The United Kingdom is a fascinating place with an extremely rich cultural history. In fact, the history and connection to world affairs over the past thousand years is so great that understanding the culture can be a bit daunting. We have put together a useful cultural guide and travel tips to the United Kingdom that will help you understand the country and better travel this amazing land.
Communication: The U.K. country code is +44 (To call international dial 00 + the country code + the full local number)
Currency: Pound-Sterling £
Language: English (although a bit different from US English- take a look at useful terminology below)
Power: 230 V (requires special adapter specifically for the U.K.)
The U.K. is a nation that comprises the semi-autonomous countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Britain is a term you will often here, which simply refers to the island that makes up England, Scotland, and Wales. The history between these nations dates back over 1,000 years and has resulted in a rich cultural makeup.
Do not make the mistake of mislabeling a British person. People from England can be called English or British. People from Scotland should really only be called ‘Scots’. Many Scots do not like to be referred to as British. And people from Wales can either be called Welsh or British, they are less fussy about being aligned with the English than the Scottish. Northern Ireland a bit more complicated both politically and culturally, but generally speaking right now they consider themselves British.
The British in general have a very sarcastic, dry sense of humor. Many Americans find their comedy difficult to understand. They love to give travelers some friendly banter, so my advice is simply play along. Their disposition toward Americans is generally very positive. I have never actually had a bad run-in with a Brit and I have spent a total of almost two years either living or traveling throughout the country. They often refer to us as ‘their American cousins’ and enjoy picking our brain about the U.S., which most have either visited many times or would like to someday.
Cruise in a Car:
This is by far the best means of travel throughout Britain; as much of the spectacular sights and scenery are off the beaten path in tiny little villages that the bus or train often do not reach. All of the United Kingdom drives on the left side of the road. Most car rentals will only provide manual vehicles, although you can get an automatic upon request and a surcharge. The three white stripes on the side of the highway denote upcoming on ramps. Be wary of round-abouts; you will find these absolutely everywhere, including on major highways. It takes a little getting used to, but if you pay attention and be aggressive you will be just fine.
Take the Train:
Train travel in Britain is a great way to get around the country quickly, easily, and for fairly cheap. The earlier you book the cheaper it will typically be. Travel by train can often be confusing as your stop will often not be the end stop, so determining which train to board may be difficult. Always ask a conductor, which are usually standing around the train, which platform you need to board at.
Booking: The Trainline is the easiest way to book tickets and goes throughout the island of Britain. Book online at earlier times to find cheapest rates. Book online or right at the station.
Tip: Check and re-check your destination and departure times as British trains are very PRECISE on their train schedules.
Ride the Bus/Coach:
The major cities of Britain are connected by great bus routes. Bus is usually the cheapest means to travel the country. Megabus and National Express are the two primary companies that service the U.K. They also serve wider Europe so it’s quite easy to get a cheap bus from London to Paris or Amsterdam, or many other major cities.
The British climate is temperate, with no extremes of temperature and rainfall. Winters are usually fairly mild under the influence of the Gulf Stream, whilst summers are neither oppressively hot nor frustratingly cool. It does rain quite a bit throughout the U.K. However, what is nice about this rain is that it usually comes and goes quickly. Rule of thumb for travel anywhere in Britain, anytime of the year, is always carry a small pocket sized umbrella AND pair of sunglasses. The frequent drizzles of showers will come and go that quickly. The country really is beautiful when the sun is actually out!
The United Kingdom has certain conditions when it comes to using their health system. NHS (National Health Service) treatment depends on the length and purpose of your residence in the UK, not your nationality. The following are always free of charge.
- Treatment for accidents and emergencies as an outpatient in a hospital’s accident and emergency department. Emergency treatment in a walk-in center is also free of charge (England and Wales only). However, if you are referred to an outpatient clinic or admitted to hospital from an accident, you will be charged.
- Compulsory psychiatric treatment.
- Certain communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, cholera, food poisoning, malaria, meningitis and pandemic influenza.
Most pubs require you to order and pay at the bar, instead of with the waiter as in American restaurants. Restaurants generally are the same as in the States, with a waiter that will take your order right at the table. Tipping is not expected as gratuity is built into the bill.
Tip: If you feel you had great service simply leave a couple pounds on the table.
Cheers – means thank you, cheers while drinking, and a great many other things
Mate – informal title used for friend or likable acquaintance
Quid – money, it’s like saying buck
You alright? – you will hear this a lot, it simply means how are you doing today
Bin – trash can
Trolley – shopping cart
Lorry – truck
Loo – bathroom
Top up – to add something; more beer, credit to your phone, etc
Cash point – ATM
Across the pond – referring to the U.S. across the Atlantic Ocean
I am going to preface this by saying the real workings and history of the British government are far too complicated to explain in full detail, but I will give a brief overview. The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system. Queen Elizabeth II serves officially as head of state, with the Prime Minister serving as the head of government. The Monarchy has very little actual power left, however their symbolic value is enormous.
Members of Parliament (MP’s) are elected, much like they are here in the U.S., to serve as representatives for their given constituency. The Parliament in London is where the law of the land truly rests, but there are some interesting nuances that make it difficult to understand. For example, Scotland has its own Parliament and ‘First Minister’ that have power over many local issues, like education. In fact, the growing political division between the Scottish Parliament and London is something that threatens to break apart the U.K. Scotland held a referendum recently to vote on independence from the U.K., but the vote was to remain. I would expect to see the issue brought up again very soon.