LONDON — Airport layovers usually aren't a reason to get excited, unless they're in a really great place and for a really long time.
London's among the best cities in the world to be "stuck" for hours between flights, not only because there's so much to do in the city, but also because you can plan your time and reserve tickets so far ahead that you don't have to waste time figuring out where to go and how to get there once you are there.
Here's one way to get an entire British experience during a 12-hour layover. Just remember to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, check your luggage through to your final destination and keep your carry-on light so you don't have to lug around a lot of stuff all day. And, of course, have your camera ready at all times. You never know when you'll spot a Royal, a quirky roller skater or a peace march featuring signs with slogans like "Make tea not war."
7:40 a.m. Arrive at Gatwick Airport, London.
Pre-book and print a round-trip ticket on the Gatwick Express (www.gatwickexpress.com) to get from the airport to the city. The Gatwick Express Train leaves every 15 minutes, and the ride to London's Victoria Station takes about a half-hour. Cost is 13 pounds (about $20) for one way; a one-day travel card is 15.80 pounds, or about $24.50.
9 a.m. Catch a sightseeing bus.
Again, before you step foot in London, go online and book a famous "Original" red double-decker bus sightseeing tour (www.theoriginaltour.com). For 16 pounds (about $25), you have an all-day means of transportation and a great tour.
You can hop off the bus at each stop and hop on the next one, or transfer bus lines and head in another direction altogether. The tour guides are experts and, besides the obvious points of interest, they'll offer "insider information," such as where celebrities like Sean Connery and Roger Moore live and where you might see members of the royal family "flitting about" that day.
10 a.m. Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace is among the first stops on the Original bus tour that leaves from Victoria Station. From the end of July to the end of September each year, select state rooms in the queen's residence are open to the public.
Visitors can take a 90-minute audio tour and walk through some of the most-used rooms, including the majestic ballroom, the stately throne room and the picturesque music room. Cost of the tour is 14 pounds ($21). Tickets can be purchased and printed online at www.the-royal-collection.com.
If the palace isn't open when you visit, park yourself in front of the palace gates to get a good view of the famous changing of the guard. The 45-minute old royal ceremony takes place at 11:30 a.m. daily April through July and on select days through the rest of the year (check www.royalcollection.org for the schedule in the month you visit).
12:30 p.m. Ride the London Eye.
For a bird's-eye view of the whole city and some of the greatest photo opportunities of its majestic skyline and buildings, take a spin on the British Airways London Eye. Built to usher in the new millennium, this Ferris wheel-type "flight" takes about 30 minutes. Each capsule is enclosed and air-conditioned and takes visitors high above the historic Thames River.
Avoid the long line and get a discount by booking your ticket online, at www.ba-londoneye.com. Price is 11.25 pounds (about $17) for adults. If you don't pre-book, you can still avoid the long line by booking a fast-track ticket (25 pounds or about $39) when you get there.
For lunch, line up for a Wonder Waffle, a Belgian waffle with ice cream and chocolate syrup and a favorite treat among locals and tourists..
1:30 p.m. Continue sightseeing in Old London.
Get back on the sightseeing bus at the London Eye and head in one direction toward Westminster Abbey and Houses of Parliament or in the other direction to the award-winning Imperial War Museum.
Continue on to Trafalgar Square, arguably the best place in London to people-watch.
Around the square you've got the the National Gallery, the baroque-style St. Martin-in-the-Fields church and a newer popular attraction, Canada House Gallery.
For 4.95 pounds (about $7.70), you can get afternoon tea, scones, clotted cream, jam and cake at the Cafe in the Crypt at St. Martin-in-the Fields (www2.stmartin-in-the-fields.org). Afterward, attend an afternoon concert, or make your own souvenir at the Brass Rubbing Center in the crypt.
4 p.m. Stroll through Hyde Park.
Londoners love their parks. You only need to walk through part of Hyde Park to tell. Take the sightseeing bus to the park, get out and walk, and walk. Observe inline in-line skaters, young and old. Watch couples in boats on the lake. Walk down to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, a serene flowing-water feature where little children like to touch the water and run around the edges.
You're not far from Harrod's (www.harrods.com) at this point, if you want a little retail therapy in the famous department store.
5 p.m. Pub time.
You can't leave London without fish and chips and an ale or cider in a local watering hole. Head to a pub for a quick drink, or linger in a "gastric pub" for an entire meal. One near Hyde Park is Paxton's Head Free House, in the tony Knightsbridge neighborhood.
For about 10 pounds ($15.50) get a full plate of fish and french fries and a pint of cider. Or, if you're more adventurous, order a pan-Asian dish or vegetarian burger from the extensive menu.
This is a good place to strike up a conversation with locals, which may be helpful if you're needing to know the quickest way to get back to the Gatwick Express at Victoria Station.
6 p.m. Gatwick Express back to airport.
At Victoria Station, find the Gatwick Express platform and ride back to the airport. Allow time for transferring terminals and going through security.
Stephanie Allmon, firstname.lastname@example.org