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I will be in London for most of just a single day plus one evening & overnight stay, and plan to find some fun things to do as a tourist. I also plan to buy some souvenirs, sample some food, and so on.

Can I rely on credit cards in most places, or do I need to get some currency? If so, is it better to exchange in advance before I arrive (in the USA), or can I wait until in the country? Where in London can I find a more reasonable exchange rate? I suspect Heathrow airport might not be the best place to do that.

  • That's a long list of questions, most of which are down to your personal preferences. London is chock full of tourist attractions, galleries, museums, parks, gardens, music venues... etc...This isn't a good fit for this site which really focusses on questions with objective answers. Take the tour and see if you can reduce the scope of your question to something answerable. – Arthur's Pass Jan 18 at 2:44
  • @Arthur'sPass Better? – ErikE Jan 18 at 2:49
  • Much better. In fact, I'm sure this has already been asked but I can't find the question. – Arthur's Pass Jan 18 at 3:51
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    Not going to bother making this an answer, but I was in London for several days in 2017 and the only time I needed cash, literally, was for a pay toilet. I did also tip the cleaners in my hotel with pound coins, but that was it. – CarlF Jan 19 at 20:57
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We were in the UK twice in 2019, first time for three weeks in February in London, Cambridge, and Glasgow, then another week in December in Cambridge. TL;DR: we lived easily on credit cards, and never obtained UK currency.

"Chipped" credit card acceptance is pervasive. "Contactless" cards are also widely accepted in shops and markets and — very usefully — on public transport. Transport for London conveyances (the Underground, buses, DLR, London Overground) accept contactless cards, and you can (if you wish) avoid getting a TfL Oyster card. Other than flea markets, you should have no difficulties with credit card acceptance. It's worth noting, however, that while credit card tipping is slowly becoming easier in restaurants, currency is easier to use, particularly for tipping housekeepers when you're paying for lodging.

If you do want currency, your best bet is to use a debit card at an ATM in the UK but not at an airport, having made sure the card was issued by a bank that doesn't charge an ATM fee overseas. Do not use machines that charge fees and apply higher-than-normal exchange rates. Travelex ATMs are particularly undesirable in this regard, as high fees and unreasonable exchange rates are their order of the day. Every ATM I saw at LHR, LGW, and STN was operated by Travelex. Money-changing businesses with people behind a counter, particularly at airports, are also extremely expensive. If an ATM or a bank does apply a per-transaction fee, a larger withdrawal is cheaper per dollar, but you must weigh the increased risk of carrying a larger pile of cash.

Obtaining UK currency in the US before departure isn't much better; just wait until you arrive in the UK and have left the airport, then use a local ATM.

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    Contactless is the best way to go, but most American cards don't have it (yet), so you get the annoying process of having to sign for everything and the merchant having absolutely no idea what to do if you aren't in a tourist area. I recommend using Google Pay/Apple Pay wherever possible if your cards don't have contactless. – Michael Hampton Jan 18 at 5:20
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    There are (or at least were two months ago) fee-free ATMs at Gatwick Airport inside the railway station (so about 50 metres from the South Terminal departures area), in case you're coming through Gatwick. You can also use contactless to travel into London from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City, but not any other airports (although obviously you can use a card to buy your rail ticket) – Edd Jan 18 at 20:17
  • Even in markets a lot of stalls will accept contactless cards these days. But also note that there's no need to tip housekeeping here. – Daniel Roseman Jan 18 at 22:25
  • Even street musicians have card terminals now, so when you see someone playing a guitar in a tube station, you can just touch your phone with a credit card in it to their little reader to tip them a few Pounds. // As you mention tipping, you also are not expected to tip in restaurants at all. Most places will add a 10 or 12.5% service charge that is voluntary, and you can ask them to take it off again if you don't want to pay it. In fact, staff in non-fancy restaurants is often confused when you ask to pay more than you should because they are not used to tipping. – simbabque Jan 31 at 12:24

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