De-tax before departing the UK

A note for non-European tourists to the United Kingdom in respect of Value Added Tax and obtaining refunds.
If you’re planning to go shopping whilst in the UK, it’s important to know that we have Value Added Tax (“VAT”) which is a 20% tax added into most goods and services. You will see the price including VAT.  Unlike in the US, you don’t have to do calculations in your head to account for sales tax – the price you see is what comes up at the till!
Eating in vs Eating out. 
At cafes and restaurants, including places like Starbucks, you will be asked if you are “eating in, or taking away.” This is because a croissant is (for example) £1.50 to take away, but £1.80 (ie, £1.50 + 20%) to eat in, as eating in the cafe is technically a “service” that the cafe is supplying to you. Sometimes VAT is shown on a separate line. This doesn’t mean you’re paying extra – it just shows how much tax is included in the price.
It should be noted that nobody really cares about this at cafes – I often say “take away” and then go find a seat within the cafe anyway. It’s really not a big deal at all, but I thought I’d flag it in case you were wondering why they ask or why there is a different price stated on the menu. The cafe then pays this VAT to the government – they don’t keep the 20% – it all goes back into the treasury. Of course, if you’re sat at a restaurant and a waiter comes to take your order, don’t expect to get away with saying you’re not eating there 😉
VAT refunds
 
You may notice at the airport when you land a kiosk for VAT refunds. This is because if you visit the UK but live outside of the EU, you can obtain a refund on some of the aforementioned VAT! You cannot receive a refund on things that you have already consumed within the UK – like food you’ve already eaten or perfume you wore. However, you might be able to get it on gifts and clothing, bottles of gin, boxes of chocolate, jewellery, etc.
How to get the refund? Save your receipts and ask the retailer for a VAT 407 form. You may be asked to show proof you don’t live in the UK, like a US Passport or drivers’ licence. When you go to the airport to leave the UK, show your purchased goods, the completed form and your receipts to customs. Customs will approve your form if everything is in order. You then take the approved form to get paid.
I should note that many, many items are NOT charged VAT (children’s clothes, books, antiques, admission to museums, and a bunch of other items listed here) are NOT charged VAT. But it never hurts to ask.
Heathrow Airport has a helpful VAT refund brochure, which you can read here.
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London espresso: Kensington

Part of a series highlighting one area of London.

Kensington is part of the Royal Burough of Kensington & Chelsea. Despite being absurdly affluent, this district of West London actually offers a bit of something for everyone. If travelling in a group, I recommend starting at South Kensington Station (30 minutes from Liverpool Street by tube) and then everyone can fan out to their areas of interest accordingly.

Kensington is notably home to “Albertopolis,” an area centred on Exhibition Road and named after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.  Here you can find cultural sites including the Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Art, the Royal Geographical Society, the Science Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Whilst you’re out and about in this area, in addition to the museums and shops, be sure to take note of the architecture. The average house price in Kensington & Chelsea is about 40 times greater than average annual earnings, at a cool £1.4m. How many Chelsea Tractors (Land Rovers) can you spot parked on the street?!

Day Planner
Distance: for a sense of scale, the walk from Diana Memorial Playground (top left corner of the map below) to Sloane Square (bottom right corner) is a little over two miles.
Stops: Sloane Square, Harrods, V&A, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Albert Memorial, Kensington Palace.

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London espresso: the Southbank

Part of a series highlighting one area of London.

The South Bank. This itinerary is designed to take the better part of a day, and is best for fair weather. Ideally, aim to go between Wednesday and Saturday, as this is when Borough Market runs its full trade. A limited market is in operation on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Day Planner
Distance: The route itself is 3.2 miles (5.1km) and would take about an hour to walk. However, this does not consider the time you’re going to want to spend at museums, on the London Eye, or at Borough Market!
Stops: Imperial War Museum, The London Eye, Southbank Centre, OXO shops, Bankside, Tate Modern, St Paul’s Cathedral, Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe.

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If you’re starting in the east end, make your way to Bank Station and catch the Waterloo & City Line. This is an often-forgotten-about line as it only goes between two stops: Waterloo and Bank (which is in the City)! The journey takes only five minutes.

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London espresso: Vibrant Central

Part of a series highlighting one area of London.

Central London. Get your walking shoes on and your wallets out, because this walking guide will have you traipsing around some of the busiest, most vibrant shopping areas of London. This was written with my Mother and Sister-in-law specifically in mind!

Day Planner
Distance: The route itself is 2 miles (3.2km) and would take about 40 minutes to walk. However, you will want to allow plenty of time for shopping!
Stops: Selfridges Department Store, Oxford Street, Liberty of London, Canaby Street, Regent Street, Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square (and an optional detour to M&Ms World), Trafalgar Square, and Charing Cross.

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  • Make your way to Selfridges, a luxury department store near Bond Street Station (easy to get to from Liverpool Street on the Central Line). This is second largest shop in the UK (after Harrods) and opened in 1909. Originally from America himself, Mr Selfridge attempted to dismantle the idea that consumerism was strictly an American phenomenon – he is said to have coined the phrase “the customer is always right.”
  • After Selfridges, walk east along Oxford Street which is Europe’s busiest shopping street. On average, half a million people visit Oxford Street every day, and foot traffic is in severe competition with buses and taxis – watch out! The first department stores in Britain opened on Oxford Street in the early 1900s, including Selfridges (above) and John Lewis. However, be alive to the fact that there are many “downmarket” stores trading alongside more prestigious stores. My advice is to avoid the trashy tourist shops.

 

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Roam (if you want to)

If you’re travelling, one of the most important things to consider is how you’ll stay connected.  In addition to ensuring your instagram posts and facebook statuses are up to date, it’s always important to have quick access to important contacts.  Well in advance of your travels, decide what you’ll be doing with your phone.

Option 1:  Call your provider and unlock your phone (so that it works on European networks) and deal with your network provider’s foreign usage charges. 

Note that some phones are not compatible for use on networks outside the United States. In addition, some providers may charge a fee for an international calling plan or phone rental. So, if unlocking doesn’t work for you, you’ll need to move on to Option 2 or Option 3.

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Museum Exhibits, London 2017

Here are just some of the museum exhibits I’m keen to see this year, listed in chronological order of exhibit closing date. What are your cultural must-sees of 2017?

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Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932 
Royal Academy, 11 February through 17 April

I saw this and recommend it unreservedly. I’ll write a review soon!

  • One hundred years on from the Russian Revolution, this powerful exhibition explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of its groundbreaking art. Taking inspiration from a remarkable exhibition shown in Russia just before Stalin’s clampdown, the RA marks the historic centenary by focusing on the 15-year period between 1917 and 1932 when possibilities initially seemed limitless and Russian art flourished across every medium.

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London espresso: East End Trend

Part of a series highlighting one area of London.

Shoreditch is the inner city district in the historic East End of London and modern Central London. It lies within the London Borough of Hackney, lying immediately to the north of the financial district, known as the City of London. The districts of Hoxton and Haggerston are part of Shoreditch. As such, when you hear about Shoreditch, Hoxton, and Haggerston, know that those places are generally “the East End.”

Shoreditch was once described as ‘desolate and rough’ by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, but now the area is evolving into what’s been described as the ‘new Prime Shoreditch’ with one bedroom flats averaging around £565,464.
– from 20 Facts about Shoreditch

Indeed, the East End used to be synonymous with grime and poverty. Before experiencing what the area is like today, I highly recommend viewing photos of Victorian East London, so that you can appreciate just how much has changed – and what hasn’t.

Although still a poor part of town when compared to the absurd wealth of the West End, I  consider the East End to be London’s best neighbourhood for art, fashion and food – it’s an important part of my London story. The East End was where I first lived in London, and I now work in the nearby City. Read on for my suggested tour of the area which I recommend for the afternoon, as it can be pretty sleepy in the mornings.

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