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Buy tickets for London attractions online or just show up at the attraction?

I posted here a few months ago and received very helpful advice about my June trips to Oxford, Cambridge and London with my husband. I am getting much closer to the ability to buy tickets and schedule days and times for most of our London itinerary. My question is do we save time by buying the tickets online now and have them locked in as far as day and time or do we just show up and buy tickets on the day and time we feel like when we are actually in London? I like the guarantee of having the tickets, but I know that the weather, transportation strikes, etc. can be a factor as can just plain whimsy. Does it really save time to have the tickets in hand? How long would the major attractions take to buy tickets right before we wanted to enter (Tower of London, St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery amongst others)? Then there is the London Pass which covers virtually all the sights we want to see, but it may be difficult to reserve online using it. On the other hand, would it solve the issue of buying tickets ahead of time and reducing flexibility if we did not reserve days/times? I haven't even factored in how covid (timed entry required/fewer bodies in the sights, etc.) might affect my conundrum. . . Thanks to all of you in advance.

Posted by
3209 posts

I haven't even factored in how covid (timed entry required/fewer
bodies in the sights, etc.) might affect my conundrum

IMO, this is what should be guiding your decision regarding tickets. There's no guarantee that timed ticket requirements will still be in place in June. But if they are, then it would make sense to do this ahead of time, (but not necessarily this early) to ensure you can get entry on your desired dates.

Posted by
2102 posts

Covid won't be an issue in June. It will be in the past. It will be as good as over.

The London Pass is a waste of money. Just check the websites of what you want to visit but I wouldn't buy too much ahead of time unless you can save £££s.

Posted by
37 posts

I'd say buy and lock in a time that works for you (for ones with a timed entry) now if you know for certain you want to visit those places. I've done this in the past and don't regret being able to breeze past the enormous long line of people waiting to buy tickets at places like Churchill War Rooms or Westminster Abbey. Plus it allowed us to plan our days more efficiently. We didn't need to plan for line standing time or wonder how long we'd have to be in line before we could buy tickets. It was also nice to be able to select a time of day that worked for us and our travel style (morning people!). I will say my experience is all pre-covid (2018-2019 were my last visits to London), and spring/winter time visits (where standing out in the rain and cold in those very long lines was even less appealing!).

Posted by
27426 posts

Covid won't be an issue in June. It will be in the past. It will be as good as over.

I'm glad to know that. I'm sure you must be right. I don't believe it. I'm glad that folks are sure.

Posted by
20797 posts

British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and National Gallery are all free/donation-requested museums. I've made multiple trips to all of them pre-COVID and only had to stand in line (for bag-scanning) briefly at the British Museum. It's possible capacity controls are currently in place that could lead to hold-ups at the door, but I've just checked online ticket availability for this week and found no problem at all. No doubt there will be more tourists in London in June, but I think there is clearly no urgency in getting entry tickets at this time. In fact, I don't know that June tickets are even available. You can easily check the museums' websites in the last week or two before your trip, monitoring ticket availability. I wouldn't want to tie myself to a specific entry time weeks or months in advance unless I had to.

One exception: Sometimes tickets to special exhibitions sell out, so if there's something coming up related to royals, rock stars, impressionist painters, etc., that you really, really don't want to miss, you might want to grab that ticket a bit in advance. Those high-demand exhibitions normally have entry charges; they can be quite high, so in this COVID era I wouldn't rush to buy those tickets unnecessarily early.

I can't imagine the London Pass would pay off financially for someone who has mentioned three free museums among the places she wants to go. All are large. The British Museum and the V&A qualify as humongous. By the time you've gotten your fill of those you may not have a great deal of time left for attractions that actually are covered by the London Pass. I think you'd still have to book time slots for most (maybe all) sights even with the pass, so I'm not sure how much of a convenience it would be.

For sure there are places whose lines you want to avoid by purchasing tickets in advance, but I think I bought my Churchill War Rooms ticket online just a day or two before I planned to go. I would feel no urgency about doing that now and wouldn't want to tie up my money until I had greater certainty the trip would actually happen.

Posted by
306 posts

Thank you everyone for your replies. I'm getting the sense that we needn't be concerned that venues will sell out or involve long lines (I live in NJ where we don't dare try to go anywhere including movie theaters without reservations weeks in advance). We will likely not buy the London Pass. We will buy/reserve tickets online though since I just can't shake the "I-need-a-ticket-in-my-hands" feeling. I am hopeful that that will mean we won't have to stand in long lines. Again, thanks!

Posted by
423 posts

Check as if you buy tickets on line for some attractions, they are slightly cheaper than paying 'on the door'.

Posted by
4751 posts

The only real way to tell if the London Pass works for you or not is to list out everything you want to see and price it out. Sometimes it works out better, sometimes it does not. It does provide a certain amount of flexibility and incentives to try new experiences that may not have been on your radar.

I have not used “2 for 1” specials that were available through the railway since I am usually traveling solo. However, I have seen them listed here as a money saving option in the past. I would explore that option as well.

Posted by
306 posts

Thanks, Carol. I have priced venues and compared with the London Pass. We would save money but not anything significant. If I could easily reserve days/times with LP, then I would simply buy it. It appears that I can reserve for some, but I'm uncertain that I can for all. That is something I need to invest some more time in. If anyone here has an answer for me about easily scheduling with the LP, I'd love to hear about it.

Posted by
20797 posts

You'll only save money with the pass if you have time to see the places you're including in the calculation. London is a really large city; travel time between sights can be substantial. There's also the matter of lunch. In my experience European museums start ushering people out well in advance of the advertised closing time, so you may lose 15 minutes, or more, at the last place you visit each day .

The three large museums you mentioned were each open late one night a week at the time of my 2019 visit. Taking advantage of those evenings is a way to extend your sightseeing day. However, you need to ask upon entering the museum whether all sections will be open after the standard closing time; sometimes only part of the museum remains open late. In the case of the V&A, it was the ground floor that remained open in the past.

Posted by
27426 posts

I am hopeful that that will mean we won't have to stand in long lines.

You will either have printed out the ticket or show the QR code on your phone. Easy. You can do everything from the comfort of your sofa and have advantage of a virtual tour around many places so you can be knowledgeable when you get there.

The one line everybody has to go through is the security line these (pre-virus) days I'm afraid. No skipping that...

No ticket line at British Museum, V&A, Science Museum, National Gallery, Wellcome Museum, Sir John Soanes Museum, Wallace Collection, Natural History Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Imperial War Museum and several more - because they are free.

Posted by
306 posts

Thanks acraven and Nigel.

"London is a really large city; travel time between sights can be substantial." This brings up another question: In Paris, NYC and other large cities, we walk from one sight to another and occasionally use the Metro/subway. I've never toured London as extensively as we plan to in June, and it's been 18 years since I was last there. It seems London is better traversed via the tube than walking. I've plotted our courses using the tube and some walking if one sight is very close to another (less than 20 minutes walk), e.g., National Gallery by tube to the Tower of London, but walk from V & A to Kensington Garden. Or am I completely off the mark and London is actually as walkable as Paris?

Posted by
7456 posts

We always pre book tickets for the London attractions we want to visit. Last time we went there were very long lines and we waited only a few minutes in a different line for those with tickets. You may not get to visit places on your list if you don’t book tickets ahead. Westminster Abbey and Churchill War Rooms are two you definitely should book ahead. We had pre booked St. Paul’s but we could have just walked in.
Who knows what COVID regulations may be either. And get Oyster cards!

Posted by
20797 posts

Lindy, I'm a really big walker. I guess my most typical pattern has been to start by taking the Underground to my first stop (as much because I am a slow starter in the morning as because of distance) and then do everything else by walking, including the return to my hotel. Naturally, there have been days when I used the Underground or occasionally a bus more often than that.

I haven't been to Paris since the 1970s(!), so i can't make a comparison. I think a lot depends on how much you enjoy exploring neighborhoods on foot. I love to do that, as long as the architecture is interesting. I look for pretty iron work, mosaics, flowers, etc. I treat my European vacations partly as a means of getting a lot of exercise.

I never set out from my hotel in London without a collapsible umbrella, and I often carry a light rain jacket as well. In recent years rain hasn't significantly affected my time in London; it tends to be brief. But if you were unlucky, you might hit a wet period and decide to depend more on buses and the Underground. I freely admit to not using the buses enough.

I've found Google Maps dead accurate about walking time--as long as you don't detour off-course when you see something interesting down the block. Google seems to allow 20 minutes per mile, which is a bit slower than my normal pace.

There can be considerable walking and time involved with Underground trips that require a transfer, so I err on the side of walking. And definitely keep in mind that the easy-to-read Underground schematics are not to scale! They are just an easy way to see where lines connect, which lines branch and the name of the station at each terminus; do not ever use that type of diagram to determine how close two Underground stations are.

Posted by
27426 posts

I think that your balance between tube and walk is about right.

You can also do what local Londoners do and pop on a bus. Despite the swinging cuts shortly to be made to the routes a bus will still come frequently and take you in the direction you want to go. It may not always be faster than walking but it will provide a seat and a view. If you use either Oyster or contactless payment and stick to just one contactless method you will have a cap on daily usage costs, both of buses and tubes. All further journeys are free that day.

But for really long journeys use the tube or train.

Posted by
306 posts

I use Google Maps and am encouraged that the walking times seem to be correct. We love to walk and see the sights plus just get the exercise. Glad to hear that London seems to be a "walking-friendly" city. Yes, the tube will be utilized. I hadn't thought much about the bus, but it appears it is yet another way to view the city and get form Point A to Point B. It seems that the Oyster Card gets a thumbs-up from everyone. Love it.

Posted by
27426 posts

If you are walking and get to the corner and want to cross the street, which way will you turn your head?

Posted by
2 posts

Along these same lines, I would like to purchase tickets in advance, specifically for the Churchill War Museum and I am having a devil of a time with the online shopping cart. It seems that when I go to checkout, even thought I check USA it will not let me select a state but defaults to counties in England. The purchase then does not seem to go through and I suspect it is because of this somehow. I have contacted the IWM technical support but they said that it must be me because many US citizens do not have a problem. I have tried on two devices and several browsers. Just wondering if anyone has the same issue?

Posted by
2287 posts

Cynthia--out of curiosity I tried and had no issue, once I checked USA it proceeded to the final page for payment. I am using Google Chrome. I visited the War Rooms on my first trip to London in 2011 and it remains one of my most favorite museum experiences, so I hope you get to visit!

Posted by
2900 posts

Lindy,
I see that Nigel has already commented on using the bus in London, so I will just respond to something you wrote in one of your above posts:
"I've plotted our courses using the tube and some walking if one sight is very close to another (less than 20 minutes walk), e.g., National Gallery by tube to the Tower of London, but walk from V & A to Kensington Garden."
(Yes, you've got it right.)

I would also recommend: The bus from National Gallery to the Tower of London would be the Number 15 bus and would be the easiest (and most scenic) way.
You want to be sure you get on the Number 15 traveling east (not west) through and around Trafalgar Square.

Look for printed pocket-size maps of the London bus network in the racks inside the entrances of tube stations. There you will also find printed pocket-size maps of the tube lines.
These printed maps will be useful when planning your journeys around London. I find them helpful to see the entire system at a glance on one map, rather than looking at a small section of the map on my phone.

Posted by
306 posts

Oh, boy, more replies--love it. I am now convinced that we have to visit the Churchill War Rooms due to responses here. I want to re-watch Darkest Hour which replicated the underground rooms. Once the grandkids have been returned home, I'm going to attempt scheduling tickets. Cynthia, I hope you were successful by now with Christa's help. Thank you for the bus suggestion, Rebecca. I love riding the bus in London.
Less than four months now! (Currently practicing looking right-left-right!)

Posted by
2900 posts

Lindy,
You're welcome. I love riding the bus in London, too. It's not as fast as riding the tube sometimes, but who cares; you see more.

I was just rereading this thread, and noticed you had asked above about the London Pass. I would forget about buying that. It's just a marketing scheme. Many of the places you'll be going will be museums--free anyway.
Definitely go to the Churchill War Rooms. Book online even the day before, because it is timed entry, and you'll need a "slot". If you just walk up without a ticket, you may be waiting quite a while to buy a ticket. Your ticket will be for a certain time.
Churchill War Rooms are just around the corner from Westminster Abbey and Parliament buildings, so if you want to see all of these, walk from one to the other.

Churchill War Rooms has small rooms and very narrow hallways and low ceilings. Therefore, I would go for an early entry time. Like, when they first open in the morning. The small rooms are less claustrophobic before the crowds arrive. Although it is timed entry, they don't kick people out when their time is up. Therefore, as the day goes on, more people linger longer and make for a large crowd inside.

Westminster Abbey you could do second in your day. The interior of the Abbey is huge, with high ceilings. Much easier to tolerate a large crowd in here. Parliament buildings are right across the street, if you wish to tour them next.

About museums: most have a good lunchroom. You can take a break from seeing exhibits and eat there rather than leaving the museum.
You mentioned wanting to go to the V&A Museum. It has THE best lunchroom of any museum I've ever visited.

Posted by
2900 posts

Tip about the Tower of London: Get there early, right when the gates open.
Even go and stand at the ticket booth before they open, a few minutes early.
You can buy tickets and walk right in.
Go see the Jewels exhibit first. Later it will be quite crowded. Move quickly through and then go to The White Tower in the center of the complex. Next go up the turret stairs to see the outer walls, Cradle Tower, and living quarters.
See the little church in the back of the complex last, St Peter Ad Vincula. It's where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard are buried.

"Does it really save time to have the tickets in hand? How long would the major attractions take to buy tickets right before we wanted to enter (Tower of London, St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery amongst others)?"

To answer this question from your original post, the museums you named are free.
British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery.

If you wait to buy tickets right before you want to enter (Tower of London, St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey) the best way would be to make it the first sight of your day. Be there when it opens, be the first (or second or third) to buy a ticket and go in.

The exception is the Churchill War Rooms which I have told you about already.

Posted by
306 posts

Regarding walking v. using the Underground...it might help you decide by using your mapping service to check times door-to-door for your sites rather than station-to-station, especially if you must move through a large station. You could also check the frequency your train travels through the station. Missing a train that shows every 3 minutes is less a problem than if it arrives every 15 minutes.

There are also some convenient bus routes RIck Steves has discussed in his London guide book.

I am planning my first London trip for this Spring, so am considering these same issues.

Posted by
20797 posts

One more point about the V&A: If one of the exhibits you want to see is the jewelry display (which is really fabulous), it will help a lot if you're at the museum when it opens and go to see that first. That's been my strategy twice in recent years (after reading that tip on this forum, I think), and I had almost no company for quite some time (30 minutes? 45 minutes?). Then a lot more people began filtering in and it wasn't possible to walk directly from one showcase to another. The V&A is an amazing and very popular museum, but the only exhibition area where I've been noticeably slowed down by other visitors is the jewelry display.

Posted by
306 posts

Cynthia, re: Churchill War Rooms "I am having a devil of a time with the online shopping cart. It seems that when I go to checkout, even thought I check USA it will not let me select a state but defaults to counties in England. The purchase then does not seem to go through and I suspect it is because of this somehow."
I am having difficulty with it accepting my payment, too--no one else declines my Visa card! I have been able to put in my city and USA (it doesn't ask for my state), however, when I enter my credit card information, it gives me some sort of default. I've tried five times. I had the same thing happen a few years ago with another country/venue. I had to call my bank which led me through the process which did work. I cannot quite remember, but I think it was my credit card protecting me (?) It's past 5:00 pm in England, so I'll try again tomorrow.
ADDENDUM: la luce! I just realized that if Visa is being protective maybe AMEX isn't. I used my AMEX card and it went through! Tickets printed. If you are trying to pay with Visa, Cynthia, and you have a different type of credit card, you might try it.

Posted by
20797 posts

It does sound as if it might be the credit card company blocking the overseas transaction since it knows (from other purchases you've been making) that you are not in the UK. I'd call the card company before trying again. You may be asked the amount of the charge you'll be making.

Posted by
306 posts

You are correct, acraven. It did go through with AMEX which relieves me, but then, is also concerning! (Haha).

Posted by
2900 posts

Lindy,
Do remember to call your credit card companies before you leave for your trip, and tell them you will be in England for those dates of your trip. Otherwise, they will block transactions they see coming from overseas. We specifically called the fraud department of each of our credit card companies and informed them we would be traveling and using our cards in England for that two week period.

Posted by
306 posts

Oh, yes. Thanks for the reminder, Rebecca. We haven't traveled since 2019 and may be rusty!

Posted by
119 posts

@Cynthia,

On the War Rooms booking page, ‘county’ does not have an asterisk, so not required, only asterisk entries needed.

If the War Rooms booking page still doesn't recognise your American address, try using your London accommodation address and postcode.

Posted by
94 posts

Our experience in December must have been very special. Our first time to London. I think the only reserved ticket was the Churchill War Rooms. And even there we could have walked right in...no line. Everything else we just walked right in. The crown jewels at Tower of London had like 5 people there. But....this was during the Omicron surge (or as it was just past peak) One of the pub chains (Fullers) announced they were going to shut down because sales were off 60%. We wanted to be very flexible & light on our feet. Changing of the guard we came 20-25 minutes before & were very close (at the ropes by the gate)

We were turned on to an app called City mapper that was great. It shows times for bus/tube & walking. We used it extensively.

Posted by
306 posts

I think you had an extraordinary experience, Mark McG! Thank you for the City mapper info. I'll be looking at it. Unless things go totally haywire, again, I'll be booking everything for mid-June. I'm glad you had such a wonderful time.

Posted by
6238 posts

When in London I’ll average 5 miles a day walking.

Love London and over many years of traveling there I find it great way to experience the City. Sites. Sounds. Smells.

Also use the tube and love sitting up stairs up front on the double decker busses.

Take a look at the National Rail 2 for 1 offer. When friends who have never been to London join me I’ll ask what they want to see. I’ll then add either Hampton Court or The Historical Dockyard at Chatham. The latter is where the PBS series Call The Midwife filmed. Many other TV shows and movies have filmed there.

I travel by train. Once returning to London I head to a ticket office at Paddington Station or Victoria Station and obtain the 2 for 1 vouchers. Supposed to have a passport photo to get the deal….but honestly the last time any attendant asked for that was the late 90’s.

2 for 1 locations availability change so do proper research. Used the deal in 2016 to see Westminster Abbey.

Lastly, lots of street markets with food booths. Brick Lane, Maltby, Ealing, Berwick, Truman Brewery, Borough, Blackfriars Lane are some I’ve eaten at. Most are open on Saturdays. This link is a good reference: https://secretldn.com/street-food-markets-halls-london/