Five tips for navigating London transport

Despite having been been travelling to and from London since I was a kid, there are things about London transport I have only just learned, having moved here almost a month ago. London is a big city that is actually pretty easy to navigate once you know what you’re doing.

#1. Get some apps

I find that apps are a great way of getting you on your way as soon as possible. Citymapper is my personal favourite. You just type in your starting point, which is automatically set to your current location, and then enter where you want to go and it will tell you various routes to get there, including by bus, tube, rail (and even on occasion, by teleport and jetpack- but those are just for fun) or a combination of them all. It tells you how long each route will take and how much it will cost. It also gives you an idea of how long it would take to walk, cycle or get a taxi to your destination. All in all, it is ideal and contains much more detail than Google Maps.

In addition to Citymapper, I also have mxapps’ Tube map. Sure, Citymapper will tell you how to get to places and it will even tell you in how many minutes your bus/train is leaving but I still like to have a tube map on me and this will tell you the times of trains, quickest routes and, very importantly, the status of all of the tube lines. If there is a problem on one of the lines then you’ll want to know about it. Citymapper kinda does do this as well but I like variety.

Last but not least, get yourself an app for the mainline trains. I use National Rail and the Trainline, both of which will allow you to buy tickets, look up train routes and times and they show live departure boards. Not all areas of London have a tube station so sometimes the mainline train is the best option and this is also what you need if you fancy venturing outside of the city from time to time.

London buses

#2. Don’t forget the buses

Before I moved to a place where there is no tube line, it had never occurred to me to actually use a bus in London before. The traffic is awful and all that stop-start makes me feel rather sick. Then Citymapper pointed out all the buses that go from either end of my street- basically eliminating the need for walking. It’s also only £1.50 for a bus ride, which is great value if you’re going from one end of the line to the other. Admittedly, it’s less good if you just want to go down the road but can’t be bothered to walk. I cannot justify spending £1.50 getting the bus from the station to my road, when I could just walk 10 minutes. When I started using the buses, I couldn’t believe how much money I’ve spent on tubes- often having to change lines along the way- when I could have got a cheaper bus direct to my destination. I also still haven’t got over the novelty of being able to get a night bus home even after the tubes have stopped running.

#3. Beware of the buses

So, everything you just read, take it on board but with suspicion. Yes buses can be grand but they can also inspire just as much anger and frustration as the train. During rush hour, there is a very good chance they’ll be delayed. More than once, I have been on a bus that is running behind schedule and it therefore ends up terminating early. The first time this happened, I hopped off and tried to reason with the next bus driver that I shouldn’t have to pay when my last bus unceremoniously threw me off. The driver told me I should have got a continuation ticket from the driver to prove I’d paid so that I could continue my journey. The next time this happened, I did actually hear an announcement warning us about the change and telling us to get a transfer voucher from the driver if we needed to get another bus. This was valid for 60 minutes, allowing me to hop on another bus for the rest of my trip.

On a similar delay-related note, I am wary of using the bus when I have to be somewhere by a certain time- like work. It’s fine to catch down the road, to the nearest tube station, but I tried to get from one end of the line (Streatham) to the other (King’s Cross). According to Citymapper, this should have taken just over an hour. After sitting in a lot of traffic, I had been on the bus an hour and only got as far as Waterloo. Then the destination changed to Euston. Yes, this was only a short walk but I wouldn’t make it in time for my train. I then ended up spending more money getting the tube from Waterloo and the train from Finsbury Park. Buses are best used out of rush hour and when you aren’t in a rush yourself.

UK London Underground

#4. The world is your Oyster

If you can, avoid buying a paper ticket. You just don’t need to. An Oyster travelcard will cost you a fiver which should be refundable, along with any money you have on it, if you no long need the card and return it. Journey prices are cheaper using an Oyster and you cannot pay with cash on a bus- it’s Oyster or contactless card payments or you’re walking. I’m pretty sure if you use contactless cards on buses/tubes/trains in London then it charges you the same as it would with an Oyster. Remember, if you are getting a train a bit far out, check that it is in an Oyster zone, otherwise you will need an actual ticket.

You can either use Oysters pay-as-you-go, so you can preload them with money, or pay for a season ticket if you are going to be using it multiple times a day. Remember as well that the amount you can spend on an Oyster (and contactless, I think) is capped each day. The cap varies depending which zones you go through but this ultimately means that if you reach the cap then the rest of your journeys that day will cost you nothing. If you register your card with Oyster Online then you’ll be able to see this in your journey history and keep track of how much you are spending.

#5. Enjoy the little moments when you can

There is no getting away from the fact that London transport will be the bane of your life. It will stress you out more than anything else. I generally have a three minute rule – if a bus or a tube takes longer than three minutes to arrive, I get annoyed. The Flatmate tries to stop me from looking at the timetable if she sees they are going to take any longer to spare me from the irritation. So when something funny happens, you have to make the most of it.

For example, ridiculous train announcements. Usually announcements are mundane and consist of a very muffled voice trying to explain to you why your journey is being held up. But every now again they throw you a curveball. Like the one that went as follows:

‘Would passengers make sure to take all personal belongings and elderly relatives with you when leaving the train.’

Rarely does an announcement make a carriage-load of people look up, grinning and catching each others’ eye, as though questioning whether they really had just heard what they think they heard. Particularly in England, where we generally like to sit/stand quietly and pretend that everyone else in the carriage doesn’t exist – even when you are literally jammed up in their face. I sense there was a story there somewhere, but I guess I’ll never know.

There’s also the odd station guard, intent on brightening up everyone’s day, including their own. Like the very chipper guy conducting the morning crowds on the Northern line at Bank station. Then there’s the ones that sound like an excitable game show host. For example, “Welcoooome to Waterloo, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls”. That guy also told us to make sure we made the world a better place. There’s not much that can cheer you up on London’s crammed underground but he managed it. As did the guy at London Bridge station that said people who were standing in the way of the doors were “very naughty”.

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7 thoughts on “Five tips for navigating London transport

  1. I don’t even live in London, but I go something like once a year, and my Oyster is the first thing I pack every time! Life saver

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