Top 20 Tips for Visiting London for the First Time

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These top tips for visiting London will help you avoid some of the pitfalls we faced during our weeklong adventure to England. Enjoy your first trip to London with an easier mind.

A family of four stands in front of Big Ben in London, England.

Planning our family vacation to London was so much work but it was worth every minute.

England is an amazing destination for your first family trip taking the kids out of the country.

Whether you’ve travelled internationally as a family before or this is your first time taking the kids to Europe, these are my top tips for a first visit to London.

How I wish I had a list like this when I was planning our adventure. Did I miss a tip you have? Leave a note in the comments and help another family out!

1. Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees

One of the biggest mistakes I made when we traveled to Ireland was to expect that my foreign transaction-free American Express card would be widely accepted.

There were very few places that took it and I was stuck using a combination of a Visa and our debit card.

The debit card got hacked almost immediately, which is exactly why they warn you to never use a debit card when you travel.

Left with only my Visa, I was stuck paying endless transaction fees for every single purchase I made during the trip. Averaging about $1 per transaction, they added up very quickly over the week we spent abroad.

The good news is that American Express is much more widely accepted in London than it was in Ireland, but I still encountered several places where it couldn’t be used.

This time I had a back-up credit card with no foreign transaction fees to use. Be sure to check with your accounts and have at least two reliable methods of payments in case one doesn’t work at your destination.

2. Set Up Contactless Payment Methods

Our entire family is on iPhone, so we set up Apple Pay and a back-up payment method in Apple Wallet on everyone’s phone before we left.

Most retailers accept contactless payment methods in London but it came especially useful when we rode the underground and tapped in and out of the stations with our phones.

Both of my daughters have an American Express card in their name under my account. Their bill comes to me for payment and I can oversee what they buy with it but this allowed them to tap in and out on the underground with a card in their name.

If you’re traveling with your kids, check to see if you can add a user under your own account for them. Many cards offer this service.

3. Being Wet is Worse than Being Cold

The sidewalk shows the rain water has collected and the lights are shimmering in the reflection.
The rainy sidewalk outside the AirBNB where we stayed for our London trip.

Since we travelled to London in April, we had to plan for being bundled up against both the rain and the cold.

I wasn’t sure which coats would be most practical for the trip so I brought a rain jacket and a winter coat.

In the end, we all agreed as a family that it is easier to warm up with an extra layer or sweater under a waterproof rain jacket than it is to have a too-hot winter coat when the weather is mild.

I used my raincoat 4 out of the 6 days. The two days I used my winter coat I regretted it because I got very hot with all the walking we were doing.

Plan your outerwear around the rain and be sure that everyone has a solid raincoat.

Then just pack some sweaters or hoodies that could be layered underneath. You could always add a hat and/or scarf, too.

4. Don’t Pack an Umbrella

Yes, it rains in London but if you have a solid raincoat with a hood as I just suggested in point #3 above, it is very unlikely you will need an umbrella.

Save the weight in your suitcase and leave your umbrella at home. If you decide you really want one, you’ll find them at shops all across London for easy purchase.

5. Bring an Outlet Adapter

If you want to charge your devices, you will need an outlet adapter. I used this one in both Ireland and in London.

We loved it because the USB cords for our phones, Apple watches, and external battery bricks all plugged directly into the front so we only needed two adapters for our family of four.

A word of warning: Be sure to double-check that any of your devices you want to plug in are dual-voltage. Even though you can plug them into the outlet, that doesn’t mean they will work with the electrical currency.

Items like hairdryers are the most likely to completely melt down if used with one of these outlets.

6. It’s Impossible to See it All

You could travel to London again and again, walking yourself from sun up to sun down, and still not see everything this amazing city has to offer.

Planning our London itinerary was the most difficult part of our trip because difficult decisions had to be made about what we would leave unseen.

I found it most helpful to have a family meeting and check in with my kids and husband about what is the one thing most important to them to see. We planned our trip around those experiences first.

7. Book Timed Tickets for Your Must-Sees

Once you know the most important things you want to see, be sure to book timed tickets in advance to help avoid long lines.

You can reference my checklist of London attractions that offer timed tickets here.

I recommend booking no more than one special attraction in a day so you don’t feel rushed to leave one to go to another.

8. Be Prepared to Walk a Lot

No matter how you plan to get around in London, most of it will require a lot of walking.

We easily averaged 20,000+ steps per day despite using frequent Ubers and the underground.

You will also need to climb countless stairs if you plan to ride the tube or visit many of the historical attractions.

9. Wear Excellent Walking Shoes

There is a famous YouTuber with a video that said no one in London wears tennis shoes.

This is flat-out wrong. Go ahead and wear your sneakers if that’s the most comfortable pair of shoes you own, you will absolutely need them.

My husband preferred to wear waterproof hiking shoes which helped him on the cobblestones and uneven surfaces, but the girls and I did just fine with our neat-looking trainers.

10. Get to Know the Underground

The red and blue circle of the Victoria Station sign in the London Underground.

Traffic in London is crazy. It can sometimes be faster to walk to your destination than it is to take a taxi or Uber.

For farther away destinations, you will absolutely want to familiarize yourself with the London underground or “tube.”

We jumped right in with both feet on the day we arrived and it felt so scary and stressful. However, by the end of the week, even my kids were helping to navigate our way around the train stations.

You can read my entire Beginner’s Guide to the London Underground here and learn everything you need to know to survive your first trip on the tube as soon as you arrive.

11. Keep Right on Escalators

The #1 most important tip I have for riding the underground is to be sure you stand to the right on the escalators in the stations.

Busy commuters will run past you on the left to catch their next trains. Keep one side clear for them to pass easily if you don’t want to get pushed or yelled at.

12. Watch the Traffic Direction

The street has been painted with the message "Look Right". Four pairs of feet are lined up at the sidewalk ready to cross.

Drivers ride on the left side of the roads in England so as you’re crossing the street, be sure to look right for oncoming vehicles.

Thankfully, most intersections have reminders painted directly on the streets so you remember which way to look.

13. Save Money on Food

As is typical with a major city like London, food prices can feel astronomical.

Feeding our family of four all three meals every day at a restaurant would have completely broken our travel budget.

Instead, we chose to stay at an AirBNB where we could fill the fridge with some budget-friendly snacks and beverages. Even in a hotel, you could pick up some water and snacks at a local grocery store or convenience store and plan to have a simple breakfast before you head out for the day.

I had the most fun browsing at Marks and Spencer’s food department. They have M&S Food shops sprinkled around town if you want the convenience.

There are cheaper sandwich shops and grab-and-go restaurants like Pret a Manger all around the city if you don’t want to store food in your room.

To save money on your food budget, plan to just have one meal at a sit-down restaurant per day and keep the other meals light and portable.

14. You Don’t Need to Pay for Bathrooms

Another YouTube rumor that made me panic before our trip that ended up being not a problem at all was paying for using the bathrooms.

I was under the impression that we had to keep a few British coins in our pockets so we could use a bathroom as we toured around. We spent a stupid amount of money changing dollars to pounds just to be prepared for nature’s call.

In the end, the only bathroom I ever paid for on the trip was at the International Train Station to Paris and even then, they accepted contactless payment.

You can pay for a bathroom in parts of London, but if you’re smart you’ll just use the toilets when you spot them for free at all the major historical attractions, many major department stores, and the restaurants you’re dining in.

We had a rule that everyone had to take a bathroom break when we spotted the free ones and it was never a problem.

15. Be Patient with the Accent

One of my favorite parts about London is that the language barrier is almost non-existent YET it is very clear you are not in the US.

I could listen to the British accent all day long, I love it so much. But in some instances you may be surprised at just how thick it can be.

And yes, you’re speaking English, but you have an accent, too! Don’t be surprised when they cannot understand what you’re asking. You may have to repeat yourself now and again.

So listen carefully, be patient and ask nicely if you have to have something repeated to you and don’t get annoyed if you have to repeat what you’re saying, too.

16. Avoid Shopping on Fri or Sat Nights

We arrived in London on Saturday morning and I thought a little shopping would be a good activity to do while we were feeling jetlagged and exhausted.

We made the big mistake of heading to Hamley’s on Regent Street on a Saturday night before the Easter holiday.

It was insanely crowded, both in the stores and on the streets. Friday and Saturday nights you’ll find large groups of teens out having fun in addition to the tourists.

If you want a quieter shopping experience, go during the weekdays instead.

17. Don’t Stand Inside the Phone Booths

The author stands by a classic red phone booth in London.

These adorable London landmarks make the cutest photo ops, but I’m sad to tell you that most of them are in major disrepair with broken windows and graffitti.

In addition, many of them have been used for public urination and are not a place you’ll want to step inside and hang out.

You can still get your cute photo op if you are patient and wait to find one in better condition.

Just be sure to pose against the outside instead of standing inside.

18. Avoid Crowd Exhaustion

It can be very easy to get “peopled out” during a trip to London. There are long queues at the attractions and throngs of people all walking the sidewalks in busy tourist areas.

But London is absolutely huge and there is plenty of opportunity to find big open spaces you can stretch out a bit.

We loved talking strolls through Hyde Park and St. James Park. We also found that the bus lines around Harrod’s were much less crowded than the ones around Piccadilly Square.

Find some things to do away from the most popular areas to give yourself a break from the throngs of tourists.

19. Save Money on Afternoon Tea

Enjoying a traditional afternoon tea in London is a perfect thing to add to your itinerary but be prepared for high prices, especially if you’re a family with kids.

We paid £50 per person to have tea at Peggy Porschen’s and knowing what I know now, I think we would have looked for something called a “cream tea” to enjoy instead.

The full afternoon tea includes sandwiches, scones, and treats. A cream tea is just the scones and tea. It would have been just enough for us as an afternoon treat.

20. Be Prepared for a Very Diverse Community

We chatted with our Uber drivers from Nigeria and Pakistan, we had some that spoke so little we’re not sure where they were from.

We passed countless restaurants and shops filled with every imaginable world cuisine. If you love Indian or Thai food, you are especially in for an amazing treat.

London attracts people from every corner of the world. Some live and work in the city, some are tourists like you.

You’ll hear all kinds of languages and accents on the street, in the shops, and on transportation as you would with any major international city. But if you’re not prepared, it can feel a little jarring after a few days.

This is not the quaint countryside, it is a cosmopolitan capital city filled to the brim with people from everywhere. We had the best times getting to know some of our drivers a little better and listening to what they loved and didn’t love about London.

This is definitely one of the greater lessons for kids and why we love traveling so much. Hearing so many languages and accents in practice is such a wonderful reminder that we live in just one tiny corner of the world.

More London Travel Tips

Planning a trip to London for the first time? Don’t miss my best tips before you go:

The photo collage shows the author in London standing next to a red phone booth next to a photo of her family lined up on the sidewalk next to a "Look Right" sign.

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