Planning a trip to the UK?
From eating and drinking to transport and sightseeing, shopping and conversation…in traditionally British topsy-turvy style, here’s a guide to getting the best out of your visit, disguised as a list of hideous pitfalls and potential embarrassments.
EATING, DRINKING AND SLEEPING: DON’T…
…expect iced water on the table. All restaurants will bring you tap water if you ask, but it is very rare to find it put on the table automatically the way you do in the US.
You’ll notice many Brits drinking bottled water, both in restaurants and on the street, but this is a matter of preference and convenience; the tap water is perfectly safe to drink.
…look for Mexican food. We don’t have much, and it’s usually not very good. The British equivalent — for a cheap, spicy, filling, ethnic meal — is the Indian restaurant (usually, in fact, Bangladeshi…but we universally call them “Indian”).
…order fish and chips in a pub. You may get a perfectly edible meal, but if it’s “traditional” fish and chips you’re after, you need to go to a fish-and-chip shop (also known as a “chippie”). Look for somewhere that’s busy, and smells good. Some of them only sell food to take away; some have tables as well.
…object to dogs in pubs, even if there is food being served. Generally, dogs are more popular than people in Britain.
…expect motels. They barely exist here, in the traditional American sense. The Travelodge and Premier Inn chains are the closest thing.
…tip in pubs. It’s not impolite, but it’s weird; nobody does it. If you want to reward a bartender for good service, offer to buy them a drink instead (but be aware that they may well say they’ll “have it later”, which in fact can mean they’re taking the cash…but hey, we’re nothing if not euphemistic).
It’s never rude not to offer the bartender a drink.
GETTING AROUND: DON’T…
…forget that we have lots of trains, and the buses are cool to use too. Though Brits love to moan about it, we have a far more developed train network than the US, and there are good long-distance bus services too — as well as comprehensive bus networks within most cities. They are all perfectly safe to use and relatively efficient (whatever people might say), though trains can be quite expensive.
…underestimate distances, or regional differences. Britain is indeed small compared to the US, but it’s not Monaco. Moreover, traffic in cities and even on major highways can be horrendous, and some areas are not at all well served by good roads.
The bottom line is that you really won’t be able to drive from London to Edinburgh in a day with stopovers in York and Liverpool, even if it looks on the map like you can.
Brits’ sense of local identity changes over short distances, too. Cambridge is only about 60 miles from London, but a Cambridge resident would no more think of themselves as a “Londoner” than a Mainer would consider themselves a Manhattanite.
…say “Oxford” when you mean “Oxford Street”. We never, ever leave the “street” (or “road” or “avenue” or what-have-you) off the name. “Oxford” means the city.
…use the London Underground map to figure out your way around the city. The map is not drawn to proportional scale — it’s designed to be an easy-to-decipher schematic, not an accurate map of exactly where the stations are actually located.
A classic mistake is to take the Tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden (the stations are so close together, you probably walk further while you’re getting on and off the trains than you would have if you’d simply strolled along the street. And yeah, I’ve done it.)
SEEING THE SIGHTS: DON’T…
…confuse Britain (or even England) and London. London’s a truly great city, but it’s not at all typical of the rest of the country, any more than New York is representative of the US as a whole. Most English people do not live in London.
…believe that you have to go to Stratford-upon-Avon or Madame Tussauds. There are plenty of towns just as attractive as Stratford and far less tourist-dominated. And almost any museum in London is going to be more rewarding than Tussauds.
…forget that it can get cold. True, Britain doesn’t have the extremes of weather that the US has, but it can be pervasively wet and cold (we like the term “chilly”). Plus, our central heating usually isn’t as efficient as you’d find in a cold area of the States.
…expect it to rain all the time. English weather isn’t always bad — we have plenty of good weather too. It’s just that it changes a lot, and the distinctions between the seasons are less sharp than they are in many parts of the US.
So in almost any given week of the year, it could be quite warm and pleasant. Or, of course, it could rain. And this is why we are slightly obsessed by the weather.
…forget it’s not a theme park. It’s true that you can hardly move for history in Britain. But the people here are still modern people leading modern lives.
The priest at that picturesque church will be happy to tell you about the building and its legends — unless he has to rush to comfort a church member whose unemployed spouse has tried to commit suicide.
The Eton schoolboy in that ridiculously antiquated uniform is probably thinking about a text message from his girlfriend, or a test he hasn’t studied for, rather than his place in a centuries-old tradition.
…expect to find the exact same brands in stores (or the exact same stores). A lot of things, from clothing to candy, are different. Occasionally, even a product under the same brand name will differ (chocolate bars are a good example). However, virtually any product you can get in the US will have a British equivalent.
…expect to find stuff open really late. Cities and large towns will have some 24-hour convenience stores and supermarkets; possibly even the occasional 24-hour coffee bar. But many stores will close around 5:30pm, and many others by 9pm.
In small towns, nothing at all — except just maybe a garage (fuel station), if you’re really lucky — will be open after the last pubs and Indian restaurants close around midnight.
…expect to use Diners Club or Amex. Diners Club is hardly known in the UK, apart from in a few tourist-oriented hotels. Amex is more widely accepted but still comparatively rare. Mastercard and Visa are much, much, much more common.
CULTURE AND POLITICS: DON’T…
…voice strong opinions about Brexit or the Northern Irish situation to people you don’t know well. They’re emotive topics which can push normally friendly individuals into quite a hostile mood.
…feel you have to apologise for Trump! (Or Clinton, or anyone else.) There is anti-Americanism in Britain, but it’s mostly a generalised dislike for aspects of US culture and, particularly, foreign policy. It’s extremely rare for it to be targeted at individuals.
Nobody will hold you personally responsible for the shortcomings of the US. If you’re very, very unlucky and someone does, the rest of us will regard them as the idiot.
…assume your race issues are our race issues. Britain does have its own racial problems, but they don’t loom nearly as large here as in parts of the US, and they’re not identical, because of differences in demographics and history.
This is really a subject for a whole separate article, but in a nutshell, racism issues in the UK are mostly about white British fear of cultural swamping, especially by south Asians (and also, more recently, by eastern Europeans). They’re nothing at all to do with slavery, not much to do with economic disadvantage, and in fact rarely to do with people of African origin.
If you are an African-American, to most Brits the important, obvious, noticeable thing about you on first making your acquaintance will be, by far, that you are an American. Not what hyphenated kind you are.
…expect a lot about the Queen and the Royals. Britain has ardent royalists and ardent republicans, but by and large, most people aren’t obsessed by the Royal Family either way. Certainly, the daily activities of the Queen and her family aren’t generally in the news (at least outside of the gossipy tabloids).
Indeed, apart from some minor (but obvious) signals like her head on the stamps and the coins, once you get away from the immediate vicinity of the royal palaces there’s not a lot to indicate that Britain is a monarchy.
And nobody gives a second thought to the assorted dukes and viscounts and marchionesses who litter the countryside, except other dukes etc. It’s not that people are against them, they just don’t play any significant role — as a group — in the country.
…be surprised that people have been to the States. Around half of all Brits have visited the US at some time, typically New York, Florida, Vegas or California. A fair few of us have even worked or studied there.
We also see a lot more American movies, TV, news, etc. than you see British, so it’s not uncommon to find people in Britain who are relatively well-informed about US life and current affairs, though of course there are woefully ignorant people too.
…expect Brits to be all het up about the Revolutionary War, American healthcare or gun control. That is absolutely an internet thing.
ABOVE ALL: DON’T…
…sweat it. There are lots of differences between Britain and the US, but the cultures are broadly similar, and the basic everyday transactions — going to the store, getting food, staying in a hotel, visiting the bank, touring the sights, attending the theatre — work in essentially the same way.
And no, those transatlantic language differences like “fags” and “chips” and “biscuits” truly aren’t a big deal either. Again, it’s an internet thing.
People will know you’re American the second you open your mouth, and make allowances for minor faux pas. We like to pretend we’re obsessed with manners and Doing Things Correctly, but really, we’re not. Much.