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©2019 Shawn Basey | Tbilisi | Prague | Travel blog and tips

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getting around in London

January 3, 2017

 The Tower Bridge during Christmas in London

 

Arriving to any city can lead one into a flying fluster of fun trying to figure out the details of transit. Each city works entirely differently, as it seems each model was developed quite independently, not caring about what works and doesn't work in other cities.

 

I remember in Kiev, it was normal to pay for the transit on the bus, but in Lwow, I got a fine for trying to pay for the ticket the same way—though perhaps that wasn’t a fine and was rather a bribe, I’m not overly certain to this day. But the point is, it all goes down differently from city to city, and London is no exception to that. Especially on Christmas Day, but more on that later.

 

Gatwick to London

Gatwick is something of the red-headed stepchild of Heathrow. It’s a bit overlooked, it’s a lot smaller, and it gets a lot of the cheaper flights, though nowadays a lot of those flights go to Stansted, so I’m not overly sure why Gatwick remains in existence.

 

It gets those cheaper flights because Gatwick is a bit further out than Heathrow. And when I’m saying “a bit”, I’m using the classic British hyperbole, because really, Gatwick is way the heck out of town.

The best way is by train. Those tickets are easy enough to buy at the airport, where the vendors can also hook you up with an Oyster card. The quickest way to Victoria station is to get on the 30 minute Gatwick Express, or if you’re going to the Strand, then hit up Thameslink. Any of the local lines will take you over an hour to get there because of all the stops.

If you’re feeling a bit sadistic or if you’re traveling on Christmas, then there’s the National Express Bus service. We discovered that this is the only service open on Christmas, so that was grand. Expect 1.5 hours to 2 hours with that, and a much heftier weight from your wallet being lifted away. The motto can basically be, “Worse service at a greater price.”

London transit

The metro map looks something like a cross between a Jackson Pollack painting and my last night spaghetti dinner. Whoever designed it must have been tripping on something to do with strawberry fields, because it makes relatively less sense than the Beatles song I just made an allusion to. And the thing is expensive as all hell. Best to just skip it.

Locals use the Oyster card, which can cost you up to six pounds for every ride on the metro and comes with a 5 pound refundable deposit. Better to just stick to bus rides when you need them, which only cost one pound fifty. And the buses are fun and double decker, with great views of an all-around beautiful city. Even better though is that London is a pretty flat city, so just wear your walking shoes.

 

Skip the metro and take the bus, ride the top floor for great views


What I discovered though one day before going to London was that you could buy an Oyster visitor card, mailed to your house. The visitor card makes everything nearly half off, and caps the metro at six pounds fifty, so it’s an insanely huge savings if you’re planning on traversing the city by leaps and bounds. The only trick is that you have to order it and have it sent to your house ahead of time. It’s impossible to buy in London, and not even at the airports. So order ahead.

Christmas and bicycles

London shuts down at Christmas. Literally. It’s clearly an attack on the holiday led by their Muslim mayor, and they overly recognize the most Christian holiday of the year in a clear attempt to undermine its popularity.

 

The attack on Christmas continues with massive pagan trees littered everywhere

 

Every mode of transit is gone. It would have made me rethink our flight schedule had I known it would have proven so difficult to get to Gatwick, since one, trains were closed, which meant that we had to take the National Express bus and two, the bus left from Victoria Station, which meant we had to get to Victoria. A bit of a tedium to do without transit. Also, to sell back our Oyster card, we had to give up the public transit thing on Saturday before the visitor centers closed.

What we discovered changed our trip though.

Bicycles.

There are bicycle drop-offs almost everywhere throughout London. And you can rent a bicycle for twenty four hours for a rate of two pounds. You just swipe your card and take your choice of any red bike you'd like. What’s even cooler though is that you can lock up your bicycle at any of those drop-offs and pick up a different bicycle, as many times as you want during that 24-hour period. It’s traveler gold.

 

About to park the bike at Westminster Cathedral, then take another one somewhere else


So imagine, Christmas Day, no transit. It means there are no hordes of buses. And since most people are at home with their families anyway, and there’s no reason to go out since just about every pub and shop are closed, then the roads are practically empty. And bicycles are cheap. Freedom!

That last day there, we put our backpacks on, pulled the bikes out of their slots and coasted through the city, letting the cold wind and spitting rain whip through our hair. Another view of Big Ben? No problem. A ride through sleepy scenic Belgravia in search of the occasionally open Starbucks? Also no problem. It sure as heck beat walking, especially with bags and after walking for three days straight.

Also, by the way, no lockers at the train station or bus station. Both do have a luggage drop off which doesn’t work on Christmas, making things that much more fun for the traveling tourist.

A Gatwick Christmas

Our way back was crowned with a near empty bus--or is that near full in British English?--and the realization that Gatwick was only open that day to cater to about 4 flights. One of which was ours. The place was otherwise a graveyard.

But it made me feel a bit thankful and a bit pushy. Really, they could have just not sold flights on Christmas and let all these people go home. If our flight hadn’t been available Christmas Day, we probably would have chosen a flight for the next day without complaint. But still, thanks to all those staff who spent their hours of holiday cheer at a nearly empty airport, just to cater to our flight and a 3:00 am to Kiev. 

 

The bustle of Gatwick on Christmas Day

 

 

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