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London – Introduction

September 13, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Cool and rainy day here. Great time to write about London!

Getting there

It’s a long way from Austin to London. I wasn’t thrilled about making the trip again. Until last year when British Airways announced a non-stop flight on the new 787! Ever since that announcement, I had been wanting to go. I had a stash of BA miles that needed to be used up, too. Although even with miles, you still have to pay an exorbitant amount in fuel charges and taxes. I booked a premium economy seat very last-minute. I would have liked to stay another day, but there wasn’t an opening later for the flight back.

The plane was practically new, with the route having only been started a few weeks earlier in March. The premium economy section was sparsely populated. Only one person had someone next to them. There is lots of leg room and you even get a bag of goodies (toothbrush, toothpaste, blindfold thing for sleeping, etc). The big difference to me between this and business class is that the latter has lie-down seats, which are obviously better for sleeping. Food was good, too. My only complaint was a high-pitched whine for the whole trip. I only heard it in our section. When I to the bathroom in the economy section, I did not hear it. While BA provided noise-canceling headphones, I could not use the active noise cancellation since the whine was more apparent. I do not think it was the engine. I’m not sure if it’s enough to keep me from flying it again. Maybe if I can find a comfortable way of blocking the noise. The flight was uneventful and otherwise very nice. The staff were wonderful.

Oh, some advice if you’re travelling overseas without checking luggage: You should still go to the airline’s front desk to get your papers checked.

Lodging

As is my way, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide where to stay. This time, my decision was heavily based on transportation options. Since I am obviously not going to rent a car, that meant taking the Tube for most trips. Trying to find a hotel that was convenient to everywhere I need to go was not easy. I was also trying hard to stay with Hilton since I had a huge number of points to use. Because this is London, there are a few ways to filter out the bad hotels:

  • Non-smoking hotel
  • Quiet
  • Decent-sized rooms
  • Cheapish

When you use those options, the list shrinks quickly. I finally decided on the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London – Victoria, which is next door to Victoria Station. The room was a good size. Not on par with something in America, of course, but I have no complaints. Instead of the normal request method most of us are probably used to, Hilton charges fees if your requests are granted. Since I was staying on points, I didn’t really care, but be aware. I was charged 36£ for the “skyline” view. I figured this was a good way to guarantee a high floor away from the traffic noise. The side of the hotel I was on had a skyline but it was likely the least interesting one I have ever seen. I paid 16£ for the early check-in. Normally I don’t do this, but the flight arrived at 9:30am. Internet pricing wasn’t exactly clear. They appeared to have a special going on, but the long and short of it was 25£ for wifi for the stay. Remember, multiply by 1.6 to get prices in USD.

I can’t comment on the food; I couldn’t bring myself to pay their prices for hotel dining. I did visit the bar once (more on that another time).

Transportation

Getting from Heathrow to the hotel was interesting. Of the available travel options to central London, I had initially planned on taking the National Express coach.Due to the time between trains (and maybe cost), I was advised to take the Tube via Picadilly to Hammersmith and transfer to the District line. I also had someone try to sell me an Oyster card. I had no idea WTH that was and it sounded like a scam. This actually probably would have been a smart thing to do. Apparently Oyster is the more or less official, electronic, pay-as-you-go payment. It definitely would have been easier than digging my pass out of my wallet all the time. Oh, and the name:

Several names were considered, and Oyster was chosen as a fresh approach that was not directly linked to transport, ticketing or London.

Seriously? I arrive in a new city and someone wants to sell me an “Oyster” card. I was literally thinking, “WTH does oyster have to do with trains?”. Lame.

Anyway, Picadilly quickly took me to Hammersmith. I was a bit worried about standing out by carrying my luggage around on the subway, but I needn’t have worried. You’ll see people with luggage all over the place. I decided to stay on the Tube to South Kensington since an “interchange” was shown there and it seemed quicker. This was not really a good idea. London is old. Very old. That means lots and lots of stairs. With luggage. Because of my short trip, I managed to travel with only a carry-on, which was a really good decision. Still a pain to carry it up and down stairs, but do-able. If you have luggage, consider planning your hotel and tube changes around stations that have step-free access.

Arriving at Victoria is overwhelming. I got to street level quickly, but then was a complete loss. The problem is that the exit was not actually in Victoria, but across the street. After wandering around for awhile, I did eventually find the hotel. It took a couple of trips, but I got it down after that.

Currency

I’ve mentioned this before, but exchange as little cash as you need to at the airport. Airport exchange rates are not good. Fortunately I’ve gotten better at this over time and only exchanged something like 20 USD at Heathrow. I did the rest of my exchanging at Victoria. I finally got to use my Schwab debit card, which refunds fees at foreign ATM’s. I wanted to take it during our 2011 trip to Scotland, but the thing expired! I was prepared this time.

I didn’t have any issues using a swipe credit card. I was not able to use it in machines; for that I used my debit card with no problems, which surprised a few people :) I’ve recently had my two credit cards replaced with Chip and Signature. This has gotten easier after the Target debacle. I have a feeling these still won’t work in machines; Chip and Pin may be required. BTW, I still have yet to find a reader that accepts a chip. Target and others have the readers, but they do not work yet!

Of course, you should only use a credit card that does not chart foreign transaction fee. This scam seems to be disappearing, finally.

Cell Phone

Last time, I ordered a SIM chip for my phone before we left for the UK, which worked out well. However, I learned you can buy the chips abroad, so I decided to do that this time. I looked all over Victoria for Orange, but couldn’t find one so I settled on Vodafone. I paid 10£ for a chip which included voice, text, and data. This was a really good deal, much better than what I did last time. I did have problems getting it to work correctly. After looking around on the internet for awhile, I finally discovered I needed to make some changes to my Android settings. I don’t remember the exact article, but it’s something like that. The SIM chip was massively useful. Being able to access maps anytime, anywhere was invaluable. I have since traded up to an iPhone. Hopefully it won’t have this issue.

That’s all for the intro, I think. Should have the first day up pretty quickly since it was a short day. The others will take longer…

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