London Calling: You Need a Visit to the Mother Country

If you stop and think about it, it’s absolutely mind staggering that a country so small once ruled an empire so vast (including the original US colonies) that it was said the sun never set upon it. To be accurate, the United Kingdom isn’t exactly one country but four – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – that have united into one single sovereign entity. Also mind staggering is the fact that packed into this tiny island (and part of another) is enough sites and activities to fill a hundred vacations. London’s calling you to come and see the mother country from which the US was born. If you answer, you’re in for an astounding vacation.


Getting in, out, and about


Although a member of the European Union, the United Kingdom is not a participant in the Schengen Agreement, which allows borderless travel across much of Europe. Nevertheless, for US travelers, getting into the UK for tourist purposes is fairly easy. You do not need a visa for purposes of tourism, which includes visiting relatives and friends. A valid passport is all that’s necessary. If you travel into the UK from anywhere but the border crossing between Ireland and Northern Ireland, you can stay in the UK for up to six months on just a passport stamp. If you enter the UK from the Republic of Ireland, however, your stay will be limited to no more than three months.


The UK does not require any additional vaccinations. The US Center for Disease Control does recommend that you are up to date on the common vaccinations whenever you travel, but does not advise for any additional vaccinations. Depending upon what activities you may be engaged in while you’re in the UK, other vaccinations might be appropriate, such as those against Hepatitis A & B and against rabies, but consult with your local physician before you leave to determine if any of these are right for your needs.


While London itself has so much to offer for a rich vacation itself, if you never leave the city, you’ll be missing out on so much of the UK’s charm. Since the UK is fairly small, taking domestic flights to get from place to place is not only expensive, but impractical. Fortunately, the United Kingdom has an extensive train network that can get you to most places throughout. However, if you are traveling around Europe using a Eurail pass, this won’t be valid for the use of the UK rail system. Instead, you can purchase a Britrail pass for your travel needs in the UK.


Another option for getting around the UK is to rent a car, but you should keep a number of things in mind. Most car rentals will be for cars with standard transmissions. If you don’t drive a stick, you can either try to learn and practice before you head to the UK, or pay significantly more for an automatic transmission once you’re there. Another factor to consider is the high price of gasoline (referred to in the UK and throughout Europe as petrol) which can get above $7 USD a gallon. While driving throughout most of the UK does not involve your having to pay a toll, in London and other big cities, parking can be difficult and expensive, and traffic, especially during rush hour periods, can be dense and slow. Driving in the center of London may also involve a fee of around $17 USD. Unlike most of the rest of the world, in the UK, you drive on the left side of the road. The roads themselves are typically in excellent condition although they are much narrower than what drivers from the US may be used to.

The traveler’s tongue


Although the official language in the UK is English, Americans will find a number of words and phrases somewhat different from how they are used in the US. For example, people in the UK don’t eat when they are hungry but when they feel puckish instead. Be prepared to be referred to as a mate or a bloke, but this is really the same as being called buddy, pal, or dude in the US. When someone of the opposite sex refers to you as darling or love, this isn’t a flirtation or meant as an instance of sexism, but a common cultural practice in the UK. If someone asks to borrow 20 quid, what they really want is £20 (known as 20 pounds, or more officially, 20 pounds sterling). A tenner refers to a £10 note, and you don’t stand in lines in the UK, you get in the queue instead. In some parts of the UK, the accent may be thick enough to make communication close to unintelligible even though everyone is speaking the same language, but for the most part, US travelers can quickly get the gist of what is being said, and the differences in words and phrases can make communication fun.


In addition to English, each country in the UK has its own language or languages. Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Cornish are all spoken throughout various parts of the UK, but in most cases, these languages are in addition to English. Nevertheless, residents of the various countries that comprise the United Kingdom are quite proud of their heritage and might consider themselves a native of the region first and of the UK second. So don’t make the mistake of calling a Scotsman English or a Northern Irish person British. The term Britain actually refers to two specific locales, lesser Britain, which is more commonly known as Brittany, and Great Britain, which refers to the island that contains Wales, England, and Scotland. So, someone from Northern Ireland would understandably object to being called a Britt. What can make it more confusing is that depending on their politics, some Northern Irish would object to being referred to as Irish (without the qualifier) as well or conversely, they prefer not to refer to Northern Ireland directly. Instead, they may refer to the six counties, which are the counties on the Emerald Isle that make up Northern Ireland.


Since the United Kingdom once ruled over a vast and diverse empire, with colonies all over the world, you will find the UK to have large numbers of immigrants who speak their own languages as well, and these can vary from Hindi to Mandarin Chinese to Polish or Arabic. In addition, French and German tend to be taught in public schools so some of the younger generation might have fluency in these. Whatever additional languages you speak, you have a good chance of finding someone in the UK with whom to practice.


Money matters in the United Kingdom


The bad news for budget travelers from the US is that travel in the UK can be quite expensive. While it’s possible to find hostels in London for less than $10 USD per person per night, usually these will have age restrictions and curfews or have additional charges for electricity and the like. While many museums and activities are free, food costs can vary widely and on the low end, you get what you pay for. Budget travelers in the UK should expect to budget for at least $90 USD a day no matter how resourceful you are at finding good bargains. For travelers who prefer more luxurious accommodations, expect to pay $100 USD or more per night for a single room in a modest three star hotel. Unlike many places in Europe where prices go down as you leave the more urban areas, in the UK, prices in rural areas can vary widely and even be more expensive than the equivalent services in big cities such as London.


In the UK, servers are paid a wage and do not usually rely upon tips. In many places, an additional charge can account for a tip, in which case leaving the change from the bill is appropriate. The same can be said for taxi services as well. Occasionally, particularly in more high end restaurants where the server takes your order and brings the food and, eventually, the bill to your table, a tip of at least 10% is appropriate, but this will only be in cases where there is not already a service charge attached to the bill.


Highlights of a vacation in the United Kingdom


Even a large tome that attempts to exhaustively record all the attractions that the United Kingdom has to offer will only catch the tip of the iceberg. As a traveler, you will probably have a unique set of interests that various sites and activities might speak to. For example, a trip to Liverpool would definitely be on the agenda for Beatles fans, just as an exploration of the London club scene or the city of Bristol would be for fans of electronic music. Nevertheless, these are some highlights that have become synonymous with travel in the UK:


  • Try to distract the palace guards at Buckingham Palace. Sometimes the fun of a visit to the seat of the royal family is in watching other tourists’ attempts to distract the palace guards or in watching the changing of the guards, which were probably both inspirations for Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. While Buckingham Palace is worth visiting even if you do not have an opportunity to tour its interior, if you visit during the summer, you can go inside. Other famous sites in London include the Tower of London, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and many more. Don’t forget to ride a double decker bus.
  • Enjoy Shakespeare the way he’s meant to be played. The newly restored Globe Theater allows you to see plays performed much as they were performed in the 16th and 17th Centuries when the Queen and commoners alike would sit together for a performance. This idea of making culture available to everyone still persists today with numerous tickets available for under $12 USD.
  • Ponder the mysteries of Stonehenge. These stone monuments have been in place for around 5000 years and theories abound on how and why they came to be.
  • Search for monsters. Loch Ness in Scotland is a lake that is a mile wide in some places. It’s great to hike around and visit the museums and learn the lore about Nessie, the monster that reputedly resides there. Urquhart Castle is another fine attraction in the area, as well. Another site that was reputedly formed by a monster is the Giant’s Causeway, a beautiful rock formation in Northern Ireland.
  • Wander the gorgeous Gower Peninsula in Wales. Whether you visit King Arthur’s Stone, go surfing, or hike the numerous trails in the area, the natural beauty of this area of Wales will astound you.


With these sites and many more, a trip to the UK, while expensive, is well worth it.