The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is made up of several countries and territories:
The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not strictly part of the UK, but rather are 'Crown Protectorates'. This means that they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU; but they are not entirely sovereign either.
See also: Republic of Ireland
There are many cities in the United Kingdom; these are a few of the major ones.
Most basic mapping in the United Kingdom is undertaken by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain (in England, Scotland & Wales) and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland. The maps found in bookshops may be published directly by those organisations, or by private map publishers drawing on basic Ordnance Survey data.
One consequence of this for the traveller is the widespread use of Ordnance Survey grid references in guide books and other information sources. These are usually presented [xx999999] (eg. [SU921206]) and form a quick way of finding any location on a map.
London has several large international airports - Heathrow and Gatwick are major worldwide hubs, Stansted and Luton serve mainly no-frills airlines from European destinations, while City serves largely business travellers from other near-European cities. Other than City, none are very central so you'll need to use public transport to reach Central London. There are also several large airports in the regions, including Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Teesside.
The Channel Tunnel has provided a rail/road connection since 1994. Shuttle trains carry cars from Calais, France to Folkestone, the journey taking around 40 minutes. On arrival at Folkestone, you can drive on to the M20 motorway which heads towards London. Car ferries also operate to many parts of the UK, see 'by boat' section.
See the city articles for more details on routes, timings and costs.
There are a large number of ferry routes into the UK from continental Europe. Newcastle serves several routes from Scandinavia. Harwich has ferries from Esbjerg in Denmark, Cuxhaven in Germany and Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands. You can also sail from Rotterdam or Zeebrugge in Belgium to Hull, or from Rotterdam to Rosyth (near Edinburgh).
Dover is one of Britain's most popular passenger ports with sailings from Zeebrugge, Dunkerque and Calais in France. The Dover-Calais route is particularly busy, with three companies competing and up to 50 sailings per day.
On the south coast, Portsmouth serves ferries from Le Havre, Caen, Cherbourg, St. Malo and Bilbao in Spain and there are speedy services between Dieppe and Newhaven. The other route from Spain is Santander to Plymouth, Plymouth also has ferries from Roscoff.
There are domestic air services linking the major cities, but this is not a popular form of transport: the distances are generally short enough to make other forms of public transport cheaper and easier. However, the introduction of low-cost airlines means that flights between the north and the south are now frequently cheaper than rail.
While ticket prices are relatively high, a train is often the best and sometimes the only way to get from A to B by public transport.
Train services in England, Wales and Scotland, which were previously operated by the state-owned British Rail, were privatised in the 1990s and are now run by a patchwork of different operators. However the former British Rail network is now known as the National Rail network, and tickets can be bought from any National Rail station for travel anywhere on the National Rail network. Train times anywhere on the National Rail network can be found on the National Rail Planner or by calling 0845-748-4950 from anywhere in the UK.
Train services in Northern Ireland are operated by the state owned Translink, who also operate rural and urban buses within Northern Ireland. Train services in Northern Ireland are not part of the National Rail network. Train and bus times can be found on Translink's web site, or by calling 028-9066-6630 from anywhere in the UK or +44-28-9066-6630 from outside the UK.
Other domestic rail services which are not part of the National Rail network include the Heathrow Express service between London Heathrow Airport and central London, the London Underground system, and several smaller metro or light rail systems in other cities. For details of these, please see the article on the city in question.
A car will get you pretty much anywhere in the UK. Parking can be a problem in large cities, and especially in London, can be very expensive. Petrol (Gasoline) is heavily taxed and therefore expensive, currently at around 75-80 pence per litre (around $6 USD a gallon), however there are very few tolls (mainly on some large bridges/tunnels). Traffic can be very heavy, especially during 'rush hour', when commuters are on their way to and from work. The M25 London orbital motorway is particularly notorious - it is best avoided on Monday mornings and friday afternoons, and only use it if you need to.
All of the UK drives on the Left (the other side from Europe and The USA).
Speed limits for cars are 70mph on Motorways and dual carriageways, and 60mph on single carriageway roads unless otherwise signposted (in towns the limit is 30mph unless signs show otherwise): enforcement cameras are widespread.
By bus and coach
Local bus services are of variable quality and cost. Getting to outlying rural areas can be especially hard, as there may be only one bus a week. Services run by major coach companies like National Express and the new cut-price Megabus provide an alternative to train travel for longer journeys.
There are different types of Taxi in the UK In London, strictly regulated "Black Cabs" (not always Black) can be easily recognised by the unique vehicle type. The drivers must pass a strict knowledge test of the geography of London. These types of vehicle are often found in other major cities, with similarly strict regulation. Minicabs are normal saloon cars or vans/minibuses used as taxis. Properly regulated Minicabs will always carry additional plates, usually at the rear, giving details of their approval by the relevant local authority and number of passengers they can carry. Any other car or driver offering to take you anywhere may not be licensed or insured; some large cities have a problem with such drivers touting for business so take care.
Ferries link the mainland to the many offshore islands including the Isle of Wight, Isle of Man, Orkneys and Shetland islands.
English is spoken everywhere. In some parts of Wales or the Scottish highlands, Welsh or Gaelic may be used, but everyone will speak English to tourists. There are strong regional accents which may make comprehension difficult.
Government bodies whose area of competence covers Wales are officially bi-lingual with English and Welsh (for example, see The DVLA site)
The currency throughout the UK is the pound sterling (£), divided into 100 pence (p). Coins are 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1 and £2. Notes are £5, £10, £20 and £50 and show the Queen on one side and famous historical figures on the other. £50 notes are often not accepted. Notes issued by Scottish and Northern Irish banks are sometimes not accepted in other parts of the UK.
ATMs are very widely available and usually dispense £10 and £20 notes. Traveller's cheques can be exchanged at most banks.
Example exchange rates (from early August 2004) are:
For more, and more up to date, rates, try using the XE.com Universal Currency Converter.
Most towns and many road routes now have a branch of one the US Fast-Food chains. Many large shops will have a coffee shop and/or restaurant. A variety of take-away (carry out) food of various types is available in most towns, ranging from Fish and Chips to Indian, Chinese, Thai and other cusines.
Almost all pubs (see below) serve food, although not all will do so during the whole of their opening hours. Quality and prices of all these types varies enormously.
Larger towns have a range of restaurants to suit most tastes and budgets.
Motorway Service areas are notoriously expensive places to eat - the operators excuse this by pointing out that they have to remain open 24 hours by law.
The pub (public house) is the most popular place to get a drink in the UK. Even small villages will often have a pub, serving spirits, lagers, ales, snacks, and increasingly a selection of wines and alcopops. British real ales, championed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) are amongst the best in the world - so long as you like your beer warm and flat. The best selections can be found at 'freehouses' which are not 'tied' to a particular brewery.
Many pubs are very old and bear traditional names, the "Red Lion" or "King's Arms"; recently there has been a trend, strongly resisted in some quarters, towards chains-pubs, such as the Hogshead, Slug and Lettuce and those owned by the JD Wetherspoons company. Pubs often serve food during the day. Drinks are ordered and paid for at the bar.
In cities there are more modern wine-bars and cafe-bars, though the variable weather means that there is not as much of a 'street scene' as in other European cities.
Clubbing is popular in large towns and cities, Manchester and London have world-renowned venues as well as many alternative joints. Prices in clubs tend to be considerably higher than those charged in pubs.
Britons tend to drink alcohol mainly in the evening, during the day they are sustained by tea and coffee. Bill Bryson was only half-joking when he said "I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage".
There are a wide variety of hotels rated on a scale of stars, from 5-star luxury to 1-star basic. There is also a huge number of privately-run bed and breakfast, or B&B, offering rooms with usually a fried 'full English breakfast'.
Budget travellers can stay in a youth hostel, the national organisations are YHA England and Wales (0870 770 6113, http://www.yha.org.uk), Scottish YHA (0870 1553255, http://www.syha.org.uk/) and HI Northern Ireland (028 9032 4733, http://www.hini.org.uk/). There are also many of campsites, though facilities tend to be basic.
In case of emergency, call 999 or 112 from any phone. Such calls are free and will be answered by an emergency services operator who will ask you for your address, and the service(s) you need (police, fire, ambulance and coastguard).
The UK's calling code is 44. To phone another country, dial 00 followed by the calling code and subscriber number.
Payphones are widely available, especially in stations, airports etc. Payphones usually take cash (minimum 20p) and don't give change. Some newer payphones accept credit and debit cards and may even allow you to send emails and surf the web. Phonecards have been phased out, though various pre-paid phonecards can be purchased from newsagents for cheap international calls.
Mobile phones are heavily used. The main networks are T-Mobile, Vodafone, Orange and O2 and are all currently GSM based. Since 2003 new CDMA based 3G networks have begun to be deployed, 3 being the first commercial provider. Pay-as-you-go SIM cards can be purchased for all networks.
Costs for calls can vary significantly depending on when, where from and where to. Calls from hotel rooms can be spectacularly expensive because of the hotel surcharges; check before you use and consider using the lobby payphones instead. Calls from payphones and landlines to mobile phones can be expensive too, if you have the choice call the other parties land line. Beware of premium rate calls, which can be very expensive.
Calls between landlines are charged at either local rate or national rate depending on the originating and destination area codes; if both are same then the area code is optional and the call will be local rate. Note that local calls are not generally free. The following table relates the first few digits dialed to call types, so you can avoid some of the pitfalls above:
Internet access is widespread. Internet cafes can be found in cities and large towns, check the city pages for details. Public libraries may also be able to provide access for free.
There are some WiFi hotspots. E.g. some branches of Starbucks are WiFi enabled.
Broadband is now available, using either ADSL over the phone line or cable modem over the cable TV network, in most locations. But this will either need to be already installed or you must be staying for long enough to make it worth your while. A good starting point is British Telecom.
The Royal Mail has a long history. Post boxes are still the traditional red color, (although there are green and gold Victorian "Penfold" boxes retained in some areas and a historically important blue box in Windsor). Mail can also be posted at post offices. Postage stamps cost 28/21p (domestic 1st/2nd class), 40p (Europe), 47p (Worldwide).