London is geographically a very small city. It just looks fucking big and scary when you look at the maps. But with a bit of common sense, and a touch of savvy, you can be navigating the bus service and the Underground, like a local.
So, here’s a post basically summing up everything I learnt, figured out or was told in the 2 years I lived in London about the safest, least intimidating and quickest ways to get around.
Also, before any of this, download Citymapper. Seriously. Google Maps is a piece of shit in comparison.
You Don’t Need an Oyster Card
As long as you have a bank card that has Contactless / PayWave / Tap n Go, you can just tap it on the sensor and keep moving. The only thing is that if you’re using an International card, you’ll pay whatever International fees your bank normally charges per transaction. Transport for London (TfL) does only charge you once a day though, as an aggregate of all the travel you did that day. So if you’re only there for a day or two, it may be worth the convenience. I once accidentally tapped on a bus with my Australian credit card and a £1.50 fare ended up costing me $8. So keep that in mind.
TfL calculates fares automatically, and it also automatically refunds you if you’ve been overcharged. There are daily and weekly caps, so you may find that you’re reimbursed a little bit of money at the end of the week depending on how much you’ve travelled. This is automatic, whether or not you use an Oyster Card, but you do have to use the same card for the whole day/week. So make a choice and stick to it, if you can.
TfL buses do not accept cash! Your only option is to use a card of some description.
Remove your chosen card from your wallet every time you want to touch. Sometimes the readers won’t read through your wallet or other cards may interfere with it. Save yourself the embarrassment of the turnstiles not opening for you.
Don’t bother with buying a weekly / daily / monthly pass if you’re mostly only travelling on TfL run services (ie. the buses, trams, and the tube / Overground). They’re a waste of money. If you’re regularly travelling on other services like Great Western Rail, or Virgin trains, definitely look into the passes and try to always buy tickets in advance.
Alright, this may seem obvious, but the bus stop codes are on the bus stop sign. Even if the bus stop on this side of the road is named the same thing as the bus stop on the other side of the road, it will have a different bus stop code. This is usually a letter or a combination of letters (X, XY, AB etc). Do you know it took me more than a few weeks to realise this? I spent a lot of time in the beginning going “but how do I know which side of the road to be on!!!”. Citymapper will tell you the code of the bus stop you need, and then you just look at the sign on the bus stop. You will never accidentally be on the wrong side of the road, if you do this.
For anyone who thinks this is an obvious thing to point out, I’d like to let you know that Brisbane transport does not do this. It expects you to know which side of the road you need to be on, because the bus stops in either direction ARE THE SAME NUMBER. Don’t even get me started.
On the Bus
Still on buses, no one exits through the front. Don’t even try; you’ll annoy or confuse a lot of people. Some buses allow you to tap on when entering the bus from the middle or back doors, but not all of them. You’re just expected to know which ones are which. I don’t know, just copy what everyone else does.
Also, you don’t need to tap off again – buses are a flat fare. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve travelled, you tap on and then leave the bus whenever you’re done. What’s more exciting is if you then tap on another bus within an hour of the first tap you travel for free. You can’t catch a train or a tube in between the buses though, but you can catch a tram.
If you’re only going a couple of stops, it’s usually faster to walk. This applies to some parts of the Underground as well, especially in Zone 1. Citymapper will let you know how long the walk will be and if it’s roughly the same time as the bus and less than 40 minutes, definitely walk. Traffic is hectic at almost all times of the day, so trust me on this.
Typically the best seat on the bus is upstairs at the very front. I’ve come to this conclusion because not only is it the best view, but people rarely come and sit next to you. Unless the bus is chockers, you’ll largely be left alone. I think this is because people come up the stairs and immediately look to the part of the bus with the most seats (the back), and get blinders on to the seats at the front.
BE CAREFUL when walking down the stairs. They’re steep and the buses stop very suddenly. There’s no rush, as the bus driver can see on CCTV that you’re trying to make your way down. Most of the time, you won’t miss your stop if you take a few extra seconds to walk down. If the driver does start to close the door, ding the bell a couple of times to let them know you’re there. Or yell, but I’m not good at yelling so I always went with the bell option.
In what will be a recurring theme throughout the rest of the post, if you don’t know where you’re going, do not suddenly stop walking. Step off to the side and get out of the way of the people behind you while you figure it out. Try to read signs while you’re moving and always walk with purpose and don’t make sudden changes in direction.
When on escalators, stand on the right and walk on the left.
Don’t change trains at Bank. Just… trust me, find a different route. Also, a lot of the Underground stations in Zone 1 are super close to each other and to you. A lot of the time you could walk to the next station in the time it takes you change platforms and catch a tube there.
When approaching tunnel splits where you need to choose the right direction for the right platform, try to make that decision while you’re still approaching the split. If you know the postcode of where you’re going, this should help you make a decision. Any postcode that starts with W is in the West, E is for East etc. Helpfully, the platforms will usually be called “Westbound, Southbound, Northbound, Eastbound”, and they’ll rarely change. So if you’re in East London and you know you need to get to W12 (where Westfield London is), it may help to look for the signs pointing to the Westbound platforms. This method isn’t flawless, but it does help to orientate you, on occasion. A notable exception is major commuter stations like Paddington, where platforms do sometimes change. Just pay attention to the announcements and ask someone for help. I had the most luck asking other young women travelling alone for help and other immigrants. They tend to be more understanding is all. Businessmen are largely dickheads and don’t even get me started on old white men.
And, of course, the Eastbound/Westbound thing is no help at all if you don’t know where you are in London right at that moment. If you get to the tunnel split and you still don’t know, remember to move out of the way. Don’t stop on the stairs while you try to figure it out.
On the Underground
Walk onto the tube train with purpose and immediately get out of the way of the doors. Even if you’re not sure if you’re on the right tube, don’t stand in the way trying to figure it out. The stations aren’t far apart from each other, so you won’t get lost if you do end up going one or two stops in the wrong direction. Calmly exit the tube at the next stop and follow the signs to the other platform to get on the tube going back in the right direction. People who are sure they’re on the right tube are right behind you trying to get on and they won’t appreciate being hampered. Once those doors close, some of them do not open again, not even for an errant leg or backpack. So move fast, or prepare to be pushed.
When you’re approaching your station, try to establish which direction on the platform you need to walk while the tube is still pulling in. Look for exit signs on the top of the tunnel wall, or directions to the next tube platform you need. Make a choice and move in that direction straight away. If you’ve made a mistake and need to correct, step out of the way (towards the wall is preferable) and then turn around. Again, there are people behind you who do know where they’re going and you’ll get a very stern eye roll if you get in their way. All I’m saying is, don’t stop walking all of a sudden and don’t block doorways or stairs. Depending on the time of day there can be A LOT of people on the platform and you will get stood on.
Move through the turnstiles quickly. Don’t touch your card while the little light next to the sensor is red. You can’t go through red gates. If the turnstile doesn’t open, take one step back to see if it just needs space – it sometimes works! If your card isn’t working or the turnstile still won’t open, step out of the way and find a TfL staff member to help you.
On the DLR
Sit at the front. It’s like being on a (much slower) rollercoaster.
When alone and / or at night, keep your head down and your valuables out of sight. If you must have your phone out, hold it firmly with both hands to avoid having it plucked by a passing thief on a scooter. For the same reason, avoid standing right by the kerb with your phone in your hand at any time of the day. If you’ve stopped to look up directions, step back from the kerb and preferably stand in a doorway to avoid getting in the way of pedestrians.
Same as in the tube tunnels, if you need to change direction, step out of the way first. Don’t suddenly stop walking – someone will run into you.
If you experience anxiety in tunnels or in crowds, try to avoid travelling during the morning and evening peak periods. Start your day a little later or chill out in a cafe / pub until it’s done. London stays open late, so there’s no need to get shit started by 9am. Obviously easier done for tourists and shift workers…
Do not talk shit to anyone. Like really, being sassy won’t help you here. Take it on the chin if someone walks into you and move on with your life. Don’t respond to street harassment if you can help it. It ain’t worth it, speaking from experience. And that’s all I’ll say on that.
So got anymore tips? Help everyone else out and comment them below.