Monday, April 8, 2013

The Bucket tips

No, I don’t mean as in ‘The bucket got tipped over’, but as in ‘Tips (hints) for other would-be travelers to the UK – with or without a bucket’.

Currency Tips

Preface: I was in the UK, (February - April 2013) when the value of the British Pound (GBP) to the $(US) was approximately $1.52 to GBP 1.00

Tip 1 – buy as few GBPs as possible before leaving the US – I had to pay the bank $1.67 per GBP 1.00

Tip 2 – get your GBPs with your debit card at an ATM in the UK (a ‘hole in the wall’, they call it) – I got the $1.52 rate and was charged only a fixed $2.00 fee, no matter how much (or little) I withdrew. [Be sure to advice your bank that you’ll be overseas and to not then block your legitimate transactions.] If you happened to arrive in the UK with a fist full of dollars, you can get them changed into local currency at almost any branch bank or local Post Office in the UK. Good luck with that in reverse order here!

Tip 3 – don’t change your foreign currency back to US $ - either in the UK or in the US - you’ll only get about $1.37 per GBP 1.00 – a loss of about 10%. Best to either spend any left over amounts, or keep them until you make another trip.

Tip 4 – to minimize the Tip 3 dilemma, budget your expenditures and withdrawals.

Tip 5 -   Don’t be surprised in your American Express card is repeatedly refused. Also, UK-issued credit cards have a built-in chip (and you have to enter a PIN after inserting the card into a slot – like at an ATM) so many card-readers will only accept US-issued cards if it has a side-slot to ‘swipe’ the card. You may need to verify the establishment’s card-reader capability before making a purchase if you have insufficient cash on hand.

Tip 6 – note that all prices are inclusive of taxes (VAT) – so an item marked at $5.99 item costs $5.99 – not as it would be here, $5.99 plus 7% or whatever your local ‘sales tax’ amount may be. That makes it easier to ‘tot up’ what bank-notes (that’s what they call ‘bills’) and coins you’ll need while you are in line at the check out. Coins are heavy – the smallest ‘note’ is the GBP 5.00 – about $7.50.

Tip 7 – if you nip over to the Republic of Ireland, their currency will be the Euro and costs about $1.25.

Travel tips while in the UK

Travel in the UK can be EXPENSIVE, but there is so much to be seen in relatively short distances that it is worthwhile getting out and seeing the vast diversity of scenery and history.

Tip 1 – if renting a car, get a fuel-efficient vehicle!  Petrol (gas) is sold by the liter - there are 4.56 of them to a British gallon, but only 3.79 to a US gallon. When I was there, petrol was priced at about GBP 1.35 per liter. That works out to be about $7.67 per US gallon – and you think $3.50 a gallon here is expensive?

Tip 2 – be alert in town – or residential areas! Motorists in the UK don’t give a second thought to crossing the centerline, into the face of oncoming traffic, in order to park on the opposite side of the road if it suits them.  Parking in most towns (regardless of size) in the UK is a nightmare! Limited number of spaces and metered parking (even at many supermarkets) presents the usual problem of clock-watching and coin-finding. As I didn’t drive, I have no idea of exactly what it cost – but I did see some that were more than $3.00 for an hour.   

Tip 3 – learn the ‘rules of engagement’ to be applied when encountering one of the countries 6 billion roundabouts! Be sure to yield to traffic on your right and use your turn signals to let others know your intended direction – I know the latter is tough for many Americans to do.

Tip 4 - if travelling by train, check the internet for pricing which can vary considerably – depending if you plan to travel at off-peak or on-peak times. I got a one-way ticket for a 180-mile trip to Wales and it only cost $18.00; but had I gone at a different time of day, it may have been 4 times that amount. Some on-line train-ticket purchases cannot be made using a US-based credit card. For example, My Train Ticket  will not permit US-based credit card purchases, but  Arriva Wales will permit it. Further, if you are 55 or older, you can get a return ticket for almost anywhere within Wales for only GBP 17.00 ($26). It pays to do your homework on-line. Smaller stations may be ‘unstaffed’, but will have a ticket-purchase machine – but be wary of Currency Tip 5.  

Tip 5 – when inquiring about mass public transport between various places by road, be sure to specify ‘bus’ or ‘coach’. ‘Coaches’ go most everywhere and are intended for longer (20 miles plus) trips and ‘buses’ are for more localized trips. If you do not specify you want to go by ‘coach’, you may get information that gets you where you intend, but with multiple changes on ‘buses’. Routes, schedules and prices can be found on-line before you even leave here. It will help to do some research and planning – as I did, here:

Tip 6 - many local bus servers offer ‘frequent trip’ ticketing. For example, in Swansea, I bought a FirstWeek ticket for only GBP 20.00 ($30) that gave me unlimited (hop-on, hop-off) travel within the area. Had I not done that, I could have been paying $4.25 every time I got on the bus for the 3-mile trip into town. I had exceeded the face-value before the 4th day was half over. The ticket can be bought from the driver (cash only) on the bus – or online.

Dining out tips

Tip 1 – avoid it if possible, or get someone else to pay!  The latter applies wherever you may be of course and a good opportunity if you failed to follow ‘Currency Tip 2’. It can be expensive – almost always close to two times what you may be accustomed to paying for the same thing in the US. For example, at one ‘all you can eat’ Asian buffet, the weekday price was GBP 12.99 ($19.49). Haven’t we seen comparable buffets here for $8.99 (and only $2.00 more on weekends when lobster and crab legs are included)? See Tip 3 for more examples.

Tip 2 – Indian and Chinese restaurants are in abundance and entrees are usually in the $9:00 to $12:00 range - but there will be an extra charge for plain boiled rice – usually about $3.00, and $6.00 for fried rice. Indian dishes tend to be ‘hotter’ in the UK than in the US, so if you like it ‘hot’ here, a ‘medium’ may be fine there. Many Indian (and Thai) restaurants may be found in what once were pubs!  As is the case in the US, many pubs only ‘survive’ now because of their food sales. DWI and ‘no-smoking’ restrictions, coupled with grocery store prices versus over the counter prices, seem to have taken their toll on that once great institution – the pub!

Tip 3 – in small cafes or pastry shops, gas-stations, don’t expect to see ‘fountain drinks’ – sodas will be in bottles (or cans) - and as with tea or coffee will cost about $2.85 - $3.25. A small cookie, slice of cake or a pastry will knock you back about $3.00 or more. Be happy you’re in the UK; prices are even higher in Ireland and many Western European countries! Many small pastry shops will charge extra to have the pastry heated – and to sit down and eat it. Get it ‘cold, to go’ to halve the price!  

Tip 4 – don’t ‘do the American thing’ – sample the local cuisine; you may be delighted to have a crumpet, a scone, a custard tart, etc. with your ‘pot of tea for one’. But if you absolutely must, here is what you may expect to see at a UK McDonalds: regular sized coffee - $2.40; Sausage & Egg McMuffin - $3.15; small fries - $1.35; cheeseburger - $1.49; Big Mac - $3.75; 6-piece McNuggets (with medium fries and small drink) - $6.45; hot apple pie - $1.49.

Tip 5 – in the UK, the ‘accepted’ tipping percentage at restaurants seems to be about 10% - not the 15% or 20% we apply in the US; though many leave nothing! Credit card slips do NOT have a place to write in the tip – they prefer to have you ‘leave the tip’ on the table. I’m sure they’ll accommodate you if you want to add it to your charge card, though.

Communication tips

Tip 1 - check with your cell phone provider before you leave. I’m with AT&T and all I had to do was disable a couple of things in ‘Settings’ and I was able to make and receive text messages at $0.50 each. Making or receiving calls cost $1.50 a minute.  If you plan to make extensive use of your cell (‘mobile’ in UK) phone, you may need to consider some other options such as a ‘pay-as-you-go calling card’ purchased in the UK or maybe some temporary ‘international’ plan from your provider. Be careful if you plan to use internet features – it could cost a bundle in roaming charges!

Tip 2 – make sure you have the applicable plug adaptors and power converters for your iPhone, camera charger – also for most other electrical gadgets - hair-curlers, etc.). You won’t need a power converter for your laptop (no idea about iPads) - as they have their own built-in transformers. But, you will need to make sure your laptop’s power-cord (usually a 3-prong plug) will fit into your UK/US plug adaptor – usually only a two-pronged receptacle. If you get there and have the wrong cords, Curry’s is a big store (akin to Best Buy) that will likely have what you need.

Tip 3 - unlike in the US, where people will look perplexed if someone says ‘tomAH-to’, the British will know exactly what you mean when you say ‘tom-AY-to’!  

Tip 4 – try to avoid asking a Scot anything – you’ll likely not be able to decipher the response. You may also have difficulty finding anyone to give you directions to anywhere – there are so many foreign nationals visiting and living in the UK, they may be as clueless as you!

Tip 5 – if you get invited to tea at Buckingham Palace, please say ‘Pleased to meet you, you Majesty’ – not ‘Wassup, Queenie?’, else you may get an unsolicited trip to the Tower for a head-removal.

Enjoy your trip to the UK – whether it is for the first time, or as an Ex-Pat, making a return visit.

1 comment:

  1. An addendum - regarding beer!

    Taking into account that the Imperial pint is 20 ounces and the US pint is 16 ounces, the price of draught beer in the UK is comparable to that in the US - even a couple of percentage points better maybe. From what I have seen in each both places, it works out at about $0.24 to $0.28 per ounce.

    As far as buying bottled beer (and cans - or 'tinnies', if you like) in the supermarkets - or even in the gas stations and convenience stores here in the US - the price per ounce is in the range of $0.07 per ounce (US) to $0.11 per ounce (UK).

    Clearly a better bargain than traipsing off to the 'local' - and even better yet if live in the US. A 12-pack of 12 oz (355 ml) bottles of Budweiser cost $9.99 (GBP 6.57) and the same quantity of other universally recognized brands came in at $11.99 (GBP 7.89). I saw single cans (25 ounces) of Fosters at $0.08 per ounce in my local supermarket yesterday. The 4-packs commonly sold in the UK were usually priced at $0.11 per ounce and Becks, Carlsberg, or Stella Artois were usually 10% more expensive.

    My favorite, at 5.9% is Milwaukee's Best Ice, a crisp, ice-brewed, 'lager-style' beer that costs a whopping $10.99 for a 24-pack of 12 ounce cans - that's less than $0.04 per ounce, brother!