mini break 2010 - ground transportation: London

Booking flights is one of the easier parts of planning a trip. Figuring out transportation to and from airports and learning how to use public transportation systems is a bit trickier. For this, google is your best friend.

I found out about easybus and national express by doing a little google searching. Both of these sites offer cheap bus transportation to and from London airports (and National Express also works in Rome for Ciampino Airport, but I don't think they service Fiumicino Airport). London has many airports. If you fly into Heathrow (which will probably only happen if you're flying in from the U.S.), then you can always take the tube straight into the heart of the city. However, when you book flights within Europe (using easyjetryanair, or the like) you will fly into Stansted, Luton, or Gatwick, all of which are 1 hour or more away from the heart of the city, and inaccessible by tube. Both easybus and national express have time-sensitive pricing, meaning, the earlier you book, the more likely it is that you'll find cheaper fares. I believe that easybus starts its fares at £2 and national express starts its fares at £1 but there are fees (usually £0.50). Oh, and by the way, national express also offers cheap fares for other trips as well (including from London to Paris). Just compare rates and fares before making a well-informed decision. Even if the bus is cheaper, remember that your time is valuable too.

For our trip, I was a little late booking our easybus tickets so I missed the £2 start and we ended up paying £6.24 per person, one way.

Now, onto transportation within the city. As a tourist, if you want to see as much as you can see and spend as little as you can to do it (for the travel at least), I recommend that you spend some time on the tfl (Transport for London) site. Here's the most important page: tfl fares. Browse through and make an informed decision about what will work best for your trip. Most tourist destinations will be in Zones 1 and 2. Make sure you know what zone your hotel is in, and then choose what "row" of the fare table you should be looking at. If you're going to be spending at least 5 days in London, I recommend the 7-day travel pass (in which case, you'll need an oyster card, which is a hard-cased card that locals use because they're more convenient, and less likely to be lost, than the paper cards). For shorter trips, I'd recommend the day passes. And plan ahead! Remember that off-peak means you need to avoid the tube during morning rush hour. Read up on the cards because there are time limitations; a day pass doesn't mean you can travel for 24 hours after the purchase of your card - it means you can travel using that pass starting from when you buy it until 04:30 the following day. So for example, if you purchase a day pass at 15:30 in the afternoon on Monday and you need to go somewhere downtown on Tuesday afternoon at 11:20 in the morning, you need a new card! Because your Monday's day pass will have run out by 04:30 (AM!!!) of Tuesday. Get it? Anyway, look for the tiny tube maps (located in bins at most tube stations). The tube is the easiest public transportation network to navigate.

Oh, and keep in mind that cards are also valid on buses as well.

Another little tidbit for first time London visitors - keep your tube card handy because not only do you swipe it to get into the underground, you need to swipe it to leave, even the single ride passes. There are some hefty fines for people who don't produce a card when using the exiting turnstile!

You could try your hand at taking a black cab or minicab (taxis for us New Yorkers) but it's just too pricey and London is just too traffic-y to make minicabs appealing. Plus, I'm used to seeing generic fares plastered to the side of a yellow checkered cab. It's hard to try and remember what the base £ rate is and how many pence per meter traveled along with keeping £ to $ conversion rates in mind. Oii, meters?! I loved metric measurements when doing science and math problems in school but in real life, those numbers don't mean anything to me. Plus, it's likely you could be swindled by a "gypsy cab" with scary drivers that charge too much!

Breakdown of travel:
  • Take easybus from Luton Airport into London on Monday evening (08Nov)
  • Buy an off-peak day pass for the tube to use on Tuesday all day (09Nov)
  • Take easybus from London to Stansted Airport on Wednesday morning (10Nov)
So easybus tickets were £24.96 total and the off-peak day pass is £5.60 each, so we'll be spending £36.16 (for the two of us), which translates to about $56.48, or $28.24 per person.