My fear of getting lost in the maze of underground lines was unfounded. I did spent many hours pre-travel looking up how to move around London and its suburb. I'd hope someone had written a simple 101 for inexperienced travelers like myself on the British public transport. But thanks to many websites, especially www.tfl.gov.uk, I learnt how the system works, sufficient to enable me to more fearlessly in London.
There is one word that aptly describe the London Transport System. It is integration. Nowhere have I experienced such seamless connectivity among road, rail, tube and river transport as in London. You can check out for more tourist friendly information below.
My top concern was how do I use the public transport as the locals do and save money without the inconvenience. The first concern is traveling from Heathrow Airport to the apartment in the Docklands area where we're staying (zone 2). The best way is a two stage approach. Taking a taxi may be expensive and is not the option I considered since the price fare is estimated. Plus there is the unknown factor of reliability of the driver and paying a tip. We could take the full London Underground train from airport but was advised against as we have to lug our luggages from station to station. The advised option is take the Heathrow Express (Not the Heathrow Connect which is slower) train into central London (Paddington Rail Station) from where we walk a short distance to the Paddington Underground Station which will take us to the nearest station closest to our apartment where decide to walk or take a taxi. To save time I purchased the train tickets online which offered a slight discount. Very convenient too as there is no physical ticket. I just need to scan the QR code into my smartphone and produce it to the train conductor who will scan it to confirm we've got valid tickets to ride.
I have to consider how to pay for my Underground (or popularly referred as the Tube) travel. It is an ongoing exercise to encourage cashless payments. Travelers can choose to buy preloaded Oyster cards or season Travelcards. In both cases they are much cheaper than cash which travelers use to buy paper tickets from counters or vending machines inside the stations before the entry turnstyles. I was advised, based on my travel pattern, to buy Oyster cards, which, because we're tourists, came under the Visitors category, and can be purchased online and the physical cards airmailed to me. The process takes up to 12 days and I was relieved to get them 3 days before we fly.
Using preloaded Oyster or Travel cards entitle users not only hefty discounts over paper tickets, but also incentives to travel during off peak hours. On top of these there are daily caps which guarantees users a maximum daily charge no matter how many times they travel on routes where such cards can be used (Tube, Docklands Light Rail or DLR, London Overground and National Rail services).
Fares are charged according to zones. There are 6 zones altogether. Heathrow is in zone 6, central London is all inside zone 1 and where we stayed in Docklands is in zone 2. Peak and off peak fares apply only from Monday to Friday and peak hours cover the period from 7.00-9.30am and 4.00-7.00pm. Judicious planning help save money in the long run. One good news is one fare covers all services across the zones. For example we travel to and fro Docklands (zone 2) and Central London (zone 1) and pay once upon touch out at the destination station even though we used two separate train services. If we travel during morning peak hours into Central London we pay £2.80 per person and if we return off peak hours we pay £2.20 for a total daily fare of £5.00. Additional tube travel in Central London is charged separately at £2.20 if during off peak. If we travel twice the total fare for the day comes to £9.20 but will be capped at £8.40 which is the peak fare cap. You can get the tube map from one of the websites listed above.
The train schedules are extremely efficient and punctual. There is no necessity to rush to catch a particular train since the next train will arrive at your designated platform in 5-10 minutes depending on the route and the line. High traffic routes run more frequently and during peak hours be prepared to stand. Courtesy is common on the trains we used and travelers are well mannered. Smoking is obviously banned and we don't hear loud music played to disturb the peace. The only music are from buskers along the tube walkways who played for donations from passerbys. There are designated seats for older people, pregnant women, those with walking sticks and on wheel chairs. In the absence of these people the seats are occupied by the general public.
The tube system reminds me of ant colonies with interconnecting tunnels to different lines and platforms which are very clearly signboarded. Unless you don't understand English you should be able to adjust quickly to how to move up and down the escalators (stand on the right to allow overtaking on the left) and look for which exit to go. Of course you need to know which connecting line to take to which intermediate station (if that is not your final station) and how to connect to the next. Instead of a tube map which is not 100% helpful and unfriendly to those with poor eyesight like myself I use an app that runs on both iPhone/iPad and Android smartphone. It is the London Underground Free - Map and Route Planner by Zuti developed by Visual IT Ltd. It is free but cannot help you if a station or line is closed for maintenance or upgrading. I used it extensively to help me get to the correct line without mistakes. Had I discover it earlier I won't have to print our journey planning directions.
I've covered only the tube and DLR above. They are in separate stations nearby to each other. You exit from one and enter the other to connect. However if you travel within the same line in a trip you need not have to leave the station and 'way out' to street levels. You follow the signs to get to the next connecting train.
Traveling intercity is different, just as to and from Heathrow. You have to use connected services - tube/rail or taxi/rail. We used another intercity route when we travel to Stratford upon Avon. In this case we took the DLR and tube to the Marylebone tube station which adjoins the rail station, bought the rail tickets and wait for the announcement on which platform to board the train. The station is equipped with food outlets and bookshops like a mini airport. We didn't try the public buses. The bus route maps frightens me. Also they are not suitable for our traveling style.
Talking about trains, they offer free wifi and charging ports for your phones and laptops. A sensible British idea which all travelers appreciate. Punctuality is a hallmark and every stop has a cafe to snack up. The trains we traveled in are clean, especially the seats and free from human odors. Public announcements are regular and consistent. It is a joy to travel on the British public transport.
We did sat on two other public transports, the sightseeing buses in Stratford and London and the Thames cruise boat. Except for one instance of poor PA speaker we've nothing to complain about the British efficiency and hospitality.