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London travel tips

Posted on: January 28, 2015

This part of my reflection on my visit to London for Bett focuses on travel tips.

Mobile power
As with any trip, I brought a power pack for my iPhone. The iPhone was a thirsty beast when I was getting directions, taking photos, and surfing for information, so it helped to have a portable oasis.

Local prepaid SIM
Before leaving for London, I asked around and did my research online for a suitable prepaid SIM. This wiki was a good start, but its information might not be current.

I settled on Three’s PAYG All In One 15. It might cost GBP15 if you live in the UK and can get a free SIM, but it will cost you GBP20 if you buy it over the counter or from a vending machine like the one below.

The SIMs from the vending machine come in a three-in-one pack (normal, mini, nano sizes). The SIM is set to go; there is no need to activate them by calling a number, scratching top up cards, or typing in codes. Take out your old SIM, put the new one in, restart your phone, and start surfing/using your new number.

This prepaid plan gave me 3000 SMS, 300 minutes of calls, and unlimited data over a month. You cannot tether the phone and thus share your Internet connection. However, you can if you have a jailbroken phone like mine.

The 3G and 4G signal was relatively poor in East London where I stayed and also where the ExCeL Centre was located. I would often get only a 3G, one dot/bar signal. This was often not enough bandwidth to tether. Fortunately, there were lots of free wifi spots at the Centre, museums, libraries, etc.

Finding your way around
Google Maps might be your best friend. It was mine.

The Travel for London (TfL) site’s journey planner is mobile-friendly and fast, but I got more mileage out of Google Maps. It not only provided different options, travel times, and congestion warnings, it also provided greater details like walking directions and which exits to head for.

There is no 3G/4G service underground, so it is important to cache information beforehand. The eastern train lines are over ground so that might buy you some surfing time.

The Tube map and signs underground might look confusing. But they are clear when you realize that you must have TWO pieces of information: Your destination and the terminating point of your train (this also applies to the bus services).

If you are taking a more than 30-minute train journey, it is rare that you stay on one train. You train hop to get from one point to another. When underground, you might lose your sense of direction especially when moving from one platform to another. Often one platform might serve trains going to two or three end points. Make sure you get on a train whose terminating point allows you to travel to your destination.

I opted to go for an Airbnb place because hotels around the conference centre were expensive and filled up quickly.

I stayed in someone’s home for a week and used that as my base of operations and travel. Not only was the deal cheaper, I was able to live like a local and get tips from the couple that hosted the stay.

The following were added after publishing due to a revisioning problem.

London is the land of Tesco. There are thankfully more of these grocery stores than there are McDonald’s joints. But I found that some items were cheaper at Sainsbury’s Local.

These grocery stores are great for buying bottled water, snacks, and cheap meals. If you really have to eat on the cheap, Pret A Manger is a chain that seems to be everywhere.

Cash or card
While it is useful to have cash on hand, a credit card that supports wireless payment is fast and convenient. I used my MasterCard’s PayPass at the prepaid SIM vending machine, Oyster PAYG travel card kiosks, and grocery self-checkouts.

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