Thursday, May 15, 2008

Getting Around London: Buses

This week I'm continuing my series on getting around London. Check out Part I in the archives if you missed it, which focused on taxis.

Buses and taxis are my favorite way to get around London. Visitors often seem to rely on taxis, which can get expensive, or the Tube (the subway system), which is easy to use, but has its drawbacks as well. (more on that next time!)

London has a very efficient and extensive bus system. With around 17,000 stops, you're never more than five minutes away from hopping on. Buses are also one of the best ways to see London on the cheap. One obvious advantage it has over the Tube is that you can see London as you ride, and the view from the top of the double deckers is unsurpassable.

Lastly, and most importantly to me, the bus network is also a great way to explore London's neighborhoods and nooks and crannies that are off of the tourist beat. Once you get used to the system, you'll be playing Random Bus Ride with me! (see Ana's Tips below for more on this game)

Hopping On

You won't have a problem spotting the buses in London, as most are bright red and they are everywhere you turn. Buses have a red and white sign on the front of the bus, accompanied with the words "London Transport Bus Service." There are several styles of buses though, and they come in double and single decker varieties.

Start by getting a free map at one of the Tourist Information Centres, or pop into a tube or bus station to pick one up. Stops are clearly signposted all over the city, with the detailed routes and itineraries noted at each stop. White background signposted stops are compulsory stops, which means buses will automatically stop unless full. If the sign has a red background and says "Request" on it, this indicates that you must hail the bus to get on. On the front of each bus, next to the number, you'll see the major stops listed. Sometimes the routes are printed on the side of the bus as well.

Now, here comes the bus, it's stopping, you're getting on... oops! How are you going to pay? You have a few options here. One option is to simply pay the driver when you get on. There's no need to even tell him/her where you're going anymore, as all journeys within, across, going into and going out of London are £1.00. Children aged 5-15 ride for 40 pence, although note that children of 14 and 15 need a Child Rate Photocard. If there is a conductor on the bus, sit down immediately, and then pay the conductor when he/she comes around.

Pre-paid Passes

The other way you can pay is to use the various pre-paid cards that are available...just show it to the driver or conductor once boarded. One such card is the Saver 6, which allows you to take six journeys for the price of £5. You can buy the Saver 6 in advance of your journey at most Tube stations and London Transport ticket outlets, and it can be used on the Tube as well as on the bus.

One Day Travelcards are a smart option if you are going to be travelling a good deal by Tube or bus on a particular day. You can make as many journeys as you want for £3.90 for adults or £2.00 for children. You'll find these at all Tube stations within London. These cards are valid after 9.30am Monday through Friday, and all day on weekends and public holidays.

Weekend Travelcards act is the same as a One Day Travelcard, but allow you to travel the two days of the weekend with one card at 25% off of the cost of two single Travelcards. The cost is £5.80 for adults and £3.00 for children.

Night Buses

For travel after 10.00pm, running into the wee hours of the morning for you clubbers, there is a network of night buses which serves London from central hubs. Luckily, nearly all the night buses pass through Trafalgar Square and all the major entertainment venue areas. To avoid getting stranded, pick up a Night Bus brochure and timetable from an Underground Station or one of the Travel Information Centres in advance. Pre-pay cards may not be used on the night buses, and the fare is £1.50. There are no child fares, but hey, you're not dragging your six year old to clubs, now, are you?

An important safety note: while these buses are fairly safe, there have been incidences of people getting robbed when sitting on the top level of the bus, so sit close to the driver and you'll have nothing to worry about. Don't get me wrong, buses are a very safe way to travel. Most buses have CCTV and all have two way radio equipped as standard safety features anyhow.

Eek! My stop's coming up!

When you want to get off at a stop, ring the bell once with enough notice to let the driver know your intention without having to slam on his brakes. On major routes, ringing isn't necessary at compulsory stops unless the bus is packed and you think the driver might bypass stopping for those people waiting in the rain. If someone's rung already, you're set. Night buses treat all stops as request stops, which means you always need to ring the bell to get off at a stop.

If you want some help, ask the driver or conductor nicely to remind you of your stop when you board. Both are helpful, but drivers often will rush you because they are on a tight schedule and London traffic inevitably makes them run late. It's not uncommon to see two buses for the same route pull up together at a stop!

Organized Bus Tours

Another popular way to see London is to take an organised tourist bus. While a bit on the pricey side, the advantages of being able to hop on and off when and exactly where you want, while learning a bit about what you are seeing, are great. A summertime advantage is that many offer "Fast Track" tickets to top attractions, which means you can jump the queue to get into popular attractions. All of them have open air double decker tops too, so you can take pictures as you go, and hopefully not get too wet!

The Original London Sightseeing Tour

Over 50 years old, The Original London Sightseeing Tour is one recommended tour bus company. They offer four routes, with over 90 hop-on, hop-off stops, around all the key sights of London, and your ticket is valid on all routes for 24 hours from the time of purchase. They offer language commentary in seven additional languages, and have a new Kids Club with dedicated commentary designed especially for children aged 5-12 with free activity packs included.

Adult price for tickets is £12.50 and child price is £7.50 - children under 5 travel free. For £2.50 more on any ticket, you can get a Choice 2000 ticket, which gives you a choice of a river cruise, fish and chip meal, or entrance ticket to the Museum of London or the London Aquarium. Choice tickets are valid for 48 hours.

In addition to Fast Entry attraction tickets to top attractions such as Madame Tussaud's, The Original London Sightseeing Tour has a box office, which may help tourists sort out tickets for top shows and events like the Millennium Dome and Chelsea Flower Show.

To catch the Original London Sightseeing Tour buses, jump on at any stop. First timers may want to board from a main departure point (outside Baker Street Tube station, Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, Charring Cross tube, to name a few) so they can get assistance on routes, and discuss their ticket choices at leisure. Buses run every 5-15 minutes.

You can contact the Original London Sightseeing Tour at 44 20 8944 7810. Their box office phone number is 44 20 7486 9645 (in the UK, replace 44 with a 0). Alternatively, visit their web site at:

The Big Bus Experience

The Big Bus Company is another recommended tour bus company. I can personally give a nod to this company after I took my Mancunian niece and nephew "London virgins" on this tour. They offer two routes, with over 60 stops, and again, covering the key sights of London. Their ticket is also valid on all routes for 24 hours from the time of purchase, and the tour is offered in live English language commentary, or on a Language Bus in 12 other languages.

Adult price for tickets is £15.00 and child price is £6.00. Children under 5 travel free. You can save £1.00 off of adult tickets by booking online. With your ticket, you also get a free Thames river cruise and three walking tours to try.

In addition to offering the standard Fast Entry attraction tickets, The Big Bus Company has discounts to popular shows like Cats and Les Miserables, as well as special offers around town.

To catch the Big Bus tour, again, you can jump on at any stop. Their office is close to Victoria Station on Buckingham Palace Road, so you may want to begin your trip with a visit there to sort out your tickets and discounts. Buses run every 15 minutes. You can contact the Big Bus Company at 44 20 7233 9533. Their phone number is 44 20 7486 9645 (in the UK, replace 44 with a 0). Or, visit their web site at: (they have an excellent Virtual London on their Flash site, by the way)

Top Bus Tips

Don't try and get a free ride on the buses... if you get caught, there's a £5.00 on the spot penalty fare.
Tourist Heaven Bus Routes! Try these routes to see the sights on the cheap:
Bus 10 - see the British Museum, Tottenham Court Road (excellent and stylish shops for house wares), Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Hyde Park, and Knightsbridge (posh shop heaven including Harrods and Harvey Nichols).
Bus 24 - Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall Street (10 Downing Street, off of there, is the Prime Minister's residence), Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. James' Park
Bus 30 - Madame Tussaud's, London Planetarium, Baker Street, Marble Arch
Bus 38 - Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Green Park, Grosvenor Place (5 minute walk to Buckingham Park from there)
Once you've become comfortable with the buses, play Random Bus Ride with me to explore the London outside of FPA (frequently photographed attractions). It's a great way to find out about the little nooks and local districts that you won't find mentioned in most guidebooks. Great fun! You can't get lost either, because you can always take the bus back the other way!

Print out a bus map before you leave home! Download a map from the London Travel Information web site:

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