Post-COVID, a bit of fear creeps into every trip to a foreign destination. Even for a destination as safe and welcoming as the United Kingdom you may find yourself wondering, “Is it safe to travel to London?”
Thankfully, the answer is that London is at least as safe for tourists as any other major city in the world, and safer than many.
Numbers say London is safe
The numbers – most of them, at least – seem to back it up.
- London finished second of 23 cities around the world in the inaugural Safest Cities rankings from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, trailing only Honolulu.
- The Economist’s safe-city rankings put London 14th, ahead of New York City but behind Chicago.
- The crowdsourced safety rankings from Numbeo put London as the 310th-safest city in the world, between Miami and Louisville and behind a mishmash of cities like Saskatoon and Oulu, Finland, where tourist safety has never been an issue.
Rankings, while they provide some context, can vary greatly in terms of who’s being asked questions, the questions they’re being asked, what numbers they’re using, and/or how much weight they’re giving each number.
Especially with a city as large as London, it’s equally important to look at what’s happening on a more localized basis. That’s where GeoSure Global, the provider of safety apps and related data, shines.
Safety can vary by neighborhood
In general, GeoSure gives London a score of 66 on a 1-to-100 scale, giving it high marks for women’s and LGBTQ safety but lower marks for theft and overall health.
However, because GeoSure does its safety measures on a neighborhood basis, the numbers can vary greatly, from 73 in Belsize Park to 61 in the Liverpool Street area and 62 in Westminster, which has the highest crime rate in the general London area.
The significant gaps between neighborhoods, as well as the multifaceted rating system designed to reflect on-the-ground experiences, make an app like GeoSure a must-have for travel to London.
COVID-19 and safety in London
The other thing travelers need to consider is the impact of COVID-19 on the overall safety of travel to London.
Despite some anxious moments in both the U.S. and the U.K., the latter is allowing American visitors into their country.
There are plenty of caveats, however.
Transoceanic flights have resumed, but few flights from the U.S. go anywhere in the U.K. besides London. Americans flying to London must provide a negative COVID test taken within the past 72 hours, and complete additional paperwork before being allowed to travel in-country.
General guidelines and restrictions
London and the rest of the U.K. are currently subject to national coronavirus restrictions with a traffic-light-style travel system – red, amber and green – and a four-stage reopening process in place. Red areas prohibit travel, while travelers need to follow familiar masking-and-distancing protocols in yellow areas.
The good news is that London is at stage-four status, thanks to an aggressive vaccination push.
Attendance restrictions have been lifted for restaurants, nightclubs, arts and sporting events. Distancing and most masking requirements have been pared back, though you’re still expected to wear a mask in highly crowded indoor venues like mass transit.
If you start to feel unwell when you’re in London, follow the local protocols, get a COVID test as soon as possible, tell your lodging provider what’s going on, and self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days.
In areas where travel is allowed, Visit Britain has launched the “We’re Good To Go” program, where venues and businesses can put a large green checkmark in their windows to signal they’ve implemented COVID-related safety measures. A similar program for theaters uses a “See it Safely” mark.
Admittance policies have been modified at many of London’s most popular attractions, reflecting COVID restrictions. For instance, if you want to visit the British Museum, the U.K.’s most popular free attraction, you need a reservation.
The city’s popular Tate Modern gallery requires a timed ticket booked in advance. Demand will vary depending on the day and time you want to visit.
Pubs, public transport, and events
Pubs, bars, and restaurants in London are offering indoor seating, though locals and visitors alike may have some post-pandemic trepidation about sitting inside.
Fortunately, many pubs and restaurants offer outdoor seating. If you’re part of a group event, currently you can meet outdoors in a group of up to 30, and indoors in a group of up to six people or two households.
If you plan on taking public transport, it’s recommended that you avoid busy times, and walk or rent a bike wherever possible.
While things are definitely on the upswing in London, events are in a state of flux due to the pandemic. The best way to stay on top of closures and cancellations is to bookmark and check out the Visit London website.
Traveling outside of London
If and when travelers venture outside of London, they’ll find that train service from London to popular day-trip destinations like the Cotswolds is less frequent and more irregular, making a car rental more of a necessity.
Fortunately, car rentals are currently in good supply in the London area, though if you’re not familiar with the wonders of right-hand drive you’re in for a learning curve.
London has it all, but if you’re looking to travel by car outside of London, the TfL Go app can help you plan the best routes for auto travel outside of peak times to aid social distancing.
One final note: If you plan on traveling from London to one of the United Kingdom’s constituent entities that aren't named England – Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Wales – you may have to fork over up to £88 for a COVID test.
The U.K.’s National Health Service website has more information, including details on getting a COVID-19 test for free.
You should also spend some time on the Visit England website to monitor any changes in national regulations and restrictions.
Crime in London
In general, crime in London, while often thought of as a problem in the U.K., is considerably less than in other major American cities. According to CNN, in 2019 London had a homicide rate of 1.9 per 100,000 residents – lower than 120 largest U.S. cities.
Knife crime is considered a problem in London; in 2018 there were 168 offenses involving a sharp instrument per 100,000 residents. Phone thefts are also becoming an issue, with most of the nearly 200 phones being stolen every day in the U.K. being stolen in the London area.
As of 2018, the U.K. ranks fifth in the world in thefts per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
While London is a safe city compared to many cities in the U.S., especially in terms of violent crime, it does have some issues with less-serious crimes like theft which can nonetheless be upsetting to travelers.
Given that, travelers to London should:
1. Be vigilant
2. Know your neighborhood
3. Look to blend in
4. Travel in groups at night
5. Buy travel insurance
What goes for any big city around the world goes for London: Keep your eyes and ears open. If you’re suspicious of someone, move away from them. Closely watch the things that matter most to you.
In addition, do the little things, like wearing your backpack in front of you when you’re standing in line, or keeping one foot on the strap of a handbag that’s over a chair. Don’t use an ATM without looking around first. Notice what’s going on around you on public transportation.
Finally, if you rent a bike in London, be especially aware of traffic. Remember that right-hand drive reverses everything, so know what side of the road you should be on, use hand signals, and wear a helmet.
Know your neighborhood
London is a city of neighborhoods, and the safety of those neighborhoods can change from block to block or street to street.
In addition to downloading and using an app like GeoSure, ask your hotel concierge or rental host where the safe areas are to walk, and stick to those areas.
Don’t stop there, though. Make an effort to really understand your neighborhood – where the good restaurants are, where you can grab a quick snack, what the pubs are like, and more. It’s important to move from survival and safety to understanding and appreciating where you are.
This is especially true in London, which is both a melting pot and a place where various groups look for nooks and crannies they can call their own.
Look to blend in
Because of its cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic nature, London is one of the easiest cities in the world for people to blend in. Obviously there are times and places where you’ll be typecast as a tourist, but if you walk fast and don’t call attention to yourself you’ll be less likely to be identified as a tourist.
On the other hand, if you’re lost and need directions, don’t be afraid to ask. Londoners are generally polite and willing to help.
Buy travel insurance
Between COVID and crime, a lot of things can happen on your trip to London. Buying travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection is a smart way to help protect your prepaid travel expenses.
London is not appreciably less safe than most cities around the world – but that doesn’t mean it’s more safe than those cities. Be smart, travel smart, and you should have a great time in London.