or: How to survive the London underground
“Mind the Gap” has become a synonym for English transport over the last decades. Although this caution is present at almost every big railway station around the globe (“Bitte achten Sie auf den Abstand zwischen Zug und Bahnsteigkante” in Germany), nowhere else has it achieved even remotely as much fame as in the UK.
“Mind the gap between the train and the platform” is the long version, occasionally spiced up with an insisting “Please stand clear of the closing doors”, but I’ve got a feeling they just play it on repeat for tourism’s sake. Let’s be honest – minding the gap is your last problem when riding the underground in London. A train journey in Britain, and London in particular, resembles a hurdle race – at least if compared to the German train systems. Here are some advices to help you to get along with the English public transport.
When visiting London as a traveller, buying tube tickets is as easy as child’s play – in theory. The reality is much more confusing and sometimes a bit overwhelming. The most common tickets tourists choose are the London travel cards which are usually off-peak, meaning you can take the tube only outside of rush hour (something I strongly recommend if you don’t fancy full-body contact with strangers in a claustrophobic environment). Travel cards vary from one-day to seven-day tickets and are really the easiest and cheapest option for anyone on a short trip with the intention of using public transport at least three to four times a day. For a seven-day travel card, you pay £32.40/32.00€ as an adult for zones 1-2 (Heathrow not included) and there are no significant differences between Euro and Pound. visitbritainshop.com also offers you to book your tickets online in advance and you’ll find them in your mail in time for your holiday.
However, London wouldn’t be London if there wasn’t a VIP-no-mortal-human-being-can-actually-afford-this-option: the much advertised London pass. I’ve never used it, but according to the official website, you pay £129.00 (~152.00€) for a six day pass as an adult (without travel card included!). If you don’t fancy paying expensive taxi fees, you might be interested in the second option of the pass which also includes the use of public transport. In that case, you will have to pay £172.00 (~203.00€). In return, you get discounts on various attractions such as The Tower of London. My personal opinion: far too expensive and not worth the money! I payed less for a monthly Oyster card.
If you’re on a budget or generally interested in saving as much money as possible, here’s an insider tipp for you: You’ll get the best deal in buying an Oyster card at the airport you fly in at (in most cases London Heathrow), upload five pounds to it, and alight at the National Railway Station closest to your hotel. If you then buy a National Railway Ticket (including a photograph of you – it must have a photograph on it!) for £32.00 (~ 38.00 €), you can make use of the 2for1 discount most London sights are offering. In short: You pay for one ticket and get the other one for free. That way, you save much more money than if you use the London pass. Just be aware that you are required to bring a printed coupon from the 2for1 website for the sight you plan to visit alongside your travel tickets. I strongly recommend this since I tried this with a friend and it was the cheapest London trip I have ever done.
When you’re on the underground for the first time as a tourist, you do get a great impression of what the annual famous Ascot horse race must be like. If you happen to stumble through the tube gates for the first time during rush hour, I’m truly sorry for your terrible experience. There are only very few things in this world that will put as much pressure on you as struggling to hurry through the gates while impatient Londoners are lining up behind you. But don’t worry about causing a pile. If your card doesn’t work (which happens frighteningly often), just step aside and ask a staff member of the National Railway Service to open the gate for you. At every station, there’s usually at least one member of staff and they’re very kind, patient, and understanding. And unlike the Germans, nobody will murder you with their looks. We’re in the UK, after all, and the British are far too polite and have way more class.
Now that you’ve got a valid ticket and have passed the gates, the only thing left to do is to get on the right train. Well, if that were so easy… London is known for being the city with the oldest underground network in the world. The first tube line was opened in 1863, connecting Paddington Station and Farringdon. Due to the impact of the Industrial Revolution, it quickly developed into the longest underground network in the world. With a growing railway system, stations were expanded as well. One of the oldest, biggest, and most chaotic stations is Baker Street. With 10 platforms in total, it is quite easy to confuse the lines and directions of travel. When a friend and I went to a theatre performance back in 2015 and had to change trains at Baker Street, we had to run in order to catch a train leaving five minutes after our arrival at the station. Maybe that gives you an impression of how big and confusing it can get. Never underestimate it, especially not if you’re on a schedule!
More than 265 people have died on the London underground in tube accidents over the last 14 years, according to the Guardian. And one journey is, quite frankly, enough to make one start to wonder why it haven’t been more. The most deadly trap: doors! Other than German trains, the carriage doors don’t open again if something gets stuck in between. So if you’re running late and try to keep the tube from taking off without you, don’t put a foot in the door! There’s a high chance you won’t get it back or even lose your life. Just surrender to the cruelty of bad timing and wait for the next train. Two more minutes of patience might save your life…
Ocassionally, when taking the tube, you might hear something similar to this: “Customer service update. Central line: no service between Marble Arch and Liverpool Street.” If you’re German, you won’t be too surprised about service problems as our trains are almost always late or cancelled due to construction work, accidents, etc. In case of such an event, you have to exchange the tropical heat of the London underground for the sub-tropical environment of a red double decker bus. When using this form of public transport, there is only one important rule: Whoever runs the fastest will get the luxury of the 180° panorama view of the front row seats. And since the view is really worth it, you don’t only have to fight other tourists but Londoners as well, so run as fast as you possibly can, but don’t skip the queue!
Another insider tipp: If you don’t want to spend money on a tourist city tour, just take bus line 11 or 15. Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and The Tower of London are only a few of the sights that you can enjoy from the comfortable (and sometimes disgustingly damp) seat of a double decker bus. Also: A bus trip in the evening can be a really relaxing way to experience London’s night life without walking your shoe soles off.
And eventually, upon returning home from your visit to London, this sentence will most certainly be stuck in your head on a constant repeat – at least it is already stuck in mine:
“This is Green Park. Change here for the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines. Alight here for Buckingham Palace. This is a Victoria Line service to Brixton. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Please stand clear of the closing doors.”