London's latest population figures run just over 7 million, counting the city's 32 boroughs and the independent City of London itself. This area is approximately 610 square miles (1580 sq km). When the metropolitan area (6267 square miles, or 16,231 sq km) is factored in, the population leaps to just shy of 14 million. London charges what's known as a value-added tax (VAT) on purchases made at hotels, restaurants, and shops. It's incurred at a rate of 17.5%. For travelers outside of the EU, it can often be refunded, with some restrictions and a bit of personal diligence, usually after you return home.
The bulk of travelers coming into London make their approach through one of the city's two main airports. Heathrow handles the greatest number of flights from the US and is the closest airport to the city (15 miles, or 24 km, west). The 15-minute Heathrow Express is a convenient way to reach Paddington Station. Gatwick (27 miles, or 43 km, south) also accommodates a growing proportion of travelers and is easily accessible, thanks to the Gatwick Express, which connects directly to Victoria Station. For folks already on the Continent, efficient transportation makes short work of the journey to London. High-speed ferry service runs from coast to coast, and train service picks up the remainder. If you're interested completely in rail service, a train through the Channel Tunnel (or "Chunnel") directly links Paris and London. It's usually suggested that foreign travelers not drive in London, given an unfamiliarity with Britain's left-side driving conventions and the city's heavy traffic. Beyond those situations, the city, in an effort to cut down on congestion, charges a daily fee during the workweek for vehicles entering central London. If you've already rented a car for other portions of a trip, consider keeping it in a garage while in the city proper, and depend on public transportation for local travel. Do know, however, that garage parking can be quite expensive.
Since a good portion of tourist destinations lie in the West End, it's easily manageable by walking if you're in town for a short time. If your stay is extended, trust London's well-maintained subway system (the "Tube") and its network of buses to get around. Both are separated into zones, and fares increase as you move outward. However, most travelers stay within Zone 1, which is where the city's most sought-after attractions lie. Tube tickets are only good for the day you buy them, but travelcards offer access for a longer period of time. Maps of the various Underground routes are color-coded and are easily understood with a bit of attention. Do be aware that you'll need your ticket to exit the train as well as to enter, so keep it handy. Also, the Tube doesn't run late-night, so plan for other travel between about 11pm and 5am. Buses typically run round-the-clock, picking up Tube traffic in its off-hours. You'll need to buy tickets before you hop on board. If you're in a particular hurry, opt for one of the city's black cabs, which have a good record for cleanliness and efficiency.
If you're trying to keep abreast of what's happening in London during your stay, Time Out is the most useful publication. It offers a wealth of up-to-date details on restaurants, shows, exhibitions, night clubs, and lots more. For reputable, well-reported news, look to the Guardian, the London Times, and the Daily Telegraph.
London radio stations cover everything from local and international news to pop and rock tunes. Some stations are funded by the BBC; others are independently managed.
Conventions & Tourism
To help you get your bearings in London, don't neglect visitors' centers. They're often an invaluable resource for everything from hotels to theater tickets. The following are some of the best: Victoria Station Travel Information Centre Opposite Platform 8 Victoria Railway Station London SW1V 1JU Mon-Sat 7:15am-9:15pm, Sun and Bank Holidays 8:15am-8:15pm Britain and London Visitor Centre 1 Regent Street London SW1Y 4XT Phone: 087-0156-6366 Oct-Mar Mon 9:30am-6pm, Tue-Fri 9am-6pm Apr-Sep Mon 9:30am-6:30pm, Tue-Fri 9am-6:30pm Oct-May Sat 10am-4pm Jun-Sep Sat 9am-5pm Sun 10am-4pm London Visitor Centre Waterloo Station Lambeth London SE1 7LY Phone: 020-7620-1550 If you should run into trouble, the emergency number for the police, fire department, or ambulance is 999.
Although tipping is largely personal, some standards are customarily acceptable. In restaurants, for example, tipping ranges from 10% to 20%, with 15% being typical. Depending on the establishment, the tip may or may not be included on the bill, so make sure to check before you act. The same holds true with hotels, who often tuck gratuities into the tab. Taxi drivers also merit 10% to 15% of the total cost (unless it's a short trip, in which case, the gratuity is more), and tour guides frequently receive £3 for their efforts. Don't, however, tip servers in pubs, and don't tip ushers in theaters. They don't expect it. If in doubt, £1 can go a long way. It's a safe bet to present folks who carry your bags, arrange for a taxi, or bring room service.