Updated 1 February 2023

Whether it’s your first time to London, or you’re returning for another trip, this amazing city can be a little daunting. We’re going to keep this post updated with what we think is the most relevant information for you, to help you hit the ground running when you land. The author of this article lives in London, so you’ll be getting the latest intelligence, as it happens!

Topics covered below: booking free tickets to the museums; whether to use cash or a credit card; splitting the bill & tipping; whether to buy an Oyster card or use your credit card for public transport; personal safety & the latest scams; if you just need somewhere inside to sit down for a while; public toilets.

The museums are VERY busy – book in advance

The Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in South Kensington are a must see for adults and kids alike. You’ll easily spend a good few hours in each, wandering around and seeing the exhibits.

But they can get busy. Very busy. Even on a weekday. With tourism back at full pelt, plus schools taking students on excursions to the museums, they are once again very busy (which is actually awesome to see things back to normal!). We visited on a Monday in October, but got turned away because we hadn’t pre-booked tickets. The line for entry without a ticket was more than 100 metres long! Even though the museums are FREE to enter, you really must pre-book your ticket to secure your entry. You can book weeks in advance, so you might even want to do this before you leave on your trip. Visit the Science Museum website and the Natural History Museum website to book your free tickets.

Should I use cash or credit card?

Easy! Credit card. For everything. Unless you really want to use cash, don’t bother. You don’t need to use cash in London (even at markets). In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I used cash. You can buy anything and everything on your credit card – from a £2 coffee to dinner. Shops don’t have those “minimum spend” requirements like in Australia and you won’t get a nasty look if you try to pay for a £1 packet of chips with your card.

Bear in mind that your credit card might charge an international transaction fee for paying in non $AUD, so it’s best to use (or get) a credit card that doesn’t charge any international fees.

Splitting the bill & tipping

Splitting the bill is a thing in the UK, unlike in Australia where you’ll often get a mean look if you ask the waitstaff (that’s if there isn’t already a big prominent sign that says “No Split Bills”).

Cafes and restaurants in London actually assume you want to split the bill and they won’t be annoyed if you ask to make separate payments. In fact, many cafes and restaurants now let you pay your bill on your phone from the table by scanning a QR code. Multiple people? No problems, each person scans the code, selects what they want to pay for, and enters their credit card details or uses Apple Pay or Google Pay. It couldn’t be easier!

Tipping isn’t really a thing in the UK. But it kind of is, because many cafes and restaurants in London add a 10% or 12.5% “service charge” to your bill. So you are kind of paying a tip. In theory you could ask for the service charge to be removed, but I’ve never done this. It therefore goes that adding an additional “tip” isn’t required or expected. Sure, if you want to tip do it, but there’s no requirement or expectation.

Buying an Oyster Card to use the tube and buses

The Oyster Card is London’s equivalent of Sydney’s Opal Card, Melbourne’s Myki and Brisbane’s go card.

You can buy a reloadable Oyster Card at any tube station. But there’s a much easier way, and that’s to tap on and off with your credit card, phone or Apple Watch. You pay the same fare and you get the same benefits of capped daily pricing. Just make sure to use the SAME card when you tap on and off for every trip. You can find out more on the Transport for London website.

Another thing is the Express Travel Card (ETC) option within your Apple Wallet. ETC let’s you pick a card that you’ll use for the tube and bus and you then don’t need to authenticate your iPhone when you tap on and off (i.e., no need to use Face ID or enter your passcode). Literally take your iPhone or Apple Watch and tap it and you’re good to go. It’s perfectly safe to use because the worst that someone could do if they stole your iPhone is to spend a day traveling around on buses and tubes (hardly something a thief is going to do).

You can find the ETC option within Wallet & Apple Pay in your phone’s settings.

Bus and train strikes

There continues to be intermittent strike action on buses and the tube. The worst seems to have past (there were lots of strikes at the end of last year). You can keep an eye out about upcoming strikes on the Transport for London website.

Personal safety, scams etc

London is a very safe city from a personal safety perspective. You’ve probably seen in the news stories of stabbings, but these are almost ALWAYS gang related (random people on the street aren’t getting randomly stabbed).

There are however a few scams and things to know about so that you can take care when you’re in London:

Mobile phone theft

It’s becoming increasingly common to hear of people having their mobile phone literally snatched from their hand in the centre of London. Typically it’s young males on electric bikes that are committing these crimes. They’ll find a victim, mount the footpath and grab the person’s phone from their hand while they’re looking at something on the screen. And then the thief zooms off on their bike. I cannot recommend strongly enough to do this: when you need to look at something on your phone (Google Maps, email, sending a WhatsApp message etc) you should walk to the side of the footpath against a wall or shopfront. Don’t just stand there on the footpath (or worse still, don’t stand right next to the road) and do this as you’ll be seen as an easy target if there’s a thief nearby.

A group of “tourists” asking for directions

You’re sitting down somewhere, like in a cafe, and you’re looking at your phone or you’ve got shopping bags on the ground, and a group of three or four foreign speaking people come over to you asking for directions. They seem innocent enough, perhaps an elderly lady, or a middle aged man, and kids, and they’re all talking to you at once, and of course you want to help. But while all this is happening, they’ve distracted you enough to steal your phone or shopping or backpack.

Find the ball under the cup scam

This isn’t unique to London (I’ve seen it in many other European cities). A crowd will be gathered around a man seemingly handing out money to winners. The game? Guess under which cup the ball is located. He’ll take a ball, place it under of three cups on his table and move the cups around fairly slowly (so much so that it’s easy to pick where the ball is). A member of the public will put a £50 note down on the table and point to a cup, and, voila, they’re right and they get their money back + £50.

But all is not what it seems. The people placing the bets are in on the scam — they’re stooges for the main scammer. Because when a real unsuspecting member of the public joins in and thinks they can make easy money, the scammer uses sleight of hand to make the ball disappear from the obvious cup. And the poor person loses their money.

We often see this scam operating on Westminster Bridge right next to Big Ben.

Just need somewhere inside to sit down?

Maybe you need to spend a few minutes looking at something on your phone? Got some emails to read and reply to? Need to do something on your laptop? My recommendation is to find the nearest Pret (a cafe chain). Typically they’re big, have lots of seating, and are rarely full of people (customers usually buy a take away coffee). Pret has free high speed wi-fi, and you can find power sockets too. If you feel guilty then by all means buy a drink, but staff will be too busy to know or even care that you’re sitting there doing your own thing.

Public toilets

When you’re a tourist you’re out and about almost all day. Stopping to get a coffee or tea here and there, grabbing lunch or a snack. The time will come when you need to use the toilet.

Your first thought might be to head to McDonalds or Starbucks to use their toilet. While you can do that, it’s often the case that other tourists are doing the same thing, and there can be a line. Or the bathroom is locked and you have to do the walk of shame up to an employee to ask for the code. And don’t bother going to look for the toilets in a tube station: there are none.

We have a much better option: find a pub! There’s so many bloody pubs in central London, that there’s basically one every block or two. The toilets will be clean and available. And perhaps you might end up getting a pint there too.

Got a question? Want to leave a comment for others?

Ask away down below and we’ll do our best to answer. Or if you’ve got some helpful advice for fellow travellers, tell us about it below!

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