It’s been a month since I came back from my major trip to the UK, and I am having major London-withdrawals. It was so much fun, and so much to miss, I can’t even begin to explain. I have these impulsive urges to just up and migrate there.
First things first, it is my first time to the UK, so I am thoroughly impressed by the culture and sights there (which explains why my mind & soul is clinging on to wanderlust-memories so pathetically). It is true when they say you need to visit a place at least once, and in my opinion, London deserves more than just one visit. The best part about the trip is probably the part where we HIRED A CAR and drove without a proper GPS/map, relying only on road signs and occasionally, Google Maps when the connection is stable (via pocket WiFi). The plan was to head to Scotland,m and then return to London again via a different route. It was an adventure, and perhaps one of the best yet.
Right after our stint in London, we also took off to visit Paris for a few days, before we board the plane home. Paris was not what I had expected, but I will explain more in the relevant post. I will be covering all the places we stopped by along the way, so expect a pretty big load of various posts within the next few weeks (or months?). I’m linking each of the places below, so you can easily refer to it as they each go live on this blog.
- Museums of London
- York & Cambridge
- Edinburgh, Scotland
- Royal Botanic Gardens of Scotland
- Lake District (Ambleside, Bowness & Brockhole)
- Canterbury, Whitstable & Dover
- Mayfield Lavender Farm
- Paris, France
- The Louvre
Now, as per tradition for all my travels, we start off with some basic need-to-knows and what-to-brings before you embark on your trip. I’m covering a few parts of London, Scotland and also Paris – so pardon the jumble. Do note that your itinerary may differ from mine, so please adjust and reapply the tips below to where you deem fit.
Another thing I want to touch on in this post, is VAT returns and what you can do, as a tourist, to get back all the taxes you rightly paid for, for all your shopping. Jump to the last point to read all about it.
WHAT WAS THE AIR FARE AND WHAT DID YOU FLY?
We booked our tickets about 5 months in advance and we were very lucky to get our return flights for MYR2,400 per person. Okay, it’s not exactly a return flight because what we did was to purchase a one way trip from KL to London, and then a one way trip from Paris to KL, each flight has a transit in Dubai. This way is much cheaper than flying back from London itself because that would have cost us an additional MYR1,500. We checked every airline available and Emirates Airlines was the one that gave us these reasonable fares (MAS was MYR4,000 for a return ticket, seriously?)
This was my first time flying with Emirates and I can not be happier! Service was superb, their food was good for airline standards and I thoroughly enjoyed their on-air entertainment and complimentary WiFi. Everything was pretty top notch, and that was just Economy class.
A ROAD TRIP SOUNDS FUN, BUT WHERE DO I START?
By renting a car of course! We rented ours from Enterprise, which cost us a good £277 (MYR1,705) for 9 days. And do bear in mind that what we rented.. was a manual car. We spoiled Malaysians would never drive stick, over our dead bodies, but unfortunately an auto car would cost us double the price. Thats a lot of moolah incurred for pickiness! So we decided to just suck it up and drive stick. Of course, do look around for other car rental services and compare prices. We liked Enterprise because they’re all over the UK and also very flexible on dates. The given price also covers damages, theft and such – so be sure to check with your car rental service for these.
As an additional word of caution, ALWAYS stick to traffic laws and parking signs. You can easily get summons for driving in the wrong lane at the wrong times (taxi/bus lanes have certain hours that cannot be used by regular cars) or parking in the wrong zones at the wrong time. You don’t get these summons on your windshield – they are sent to the company that owns the car, and the rental company would conveniently bill it to your credit card, like it or not. So always be mindful!
OKAY, SO IS A GPS OR MAP NECESSARY?
I believe it is. Half the time we were unsure and also lost, we ended up going in circles or using odd one-way roads. I would definitely suggest getting a proper GPS that is programmed for use within the UK and one that is updated. Note that there are a lot of road works at night, which causes traffic diversions, and ultimately cause traffic jams. Be prepared for rush hour traffic as well.
HOW MUCH CLOTHES SHOULD I BRING?
Half your luggage – a rule that I regretted not abiding to. Shopping in London can be cheap, if you shop in Primark. Tops for £3-£8 and jeans from as low as £7! Primark has everything and anything one could ever need on a trip, so save luggage space for all your new clothes that you can start perusing on your trip if you ever run out of clothes. This rule only applies if you’re not picky or particularly brand-conscious.
HOW DOES ONE GET AROUND LONDON? (WHEN NOT DRIVING)
Parking is very, very scarce in London (and very expensive) so do what the locals do – peruse the London Underground! Upon arrival, if you take the train from Heathrow to your location, stop by the counters and purchase an Oyster card. This Oyster card saves you time and money as you just need to top-up, then tap and go for all stations until your card balance runs out. There is also a maximum cap at £7 per day, so once you reach that limit, the rest of your rides for the day are free. What’s better, as a traveler, that when it’s time for you to leave, just return the card to the counter and your deposit of £5 plus any extra top-up values in the card will be refunded to you. Personally, I think it is one of the best ways to see London with little hassle. Just be prepared to walk a lot!
My only quip with the London Underground is that.. the air is really dirty. Every night after traveling all day in the tube, I had to clean my nose out and usually find my tissue coming out black. My boogers even turned black. Just a caution for those who are sensitive to dust and such, bring a mask if you need to (bring a few, your mask might probably turn black too).
DO YOU NEED A PASSPORT TO CROSS INTO SCOTLAND?
We were all worried about this too, but coming from London, the Scottish border is nothing more than a sign that says ‘welcome to Scotland’, and a whole stretch of countryside roads filled with sheep and cows. Passport is not necessary, but I would say bring them along, just in case.
I’M AFRAID I’LL LOSE MY PASSPORT!
Make a few coloured copies of your passport and keep one in your wallet, and another in your backpack (in case you lose your wallet). Keep the original passport in your luggage (be sure to lock it) so you can always be sure not to lose it. Always know where your original passport is at all times, to avoid panic. If you need to, get a safety bag to keep your passport and other valuables!
HOW DID YOU MOVE ABOUT IN SCOTLAND?
We drove there, so we would usually drive out and park in a parking lot near where we want to go, and just walk from there. We didn’t peruse any trains or buses, so I can’t really tell you if they are efficient or not. Walking about is no easy feat though, there is a lot of slopes and uneven cobblestone ground in the Old Town of Edinburgh. It would take quite a bit of energy to walk about Edinburgh Castle as well. I travelled with my aunt, uncle, mom and cousin – so my cousin and I had 3 older people to slow down the pace for. It might not be so much of an issue if you’re going with a group of friends your age.
DID YOU GUYS EAT OUT A LOT?
Not really. When you do the conversion, eating out in the UK can cost quite a bit, so we mostly booked apartments when we can, and cooked our own dinners and breakfasts. We would usually only eat lunch outside as we are already out. Cooking is fine for us because we have my mom and aunt, and visiting the local grocers proves to be quite fun too. The best places for grocery shopping, I found, are in Tesco, Asda or Sainsburys. If you are in a group where no one cooks, well, you can opt for ready to go meals in the grocery store. Not the healthiest choice, but it’s either that or you would need to research on cheap diners around you.
WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO GET TO PARIS FROM LONDON?
Eurostar – it’s a fast train that gets you there in 2 hours (don’t take the bus, that will take you 7 hours). The thing with Eurostar is that you MUST book your tickets at least 3 months in advance. I checked the price and it was about £32 per person, which isn’t so bad but we thought of waiting it out a little. Fast forward to 1 month before the trip, and prices per person were up to £188! That’s pretty ridiculous if you ask me. In the end, we decided to book a flight via British Airways instead. So lesson learnt, always book your tickets in advance. I was so bummed I didn’t get to try it out. 😦
HOW DO YOU GET AROUND PARIS?
Using the Paris Metro of course! In London, fares are calculated by zones, so each trip would cost you different fares depending on which zone you traveled to and fro. In Paris, tickets can easily be bought from the machines at EUR1.80 per person for one trip, and the price is the same no matter where you’re going to. You only need the ticket to pass through the first turnstile, once you arrive at your destination, no ticket is needed to exit. It’s more convenient this way as you do not need to buy tickets at a certain fare (unlike in Japan) and worry about paying too much or too little.
Of course, there’s also a Parisian metro card called Navigo, that you can top up and use, but I find it pointless because there’s hardly any queue at the ticket machines and also because I think applying for the card would take up more time and translating frustrations (the French don’t bother with translating their forms into english).
AIRPORT TRANSFERS IN LONDON & PARIS?
London: We arrive at Heathrow Airport. From there, all you need to do is to look for the train. Once you find the train station (every Terminal should have one), get your Oyster cards first with top-ups and then board any of the trains. From there you need to already know which station you will need to stop at. For us, we needed Canary Wharf, as our apartment is in that area – so that requires one change. Changing lines can be taxing – the crowds and the heavy luggages will ultimately slow you down. So I advise you to take it slow, do not rush. Just be sure to get onto the right line and platform. From Heathrow to central London, it took about an hour, so be prepared to wait quite a bit.
Paris: From Charles de Gaulle airport, you have the option of taking a bus, train or taxi to your hotel. Trains in Paris are a little shabbier and less organised, in comparison to London, and the buses do not stop in most places (only certain areas that are more popular). So we decided to hire a shuttle van service instead. Our provider was SuperShuttle and you basically pay less than you would a taxi because it’s a shared shuttle. The system will group all passengers going the same way or getting of the same flight, and a van that can seat maximum 8 persons will come to collect you. The van will then drop everyone off one-by-one, depending on where you stay, you could either be the first or last to leave. The ride was about 30-45 minutes and the van is nicely air-conditioned and clean. Our return pick-up was also good as they picked us up straight from the hotel. SuperShuttle is also available in many other major cities, so check the site for more info.
VAT RETURNS AND HOW TO GET THEM
*I do not claim to be an expert on the subject. This is based on what I understand and what I have done to claim my VAT. Certain procedures may vary.
First of all, VAT (value-added-tax) is a form of consumption tax that is applicable to all your purchases of goods (clothes, bags, accessories, etc). VAT is not applied to food, dining, petrol or certain services). You can only claim VAT if you are a tourist with a foreign passport.
During my whole trip, I shopped in Primark, Harrod’s, Longchamp, Ted Baker, Swatch, just to name a few. What I learnt is that after paying for your goods, ask the cashier – “where can I get my VAT form?” They would usually direct you to a section in their store or a personnel to assist you. Go there only AFTER you have paid and have a receipt or purchase and present the receipt together with your passport (you can use a coloured copy if you want, it’s acceptable as long as it’s clear). They will calculate your VAT claim, key in data from your passport and print out another ‘receipt’ that states your claim amount and ask you to sign. Then the two receipts are clipped together and put into an envelope, and handed back to you.
At some point, the personnel might ask if you want the returns back in cash or credit card. I chose cash because it seems easier, but you may prefer credit card. So decide on one, and do the same for the other purchases to make things easier.
You only need to worry about step two on the day before you leave to go back to your own country. My mistake here was trying to claim my London purchases on the day before I fly to Paris. After much queuing, only did the personnel look at my boarding pass and told me I can only claim my VAT on the day I’m heading back to Malaysia (or if you are heading out of the EU). Here’s what to note:
Today is the day you are heading back to your own country OR leaving the EU to another non-EU country.
Come early to the airport, this can take a while.
Have all your envelopes (with all the receipts inside), passport and boarding pass with you.
In some cases, the personnel may want to check your actual purchases, so keep the expensive purchases (designer bag or watches especially) with you, just in case.
Take all your envelopes and head to the CUSTOMS counter first. Do NOT head to the tax refund counter yet. Bring the envelopes for the customs officer to chop. You cannot get your returns unless they are chopped by customs.
Because I was in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, all my purchases made in Paris itself only need to be scanned at a machine to verify them. The London purchases however, needs to go through the customs officer. Why I’m telling you this, is because if you only shopped in Paris, you can easily scan all your receipts (just in case) and skip the customs line.
Once you have all your receipts scanned/chopped, you can head over to the tax refunds counter. A personnel there will check to see if all your receipts have been chopped. She will then instruct you to fill in your passport number and home address in the VAT amount receipts (which you can do earlier on before coming to the airport, but only if you know which fields to fill). Once that is all done, you will get a waiting number.
At the counter, just wait until the personnel has tallied your total, and she will ask you your preferred currency (if you requested for cash). For all my efforts I got a return of MYR247 for all the shopping I had done. Not too bad, eh?
For some people, all the hassle for such a small return would not be worth it (which is why I think, why they made VAT so complicated when it’s actually so simple) – but I believe that if you have the time, just get your deserved returns for all the money you have spent in their country to help boost the economy. It’s all about give and take, no?
Okay so we have come to the end of this pretty long introductory post. Be sure to keep a look out for all my travel posts that will be churned out slowly, but surely. Stay tuned and feel free to ask me anything I may have missed out! *kisses*