One of London’s many tourist hotspots, the London Eye.

7 Weird Things to Know About the U.K. Before You Visit

By Brittany Anderson
Web Content Contributor

You might think that going to a predominantly English-speaking country will make your traveling experience easier or better. The U.K.— which consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland— surely seems like a safe bet.

Besides the fact that our two continents are separated by thousands of miles of ocean and our countries have culturally been living separately for hundreds of years, the discrete differences you’ll discover once you’re there can be just plain intimidating.

Culture shock is culture shock, and you’re bound to go through it no matter where you find yourself abroad. But don’t fall victim to the stereotypical tourist trope: here are seven weird things you need to know as an American before visiting the U.K..

1. They may speak English, but you won’t know all the words.

The British use entirely different words for many things which can be confusing if you’re not aware of their meaning. Ordering “french fries” when you should’ve said “chips” might get you a few looks, but they’ll probably know what you meant. Other words might not be so easily interchangeable.

You might be familiar with cookies being called “biscuits” or candy being called “sweets,” but did you know that “aubergine” means eggplant, “rocket” means arugula and “courgette” means zucchini? (You’re off the hook if you don’t like vegetables.) There’s also “lift” for elevator, “flat” for apartment and “queue” for waiting in line. Here is a huge list of more. Study up!

2. Prepare for no air conditioning.

Yes, you read that right. Welcome to the land of old infrastructure and radiators— not 4,000 watts of electricity and ceiling fans. Air conditioning is seen as a luxury across many European countries, including the U.K.. The reason? It usually never gets hot enough to need it. But over the past several years Britain has experienced brutal summers— Texans might scoff, but give them a break. Imagine being in 80° weather without a steady supply of cool air flow!

If you’re planning a summer trip, prep accordingly: bring light layers (it still gets chilly in the evenings) and a mini plug-in fan, like this one from Amazon.

An open window in an Edinburgh flat on a sunny day, with a view into the courtyard and stone buildings across the way.
Another tip? Join the other 66 million Brits and crack open a window. It’s free and the easiest way to get air flowing. You will learn to love (or at least put up with) the street noise, and the views— like this flat window in Edinburgh— aren’t usually half bad. Photo by Trevor Anderson.

3. Everything is bigger in Texas— only in Texas.

Whether it’s frequent restaurant refills or a 32-ounce gas station drink, we’re used to having ice cold drinks at the ready. Your thirst won’t be quenched so easily in the U.K.. Drinks in general are substantially smaller; if you order water during a meal out, you can expect to get a 12-ounce glass and a pitcher to split between everyone at the table. You’ll almost always have to ask for ice, and you’ll need to specify you want tap water or else you’ll be charged and given mineral water. Buc-ee’s-sized anything is just not a thing there. Neither is gulping.

4. Stand on the right, walk on the left.

Escalator riding, stair climbing and street walking etiquette is important, especially in big cities. Just like how they drive on the left side of the road, you should keep left when you’re moving about. Otherwise, keep right and let others move past you— this will be your only saving grace on public transportation, especially the London Underground

5. All aboard the Weetabix train.

Whether you’re an early-morning, midday or late-night cereal connoisseur, get ready to be disappointed. The U.K.’s cereal selection fare poorly in comparison to the sugary goodness we get in America. Chalk it up to the fact that eating wacky cereal is very much so an invention of American culture. Overseas, you’ll be stuck with a pretty bland spread.

A colorful shelf of cereal boxes inside London’s “Cereal Killer Cafe.”
No U.K. grocery store will have a cereal aisle boasting this much variety— but Cereal Killer Cafe in London does! They pride themselves on their colorful selection of 120 different kinds of cereals, many of which are not available for regular purchase in the U.K., as well as offering a variety of milks and toppings. Stop in to satisfy your craving— or else say goodbye to Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms and more. Photo by Brittany Anderson.

6. It will take a while to figure out their Monopoly money.

The U.K.’s currency is called the pound sterling, and their colorful notes (bills) look seriously like something out of a board game. We print similar denominations, but they make a lot more use out of their coins than we do. Aside from their strange two pence (cent) coin, they also have a two pound coin and a one pound coin (the £1 note hasn’t existed since 1984— imagine not having a dollar bill!). The notes are fairly large and the inevitable buildup of coins will get heavy quick, so make sure you have ample wallet room to accommodate.

Northern Irish banknotes and coins.
Fun fact: even though they all use the pound, each country in the U.K. (apart from Wales) print their own banknotes. Here is a Northern Irish £5, £10 and £20 note, and from left to right is a £1 coin, 50p (pence) coin, 20p coin, 10p coin, 5p coin, 2p coin and 1p coin (which they also call a penny). Photo by Brittany Anderson.

7. You’re not rude for not tipping.

Tipping culture in the U.K. isn’t the same as ours, so knowing when to tip and when not to tip can get confusing. Unless you received table service, you’re not expected to tip your server. Even with table service, only leaving around 10% is the norm. Ordering at a counter (such as in a pub) doesn’t count for tipping, either. It might feel weird to not leave much, but leaving an overzealous tip or one altogether when it isn’t necessary can cause confusion and trouble for the staff. Here is a handy guide that easily explains proper British tipping etiquette in different situations.

Every good budding or well-seasoned traveler should know that doing your research before heading abroad is of utmost importance— not only for your own sake, but out of respect for the residents who call that country their home. Now that you’re ready to live like a Brit, enjoy your holiday (vacation) to the U.K.!

Featured image by Brittany Anderson.

One thought on “7 Weird Things to Know About the U.K. Before You Visit

  1. #1 is very true even within the UK itself!

    Say “canny lass” down here in the South and we’ll know what you mean, but it might raise an eyebrow.

    While I do understand “ach”, “Och aye” and “wee”, I’d be willing to bet I’d be mentally translating more ‘words’ in a conversation with a very traditional Scotsman than I would an American!

    #7 – And tipping at an actual bar (counter) in a pub would be seen as very strange!

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