London - Fast Facts
Area Codes -- The country telephone code for Great Britain is 44. The area code for London is 020. The full telephone number is then usually 8-digits long. As a general rule, businesses and homes in central London have numbers beginning with a 7; those from further out begin with an 8.
Business Hours -- With many exceptions, business hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. In general, retail stores are open Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm, Sunday 11am to 5pm (sometimes noon to 6pm). Thursday is usually late-night opening for central London's retailers; until 8pm or later isn't unusual.
Doctors -- If you need a non-emergency doctor, your hotel can recommend one, or you can contact your embassy or consulate. Failing that, try the G.P. (General Practitioner) finder at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk. North American members of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT; tel. 716/754-4883, or 416/652-0137 in Canada; www.iamat.org) can consult that organization for lists of local approved doctors. Note: U.S. and Canadian visitors who become ill while they're in London are eligible only for free emergency care. For other treatment, including follow-up care, you'll be asked to pay.
In any medical emergency, call tel. 999, or 112 immediately.
Drinking Laws -- The legal age for the purchase of alcohol is 18. Over-16s may have a glass of beer, wine, or cider with a meal in a pub or restaurant, if it is bought for them by a responsible adult. Children younger than 16 are allowed in pubs only if accompanied by a parent or guardian, but may not drink alcohol. Don't drink and drive: Penalties are stiff, not to mention the danger in which you're placing yourself and other road users. Drinking of alcohol on London's public transport network is forbidden, and on-the-spot fines have been issued to transgressors.
Electricity -- British mains electricity operates at 240 volts AC (50 cycles), and most overseas plugs don't fit Britain's unique three-pronged wall outlets. Always bring suitable transformers and/or adapters such as world multiplugs -- if you plug some American appliances directly into a European electrical outlet without a transformer, for example, you'll destroy your appliance and possibly start a fire. Portable electronic devices such as iPods and mobile phones, however, recharge without problems via USB or using a multiplug.
Embassies & Consulates -- The U.S. Embassy is at 24 Grosvenor Sq., London W1A 1AE (tel. 020/7499-9000; www.usembassy.org.uk; Tube: Bond St.). Standard hours are Monday to Friday 8am to 5:30pm. However, for passport and visa services relating to U.S. citizens, contact the Passport and Citizenship Unit, 55-56 Upper Brook St., London W1A 2LQ (same phone number as above). Most non-emergency enquiries require an appointment.
The High Commission of Canada, Canada House, 1 Trafalgar Sq., London SW1Y 5BJ (tel. 020/7258-6600; www.canadainternational.gc.ca/united_kingdom-royaume_uni/index.aspx; Tube: Charing Cross), handles passport and consular services for Canadians. Hours are Monday to Friday 9:30am to 1pm.
The Australian High Commission is at Australia House, Strand, London WC2B 4LA (tel. 020/7379-4334; www.australia.org.uk; Tube: Charing Cross, Covent Garden, or Temple). Hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.
The New Zealand High Commission is at New Zealand House, 80 Haymarket (at Pall Mall), London SW1Y 4TQ (tel. 020/7930-8422; www.nzembassy.com/uk; Tube: Charing Cross or Piccadilly Circus). Hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.
The Irish Embassy is at 17 Grosvenor Place, London SW1X 7HR (tel. 020/7235-2171; www.embassyofireland.co.uk; Tube: Hyde Park Corner). Hours are Monday to Friday 9:30am to 5pm.
Emergencies -- Dial tel. 999 for police, fire, or ambulance. Give your name and state the nature of the emergency. Dialing tel. 112 also connects you to the local emergency services anywhere in the E.U.
Hospitals -- There are 24-hour, walk-in Accident & Emergency departments at the following central hospitals: University College London Hospital, 235 Euston Rd., London NW1 2BU (tel. 020/3456-7890; www.uclh.nhs.uk; Tube: Warren St.); St. Thomas' Hospital, Westminster Bridge Rd. (entrance on Lambeth Palace Rd.), London SE1 7EH (tel. 020/7188-7188; www.guysandstthomas.nhs.uk; Tube: Westminster or Waterloo). The NHS Choices website (www.nhs.uk) has a search facility that enables you to locate your nearest Accident & Emergency department wherever you are in the U.K. In a medical emergency, you should dial tel. 999. Note that emergency care is free for all visitors, irrespective of country of origin.
Insurance -- U.K. nationals receive free medical treatment countrywide, but visitors from overseas only qualify automatically for free emergency care. U.S. visitors should note that most domestic health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home. Try MEDEX (tel. 410/453-6300; www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828; www.travelassistance.com) for overseas medical insurance cover. Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada(tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated overseas. E.U. nationals (and nationals of E.E.A. countries and Switzerland) should note that reciprocal health agreements are in place to ensure they receive free medical care while in the U.K. However, it is essential that visitors from those countries carry a valid European Health Identity Card (EHIC). There are current bilateral agreements in place offering free healthcare to nationals of New Zealand and Australia. However, you should always double-check the latest situation before leaving home, with domestic health authorities or online at www.dh.gov.uk/en/Healthcare/Entitlementsandcharges/OverseasVisitors.
For general travel insurance, it's wise to consult one of the price comparison websites before making a purchase. U.S. visitors can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com (tel. 800/487-4722). Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information, for prices from several providers. For U.K. travelers, Moneysupermarket.com compares prices and coverage across a bewildering range of single- and multi-trip options. For all visitors, it's also worth considering trip-cancellation insurance, which will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and travel advisories.
Legal Aid -- If you're visiting from overseas and find yourself in legal trouble, contact your consulate or embassy. They can advise you of your rights and will usually provide a list of local attorneys (for which you'll have to pay if services are used), but they cannot interfere on your behalf in the English legal process. For questions about American citizens who are arrested abroad, including ways of getting money to them, telephone the Citizens Emergency Center of the Office of Special Consulate Services in Washington, D.C. (tel. 202/647-5225).
If you're in some sort of substance abuse emergency, call Release (tel. 0845/4500-215; www.release.org.uk); the advice line is open Monday to Friday 11am to 1pm and 2 to 4pm. The Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre (tel. 0808/802-9999; www.rapecrisis.org.uk) is open daily noon to 2:30pm and 7 to 9:30pm.
Mail -- An airmail letter to anywhere outside Europe costs 67p for up to 10g (1/3 oz.) and generally takes 5 to 7 working days to arrive; postcards also require a 67p stamp. Within the E.U., letters or postcards under 20g (2/3 oz.) cost 60p. Within the U.K, First Class mail ought to arrive the following working day; Second Class mail takes around 3 days to arrive.
Newspapers & Magazines -- Londoners love to consume news, and the city's "local" daily newspapers are both now free. Metro appears first-thing in the morning (weekdays only), and is distributed at Tube and train stations across the capital. The Evening Standard, long considered a quasi-national paper thanks to its berth close to the heart of government, is also now free, and appears on the streets in constantly updated editions from lunchtime onward, 5 days a week.
London is also the home of Britain's national papers (and most of their journalists), and all the quality press covers London news and events well. The Times and Daily Telegraph generally lean to the right of the political spectrum; the Guardian and Independent are to the left. All also issue Sunday editions: The Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Observer, and Independent on Sunday, respectively. You'll find newspapers and magazines in newsagents, supermarkets, petrol stations, and street kiosks across the city. Most sizable central London newsagents also carry papers and publications from across the globe.
For coverage of what's on, Time Out is the capital's undoubted favorite weekly listings magazine. Alternatively, turn to the Web for more offbeat events and news. The best of the sites is Londonist (www.londonist.com).
Packing -- British weather is notoriously fickle, and so although it rains in London much less than in the rest of the British Isles -- and nowhere close to the levels Britain's almost mythical reputation would have you believe -- only the foolhardy traveler heads to the U.K. without some rainwear, even in high summer. On the plus side, winter temperatures rarely stay below freezing for long, and summers can be intermittently muggy but nothing like as hot and humid as southern Europe or the U.S.
Whether you need to find room in your suitcase for formal eveningwear very much depends on where you plan to stay and (especially) dine. Traditional, upscale West End restaurants still largely expect you to arrive in a collared shirt, non-denim trousers, and "proper" shoes -- and the equivalent attire for women -- but any eatery with a contemporary edge, and any eatery period in the funkier East of the city, will welcome you as you are, even if that means jeans and sneakers.
Police -- London has two official police forces: The City of London police (www.cityoflondon.police.uk) whose remit covers the "Square Mile" and its 8,600 residents; and the Metropolitan Police ("the Met"), which covers the rest of the capital and is split into separate borough commands for operational purposes. Non-emergency contact numbers and opening hours for all the Met's local police stations are listed at www.met.police.uk/local. Losses, thefts, and other criminal matters should be reported at the nearest police station immediately. You will be given a crime number, which your travel insurer will request if you make a claim against any losses. Dial tel. 999 or 112 if the matter is serious.
Smoking -- On July 1, 2007, smoking was banned in all indoor public places, such as pubs, restaurants, and clubs, across England and Wales. The regulations are almost universally observed and strictly enforced. If you wish to smoke, you will usually find temporary companions huddled close to the entrance door. Some pubs lay on a designated outdoor smoking area, and smoking is allowed in beer gardens and on outdoor terraces in bars.
Taxes -- All prices in the U.K. must be quoted inclusive of any taxes. Since January 1, 2011, the national value-added tax (VAT) has stood at 20%. This is included in all hotel and restaurant bills, and in the price of most items you purchase.
If you're permanently resident outside the E.U., VAT on goods can be refunded if you shop at stores that participate in the Retail Export Scheme -- look for the window sticker or ask the staff. Information about the scheme is also posted online at www.hmrc.gov.uk/vat/sectors/consumers/overseas-visitors.htm.
Time -- Britain follows Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) between late October and late March. Daylight-saving British Summer Time (BST), one hour ahead of GMT, is in operation for the rest of the year. London is generally 5 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time (EST), although because of different daylight saving time practices in the two nations, there may be a brief period (about a week) in spring when Britain is only 4 hours ahead of New York or Toronto, and a brief period in the fall when it's 6 hours ahead. Sydney is 10 or 11 hours ahead of UK time; Auckland 12 or 13 hours ahead.
Tipping -- Whether, and how much to tip in London is not without controversy. Visitors from the U.S. in particular, tend to be more generous than locals -- and indeed, some Londoners resent a heavy tipping culture being "imported."
Tipping in restaurants is standard practice, as long as no automatic service charge is added to your bill. Leave 10% to 15% if you're happy with your server. However, be aware that a small number of places do not distribute these tips to staff as perks, but use them to pay their wages. This practice is only possible if you pay by credit or debit card, and unfortunately is perfectly legal. Ask who gets the tip, and if you're unhappy about paying the management's wage bill, have any automatic service charge removed and leave cash for your waiter or waitress to pick up. Earnings usually go into a communal pot to be split between everyone from the kitchen porter to the sommelier, so no need to leave more than one tip per meal.
There's absolutely no need to tip black taxicab drivers. They charge you extra for each item of luggage, and for standing in traffic -- and earn more than most Londoners. However, if the driver is especially helpful, add a pound or so to say thanks. Minicab drivers, on the other hand, generally earn less, and are always grateful if you're able to top-up their rates with a couple of extra pounds, provided you're happy with the service.
Tipping in bars and pubs is practically unheard of, but if you receive table service in an upscale Mayfair nightclub or wine bar, leave a couple of pounds on the change tray.
In upscale hotels, porters expect around £1 per bag, even if you have only one small suitcase. Leave your maid £1 per day if you're happy with the cleaning, but only tip the concierge if they have performed something beyond the call of their regular work. In a bed-and-breakfast, you may ask that 10% be added to the bill and divided among the staff -- but that certainly isn't expected.
Some barbers and hairdressers expect 10% for a good job, but again you're not obliged. Tour guides may expect £2 for a job well done, although it's not mandatory. Theatre ushers don't expect tips.
Toilets -- Also known as "loos" or "public conveniences," these are marked by PUBLIC TOILET signs in streets, parks, and Tube stations; many are automatically sterilized after each use. You can also find well-maintained lavatories in all larger public buildings, such as museums and art galleries, large department stores, and railway stations. It's not always acceptable to use the lavatories in hotels, restaurants, and pubs if you're not a customer, but we can't say that we always stick to this rule. Public lavatories are usually free, but you may need a small coin to get in or to use a proper washroom. Those at major train stations cost 30p (correct change required).