The moment I board the Picadilly line from Heathrow into central London, I’m hit with the excitement of exploring that iconic city filled with so much history, culture, and the energy of being a leading global center. There really isn’t another city like it, so it’s no surprise why so many Americans seek out London as a dream travel destination.
I’ve lived in the U.K. and frequented London over the years. Along the way, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks on how to not stand out as an American tourist. Here are the five most practical tips to blend in during your trip to London.
One of the most obvious differences between the U.S. and U.K. is that everything is on the left, from their roads to their politics (pun intended). Even though many Americans know this before visiting the U.K., you will be surprised by how many serious car accidents occur because non-Brits were looking in the opposite direction of oncoming traffic before crossing the street. Even though I’m not a newcomer to the U.K., I still occasionally look the wrong way out of habit before crossing the street. There’s a reason why roads in London even have “look right” painted on every crosswalk!
However, what a lot of Americans don’t know is that the rule “think left” applies to basic movement across the city in general. For example, when you’re walking into the tube, make sure to keep left. I made this mistake years back by walking into the right side of the walkway heading to the Bakerloo line, and I was stormed by a tsunami of Londoners heading home from their commute who were not too amused to encounter a lost American standing in their way. I haven’t made that same mistake again!
The same applies to escalators. Standing in the middle of an escalator is a tell-tale sign that you’re not from the U.K. Keep the left side clear for people walking up the escalator. If you’re not walking up the escalator, stand to the right. The tension is palpable when you’re blocking a busy Londoner trying to make their way up the escalator. Don’t worry, after a few days, keeping left and looking right becomes a matter of habit.
Don’t Wear Rainboots
Most Americans think Brits dress like a cross-over between Elizabeth Bennett and Paddington Bear. Hair pinned up in an effortlessly elegant messy bun crowning the gloriously Paddington Bear-inspired combination of a yellow rain jacket and red wellies (that’s the common name for tall rainboots in the U.K.). Don’t get me wrong, Brits do love their rain jackets and wellies – they did invent them after all.
However, you will only really find the heavy raincoats and tall wellies in the countryside or for outdoor work. Wearing tall rainboots in central London is a tell-tale sign that you’re an American tourist, as the wellie trend hasn’t really caught on in other parts of Europe.
If you’re looking for a fashionable shoe option to wear through London, try a classic black Chelsea boot. This iconic shoe style was invented in London and literally goes with any day outfit! I'm also a massive fan of the wellibob as a practical alternative to the tall wellie. Wellibobs are waterproof, rubber ankle boots that are not only practical for rainy days in the city, but also they’re super adorable. Check out the iconic British brand Joules for a cute, patterned pair of wellibobs that will get you around the city and win you compliments back home. For a waterproof pair of booties that mimic the classic Chelsea boot in the perfect shoe smashup, check out these from L.L. Bean.
I’m known for apologizing way too much – it’s almost an involuntary reaction, and my friends have been on my case to break the habit. However, I can get away with it in London! “Sorry” is the most versatile word in the U.K. If you bump into someone, you say “sorry!” If someone bumps into you, you also say “sorry” – heaven forbid you would offend the person who bumped into you! Whether you’re trying to get someone’s attention or trying to squeeze past a hoard of commuters on the tube, “sorry” is the way to go.
On the flip side, saying “excuse me” stands out as an American phrase in some parts of the U.K. I was taught this lesson during one of my first trips to the U.K. while visiting my godfamily near Southampton, England. While thrift shopping with my godmother, I was puzzled as to why an elderly lady seemed offended when I said “excuse me” as I tried to make my way past her to the next aisle. My godmother quickly explained that “excuse me” is usually said with a negative tone in some parts of the U.K., as if the other person is being an inconvenience. In some very proper settings, you would say “pardon,” but saying “sorry” is the most common way of politely asking to move past someone in a crowded area.
If you want to come across as a seasoned U.K. traveler while eating out, here’s my tip: when you walk inside, say “Hi, you alright” or “Hiya!” When you need to get the waiter’s attention, simply say “sorry,” and they should come directly to your table. If you need to get past a group of people on the way to the loo, say “sorry,” and they should move over.
Use Contactless Forms of Payment
I was reminded of this tip last week when I was trying to pay for my cappuccino at a café near Kings Cross, London. As I had just got a new phone, I had forgotten to set up Apple Pay before flying to London. When I ashamedly pulled out my card and asked for a chip reader, the barista, while searching for an old chip reading machine, said, “Wow, a chip reader! Such a retro American thing in’it?”
Every bank in the U.K. issues contactless cards, and using a non-contactless form of payment is a tell-tale sign that you’re from the U.S. In fact, when I lived in Scotland during Covid lockdowns, many places didn’t accept chip reading cards as a form of payment because it could be a “health hazard.”
If you don’t have a contactless card, be sure to set up Apple Pay on your phone. It makes paying a breeze, and it prevents baristas from having a mini meltdown trying to figure out how to use a chip reader.
Don’t Order a “Large Coffee”
Did you know that filtered coffee is an American novelty? Many European cafés don’t serve coffee the way we drink it, but instead have an assortment of espresso-based drinks, from cappuccinos to macchiatos. Often the closest thing to American coffee that European cafés will serve is an Americano, which got its name from the American soldiers in Europe during World War II who watered down strong European espresso with hot water.
However, the “filtered coffee” trend has caught on in many cafés, and many places will actually have “filtered coffee” on the menu now. But if you go up to the counter at Pret a Manger, Costa, or Caffé Nero in the U.K., chances are, they will ask you “white or black?”
In the U.K., a “white coffee” is filtered coffee with milk, while a “black coffee” is, as the name suggests, filtered coffee with no milk. Simply ordering a “large coffee” is a dead giveaway that you’re from the U.S. If you want to blend in and minimize confusion at the coffee counter, order a white or black coffee.
Traveling is one of the greatest experiences in the world, and it’s made even more special when you can experience the perspectives and cultures of the people who live in your travel destination. These small tips and tricks can make a big difference when you’re in London and help you step into the shoes – or wellibobs – of a Londoner.
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