The currency of England (and Britain) is the pound sterling. Paper money comes in £5, £10, £20 and £50 denominations, although £50s can be difficult to change because fakes circulate. Other currencies are very rarely accepted if you’re buying goods and services, except for some places in the ferry ports of southern England, which take Euros, and the smarter souvenir and gift shops in London, which may take euros, US dollars, yen and other major currencies.
Debit or credit cards are perfect companions – the best invention for travellers since the backpack. You can use them in most shops, and withdraw cash from ATMs (often called ‘cash machines’) which are easy to find in cities and even small towns. But ATMs aren’t fail-safe, and it’s a major headache if your only card gets swallowed, so take a backup. And watch out for ATMs which might have been tampered with; a common ruse is to attach a card-reader to the slot; your card is scanned and the number used for fraud.
Visa and MasterCard credit and debit cards are widely accepted in England, and are good for larger hotels, restaurants, shopping, flights, long-distance travel, car hire etc. Smaller businesses, such as pubs or B&Bs, prefer debit cards (or charge a fee for credit cards), and some take cash or cheque only.
Finding a place to change your money (cash or travellers cheques) into pounds is never a problem in cities, where banks and bureaus compete for business. Be careful using bureaus, however; some offer poor rates or levy outrageous commissions. You can also change money at some post offices – very handy in country areas, and exchange rates are fair (and usually commission free).
Tipping & bargaining
In restaurants you’re expected to leave a tip of around 10%, but at smarter restaurants in larger cities waiters can get a bit sniffy if the tip isn’t nearer 12% or even 15%. Either way, it’s important to remember that you’re not obliged to tip if the service or food was unsatisfactory (even if it’s been added to your bill as a ‘service charge’). At smarter cafes and teashops with table service, around 10% is fine. If you’re paying with a credit or debit card and you want to add the tip to the bill, it’s worth asking the waiting staff if they’ll actually receive it. Some prefer to receive tips in cash.
Taxi drivers also expect tips (about 10%, or rounded up to the nearest pound), especially in London. It’s less usual to tip minicab drivers. Toilet attendants (if you see them loitering) may get tipped around 50p.
In pubs, when you order drinks at the bar, or order and pay for food at the bar, tips are not expected. If you order food at the table and your meal is brought to you, then a tip may be appropriate – if the food and service have been good, of course.
Bargaining is rare, although it’s occasionally encountered at markets. It’s fine to ask if there are student discounts on items such as theatre tickets, books or outdoor equipment.