Though it’s been almost a month since I’ve returned from London, I still have much to write about my fabulous eight-day trip to the capital city. In the short-term, you’ll reading a mix of posts about both London and Los Angeles.
When you’re a visitor to any city, you have to figure out how you’re going to get around the city in the most efficient and economical way. For some cities, you’ll have very little choice as their public transit system just isn’t practical enough. Many American cities fall into this category, such as Los Angeles. For London though, the city has well-developed and sprawling public transit system that spans multiple transportation types.
I will admit I was initially a bit apprehensive about getting around London using the various methods available to me. I was namely nervous the world-famous London Underground system. If you look at the map for the entire system for the first time, it can be quite daunting. The many different lines, with the many different stations where you can connect with other lines can seem like a confusing mess to comprehend. That’s just the Underground itself. There is also the light-rail system, the network of bus lines, and even the river boats which cruise along the Thames. These are all parts of the Transport for London system. Outside of the public system, there are also the ubiquitous black London taxis and the newcomer for this century, Uber.
Before leaving, I decided that I’d be open to using any of the above mentioned methods of travel but I would concentrate on using the Underground (or the Tube as they call it) and old-fashioned walking. I was told many times that central London is quite walkable and I personally love walking through a city to really get to know it.
Because of my apprehension, I did as much research as I could into the London Underground before leaving. Their system works with the Oyster card, which is a stored-value card which you tap in and out on the various methods of public transportation. This was immediately familiar with me as Vancouver recently changed their public transportation system to use a stored-value card as well.
I watched a lot of YouTube videos that explained how the Underground system worked. This gave me a feel about how the stations worked, how the gates behaved, what the trains looked like, and how seasoned London commuters acted while on the Tube. The Internet also told me to download an app Citymapper which is apparently invaluable if you’re trying to get around London.
With knowledge in hand, I jetted off to London. I arrived on Saturday and as you might remember, my hotel was right next to Victoria station, a major transportation hub and also a Tube station. In the afternoon, after checking into my hotel, I went into the station and bought an Oyster card from one of machines. You can buy an Oyster card almost anywhere in London. Inside the station they even have manned booths for visitors where you can buy the card and have any questions answered. I also put some money on the card as obviously just getting the card isn’t going to be useful if you don’t put any value on it. I initially put 30 quid on it, which is almost $60 CAD. That might seem like a lot, which it is in Canadian dollars, but I wasn’t sure how much traveling I’d be doing during the eight days.
I didn’t actually take my first trip on the Tube until the next day on Sunday. I’d done a ton of walking on that day as I wanted to acquaint myself with surrounding area of central London that I was staying in. After a long and winding walk that included Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus, I was nearly exhausted and decided to take the Tube back to my hotel. I was close to Green Park station and it would be just one stop to Victoria. What a perfect way to introduce myself to the Underground system. With just one stop, it would be difficult to screw this up.
As I walked up to Green Park station, the signage was very clear. It was easy to find the entrance to the station. I was slightly nervous as I walked up to one of the gate and slapped my Oyster card on the reader. Would it work? Would the gates not open, thus incurring the wrath of a Londoner behind me? Luckily, the gates did open for me as my card did work. The next thing to tackle was finding the right line and the right direction. Green Park has three different lines servicing it, each going in two directions.
Again, this turned out to be no problem as the excellent signage clearly indicated where to go to catch the Victoria line south. At the designated platform I waited patiently for my train to arrive, which didn’t take very long at all. I rode the one stop to Victoria station and tapped out with my Oyster card. I was back in my hotel within minutes. That was easy!
Confident that I handle more complicated trips, I began visiting more far-flung locations the next day. This is where I discovered how absolutely useful the Citymapper app was. The app allows you enter in a destination and it will give you various options on how to get there. You can select Tube only options, bus and Tube, and so forth. It will tell you how much your journey will be and how long it will take. The app also monitors the status of the transit system in real-time. If a certain Tube line has delays, it will know and warn you about that so you can choose a route that avoids that line. Once you choose a route, the app follows you along on your journey. If it can get positioning data, it will give you a notification that your stop is approaching and that you should prepare to alight. If you’re traveling via the Tube, the app will even tell you which car is ideal for your destination, either back, middle, or front. The app knows where all the Tube station exits and transfer points are, so it can position you so that you are nearest the best exit for your journey. Citymapper is easily the best transit app I have ever used and is in large part why I was able to navigate around London so easily.
I must also point out that the signage around the Tube stations is so good. I never once wondered where I needed to go or where a particular platform or exit was. It’s as if the planners knew exactly where someone would need a sign if they were first time visitor to that particular station. Partnered with the Citymapper app, I riding the Tube and visiting all areas of the city with the confidence of a weary and jaded Londoner. It actually became quite fun and exciting to see a new Tube station that I had not visited before.
While the London Underground system is indeed fantastic, there are some things that you need to be aware about it. The ventilation in some of the stations and thus in some of the cars can be horrendous. It can be dreadfully hot while waiting on the platform and once you’re on board a car. I began to purposefully wear shorts on some trips, even if it was actually quite cool outside, because I knew I’d be in a stuffy Tube car for 30 minutes or more. Londoners seem have adjusted to this because I saw many people with jackets and sweaters on even they must have been boiling inside. Be prepared to dress in layers so you can remove a layer or two while using the Tube.
The next thing you should know is that while the London public transit system is the most economical way to get around the city, it certainly is not cheap. A single Tube trip within the central London zone will cost you £2.40. That’s nearly $5 CAD, for a single ride on the Tube. In Vancouver, a stored value trip of a similar nature is only $2.10 CAD. As you might imagine, if you’re a tourist who is spending the whole day going from place to place, just using public transport can add up. Luckily, there is a daily cap for what you can spend on transit. Currently, for central London that cap is £6.50. Trips beyond that cap are free, so you can travel unlimited after that. Keep in mind though, that’s nearly $13 CAD.
Overall though, the public transportation system in London is wonderful and it turned out to be a tourist attraction in itself. Beyond the Tube, I also rode the DLR or the Docklands Light Railway and the river boats on the Thames. Again, for both these modes of transportation, the signage is clear and efficient.
I never did use a taxi nor Uber in London because they were much more expensive than the other modes of travel. They were also subject to the infamous London traffic, which still can be horrendous at times, even after traffic reduction programs.
If you’re ever in London, download the Citymapper app and be prepared to enjoy one of the best transit systems in the world!