LONDON — In this city, some things are best done in advance.
Obviously, hotel and airline reservations are good to have ahead of time. But what about train tickets and rides on the London Eye? What about Buckingham Palace or a show? What about tube tickets?
In London, it's possible to book almost anything ahead of time. But is it worth it? I wanted to find out.
(For this story, I've changed British pounds into U.S. dollar equivalents.)
What: Fast train (15 minutes) between Heathrow Airport and London's Paddington Station.
Buy when you get there: Buy ticket from an airport kiosk ($25) or on the train ($25 plus $7.50 surcharge).
In advance: One day before my trip to England, I bought a one-way ticket with a credit card at www.heathrowexpress.com. Cost was $25, same price as the kiosk. I printed the ticket at home, a single sheet of paper with a UPC code on it.
Result: At Heathrow, I bypassed long lines at ticket kiosks and hopped aboard the train. The conductor accepted my home-printed ticket without a problem.
Worth it? Yes. And if your flight or trip is delayed, a ticket bought online is good for six months.
—Train to Scotland
What: Long-distance train from London's King's Cross Station to Edinburgh, Scotland, on the East Coast Line.
Buy when you get there: You can buy train tickets when you get to London. However, since UK rail was privatized, each company has its own trains, schedules and prices — and like airlines, cheap advance tickets.
In advance: Four weeks ahead, I ordered a one-way ticket ($57) to Edinburgh through www.thetrainline.com. I received an immediate e-mail voucher with a code on it. The code would let me print my ticket at Kings Cross Station.
Result: I'd heard that U.S. credit cards did not always work at train kiosks in the UK, so I stopped by Kings Cross a day early to make sure. No problem — tickets printed. If they don't, don't panic. A human at the ticket counter can also give you the tickets.
At the station, I also checked how much the ticket would have cost if I had waited and bought it that day. It was $209.
Worth it? Definitely. I saved $152.
—The London Eye
What: London's top tourist attraction, a giant revolving wheel with fantastic views.
Buy when you get there: At the ticket office next to the ride ($28 standard or $43 fast track ticket with a shorter line).
In advance: The last time I was in London I booked a fast-track ticket one day ahead at www.londoneye.com — and it helped me avoid a long line. This time I booked a fast-track ticket through Expedia.com ($34) two months ahead and got a voucher.
Result: The voucher required me to call the London Eye ticket office 48 hours ahead (in my case, that meant long distance from the U.S.) to reserve an exact ticket time. And when I arrived, only six people were in line — no need for fast-tracking, and no wait.
Worth it? No. But it might be worth it in mid-summer when crowds are heavier.
What: The royal residence is open for tours only in August and September.
Buy when you get there: At the Buckingham Palace ticket office, but you risk its being sold out.
In advance: Buy from www.royalcollection.org.uk ($26) —they'll mail you tickets if it's at least two weeks ahead or hold them for pickup. I booked a combo Buckingham Palace/high tea ticket through www.expedia.com ($53).
Result: The voucher required me to show up at the Grosvenor Hotel near the palace at 1:30 p.m. on tour day. From there, a guide walked our small group of four to the palace group entrance for a 2 p.m. admission. In 5 minutes we were through the gates and on the tour. Later, the tea back at the hotel was classic.
Worth it? Yes, mainly because we had access to the faster group entrance, and the tea was a nice perk.
What: London's many fantastic West End theaters are a must-do for tourists.
Buy when you get there: At the theater box office in person or by phone.
In advance: If you absolutely cannot miss a certain show, buy tickets in advance at www.visitlondon.com. Or try the TKTS, the half-price ticket booth, in Leicester Square the day of the performance.
Result: I went to the TKTS booth and was surprised to see that many shows were nowhere near half-price and the line was slow and long. I walked away. Instead, I chose a well-reviewed show, "Oliver," that was on its final days and showed up at the theater 20 minutes before show time. Someone had just returned tickets and I got a $98 main-floor ticket for $58.
Worth it? No. Buying in advance does not guarantee a low price. Buy ahead only if there's a show you can't miss.
What: Passes for the London Underground. Passes are cheaper than buying individual tickets. They come in two flavors — Travelcards and Oystercards. A Travelcard is a one-, three- or seven-day card that allows unlimited rides, but only for the exact dates printed on the card. An Oystercard is a prepaid card that lets you ride anytime until the card value runs out, at which time you can add more value. It does not expire.
Buy when you get there: Can do. However, many tourists are confused about which pass to get and are intimidated by kiosks.
In advance: A month before my trip, I went to www.visitbritain.com, bought one three-day Travelcard and one preloaded Oystercard, each costing $35 (three-day Travelcards are no longer sold in London but they are still available through Visit Britain).
My plan was to have my husband use the Oystercard and I'd use the Travelcard, and we'd see which was a better value. The cards were supposed to be mailed to my house, but when they didn't arrive after three weeks, I e-mailed VisitBritain and was overnighted the cards without charge.
Result: The best laid plans ... a Tube strike the first day of my trip meant that one of my three days on the Travelcard was of no value. I took 10 separate rides ($3.50) on the Travelcard over the next two days. Compared with the Oyster card ($2.80 per ride), it ended up costing about the same. Both cards were cheaper than buying single tickets ($7 each).
Worth it? No. Wait to buy an Oystercard at a Tube station your first day in London.