Should I arrive with GBP in pocket for our London holiday? I do have a car service to pay in cash when I arrive other than that I assume I can pay by credit card most places.
We recommend getting cash from ATMs, including at the airport. If you decide to buy some pounds from your bank before you go, only get what you might need on the first day, since they won't give you as good a rate as will the ATM. See also http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money. You can find many similar discussion threads in this Travel Forum, but the consensus will be the same.
You can pay by credit card in 99% of places, but there are always exceptions.
Also, for small amounts (say less than £10), for example for ice creams, they may not take cards.
If you plan to use public transport, read up about Oyster Cards first.
You'll be fine paying with credit cards for just about everything, but smaller shops or street food carts might require cash... I usually figure out a rough amount that I take with me in cash and pay for everything else with my credit card. If you know a place with favorable currency exchange rates, I'd advise you to buy GBP before leaving home.
Use cash points (ATM's) to get what you need, they are everywhere. But, i would have a few quid in my pocket day one.
Cash points attactched to banks are free to withdraw cash... But, some shops, shopping centres, airports, etc have smaller free standing cash machines, and they generally charge for cash withdrawels... But you will get a warning before you actually withdraw the cash. Its only a few quid... But why pay if you dont have too.
Are you a AAA member? if you are, they can get you GBP before you go. No charge to AAA members. I had cash in my pocket before going. On less thing to have to do once I got there. But the others are right. I didn't need that much cash to begin with. With the exception of vendor food (i.e. Borough Market) I used a chip and signature credit card. ALso, I believe AAA has a minimum for you to exchange. So you may be better off using a Cash Point (ATM) in the UK.
Yes you can pay with credit cards in most places. But should you? Most (not all) credit cards charge a fee on foreign exchange, either a flat amount per transaction or an extra percentage -- or both. Using plastic to pay small amounts can quickly add up to being an expensive practice. Maybe you don't pay fees back home but you could be dinged when abroad. Read the fine print on your card agreement. Because of the costs on my cards, I use an ATM machine and debit card to get a substantial amount of the local currency and then pay cash for all but the largest purchases. Great stuff, cash, however old-fashioned; it's quick and easy and no less secure than a credit card.
Thanks for all the great points, I will have enough to take care of car service at Heathrow and minor stuff at small vendors like at Portabello Market which we have been told is a great local scene. I have a credit card that doesn't charge for international transactions but my Wells Fargo debit card will hit me for 2.5% so that was good research advice too.
London is the forex capital of the world and specialists will charge less than 1% from the interbank mid rate for USD. However, who wants to spend their time paying a visit to an office when ATMs are ubiquitous.
AAA does charge a fee!. It's built into the exchange rate - which is terrible! I am a premier member and couldn' t believe the exchange rate on the euros they were willing to give me in 2014! Also, I've heard that unlike the airports in Italy, the atm's at LHR are private and are terrible. Am I wrong? Is there any other option (a bank?) to exchange money at the airport?
Heathrow ATMs may do dynamic currency conversion that you have to decline. Other recent experience posted here suggests they may not even do that.
As I posted in the thread Marco links to, at the Travelex ATM in T2 I was charged in dollars the same amount that I would have expected to be charged at any bank ATM in Europe at that point in time.
Just make sure the transaction is done in GBP, and not dollars "for your convenience", which is really Travelex's convenience, as then it is it THEIR exchange rate, and not your bank converting at the interbank rate.
AAA offices sell currency at the rate they bought it, so if they bought she the pound was higher against the dollar, that's the rate you will pay.
I have used them when I needed to make up enough cash to pay the car service. I think it may have cost me $8, which didn't bother me because my ATM card didn't work on arrival. For all that everyone says that there are ATMs all over, if it's important to you to have a bit of money before you leave, go ahead and get it.
I am always most comfortable having some local cash with me when I arrive. I am a planner and so think of all those contingencies--power outage, floods, storms, whatever--that could make the ATM inaccessible or not work. It's the level of risk that you are willing to carry. I prefer not to have to find an ATM the minute I walk out with my luggage. I'd rather wait. I just want to get to my hotel!
And think about how much the difference is? If you are getting $100 in pounds is the difference in the rate as much as 10%? Then your peace of mind cost is $10--barely lunch in NYC.