Working as a volunteer London Ambassador gave Joanna Biddolph insights into what concerns tourists most when visiting London.
Most visitors arrive in London, the world's second most favourite city, with a list of sights to see without knowing how to fit them together - inexpensively. In a fast-paced, people-packed city the complexities can seem even more challenging. From questions I was asked while volunteering as a London Ambassador, welcoming visitors to London during the 2012 Olympic Games and again this summer, here are some insider tips:
Getting around without wasting a pound
Arriving in London keen to spend wisely, the cost of getting from a to b, then on to c and d, before heading back to the hotel, can seem unreasonably high. In London, not knowing whether to travel by Underground or bus adds an extra dilemma. In Tube stations, charts list fares (but how do you calculate costs when your day might involve numerous short hops?); maps show travel zones (how many and which zones might you travel through?). There is no ticket advice at bus stops (fares are cheaper than on the Tube). There are other ways to travel, too, but you are likely to start with the Tube.
"A single fare costs how much? For a couple of stops!" your inner voice will scream, already counting the cost of the trip and it's only day one. A Travelcard (unlimited journeys, capped to a daily amount) seems a good option but, not knowing where you might have to go, you'll opt for several zones, just in case. Handing over your cash, you'll make a mental note to travel briskly to get your money's worth. Above ground, a few hours later, you'll find you've walked from one palace to another; that the best way to reach the next landmark is on foot; and that you've paid for fares you won't use.
As Londoners know, but as is not well-articulated to tourists, the best way to travel is by Oyster card. This top-up pay-as-you-go plastic smartcard offers the cheapest single fares; caps the cost of multiple journeys to match the Travelcard; and is valid on the Tube, buses, the Docklands Light Railway, rail journeys within Greater London and gives a discounted rate on KPMG Thames Clippers (London's river bus) and the Emirates Air Line cable car (I warned you there were more ways to travel). Importantly, when your feet are sore, it gives you permission to stop walking without worrying about wasting money. Always touch in and out or you'll be fined - automatically, deducted on your Oyster card.
Oyster cards never expire so take yours home and keep it with your passport for next time. If you are unlikely to return, the deposit (currently £5) and any balance will be refunded. It's an essential part of London life and Londoners like me keep spares for visiting family and friends to use.
Making the most of your time in London
Although some travellers plan their itineraries meticulously, many work it out when they've arrived. London is not the best place to wing it - unless you're happy to find you've missed some treats while powering through your home-made list.
Shockingly, there are no tourist offices bang in the centre of town. Indeed, there is only one bona fide tourist office in London - in the City, London's financial centre - which is why London Ambassadors proved so helpful. We hope to be back next summer (late July to early September); ask us for directions, tips and ideas.
In between, and especially if you are here for two days or more, check in with the City Information Centre, pick up a free map, ask the team how best to fill your time (including trips beyond London, not that this London-lover wants to encourage that) and book tickets to save time and money. It is opposite St Paul's Cathedral so stick those two things on your list for day one, then press on with an enlightened itinerary.
Not being ripped off
If you're in London for the first time and have only half a day then, yes, an overview hop-on hop-off bus tour is worth doing. Three main companies provide tours (Big Bus Tours; Golden Tours; The Original Tour) with not much between them on costs, routes, flexibility and extras - so take your pick. Booking online is always cheaper.
Most round London bus tour tickets include a scenic trip on the Thames; some also include guided walks. That makes them rather good value for London novices. More fun, if you have more time, is using the Thames Clippers, London's commuter boats - getting on and off to suit your tourist dreams.
Some visitors praise the London Pass - a pre-paid ticket giving discounted and fast-track access to major attractions. Better value the more days you buy, it can otherwise feel as if you are doing London by route-march - charging round not wanting to waste money. I recommend you do London, or at least some of it, by Routemaster - the old-style double-decker bus, a few of which have been retained on two routes past some of London's most significant symbols. Heritage route 15 goes to and from Charing Cross (a few yards from Trafalgar Square) past the Royal Courts of Justice, along Fleet Street to St Paul's Cathedral, then on to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Hop on and hop off, making good use of your Oyster card - and your energy.
Cyclists can travel inexpensively using Barclays Cycle Hire. Nicknamed Boris Bikes (after Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London who introduced these distinctive bikes) the scheme is designed for short rides (journeys under 30 minutes are free to registered users) so pedal from landmark to landmark. Find docking stations using the official free app.
When to do which must-do
For many travellers, seeing sites from above is a must-do. With more than a dozen tall structures, the decision is not about which but when. It isn't about day or night, either. You will get most out of whichever you choose when you can identify places you've seen, otherwise the view is a sea of buildings. Leaving going round the London Eye, or up The Shard (western Europe's tallest building), till your last day will also allow you to book your trip online - cheaper for both but astonishingly so for The Shard (£24.94 booked in advance; £100 to go up it immediately). London is best visited when you are in the know.