United Kingdom Tourist Information and Tips
The United Kingdom is a very expensive country, although the Pound's somewhat dramatic recent falls against many currencies are helping some overseas tourists who are finding things are now cheaper than they are in their home countries. However, the high cost of basics such as transport, accommodation and food means that you'll spend around ?50 per day as a budget traveller and more if you want to afford luxuries such as taxis, 3 star hotels, and meals in restaurants.
The currency throughout the UK is the Pound (?) (more properly called the Pound Sterling, but this is not used in everyday speech), divided into 100 pence (p, pronounced 'pee').
Coins appear in 1p (small copper), 2p (large copper), 5p (very small silver), 10p (large silver), 20p (small silver with angled edges), 50p (large silver with angled edges), ?1 (small, thick gold) and ?2 (large, thick with silver centre and gold edge) denominations, while Bank of England notes (bills) come in ?5 (green/light blue), ?10 (orange/brown), ?20 (blue (newer design) purple (older design)) and ?50 (red), and depict the Queen on one side and famous historical figures on the other. The size increases according to value. It's often best to avoid getting ?50 notes. ?50 notes are often refused by smaller establishments - they are unpopular because of the risk of forgery, and because of the amount of change one needs to give on receiving one. Banks are also unlikely to change them to smaller notes for you, though a post office or bookmaker might.
However, Scottish and Northern Irish banks issue their own notes in the above denominations, with their own designs. If in doubt, check what you are given for the words "Pounds Sterling". ?100 notes and some old ?1 notes are also in circulation in Scotland. Bank of England notes circulate freely in the whole of the United Kingdom, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland it is quite common to receive change in a mixture of English and/or Scottish or Northern Irish notes. Welsh banks do not issue their own notes.
Although shopping in the UK can be expensive, it is generally regarded as a world-class destination for shoppers both in terms of variety and quality of products, depending on where and what you buy. Fierce competition has brought prices down considerably in the food, clothing and electronic sectors. Prices do vary and it is always worth visiting the various retail stores as bargains can often be found. Avoid buying from the tourist areas and stick to the High Street shops or the many 'out-of-town' retail parks where prices will be considerably cheaper.
VAT (Value Added Tax - a mandatory tax on almost all goods and services in the UK) is 17.5% (since 1 January 2010), with reduced rates of 5% and 0% applying to specific categories of goods (food from supermarkets and some books, for example, are taxed at 0%). For most High Street shopping, VAT is included in the sale price. However, for certain larger purchases, especially in the area of computers and electronics, stores may show prices without VAT, however these are clearly marked with "exc VAT" next to the figure. In many of the larger towns and cities, many shops have the blue "Tax-Free Shopping" sticker in the window, meaning that when you leave the European Union (not just the UK), you can claim back the VAT before you leave the country. However, in order to do this, you must keep any receipts you receive from your purchase.
Electronic items such as computers and digital cameras can be cheaper here than many European countries (especially Scandinavian countries), but do shop around. The internet is always a good way to judge the price of a particular item, also you can use this as a bargaining tool when agreeing on a price with some of the larger electronic retail stores. If visiting from the US, there may be duties and taxes charged that make some of these purchases much less of a bargain so shop wisely.
Despite jokes and stereotypes, British food is actually very good and internationally orientated British cuisine has improved greatly over the past few decades, and the British remain extremely proud of their native dishes. Restaurants and supermarkets in the middle and upper range have consistently high standards, and the choice of international dishes is the best in Europe. However, British eating culture is still in the middle of a transition phase. Unlike their continental neighbours, many Britons still eat to live rather than live to eat, and as a result, food quality is variable at the budget end of the market.
The United Kingdom can be an expensive place to eat out compared to, say, the more southern European countries, but relatively cheap in comparison with countries such as Switzerland and Norway.
Many restaurants in city centres tend to be a little more expensive than ones in the suburbs, and pubs do tend to be slightly more expensive in the countryside, but generally, a three-course meal without drinks will cost the traveller anywhere between ?10 and ?15. Chicken tikka masala with rice is sometimes claimed as the UK's most popular dish, though roast beef is a more traditional national dish.
If all else fails decent picnic foods such as sandwiches, cakes, crisps, fresh fruit, cheeses and drinks are readily available at supermarkets. Street markets are a good place to pick up fresh fruit and local cheeses at bargain prices. Bakeries (eg Greggs) and supermarkets ( eg Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose and Asda) usually sell a good selection of pre-packed sandwiches, pasties and cakes along with a range of soft drinks, juices and mineral waters. In addition, most chemists and newsagents will have a basic supply of pre-packaged sandwiches and bottled drinks.
Many large shops, especially department stores, will have a coffee shop or restaurant.
Smoking is now banned in all restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs - there are no exceptions. However some establishments have provided 'smoking areas' and smoking is allowed in the gardens/terraces outside pubs and restaurants unless otherwise stated.
Food in pubs
Almost all pubs (see below) serve food, although not all will do so during the whole of their opening hours. Prices of all these types vary enormously, and you should seek local advice if you have particular requirements or standards. Do not sit at a table in a pub expecting a waiter to take your order for food or drinks: pubs nearly always work on a "queue at the bar for drinks: order at the bar for food" basis. You go to the bar to request and pay for drinks and food. To avoid annoying customers behind them, groups usually order as one, and "settle up" between themselves later (see elsewhere for "buying rounds"). You normally order your "starters" and "mains" together (food-oriented places have numbers screwed to the tables for you to quote, or will give you a number to take to your table). You then wait for your drinks to be poured and carry them to the table. When your meal is ready, it is either brought to you or, less commonly now, announced when it is ready for you to collect. The person who tidies away your main course may ask you what dessert you would like, or you may have to order at the bar again.
Larger towns have a range of restaurants to suit most tastes and you will find a very broad range of different cuisines, including Indian, Chinese, Thai, French and Italian. Waiters generally expect a 10% tip (but all too often do not get it from the native population) and in some places this is automatically listed on your bill. However, if you are dissatisfied with the service in any way, you are under no obligation to pay the service charge. Generally British people are not great tippers. As a visitor the 10% rule is more than generous and worth sticking to. Visitors from The US and Canada are seen as very generous tippers and even a bit of a soft touch by some.
The usual fast-food restaurants (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and local chain Wimpy) are widespread in larger towns and cities but uncommon in smaller towns. They are typically located in major shopping areas, in or around major train stations, in out-of-town retail parks and in motorway service stations and airports (the latter 2 are usually more expensive). Prices are average - a burger, chips and drink meal will cost about GBP4-5. Most are open from around 7:00-22:00 although some in large cities are 24-hours. Fast-food restaurants in out-of-town locations offer drive-through service. Apart from Pizza Hut, delivery service is not offered.
The legal age to buy and consume alcohol is 18 (16 for a glass of beer, cider, shandy, or perry with a substantial meal and an adult present) but many older teenagers younger than 18 have seemingly little problem in purchasing alcohol in smaller pubs and from off licenses. Nevertheless, if you're over 18 but lucky enough to look younger, expect to be asked to prove your age when buying alcohol (also, in certain places if you look under 21 or 25, you have to prove you're over 18, known as "Challenge 21(25)"), especially in popular city spots. Some premises will require proof of age for all drinks after a certain time of night due to restrictions on the age of people who can be on the premises. The most trustworthy form of ID is a passport or driving license which shows both your photograph and date of birth. ID cards are likely to be accepted (providing there is a photograph) and proof of age cards are available which must be applied for by post and take several weeks to issue. Any other form of ID willl not be accepted. In private residences the minimum age to drink alcohol is 5 years old, although it is likely that if a 5 or 6 year old etc. were getting drunk, the matter would be brought before the courts as child neglect.
Getting drunk is acceptable and often it is the objective of a party, though the police often take a dim view on those causing alcohol-related trouble. This applies to all levels of the British society - it may be worth remembering that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to collect his son Euan from a police station after he had been found drunk celebrating the completion of his GCSE exams taken at the age of 16. Nevertheless, Britons have a great sense of humour and everything is forgotten after a hangover, at least until the next time. Drinking is an important part of the British culture and, even though it is frequently complained about, it is as popular as ever.
Urinating in public is illegal, and classified as indecent exposure, technically a sexual offence and quite difficult to explain when applying for a visa. You should try and use the facilities where you are drinking.
The pub or public house is the most popular place to get a drink in the UK. Even small villages will often have a pub, serving spirits, wines, beers, cider, and 'alcopops', accompanied by crisps, nuts and pork scratchings. Many serve snacks or meals. The greater volume of drinks served are various kinds of beer, mainly lagers, bitters, and porter / stout (ie Guinness). People not looking to drink real ale are free to choose a pub just on the basis of location, and character, because most national "smooth" bitters or TV-advertised lagers are available in any non-real-ale pub; however, even non-real-ale drinkers often find that they prefer the types of pubs with a range of real ales, because they tend to be more "traditional", with a more individual character and less oriented to juke boxes, games machines, fruit machines and large crowds.
Across the whole of the United Kingdom there is now a blanket ban on smoking inside pubs and restaurants, though many pubs have areas outside, often known as "beer gardens", where smoking is (usually, but not always) permissible. However if you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be able to stay after the formal closing hours this is called a "lock-in" and smoking may be ok if the pub landlord allows it. This will often occur only in the later hours after 11PM and these lock-ins can last any amount of time. As they are classed as a private party, they happen in only a few pubs, and often only pubs with more regular customers, although this is not always the case. Once at a lock-in, you cannot leave and come back in again.
British real ales , championed by the Campaign for Real Ale, are amongst the best in the world - though people used to colder, blander, fizzier beers may find that the taste needs to be acquired. People looking for real ale will need to select the right pubs, because although a wide range of pubs serve one or two real ales, only a "real ale pub" will have a wide selection. British ale has a limited shelf life compared to most foreign beers, and as some pubs have only a "token" cask with low turnover, it's often well past its prime and has a strange vinegary taste: often, unfortunately, people's first and understandably only experience with "real ale". If you do receive an 'off' pint, ask for a replacement at the bar, which will usually be forthcoming.
The phrase "free house" was usually the main indicator for people looking for a good choice of beer, because this indicated that the pub was not owned by a particular brewery and served whatever beer its landlord thought would appeal to their customers. However, this is no longer a significant factor, because most national pub chains are now owned by large conglomerates who deal centrally with brewers and serve the same mass-market brands in all their pubs: these conglomerates (not being breweries) can still call their pubs "free houses".
British people usually follow a kind of unwritten code of conduct when in pubs, though types of venue can vary dramatically, ranging from a 'local' pub, usually a quiet place consisting of one or two rooms, to a chain pub such as J.D. Wetherspoons which are very large rooms capable of holding hundreds of people.
- Don't tap money on the bar surface to attract the barman's attention.
- Tipping is not a tradition in most pubs and you should take all of your change. Regular customers who have a relationship with the staff will offer to buy the landlord, or bar worker, a drink. They may say something like this: "A pint of Best, landlord, and one for yourself." The landlord will often keep the money rather than have too much to drink. However, you are not obliged to do this yourself.
- Especially in a 'local' pub, keep your voice down and avoid drawing attention to yourself.
- It might be best to avoid heated debates about controversial subjects in pubs and bars; if others get involved these can escalate.
- If you require extra chairs, you may want to take one from another table. If someone is already seated (even if it is only one person seated at a six-person table) you must ask if you can take the chair.
- Waiting patiently at a bar is imperative. Pushing in line will not be tolerated and could lead to confrontation. If someone cuts in line before you, feel free to complain - you should get support from other locals around you. Bear in mind that pubs are amongst the few places in Britain which don't actually have formal queues -- you just crowd around the bar, and when everyone who was there before you has been served you can order.
- In the male toilets, especially in big pubs or clubs, don't try to strike up conversation or make prolonged eye contact. UK pub toilets are very much "get in and get out" places - some drunk people can take a casual remark the wrong way.
Pubs with a good choice of real ales may exhibit almost any pattern of ownership:
- By a real-ale brewery (in which case the pub will serve all of the beers made by them, and perhaps only one "guest beer").
- By a national or local pub chain who believe it is possible to serve a range of real ales at reasonable prices (their chain buying power can force down a brewer's margins) in a pub that non-real-ale-fans will be willing to patronise.
- By an independent landlord committed to real ale (usually the ones with the most idiosyncratic beers, and the hard-core "real ale type" customers).
Many pubs are very old and have traditional names, such as the "Red Lion" or "King's Arms"; before widespread literacy, pubs would be identified by most customers solely by their signs. Recently there has been a trend, strongly resisted in some quarters, towards chain-pubs such as the Hogshead, Slug and Lettuce and those owned by the JD Wetherspoon company. Another recent trend is the gastro pub , a smartened-up traditional pub with a selection of high-quality food (nearly at restaurant prices).
Beer in pubs is served in pint and half-pint measures, or in bottles. A pint is slightly more than half a litre (568ml to be precise). Simply ordering a beer on tap will be interpreted as a request for a pint, e.g. 'a lager, please'. Alternatively 'half a lager, please' will get you a half-pint. If you ask for a "half-pint of lager" in a noisy pub, you will almost certainly get a pint, because no-one asks for a "half-pint" and the bar person will have thought you said "I'll have a pint of lager, please". Prices vary widely based on the city, the pub and the beer, but generally pints will be in the range ?2 to ?3.
Spirits and shorts are normally 25 ml although some pubs use a standard 35ml measure, in all cases it will be clearly indicated on the optic, in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the standard measure is a 35ml measure. A dram in Scotland was traditionally a quarter of a gill measure now 25ml.
Pubs often serve food during the day. Drinks are ordered and paid for at the bar.
When applying for a licence, pubs can specify any opening times they wish; this can be challenged by neighbours, etc. Closing times are typically the 'last order' time - the pub can sell drinks before this and customers have to drink up and leave within 20 minutes of the licensing hours.
Until the recent change in licensing laws, closing times were 11PM and 10:30PM on a Sunday, and this is still quite common. The most common closing times at the weekends in towns are between midnight and 1AM, and some larger pubs may apply for a license until 2AM and clubs 3AM or 4AM. It is not unheard of that some bars have licenses until the early hours (6AM) although this is rare as many who are out until this time are likely to go to nightclubs and then home. Theoretically, a pub can ask for a 24-hour license, though few have done so.
In cities, in additional to traditional pubs, there are more modern wine-bars and cafe-bars (often known simply as bars ), though the variable weather means that there is not as much of a 'street scene' as in other European cities. However, depending on the weather, there are more and more pavement cafes in the UK than in the past. Parts of London, Manchester and other up-and-coming cities are good examples of this change of scene.
Prices in bars tend to be higher than in pubs, with less focus on beer, and more on wine, spirits and cocktails. Customers are often younger that those of traditional pubs, though there is much crossover and some bars are more "pubby" than others.
Clubbing is popular in most large towns and cities, and many have world-renowned venues as well as many alternative venues. Great clubs can be found in London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Brighton to name just a few places. Prices in clubs tend to be considerably higher than those charged in pubs, and opening hours may not be the attraction they once were, as pubs can now open late too. Most clubs will not admit anyone under 18. ID may be asked for at the door, but ID checks at bars are less common. Dress codes are sometimes applied by doormen or bouncers before entry, sometimes none-too-consistently. Common dress codes are simply to dress smartly and avoid wearing sports wear, including trainers.
Clubs are often cheaper during the week (Mon-Thu) as many of these nights are designed to cater for students; however, you usually have to pay an entrance fee. For a club in a small town (capacity 250-300) this will usually be ?1-?2 on week night, ?2-?3 on weekends, and seldom more than ?5 on special occasions. Conventional clubs in bigger towns and alternative clubs in cities will cost anywhere between ?5 and ?10. Large clubs, especially those in cities, that cater for a "dance" crowd will almost certainly cost over ?10, though seldom more than ?15. For towns with a large student population, it is often much cheaper to go clubbing during week nights (Monday-Thursday), as many clubs advertise towards students on these nights, offering discounted drinks and cheaper entry.
In any emergency call 999 or 112 (free of charge from any phone, including mobiles) and ask for Ambulance, Fire and Rescue Service, Police, Coast Guard or Mountain And Cave Rescue when connected. Unlike many other countries, the United Kingdom does not have different numbers for different emergency services.
Late at night it is not uncommon to find rowdy groups of drunk people, especially young men, on the street, but unless you go out of your way to provoke trouble you are unlikely to experience any problems. The police have fairly wide ranging powers to fine or arrest people who are causing a disturbance, and although they can be heavier-handed in major cities they are generally tolerant. Drinking alcohol in public (except outside a bar or pub) is not permitted in many areas.
The local emergency telephone number is 999; however, the EU-wide 112 can also be used. For advice on non-emergency medical problems, you can ring the 24-hour NHS Direct service on 0845 4647 (NHS 24 in Scotland on 08454 242424)
Emergencies can be dealt with under the NHS (National Health Service) at any hospital with a Casualty or A & E (Accident & Emergency) department. At A&E be prepared to wait for up to 4 hours to be seen to if the medical complaint is not serious, depending on the time of day/night. The longest waiting times usually occur on Friday and Saturday nights. Emergencies will be dealt with immediately and before any question of remuneration is even contemplated.