United Kingdom

shopping

Although shopping in the UK can be expensive, it is generally regarded as a world-class destination for shoppers both in terms of variety and quality of products, depending on where and what you buy. Fierce competition has brought prices down considerably in the food, clothing and electronic sectors. Prices do vary and it is always worth visiting the various retail stores as bargains can often be found. Avoid buying from the tourist areas and stick to the High Street shops or the many 'out-of-town' retail parks where prices will be considerably cheaper. The retail market in the UK is a very competitive one and many bargains are to be had all year round. In the electronics sector, for example, it is becoming more and more common to ask for a price reduction at time of purchase.

VAT Value Added Tax - a mandatory tax on almost all goods and services in the UK is 20% with reduced rates of 5% and 0% applying to specific categories of goods foodstuffs and most books, for example, are taxed at 0%. For all consumer shopping, VAT is included in the sale price - so unlike the United States for example, the price you see is the price you pay. The exception to this rule are most industrial goods - where VAT is quoted separately by law the term "ex VAT" must be displayed next to the sales price, but tourists are unlikely to ever be exposed to this.

In many of the larger towns and cities, many shops have the blue "Tax-Free Shopping" sticker in the window, meaning that when you leave the European Union not just the UK, you can claim back at least some of the VAT before you leave the country. However, in order to do this, you must keep any receipts you receive from your purchase and request a voucher from the store. Minimum purchase amounts at a store before claiming back VAT would normally start at £30.

Electronic items such as computers and digital cameras can be cheaper here than many European countries especially Scandinavian countries, but do shop around. The internet is always a good way to judge the price of a particular item, also you can use this as a bargaining tool when agreeing on a price with some of the larger electronic retail stores. If visiting from the US, there may be duties and taxes charged that make some of these purchases much less of a bargain so shop wisely.

Beware of shopping on Sundays as some retailers only operate limited hours. Limited Sunday hours are in fact actually mandated by law maximum of six hours in England although in cities like London, if you entered the shop before closing you might still be able to complete the transaction after closing. Keep this in mind when planning shopping trips. Smaller corner convenience stores eg Tesco Express or Sainsbury's Local are not covered by this and will normally operate late into Sunday. This law also does not apply to Scotland and stores there generally have longer opening hours on a Sunday.

cost

There is no getting around it, the UK is not a cheap travel destination. England is largely more expensive than the rest of the UK and London and the south east can be horrendously costly. On the plus side, many of the museums and parks in the UK are admission free for all. If one is on a small budget, for food it is best to check out supermarkets which sell an excellent range of food and essentials for competitive prices. Electronics however are competitively priced due to the competition in this sector, with large chains wanting to get the best share out of what is one of the largest consumer markets in the world. Video games are also far cheaper here than say, mainland Europe, though still more expensive than the United States. Costs for traveling basics such as transport, accommodation and food will means that you will spend at least the very least £50 per day as a budget traveler. This figure climbs much higher if you want to use taxis, 3 star hotels, eat in restaurants and admission prices to attractions.

cigarettes and tobacco

Cigarettes are heavily taxed ranging to over £7 for 20 cigarettes. 50-gram pouches of rolling tobacco are around £17. Imported brands such as Marlboro, Camel or Lucky Strike are generally the most expensive as are well-known UK brands such as Benson & Hedges and Embassy. Popular and less pricey local brands include Lambert & butler and Silk Cut a light cigarette similar to Marlboro Light, while the cheapest brands Mayfair, Richmond, Superking, Windsor Blue are cheap and cheerful. Low-tar cigarettes cannot be called 'light' so terms such as 'gold' and 'smooth' are used. Most cigarettes come in low-tar and menthol varients, and many brands also sell 'Superking' 100mm length varients too. The cheapest prices will be found in the supermarkets at the customer service counter. Almost all newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations sell tobacco, and most will also sell some brands of pipe tobacco and cigars. For a more extensive selection of tobacco products, most towns and cities will have at least one specialist tobacconist.

The minimum age to purchase tobacco is 18 however, smoking is legal at 16. Customers who appear younger than 18 and, in some places, 21 or 25 may be asked to produce a passport or other identification.

In some places there is a black market in considerably cheaper, imported cigarettes and you may be offered such in some pubs by certain individuals rarely the publican or bar staff!. The health warning on these is likey to be in a language other than English. This is best avoided as this is indeed an illegal trade, and counterfeits are common.

Smoking is illegal all enclosed public places with the exception of some hotel rooms enquire when booking. For the purposes of the anti-smoking law, 'enclosed' is defined as having a minimum of three walls and a roof, so this can include things such as 'open' bus shelters. It is also illegal to smoke at railway stations. Penalties can include a £50 'on-the-spot' fine. Most pubs and nightclubs have smoking areas which fully comply with the relevant legislation.

money

The currency throughout the UK is the Pound £ more properly called the Pound Sterling, but this is not used in everyday speech, divided into 100 pence p, pronounced 'pee'.

Coins appear in 1p small copper, 2p large copper, 5p very small silver, 10p large silver, 20p small heptagonal silver, 50p large heptagonal silver, £1 small, thick gold and £2 large, thick with silver centre and gold edge denominations, while Bank of England notes bills come in £5 green/light blue, £10 orange/brown, £20 blue (newer design purple older design) and £50 red, and depict the Queen on one side and famous historical figures on the other. The size increases according to value. It's often best to avoid getting £50 notes. £50 notes are often refused by smaller establishments - they are unpopular because of the risk of forgery, and because of the amount of change one needs to give on receiving one. Banks are also unlikely to change them to smaller notes for you, though a post office or bookmaker might.

However, Scottish and Northern Irish banks issue their own notes in the above denominations, with their own designs. If in doubt, check what you are given for the words "Pounds Sterling". £100 notes and some old £1 notes are also in circulation in Scotland. Bank of England notes circulate freely in the whole of the United Kingdom, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland it is quite common to receive change in a mixture of English and/or Scottish or Northern Irish notes bank notes from the latter are technically promissory notes. Whilst Scottish or Northern Irish notes are practically supposed to be accepted in England and Wales as well; when in doubt, change them for English banknotes at an England-based bank. Welsh banks do not issue their own notes since its banking system is directly under the jurisdiction of the Bank of England.

Some smaller English or Welsh vendors might refuse to accept notes issued by Scottish or Northern Irish banks mainly due to unfamiliarity. They are under no obligation to do so, so use them at a larger retailer, or change them for Bank of England notes at a bank. There should never be a charge for this - though foreign-exchange dealers at airports or ferry terminals might well try to charge you.

Coins are uniform throughout the United Kingdom. Non-English speaking visitors should be aware that the new coin designs introduced from 2008 no longer show the value in numbers, only words.

You may also hear the slang term quid for pounds. It is both singular and plural; "three quid" means "three pounds". It is likely that people will use the slang "p" when they mean either a penny or pence. Note the singular is penny and the plural pence. Some people still use traditional terms such as a penny, tuppence and thruppence 1p, 2p and 3p. The words "Fiver" and "Tenner" are common slang for £5 and £10, respectively.

In general, shopkeepers and other businesses in the UK are not obliged to accept any particular money or other method of payment. Any offer to purchase can simply be refused; for example if you try to pay with notes or coins they don't recognise. If in doubt, ask someone when you enter the shop. If settling a debt, for example, paying a restaurant or hotel bill, usually any reasonable method of payment will be accepted unless it's been made clear to you in advance how you must pay. Travellers cheques in Sterling may accepted in place of cash but it is best to ask first.

ATMs, which are often known in the UK as Cashpoints, cash machines or informally as 'holes in the wall', are very widely available and usually dispense £10, £20 and sometimes £5 notes. Traveller's cheques can be exchanged at most banks. Be aware: some non-bank ATMs easily identified, sometimes kiosk-style units, as opposed to fixed units in walls, and often at petrol/gas stations and convenience stores charge a fixed fee for withdrawing money, and your home bank may as well. On average the cost is about £1.75 per withdrawal, but the machine will always inform you of this and allow you to cancel the transaction.

If a bank card is issued by a foreign bank, some ATMs will ask whether they should perform the conversion to the local currency, instead of debiting the bank account in GBP. This is almost always a worse deal than going with the conversion rate provided by the issuing bank, resulting in surcharges of sometimes over 5% on the withdrawal. (http://transferwise.com/b...). It is more prudent to choose the "Without conversion" withdrawal option, whenever this choice is presented.

Compared to the continent, the use of internationally-branded payment cards is much easier and ubiquitous in the UK. Visa, Mastercard, Maestro and American Express are accepted by most shops and restaurants, although American Express is sometimes not accepted by smaller independent establishments, and it is worth asking if unsure, especially if there are long queues. Internet purchases from a UK-based merchant particularly in the travel industry with a credit card however may incur a 2-2.5% surcharge this does not apply to a debit card, even those with a Visa or Mastercard logo. Since February 14, 2006, Chip and PIN (http://www.chipandpin.co.uk/) has become nearly compulsory, with few companies still accepting signatures when paying by credit or debit cards. Customers from countries without chips in their credit cards are supposed to be able to sign instead of providing a PIN; however, it is wise to carry enough cash in case the retailer does not comply or the machine is having difficulty reading the card. When one has to sign for a debit/credit card transaction, the merchants in the UK are more particular about verifying the signature than elsewhere.

Although most small shops will take cards, there is often a minimum amount you have to spend usually around £5. Anything under the minimum and they may refuse to accept the card, or charge a fee to process the payment.

Some stores in London and Northern Ireland accept Euros. This however is usually at an unfavourable exchange rate and should not at all be relied upon.