(Not) Saving a Little Money in London

Heathrow Station on the Piccadilly Line.

I don’t make mistakes. I make learning experiences. That’s my clever use of semantics to not feel so embarrassed after a faux pass. So, here’s a “learning experience” from a recent trip to London, involving exchange rates and transportation.

I lived in London for several years, so when boarding the British Airways flight from Buenos Aires (from BA on BA), it kind of felt like going home. I wouldn’t be making the same mistakes first time tourists do, I scoffed. Of course, it’s not just first time tourists who make mistakes.

The first pro tip of travelling to London from overseas is to not exchange your money before you leave. With credit cards becoming so prevalent, usually the best option is to just withdraw money directly from your account at one of the ubiquitous ATMs scattered conveniently through London. Typically you get the interbank exchange rate, which is better than anything you’ll get at exchanges or even a bank. And it’s certainly a lot safer than wandering around an unfamiliar city with a roll of cash.

For those still stuck with analogue money, orthose in need of some walking around money when arriving at a new city, it’s still better to exchange money in London than in your home country. Frequently, airport exchanges give you poorer rates, but this is not the case in London. Exchange houses have branches at the airport and offer the same rates there as they do in the City.

I knew all that, so I felt I was being really clever when I went to exchange some money at the airport as soon as I arrived in Heathrow. There was a difference of about 15% over the best rates I could get in Buenos Aires (this was before the Argentine government stopped allowing foreign exchange). Then the very helpful clerk at the money exchange offered to sell me tickets to the Heathrow Express; and would give me a discount if bought a round trip.

Britain, the only country where spotted dick is a good thing.

Now, see, I knew that the Underground reaches terminals 1 through 4 of Heathrow. But I was in Terminal 5. Since I didn’t know how to get to the other terminals, I agreed to buy the ticket. And to save money, got the return ticket. I still felt clever.

Of course, a few minutes later when I boarded the Heathrow Express, I found out that it offers free service between Terminal 5 and the other four Terminals. In other words, a free connection to the Underground.

See? I eventually made it OK.

See? I eventually made it OK.

Ultimately, I wasn’t so annoyed about paying an extra 20 pounds. I was going to Earl’s Court which is on the Piccadilly Line, the same line that services Heathrow. Instead, I took a train to Paddington, and then had to navigate a train station and another underground station before I could take the District Line back to Earl’s Court.

The moral of this story is that clerks at exchange houses are very helpful, but if you are spry young traveler like me carrying little luggage, don’t buy the Heathrow Express tickets. The Underground reaches all five terminals now, and you can buy tickets online in advance.

The Express Train is really comfortable and convenient if you have lots of luggage: the Underground is not suited for large bags, but the Express train has special compartments for them. Paddington is conveniently close to Bayswater, and there are taxis just outside the door. If you are the sort of person to take a taxi to your hotel, the Express is a great alternative and saver. But if you can carry your bags in your hand and are going to be taking the Underground anyway… well, take the Underground.

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