In our first installment of our idiot’s guides to London transport, we talked about the proper way to use the London underground (to make sure you get out in one piece) and gave you tips on how to tap, board, transfer, look, sit and breath… which probably turned out to be much more difficult than you would have guessed.
Well, this time, we take it up a notch and look at the way London Buses work. Well, are supposed to work, that is.
What we'll cover in this article
London Buses: It’s a Jungle Out There!
I must confess: In the beginning, I avoided buses completely as I was so confused by the hundreds of lines and different bus stops at every corner that it made my head spin. I just couldn’t figure out times or departure locations, let alone did I know if my house was in the direction of ‘Brent Cross’ or ‘Stoke Newington’. Turned out neither.
Navigating around London by bus is really something you get the hang of after you explore more neighbourhoods (we’ve started doing that on weekends now). You start to understand more of the structure of the city, know roughly what is what and in which area and every time you will discover a new bus line that covers (part) of the route. It’s almost like playing a video game: you have to unlock new levels of the city by solving riddles all the time.
I recommend that if you’re not an advanced player yet, the first thing to do is to get a good data plan and make Google maps your best friend. He has saved me numerous times from situations where I thought I knew exactly where to go, but instead ended up walking for 20 minutes because I couldn’t find the right bloody bus stop.
London Buses and How (Not) to Behave
It seems to be an unwritten rule anywhere in London that you’re not supposed to talk to anyone and this includes your bus driver. This is one of the things that really surprised me, but NOBODY says hello to the driver. While he is behind a glass window and normally doesn’t even look at you, still… I cannot get used to it and greet no matter what. Because that is what my mom taught me to do.
I must add that I’ve found that in some areas, where you see more normal sized buses and less doubledeckers, people get more social and sometimes do say ‘thank you’ (although still in a ‘it’s meant for the driver, but I don’t want to make eye contact because that freaks me out’-kind of way). But that could just be my interpretation of things.
The Top-Deck Technique (a.k.a. Mission Improbable)
Riding a bus is one thing, riding a DOUBLE DECKER bus gives a whole new dimension to adventure. Trust me. While -even as an adult- sitting on the top deck in the front of the bus is still a life goal of many of us, you have to earn those seats first and the driver will do anything to prevent you from reaching your goal.
The first challenge is getting up the stairs. You have to get past the people standing at the bottom of it (as they seem to be unable to decide to either go upstairs or stay downstairs), then get past people that fell asleep and realise the last second that they still have to get off. Then you have to hold on really tight, because by this time, the driver is pulling up and will put their foot down as hard as possible to make you slide down the stairs again. Especially if you have lots of bags with you.
When you managed to reach the top of Everest, most times you’ll find an annoying kid on the front seat and you have to softly growl in their ears to claim your territory. When they finally get off, you have to be quick or people from the stairs slide pass you.
If it’s raining (and it’s pretty much always raining), the bus will steam up and cover the front window in a cloud, so you won’t see a thing, but if it’s nice weather, you get to enjoy the view. If you have steel nerves. Because in the front seat, you also see just how narrow the streets are, just how many traffic there is, how crazy people on bicycles are here and how even more crazy London bus drivers are. Oh, and of course at the traffic lights they park as close to the double decker bus in front as they can physically can. Because they can.
Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/RP Jacob
Still breathing? Well, pay attention to where you are, because people in London don’t seem to like to walk anywhere and so there is a bus stop literally every ten steps apart from each other. Seriously. To get anywhere on a 20 minute ride, you have at least 32 stops. Not kidding. So keep track or you’ll miss yours (and then have to walk 10 steps back – the HORROR).
And then it’s time to get off. The front seats don’t have a ‘stop this bus’-button, so you have to get up a little earlier, slide down the stairs while holding on on one arm, burst yourself through the crowds downstairs (PEOPLE! There is no-one sitting upstairs!), press the button and try to get off. Try, I say on purpose, because often the bus driver thinks the best place to stop is right in front of a big garbage bin.
No-one said this was going to be easy, were they?
Photo Credit: FreeImages.com/Simon Gurney
Some Actual Proper Tips
- Bus stops in London are al marked with a single or double letter, that you can find in a round, red circle on top of the stop. Helps if you’re not sure of the direction, Google maps will tell you this letter as well.
- Since 2015, you can only pay with your Oyster or contactless payment card in London buses. So no more cash! Make sure you’ve topped up in time or you will be walking.
- Drivers of buses in London have a peculiar sense of humour. It can happen that they decide that whatever place they were going when you got on isn’t interesting anymore and instead, they’re going to drive to the pub closest to their house. The lady of the sound system will tell you: ‘this bus has changed direction’ and you probably have to all get off at a certain stop. Make sure to get a proof of payment ticket from the driver, so you can enter the next bus without having to tap in again with your Oyster.
- At buses, you only tap in with your Oyster, but unlike the underground, you don’t have to tap out when you get off! (That also means that you can tap in once and pretty much drive through the whole city for the same prize as just taking one stop. Just letting you know for when you feel bored one day!)
Hope you’ve found my tips helpful so far, if not, check out the following websites for more proper tips:
TFL journey planning: tfl.gov.uk/plan-a-journey
London Transport Apps: There are a couple of apps around that are pretty helpful for finding your way around London, this is the best: CityMapper
Have you experienced travelling with London buses yet? Did you get it all right or was it complete chaos to you, let me know :)
This post is also available in: Dutch