AKA the most important lessons I learned my first week here
As someone who identifies at their core as an over-planner, I honestly felt very prepared for my move to London in January 2023. It wouldn’t be my first time traveling internationally or even my first time in England, and I already had experience with the language and the gray weather (hello Pacific Northwest upbringing). Still, I’ve never experienced a learning curve like that of my first week here!
From navigating my way to class to figuring out where to buy everything I inevitably forgot to pack, everything seemed a little more difficult than I had prepared for. Pure trial and error, alongside a very thorough program orientation, helped me adjust quickly to my life in London, and I hope that I can share some of this wisdom with other planners like me, who are trying to prepare for their own study abroad program or trip to London. So, here are the five things I wish I knew before studying abroad in London!
1. London can absolutely be done on a budget!
When I decided to study abroad in London, one of the most common responses I received related to how expensive it would be! While there is definitely some truth to this, and there’s no denying that London has a high cost of living, I think this advice scared me a lot more than it helped me to prepare. So, my first piece of advice is this: with careful planning and deliberate choices, London can absolutely be experienced on a budget!
As someone who loves history, I was thrilled to discover that all UK National Museums offer free entrance! So, some of London’s top sights, like the National Gallery, the National History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and even the British Museum are all free of charge. This means you can be a tourist in London without spending a pound, and you can even go back to these museums as many times as you want!
Some other budget friendly options I’ve discovered are the Pret coffee subscription and the 16-25 railcard, which makes rail travel as a student super accessible. And, like in the US, it really comes down to where you shop! I personally opt for food from the Co-op rather than eating out every night, which to me means more money to spend seeing London and going on weekend trips! Really, whatever your interests or priorities are, there are so many deals to be taken advantage of, especially as a student.
Read More: How Much Does it Cost to Study Abroad in 2023?
2. Public transportation is super-easy!
On the topic of rail-travel, one thing that I was pleasantly surprised to learn once I arrived in London was how easy and accessible public transportation is! The underground (or the ‘tube’), the overground, and buses here all use the tap in / tap out system with the Oyster card, but any tappable payment card will work, including Apple Pay!
Transportation is pretty cheap here compared to where I live in the US, and so much more reliable and easy to master. My number one advice before studying abroad in London (number 1!!!) is to download the free Citymapper app, which will tell you in the most extreme detail how to get anywhere you need in the city and provide plenty of options. Give me a destination, Citymapper, and my Oyster card and I am honestly confident in my ability to reach any corner of London.
3. Black Taxis
Still, there are times when public transportation isn’t the best option, whether it’s too late in the evening or I need to leave my residence at 4am in order to make my flight to Amsterdam (both based on true stories), and in that case a London black taxi cab is a phenomenal option! These are not your average taxis, and they are all registered with the Public Carriage Office. Drivers are highly trained and have to pass a test questioning their knowledge on London geography, including every street in the city. This means you can just give them an address and they will automatically know how to get there, no maps necessary!
Although sometimes more expensive than Uber or other car service options, knowing that the taxi driver is extremely educated and background checked has given me a lot of peace of mind and has made my life a lot easier whenever I need a ride!
Taxis can be found outside all major airports, train stations, and transportation centers and can also be called and scheduled in advance! More information on how to get a cab can be found on the Transport for London webpage.
4. Most American goods are available here!
As hard as I tried, I fell victim to overpacking when preparing for my study abroad in London. Even though I knew it wasn’t logical, I just had no trust that my usual toiletries and other conveniences would be here! Of course I was wrong, and within my first day in London I saw every product I use in a store of some sort, and often there was even a better variety of options.
In terms of toiletries, stores like Boots and Superdrug pretty much sell anything that can be found in American stores like Target, CVS, and Sephora and can be found all over the city. Additionally, some things are much easier to just buy here! For example I just waited until I was in London to buy a hairdryer, as it’s much easier than lugging around an adaptor and converter and saved me some suitcase space on my flight over!
In terms of food, I’ve been able to find everything that I’m used to eating in the US, and have even discovered some new favorite items and cuisines! If there’s something you’re desperate for, I recommend checking out American grocery stores with locations in London, like Whole Foods! You’ll find universal goods and it will feel like a taste of home.
Had I known about the availability and variety in London, I would have packed less and felt way more comfortable coming here! It feels so good to know that everything I miss can be found one way or another.
5. The importance of layers
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I thought I had an understanding of how to properly layer clothes, but London really is a whole new ball game. Like any major city, you spend a lot more time outside here while commuting, which means that you experience the weather a lot more - the cold is colder and the warm is warmer. Especially in London, where a commute involves being both outside in the elements and underground, where it tends to be pretty hot and humid, it’s super important to wear layers that you can put on and peel off to ensure you remain comfortable!
For me, this usually means a short or long sleeve tee under a sweater and often another layer on top, like a jacket or a scarf (for reference, I’m here in the winter). I’ve found that this system both keeps me warmer when I’m outside and allows me to remain comfortable and have lots of options based on the environment I find myself in. It also makes laundry a lot easier, as I don’t have to wash my sweaters and jackets nearly as often.
This may seem small, but it really has made a huge difference for me and is something I had to figure out from scratch since arriving in London. If I had known this before I came I definitely would have packed differently!
Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Your Study Abroad Packing List
With this experience and research, I hope that this can make studying abroad in London seem more attainable and less scary! It’s a huge city, but it really is the best city, and hopefully these tips can help prepare you for your next visit, whether it’s a day or a whole study abroad program!