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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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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Lunchtime in London

You’ll see cafe and restaurant chains all over the city, but how do you choose where to grab a quick bite to eat?

The UK lunch market is worth £16 billion to the economy. “Which lunch market? Greenwich, Spitalfields, Borough?” I hear you ask. Actually, I’m taking about the sector of the food industry. And as fewer and fewer people in Britain bring homemade lunches to work, the lunch market is growing by about 3% each year.

According to the BBC, we are more likely to dash to the nearest takeaway to grab something quick and then bring it back to their desk. On average, we spend £670 a year on takeaway lunches, with those of us in London spending at least £830 each year.

I first noticed this when I tried to explain chains like Pret a Manger, Itsu, and Vital Ingredient to my family back in the United States. Now, I will be the first to admit that cities like New York, Chicago, Austin and my hometown of Seattle have plenty of great takeaway lunch options. However, I’m unaware of any widespread chains that aren’t blatantly in the “fast food” category. While Americans have plenty of burger and chicken places, I wouldn’t consider Pret to be like MacDonalds (despite the latter being the parent company).

Londoners especially have mercurial food tastes: we move seamlessly between cuisines and formats. So what do I recommend for lunch when you’re in the Big Smoke? If I’m in need of something cheap and cheerful, usually head for one of the following chains.

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Best for Soups and Sandwiches – Pret
Pret offers Sandwiches, baguettes, desserts, fruit cups, crisps and bakery items, as well as sushi, salads, soups, and cakes. They also have hot and cold drinks, including smoothies. There really is something for everyone at Pret. The company emphasises the use of natural ingredients and advertises all sandwiches are made on the day of purchase.
Budget £5 for a sandwich or salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

Runner up – EAT.
EAT offers a really good rotation of weekly hot food, like chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese. They also have sandwiches that you can toast – toasties!
Budget £5 for a sandwich or salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

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