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London: Readers share their secrets for thriving in the host city

Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Let the games begin.

Oh, you thought we meant the Olympic Games? No, we meant the travel games — the ones we sometimes discover we’re not as good at as we thought we were. Usually we don’t discover that until we’re strangers in a strange land — at least, I don’t.

Visitors to London, whether they’re there for the Olympics or they’re going after the crowds die down, may not experience the kind of culture shock as when they travel to, say, a country where English isn’t the first language and the customs are totally different. Yet there’s no doubt that the gap between Britain and the U.S. isn’t quite as narrow as we think it is, despite the proliferation of chain stores on both sides of the pond.

After a visit to London in May, I wrote “London: Six Tips for Staying Sane, Saving Money, Staying in Touch.” Travel blog and section readers, as they usually do, added some more great ideas that I’ve stored away to share just at the right moment. Here is some of their wisdom:

On the blog, a reader whose screen name is Mykajalbaby, gives advice about the Oyster card, the London transport card that can save you quite a bit of money. (You buy it, load it with pounds and then swipe it at Tube, train and bus stations): “For the Olympics goers, the best thing to do is get a weekly or monthly pass going from Zone 1-3. You don’t need it beyond that, plus it’s good for any mode of transport, including the Thames Clipper (which is a commuter boat, but great for sightseeing as well).”

Print and blog reader Cameron Clark included this in a thoughtful note to travel@latimes.com: “The other thing to note about the Oyster is the importance of touching-out in places where there are no exit gates (Cannon Street Tube station comes to mind) or when changing from Underground to Overground (at Highbury and Islington). Failing to touch-out could lead to penalty fares or at the very least the inconvenient ‘flashing red light.’ Being able to load it and ‘cash out’ at the end of your trip is great, but it must be done at a manned ticket office and if you purchased it with a credit card you need that card with you to obtain the credit.”

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Also from the blog, a reader identifying himself as Walt Kowalski offers this sage piece of advice to those who may be trying to get their bearings:Move out of the way to read your maps. Don’t stop abruptly and stand three across on a busy London sidewalk.”

Blog reader NetWait applauds that notion, adding, “Good advice for anyone anywhere - hallways, sidewalks, supermarket aisles, parking lots, anywhere. Americans do seem to labor particularly heavily under the misapprehension that they’re the only...people on the planet. Step OUT of the line of traffic, folks.”

On the matter of getting around, I had remarked that I was wearing two pairs of socks on my London jaunts because I was walking so much. But Mykajalbaby said, “Get ready to walk, learn to use the bus system…and find comfortable shoes without having to wear two pairs of socks- that’s even worse!!! A good pair of brogues or padded, buckled sandals are fashionable and comfortable enough to walk 10 miles a day in- take it from me!”

(Brogues? Webster’s says they are “a strong outdoor shoe with ornamental perforated patterns in the leather.”)

OK, but I’m still going with my New Balance walking shoes and the double socks -- but now, thanks to reader input, with twice as much protection.

“About three years ago I found the awesome WrightSock double-layer socks,” Clark said. “I had resumed running and was having terrible blister issues when someone told me to try them. They stock these at REI and some running stores, but I buy them on Amazon due to better price and selection.”

I now have a couple of pairs of the WrightSocks. I wore two pairs of the double-layer socks (which I guess means I had four layers) on a recent trip to Yosemite — not a blister on my dogs, which was amazing because we did a lot of hiking.

As for staying in touch in London, I left my iPhone at home because I worried about data charges abroad. Instead, I bought an inexpensive Samsung phone and relied on it and a Huawei modem for my poor, beaten-up but sturdy netbook.

But Clark votes in favor of swapping SIM cards and getting a provider (and making sure you have a phone that can be unlocked): “I think it’s worth the effort because if you get a SIM with data you have that awesome resource (Google Maps with navigation/transit directions) at your fingertips at all times (above ground anyway!) Google maps with Transit gives you a detailed route planner that lists all the stops for your journey, including the stop letters, which are not necessarily sequential on a given route.

“For mobile service I purchased a 15-pound [about $23] pay-as-you-go micro SIM on the Three UK network. It gave me unlimited data for a month, 300 minutes (UK only) and 3,000 texts. Such a value compared to American options! I even used the service in mobile hotspot mode on my smartphone, which provided mobile broadband for my tablet, laptop and my wife’s iPad and laptop, all at the same time.

“A Carphone Warehouse shop in the Victoria train station was very helpful in getting this and is a vendor for multiple networks, which helps if the traveler knows nothing about 3G/4G network frequencies, APN settings, etc.

“I have a new (unlocked) HTC One S from T-Mobile US, which in the past would be a bad thing. However,because T-Mobile US is starting to roll out high-speed data services on the more ubiquitous 1900/2100 frequencies, their latest phones actually work abroad at fast data speeds. A SIM-enabled iPhone would have probably worked just as well, and 3 UK actually has a support department for iPhone users. I tested the network speed and got over 10,000Kb/s down and 2,000 up. Not bad!”

In eschewing the iPhone and having only the cheapie Samsung phone and an international calling card with a few pounds on it, I relied on Skype, which is when the Huawei modem came in handy. (For reader HowardTu, who asked where I got the SIM card, it was at Fone World at 1-3 Camberwell Church St., and I got the dongle there too.) Clark does me one better though with this info:

“Skype is not a bad option if you’re already set up on it, but my approach was a little different. I already use a VoIP provider for my home phone service, a small but very sophisticated service called VoIP.ms. They allow softphone access and as many IP Phones or softphones as you want on your account to be connected at any time. I have an IP softphone client on my smartphone, my laptop and my Thinkpad tablet. My provider actually has a London-based server, which means I was able to place calls from my mobile, tablet or laptop back to the US for about a penny a minute.”

No matter how much we think we know, readers always know more and usually better. Thanks to all, and please feel free to share your tips in the comment section below or send to travel@latimes.com. Cheerio!


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