If you want to see London (and who doesn't?) you are going to have to know how best to get around and explore this incredible city. Some of this "get around" information was not what my teenagers would call "dah" obvious as I first set out on my own to explore London. So lacking any formal London Guide For Dummies I put together my own list of the TEN ESSENTIAL THINGS you absolutely need to know about getting around London. Might be a few "dah" moments but sadly there were a few things that I learned the hard way. Here we go...
1. PUBLIC TRANSIT ROCKS... NO I REALLY MEAN IT !
If you are not a Saudi Princess or British Royalty lets start with public transit... Hey wait a sec...who is that in the photo... hmmm? Well if it is good enough for Charles and Camilla read on. It is the often the best and fastest way to get around. London has the oldest and one of the best rated public transportation systems in the world and it is brilliant most of the time in getting you from A to B. Flawed yes, hot and sticky sometimes, but good nonetheless.
2. GET YOURSELF AN OYSTER CARD
First thing you need to know is the London Transit system be it The Tube (subway), bus or the river boat services do not take cash at point of entry. Not even exact change will work. You can buy tickets, day passes or an Oyster Card (a metro-pass) through a automatic machine at the Tube stations that will work for all things transit. There is generally someone standing nearby to help you out if you get confused with the various options (which can happen). You can also pre-buy online a Visitor's Oyster card and it could be mailed to you if you are that organised before you leave on a trip. I am not. Also if you are here for awhile you can registered your Oyster Card online and it will track your usage and travel and you can even set it up for automatic top-ups.
You have to purchase the actual Oyster Card for £5 or (£3 for a Visitor Oyster Card) and that cost and any unused credit is fully refundable if you return it. You can put whatever amount you like on it using cash or your credit card and it works like a debit card. You can top-up this card or check the balance at the Tube stations. When you enter the Tube turnstile you tap in and when you exit you tap out. Buses you only tap in at either the front or rear door. If you tap out you will be charged an additional fare.
I am not going to get into the costs of various options but just know buses are cheaper than the Tube and your Oyster Card does cap out so that means you can travel all day from place to place and there will be a cap of what you will be charged.
3. YOUR NON-UK CREDIT CARD DOES NOT ALWAYS WORK
You can use your credit card like you would an Oyster Card as long as it has a “tap” option. But the lesson I learned the day I spent without my Oyster Card is that a foreign credit card is not full proof. I tapped my non-UK Visa card getting on the Tube (they had no problem taking my money going in) but when leaving I tapped to exit and it did not recognised my Visa card. This Mr. Bean-like transit worker with an undecipherable cockney accent (think Eliza Doolittle's dad) would not let me pass the turnstile explaining to me that this can happen with foreign credit cards and I had to pay the entire maximum fare for the day even though I had only travelled three stops...or that is what I think he said as I did not have a translator with me. As result I had to unwillingly donate to Transport of London a days worth of Tube travel.
4. YOU HAVE TO HAIL A BUS
A few things "about the bus"...Haha just read that line out loud...there is something I NEVER thought I would say. Buses do not necessarily stop just because you are standing at the bus stop. No they do not. They will sail on by unless you hail them like a cab or unless someone is getting off. Also important to note that they do not necessarily stop when you want to get off. No to that as well. There are red stop buttons around the bus on the grab bars that you need to push to ring the bell to signal to the driver that you want off at the next stop. As I was learning my way around the city I had wished I had known that. I thought the red stop button was an emergency stop and the way the buses sometimes drive or the fact there is a moving flight of stairs you can understand why they would need one. Clearly I have not spent a ton of time commuting on public transit as these basic insights might be have been better told to you by a middle-schooler. I like the buses (wow...again...) especially if you are riding on the top at the front. I have really gotten a sense of the city and the neighbourhoods riding the bus.
5. KEEP TO THE RIGHT
Keeping with the long standing British tradition of orderly queuing when venturing down, or coming up on the escalators if you are not walking you keep to the right and people can pass you on the left. DO NOT mess with the Brits on this. They all appear nice and quiet but mess with this queuing system and you will discover first hand how England has won so many wars.
6. CITYMAPPER APP - DOWNLOAD IT NOW!
One of my favourite apps and most essential way to navigate London is Citymapper. This has undoubtedly replaced my Starbucks app as the most important app on my phone. You put in where you want to go, be it a name of a place like Selfridge's or Harrods (just saying) or punch in a street address and it will give you various options on how to get where you are going along with an ETA. It will give you choices of buses, Tube, biking, walking or driving. It will tell you if there are delays on any of the Tube lines and even suggest the best place to stand on the platform. I love it.
Citymapper is also not without a sense of humour which is a bonus when one is stuck in traffic because it does offer a “catapult” a-la Game of Thrones travel option as well as a “Beam me up Scotty” option which trust me I would be more than happy to take to avoid the London traffic, just need a tad more clarity where to find the transporter. It even tells you how many calories you will burn if you walk. How great is that? As this works on data if you want to avoid raking up costs on your data-roaming plan, you can download directions when you are in a WIFI free area (which is a good idea anyway when you are travelling underground) or you can even print out your directions. This to me is not only the best app for the directionally challenged like myself but for anyone wanting to get around London.
8. UBER IS CHEAPER THAN THE LONDON BLACK CABS...BY A LONG SHOT
My other must have travel app for when those Louboutins don’t want to trounce through the cobblestones streets of London is Uber. I know, what a surprise??? I will not go into much detail on Uber and how it works because I assume that you who are reading this post clearly know the genius of Uber. Uber is a great deal against the high cost of the London Black Cabs. The Black Cabs are convenient if you are on a busy high street, or if there is no obvious place to order an Uber from or coming in from the airport where it i can be difficult to order an Uber.
8. BLACK CABS CAN SAVE YOU TIME
I do not want to totally dismissed The Black Cabs, especially looking at this ruggedly handsome driver pictured here. They really know their way around the city unlike the Uber drivers that are mostly part-time drivers recently arrived in London themselves and totally relying on following their GPS to get you anywhere. So while Black Cab drivers have studied years to get their license all Uber drivers need to drive you around is a very loose understanding of the English language, an iPhone and access to a Prius. No wonder why the cab companies are hating Uber.
You should not rely on Uber alone... and here is the reason why. If you're travelling in peak times Uber does charge a surge fee but that alone does not usually level the playing field. Black Cabs have an advantage that the Uber cars do not (aside from the fact that they know where they're going). They can travel in the bus and taxi lanes, Uber cannot. Thus saving you in most cases valuable time that you would have spent sitting in traffic comparing your GSP directions with that of your Uber driver.
9. SOME DOUBLE DECKER BUSES MAKE GREAT TOUR BUSES
There are some wonderful bus rides you can take, see the city and save yourself the cost (and maybe the slight embarrassment) of the “Hop-on Hop-off” bus tours. My favourite is route 9 Aldwych To Hammersmith. It is one of the oldest bus routes in London and for me one of the most interesting. It begins at Aldwych’s theatre district and passes Trafalgar Square, down Piccadilly, Green Park (Ritz Hotel) through Knightsbridge home of the mothership luxury department store Harrods (ahh Harrods).
It continues pass Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Palace (former home of Princess Diana and current home of William, Kate and Harry) more shops on Kensington High Street and passes Holland Park before getting to Hammersmith.
It would be my suggestion to get off somewhere on Kensington High Street before the park and walk the High Street towards Holland Park. Holland Park is less known than Hyde Park but it is lovely, secluded and has peacocks strolling in the Japanese Kyoto Garden and squirrels so tame they will eat out of your hand. So much nicer than the pigeons I usually associate with parks. Also sit on the upper level at the front of the bus if possible. The windows are large and your view of London is great from up there. Visit Britain Shop is a great site for other scenic bus routes.
10. WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES.
...and if you don't own any what a great excuse to go shopping.
If you have other tips on getting around London please do share as there is still so much to learn about London.
Remember "if you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes you can steer yourself any direction you choose", The Incredible Dr Suess.