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Traveling Safely: Things to Know Before You Go

by Michele Deppe

England doesn't disappoint: You'll discover quaint villages, romantic gardens, and stalwart medieval castles unspoiled by time.

But to get there, you'll cope with passports and prescriptions, insurance policies and reservations, and be forced to acknowledge that the Artful Dodger is alive and well and intends to pick your pockets.

Don't fret. With these simple tips, you'll be on your way to experiencing the England of your dreams.

The Paperwork...

Americans traveling to England need photo identification, usually a driver's license, and a valid passport (http://travel.state.gov/). No visas are required. Bring your prescriptions, in case you need to replace medication or eyeglasses. It's useful to have a photocopy of your driver's license, passport, airline tickets, insurance cards, credit cards and serial numbers of traveler's checks. Keep this separate from the originals. For your protection, the concierge may request that your passport be kept in the hotel safe, because a stolen passport is a hot commodity anywhere in the world.

Travel insurance protects your expensive investment from last minute cancellations due to personal circumstances, industry failures, natural disasters or global security issues. If your insurance doesn't cover cancelled tickets or lost luggage, you may want to investigate additional coverage at Travel Guard International (http://www.travelguard.com/).

Pounds & Pence...

The British pound is currently equal to $1.85 US. Like pennies to the dollar, 100 pence equals one pound, or one "quid". English banks provide the best exchange rate for your American dollars.

Consider requesting about 100 cash from your bank, several weeks before departure. Arriving with cash in hand for the inevitable tips, tube fares and cold drinks is convenient, and you'll avoid the greedy commissions taken by currency exchange services at hotels and shops. You can use a credit card for everything else; the statement provides a detailed account of what you've spent, and Visa, MasterCard and American Express are widely accepted. Some retailers may charge a fee for credit card purchases.

Several warnings about withdrawing cash from ATMs using your major credit card: Firstly, you may need to request a PIN number in advance. Withdrawing cash incurs a fee, doesn't earn frequent flier miles, and activates interest charges. Worse, pickpockets often target ATM users. If you lose your credit card or it's stolen, have the issuer's direct number written down, since the toll free number won't work from abroad.

Traveler's checks are protected from theft. However, some merchants have accepted traveler's checks in good faith, in exchange for their merchandise, only to have the traveler later claim that their checks have been stolen. As a result, some retailers no longer honor traveler's checks. Finding a convenient spot to cash a traveler's check isn't always easy, and you'll pay fees twice: to purchase the check, and again to cash it.

Secret your wallet in a front trouser pocket, or wear a money belt; or pinned cloth pouch -- or even a plastic sandwich baggie -- at your waistband (which isn't as warm or confining as a belt). Use inside coat pockets, or carry purses protectively under your arm. Avoid wearing fanny packs, which are a dead giveaway of where your cash is, not to mention giving America a black eye in terms of fashion!

Seniors who are not U.K. citizens may not be eligible for all discounts. Students get remarkable savings on plane fares, rail passes and admission to popular sites by investing $22 to get an International Student Identity Card (ISIC, http://www.isiccard.com/travel/).

Before leaving, check your airline ticket to make sure you've paid your departure tax. Travelers who have not yet paid this fee must do so at the gate; it is about $44 for flights home, $22 for flights within the U.K. and Europe.


There's a wise adage that says you ought to take five days worth of outfits, no matter how long your trip. It's good advice, especially since it's important to have a suitcase that you can easily maneuver. Don't hazard a back injury from the strain of bringing everything you own! You'll also increase your vulnerability by needing help with your bags, leaving yourself more open to theft. Also, leave flashy jewelry and fine watches at home.

An umbrella and raincoat doesn't go amiss in Britain, where you're likely to have a shower at least once in every five days. English weather can be chilly, even in summer months, and Brits typically enjoy cool interiors, so plan to dress in layers.

Necessary documents, medications in their original packaging, extra water, reading material and one emergency change of clothes should go with you in your carry-on case. If you are concerned that your medication may not be licensed for use in Britain, check the Customs and Excise website for advice: http://www.hmce.gov.uk/.

Obviously, you'll leave any items that could be defined as a "weapon" at home. Airport Security prefers that you use plastic zip ties, instead of metal locks, in case they need to search your bag. Avoid wearing metal (i.e. steel shank shoes, belt buckles), and let security know if you have metal body parts. For some strange reason, chocolate has mimicked bombs during checks by explosive-detection machines, so avoid packing it in your luggage!

The electrical current in Britain is stronger, 240 volts, and if your appliance isn't made to handle that current, you'll need a transformer to slow the voltage down. For example, a curling iron labeled '120V/240 V AC' indicates that it is able to withstand the stronger British current, without a transformer. However, the curling iron plug wouldn't fit into a larger, 3 prong English wall outlet, until a plastic adapter plug is put in first, to "fit" the plug into the outlet. Many hotels provide transformers and adaptor plugs, but if you need to purchase one, head to the local "Boots the Chemist" store, which is open until midnight.

If you take lots of photos, pack an extra camera battery (or more than one). Be sure to bring your battery charger and an adaptor so that you can recharge your battery in your hotel each night.

Although many cell phones are part of a Global System for Mobiles (GSM), your per minute charges from your American phone number are likely to be high, even after you've activated "international roaming." If you're going to make lots of calls, phone rental may be ideal. There are a number of phone scams happening in Britain. Check out the London Trading Standards webpage for more information: http://www.lotsa.org.uk/.

Health & Fitness...

Staying healthy on your holiday involves the same precautions as at home: stay hydrated, wash your hands frequently, and get adequate rest. The water in Britain is "safe" and doesn't bother most tourists.

Dial 999 for emergencies. Generously, the Crown will foot the bill if you require emergency medical care. (Excuse the pun: most tourists are treated for broken toes after stumbling in a dark hotel room.) If you're admitted in-patient at a hospital, then you become responsible for payment.

Outside London, obtain medical information by dialing 100, and the operator will direct you to the appropriate care facility. Your current health insurance probably covers most needs, or you can buy additional travel medical insurance. Some Medigap plans are active outside the U.S., but Medicare doesn't cover travelers. Keep your insurance card with you.

For mild illness, consult a chemist (pharmacist) at a "Boots" or "Superdrug" store for over-the-counter relief. For more serious complaints, go to an NHS Medicentre to see a doctor, most of whom treat overseas visitors without an appointment, and be prepared to pay the fee. If you suffer from a chronic disease such as diabetes or epilepsy, consider obtaining a MedicAlert Identification Tag (bracelet or pendent), to alert caregivers, http://www.medicalert.org/.

For current traveler's health information, and recommended vaccines, check updates for Western Europe at the Center for Disease Control website at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/destinat.htm. Britain is a safe destination, and one's risk of encountering past threats, namely the infamous "Mad Cow Disease" are negligible, at one in 10 billion servings of beef. Of course, it's always good policy to eat thoroughly cooked food, stay away from animals that may be bite, and use an insect repellent with DEET to your lower risk of contracting Lyme disease.

Good Habits...

Common sense rules apply in the U.K., as everywhere else. Don't leave your bags and valuables unattended -- even in populated hotel lobbies where you're with a large party, or temptingly in view on the seat of your locked rental car. Only ride in cabs where the driver has a name badge and a police-issued license on display. Remember that the traffic is coming from a different direction, so use extra caution when crossing the street. Stay in busy, well-lit areas. Stay out of the parks at night, as well as areas with poor reputations such as London's King's Cross and Soho in the West End. Every time you pay for something, you show a pickpocket where your money is kept, so discreetly, but methodically, return your charge card or change to your secure place.

If prices are not displayed, request the amount, or go elsewhere to avoid hidden costs. Only tip if you are happy with the service, about 10-15 percent is appropriate. Sometimes the service charge is already added to your bill; if it isn't clear, then ask. Tipping is unnecessary in a pub. Finally, don't allow anyone to "double swipe" your credit card, creating an opportunity for your signature to be forged, allowing a thief to collect a tidy sum from your charge account.

More Information:

Visit Britain

British Customs and Excise

Center for Disease Control

International Student Identity Card

London Trading Standards


Travel Guard International

Michele Deppe is a freelance writer and staunch Anglophile. Her hobbies include traveling to nations that value a good cup of tea, riding horses, painting, cooking, and loads of reading. Michele's Best British Travel Tip for summer: "Always pack warm clothes, even if you're going to England in August."
Article © 2005 Michele Deppe


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