Big Ben and Westminster Bridge in the reflection of the Thames River

It’s hard to believe that four years have come and gone since Beijing, but that must be right since London’s Summer Olympics are almost upon us. The city started its preparations in 2007, and planning was well underway much before that. If you’re like most travelers, you’re probably just getting around to planning your travel options for the games now. Here are a few tips and suggestions to make certain that you’ll feel like you earned gold in London this summer.

Staying Safe

Large competitions like the Olympics draw an amalgamation of folks from all over the globe. This can be great for people watching and a truly international experience. However, unsavory types tend to follow as well, and being a tourist always leaves a person marked as an easy target. The first rule of business when traveling internationally, even to a place as familiar feeling and generally safe as London, is to follow some commonsense guidelines to keep yourself protected.

London police are expecting a rise in petty crimes such as purse snatchings and pick-pocketing over this summer. If you have to carry more than a small amount of cash, always keep it separate from other valuables. This is 2012 and in some cases it is even easier for someone to steal your credit card information than it is your wallet. Coincidentally, I was recently in London for business and had my credit card information stolen even though I only used my card at the hotel and a couple of ATMs. Though dealing with identity theft is never easy, it becomes increasingly frustrating to handle when international borders are involved. A service like Travelex, can provide prepaid visa/mastercards that use chip and PIN functionality, which makes using them abroad easy. Most cards in the US don’t have chip technology, which is standard practice in Europe. A simple prepaid card like the Cash Passport can save a lot headache.

It’s also a good idea to pay for international phone service or to pick up a Euro-based pay-as-you-go mobile phone when you arrive in London. Not only will you be able to easily keep people informed of your day-to-day whereabouts, a must when traveling internationally but, if you have a smart phone, you can take advantage of apps, such as Find My Friend and Google Maps. My friends and I used these recently at a large, citywide music festival and we found that our stress levels went down considerably when we weren’t constantly worrying about getting lost in the crowds.

Finally, never buy tickets from people on the street. When I was at the Vancouver games a few years ago, every street corner had a guy scalping tickets, and for very low prices. However, they’re fake and people who bought them were turned away at the event venues. London is taking this issue seriously, and is listing all authorized resellers on their website.

Where to Stay

If you choose to stay in downtown London, or out near the Olympic village, you’ll be paying more for your accommodations. The city made an agreement with many of its hotels to agree to keep prices reasonable so that average folks could afford the experience. However, like all cities, primo locations mean primo prices.

One of the best aspects of travelling to London is its extensive underground rail system called the Tube. On top of that, there are a plethora of busses and commuter train lines that run out to the outlying areas. Which means, a savvy traveler can stay just about anywhere in the area and still expect to make it to the games, or tourist sites, within a half hour. Websites like Airbnb.com and Vrbo.com are great resources for finding spare rooms, apartments, and even entire houses that are for rent by owner.

It’s also good to keep in mind that many hostels in London don’t have an age limit and are really more like what we’d call motels. The last time I traveled to London with my family, my dad, sister and I all shared a room in a hostel near Piccadilly Circle that was quite nice. If you’re looking to really travel on the cheap and don’t mind sleeping on someone’s couch or spare room take a look at CouchSurfing.org.

Getting a Real British Experience

Between the Olympic Games and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, summer in London is shaping up to be a bit chaotic.  If you do want to visit some of the major tourist sites, like Buckingham Palace, The Tower of London, or Big Ben, make certain you provide enough time in your itinerary to provide for large-than-normal crowds and longer travel times.

Pubs in London are a must-do for any visitor. Most major streets in the city have plenty of pubs to choose from, but here’s a list of The Guardian’s choices for best pubs if you want to try out a few that the Londoners consider topnotch. If you’re more of a night owl, you should know that pubs are required to close at 11 PM. However, bars with a club license can stay open later.

Since the city will be so bustling, you might want to utilize your downtime to explore the areas outside of London. There are plenty of great day trips to take. You can explore Windsor castle, the largest inhabited castle in the world—though don’t be disappointed, it’s not the Queen who lives there! Or explore Hampton Court, the extraordinary palace built by King Henry VIII. Additionally, the quaint college town of Cambridge and the seaside village of Brighton, both worth a visit, are located just a quick train trip outside of London.

How to Get Around

As I mentioned before, London is home to one of the best public transportation systems in the world.  Furthermore, the London Olympic Committee has made getting around even easier. Their Spectator Journey Planner allows users to plan their trips, and oftentimes prepay, between outlying areas and the Olympic venues. Their app will even let you know how long it would take you to walk or bike. Most importantly, just have fun.

Stock Images provided by BigStock Photo, Ints Vikmanis/Shutterstock.com