London: Need to Know

City Basics

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Arriving. Taking a traditional London black cab has its charms. Cab drivers pass rigorous exams to prove they know their way about the city (they're unlikely to hose you by taking circuitous routes), and they often like to share their world view with passengers too. But they are expensive, especially in heavy traffic, which is a common phenomenon in London, exacerbated by ongoing work to replace the city's Victorian water mains: A typical fare from Heathrow Airport to central London runs about £55–£65; from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted airports, the fare costs substantially more. If you've got too much luggage to cope with public transport, such as the tube or the trains, book a cab in advance; you can hire traditional taxis at below-metered rates, or shop around to see what minicab companies are charging. Premier Cars is generally pretty reliable. There are also a number of companies offering motorbike taxi services, one way to beat congestion with the bonus of being good fun.

Getting Around. If you're in a hurry, the London Underground (known as the tube) is usually the quickest option. That's unless there's a security alert or industrial action or work on the line or one of the unexplained glitches that regularly halt tube trains in tunnels. It can be trying for claustrophobics, but it is easy to use. Buy an Oyster card, which can also be used on London buses, and you won't have to use the dodgy machines at bus stops, which all too frequently eat change and refuse to spit out a ticket in return. For more leisurely travelers, buses are also a good way to sightsee; routes 15 and 19 are especially scenic. But the best method of transport is undoubtedly Shanks' pony: London is a great walking city and although its suburbs are far-flung, its center is surprisingly compact.

Tipping. The standard tip in restaurants is 12.5%; a 15% gratuity would show appreciation for good service. Beware: Some restaurants automatically include the tip in the price of the bill. Black cab drivers expect a tip of around 10% of the fare. Tipping isn't the norm in bars and pubs, unless food is served. Coat check attendants, doormen and bellhops usually get £1 for their services.

Survival Skills. Crime in London isn't as bad as some newspaper headlines might suggest, but your street smarts will come in handy in the city center, even during the day. Don't leave your cell phone or wallet on a table top in a busy bar or café, or dump your bag in a corner or under your chair. Even if it's not stolen, you could spark a security alert. The upper deck of London buses may offer the best views but sitting upstairs can also leave you vulnerable to a bag snatch — if you're alone in a row of empty seating and someone plonks themselves next to you, he's either an out-of-town visitor unfamiliar with local conventions regarding personal space, or he has designs on your belongings or your person.

Talking to Strangers. Most Londoners ignore strangers on the street or on public transport in the city. If you're so inclined, however, feel free to mumble, "Good morning/afternoon/evening," to people in the country. That being said, cabbies, hairdressers and some shop assistants will strike up conversations with you. So will drunks in pubs; they're plentiful in London. Although breaking the ice with your average, sober Londoner is a tougher proposition, it's worth persevering. As Johnson — Samuel, not Mayor Boris — once observed, "The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of 10 miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the world."

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