STRANDS OF RED LANTERNS crisscross the narrow alleys of Chinatown. Neon lights proclaim the latest offerings of historic West End theatres. Camden Market stalls overflow with exotic foods and fashions.
Alas, you don’t see any of this. You’re buried deep underground in the tube.
A better world waits on the surface! Those iconic double-deckers plying the picturesque avenues aren’t there simply to spice up your vacation photos. Becoming familiar with these functional and accessible vehicles is a must for the savvy London visitor.
Save Some Quid
Taking the bus is tip #1 on Eva Holland’s list of tips to enjoy London on $100 a day…and with good reason.
You could pay as much as £4 for a tube ride in Central London. Opting for a bus will cut this by half, if not more.
Though operated by multiple private firms, all of London’s 8,000 buses sport the fire-red color scheme and follow the same flat-fare system. Paying cash for a single journey costs £2, regardless of distance traveled.
Think that’s still pretty steep? £3.50 lands you an all-day ticket, and Bus Saver packs of 6 tickets (available at street-side newsstands) sell for just £6.
To further expand the savings, pick up an Oyster card. Introduced in 2004, these electronic stored-value passes work on all manner of London transport and provide hefty discounts. Flat bus fare for Oyster users is £0.90.
What’s more, with the Oyster daily price capping system, you’ll never pay more than £3 per 24 hours.
Cards are available online, at most tube stations, and at dedicated shops throughout the city. A refundable £3 deposit is collected for all pay-as-you-go cards.
To avoid the deposit, long-term users may choose to purchase weekly, monthly, or yearly plans for their cards. No topping up is required, as all travel within the specified period is covered.
Single Out Your Route
Thousands of buses, hundreds of routes…a pain to navigate? No. Most routes zigzag through popular areas, meaning there’s often a single bus that can take you from A to B.
Download a simplified map showing major routes here, or grab a copy of the real thing at a tube station. They may not be displayed as prominently as those for the underground, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Some routes are more scenic than others. The 24 will whisk you from Victoria Station, past Parliament and Trafalgar Square, through the Camden High Street markets, all the way to Hampstead Heath.
The 14 connects ritzy Chelsea with Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, and the Theatre District, while you can ride the 118 all the way from the British Museum to Greenwich.
Two routes cutting through the center of town (9 and 15) still employ the old Routemaster double-deckers. Though much more cramped than their modern counterparts, they make for an authentic London experience.
London’s transport system is constantly evolving; routes can change suddenly due to maintenance work. Before you head out, browse the “Live travel news” section of the Transport for London website for the latest updates.
Decipher the Signs
You’ve picked your pony and are raring to go, but don’t get too cocky! There are still some rules of the road to absorb.
On the street, bus stops are marked by a red and white sign featuring a circle with a line through it. If the background is white, the bus will stop automatically. A red background, on the other hand, signifies a “request stop;” you’ll have to flag the driver.
Beneath this is the name of the stop and the route numbers that service it. A detailed timetable for each is also provided.
For route numbers set against a yellow background, purchase a ticket prior to boarding the bus. Machines at the stop dispense single-ride and one-day tickets—exact change required. If you have an Oyster card, no worries; simply swipe as you board.
Pre-pay buses are common in Central London. Elsewhere, you can buy your ticket from the driver.
Ride Like a Pro
The model of the bus will determine how you board. Chances are you’ll be hopping on a modern, low-floor (wheelchair-accessible) double-decker. For these vehicles, you enter through the front door and exit by the rear.
Also in service, though not for much longer, are articulated or “bendy” buses. Board these through any door.
During rush hours, buses on well-used routes may be crowded, but more often than not you’ll be able to sit. On double-deckers, passengers seeking a cheap thrill head for the forward-most seats of the upper level. Depending on your susceptibility to vertigo, viewing oncoming traffic from this angle is either mundane or terrifying.
If unfamiliar with the city, check the bus’s progress against a road map, as it’s easy to become engrossed in the scenery and lose track of your position. Either way, you’ll learn the layout of the area much faster on a bus than in the tube.
As your destination approaches, press the button on the handrail to request a stop, and cautiously make your way to the exit door. Take special care when descending the staircase of a double-decker; it’s an embarrassing (and bruising) fall should you lose your balance.
Burn the Midnight Oil
Unlike the tube, which shuts down around midnight, London’s buses can get you home after a wild night at the club.
Some popular routes operate 24 hours, while a host of new ones swing into action at the stroke of twelve, giving you around 100 nighttime route options in Greater London. Many begin at Trafalgar Square and trace the paths of tube lines.
Night routes are marked with an “N” before the route number. Service is less frequent than during the day, and flagging is essential if you want the driver to stop. Similarly, make sure to push the “stop” button when you’re ready to disembark.
While you’re at it, why not learn to ride the bus in NYC, too?