Big Ben. Buckingham Palace. Hyde Park. You’ll find these on all your standard guides to London — they are landmarks any first-time visitor should have one their list.
But if you want to avoid the crowds and the most touristy activities, how can you enjoy a little more comfort and luxury on your visit? Hopefully, you’ve managed to upgrade your flight into the U.K. using your points and miles.
Once you hit the ground, here are our tips to help you upgrade your next London trip.
1. Hit the town refreshed and relaxed
Most transatlantic flights to London are overnight, arriving as early as 6 a.m. You’re likely to be feeling a little groggy, disheveled and not quite yourself. If you can’t check into the city hotel or Airbnb until 2 p.m. that day, that’s several hours of traipsing around the city in yesterday’s clothes.
Fortunately, there are several arrival lounges at Heathrow Airport that can help you freshen up as soon as you collect your luggage.
If you’re landing at Terminal 2, there’s the Plaza Premium Arrivals Lounge which you can access with Priority Pass. You can recharge any personal electronics that might have died by the end of the flight, enjoy a strong cup of coffee, some breakfast and most importantly there are shower facilities available (for an additional charge). Plaza Premium are steadily reopening Heathrow lounges following COVID-19 shutdowns. As at the time of writing the Terminal 2 Arrivals Lounge is currently closed but hopes to reopen soon. It’s usually open from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
2. A cocktail with a free view at the Shard
There’s plenty of great vantage points in London, but the highest of them all is the Shard, one of the tallest buildings in Europe. As you might expect the building has an observation deck — on the 68th floor. You can purchase a ticket online, starting at $30 for adults, booked in advance.
But here’s a trick to upgrade the experience. Aqua Shard is a bar and restaurant on the 31st floor of the building. While, as you might expect, the food and drinks certainly aren’t cheap but you can visit the bar for a drink without needing to pay extra for the view. Cocktails start at $19 meaning it’s cheaper than the observation deck ticket and you’ll get a fantastic view and a deluxe drink to enjoy with it. The bar is open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays, 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Sundays.
3. Hire a professional photographer
Want to capture some great memories of your London visit but don’t feel you’re an accomplished enough photographer? Would you rather enjoy the sights of the city without constantly digging into your pocket for your phone and looking through a lens?
Hire a professional photographer to do the hard work for you while you enjoy your day out. It’s more common and less bougie than you might think. Don’t plan for additional lighting and an awkward film crew that might make you feel uncomfortable, especially in a foreign city. There are plenty of discreet photographers that will just wander through some of your favorite London locations and take some subtle photos of you and your friends/family. You can pose, ask your photographer for some tips, or just forget they are even there and see what candid memories they can capture.
Depending on the service you choose, the photographer will then usually edit the photos within a day or two and send you their favorites. You don’t even have to know how to use a camera to enjoy some awesome pictures of your time in London.
You can find plenty of photographers on Airbnb Experiences from $55 for an hour shoot, and here’s a tip — if you come across some London #travelinspo on Instagram and you really like their work, try reaching out to them. They may offer this exact service and can create some memories for you.
Related: How to spend a Sunday in London
4. Find the impossible with a hotel concierge
Some of the hottest attractions in London book out seriously fast. Tickets to “Hamilton” or “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” book out many months in advance, as do those new restaurants everyone is talking about. If you are staying in a hotel with a concierge desk, get to know them. They are a wealth of knowledge on everything London and may be able to give you some insider tips you won’t find elsewhere.
It’s not guaranteed, but they also may be able to work some magic to make the impossible happen. Most experienced London concierges will have a vast underground network of contacts who wheel and deal in favors all the time. If there’s a last-minute returned theatre or concert ticket, it could be yours, or they can call a contact and squeeze in an elusive restaurant booking.
Of course, they will appreciate a thank you in the form of a tip. The size of the tip should be relative to the size of the favor.
Related: 8 posh family-friendly London hotels
5. Lux up your ride
There’s plenty of ways to get around London, and one of the most convenient is to call an Uber. If you’re in the city you can usually expect one to arrive in just a few minutes and for short journeys, the cheapest Uber X can be quite affordable. But in a city the size of London, there are numerous Uber options, so for a special occasion, why not upgrade?
Uber Exec has marketed the rideshare platform’s “most luxurious cars”, and is guaranteed to be a 2015 model (or newer). Options include:
- Audi A8
- Bentley Flying Spur or Mulsanne
- BMW 7 Series
- Jaguar XJ
- Land Rover Evoque, Velar or Vogue
- Mercedes-Benz S-Class
- Rolls Royce Ghost, Phantom or Silver Cloud
Now as you might expect, these will be a little more expensive than the cheapest Uber option but if you’re headed out to a fancy meal or a special event, why not upgrade? You can select the Uber Exec option where available in the Uber app.
6. Book a free personal shopper
You could visit London and do nothing but shop, given the huge amount of retail therapy available. If you don’t know where to start or are looking for a change in your personal style, why not let an expert help you. Major department store Debenhams and high streets shops River Island and Topshop all offer free sessions.
You’ll be welcomed into a private shopping space where your personal shopper will learn more about your style and likes and dislikes before matching you with some of their favorite looks. There’s no obligation to buy but chances are if you’re in the market, they’ll find you something you like.
For a true luxury upgrade, Westfield Shopping Centres (Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush) offer paid personal styling sessions ranging from an hour ($90) to a full day ($620). You’ll learn about how to shop for your shape and lifestyle as well as how to mix and match outfits for any occasion. Best of all, the experience offers “hands-free shopping” so someone else can carry the bags while you search for the next perfect item.
All of these personal shopping and style sessions can be booked online in advance. Note some have temporarily changed their offering due to COVID-19 — check websites in advance for details.
7. Take afternoon tea at the Ritz
Afternoon tea is an iconic British tradition. Forget the idea of a quick teabag and a biscuit, a luxury afternoon tea is an event to be savored. There’s plenty of places to enjoy this treat across London, but if you want to upgrade your London experience, head to the iconic Ritz hotel, which bills itself as “the best five-star luxury hotel in Mayfair”.
Served in the stunning Palm Court which, of course, has real indoor palm trees in central London, it’s a very civilized affair. My partner surprised me with afternoon tea for my birthday there one year and it was a lovely experience.
Expect a live pianist, gilded edge furniture and chandeliers, a multi-tiered stand of both sweet and savory delicacies for each table, beautiful crockery and silverware, 18 different teas to choose from and of course, vintage Champagne. The Ritz is the only hotel in the U.K. to have a dedicated tea sommelier who travels the world finding the most luxurious and delicious tea blends (how good would that job be?).
This is true luxury in an expensive city, so bring your credit card. Afternoon tea is served daily at 11.30 a.m., 1.30 p.m., 3.30 p.m., 5.30 p.m., and 7.30 p.m. There are no rules as to when to enjoy this experience, though I favor the 3:30 p.m. session given it is, well, in the afternoon. Afternoon tea costs $74 per adult, and $48 for children. Champagne is extra.
Book your spot in advance online.
London is the sort of city where you can live it large — there are endless activities from the free to the truly expensive. You don’t have to spend a fortune to have a luxurious experience in this notoriously costly city, though. These handy tips will help you upgrade your next visit to one of the greatest cities in Europe.
Photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images