The Peculiarities of the UK in Comparison to the US
The United Kingdom is very similar to the United States in many ways, but very different in others. Of course there are the significant things that are different, like driving on the left side of the road, an English/British accent, a much more exhaustive train system, and trash cans are called rubbish bins. Then, there are the little things that take a bit of keen observation to notice, pubs are not bars, wall outlets have individual on/off switches, and you aren’t expected to tip.
The more time we spend in the UK, the more things we notice. We’re sure if you’ve been to the UK, you’ve noticed many things that are a just a bit different.
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Differences: Peculiar, Challenging, and Genius
Some of the differences are peculiar and just make you cock your head to the side for a moment and think about it.
For example, it’s simply mind boggling to us that there are so many pay phones in the United Kingdom. We’ve seen them in cities of varying sizes, both large and small. However, in the US, we can’t recall the last time we saw a pay phone.
Some of the differences are a bit challenging to get used to.
Crossing the street as a pedestrian can be dangerous if you’re expecting cars to be driving on the right side of the road, as they do in the US. Even though we consciously remember that cars here are driving on the opposite side, it’s so ingrained into us that we still expect cars to be coming from the opposite direction when crossing the street.
So when we should be looking right, the instinct is to look left. Make this mistake too hastily and it could mean serious danger. We’ve done our best to make the habit of just looking both ways a couple of times to be sure. Better safe than dead!
Some differences are genius and we firmly believe that they should be implemented yesterday in the US to make lives easier!
VAT, similar to what we know as tax, is included in the listed price.
Another thing we think is smart is having radiator room heaters instead of central heating or HVAC systems. We know this exists in the US, however we wish it was more common. It makes so much more sense to only heat the area you’re in, rather than the entire house or have to close and open vents accordingly.
Keep in mind, the things we’ve noticed while in the UK are obviously through our own lenses and experiences. What we’ve taken notice of might be different than the person next to us has. What we think of these differences is also our own interpretation and opinion. Not to mention, there’s a decent possibility that we might not be seeing the whole picture, or are missing information that would lead to a different conclusion.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here are a few more things we’ve noticed.
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Differences in Linens
The difference between the United States and the United Kingdom in how a bed is made and what linens are commonly provided was unexpected for us.
As you may know, we’re traveling with one bag, a 36-litter Manta AG 36 backpack, so what we carry with us is limited. We’d read and thought we agreed that a towel would be endlessly helpful and used frequently (think Hitcher Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy!) with our type of travel. So, we purchased a travel towel but it turns out a washcloth would have gotten more use than the towel!
In every place we’ve stayed we’ve been provided with a towel. So, our travel towel went unused and after a couple of months was actually sent home with a couple of other things.
However, we’ve almost never been provided with a washcloth, loofah, or shower puff that could be used to lather and clean-up in the shower. So, when we get to a new place we usually purchase a shower puff or loofah as part of the 6 Things We Buy When We Arrive.
We’re still not sure if this isn’t typically provided to guests or if in general, people simply don’t use them in the United Kingdom.
Another interesting discovery was that a top sheet is rare to find on a bed in the United Kingdom. We’re very used to having a bed made with a bottom fitted sheet, a top flat sheet and then a blanket and/or comforter. However, a majority of the time we’ve slept in the UK has been without the top flat sheet. It goes from bottom fitted sheet straight to the duvet. The duvet always has a removable cover that can be washed, so it isn’t un-hygienic, just different.
Differences in Food Labeling
One, of the many things we’ve grown to really appreciate is the way food is labeled in the United Kingdom.
On one hand it takes a little of an adjustment to get used to the nutritional information and how it's listed in the UK. For example, salt in the US is listed as ‘sodium’, but in the UK it’s simply ‘salt’.
One of the first things many people look at is ‘calories’, written out as such in the US, however, here it’s called ‘energy’ and amounts are listed in kL units and kcal units. Plus, the order of the nutritional label is a bit different, but we got used to that fairly quickly.
Reading Food Labels
Our health and well being is important to us, so when it comes to food we're quite particular about what we eat. We want to be sure that what we’re consuming is going to keep us healthy, strong, and feeling well!
So, when we’re buying something packaged the first thing we do is read the label. Ingredients are very important, since if we can avoid it we don’t want to be putting low quality oils, hydrogenated fats, preservatives, etc. in our bodies. We also want to know how much of the ingredients we’re consuming, like calories, sugar, carbohydrates, salt, etc.
If you’re a label reader as well, you may have run into the problem of comparing two different products and wanting to find the better of the two, nutritionally speaking. Should be simple enough, right? Just look at the amounts on the nutritional label and compare each product to the other. However, it’s all too common that serving sizes on the nutritional labels will be different. Even worse, is comparing products that have serving sizes in different measurements, like ounces to grams.
We’ve taken out the calculator on our phone a few times to try to figure out the labels on two different products, and it’s not fun. The quick solution is to use the percentages of the nutritional element based on a 2,000 calorie diet. But this isn’t perfect since not every item on the nutritional label has been given a standard suggested amount for a 2,000 calorie diet.
100 grams: Genius!
It’s no surprise then, when we realized that all food labels in the United Kingdom have a standard nutritional label that not only gives amounts per serving size but also per 100 grams, we were thrilled!
You may think thrilled is an over exaggeration, and it may be for Sergio, but it certainly isn’t for Shannon. It makes it so easy to compare one product to another! Every packaged item that has a nutritional label includes a breakdown of the nutritional information by a 100 gram portion.
For example, when staying at a hotel we often prepare our own meals but it often means we purchase pre-packaged foods. Recently we were looking at soups and because pre-packaged ones can be filled with way too much salt and sugar, we wanted to compare each brand to find the best one.
The UK food label made comparisons super simple and quick! Not to mention, when we went to a second store and looked at soups there, it was easy to remember the nutritional information from the previous stores’ soup, because it was just based on 100 grams. No math, conversions, or Googling needed!
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Differences in Restrooms
Well, first it might be worth noting that bathrooms are more often called ‘toilets’ or wash closests (WC) in the United Kingdom.
There are several small differences we have run across in restrooms around the UK. It may be a taboo subject to get into, but hey, we’ll go for it.
Light Switches and Outlets
Light switches are usually on the wall outside of the restroom.
If the switch is inside the restroom, it’s probably on a pull string.
The only outlets in the restroom are for shavers which have unique plugs and run on a lower voltage. So, blow-dryers and other appliances can't be plugged in in the bathroom. In other words, charging toothbrushes, blow-drying hair, and anything else that requires a standard outlet will have to be done somewhere other than in the restroom.
We’ve found that many toilets can be a bit finicky when you try to flush them. We find we have to wiggle the handle occasionally and then firmly flush and hold. Sometimes you have to do it a couple times to get it to flush. We suspect it’s because toilets have two different amounts of water that are used depending on how far down you depress the toilet lever.
Showers and Towels
Showers usually use tank-less water heaters that require a button or switch to be turned on. It’s great for electricity or natural gas savings, but can be tricky with obtaining and/or maintaining consistent water temperature throughout your shower.
Shower doors only cover the front half of the shower and tub.
Most restrooms are equipped with a towel warmer.
Tip: If you’re traveling by train, we’ve also found that most restrooms in train stations are accessible only with payment. Usually it’s 20-60 p (pence, or cents). So it may be wise to carry change on you in case of emergency.
Differences in Driving
When cars are designed backwards and people drive on the opposite side of the road, many things are bound to be different when it comes to driving!
In general in the UK, roads are smaller, lanes are narrow, and cars are micro, relative to the United States.
We know they exist in England, and it may be because we walk and take public transport way more than we drive, but we have yet to see a highway in the UK like the large highways we’re used to in the US. We grew up with eight to fourteen lane freeways in California, so to not see these massive concrete highways is refreshing!
We’ve found that lanes are narrow, and sometimes so narrow that they often reduce a two lane road to a single lane. And it’s not uncommon to have a single lane for two directions of traffic crossing a bridge.
Plus, because lanes are narrow, street parking is limited. People accommodate for this by parking half on the sidewalk and half on the road.
So it’s a good thing that cars are smaller in the UK! SUVs are uncommon and trucks are just plain rare. What would be considered a micro-car in the US is standard and we’ve noticed that there are dramatically more cars that are hatchbacks and only a few cars with trunks. This is very pragmatic in our opinion.
Oddly, the colors of the cars are even a bit different. They tend to be a shade of grey, white, or black. If a car is a different color, it’s highly unlikely to be a bright one. We’ve been in parking lots where every single car is some neutral/ gray/ monochromatic color. It’s one of those things that takes a bit to notice, but once you do, it sticks out!
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Differences in Food and Stores
We can’t go without mentioning food here. What we’ve noticed is a bit biased, since we don’t eat out much and shop for very specific types of food. However, we’ve certainly noticed a few things.
Mustard in the UK is ‘English Mustard’ and has added sugar. So, look for American or hot dog mustard if you want traditional US yellow mustard.
Oats are porridge oats, so they are more finely ground. If you want whole oats (called jumbo oats in most of the UK), you have to really search for them and usually pay double to quadruple the price of porridge oats. We usually find them in the organic or gluten-free (‘free from’) section of the store.
Gluten free is referred to ‘Free From’, as in free from gluten. Many larger grocery stores (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons) have a ‘Free From’ section. Also, some of the items in this section will also be free from dairy, eggs, and/or milk.
Chips are fries and crisps are chips.
Drive thru businesses, like food, banks, pharmacies, coffee shops, etc., are rare.
The number of fast food establishments are limited, as well as the selection.
Shops close early, especially on Sundays. Even the ‘24-hour’ grocery stores are closed by 5 pm on Sunday.
Eggs aren’t refrigerated. This makes them challenging (for us Americans) to find in the grocery store, but they’re typically found by the bread.
Eggs are purchased in packages of 6, 10, 12, 15 and 18. However, packs of one dozen eggs is less common.
Baked beans are part of a traditional meal in the UK. Therefore, an aisle of canned beans consists almost entirely of baked beans with a very small section (if any) reserved for other types (kidney, chickpea, butter, etc).
Gratitude in the Small Things
Okay, so we know in the scheme of things, these differences between the United Kingdom and the United States are minor.
Yes, it would be a much more grandiose post to talk about the National Health System or gun laws in the UK (we officially have no opinion on this one way or the other). But we’d rather not dive into that can of worms and stick to the smaller things.
Overall, most of what we find in differences are peculiar, interesting, or great. Very few things do we actually dislike, most just take a bit of getting used to. For us, it’s practicing gratitude by recognizing the things some people take for granted, that make our lives a bit easier, happier, or more beautiful.