A train in the fog at Canterbury
I am left-handed. As a result, I grew up watching righties doing things and being a little garbled in my orientation because of it: to this day, I sometimes have to make the "L" with my hand to remember what is left and what is right.
The relevance of this to today's post is that I have very little confidence in my ability to drive on the opposite side of the road. Even as a pedestrian in Britain I usually look all of the ways before I attempt to cross a street. Although I've been there many times, I've never driven there and have no intention of doing so. That leaves public transportation as my primary method of getting around, and it's actually one I've come to prefer.
You do lose some freedom in taking public transit. You're no longer in control of where and when you stop, and there are no opportunities to drive off down a side road just because it looks interesting. However, there are also some things you gain: complete freedom to view the beautiful countryside, and often a certain camaraderie with your fellow travelers. I still have fond memories of journeys like the one I took back from Fountains Abbey to York on the bus, where there were approximately 50 people and two dogs, and an older English fellow and I got into possibly the most polite standoff ever: he wanted me to take the last seat because I was a woman, and I wanted him to take it because he was elderly.
Since I've won quite a bit of knowledge in how to traverse the system, I thought I'd share some tips for how to do so. I realize this post won't be of much use except to those who are looking to plan a trip to Britain at some point, but if you do choose to read on, hopefully it will show that public transit is a great option for travel there.
London's Underground (note to fellow Americans: a subway in Europe is a pedestrian underpass) is pretty user-friendly, and they usually have people there to help at the major stations in case you need it.
Most underground/subway systems in the world handle payment in one of two ways -- it's either a flat fee (like New York) or it is zone-based, which means the more zones you cross, the more it will cost. The best way to not have to think much about this as you're riding is to get a visitor Oyster card and load it with ~20 pounds (more if you intend to ride the Piccadilly line in from Heathrow). You tap the card on the payment stile and you're automatically charged the correct amount for your journey. One thing that's great about Oyster cards is that if you end up taking the Tube a lot in one day, it will automatically cap your payment at the price of a one-day pass.
The system itself is very easy to navigate. You'll be able to figure out what direction you need to go faster if you know what cardinal direction (east, west, north, south) you need to go, but at every decision point as you're walking through the system, they also have signs showing all of the stops for each direction. I use Google maps on my phone (with the public transit layer turned on) to figure out what stop I need based on what I want to see, figure out what lines I should take from Google maps and the Tube map, and go from there. Transfers are generally very fast (unlike my local system, DC Metro), so don't be afraid of making a transfer.
One final thing to keep in mind regarding the underground is that for at least another year, they are still doing work on Crossrail, which will create the new Elizabeth line right up the gut of the city. This is going to be great when it's completed but it does mean that some stations and portions of stations have been closed. It's good to check in advance, particularly for whatever station is nearest where you're staying, to make sure you're not going to be shut down by a station shut down.
I'm fortunate to live in Amtrak's northeast corridor, so I have much better access to train travel in the USA than most people. But trains in Britain are more frequent (every half hour or hour for many major stations) and you do not have to choose your train time in advance.
Regardless of how much you intend to travel via train, it's good to understand how the tickets work. You can buy either a single (which you might do if making some sort of loop in your itinerary) or a return (which is the best choice for day trips, as you save a lot vs. buying two singles). There are also "peak" and "off-peak" times. You'll want to view the details for any off-peak tickets you buy, but generally it means after a certain time in the morning.
You can buy tickets at the train stations -- the machines are easy to use but major stations also have a ticket counter. If there is no ticket counter (and some stations don't even have machines) you can purchase a ticket from the conductor on board the train. If your itinerary is set, you can also purchase tickets in advance by looking up your route on the National Rail site and then choosing from one of the operators to buy your tickets. They'll either be mailed to you in advance or you'll pick them up at the station. If you know your plans in advance I recommend looking up the times and prices on the National Rail site. This will help you decide whether it's actually worth it to get a Britrail pass or not. More often than not, it has not been cost-effective for me to get one, but I have done it a few times. Have your ticket or Britrail pass handy when you get off the train as many stations now have stiles that will take your ticket as you exit (if you have a Britrail pass or intend to break your journey you'll have to show it to an attendant, who will let you out).
Last topic regarding ticketing: If you buy tickets in advance, you will have the option to make a seat reservation if you book for a specific train time. I usually don't know exactly what time I'm going to choose, so it's rare that I do this. But do be aware that you can get on a train and find many of the seats reserved. Some trains operators, like Virgin, have specific cars with non-reserved seats. In others you should still be able to either find a seat that is not reserved or one that was reserved, but the reservee has not shown up. For example, on a London - York train, I got on to find it filled with reserved seats (the reserved seats thing is most often an issue going out of or into London on longer-haul routes). But as soon as the train set off I could see that there were many London-York reserved seats that had not been filled, so I just sat in one of them and was fine.
If you're just thinking of doing a few little day trips by train from London, this is very easily done. Some of my recommendations would be Bath (for obvious reasons), Portsmouth (home of HMS Victory and a nice town in and of itself), Canterbury (cathedral and lovely historic town), York (minster, historic houses and town), and Alton (more on that much later). If you choose Canterbury, it's worth a stop in Chilham, the stop before it (many tickets allow a "break of journey", which means you can do this on a London-Canterbury ticket), which was Highbury in the BBC's Emma. Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace are also quick rail rides out of London.
If you're planning a serious itinerary by train, I recommend downloading a National Rail network map and using it in conjunction with the National Rail site to do the planning. Sometimes places that seem very close to each other can involve multiple transfers by rail (this is where buses can come in, but more on that later), but on the flip side, sometimes it's very quick to get to somewhere that seems like it should be far away. This will also help you understand "via" tickets -- sometimes it's cheaper to go via one city rather than another. For example, when I was going from Portsmouth to Bath once, I accidentally bought a via London ticket rather than via Salisbury. Basically this meant I'd overpaid about 20 pounds for the ticket.
One other thing to keep in mind, either for a big itinerary or for a sort-of day trip, is that there are two sleeper trains running in the UK, one that goes to Penzance in Cornwall and one to Edinburgh in Scotland. These can be a great option for a leg of your itinerary because it means you get your travel time in at night. I've even done Edinburgh as that modified day trip -- I stored my main bag at the station (you can do this at all major stations in London -- follow signs for left luggage) and set off with just some essentials on the sleeper, did Edinburgh for the day and then took the train back in the evening.
When I first started riding the rails in the UK, I was afraid of transfers, and really shouldn't have been. They're quite easy, as long as you get the National Rail app for your phone or plan in advance using the site to know your transfer point. Get off at the designated transfer point, view the electronic screens to find the train bound for your final destination (or next transfer point), and go to the platform number indicated. The app will also show the platform number.
One final thing to be aware of is that trains do sometimes split in the course of the journey, where half of the train will go to one final destination, and the other half will go somewhere else. This means, of course, that you need to be in the right half of the train. They will announce approximately 552 times that the train is splitting and what the final destination of the car you're on is, so just move if it isn't the right one.
At any point, if you're confused or have any doubts, just speak with the conductor. They have almost universally been super-helpful for me whenever I've needed it. (In the via London example I mentioned earlier, the nice fellow went and got me the paperwork I needed to get a refund of the 20 pounds I'd overpaid)
I also haven't mentioned the Eurostar yet, but it's worth keeping in mind that even Paris could theoretically be done as a day trip from London. However, the Eurostar has stricter security and you go through immigration before getting on the train, so it's important to arrive much earlier (I'd recommend an hour) before your train time than you need to for any other train.
In London, buses work like they do in, I think, most major cities. They have a number and a certain destination they're going to, with stops along the way, and you can pay with an Oyster card in the same way you would on the underground.
Buses outside of London are generally the same, with the exception of payment. There, you get on the bus and tell the driver your destination, and they'll issue you a ticket. It's good to have small bills and change for this, as a 20 pound note makes things very difficult for them (usually bus fares can be anywhere from 2 pounds to 7 pounds, depending on how far you're going). Buses can issue return tickets as well, saving a lot of money. Depending on how much you're riding the bus in a day, you may also be able to get a day pass that will be cheaper than individual tickets. Ask the driver -- they're also super-helpful.
Bus 442 from Buxton. See what I mean about the scenery?
I think buses are scarier for those who don't frequently ride public transit, because they don't have fixed places that they stop, like trains do. But the bus system in the UK is pretty easy to ride, too, and there are quite a lot of places that trains don't go to, so they become a necessity if you want to visit places like the Cotswolds or the Peak District without driving.
So how do you know when you are getting close to the place where you need to press the button to tell the driver to stop? I use Google maps, again, on my phone. If you're doing a lot of public transit in the UK I definitely recommend getting at least a minimal international data plan to use the National Rail app and be able to check any bus schedules you haven't downloaded/printed on the fly. But it IS possible to download offline Google maps and follow your location on GPS with data turned off. Regardless of which you choose, you can follow the blue dot on Google maps to see when you're approaching your destination, and press the button to tell the driver to stop as you approach. Google maps now shows exact bus stops in most locations in the UK, so you'll be able to avoid getting off a stop early. There is another alternative, particularly if you're a newbie and not feeling confident of the GPS tracking, and that's just to ask the driver if they can tell you when you're getting close to the stop. Back to that friendliness -- many drivers have just volunteered to do this for me.
How do you even know what bus you need to take in the first place, though? Unfortunately there's no centralized site for buses like there is for the rail network, so this takes a bit more research. If you're visiting a National Trust or English Heritage site, they'll usually list what buses serve that site. If not, usually googling "bus from _______ to ________" will come up with results if there is a bus that services the route you're looking for. Guidebooks will often list the key routes for a location as well.
Your Google results should give you a timetable for the particular bus route, telling you where the bus picks up from a city and giving times for a few major stops along the way. Note: these are not usually all of the stops that it services. Charmingly, the stops are often listed as a pub or a hotel. You should be able to see these on a Google map, and when you actually get to the location of the stop there'll be some sort of sign up indicating that it's a stop and what bus numbers it services.
Buses run shockingly on time in the UK. It's not a bad idea to be 10 minutes early, but they will almost invariably arrive within plus or minus five minutes of their scheduled time. Now, I did once ride that York-Fountains Abbey route, where there was only one bus in and one bus out the entire day. You can bet I showed up much earlier for that one, just to be safe!
Occasionally, I have had a leg of an itinerary that could not be traversed by train or bus, and then I've turned to taxis. Usually, googling "[town name] taxi" will bring back some results of local companies -- there are local taxis pretty much everywhere. You can often book a ride in advance by calling them, or just call them when you're at your destination.
In London, the iconic black cabs are everywhere, and they're my choice if I do need to take a taxi. There, you can just hail (they are seriously everywhere in central London), rather than having to call to get a cab. In every other city, my preference is Uber, but the one time I attempted it in London, I got a nervous-seeming guy who was bent over his phone trying to figure out where he was navigating to. This was a sharp contrast to the black cab drivers, who train for years, learning the city streets so they can take a test called "The Knowledge." Get in the cab and name anywhere in London, and they will know how to get you there.
There are also a few other rail options that are not part of the transport network, but are worth mentioning. Britain's rail network actually used to be even bigger than it is today, and there were a number of lines that have been shut down. Many of these were actually re-opened by enthusiasts, and they run with heritage stock and either vintage diesel or, my favorite, steam locomotives. Sometimes these do actually connect two portions of the national rail network or go to a particular destination in a much more efficient way than you could get by transferring within the network, so I have on occasion used them as legitimate legs of transportation. Many others are just out-and-back, but they can be worthwhile if you wish to see some beautiful scenery. A particular one to note is the Watercress Line, which can be reached from the mainline Alton stop (transfer at Guildford from London). If Alton sounds familiar, it's because it's about 2 miles from Chawton, home of Jane Austen's house. If you don't want to walk that distance, on the first Sunday of the month, the line runs a vintage bus directly there. Visiting Jane Austen's house and riding around in steam-pulled vintage railcars is my idea of a pretty fantastic day out!
There is also something called "mainline steam." What this means is that the British have old (and at least one new-built) steam locomotives that are rated to run on the regular rail network. Like quite a few things the British do, I find this adorably ridiculous. I haven't done it myself (I intend to at some point) but they actually have day excursions from London and other stations to places like Weymouth. Actually, come to think of it, I believe it's time to start planning this for next year....