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For those of you who come from cities with public transportation, you’ll have no problem finding your way around London. The good news for the rest of you is that you won’t either.
Compared to American cities, London public transportation is worldclass. Londoners like to complain about it, but Londoners like to complain about everything.
Let’s start with the tube, which you’re most likely familiar with and is famous for its map and design. The tube map has literally won awards for how easy to read it is, and it will only take you a day or two to get the hang of it.
Basically, each “line” has a name, but it also has a color. So the ‘blue’ line on the map is the Piccaddilly line, and you can see everywhere it goes and stops by following it on the map. Everyone refers to the lines by their names, not their colors, so don’t be the person who goes around asking where the brown line goes to, but you’ll find that the colors make it really easy to find your way around tube stations and on a map without knowing the actual names.
When you’re in a tube station, the first thing you need to do is to identify which line you need to take. Follow directions for that line. Then, you’ll often be presented with two different signs, each showing the line and its next stops and having accompanying directions like “Northbound” or “Eastbound.” When you get used to the tube, you’ll have a better idea of how it’s laid out and you’ll know instinctively which direction you’re going, but you don’t even have to know this to get on the right train. See? Really easy. Just find which sign has your stop on it, go to that platform, and wait.
You won’t be waiting long, as the tube runs efficiently and for the busier central London lines, you’ll only be waiting a minute or two. There’s always a screen in each platform to tell you the final destination of the train that’s arriving. Before the train arrives, check that your stop is included in the route of the train, and if so, get on. If not, keep an eye on the screen as longer routes should appear shortly.
If you have to switch lines, you just get off at the stop where the train switches, follow signs for your line, and do the process all over again.
Paying for Travel
If there is one piece of advice that I believe every single Londoner and person who has studied abroad in London will agree with, it’s this: Get an Oystercard. Oystercards are a plastic card that come in a nifty little sleeve that can have money (or tickets) loaded onto them. The secret of the Oystercard is that they are much cheaper than buying a ticket from the machine everytime you travel. It’s about half the price, and you would be silly not to get one. You have to put down a 5 pound deposit, but you get it back if you turn your card in at the end of your stay in London, so you have absolutely nothing to lose.
Loading money onto Oyster cards is easily done at any tube station. You may find that it’s best to either load with an agent at the counter or using notes as I’ve found that many machines have trouble reading American cards.
To use the Oyster card, you simply hold the card on the yellow circle in front of the gate for a few seconds until it turns green. Once green, the gate will open and you walk through. This is called “tapping in.” You have to “tap out” again when you are exiting at your final destinations, as this is how the system knows how much to charge you for your journey. It will automatically deduct this from your card and display on the screen how much money you have left.
Thanks to study abroad, I’ve been on public transportation in quite a few cities around the world, and I can confidently say that the tube is the most orderly. It’s bright, it’s unusual for it to be dirty, and everyone gets on and off in a relatively orderly fashion. While people may cram in at rush hour, the tube is not a ‘free-for-all’ and comes with its own set of etiquette. The first rule is to always let people off of the train before you attempt to get on. People will not look kindly on you if you are attempting to rush on, as the trains won’t leave until you’re on or until there is no room for you to get on (again, hello rush hour).
The second unspoken rule of the tube is just that. Don’t speak.
I’m only half kidding. While light conversations are fine, the general rule is that people sit in complete silence. It’s just the way it’s done. Of course, no one is going to take you down to the local police station and book you in for talking too loud on the tube, but Americans tend to talker louder than they think they are talking, and if you get some weird glances on the tube and some very judgmental British faces staring at you, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Some people are surprised to find out that the double decker London buses are not just tour buses. They’re just buses. Regular old buses. The London bus system is also extremely efficient, with many stops having screens to tell you when the next bus is coming. The London bus map is a bit more complex than the tube map, but it’s also easy once you’ve practiced a few times.