Getting around: secrets of London’s transport system

I grew up in the south east of the UK, close enough to take regular day trips to our capital, and spent two years as a proper Londoner after leaving university.  I’ve been a tourist and a tourist-hater (if you’ve ever even contemplated coming to an abrupt halt in the middle of Oxford Street for no apparent reason, there’s a good chance I’ve shouted or muttered at you), but I appreciate that the system is confusing if it is unfamiliar.  Hopefully, this post will de-mystify one of the best cities in the world.

The worst-kept secrets

  1. The Tube map is not to scale – it’s a beautiful thing and easy to read, but the distance between stops on the map?  Not to scale!  For example, Charing Cross and Embankment stations are almost on top of each other (no need to Tube it, even on the hottest or rainiest days, this is perfectly walkable)
  2. The Underground ticket barriers are for tickets and Oyster cards only – I have seen many people attempt to fit their credit or debit card in the ticket slot.  This leads to disaster.  Purchase your ticket or Oyster card prior to approaching the gates.  Nobody wants to do the Turn Of Shame and fight their way back through a crowd who are elbowing their way to the gate
  3. There is nothing to fear about the other end of the platform/the inside of the carriage/the upper deck of the bus – if you have to wait for a train, walk along the platform, as it is usually less crowded; please, please move down inside the Tube carriage – there will be more space and there is no need to worry about missing your stop (Londoners are polite, they will shuffle to let you through if you ask nicely); there are often seats upstairs, what a revelation!  The view is also far superior – I learned the geography of London from the top deck of buses.  And again, there is no panic about missing your stop – buses have CCTV or mirrors for the driver, so that they can see who is trying to disembark

Best practices

  1. Get an Oyster card – Oyster is London’s travel pass.  Anyone can buy one at ticket offices around London (or order online prior to your visit, but this is unnecessary).  You can top it up to use as a pay as you go service, or purchase it as a travel pass for a certain length of time.  Seek advice at the ticket office for what will suit you best, but this WILL save you money.  The cost of the card (£5 at time of writing) is refundable if you return your card prior to going home (as are any unused pay as you go funds), but these cards do not expire – if you plan to return to London, keep your card.  Special editions are issued as souvenirs – yours could be a limited edition and worth keeping!
  2. Avoid travelling at peak times – London commuters are ruthless.  And habitual.  And territorial.  We’re sorry.  But we’re in a hurry.  Take your time in London.  Avoid the Tube and buses (particularly on rainy days – Londoners seem to lose the use of their legs) between 8am and 9:30am on weekday mornings and 4pm and 6pm on weekday evenings
  3. Check before you travel – improvement works to the Underground and Overground networks regularly take place on weekends.  Transport for London (TfL) send a weekly update email which is worth reading, but information about dates months in advance can also be found online or at stations.  Alternative options will be explained, check your route carefully
  4. Try the bus – it’s far less terrifying than you think and my preferred mode of London transport.  If you’re paying as you go, it’s half the price of the Tube.  Buses tend not to get as stiflingly hot as Tubes.  You can see more of London and gain a better perspective.  And if you’re stuck in traffic which looks unlikely to clear, you can see where you are and hop off at the next stop
  5. Also worth a go: the “Boris bikes” – the current Mayor of London’s greatest invention is the Cycle Hire scheme.  Pay at a machine using credit or debit card to release a bike.  Cycle about as you please.  Return bike to any vacant parking spot on the network.  Make sure you stick to cycle lanes where possible and obey traffic rules – this is not for the faint-hearted, but can be a fun and eco-friendly way to see London

And finally: avoid Baker Street station like the plague.  Easily my least favourite station of those that I have been to on the Tube network.  It is poorly-signposted and horribly confusing, even as a Londoner.  If anyone knows the secret of this maze, please let me know.  I have yet to figure it out.

Some of this post is written with my tongue firmly in my cheek.  But much of it is, I think, seriously useful.  Let me know if you have any further words of wisdom!  London is incredibly easy to explore via public transport.  The iconic black cabs are, of course, also brilliant at what they do, but can be expensive.  Be bold.  And also know that the person muttering at you to get out of their way would actually usually be happy if you ask for their help.  Londoners have egos too.

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