Martha Ainsworth’s England Travel Tips

Miscellaneous Travel Tips

What I’ve learned from experience,
that you might not find in guide books

Attitude: The most important advice I can give you is to travel with an open mind. Be willing to experience new, different things; arrive with an attitude of learning, not demanding. Don’t expect England to be like America. Thank goodness it isn’t! Be gracious to your English hosts, whose lives you are disrupting. Every summer, tens of thousands of pushy tourists pile into a country that is already small and crowded. Be considerate. You will find England a very hospitable country, but American arrogance will not serve you well.

Reserve in advance: England is very crowded in the summer, and good lodgings fill up far in advance. If you will travel in summer, begin thinking about your itinerary in December. Make your B+B reservations no later than February to get the best choices. Buy your airline ticket 90 days in advance to get the best seats. Visit the websites for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to keep an eye out for special airfares. Traveling in April or September can save you money and the weather is still good. Flying on a Monday through Thursday can save you money.

Don’t try to do too much: England is a small country but it’s bigger than you think. You may be tempted to try to pack in too many activities. Driving from place to place is somewhat slower than you might expect because the roads are narrow and winding. Don’t get too ambitious; trying to do too much in too little time could frazzle everyone’s nerves and ruin your vacation. Leave something for the next trip.

Stay in bed and breakfasts: The typical American motel exists because of “road trips” — a concept that never caught on in England. So there are no low-cost motels in England, as there are in the U.S. They do have Holiday Inns and Travelodges, but their prices are outrageous. The English version of economical lodging is the “bed and breakfast.”  B+Bs are clean, comfortable, hospitable, convenient and cheap. You will probably share a bathroom, as you would if staying in someone’s home; but the rooms are generally so comfortable, and the hosts so gracious, it’s a very good deal. And it’s a lovely way to actually interact with the culture, instead of insulating yourself from it by staying only in American-style hotels.

Get out of London: It is a huge mistake to visit only London. London has notable sights, but if you don’t get outside the city, you’ll miss the best part. The true character of England is found in small villages and the countryside. Except for a handful of historic sites, London is very much like any other large city.

There is a travel agent scam that has you stay in London for your whole trip, and see the rest of the country by taking day trips from London. Don’t do it. Lodging in London is outrageously expensive. Even the cheapest, grungiest hotels are $150 a night. To keep the cost down, plan to be there over a weekend when rates are slightly less. Consider staying on the outskirts where rates might be better; choose a B+B in a quiet, leafy suburb within walking distance of an Underground station and you will find it nearly as easy to get around as if you had stayed in the tourist centers in town. After all, when you are touring, how much time do you actually spend in a hotel room?

Bed language: Most rooms in most B+Bs and hotels are “double rooms”, which means they have one double bed and the rate is per person (not per room) for two people sharing the room. Proprietors are often unwilling to let one person occupy a double room. There are not as many single rooms available. If you are sleeping alone, expect to pay more. If you want a room with two beds, you must specify a “twin room”. “Double room” always means one double bed.

B+B manners: B+Bs are not full service like a hotel, and you must be considerate of your hosts. In many cases you are staying in their home. There are probably only one or two people available to care for all the guests, so don’t make demands as if there were a large hotel staff. There are probably specifically scheduled times for meals, and you may or may not be able to come and go at all hours. The trade-off is that you get a good room at a great price.

Baths and showers and toilets: Many Americans are puzzled by British plumbing. Prepare yourself that most places have bathtubs, not showers. In some cases you have a choice between a good bathtub and a not-so-good shower. One trip, I tried carrying around a rubber shower attachment for the bathtub; after that, I learned to simply take a bath. If you must use a shower, you will find that most showers are electric (don’t ask me, I don’t know) and you have to turn them on with a switch somewhere. In most B+Bs you will share a bathroom as you would in a private home (you may actually be in a private home). If you want a private bathroom like an American hotel, ask for an “en suite” room, and if one is available, be prepared to pay a premium. It usually is not worth it, since putting in a private bathroom usually means they had to use some of the bedroom's area to build it in, so the bathroom will be tiny and the room smaller as a result. I recommend that if “en suite” is part of the deal, fine, but don’t insist on it. One final note: in some older establishments, the bathtub is in one room, and the toilet is in another, and if you ask for the “bathroom”, you’ll be shown to a room with a bathtub (and no toilet). Ask for the toilet if that is what you need.

The first floor isn’t on the ground: In England, “ground floor” is on ground level, and “first floor” is the next floor up. If you’re on the first floor, you’ll be climbing stairs.

Rent a car: For the best experience, rent a car and drive. Once I tried doing my entire trip by train, and I won’t do that again. You miss a lot if you don’t drive through the countryside. Many people are nervous about driving on the other side of the road. But in my experience, after the first 10 minutes, something in your brain clicks, and you adjust without further difficulty. Even so, if you are at all nervous about it, do not attempt to drive in London. Wait until leaving London before renting your car.

The only situation in which you might consider a train is if you want to go far to the north, without stopping at intermediate locations, and you want to save time. For instance, if you are going from London to York, Durham, Lindisfarne, the Lake Country or Scotland, you might consider taking the train from London instead of driving.

Take the tour: At most attractions, if it is your first visit, take a guided tour if one is available. You will learn interesting things you wouldn’t learn otherwise, and in a much shorter time.

Show your gratitude: When visiting cathedrals, if there is no admission charge you will probably find a place to leave an offering. Be as generous as you can. It costs enormous amounts of money to keep these ancient sacred spaces open and structurally sound, so that you can visit them. Be responsible, and show your appreciation.

Spend food money wisely: If you don’t need to make a big production out of meals, you can get by without spending too much on food. Eat a good breakfast at the B+B (even if you skip the fried food in favor of cereal and toast), and at lunchtime save money with a cheap pub lunch or, even cheaper, buy a packet of sandwiches at a supermarket. This leaves enough money to afford a restaurant meal at dinner. If touring a cathedral, take advantage of their refectory if they have one; the lunch is usually inexpensive and tasty and may be homemade. Pub food is nearly always a bargain. Check pub hours, because they are only open certain hours during the day, and everything closes very early by American standards. Each pub generally serves only one brand of beer, but there are many varieties of it. Sample some.

Try the local and regional cuisine: There is an old myth that English food is boring and tasteless. No longer true! The English have discovered how to capitalize on local fresh garden produce, meats and dairy products, prepared in fresh, inviting ways. Plus you will find a huge variety of international restaurants, especially in London. So despite what you may have heard, you won’t have to subsist on fried or overcooked meat and potatoes (unless you want to). Most of the time you can count on being able to find light, fresh, tasty meals. But at least a few times, do sample old-fashioned traditional foods in pubs, and by all means enjoy local cheeses and beers.

Breakfast warning for Americans: Eggs are fried in oil until crisp and browned; bacon is soft like Canadian bacon; sausages are mild and bready like hot dogs; toast is crisp throughout and cooled; you might be served cooked tomatoes and mushrooms with breakfast; baked beans are considered a breakfast food. Personally, I stick to cereal. The English have now learned how to make top-notch coffee, and many places serve it in French press pots. Learn how to work one before you go (I still don’t know).

Sandwich alert for Americans: Most sandwiches are made with butter instead of mayonnaise.

“Salad” means something else: At lunch, what you think of as “shrimp salad” they call “prawn mayonnaise”. Anything “salad” (ham salad, chicken salad) means the item with a tossed green salad next to it. So “ham salad” will get you slices of ham and a tossed green salad.

Admission to attractions: It is usually worth the price to purchase a Great British Heritage Pass. The initial cost is a little high, but it will soon pay for itself if you visit any National Trust or English Heritage sites. And since most of the country’s main attractions are covered, you probably will.

It’s hot, it’s cold: Even in summer, plan on a wide variety of temperatures. London in summer is nearly always uncomfortably hot and muggy. Out in the countryside, it will mostly be pleasant and spring-like, but count on at least a day or two of cold, rainy weather (45-50). Pack accordingly, or risk spending part of your trip miserable from having caught a cold. Dress in layers so that you can add or subtract as needed to be comfortable.

Credit cards, ATMs, travelers checks, cash: Credit cards are not quite as universally accepted as in the U.S., especially by small merchants. You will often need to pay cash for B+Bs. You can usually plan to use your ATM card to get cash as you go. But I warn you: take travelers checks in pounds sterling, because there will be a time when you can’t find an ATM machine, or the only one you can find is out of service. Do not buy travelers checks in American dollars, and do not attempt to convert American money while in England. Conversion fees are outrageous.

How to minimize jet lag: After much experience, nearly everyone I know agrees that an overnight flight is best. Most good flights from New York leave around 8 or 9 p.m. and arrive early the next morning. Try to sleep on the plane. The next day (your first day in England), you will be very tired, but keep going and do not nap. Go to bed early that night, and by the next morning, your jet lag will be under control.

No hotel for the first few hours: Another note about taking an overnight flight: you’ll land in the early morning, and likely arrive before you can get into your hotel room. Depending on the hotel, your room may not be available until 3:00 p.m. So wash up (and maybe even change clothes) in the airport, or on the plane before you land. If you are renting your car at the airport and heading directly to the countryside, you can store your bags in your car until you can check in to your rooms at your destination. But if you are heading directly to London from the airport, make arrangements in advance to store your bags at the hotel until your room is ready. In either case, plan a low-key activity for the morning and early afternoon. (In London, this is a good time to take the double-decker bus tour.) When your room is ready, don’t nap! Wash up, have an early dinner, and go to bed early. Trust me on this.

Next: What you must see, what you should skip, and my personal favorites

Intro  |  Planning  |  Cost  |  General tips  |  What to see, what to skip  |  Helps