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London Travel Dispatch
Notes on surviving an overstuffed adventure to London from Milwaukee
When the NFL announced that the Green Bay Packers would be part of the 2022 season international series, my resolve solidified to finally visit and tour England this fall. Seeing the game would be a centerpiece of the vacation, with touristy fun and a taste of local fare spread out around the surrounding days. Plus, there was a post-pandemic cathartic element to it: I had a trip to the UK scheduled for spring 2020 that covid so rudely interrupted. It’s been months in the making, a seven-day trip extended to thirteen in order to see more of the country, and with a few days of travel under my belt, here’s some initial observations about the experience to prepare a traveler otherwise anxious about striking out to Britain for the first time.
1. Jet Lag
Even someone flying in First Class on a spacious reclining seat, full and content from a decent-by-airline-food-standard meal, who happens to catch a few hours sleep while flying the six-to-seven hours across the Atlantic, will need some time for both their mind and body to adjust to a new time zone. For the Victims of Coach like me who, to make things more complicated, need a CPAP to combat my sleep apnea, those precious few hours of relatively comfortable sleep aren’t even an option. (And to add one more flog of punishment, for this flight, we were on an older jet brought in at the last minute that had neither Wi-Fi nor charging ports at our seats). Depending on who you ask, even traveling just two time zones will throw the body a bit out of whack, and it’s always more difficult to adjust when traveling East across time zones. A flight that leaves the US mid-afternoon will land early the next morning, virtually eliminating a night of sleep. Despite the inherent fatigue of travel and exhaustion of time zone change, brace for a long day ahead. No need to overload it, but don’t do nothing; getting an early check-in, sealing the curtains shut, and falling asleep will only prolong your suffering.
The goal for the day is to stay awake and somewhat active until would be at best an early bedtime, 8 or 9pm, to get a good night’s sleep. Get some breakfast or an early lunch after you land. Do things you would normally do in the morning — shower, brush teeth, rage-watch MSNBC; all totally normal things well-adjusted people do. Get outside, walk around, get fresh air, get some sunlight, if possible, in a city known for its abundance of fog and cloud-cover. Maybe do an easy activity, like seeing some sights. Your brain won’t have the capacity to process an intensive museum tour, but you don’t want to waste a day either.
Speaking of cloud cover, here’s the approach into London Heathrow. Clouds on clouds for miles and miles. Beautiful, though, even if they precluded getting a good view of the country from the air.
This was the plan, at least, though without the morning Two Minutes Hate on cable news.
Admittedly, I cheated, snagging about 90 minutes of sleep once I was finally, mercifully, able to check-in to my room. Hotels commonly don’t start check-in until mid-day, which causes some logistical sags for flights that get in early morning. Fortunately, this wasn’t a total disaster in the effort to banish jet lag. After getting a hang of the London Underground — or “tube” — and just doing some city exploration, drinking some water, and visiting Kensington Palace, a quick snooze felt like the best plan. I don’t totally regret it, either. I woke up to an alarm to avoid sleeping straight through to midnight, but lazily snoozed that once or twice. Then found dinner, walked a bit more, checked in with some friends and family online, and finally fell asleep a little after 10:00 pm.
I woke in darkness. Surely the sun would he coming up soon. I must have slept for hours, having been awake for a day and a half straight.
No such luck. It was just past 2:00 am. A few hours of annoyed restlessness ensued, until at 5:00 am a local coffee shop opened, where I got my day started. It was a long day, a fun day, a little bit of a bleary-eyed day, but a full one nonetheless. By bedtime on the first full day in England I was ready to sleep, and I did, for a solid 12 hours. By the start of Day Two, my mind and body were nearly caught up.
2. Drink up!
Boozing up your first night only works if you’re under 23 and still have that nuclear metabolism where a bad hangover is one that lasts until 10:00 am and can’t just get sweat out on the elliptical the next morning. No, drinking up in this case means taking painstaking effort to hydrate yourself while traveling. After the back-cramping monotony of spending half a day traveling, you’ll be walking and moving quite a bit. In my case, as someone who likes to explore and see new things on foot, this trip has entailed more than double the steps I would get on even a very good and active day. So you must drink water.
Bring an empty bottle along and fill it and refill it. If not, find a water bottle at a convenience store. There are zillions of these shops in London. But drink a lot of water. It might also help you sleep.
RELATED: Don’t assume you can fill up on water when you go out to eat. A bunch of spots have a jug with cups you can fill. In two cases, restaurants provided me with free water to start the meal, but it’s not the given it is in the U.S. In a few cases, I had to pay for water, which was extravagantly served in a big glass bottle and small glass.
3. Assert Yourself
You don’t want to be the loud, boisterous, mouthy American stereotype Brits loathe for sport, but you can’t be pushed around, either. People keep to themselves, but in London they move quickly. It felt like a tick below jogging speed to keep up with foot traffic on sidewalks. In moshes of people boarding or getting off the tube, if you don’t confidently move in and out of where you want to go, you’ll get left behind. Of course, no need to toss women and children out of your way to do so, but move with purpose and intention. People will respect it.
AND FOR ALL THAT IS HOLY: Never get to the top of some stairs, with a flood of people around you, and decide that’s where you’re going to stop and try to figure out where you are and where you’re going. (This also applies to your day-to-day life at home, Rita, so no more stopping in the middle of the canned goods aisle to review your list when I’m just trying to snag two cans of green beans).
4. The language barrier
Yes, they speak English in England. In London, you’ll do fine, even if some local quirks and slang take a minute to properly catch your ear.
London is impressively diverse linguistically. In terms of chatter in public, about half is English. The rest is a variety of language, representing both visitors and transplants from abroad. Lots of Slavic-sounding folks, German, Arabic, and plenty others a trained ear might be able to distinguish more properly. They’ve brought their culture with them, turning London into a melting pot of sounds and flavors demonstrated by their various shops and stores, all intermingled between the chain-type spots you’d expect. My favorite so far of the more commercial-type spots was this pair, Poundland instead of Dollar Store and, for some reason worth investigating, T.K. Maxx, not T.J.
5. Don’t bother with cash
Unless you can get British Pounds from your bank for no exchange fee, don’t bother. I’m out about $40 in fees for converting a bunch of cash at O’Hare airport, wanting to have it as a backup for the spots that don’t take card. But everyone takes a card, it’s expected. At bars and restaurants, don’t expect to give your server your card with the bill for them to process, either; they’ll bring a little payment terminal to your table where you’re expected to tap-and-go, so be sure your CHIP card is ready and your bank knows to expect foreign transactions.
Planning to insert the card and type in a PIN or get a signature? They’ll accommodate this, but begrudgingly. This whole adventure has finally brought me around to paying with the built-in RFID payment feature on my phone now. It’s fast and handy (but as Dave Ramsey would advise, don’t let the convenience compel you to overspend, either).
And cash? No luck. When my card hasn’t worked, like when I wanted a drink from the refreshments trolley on one of the longer-haul trains, she didn’t even accept cash payment or coins. Overall, it’s more common for a vendor not to take cash than to not take a card.
THAT SAID: If you’re at some pub in the countryside, maybe it’s a different story. But the cities are all heavily digital.
Now, off to Manchester for a few days. Hopefully things aren’t too different and the experience so far lends itself to quickly acclimating to a different city in England.