Quick Tips and Tricks When Travelling in London
When I moved to London six years ago, I was overwhelmed with the city, its many facets, neighbourhoods, and the transport to get me from A to B.
Of course no one would expect a newbie or vacationer to know the ropes right off the cuff, but these ideas will hopefully offer some ideas or more pleasurable if not interesting experiences.
The London Underground (“The Tube”)
Oyster Cards: It you don’t know, an Oyster card is a plastic card containing a monetary value you have prepaid electronically. When you get on and off the tube, you “tap in” and “tap out” by touching the card on specified devices.
If you are going to stay in London for a while, you will want an Oyster Card, because it can save you money and it is convenient. When you return your Oyster Card, you will receive a refund on your initial deposit (roughly a few pounds).
Did you know that an Oyster card can be topped up online? Why wait in a queue and make other people wait with you while you do? You will need to go to an Underground station to get an Oyster Card initially, but to top it up every other time.
Free Exercise: There are loads of long stairs on the Underground. Who needs a gym when you can hike up a long flight of stairs? It also prevents you from standing in a potentially long queue, and hey...you'll impress everyone else on the escalators. There are loads of options, but a more extreme example is in Covent Garden. Choose the steps instead of the elevators here, and you will hike the equivalent of a 10 story building (193 stairs).
Are You Pregnant?: Did you know that you can get a “Baby on Board” badge especially for the Underground? People would typically be considerate enough to give you their seat anyway, but this badge shows everyone that you actually need a seat.
Taking a bus can be much more pleasant than the tube. This is especially true if you are in one of the more upscale parts of town and avoid rush hour commutes. The bus allows you to see the city and generally get a better view than the tube can give. I remember doing this with my wife during Christmas. We went down Oxford Street which was all decorated and lit up for Christmas. We would have missed out on an amazing view otherwise.
I don't endorse this (And I certainly haven’t done it myself), but often bus drivers (especially in more busy areas like Oxford Street) couldn’t care less if you have paid for bus fare or not. A confident and brief flip of any old ticket will get a passive grunt of approval so that you can hop on the bus. This works on trains too but only during peak times when the turnstiles open to ease congestion. It is much more risky on a train.
Always buy in advance when possible to save a load of money. Train companies seem to capitalise on last-minute bookings and changes and will have no mercy charging you a lot of money. You can buy at the stations as well of course, but online and in advance is the best option.
Most of the trains taking you anywhere in the Greater London area are short on amenities, but longer train journeys will allow you access to bars, table seats, power outlets, and the ability to choose quiet cabins and seating preferences.
Delay Repay: In many cases, if your train is delayed for at least 30 minutes, you are owed either a free ticket or money. Search for "delay repay" on your favourite search engine, choose from a variety of websites, fill in a form, send it in with copies of travel ticketS, and in a few weeks receive free travel tickets. Watch out though. They will give you a ticket with a specific value, and if your travel value is less than your new ticket you can lose the difference. This defeats the purpose of the whole programme if you ask me, but at least it is something.
First Class – It seems to be hit or miss with trains. Sometimes they are early, sometimes they are late, sometimes there is plenty of seating and at other times there is none. I will admit that there have been occasions when I have taken a first class seat even though I had a standard ticket. Why? Because otherwise I would have been cramped standing 3 inches from strangers’ arm pits and bad breath. At the end of a long work day, I’ve told myself that I would rather pay a penalty fee that have to deal with that. Several years ago I admit that I was busted for sitting in first class with a standard ticket. I was told that “normally I would let you move to the standard cabin, but today some executives of the rail company are present and watching. I have no choice.” Who knows if this was true or not. I think I was fined twenty pounds. In my opinion, First class is more like standard in other countries.
Only licensed taxis are allowed to pick up passengers without pre-scheduled bookings. They can be quite expensive, but the drivers are very knowledgeable and will typically give you instant piece of mind if you need to get your bearings straight.
The advice from my wife here is to stay away from unlicensed taxis, because they can be dodgy. She is a native so I’d follow her advice if I were you.
London has a bicycle hire”/rental scheme that was introduced to ease traffic congestion and promote health etc… People refer to the bikes as “Boris Bikes” after the slightly eccentric yet well-loved current mayor of London. (Boris was recently televised hanging on a zip wire to promote er…something.
For the first 30 minutes, you can ride for free, and the longer you have the bike the more you pay. The bikes are a bit heavy I’m told (I have not ridden one but know loads of people who have) but they are a popular option.
Personally, one of the most liberating moments I had in London was shortly after I bought an iPhone. I remember going to meet some friends for dinner across town knowing nothing but the address. I plugged the address into Google Maps on my iPhone, started listening to some tunes and followed the map leading me to my destination. I felt very “urban cool”.
Often London maps (especially Underground maps) will lead you to believe that the distance between two points are further than they are. Walking from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square would take about two minutes for example. My advice is not to get stuck on the tube. Get out and walk when you can. There is so much to see and sometimes the best things in life aren’t planned.
Equipment and Tools
London is known for rain of course, but much of the time it is spitting rain. This means that often an umbrella doesn’t work. Many people do still have umbrellas, but an equal number have some type of jacket with a hood. My recommendation is to have something.
Bring some disinfectant hand gel. Who knows what or who has touched your seat or handrails.
Also, breath mints are a good idea. You may get a smile from someone special (I know people who have met on the tube and started dating) or be non offensive in the least. Even better, you can offer one to the person with bad breath next to you. You will sometimes wish you could hand out deodorant too, but hey that’s another article.
There are a lot of handy applications that you can download to help you with your journey. Here are a few of my iPhone favourites, but there are other for other devices to of course: BusMapper Pro, London Tube, UK Train Times, thetrainline, and Tube Exits.