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Travel Tips For The UK (2024 Guide)

Every country has its quirks, and if you are thinking of visiting the UK and want to know a bit more about us before you arrive, you’ve come to the right place.

As a Brit who has travelled to several different countries, I’m well aware of many of the differences that set us apart, especially after spending 6 months travelling around the US and experiencing first-hand some of the cultural distinctions. 

I’m going to cover both practical tips and cultural differences that will help you plan, pack and enjoy your time in the UK. So settle in with a cup of tea, and check out these travel tips for visiting the UK.

1. UK vs Great Britain vs England

It’s easy to mix up these terms. The full name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – this is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Great Britain refers collectively to England, Wales and Scotland.

Be careful not to say you are visiting England if you are in other parts of the UK. Each constituent part of the UK has its own strong identity, and people from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland won’t appreciate being called English.

This is especially true in Scotland where the issue of independence from the rest of the UK is a controversial topic.

The Republic of Ireland (grey on the map below) is an independent country and not part of the UK.

Map of the UK and Republic of Ireland. England is in red, Scotland in blue, Wales in green, Northern Ireland in yellow and Republic of Ireland is grey

Practical Tips

2. Plugs

The UK has different plugs to the rest of Europe (we are contrary that way). You’ll need a 3-pin plug converter specifically for the UK – not a European one.

Also, be warned that the voltage in the UK might be different to home which could potentially cause problems with electronics you bring from home. The voltage of US plugs is 120v, whereas UK sockets are 240v. 

Finally, most of our plug sockets will have a switch next to them which you need to turn on as well as just plugging into the wall.

3. Currency

A standard entry in any UK travel guide. The currency in the UK is pound sterling (GBP). The word sterling isn’t used by most people day to day –  we just say pounds (and pence for the subunit).

The UK has never used the Euro, and most people frequently pay for things using their bank cards, not in cash. I normally only carry cash if I know I’ll need to leave a cash tip for something. 

Receipt with a selection of British coins and cash notes on top

4. Scottish Money

Scotland produces its own bank notes, but they have the same value as ones produced elsewhere in the UK. It is the same currency – pound sterling, but the physical money may look different.

In general, both types of notes are accepted around the UK, but it is possible to come across places that are hesitant to accept Scottish notes.

This is mostly because they aren’t that common elsewhere in the UK and people are sometimes nervous that they aren’t genuine. 

5. Names For Money

The official name is pound sterling, but we often refer to money in different ways. 

‘Quid’ is another term for pounds, so if someone says ‘that’s ten quid’, they mean £10. I would recommend avoiding using ‘quid’ as a visitor, stick with pounds to avoid sounding like you are trying too hard. 

It’s common to refer to bank notes as fivers, tenners or twenties (we have a £50 note, but it’s not as common). We don’t have specific names for our coins like in the US (nickel, dime etc), they are just ‘p’ or ‘pence’ depending on individual habit. 

6. AMEX

American Express credit cards aren’t accepted in all shops and businesses. This is especially true in smaller shops and petrol stations.

I highly recommend that you have a Visa or MasterCard with you, which will be accepted everywhere that takes card payments. AMEX will be fine in some places, but not everywhere.

7. PIN vs Signing

In the UK you almost always pay using a card by entering your PIN in a machine. You won’t be asked to sign a receipt. In restaurants, the staff will generally bring a portable machine to your table and then politely turn away as you enter the PIN – unlike in the US they will not take your card out of your sight.

Some machines allow you to add a tip before you enter your PIN, others don’t have that capacity. In those circumstances it can be useful to have a bit of cash on you, but if the machine doesn’t let you tip and you don’t have cash, don’t stress. They don’t need the tip to make a living wage. 

8. Tipping

Tipping at restaurants is welcome, but it is at a lower rate than in the US. Typically no more than 10%, and as staff do not rely on tips to make up their basic income it is a welcome bonus rather than necessity. For more information, I’ve written a complete guide to tipping in the UK

Seven Dials Food Market

9. Water

Water in the UK is very clean. It is safe to drink from taps that are connected to mains water. The taste can be strange at first as many regions in the UK have hard water with higher levels of calcium and magnesium that can affect taste, but not safety.

10. Travel Insurance

No matter where you go in the world, I always recommend getting travel insurance. A&E (Accident and Emergency) services are free to everyone, so in an emergency you can call an ambulance and go to hospital, but other healthcare situations may incur charges.

Aside from healthcare costs, travel insurance will also help you if you lose luggage, experience cancelled flights or any other travel mishap.

If you have free travel insurance through your bank or credit card, check the terms and conditions as they often have exclusions that are only in the fine print. 

11. Emergency Numbers

Following on from insurance, make sure you remember the UK’s emergency numbers. In a serious or life-threatening situation dial 999 for police, fire and ambulance services.

If you have a health concern that doesn’t pose an immediate threat, dial 111 to speak to NHS advisors who can direct you to the most appropriate service. 

Ambulances are free. If you need one, dial 999.

12. Pharmacies 

For minor illnesses, a good place to start is a chemist/pharmacy (the terms are used interchangeably). These will generally have a fully qualified pharmacist on site who can advise on treatments for common illnesses, and also dispense emergency contraception.

Many shopping streets will have a pharmacy, typically identifiable by a green cross outside. 

13. Walmart/Costco equivalent

I’ve seen several questions about the closest equivalent to Walmart and Costco. We have a version of Costco but it requires membership so isn’t practical for visitors. 

The closest alternative will be a ‘superstore’ version of one of the major supermarket chains. Many towns and cities will have large Tesco or Sainsburys shops in the suburbs which will see their own clothing ranges, housewares and groceries. 

They aren’t generally as extensive as Walmart, but it’s the closest comparison. 

City centres have small versions of those supermarkets which will sell a small range of daily essentials. 

14. Drinking Age

The UK’s legal age for buying alcohol is 18, which is broadly considered the drinking age. Technically 16 and 17 year olds can consume wine, cider or beer in a pub or restaurant as long as they are with an adult, and the adult is paying for it. 

On a side note, cider in the UK is always alcoholic, unless it is specifically marketed as being alcohol-free (in the same way that some beer brands sell alcohol-free versions of their drinks). 

We don’t distinguish between cider and ‘hard cider’. Cider generally has either the same or a higher percentage of alcohol than beer, so don’t order cider thinking you are limiting your intake. 

Three friends at a rooftop bar in London. One man faces towards the camera and a man and a woman have are facing away. London skyscrapers are visible in the background and a pint of beer is in the foreground.

15. Clock Changes

For half the year we operate in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and in the summer we use British Summer Time (BST). The clocks go forwards on the last Sunday in March and backwards on the last Sunday in October.

If you are visiting during those days, just be aware in case you accidentally arrive too early or late for a flight, train or other booking. 

16. Date Format

The UK uses the date format DD/MM/YY. 

17. Weather

It’s not really a secret that the weather here isn’t great.

We have some glorious sunny days, but unless you are visiting during the brief summer that really only lasts 3 days, you may well get rained on at some point. Dress in layers, and depending on the forecast, buy an umbrella.

18. Air Conditioning

As our summer is so brief, air conditioning is uncommon. Most homes don’t have it, and hotel aircon is rather pathetic and often restricted to a narrow range, unlike the ability to turn your hotel room in Texas into a fridge in the middle of summer. 

19. Pronunciation

Many, many words are pronounced differently to the spelling. This is particularly true of place names. Most towns and cities ending in ‘cister’ or ‘cester’ will be said as if the ‘ci’ isn’t there. Bicester = Biss-ter. Gloucester = gloss-ter. Leicester = less-ter.

Obviously, to keep things confusing there are exceptions – Cirencester is sigh-ren-sess-ter.

The suffix ‘shire’ is pronounced more like ‘sheer’ than ‘shyer’. The famous Worcestershire sauce is pronounced wuss-ter-sheer sauce. 

The River Thames is pronounced ‘tems’, not ‘thaymes’.

Some pronunciations vary according to region, with a very clear North/South divide on how the ‘a’ is said in words like bath, grass and castle. The Southern end tends to be a longer vowel, as if we were saying barth, or carstle. Northern accents generally use a short ‘a’ sound, so bath would roughly rhyme with the American pronunciation of math.

We have many different accents across a relatively small area of land, and some of them are very difficult to understand if you aren’t local. 

We might smile in humour, but won’t be too rude if you get the names wrong, after all the pronunciation makes no sense and the rules apply arbitrarily. 

Leicester – one of many UK locations that have surprising pronunciation.

20. Public Toilets

Public toilets can sometimes be difficult to find. 

If using a toilet in a pub or cafe it is expected that you will buy something – they may specifically have signs that toilets are for customers only. 

Train stations often have toilets that are free to use (until a few years ago you had to pay a small fee to access them), but they aren’t always open. 

Shopping centres and department stores such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencers often have toilets that anyone can use. 

21. Sunday Trading Hours

By law, large shops can only trade for six hours on Sundays, within the range of 10am and 6pm. So if you are heading to bigger shops on a Sunday, check their website. The hours could be 10am-4pm, 11am-5pm or 12pm-6pm. 

Smaller grocery stores can open for longer hours so you won’t be completely without options, but it is a quirk of British retail practices that is useful to know about.

22. No Guns and Weapons.

The UK has very strict gun and weapon laws. It seems obvious that you can’t randomly bring guns into the UK, but perhaps less obvious is that other ‘offensive weapons’ are also banned. 

You aren’t allowed to buy or carry pepper-spray. Knives are also heavily restricted – some are outright illegal as their primary purpose would be to inflict harm. 

You have to have a ‘good reason’, which isn’t very well defined, to carry any sort of knife with you. Self-defence is not considered a good reason to carry a weapon.

A kitchen knife still in packaging that you have just bought and are taking home is fine. 

A small folding pocketknife that you are taking on a camping trip is also probably fine, as long as it isn’t a lock knife that requires you to press a button or spring to close it. 

Carrying a knife or other weapon for self-defence is not legal and can get you in serious legal trouble. 

Generally, don’t carry defensive or offensive weapons or products. The UK is a very safe country for visitors, so you would be more likely to get in trouble for carrying the thing than ever need to use the thing. 

Cultural Tips

23. Queuing

Don’t try to jump queues. You’ll get dirty looks and lots of grumbling. 

24. Stand On The Right

On escalators, standard practice is to stand on the right and walk on the left. Don’t block both sides if there are two of you, and make sure you immediately move away from the escalator at either end. 

In busy places such as London Tube stations, blocking people’s exit from the escalator is dangerous as they’ll keep piling up behind you with nowhere to go.

25. Volume

Keep your voice down in public places. You don’t need to whisper, but try not to impose on other people’s conversations by making it hard for them to hear over the volume of your own conversation. 

26. Football Matches

If you want to experience a typical sports even in the UK, a football match is a popular option. 

However, UK football matches are notorious for the poor behaviour of the spectators. Some stadiums have family areas designed to ensure that children can enjoy the game without being surrounded by inappropriate language, but it’s not a foolproof system. 

Football stadiums seem to bring out the worst in people, and unfortunately swearing, homophobic and racist language is not uncommon, even in front of children.

A pub setting may well be a more enjoyable atmosphere for watching a game. 

27. Politeness

Please and thank you will take you a long way, especially in customer service settings. The customer isn’t always right, and being rude to staff won’t do you any favours. 

If things are going wrong, try to stay calm. People are far more likely to help if you are polite to them when raising a complaint or issue. 

28. Talking To Strangers

Brits are typically reserved in public, and won’t routinely strike up conversations with strangers in public. 

This is especially true in public transport situations. 

Chatting to the person next to you on the London Tube is likely to cause surprise and confusion! It doesn’t mean we are unfriendly, just not used to talking to strangers during brief and random encounters. 

The tube is a great way to get around the city and is also very safe.

29. Jaywalking Isn’t A Crime

Unlike the US, pedestrians can cross the road wherever they choose, with a few exceptions (i.e. don’t try to cross a motorway on foot!). 

It’s not always the best idea, but you won’t get into trouble. Just be sensible about making sure you aren’t forcing vehicles to come to a sudden stop to avoid you, and if there is a dedicated pedestrian cross close by, use it. 

M1 Motorway – not for pedestrians!

30. The UK Is Much More Than London

The UK might not be a big island, but it is a varied one. Try to venture beyond London, as it isn’t a good representation of the wider UK. Visiting London bears very little resemblance to spending a few days in the Scottish Highlands. 

View from the shore at Applecross, in the Scottish Highlands

31. Landmark Buildings

Many of our famous landmarks and buildings are famous because they are old. And that inevitably comes with restoration and conservation works.

You’ll likely come across buildings that are open to visit but may not be picture-perfect on the outside if they are covered in scaffolding while the roof is being repaired.

Try not to be disappointed – it’s just a part of ensuring that these buildings that have been in place for hundreds of years are still standing in another 200 years. 

Wollaton Hall in Nottingham dates back to the 1580s!

Travel Tips

32. Airports

Most international visitors will arrive in the UK in London. Some international flights arrive in cities such as Manchester, but London is the main hub. 

London has 5 airports – London City Airport, Heathrow, Luton, Stansted and Gatwick. Ok, officially there are 6 London airports but I refuse on principle to accept that Southend counts. No sensible person is going to fly to London via Southend airport.

The point is this, there are several airports and the process of getting to and from the airport varies significantly depending on which airport you are arriving at. 

It’ll probably be Heathrow or Stansted, but if you ask someone how to get to the airport, you have to specify which one. 

It can take hours to travel between them and you don’t want to miss your flight home because you didn’t notice that your ticket has you arriving in Heathrow but flying out of Gatwick. 

33. Visas

The rules vary according to your nationality and reason for travel, so always check the UK government’s website to see if you need a visa, and if so what kind.

34. Trains vs Domestic Flights

Although there are some domestic flights, they aren’t a common way of getting around the country. It’s only really worth considering if you are travelling from London to a Scottish city.

For most journeys, train travel is the most efficient option. 

35. Eurostar

You can get to mainland Europe in just a few hours on the Eurostar train. If your trip includes a visit to Paris, Lille or Brussels, it’s worth considering taking the Eurostar rather than flying. 

36. Book Trains in Advance

Trains are an efficient way to get around the UK. All cities and major towns will be connected to the rail network, but it is much cheaper to book in advance. 

The best savings come by treating it as you would a flight – book in advance a specific train time on a specific day. You can buy open tickets on the day but they are much more expensive and only a good idea if you aren’t able to stick to a particular pre-booked itinerary. 

King’s Cross St Pancras – one of the UK’s busiest train stations

37. Oyster/Contactless Outside London

The Oyster card system allows for tapping in and out on the Transport for London (TfL) network – the Tube, buses, DLR and London Overground trains. 

Using an actual Oyster card isn’t necessary anymore (although it can be a nice souvenir), instead you can just use a contactless bank card. Just make sure you use the same bank card to tap at the entrance and exit. I have a complete guide to getting around London for more details. 

The Oyster and TfL network is specific to London. Other parts of the UK have different systems which often vary according to the local council. 

For train journeys between cities on the National Rail network, you will need a ticket to scan at the barriers (which can be an electronic ticket that you’ve bought online). 

For local buses and trains, it will vary from place to place. Some require a physical ticket, some allow tapping a card in and out. It’s worth looking up the local transport system for the area you are visiting to find out what their ticketing system is.  

38. Flag Down Buses

If you aren’t used to a city with buses – most don’t automatically stop for you to get on. Bus stops typically serve multiple routes, so bus drivers will assume you are waiting for a different bus unless you signal them to stop.

Once the bus is close enough for the driver to see you standing at the bus stop, stand next to the road and stick your hand out and hold it there until the bus indicates and slows down.

Just don’t leave it too late – make sure you do it early enough for the driver to come to a reasonable halt without having to brake very hard. 

A double decker red London bus, with Tower Bridge in the background.

39. Walking Around Cities

Exploring new places on foot in the UK is generally easier than in the US – we don’t have towns built with major roads running through that pedestrians can’t cross. Most cities and towns in the UK have a central area with shops, museums and businesses that are easy to walk to. 

Several major cities even have Park and Ride schemes to encourage visitors to avoid driving in the city centre. You leave your car in a designated and relatively cheap car park outside the city and then a dedicated bus route will shuttle you into the city centre. 

London is too big for Park and Ride to work but is still better explored on foot and public transport than with a car. 

The Shambles in York – a city best explored on foot.

40. Crossing Roads

On the topic of walking around cities, remember to check both ways when crossing. Cars drive on the left side of the road so may come from the opposite direction than you would normally expect at home. 

However many older towns and cities also have one-way roads as the streets are too narrow for both directions. 

You can’t just rely on looking to your right to see oncoming cars. It might be a one-way road going the other way. 

In addition, cycling is a popular way to get around urban areas. Bikes aren’t always where you expect them to be and you won’t hear them coming. 

Always look both ways.

41. Manual Cars Are Standard

As hybrids and electric cars become more popular, there are increasing numbers of automatic cars on the road. However, the majority are still manual (stick-shift). 

If you are hiring a car and are used to driving an automatic, be careful to specify that type of transmission when booking. 

You don’t want to get stuck trying to get up a steep road in the Peak District national park in a manual car that you aren’t used to. 

42. Drive On The Left

In the UK we drive on the left side of the road. 

I spent 6 months driving around the US so I know that the mental switch happens relatively easily and quickly, but it is still an adjustment. 

This is another reason why hiring an automatic is helpful – you don’t want to concentrate on driving on the correct side of the road and mindlessly reach towards the door handle instead of the gearstick.

43. Narrow Roads

Don’t hire the biggest car you can, you’ll regret it on the narrow country roads when you have to reverse back around hedges and stone walls to allow for an oncoming lorry. 

Our cars, roads and parking spaces may all be smaller than you are used to. 

Bealach na Bà Road in Scotland – narrow, high up and twisting, not one you want to reverse on!

44. Petrol and Diesel Are Opposite Colours To The US

Pay attention to the writing on the pumps – you don’t want to get this one wrong.

In the UK, petrol (gas) pumps are green, and diesel pumps are black. If you are visiting from the USA, this will be the opposite of what you are used to. It’s an easy but expensive error to make!

Final Thoughts

So, that was a fairly extensive list, but it contained all the travel advice for the UK that you need.

Next up, check out some fun facts about the UK. If you want to know more about London then take a look at why I think it’s a city worth visiting

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