Having family in England, I try to go there each year to visit. This is how I plan my trip.
When I have picked my travel dates, I visit various on-line travel sites, such as Expedia, Kayak, etc., to find the best deals on flights. However, it is also a good idea to double check the prices against the individual airline web sites, such as American, Virgin and British Airways, because sometimes you can get a better deal if you go to them directly.
By the way you will need a current passport! So make sure you get one in plenty of time before your trip (or renew if it is expiring soon) US citizens do not need a special visa for vacations or business trips in the UK if the visit is for less than six months, (although I heard that the Brits are considering changing this time frame to three months some time in the future.)http://www.travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html
Step 1: Flying Away!
If you fly from JFK in New York, to London's Heathrow airport, there are plenty of air carriers to choose from. I like to fly direct, as changing planes and hanging around airports is no joke. Incidentally non-stop flights are usually cheaper any way.
Step 2: Hotels, Relatives and Jelly Beans...
Once I have my flight booked, I will go on line to make hotel reservations if I need any. Of course if you are like me and have relatives and friends over there, you will be able to stay with them some of the time, thus saving a lot of money in hotels and meals! The trick however, is not to overstay your welcome with your friends, usually 3 days is long enough, both for me and for them. It is also nice to take over a few inexpensive presents to thank them for their hospitality! Jelly beans and other typically American candies are always a favourite and donât take up much room in the suitcase. You can always treat your friends and relatives to a nice dinner during your visit as a mark of appreciation.
Step 3: Inform the Relatives!
With the flight and hotels booked, and the adoring relatives looking forward to my visit, I then think of how I am going to get around during my stay in the most economical way
Step 4: Travelling Around in England Via British Rail
As I refuse to drive in England with all the narrow winding roads and extremely fast motorways, I never rent a car (the steering wheel's on the wrong side for a start)but make use of the fairly efficient train services that spider out from central London everywhere you might want to go (unless of course some of them are on strike!) However, train travel is not cheap, but by visiting the Brit Rail website I buy a special travel pass, which lets me make x number of journeys in x number of days. http://www.acprailnet.com/britrailbook?returnurl=http://www.acprail.com&countrycode=US&languagecode=EN&countrykey=ACP09872
There are a choice of passes depending on how long you are traveling around. These travel passes can only be purchased outside of the U.K. so have to be got ahead of time. They are valid for three months, and if by chance you don't use them you can get your money back, less a small fee. If you are going further into Europe, you can also buy travel passes for travel there also.
Step 5: Explore the Mysteries of the London Underground
The Underground or tube is a wonderful way of getting around London. However if you are travelling with a suitcase to or from the airport, it's not so easy. Many stations have long and short flights of stairs up and down all over the place and no elevators (lifts). However,it is possible by visiting the London Underground web site, to find out which stations have lifts (elevators, This will make your life much easier. Big suitcases on the "moving staircases", (escalators) are a real hazard both to you and others! I lost hold of a suitcase last year and almost demolished a row of fellow travellers below!
You can also get special passes to the London underground (the tube)http://www.londontravelpass.com/prices.asp?gclid=CLTjqOCp45MCFRUasgodvwUKZg
A map of the underground will come in handy.
By the way, the Underground has some very interesting posters on the walls, although sometimes it's difficult to know what they are advertising!
Step 6: Bus Travel Is Good Too!
There are plenty of buses in London, they travel in convoys! If you sit down the front on the top deck you will have a great view and be protected from wind and rain too! However,they have now done away with many of the famous double deckers on many routes in London and replaced them with strange looking single decked bendy buses which are not to my taste at all!
Don't forget the traffic moves on the left side of the road! Be careful crossing the roads.
Step 7: When in Doubt Take a Taxi
The familiar black London taxi cabs are everywhere, and if you get lost you can always depend on the taxi driver to get you where you want to go. Each taxi driver goes through extensive training. When I was a child I remember seeing groups of them going around on motor scooters learning where everything was.
Step 9: The Terrific Thames!
No trip to London would be complete without taking a boat ride along the River Thames. You get a completely different "feel" of London from its famous river.
There are many different tours offered with starting points on the north side of the river, including those at the Tower of London; at a place close to Westminster Bridge and on the Embankment at Charing Cross. Each boat usually has a guide who points out the sights on the river bank as you float by and some of these guides are real "characters" and can be very entertaining. It is customary to tip these "characters" at journey's end. You can take short trips between the Tower and either Charing Cross or Westminster or longer ones further upstream to visit Greenwich the home of the prime meridien and the famous Naval College. Try to pick a fine day for your trip as you will get so much more enjoyment if the sun is shining. It's miserable in the pouring rain.
A river trip at night is even more special, with all the buildings and bridges illuminated for your viewing pleasure.
Don't have time for a boat road, not to worry, a simple walk along the Embankment between Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster Bridge can be rewarding too.
Step 10: Take in a West End Show
I usually like to take in at least one theatre visit during my stay and the best and cheapest way is to book the ticket on line through a web site called London Town. I choose my show, the date and time and then buy the cheapest ticket offered. I have found that on the night of the performance it is always possible to move down from the cheap seat into a more expensive one, in fact the theatre staff encourage you to do so. The shows I have seen have not been the latest shows but ones that have been running for a while. It is harder to get tickets for the newest shows. However, I have paid far less for my tickets in London than I have paid for ones on New York' Broadway, in spite of the poor dollar exchange ratehttp://www.londontown.com/
Step 11: The London Walks - I Thoroughly Recommend Them
If you have time, go on at least one of the London Walks. There are plenty to choose from and I am sure you will find one that suits your taste. I have been on the Jack the Ripper Walk, the Christopher Wren churches walk, and a great pub walk. These walks take place daily, come rain and shine and are very inexpensive. The leaders of the walk are usually actors in real life and very very good. Although I consider myself a "Londoner", I have learnt so many new and interesting things that I wouldn't have believed possible on a "walk".
A new walk adding recently is called the Da Vinci Code walk, and this is one I plan to take on my next visit at the end of this year.http://www.walks.com
Step 12: Traveling Light and Make Room for Souvenirs.
When traveling, it is always important to travel light. As I usually travel in the fall or early winter I need warmish clothes. Therefore, I travel in a skirt, blouse, sweater and have a warm winter coat, hat scarf and gloves as well as the usual underwear. One suitcase (one of those on wheels that turn every which way)and one carry on bag is enough. In my suitcase, along with toiletries, I will pack underwear, another skirt and 4 or 5 blouses, plus an extra pair of shoes. As the dollar is very weak against the pound, it is better to take your own shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc. with you, so you don't have to buy them over there, thus wasting your spending money when you can be buying lots of really "useful" souvenirs. Best places to find the cheapest "flag-infested" items are around Trafalgar Square and along Oxford Street.
Of course, camera is essential as there are wonderful photo opportunities.
Step 13: No Needles or Pins Allowed!
Remember when you are traveling by air, any cosmetics, or liquids in your hand luggage have to be placed in a clear plastic bag so that airport security can check the contents. Also scissors, sharp knitting needles, pins, knives, cigarette lighters, etc. are a definite no-no for carrying on, These can be placed in the suitcase destined for the hold of the aircraft, except the cigarette lighter, which you may not take at all. Cigarette lighters are a low grade fire hazard. Last time at Heathrow airport airline personnel were handing out these plastic bags if you didn't have one.
The TSA provides a complete list of things you cannot take with you and you can check this out on their website quite easily.http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm#1
Step 14: Have a Great Trip !
Finally do not make silly jokes about having bombs in your luggage etc. to airport staff. They will not see the funny side of this, and you could end up being arrested! (true) In spite of this warning, enjoy your trip and have a great time. If you are over 18, don't forget to drink my health in one of the many wonderful London pubs!
Step 15: Of Course, When You Have Been Away...........
It's always nice to come home. Welcome back!