Three is a good UK-based cell carrier. They have fairly good reception within the Greater London area, but what sold me was their generous data packages and their Feel at Home scheme. Essentially, in 18 different countries, data roaming is free. This is a huge leg-up over other carriers, who will charge a lot of money for international roaming. When I went to other countries that aren’t covered at Feel at Home, I purchased a cheap SIM card with 1GB of data for use while I was in the country. Generally, this would cost about $10.
The Three package I used was the Pay As You Go All in One for £20 a month. This gets you 3000 texts, 300 minutes, and 12GB of data (which is way more than enough — you could watch Netflix over data and still be fine with that amount of data).
To get Three, I just went to a Three store when I arrived. They walked me through the whole process and replaced my SIM card for me. It was a very good experience, easy to use.
In order to refill it, all you need to do is go to a big-box store (think Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Boots) and ask for a “Three top-up voucher”. They’ll ask how much you want — tell them £20 (or however much your plan is), and they’ll give you a receipt with a voucher code on it. Go online to the Three website, log in, and put in the voucher code. £20 will be applied to your account, and then you can go and top up your plan. If you don’t want to do this, you can just go to a Three store, and I’d imagine they’ll walk you through the process.
Transport for London (TfL) is the organisation that is responsible for all public transportation services within the Greater London area:
- Underground (the Tube): Similar to New York’s Subway system, just a lot easier to understand. There are 11 Underground lines (Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, and Waterloo & City). The Underground is very comprehensive and quick, and will go most places you want to go.
- Overground: The Overground is an above-ground suburban rail network. There are some places (like Hampstead Heath, or Shoreditch) that are easier to get to with the Overground vs. the Underground. It’s not as fast, and is slightly more confusing — there are no “lines”, but different end terminus for the train. Just ensure you’re going on the train to the right terminus.
- Docklands Light Rail (DLR): The DLR is an above-ground automated metro system near the Docklands area. This allows service to London City Airport, Canary Wharf, the ExCeL Center, and other areas. This operates similarly to the Overground.
- Trams: There are limited street-level trams in South London. I’ve never used these, and I doubt you will either!
- Bus: The Bus system is by far the most comprehensive transport system in London. Most streets have at least a few bus stops going to various areas. Routes are numbered and have two directions (for example, the 24 goes from South End Green to Grosvenor Road). Make sure you check the destination before you step on!
- Santander Cycles (Boris Bikes): This cycle for hire scheme is relatively new, and allows you to rent bikes for use in 30-minute, 1-, or 2-hour increments. They do not take Oyster cards.
- Emirates Air Line (the Dangleway): A cable car over the Thames. It has three stops, and is pretty useless except for views.
- River Services: There are some ferries on the river between the banks.
With the exception of Boris Bikes, all forms of public transportation take Oyster cards (“the world is your oyster”, get it?). An Oyster card is a plastic card that’s the size of a credit card that you use to pay for transport. When you “tap with your Oyster”, you place the card against the yellow, circle-shaped reader, and it’ll register your tap.
When you’re using the Underground or Overground, you use your Oyster to tap in and out (so to get through the turnstiles, you need to use your Oyster). This is because the fare is calculated based on zones (essentially how far you go). You do not need to tap again if you’re changing lines, just when you reach your final destination.
There are a total of nine zones, starting from zone 1 around central London all the way to zone 9 in Chesham. You most likely will never be leaving zones 1 or 2 – after that, it’s mostly suburbia. When you use your Oyster card, you pay based on the amount of zones you traverse in your trip. Usually (but not always) zones 1 and 2 are grouped together, and you start paying more per zone.
For example, an Underground peak trip between King’s Cross St. Pancras station and South Kensington station (both in zone 1) would cost £2.90 with Oyster.
When you’re using buses however, there is just one flat rate — £1.50 per journey. For this reason, you do not need to tap out of the bus: just tap in when you get on the bus and leave when you get to your destination.
National Rail is the association of train companies that run the train system in the UK. There’s a whole list of operators, but all I’ll say here is to use Trainline to purchase tickets, and do so in advance — the tickets get pricey.
Citymapper is a brilliant app for finding your way around cities. They’re based in London, so their knowledge of the city is especially good. It will do things like recommend where to stand the tube to be closest to the exit, or tell you the best route to take when it’s raining, or notify you before you go to school or work what the conditions of the transport system are. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The only potential downfall is that it sucks your phone’s battery dry, so make sure you’re in power-saving mode when you’re using it.
Maps.me is another great app for getting around. It can save maps for offline usage, which is great for when you’re going to a country that you won’t have cell reception in.
I’m just going to assume you’re going to Metrogate from Heathrow
There are a few ways to get into the city from Heathrow, and it’ll depend on how much you want to spend.
- Underground: This is my method of choice. The Picadilly line goes straight from Heathrow to Gloucester Road, and it’ll cost about £4. The only trouble is that you’ll have to stand with your luggage near the door the whole time there (about 40 minutes), and you’ll need to shlep your luggage up the stairs at Gloucester Road, since it’s not step-free.
- Heathrow Connect: There is a special rail service that runs from Heathrow to Paddington Station. From there, take the Circle line (Outer Rail) 6 stops to Gloucester Road station. This costs about £25, but is probably more comfortable.
- Black cab: The easiest and most comfortable option, but it’ll cost about £70(!).