Where are you going?
Like the United States, the United Kingdom is quite large with a varied landscape and a wide variety of offerings. Are you looking for a big city vacation? Try London, Edinburgh, Belfast or Glasgow. Want challenging hikes and wild landscapes? England's Peak District, Wale's Snowdonia or the Scottish highlands are for you. The UK has beaches, mountains, city life, small towns and everything in between and it likely can't be seen in a single short trip. So pick a theme and target the appropriate areas.
Is it the UK, Great Britain or just England?
We're glad you asked...
The United Kingdom is England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Great Britain is England, Scotland and Wales
England is just the country of England...so please don't refer to the Scots, Irish or Welsh as "English" (although the Scots and Welsh are "British")
Scotland still part of the UK?
As of this writing, yes, Scotland is part of both the United Kingdom and Great Britain. There's been a recent push to become independent but the last vote failed to pass. It's a complicated debate that's very important to Scots so we'd recommend avoiding expressing your opinion in public unless you're well-versed in the topic.
What's up with the dates and times?
Like continental Europe, dates are listed in the order of date/month/year and typically use periods rather than the slash in between. So New Year's Eve would be listed as 31.12.2014 or 31.12.14. Times are listed based on the 24 hour clock so subtract 12 from any time after noon. For example, 14:30 is 2:30 PM. 9:00 will always refer to 9:00 AM (9:00 PM would be 21:00).
Everyone speaks English, though, yes?
For the most part, yes. English is a national language in all UK countries but both Scots and Welsh are still vibrant languages used frequently alongside Irish, or Gaelic, which is spoken in Northern Ireland. Signage in these countries is often in both languages and you'll potentially run into a handful of people who are more comfortable speaking in one of these languages than in English. Like the US, the UK also has a diverse immigrant community so you may hear dozens of different languages in the neighborhoods they have now made home. Even English differs from place to place with accents being quite different in Northern England than they are in Essex and even inside a single city like London, one can find a handful of different, distinct accents.
Does it rain all the time?
Not really, no. It, obviously, does rain throughout the UK but not nearly as much as you might think it does. Mid-summer days are often warm and sunny while early spring, late fall and winter tend to be a bit wetter. Farther north, including the Scottish highlands and along the coasts, you're more likely to see snow in the winter while Northern Ireland, southern England and the south of Wales tend to have milder weather. If you're traveling in the summer, expect some sunny days but much milder temperatures than you might experience in most of the United States. Should your vacation plans take you to the UK in the winter, weather is typically a bit milder than the US and could be a little wet. Pack a good pair of boots and a solid coat.
It's pretty much just London, right?
No! London is an exceptional city and a great vacation destination but there is so much more to the UK than just the Changing of the Guard and the Tower of London. Visit the natural wonder that is Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, one of the great old steam trains of Wales, significant art and literary history in Edinburgh, Scotland or the walled city of York in the north of England for great shopping and a historic English cathedral. You could spend years exploring these four countries (trust us, we have) and still have a wealth of things left to see. Unless you have months and months of time, target one to two areas and start your exploration there.
How do I get around?
Like continental Europe, the UK has a terrific train system that will get you from town to town fairly efficiently. Big cities often have excellent public transportation, as well, including buses, cabs and, in London, the Underground. If your travel takes you primarily to larger cities and towns, you can easily navigate your trip via rail. If you're interested in hiking national parks or more remote trails or visiting manor houses and castles, you may want to consider a car rental. You can visit here, here and here for our three-part series on how to drive in the UK. The UK drives on the left which requires a bit of adjusting but is not impossible. Don't be afraid to consider driving but certainly do your homework so you're appropriately prepared for road conditions and traffic laws. Finally, we cannot stress how much of a liability a car can be in London. If you do rent, drop the car off before you stop in London.
Is the food terrible?
No! Young chefs are revitalizing great traditions and using fresh ingredients grown on local UK farms. Roasts, fresh fishes, a variety of vegetables and international influences mix to create modern UK cuisine. Mix up your dining between street foods, restaurants and the classic pub.
Is the UK on the Euro?
No, while part of the European Union, the United Kingdom remains on the pound sterling (noted as GBP). The pound fluctuates between about 1.3 and 1.6 US dollars. We've seen it higher it's also been lower so watch exchange rates to see when it's most advantageous to book. Generally, these days, anything under $1.50 per pound is considered a good rate.
Right - Left - Right
You learn how to cross the street in primary school. You probably haven't thought about it much since. Look left, look right, look left...except in the UK. Here, you want to switch that up. It requires some thinking so remind yourself right - left - right...look both ways, live more days.
Order Correctly at a Pub
Pubs have a seat-yourself system so grab the best available table appropriate for your party size. If there are no empty tables and you see open space at someone else's table, table-sharing is totally acceptable - most folks will happily agree if you ask politely. Order at the bar and your food will be delivered when it's ready. You can pay-as-you-go or most pubs will run a tab if you plan on having a pint or three or four.
While We're at the Pub...
Pubs are absolutely not just for drinking. (Although, that's quite a nice perk.) Flavorful meals can often be found at reasonable prices so stop in for a roast or a savory pie. They also provide a great introduction to the local culture and a good place to make some new friends.
White tea means black (hot) tea with milk. Katie suggests you add a bit (a lot) of sugar.
Words, Words, Words
So a couple of things mean something a bit different here:
Jumper = Sweater
Chips = What Americans often call french fries
Crisps = Chips
Prawns = Shrimp
Lift = Elevator
First Floor = The second floor...as in the one you have to walk a flight of stairs to get to
Ground Floor = The first floor
Rubbish = Garbage
Take away = Take out
Queue = Line, typically in reference to people waiting
The UK runs on a voltage that's about twice as strong as what we're used to in the United States so pack a converter if you're bringing any electronic devices. Plugs are also shaped differently so you'll need a plug adapter, too.
Take Away vs. Eat In
If you're ordering from a sandwich shop or a cafe, expect to be asked "take away or eat in"? There are often two prices - take away being a bit less expensive - as only food eaten on the premises is subject to tax.
Value Added Tax is the UK's version of sales tax. If you're a non-EU citizen, you can sometimes have your VAT tax refunded on goods leaving the EU. Visit here for more information. VAT is included in the posted purchase price of most goods.
Tea is essentially the fourth meal of the day typically served between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. In addition to loose-leaf tea, expect a variety of baked goods, including scones and clotted cream, and often finger sandwiches.
Have a Biscuit
...which is what Americans more commonly call "cookies". They come in a wonderful selection including jammy dodgers, ginger and, our personal favorite, digestive. Don't let the dodgy name fool you - digestive biscuits are both tasty and (sort of) healthy (a bit), especially the chocolate kind.
Plan for Sundays and Bank Holidays
Much of the UK's businesses, including small shops and some tourist attractions, maintain limited hours or close completely on Sundays. Even fewer are open on bank holidays (national holidays). If your trip to the UK involves a Sunday or two or a bank holiday, plan ahead by researching which sights or stores are open. A general rule of thumb is the smaller the town, the less likely they are to keep Sunday hours.