|Before arriving in London,
it doesn't hurt to have some sense of the money used in the UK. The
basic unit of currency is the pound (£). Like the dollar, the pound
is divided into 100 pennies or pence, often shortened to "p," pronounced
"pea". The picture below shows examples of the most common
The coins, from left to right, are: 1p, 2p, 10p, 20p, 50p, and £1. There is also a 5p coin, which is so tiny that I won't even carry them with me as they are a pain, and a £2 coin which is not used all that much and is a bit large and bulky to carry in one's pocket.
The notes come in £50, £20, £10, and £5 denominations and all look pretty much like the £20 note shown above but with different color schemes and with differing themes on the reverse. They all have a number of anticounterfieting measures incorporated into the notes: a hologram, a water mark, an embedded strip, etc. The higher denomination notes are physically larger than the smaller denomination notes, so they're easy to distinguish in your wallet.
The best way to exchange money is to wait until you are in the UK and use your ATM card in one of the many ATMs that are found all over London. A note of warning: you need to make sure that your ATM card will work in the UK, and you need to know your daily withdrawal limit. By the way, your daily limit is usually the amount that you can withdraw over the entire weekend, so keep that in mind when using your card. You should get this all figured out with your bank BEFORE heading to England. Using your ATM card will get you the very best exchange rate you can get. Note that most banks charge a flat fee for using your ATM. My bank, Bank of America, charges $3.00 for each transaction. Therefore, the more you take out in a single withdrawal, the better the exchange rate. For example, taking out £300 adds a penny per pound whereas taking out only £100 pounds adds 3¢ per pound. Some machines--those of the National Westminster Bank come to mind--limit the withdrawal amount per transaction to £200. Others, such as Barclay's Bank, allow you to withdraw at least £300 per transaction (and perhaps greater amounts, but I have never taken out more than £300 at one time).
The second best way to deal with money in England is to buy things using a credit card. This will give you a pretty good exchange rate, although not as good as the rate that you will get with an ATM card. DO NOT USE YOUR CREDIT CARD IN AN ATM MACHINE TO GET A CASH ADVANCE. That is just about the worst way to change money. You get the same rate as for credit card purchases but your bank will slap on a hefty fee, often as much as 4 to 6 percent of the amount that you withdraw. The banks love it when you use this "feature." So, although using a credit card for purchases is OK, it is not a good way to get cash, and you will want some cash during the trip--not every establishment accepts Visa, MasterCard, or even American Express. You should probably let your bank know that you will be using your card in England and give them the dates of your travel. Otherwise they may freeze your card, thinking that it has been stolen or cloned and that they are seeing credit card fraud.
This is an OK way to carry and exchange funds. Before the easy access to ATM machines all over the world, it was one of the best ways to deal with the currency exchange issue. If you happen to be a member of AAA, you can get free American Express traveler's checks. You can convert these at any bank, but the exchange rate you get on the conversion, once "fee" is considered, will be a few percent worse than what you will get using an ATM machine. It is also true that the net rate varies quite a bit from bank to bank. Do you really want to spend your free time wandering from Barclay's to Lloyd's to Westminster trying to find the best exchange rate?
Really bad idea. You get a crummy exchange rate and you are stuck carrying all of your cash around with you. You will be the London mugger's dream tourist!
You will arrive on Sunday, January 6, and it would not be unusual to find many of the ATM machines depleted of cash following heavy weekend withdrawals for the last gasp of holiday revelry. So you might want to consider having some cash on hand when you step off the plane. We will shepherd you from the airport to our London hotel, and we will host and pay for a group dinner that night--eating at the dreaded Wagamama's, a place that is the bane of my gastronomic existence but that seems to be the crowning jewel in Professor Groves's and Dr. Shaw's London eating guide [Editor's Note: Bosh! Piffle, even! Professor Eckert lives for the Absolute Wagamama; 'tis the very reason he returns to London so frequently.]), so you may not need any money that first night. Having said that, I always feel better having a few pounds stashed away when I arrive. To that end, I will be happy to sell you a few pounds at whatever ATM rate I get when I am in London this upcoming October. You will just need to let me know how much you want and I will bring it back with me. I recommend £40.00.
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This page maintained by Eckert, Groves & Co.; last updated March 22, 2012.