I hate flying. More specifically, I hate taking off, landing, and the middle part where you’re stuck in a cramped space for 9 hours.
I also have a lot of anxiety over flying which is why my first tip is: drugs, get some drugs. You’re not cheating the system if you go to your doctor and say “I have travel anxiety” and he prescribes you some Lorazepam. In fact, you’re making the flight more enjoyable!
Not that airlines lack entertainment, now days, all British Air intercontinental flights have some insanely cool entertainment options. Last time, I watched like 4 movies, an FA cup final replay (Arsenal and Man U) and some television programs — all for free, all from the “comfort” of my chair.
Other than drugs, the other thing I recommend is to use one of the other online places (I actually book through the British Airlines site) to figure out which days are cheapest to fly in your area. Over here, non-stop flights to London that depart and return on Mondays through Thursdays are the cheapest. Figure in one day of travel to fly from America to London (from Seattle, it takes 17 hours to fly over there and 1 hour to fly back) and plan accordingly. If you leave on a Thursday night you will arrive on Friday morning. I like to leave on Thursdays and return on Tuesdays: 4 nights is usually more than enough for me. This time though, I am staying the whole week because Arsenal have two games: Burnley (or the FA Cup) on the 6th and Porto on the 9th.
Yes, I am aware that the Burnley match could be postponed and I am aware that the replacement FA cup match could be an away match. Those are the chances I am willing to take. The way I’m looking at it is that I’m going to see the Champions League game and anything else is a bonus.
Once you land, you will need to get into town and to your hotel. Save your money and take the tube — the express train is very fast but it costs $60 and the tube costs $10, cheaper if you buy an Oyster visitor pass. I loved the Oyster pass last year, it saved me a lot of money over the daily pass and I could use it on a wide variety of transport options. Public transport in London is pretty much awesome.
One other trick that I can pass on is that since you’re going to be there for just 4 or 5 nights you need to acclimate yourself to their time quickly. What I do is 100% opposite of what all the travel places recommend: I don’t drink on the plane but when I land, I get settled in, then I go out and try to stay up as late as possible. Combined with some wonderful ale and this makes me pass out at a normal-ish and wake up at a normal-ish time. You don’t want to be up at 2am in London if you can avoid it.
Skip the “Bed and Breakfasts” and stick to a package deal. If you look around enough you might save a few dollars by staying at some place that sounds quaint but trust me, nothing beats modern amenities — like having your own toilet which they call “en suite.” Trust me, not sharing a toilet with 30 other people is totally worth a few extra dollars.
I also make a point of staying in London proper and not at the airport. Again, you spend a few dollars more per night but being able to walk from a pub to your hotel is priceless.
Finally, you can get a lot of really reasonable 3 and 4 star hotels in a package deal. Again, you’re traveling all the way to London to see Arsenal don’t sully the moment by staying somewhere run down.
I bring a laptop, a camera, and two cell phones. The laptop, obviously is to get directions, write my blog, check my email, etc.
Most hotel lobby’s have free wi-fi but everywhere else is pay as you go and it can get very expensive. Make sure you check the hotel you stay at explicitly states that they have complimentary wi-fi for guests. I got into a place once that didn’t have free wi-fi and ended up paying quite a bit for a week’s worth of wireless. You can sometimes avoid this by slipping in to a hotel lobby and checking if they have free wi-fi. A lot of them do.
I bring two cell phones because I need a phone here and a phone there and because unlocking your cell phone can be a pain in the ass and is no guarantee that the sim card you buy in London will work. So, I bring my regular phone and a cheap-ass Nokia that I got over there a few years ago. I know the cheap phone works over there and I can get a sim card with 60 minutes on it for $15. If this is your first time, buy a phone over there, they are super cheap and available at every record shop.
Trust me, it’s worth it to have a cell phone: everyone in London has them so you won’t be able to hook up without it. Moreover, pay phone prices are ridiculous. I had to call my bank once from a pay phone (because they cut off my card when they saw it get used in London — which I could have avoided by simply calling them and alerting them that I was going to London MAKE SURE YOU DO THIS) and I swear to you it cost me $30 to make a 10 minute international call.
Just make sure that you bring proof of ownership for all your electronic gadgets, because when you land in the States, customs can make you pay tax on pretty much everything. Also, clean off any files that you don’t want the customs agent to look at, in America the border agents can now look at every file on your computer if they want.
There are basically four ways to get match tickets: become a red level member and buy them through the club, become a member of your local official supporters club and get them through them, get them from another member, or go to a scalper (they are called “touts” in England).
I have done all of these and by far the easiest is the first. Yes, you have to wait until a month before the match to buy the tickets. Yes, you cannot get away tickets. Yes, you would be very lucky to get tickets to a big match (Man U, etc). But, it’s easy and requires no special paperwork.
In normal years you may have to pick a match that won’t be sold out — I’ve seen Charlton (at Highbury!), Blackburn, Blackburn, and Sunderland. But recently there have been a lot of matches available for general sale. For example, Bolton on January 6th is currently available. Book your flight and don’t worry — you will get a seat at a match like that. Just remember to logon as soon as the tickets go on sale (local London time) and you’ll be fine.
In the past, I got tickets on Craigslist but that was because I needed one for me and my girlfriend and when you buy tickets through the club everyone needs to be a member. Rather than buy her a one year membership and the match tickets I just went on Craigslist and bought them from another season ticket holder. Technically, buying tickets this way is only illegal if the owner sells the ticket over face value.
I’ve also gone through a “tout” and my only advice is that if you’re going to do this, use your hotel concierge. Reselling tickets above face value is highly illegal in England. Also, be prepared to pay a huge “tax” on the cost of the ticket — they know you’re a foreigner and charge accordingly. Finally, I can’t dissuade you enough from doing this. I once had to drive back from Swansea in the back seat of a car (sitting on the hump) while a dude did lines of coke and freaked out constantly about the tout and the driver got blitzed to the bejesus belt off some weed.
Your official supporters club ticket agent can get tickets to almost any match, but you have to ask in advance. This is completely legal and grants you access to some of the more difficult match days. Check their local charter for details.
One final thing, you pay for what you get as far as seats. Sitting behind the goals can be a great experience but remember, a lot of clubs come in to the Emirates and park the bus. That means that you could find yourself sitting in one end of a large stadium, staring at your navel for 45 minutes while the other team defends their goal on the other side of the pitch.
I like to sit in the middle and I have noticed that there is a price difference between the upper bowl and the lower bowl and there is a reason for it. Contrary to the way we design stadiums here in America, the upper tier seats offer a much better view of the match action and thus are more costly than lower tier seats. You may think you’re “in the nosebleeds” but really the game is much more enjoyable to watch from the top. Of course, the fan participation is much more “colorful” down below. Whatever suits you.
Having Fun in London
Everything is free!
All of the national museums are free to the public and you will have a really hard time seeing more than 2 museums in a day, unless you just breeze through them. Throw in the public markets, the walks, and just stopping at as many little pubs as you can and filling the days are no problem. Personally, I love the national portrait gallery and always make a stop there to see their current exhibit. Also, the British Museum is insanely large and nearly impossible to get through in a single day, plus spending all day looking at antiquities can get a bit boring.
Here’s what I do: get up, go to Starbucks. Back to the hotel and write the blog. Out to breakfast at a local joint, some place where the construction guys are all eating. To the tube and off to say, the British Museum. Kick around there for a while and then off to lunch. London food is not as bad as everyone likes to make out and there are these things called “gastro pubs” which is just a fancy pub with really good food. Yes, they are a bit expensive but they have solid food and good beer. Of course you can always stop at some fish shop and have a good meal, but for me the key to the whole London experience is to stop some place, have a beer, move to some place else, have a beer, eat lunch, have a beer. You get the idea! I’ll even eat at Square Pie if there’s one in the area because, you guessed it, they serve beer.
The other thing I like to do is walk. I walk a lot in London. There are two really fun walks along the Thames, both north and south banks. They are like 3 miles long and there are all kinds of cool things to see. I’ve walked from Trafalgar square all the way along the river to the Tower of London and also along the south bank also to the Tower. The south bank is by far the better walk just because there’s so much more to see: the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the government buildings, and so much more. There’s also a Young’s Brewery called the Founder’s Arms right there next to the Tate that offers some good food, great beer and a welcome relief from the seriousness of the Museum.
Yes, I’ve been to the Tower of London, it’s OK if overpriced. You should go at least once and laugh at Henry VIII’s codpiece, you cocksandwich.
Don’t be that American. You know which one I’m talking about. Don’t claim that “they’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for you.” No, no they wouldn’t and you sound like a huge prick. Also, foreigners all think Americans are brash, loud-mouthed, know-it-alls, do me a favor and please don’t confirm it.
You will also get a lot of odd looks if you go around telling everyone you’re on vacation to see Arsenal. You have to admit, it is a bit odd. You either have to get used to it or create some lie about how you’re there on business.
On match day, the local custom is to get nicely pissed at a pub before the match. Drinking in the stadium is strictly regulated and very expensive anyway so save it for before and after. I like the Famous Cock because it is right outside of the Islington tube station and a short walk to the stadium.
The other thing you need to know is that standing in your seat is strictly forbidden — in fact, just read the “Terms and Conditions” set out by the club and follow them religiously. The last thing you want to do is something stupid that gets you kicked out of the stadium and banned for life.
Well, that’s pretty much my summary of how I get there, what I do, how I get tickets, and hopefully how I get home alive. Like I said, this year I’m going over to see the Porto match and hopefully I’ll get to see Burnley as well. I think I’ll try to see the Camden and Borough markets and there’s a free play at the Globe on Friday that I might try to catch. Drop me a line if you’re in London at that time and I’ll see if I can’t pencil you in.
Also, if you have any suggestions of places to eat and things to do, please share them in the comments.
See you tomorrow when Arsene Wenger reveals that he’s signed David Villa and Ashley Young for a combined total of £200m.