My brother and his family are arriving from Texas, which has got me thinking about all the helpful advice I like to dole out to Americans who visit — tips that go beyond “don’t do the Dick Van Dyke accent from Mary Poppins”. I also enlisted a couple of knowlegable and qualified friends on their sage advice drawing.
Here are the things every Yank should know before visiting the UK. And oh yeah, don’t do that Dick Van Dyke accent from Mary Poppins.
- Nevermind the season: Bring a warm jumper and a scarf. The chill in the UK comes rain or shine and gets into your bones. This is especially true if you’re staying in an historic listed hotel or B&B, through which cool breezes frequently stroll.
- You will need an umbrella or chic rain slicker all year round. You can leave one neighborhood with blue sky, take a 20-minute tube ride and come up into a storm of lowered gray clouds and cold rain. Rainy London is a fact.
- Prepare yourself for culture shock. When I first visited, I expected the common language and the Anglo culture meant that the UK was America, with better accents. Rookie mistake. Respect that this is a foreign country, with its own mores and practices.
- Go to a pub. Visiting the pub is one of the delights of British culture. These aren’t the British themed pubs in America, with flags everywhere and sports TV. These are places to actually relax, chat, maybe play a board game or cards. A delight.
- Bring deep pockets, literally. Pound coins are marvellous compared with those old paper dollar bills — so convenient and compact. But collect too many of them and they can clank in your pockets like
- Come with some small change (30p per visit) for loos in train stations. They’re clean, they’re convenient, but they do cost.
Tips from Expat Mum Toni Hargis, a British expat living in Chicago
- A lot of the UK isn’t air-conditioned and it can get hot (occasionally) in the summer. There’s really not a lot to be done about it, and moaning doesn’t help.
- Don’t omit the word “please”. It’s a cultural thing but Brits expect to hear a “Please” either at the beginning or the end of a request.
- The service is much slower than in the US. As with the lack of air conditioning, you’ll just have to deal with it. Moaning or complaining makes you that stereotypical American tourist.
- When planning a route, don’t just put a ruler on a map or count the miles and divide by 60/70 (mph). Many roads between major cities are not straight and are not all are freeways. Take the M roads where you can as these usually have more lanes; some A roads can be just a big but some (such as the A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh) actually go down to a single lane highway and you regularly get stuck behind a big piece of farm machinery. Avoid B roads unless they’re at the beginning or end of your journey and are a way to and from M and A roads. If you can ask a local about the best way to get from A to B, that’s your best bet.
- There are speed cameras all over the UK. Although there should be a sign warning you of an upcoming camera, they can still catch you unawares. Just because you’re not a resident doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay the fine. If you’re renting a car, you will probably be presented with the fine as part of your bill when you return the car. If you’re borrowing someone’s car, speeding will add points to their licence and it’ll be quite a hassle for them to prove they weren’t the culprit.
- If you’re traveling on your parents’ dime, don’t expect to be able to use their credit card. Cards are checked much more thoroughly than in the States and if it isn’t your signature on the back of the card, expect it to be declined at the checkout.
- The price you see is that price you pay in stores. While there is a hefty sales tax, it’s already included in the price tag. You can claim this VAT (sales tax) back on goods purchased and being taken out of the country. Ask the merchant or research this before your trip, to make sure you’re eligible.
- If you’re traveling around the country and staying in small hotels and bed & breakfasts, be aware they may not all have elevators. That means finding yourself lugging suitcases up to the third floor and beyond. If this is a problem for you, check before booking.
- If you ask for tea, it’ll be hot. If you want iced tea, you need to specify and then pray they have it.
- The drinking age is 18. In some cases minors may have a drink, with parental consent and with a meal. Ask the waiter. More and more dining establishments are carding youngsters so make sure they have photo ID.
Parting advice from England-based US expat The American Resident
And finally, this piece of advice from American Resident. Let go of your American nationalism and get used to the British way of talking politics.
“One thing I encountered in the past few years was an American who kept getting offended by what he saw was attacks on America and Americans. He couldn’t see that the British discuss every country or politician with the same rigorous approach, and I had to point out a lot of examples to him before he finally realised that we’re all still friends.”