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Tips for young Yanks in London

Britain is the most popular destination for Americans studying and working abroad. With that in mind, two young Americans — Ariel Schwartz, a senior at Barnard College, and Micah Twaddle, a recent college graduate — lend advice to their compatriots who may be considering a stint in London upon graduation.
The market, bars and restaurants at Camden Lock, north London, are popular with tourists and locals alike.
The market, bars and restaurants at Camden Lock, north London, are popular with tourists and locals alike.Isha Tohill / Special to MSNBC.com
/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

As the Class of 2008 enters its final year of college, many students are beginning to think, what next? Job? Internship? Graduate school? Or how about travel?

Each year, herds of young Americans — recent graduates or students seeking an international experience — head abroad in search of work, fun — and life.

Two young Americans — Ariel Schwartz, a senior at Barnard College, and Micah Twaddle, a recent college graduate — lend advice to their compatriots who may be considering a stint in the British capital upon finishing school.

Those who seek out adventure in the United Kingdom won't be alone: Britain is the most popular destination for Americans studying and working abroad, with 15.6 percent of students abroad electing to travel to the United Kingdom, according to the 2006 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange.

Getting there
Before making any travel plans, ensure that your passport and credit cards have not expired and will be valid for the duration of your trip.

Then, when booking a flight, explore all possible options; try several different Web sites (Ariel’s favorites are studentuniverse.com, statravel.com, and kayak.com). Be flexible with your departure and return dates, and keep an eye on prices over time.

It is a good idea to have British pounds in your pocket for your arrival; they can be ordered from your local bank, or you can exchange currency at international airports.

Ariel’s tip: “Think ahead: if you take more time to plan, you are more likely to find a cheaper flight and be more knowledgeable and confident about what to do after you land.”

Micah’s tip: “Be patient when looking for flights – don’t just jump on the first deal you see!”

Finding a place to stay
Upon arrival, your first move is to decide what you’re looking for: Do you want to live with other Americans? In a hostel or a flat?

You may also find it necessary to research and visit different areas of the city in order to settle on a location that is best for you (keep in mind: with a population of over 7.5 million people, London is massive).

Take advantage of the numerous sources that advertise housing options. Try Loot magazine, gumtree.com, university housing (at places like Richmond University and Imperial College), and international student offices from your own university, as well as any contacts you may already have in London.

When visiting potential places, be cautious, and don’t ever send money to secure a room.

Note that you will likely have to share an apartment, or even a room, due to the high cost of living in London. Sharing a "flat" can be a great way to meet people from a variety of countries, backgrounds and interests.

Ariel’s tip: “Pick a place to live that you will be happy to come home to at the end of the day. It will make your entire trip more fulfilling when you are not stressed about your living situation.”

Micah’s tip: “If you’re not happy living where you are, don’t be afraid to move. It’s another adventure.”

Landing a job
If you want a paying job, you will need a student work visa, National Insurance card and a British bank account. The latter two can — and must — be worked out upon your arrival, while the student visa can be obtained prior to departure, through programs like BUNAC.

Once you have these established, use career centers (available through BUNAC and often through local universities), utilize your social network — including university staff and alumni – and search online for possible jobs – from working in a bar to a career-type of job. Drop copies of your resume (which is called a CV, or curriculum vitae, in London) anywhere and everywhere.

Ariel’s tip: “Don’t be too picky. If you are legitimately interested in finding work, take your CV to every place you see. And persevere! Job-hunting is always difficult, but London has many, many open positions.”

Micah’s tip: “If you are in London, interning for only a short time, focus on your internship and make the most of the opportunity.”

Learning London
The best way to learn London is to walk it. The heart of the city — often referred to by its demarcation in public transportation as “Zone 1” — is less than three miles wide, so it’s relatively easy to figure out.

Isha Tohill / Special to MSNBC.com

An essential purchase immediately upon arrival is the London A-Z, which lists every street, court and mews in this city. London is not laid out in the grid-like pattern that characterizes most American cities, and even native Londoners carry A-Zs — so don’t worry about looking like a lost tourist (Just remember that “Z” is pronounced “Zed,” or you will sound like a Yank!).

If you want a guided approach, try one of London’s walking tours, which are generally cheap or free (londonwalks.com or walkit.com). In order to lower the expense of city travel, purchase an Oyster card, a reusable travel card that functions as a kind of fast pass on the Tube, the London Underground, and on the buses, for your most traveled zones (tfl.gov.uk).

Ariel’s tip: “Try new activities in different parts of London. By selecting a destination, you will begin to learn your way around each place.”

Micah’s tip: “As you’re walking around London, always be sure to take in the scenery, since each area – and the people in it – is unique.”

Exploring, dining and adventuring
Though London can be extremely expensive, many museums, clubs and concerts are cheap or free. Seek out an informative travel guide such as Rough Guide or the ubiquitous Lonely Planet to learn more about the city. Each Tuesday, purchase a Time Out London magazine to learn about exhibitions, festivals and free events.

As for food, on nights you’re not cooking for yourself, take advantage of the less costly options available in the city’s ethnic food offerings — Chinatown and Brick Lane (famous for its South Asian curry houses) are  prime destinations for great food and a fun night out.

Ariel’s tip: “Venture beyond the West End, which is the most expensive area, and where you are least likely to meet any native Londoners.”

Micah’s tip: “When you arrive in London, make a list of places you want to see, and go about checking them off.”

Get a life!
London is filled with young people from around the world, all looking for experience and a good time.

For social support, a good place to begin is with people from work and from your London home. Be open-minded about meeting people, since they will be of all ages, types and backgrounds. Remember that while native Londoners may seem quite reserved, they are often happy to chat, especially in that most British of institutions, the pub, as well as in cafes.

Finally, be aware of what’s going on in the news, as it’s a key component of conversations, and take care to adjust to the differences between American and English speech — for example, pants versus trousers (in Britain, the former means “underwear,” and a verbal slip could be quite embarrassing!).

Ariel’s tip: “The more active you are, the more people you will meet. Don’t just wait for things, or people, to come to you!”

Micah’s tip: “The best conversations are those that are with people of different backgrounds and experiences.”

Last-minute stuff
For many young Americans, this type of trip will be their first solo journey abroad. That means a lot of planning and, inevitably, the final days before you travel will be hectic. But don’t overlook what might seem like small things — they could turn out to be fairly significant.

Plug adaptors: be aware that the British ones are different from the adaptors used on continental Europe.

Cell phone are inexpensive, so it is a good idea to invest in one, especially if you are meeting new friends and want to contact them — not to mention staying in touch with friends and family back home.

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Finally, always look right! Cars, buses and other vehicles have no mercy in London, and the sidewalks are narrow. If you’re having trouble remembering which way to look, just remember what you were taught as a child and look both ways before stepping into the street (right, left, right, in the UK)!

Ariel’s last words of advice: “This experience will no doubt be filled with moments of frustration and discomfort – but remember that even these tough times can prove to be rewarding in the long term.”

Micah’s last words of advice: “Enjoy yourself – take advantage of the fact that you’re having the experience of a lifetime.”