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How to Use London Buses: the Ultimate Guide for Visitors

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If you’re wondering how to use London buses or hoping for some expert tips, you’ve come to the right place!

There are two main thoughts that go through most visitor’s minds surrounding London buses.

The first is: oh my God, they actually are double decker! This is real life! This isn’t just in the movies or for tourists!

The second is: …but how do I get on one without getting lost?

People are usually more hesitant to use a London bus than to hop on the London Underground.

I think this comes down to our natural hesitation when exploring a new city.

Red London Bus
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With the tube, it’s much easier to navigate your way back somewhere if you get lost, because you can’t get TOO lost.

If you end up at a stop you didn’t expect, you get off, don’t exit the station, look at the tube map or ask a member of staff, and then get back on in the right direction.

With a bus, it feels much more intimidating, because what if you get on one going in the wrong direction in the middle of nowhere with no idea how to orient yourself, or your phone dies so you don’t have a map anymore…the list goes on.

But I’m here to explain how to use the bus system and break it down for you so you can feel totally confident exploring by bus (in fact, I recommend it as it’s a better way to see the city than always being underground!)

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This is an example of a bus map that you’ll be able to decode easier after reading this!

How to Pay for London Buses

Paying for London buses can only happen two ways.

The first is by using a contactless debit or credit card.

The second is by using an Oyster card (more on Oyster cards here).

There will not usually be any sort of way to buy an Oyster card near the bus station unless it just happens to be near a tube station, so make sure you’re prepared before planning on taking the bus.

How Much Do London Bus Rides Cost?

For adults, each ride costs £1.55, no matter what zone of London you are in.

If you need to transfer buses to get to your destination, you won’t be charged extra if you take the journey within an hour of tapping into your first bus.

This makes it cheaper than using the tube, usually!

Children ages 10 and under can ride with you for free.

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How to Get On and Get Off a London Bus

Okay, you probably know how to get on a bus: you step-on, but let’s talk about bus etiquette and practicalities.

When you first get on the bus, get on at the front of the bus. Both doors may open, but it’s more customary for people to exit via the back door and enter via the front door, near the driver.

Get on, tap your card onto the reader, and once it signals that you’re good (it will make a long beep), you can proceed onto the bus to find a seat.

You can sit upstairs or downstairs, or you may have to stand, but etiquette is, if standing room only, to move further back into the bus as more people will cram on along the route.

Also keep in mind if you choose to sit upstairs, that the bus may start in motion again while you’re navigating the stairs so HOLD ON TIGHT.

Most buses will have scrolling screens to tell you the next stop. In this case, it will be easy to know when to get off.

If your bus doesn’t have that, you can try staying near the driver to see if he can alert you when you’re close or you can follow your route on bus apps using your phone (click here to learn how to use your phone in the UK from abroad).

If you’re on a busy route, it’s commonplace for the bus to already be stopping at all stops, but to be sure, make sure to push the “Request stop” button (found all over the bus, usually on the rails) before your stop so the driver knows someone wants to get off.

When you get off the bus, you DO NOT need to “tap out” like you do on the tube. Simply walk off.

Similarly, it’s important to “hail” the bus if you are intending to get on it, if there aren’t already people doing that or it doesn’t seem to already be stopping.

Simply step relatively close to the road, put your hand out, and try and make eye contact with the driver to signal that you intend to get on his bus, as there are multiple buses that will go through a stop so if you’re waiting for another one, they don’t want to waste their time stopping only for you to not get on.

If you get nervous about the above “hailing” or “requesting stop” etiquette, know that the vast majority of buses you’ll take as a visitor in Central London won’t have this needed from you as they’ll be stopping anyway, but it’s good to know.

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Understanding London Bus Stops

London bus stops are all marked with letters (sometimes double letters).

You’ll find the letter displayed on top of the bus stop or station, and this is helpful to know as you’ll need it to figure out where your bus might be departing from.

Most bus stops will also have a screen showing you when the next buses are due to arrive and where they’re going, as well as maps and schedules posted on signage around the stop.

Understanding London Bus Routes

The bus map of London looks really scary to a visitor, but most people don’t use the bus map like they would use a tube map, as it’s too convuluted.

Instead, let’s talk about individual routes.

Each route has a number attached to it, so, for instance, the “55”, and this will run two ways. There will be a 55 bus going in one direction on the route, and another going the opposite direction.

They are on the same bus route, but if you get on one going in the opposite direction, you’ll add a lot of time and confusion to your day.

The good part is that you’ll avoid having this problem as long as you make sure the bus stop you need matches the letter on the top of your bus stop, because that means the 55 bus that goes in the opposite direction will be going from a stop on the other side of the street (that you are not at, so you can’t get on it!)

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Step-by-Step

Let’s talk about how this works step-by-step. I’ll have some resources below on some great bus schedule apps, but I usually just use Google directions, set to public transportation.

Let’s say I look up how to get from the British Museum to Oxford Circus Station, and I see this.

On the bus section, you’ll see it wants me to take the 55 bus from Museum Street to Great Titchfield Street. Museum Street is Stop C, so as I walk in the direction it tells me, I’m looking for a bus stop that says “C.”

I might find more bus stops ON Museum Street, but I want Stop C specifically.

At Stop C, I’ll keep an eye out for when a bus that says “55 Towards Oxford Circus” on front arrives.

If it only says “55,” I’ll ask the driver, just to be sure, ” is this the bus that stops at Great Titchfield Street”?

Then, on the bus, I’ll keep an eye out for the scrolling screen telling me that the next stop is Great Titchfield Street (it won’t say the letter on the bus stop), and when it’s my stop, I’ll press the button, get off when the bus stops without “tapping out,” and wallah!

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Do London Buses Run at Night?

Some London buses are 24 hours, or only run at night called “night buses.”

These will follow the same types of rules as other buses, including route numbers.

Resources for Helpful London Bus Schedules

Nowadays, almost everyone, including Londoners, is getting bus information off of their phones.

I often use Google Maps, set to “Public Transportation,” or I recommend an app called CityMapper, which is one of the best apps to download for London.

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