London Buses: Finding a route, saving on tickets, and why we love ‘em

London's famous double-decker buses. Photo by Salim Virji.
London's famous double-decker buses. Photo by Salim Virji.

Any visitor to London will undoubtedly leave singing the praises of the Oyster card. Not only is the Underground’s “pay-as-you-go” card efficient—you just swipe in when you get on the Tube and swipe out when you get off and the fare is deducted from your pre-paid account—it can also save a traveler loads of pounds. A single-ride ticket on the Underground costs a whopping £4 (or $6.50… Yes that’s right, $6.50). A single ride with an Oyster card in the center of the city is only £1.60 ($2.50).

But the Tube doesn’t go everywhere. Here’s what you need to know about one of the city’s other major transport options—those giant cherry-colored double-decker buses.

Get On The Bus

It’s weird. In London, as in most of the rest of Europe, people actually use the city’s bus system. Having lived in New York for four years, I think I can count on two hands the number of times I took one of the grindingly slow city buses. You can probably walk across Manhattan on 14th Street faster than the M-14 bus can get you there.

The London bus system, aside from affording some of the best views of the city from the front seat on the top floor of the double-deckers, is also fairly speedy, thanks to dedicated bus lanes on most city streets. Most bus stops also have electronic screens telling you in real-time which buses are coming next and how long they’ll take to reach the stop. And unlike the Tube, the buses run all night long.

Plus, buses are cheap. The Oyster card works—just tap the card on the sensor when you get on; each ride is £1 ($1.60). Or, if you don’t have a card, you can buy a ticket with cash at a ticket machine at some bus stops or from the driver on the bus (£2, or $3.25).

Mapping the Route

Waiting at the bus stop. Photo by Fabbio.

The bus stop. Photo by Fabbio.

But here’s the big question: With so many buses whizzing about the city, how do you figure out where you’re going? Map out the route before you leave the hotel by using the handy Transport for London website. Here you’ll find bus maps for every section of the city, as well as a nifty journey planner.

This tool is absolutely brilliant. This is how it works: On the right-hand side of the home page, enter your starting point and destination point—it can be an address, a post code, a Tube station or even a place of interest. Then click on the “Leave Now” icon, and the site will give you up to a dozen different transport options on how to get there.

For instance, to get to the Tate Modern from my house in East London, the site tells me to walk to St. Thomas’s Square, jump on the 48 Bus to London Bridge and then walk to the museum. Or, if I want to include the Tube, I can walk to St. Thomas’s Square, take the 254 Bus to the Bethnal Green Underground station and jump on the Tube to St. Paul’s, a short walk from the museum. Each trip takes an hour. And maps are included on the site to show you ever step of the way.

Hailing a Bus

Here’s an extra tip, one I wish someone had told me when I moved to London. Buses don’t automatically stop at every bus stop on the route—you need to flag them down if you’re waiting to catch one. Otherwise, you’ll be left at the curb, frantically checking the screen to figure out when the next one is coming.

Oh, and while you’re waiting, stand back from the curb. I know this goes without saying, but the buses drive extremely close to the curb in London, so much so that you could be clipped if your backpack is hanging out in the street even a few inches.

The last thing you want to do on vacation is go head-to-head with a seven-ton double-decker bus. Believe me, you won’t stand a chance.

About the author

About the author: Justin Bergman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Monocle magazine. He’s also previously worked for Budget Travel magazine and the Associated Press.
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