayed in London before I went in March and October which means the weather isn't all that great but hotels are cheap and attractions are less busy. Often the best time to go is June or September when you're likely to have some sort of sunshine but you're out of school holidays.
2. Travelling To The City- Generally the easiest way to get into London if you live out in the sticks is by rail or by bus. Megabus and National Express coach do some insanely cheap deals but if like me you hate travelling and can't stick being on a bus for hours on end, the train is the fastest way in. Ideally if you live SO far away you could fly in which can be super cheap, quick and makes you feel like you're on holiday but I wouldn't like to speak for the whole of the North and say that's the best option. From Cardiff I caught a First Great Western train at 10 in the morning which goes directly to London Paddington (a few stops, no changes) in just over 2 hours which is ideal. They have chargers and wifi on board, it's a huge train so there's *normally* plenty of room and it's simple. For getting the best deals on rail travel make sure you book in advance-ideally a few months ahead but normally up to a fortnight before travel you can get some sort of discount. Try and find out if you qualify for some sort of railcard because that gets you a third off a normal price but they do cost around 20 quid for one year and 60 quid for three so make sure the discount is worth it. Also investigate what type of ticket you want. Often buying two singles is cheaper than a return so look into that and find out whether an open return suits you better. An open return means you can travel back any time within a month of arriving in the city whereas booking a specific time slot means you can ONLY travel on that train. Open returns are simpler and allow some flexibility to your plans but was going to cost me an extra £20.00 so if you are booking a specific train it's probably best to leave yourself way too much time. I ended up being an hour early for my train home but it's much nicer to allow for something to change, not to have to rush and to chill out with a magazine and a drink in sunny Paddington before you leave.
3. The Tube- Following on a similar vein, travelling around London is one of the things I think most people get het up about. There are a lot of scary stories about how the underground is busy, cramped, sweaty and nobody ever speaks on there but it's actually super easy to navigate and really effective. I think London has one of the best travel networks of cities in the world as there are so many options and it *generally* works very well. I find buses much more difficult to navigate, walking wasn't an option because everything was too far away, taxis cost a fortune and Boris Bikes, whilst they seemed like a fun idyllic Instagram worthy way to get around, were actually terrifying when you actually considered competing with London traffic. Therefore, the tube was the only option for me. Loads of people made me feel slightly nervous about the tube before I got to London. There was a lot of "rather you than me" and "oh you'll never get a suitcase on there" and whilst I have been on the tube millions of times, it was the first time I was doing it alone and solely relying on me to get me somewhere. As it turns out it was a piece of cake. I had to make 2 changes on 2 different lines to get from Paddington to Euston to meet my friends and when I'd eventually found the Bakerloo line (it's basically a hole in the wall in Paddington) I was away. In the whole week we only made two mistakes on the line and one of those I realised with enough time to get off before the doors scraped my back. Here are a few things to think about when navigating the underground:
- It's only heaving at rush hour. Yes it's busy a lot of the time, yes you have to stand 9 times out of 10 but we sometimes found ourselves in an empty carriage. Generally the middle of the day is quiet, it's easy to get your luggage in and out and you can stand and read the signs for 20 minutes to figure out where you're going. Rush hour of course is horrifically busy so if you don't like being cramped and crowds it is not the best time to travel. Try and avoid it where you can but if you have to go on just remember the trains come every 2 minutes and there is no need to batter some old dear just to get on.
- The map makes logical sense. It might look complicated but if you do your research beforehand it is very logical. Find where you are and where you want to be going on the map and follow the lines to where they interconnect. If they don't interconnect then great, you don't need to change but if they do then you know where your change is coming up and what lines to follow. If in doubt follow the colours rather than the names of lines, they're easier to spot when you're in a rush in the station. Knowing which direction you are heading in can be tricky but I generally followed the rule of the river and it didn't let me down. Have a look at the map beforehand and if your line is taking you down toward the river, you're heading southbound and if it's heading up you'll need to take the northbound lines. East and West is self explanatory.
- Make your journey as easy as possible for yourself. Do your research beforehand, write it down if you need to, pick up a map at the station or get the app. I got the bog standard Tube map for my iPhone and it showed me the entire network, allowed me to search for specific routes and then directed me through it and even has realtime updates of what lines have delays. It also works without wifi or 3G/4G so you can use it in the tunnels and on the trains.
- Don't rush. There's plenty of trains and there are signs up everywhere warning of the dangers of rushing around the stations. There's no need to panic and it's when you're rushing and not paying close enough attention to the signage is when you get lost or hop on the wrong line. Nobody got time for ending up in zone 4 when they're supposed to be at Big Ben.
- Appreciate Londoners are busy and have no time for tourists. Don't spend your time faffing at the ticket barriers, don't stop dead in the middle of the walkway to look at the map, people don't have time for it in London and that's when you'll be shouted at and get all flustered. Prepare beforehand so you don't need to stop and work out your surroundings or stand to one side out of the way.
- Stand on the right of escalators and walk on the left of the tunnels. Make sure you remember which way round to do the walking because nobody wants to walk round the corner of a tunnel on the right and be met by a horde of angry commuters. Nuh uh. If you accidentally find yourself on the left of a queue heading for an escalator and wonder why everyone is waiting when there is clearly space you've accidentally ended up in the walking queue. People on the right of escalators stand and wait in comfort to be transported up whilst the left is for those in a hurry or those super keen types who won't have cardiac arrest if they tackle the world's longest escalator at Angel, Islington. (*disclaimer* It might not ACTUALLY be the world's longest but it sure as hell felt like it). If you find yourself in the wrong line then sorry but you've got to take it on the chin like a champ and get on with it.
- Londoners don't care about you. This is by no means a dig and a bad thing, I found it gave me confidence when navigating the tube and walking around the city. Nobody in London gives a damn who you are or where you're going and they don't bat an eyelid if you're on a rush hour train and you're awkwardly pressed into their crotch or your sweaty armpit is in their face. Don't be afraid of the train where nobody speaks, embrace it and allow yourself to blend in. You feel much more confident and quite frankly you stick out like a sore thumb if you're flapping and worrying and you're more likely to be a victim of pickpocketing. People can spot a first time tourist a mile off in the city.
- Don't be a pansy about being pushy. In the most literal sense. Sometimes if you've been on the train a long time and you've been forced to move further and further down the carriage as more people have got on, you plain have to push to get off. Nobody knows you want to get off if you just eye up the door and nobody has very far to move when it's busy so be prepared to use a little elbow and tunnel like a mole to make your way to the doors. Remember there isn't a lot of time before the doors slam on your head so move it move it and don't worry about apologising as you go, people look at you funny.
4. Oyster Cards- Let's all take a minute to praise the person who came up with the oyster card system. There are loads of different ways of paying for tickets to get around London on public transport and I couldn't comment on what to do if you lived there but for me, for the journeys I did, the oyster card was the best idea. I already had an oyster card from some previous trips to London so all I needed to do was top mine up (which gave me a handy spot to look round Paddington to see where the heck I was meant to go). You can buy and manage your oyster cards online so you can have it in check before you go but buying it in any station in London is easy enough via the self service machine or at a manned desk if you prefer. When buying your card you pay a £5.00 deposit which you can get back if you return your card at the end of the trip and you just top your balance up via cash or card whenever you need to by however much you need to each time. The cards can be used on tubes, trams, London buses, most National Rail Services in London, Overground and DLR but I just used mine for the Overground and the tube during my stay. The way the card works on the tube is based on a variety of zones. Zone one is huge and covers most of the touristy bits of London and one journey on that costs around £2.30. The price is capped at 6.40 a day no matter how many journeys you make which saves you bucks if you're travelling lots and the price goes up by roughly 60p a journey the further and further out you get in the zones. It's simple, simple to top up, simple to whack on the barriers when you're coming in and out of stations (not having to fumble with a ticket is a god send) and it keeps the costs low.
5. Location, Location, Location- Don't be tempted when booking accommodation to stay in the places you're familiar with. Westminster, Oxford Street, Waterloo, Canary Wharf and Oxford Circus are all big names you'll have heard of even if you've never been to the city and it seems logical to stay in the centre of town if you're doing some sightseeing. Whilst staying within walking distance of the tourist attractions might keep the costs down, the prices are hiked for prime locations. Do your research, have a look at staying a bit further out where the prices of accommodation are much lower but the transport links are quick and direct to the heart of the city. Places like Fulham, Camden, Brixton and Kilburn are a little way out of walking distance but takes minutes on the underground to get most places and are a lot cheaper. Obviously do some scouting around, check the area is safe if you don't know it and keep an eye on transport links.
6. Accommodation- Accommodation in London is an absolute blag if you don't know where to begin looking. Premier Inn and Travelodge might be your go to for a few nights stay in a budget hotel normally but in London in the height of summer can easily set you back 800 quid. I once booked 6 nights in a Travelodge in Waterloo for £100.00 but it was in September, hence try and avoid peak season. If you're looking for a proper hotel check out late rooms, booking.com and last minute.com and sign up to Groupon because they do fantastic deals on nice locations. If you aren't fussy or are on a real tight budget always go for a hostel. They are a bit hit and miss and I'd never expect too much from them but you can get private rooms so you're not sharing with strangers and some even do elf catering apartments so you can have a kitchen and a bathroom to yourself too. Hostel world is the best site I found for London but try not to be freaked out by the reviews. In my experience nobody whose ever had a good stay in a hostel writes a review. Also have a look at student accommodation in London, lots of universities kick their kids out of halls for the summer and rent them to backpackers and tourists for the fraction of the price of a hotel.
7. Save Money On Eating Out- Obviously there are some gems in London for budget eating, pretty much any fast food restaurant, China town, markets and greasy caff's will serve you a meal for a fiver but if you want something a bit smarter and fulfilling go on recommendations by locals if you can. They often know the places that do a filling plate for a fraction of the cost so don't be tempted into paying over the odds because you think "It's London prices". If you can, book accommodation with self catering so you can bulk buy at the supermarket and cook for yourself and that will really keep the pennies from mounting up.
8. Embrace Tourist Heaven- Even if you're down on business, try and fit in something touristy in London. There is so much to see and a lot of it can be done for free. Walk down the Mall, stand outside Buckingham Palace, have a selfie in front of Big Ben, trot along Westminster-you don't need to pay anything to see the sights. If you do want to do some tourist attractions of the paying kind like ZSl London, Madame Tussaud's, Sealife Aquarium (recommended), the Towers, the Dungeons, the Eye etc then try and find discounts and vouchers before you go. A lot of attractions allow money off if you've travelled with National Express Coach so keep your ticket handy! Tesco Clubcard is the dream if that's where you do your weekly shop because whatever you have in clubcard tokens is quadrupled when it comes to days out vouchers so a tenner of coupons gives you £40.00 to spend on fun things. Also keep an eye in the shops for things like 2 for 1 on Merlin attractions which crop up on cereal and petrol every now and then. Groupon is always a fail safe and if in doubt, just google offers and discounts in London and 9 times out of 10 you'll find something. If nothing works just use the trusty student card or family discount. It's well worth doing something cliche, they're advertised as fun for a reason!
Get researching, get booking and get down there-it really is a wonderful city.