Sidewalk Etiquette (we call them pavements)
There is no real etiquette when it comes to the streets of London, though I wish there were. Slow and Fast lanes would be nice, alas, they do not exist here. Please just try and be aware of those around you, avoid stopping suddenly, avoid gathering in shop doorways and be prepared to nudge your way past people if they are not being as aware as you are. The popular tourist areas such as Oxford Street can get extremely busy, so where possible it’s a little easier to walk in the road to get around people. If you are doing this, walk on the side of the street that is going against the traffic so that you can see any oncoming cars, buses and bikes in the road if you need to step in and out of it. Walking with the traffic and doing this will likely get your hit or honked at.
Tipping – Restaurants, Cafes, Pubs, Bars
One of the questions many visitors to London ask me is ‘what’s the etiquette on tipping?’, and this varies depending on the circumstances, so here’s a few pointers to help you out.
Restaurants – most restaurants have a service charge added to the bill, and this is the tip that you give. It’s usually around 12.5%. If this isn’t on there then you can add around that much yourself. If the service has been dreadful you are free to cross this off and not pay it, as it is an optional service charge – hopefully you will never need to do this. If the service has been excellent you are welcome to add a little more on to it at your discretion. If you pay by cash the tip will be awarded as per the individual restaurant policy and you don’t need to worry about it. If you’re paying by credit card I suggest asking the staff if they get the tips that are paid on card or not. Some establishments will not disperse tips to their staff if paid by credit card. Of course, it’s only worth asking this if you have the cash available to hand over should they say ‘no’. Note that if the service charge is not on the bill and you are paying by card you may need to enter an amount of gratuity that you would like to add to the bill at the time you enter your pin number, so be prepared for this. If you pay £68.24 for a meal do you know what 12.5% is? I do the following simple steps: 10% of £68.24 is around £6.80. 1/2 of this amount is 3.40 and half of that again (to get 2.5%) is 1.70, so the total to pay (the 10% figure plus the 2.5% figure) is around £8.50 – you don’t need to get the pennies exactly right (the real 12.5% on this amount if using a calculator is £8.53). There’s more info on our currency later in this post.
Cafes – These are less likely to include the service charge on the bill, but then you’re also less likely to tip. If it’s a friendly little place and you go there for a fry up in the morning, say spending £4.50 on a full English breakfast with a cup of tea, then I would generally hand over £5 and tell them to keep the change.
Pubs – these are public houses and are generally not as posh or trendy as bars. They are a little more traditional and often have a nice array of draft ales on offer. If you’re drinks come to £7.40 your’re welcome to simply pay £7.40, or hand over £10 and expect to get the full amount of change. Wages of the staff here are done so that they are not reliant on the tips of customers to make a living, and you should not feel obliged to give tips. If you’ve had good service, however, then you are welcome to do so. if you find a nice regular spot to visit near your hotel and you get to know the staff as you’re in there every night it’s often courteous to simply say ‘and one for yourself’ as you make payment; the bar staff will then take payment for a drink of their choice (usually a single spirit so less than a pint would cost) and they would either tally up that drink to have after work, or drop the cost of the drink into a tips glass behind the bar.
Bars – often a bit trendier than pubs are, you get music, a bit of dancing, a bit more atmosphere and a lot more pretention. When paying for drinks here you will often get asked if you want to add any gratuity to the order, this will either be on the receipt or on the pin machine if paying by card. You are free to say no to this, but if you’re there all night the staff will expect something. If paying by cash you will often get the change handed to you on a small silver plate which is trying to encourage you to leave some there for a tip. I tend to pick up the notes and high value coins and leave the small change referred to as ‘shrapnel’. It often will depend on how good a time I’m having, how quickly I was served, how cute the staff are and how drunk I am.
Note that some bars do have ‘bathroom attendents’. These are people who will sit in the toilets all night and will often turn on the taps for you when you go to wash your hands, they will give you a hand towel to dry your hands and some of them will spray you with a littel perfume or aftershave if you want it. If you interact with the attendents and accept the things they try and do for you then you should drop a pound or so into the bowl or silver plate they have on display, it’s how they make their money. If you choose to ignore them and wash/dry without assistance then you are under no obligation to leave a tip, though some of them will query you on it – don’t feel pressured into tipping if you don’t want to and haven’t used their services though. You cannot use any of the aftershave or perfume and not tip though. Also, if you try and avoid them by not washing your hands you can expect them to ridicule you as you leave, and remember you as the person who doesn’t wash their hands next time you go to the toilet.
Cars have right of way the majority of the time. If you’re not from the UK or another place where cars drive on the left, please be sure to look both ways when crossing a road and not just the way you are used to; where possible use the designated crossing points.
Though you can often hear if a car is coming, this is not always the case with cyclists, so again make sure you look both ways before stepping out into the road; if you get hit by a cyclist neither of you will come out of it unharmed and they will have more right than you will to be pissed off.
Many crossing have a pedestrian guide on the road so you can just look down at your feet and often see a sign such as ‘Look right’ or ‘Look left’ which will indicate the direction that oncoming traffic is coming from.
Here are the kinds of crossings you can expect:
‘Zebra Crossings’. These are designated by black and white stripes on the road and with orange flashing lights on either end; you’ve probably seen one of these on the cover of a Beatles album. Pedestrians have right of way on these crossings and cars should stop to let you walk past. If a car is going fast as you approach the crossing they may not have time to stop or see you, so don’t simply jog up to one of these and cross without paying attention, even if you do have right of way. You will see cars slowing as you are stood there so cross quicckly in order for them to resume their journey, as you cross the other side of traffic will also be stopping at this point.
Pelican Crossings – these are the red, amber green lights that you see which have a button for you to press in order to activate them (Pelican derives from PeLiCon – which is Pedestrian Light Control). You should push the control button and wait until you are told to cross. The cars use the lights to indicate to them when they can move:
Green – cars can drive through.
Amber (orange) – cars should slow down to a stop (some speed up to get through the lights before they turn red, so be aware of this!).
Red – cars should now have stopped, and pedestrians are ready to go.
Red Amber – both lights flash at once which means cars are okay to go again. If you’re in the middle of the road at this point you better get to the pavement quickly!
When the lights turn red you should see a little green man appear indicating you can walk. Some crossings also make a beeping sound which indicates to blind people that they can cross safely. If the green man starts to flash you should hurry up, and not cross if you haven’t started to already. When the green man is red you should not cross. If late at night and there is no traffic you can use your common sense.
A few lights in London now have a helpful countdown as you are crossing, such as indicating that you have 10 seconds left to cross. Don’t start to cross if you have less than 5 seconds to do so, and get across the road quickly if you do opt to cross during this countdown period.
Traffic lights – these are the same as Pelican Crossings but are not controlled by the pedestrian, they are automated. Traffic lights often control different paths of traffic, so if the traffic at one side of you stops this does not mean you can cross, as it’s often the turn of another stream of traffic to start moving. Only ever cross when you see a green man indicating you can can do so.
London isn’t always as grey and miserable as it’s portrayed, we often get sun. However, the weather can be interchangable and it is not a surprise for a sudden shower to emerge out of nowhere, last 10 minutes and then go away. I suggest you carry a compact umbrella with you so that you are prepared for any sudden downpours there is no need to carry a large one around, just one that fits nicely in your bag or coat pocket. You can buy them in many places here, and will often find shops inside or just outside the tube stations that sell them for a few pounds. Don’t buy an expensive one, just get one that will fold up small, protect you from the worst of the weather and can be disposed of at the end of your trip. It’s very easy to lose them on the train or simply leaving them behind somewhere, so only spend a couple of pounds on them.
Pickpockets, Bums and Chuggers
Pickpockets are active in London, especially on the trains that pick you up at the airport and even more so around the time of the olympics – they wlil prey on tourists so make sure you are not one of the victims. Try not to carry your wallet, phone or passport in your back pockets and if you have a purse always keep it beside you with any zips shut tight and with the opening mechanism in front of you rather than at the back. If you are in a pub or restaurant keep your bags in a place that you can maintain visual contact and make use of any under table hooks if the establishment has them.
Likewise with your olympic tickets and travel card, keep these in an inside pocket rather than in your back pocket where possible.
It’s a good idea to keep £20 or so in a separate pocket to your other cash or valuables. If you are unfortunate enough to lose your wallet or purse and/or your travel cards the £20 will help you out immensly when you travel to the police station, hotel or making simple phone calls. Don’t carry all of your cash and valuables with you, make use of any safe facility in your hotel room. Likewise, try to keep your passport under lock and key at the hotel if you do not need to carry it around with you on a daily basis. Carry a photocopy of your passport with you when in the UK in case you do lose your original, as this will help you a great deal, and if possible keep a copy somewhere online along with copies of your other travel documents. Hopefully you will never need them, but it’s good to have and not need, than to need and not have. Simply emailing a copy to yourself will be adequate.
Homeless people do live on the streets of London, and most will sit quietly in a doorway or walk around asking for change, usually for food, for a bus journey or for a hostel to sleep in for the night. It’s your choice as to whether or not you give them any cash, and those who do will often just give a bit of change that they have in their pocket. Usually a ‘Sorry mate’ as you walk past is enough to get you walking past them without feeling awkward, but it’s rare any will shout after you if you simply ignore them. There are professional conmen who work the streets and these guys tend to have more elaborate stories about why they need money. One particular gentleman in the Shoreditch area has a nice large cut on his arm where he fell off his bike/was stabbed by someone/other lie and he needs to the money to take the bus to the hospital. Don’t be surprised if you see them more than once, and if you’re told the same or different stories several times if you frequent an area routinely. I never give cash out myself, but that’s your call.
‘Chuggers’ is the affectionate name we give to ‘Charity Muggers’. They stand in the street stopping passers by and asking them to sign up to give money to a particular charity. Most of them are nice enough, a few are pretty aggressive and others are just rude – but then if they are ignored for most of the day by everyone walking past them I guess it gets a little frustrating for them. Most of the time they only want you to sign up if you do so by direct debit, so telling them you don’t have a UK bank account is a nice quick way to exit the situation. Otherwise a polite ‘no’ and continue walking. They have no right to physically stop you so just walk on by.
If anyone else on the streets tries to thrust something into your hand, be it gypsies with heather (in Covent Garden), an Indian guy who wants to read your fortune (Tower Bridge) or just someone with a leaflet (everywhere) just be polite, carry on walking and refuse whatever they want to give you.
I’ve written a post on the top 7 ways to travel around London so it will be worth checking that out. However, since writing that post we have now been introduced to ‘Boris bikes’ which are bicycles that you can hire to ride around the city. This means cycling has become easier for a visitor to do as you don’t need to own a bike, you can simply hire one to get you around.
If you’re going to be here for a few days then be sure to pick up an Oyster card to use on the underground and bus networks. These are handy to carry on you at all times and will work out a little cheaper than buying a fresh ticket each time you arrive at the station. Central London buses will require that you pre-buy a ticket from a machine before boarding the bus so the Oyster card will also allow you to get on board nice and quickly and means you won’t miss the bus while fumbling for change.
If you’re using the escalators on the underground be sure to stand on the right and walk up/down on the left hand side. Failure to do this will result in a lot of tutting from those around you, and will clearly identify you as a tourist. Be sure to carry a bottle of water around with you as it can get overcrowded and very hot on the underground, and trains are likely to stop in tunnels from time to time. If you find you’re too hot down there try and get on the train where the carriages meet as there are windows here which will allow you to get blasted with air as the train moves.
Learn the currency
We use Sterling which is in pounds and pence (our currency code is GBP) and these are what you can expect to find.
£ = pound
p = pence
£50, £20, £10, £5
£2, £1, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, 1p
There are ten 1 pence pieces in 10 pence, and one hundred in a pound.
There are five 2 pence pieces in 10 pence, and fifty in a pound.
There are two 5 pence pieces in 10 pence, and twenty in a pound.
There are ten 10 pence pieces in a pound.
There are five 20 pence pieces in a pound.
There are two 50 pence pieces in a pound.
If you have been to Scotland you may have some Scottish currency left on you. Though most are the same as in England they do look slightly different. Scotland also have the additional of a £1 note.
Though these are all legal tender in England shops do have a right to not accept them, and you may expect questions when you try and spend a £1 note. Due to the size difference you can also give someone a £10 English note and £10 Scottish note and have them think you have given them £15 instead of £20, so make sure you always get the right change.
If you do have trouble spending Scottish currency in England, and it’s a problem more in independent stores than in large chain retailers, then just pop into a bank and have the notes changed.
Some shops, especially the larger stores on Oxford Street, may also accept Euros.
Here are some websites you may find useful:
Transport for London – keep up to date with the latest news and travel disruptions. Handiest parts of the site, for me, are the Journey Planner and the tube map. Here for the Olympics? There’s a special journey planner for you here.
Google Maps – invaluable for finding your way around those little winding London streets, we’re certainly not on a grid system.
Weather – not always reliable, but a good indication of the weather we are expecting
Currency conversion – convert from your local currency to GBP to so you know how much you’re spending. Handy tip – in Google you can often just type, for example “50 USD in GBP” to get a quick conversion.
And here are a few apps for your smartphone:
City Mapper/Bus Mapper – travel around the city by knowing when your next bus is due. Set your hotel to your ‘home’ location and this app will tell you how to get there, and how long it will take.
Toilet map – need to find a place to pee? This app will point you to the nearest public convenience in your hour of need.
London – A City Through Time (iPad) – Yes, it’s £10 and 1GB in size, but it’s a lovely app to delve into the history of London whether you’re staying here for a week or a year.