If you are fortunate enough to live in a country where public transport has not yet been privatised, and you have any doubts as to why privatising public transport is such a bad idea, then welcome to Britain.
It should in fact be compulsory for any foreign politician, who is foolhardy enough to suggest that privatisation is the way forward, to be made to undergo the gruelling process of booking several train tickets in Britain. And in the unlikely event that he still thinks it is a good idea, then he should be forced to travel on British trains during rush hour for a week.
In other words, if you find the British railway system a complicated maze of Kafkaesque proportions, fear not. So does the average Brit.
Firstly, it may end up being cheaper and a hell of a lot easier to pay the extra and travel by a standard airline such as BA and land in Heathrow. As a rule, you will get much nicer flight times and you can usually get the underground into London. Trains from the other airports (and despite what it says Luton is not part of London) have at times cost me more than the price of my flight!
Buying train tickets in Britain can also be incredibly confusing. For example, if you buy a more expensive ticket at Gatwick for the Gatwick Express but make the mistake of assuming that a ticket to London means you can get on any train into London – it doesn’t – and get on the wrong train, you will be charged again. So make sure you know whether you want the Gatwick Express (quicker but more expensive) or the standard train into London (either Southern or Thameslink).
By the way, as of late 2015, it is now possible to use a contactless payment card or pay as you go Oyster card for travel between Gatwick Airport and London on Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express services. However, if you are making a return journey, it may still be cheaper to buy a paper return ticket online. I told you it can be complicated.
It is usually cheaper if you take the slower Thameslink service from Gatwick. It doesn’t serve Victoria Station but is definitely handier if you need to travel into north London as it stops at St Pancras and beyond.
The Stansted Express now offers cheaper tickets – tickets for £8, two people travelling for £12 and group savers, but you need to book these tickets in advance.
Remember the train doesn’t take you directly to and from the airport. The train only goes to Luton Airport Parkway and you need to get a bus between the station and the airport. Ensure you allow time for that and bear in mind that it’s also cheaper and easier to buy your train ticket to include the bus rather than just to Luton Airport Parkway Station.
Trains in General
For God’s sake, try and avoid turning up at the station and buying a train ticket on the day. Otherwise you may find yourself being charged what is in effect equal to the GDP of one of the world’s less prosperous countries. It is generally advisable to book online and in advance.
Firstly buy an Oyster Card as otherwise the cost of using public transport in London will have you keel over in shock. You can now buy a Visitor Oyster Card which is seriously worth investing in.
Secondly, do not travel in the rush hour i.e. before 9:30 am. It is incredibly expensive (yes, even more expensive than usual) and secondly, it’s horrific. If animals were transported in these conditions, the average Brit would be up in arms. As it’s just their fellow countrymen, all they do is moan about it.
And whatever you do, stand on the right on the escalator when using the underground system. Do not make the mistake of underestimating how incandescent with anger a London commuter will be if you stand on the left.
Secondly, all Brits instinctively know that if you enter a train carriage or bus and there is only one other person in there (unlikely scenario admittedly), then you MUST sit as far away from that other person as possible. Nothing will piss off a Brit like someone sitting next to them when there is no immediate requirement to do so.
Lastly, when in London do not chat to people you don’t know on public transport, particularly at night. No Londoner will think you are being friendly. They will automatically assume you are a nutter and immediately avoid eye contact.
No 11 Bus
You can save yourself some money by doing a mini bus sightseeing trip on the No 11 bus for the price of a single ticket. The No 11 route will take you through Chelsea, past Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square, The Royal Courts of Justice and St Pauls Cathedral. Of course, if you decide to get off at any point, you’ll be charged again if you get back on another no 11 bus.
One of the great things about London is that you can visit many of its museums for free such as the British Museum, Victoria & Albert and the Natural Science Museum. Besides ticketed, special exhibitions, there are often free events and tours worth checking out. I have been on a couple of free tours at the British Museum and they were an interesting, whistle-stop tour round specific collections. There is also the British Library which has a small and manageable exhibition containing some of the worlds most important books and writings such as the Magna Carta, Gutenberg’s bible, a Shakespeare first folio to handwritten lyrics by The Beatles. It also has a divine little bookshop, as well as an outside space that is an oasis of relative quiet even if it is just next to the busy Euston Road, should you fancy a bit of a respite.
It’s free to visit the main collections of the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. They also hold various free events and sometimes free exhibitions as well as the ticketed ones.
You can take part in one of the oldest customs in Britain – the Ceremony of the Keys. For the last 700 years there has been a ceremonial locking up of the Tower of London. You can apply for free tickets for this ceremony but it books up well in advance and tickets are non transferable.
London is indubitably one of the best places in the world to enjoy the theatre. Unfortunately West End theatre prices have rocketed over the years. However, the National Theatre often has £15 tickets for its shows and is worth checking out. You may well get to see some of Britain’s best theatre actors at work. My personal recommendation is that if you see any play with the actor Roger Allam in the cast, just go.
The Globe Theatre offers standing tickets for just £5. Rebuilt as an Elizabethan theatre, under the artistic directorship of Mark Rylance I witnessed some of the best theatrical Shakespearian productions I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely worth experiencing a glimpse of what theatre might have been like in Shakespeare’s day even if you don’t last standing through a whole production.
Similar to The Globe, The Scoop is an outdoor venue which hosts live performance including theatre, film, dance and community events. All their events are free. Seating is on a first come, first seved basis, so if there’s something you really want to see, pray to god that it won’t rain, and make sure you get there early.
Please note, I plan to add even more fascinating suggestions to this blog on ad hoc basis (ad hoc being Latin of course for when I get round to it). Please also be advised that it is fairly conceivable that things may change quicker than my propensity to update my website so it’s always best to do your own research beforehand. After all, these are my personal musings and not a foolhardy attempt by me at replicating an official London guidebook.