Using London Buses - advice from a local - it's a bit of a long one sorry.

There have been a few questions/comments about buses recently. As it was a particularly damp weekend, and I had a pile of ironing to do, I hope you don't mind but I thought it might be useful to write up a locals guide to using the buses.

Most visitors to London are happy to contemplate using the underground but I think many are a bit wary of using the buses. This is a real pity because the London bus network is excellent and when used in conjunction with the tube will really speed you around the city. It will also provide a real opportunity to travel like a Londoner :-)!

The following is based on my experience of using a bus stop at South Kensington every morning where I am able to watch the confused public transport travelling tourist in their natural habitat...........

I think it covers everything..........?

Bus stops
Each bus stop will list all the buses that stop there with a chart showing onward destinations for each bus and an approximate time table. Approximate in that it doesn't give exact times but does provide intervals eg every 5-8 minutes.
Each bus stop has a round red sign on top with a letter to help you identify that bus stop on tfl maps etc. They also now have a small square sign just above the timetable with a 5digit number. If you text this number to the number provided or enter it into the bus countdown section on the tfl website on your smartphone it will provide you with details of when the next buses are due at that stop. ( I will get to countdown details later)

Many bus stops in the centre of town also have shelters with bench seating.
These will have more detailed maps of all the stops in the local area and destinations you can reach. As usual these maps are easier to use than explain!

Identify where you want to go from the list of possible destinations. It will show the number of the buses that goes there and from which bus stop.
The map is similar to a tube map with different colours representing each route. A key is provided. At the centre of the spider of lines there is a small map showing the letters and locations of local stops. Use this to find the stop you need to get use for your journey.

On most shelters there are two maps, one for day buses and one for night buses.

Night buses
The night bus map has a blue background to help people tell the difference. This fails miserably and I regularly have to tell people they are looking at the wrong map. All night bus numbers start with an N. So if the map you are looking at is telling you to get an N bus and it isn't after midnight you are looking at the wrong one!
(Night buses are a rite of passage for young Londoners. Definitely the sign of a good night out if you end up on a night bus! They all start from Trafalgar Square which is therefore pretty lively at 2am on the weekend! If you find yourself there, no matter how much you want to and how good they smell DO NOT buy a burger. You have been warned!)

Bus "Countdown" information
Many bus shelters now have a countdown indicator board which, as the name suggests, counts down the arrival of the buses so you will know how long you will have to wait. These are usually pretty accurate, traffic allowing. In my experience they are less reliable at the start of a route because they rely on the driver to leave on time and turn on their side of the system. This means that buses can occasionally appear and disappear from the board which can be a little annoying but nothing to worry about. The system works with gps so doesn't take into account traffic delays etc. So 3mins can turn into a 6min wait. But it can't be helped. When a bus is nearly there it will say "due ". For the same traffic reason a bus can be "due " for a couple of minutes which can be annoying. ( My south ken bus stop has this problem and one morning a commuter started muttering about the "due" status. Momentary panic ensued amongst other passengers that we were experiencing an antisemitic rant! )

Posted by emma
1734 posts

Countdown on your smartphone
If you have a smartphone you can favourite bus stops, using the 5 digit code, so that you will always know when buses are due. This is incredibly useful. I now know when I need to leave my house or office to catch a bus with little hanging around. To be honest it actually means I know exactly when to get out of bed to catch my bus. Personal best 7 minutes.....

Bus info on TFL website
The new style tfl website works pretty well on smartphones. If you google a bus route, for example " tfl bus 360" it will take you straight to the page for that bus where all stops are listed. If you select a stop it will then show you the countdown information etc. I have found this useful when travelling on bus routes I don't know well as it means I know where I am on the route and how far I have to go.

Catching and riding a bus
Buses in central London will stop at all stops. Further out of town they have request stops where you need to flag down a bus i.e. stick your arm out. I tend to flag buses down in central London as well, as a habit. Nothing worse than watching your bus pass because the driver didn't remember to stop.
Kids seem to love to flag buses down. The power of getting a bus to stop! So get them to stick there arm out when needed. Just watch you don't accidentally flag down a black cab. If a cab does seem to accidentally slow down for you a polite, apologetic smile and shake of the head will send him on his way.

So how do you get on a bus....... For some reason buses in London don't have a queuing system so it's everyman/woman/child/dog for themselves.
The general rule is that you get on a bus via the front door and exit via the rear door. I say the general rule because new style buses allow you to use all doors. But for simplicity I would suggest always getting in via the front and/or copying what the locals are doing. The new style buses with 3 doors were designed by Thomas Heatherwick whose studio also designed the torch for the London Olympics. He is an amazing designer, it is really worth looking at his stuff, but in my opinion this new bus is pretty rubbish. Looks nice on the outside, not so comfortable inside, anyway I digress....

You touch in on entering the bus. You don't touch out.

It has been suggested that you ask the driver to check that this bus goes to your destination. This is fine ( please note traditional British use of fine here which means it kind of isn't.... If a Brit says "it's fine" they actually want you dead!) It's ok to ask a quick " you going to Buckingham palace?" It's not ok to ask the driver to tell you when you reach the stop or to ask for information about other stops etc. They have a job to do and have better things to do than answer your tourist questions. They also probably won't know anyway. Ask people at the bus stop before you get on a bus if you aren't sure.

Have your Oystercard/travel card ready as you get on. Do not have it hidden at the bottom of your bag where it has to be retrieved holding everyone up! Do not get on the bus and then distribute the cards to your large extended family. (This is actually a capital offence in London...FACT.) Most Londoners keep there pass in their pocket or outside bag pocket for fast and speedy access. You do not need to take it out of its wallet.

When you get on a bus MOVE DOWN. Do not loiter by the door. Seats near the front door are for people with mobility issues etc but you can use them as long as you give them up when someone in need gets on. Amazing how many people don't do this! There is space for a couple of pushchairs or a wheelchair in the middle of the bus. Wheelchairs take priority but you don't see them often. If a bus gets busy pushchairs should be folded to allow more people on, but good luck with that!!! Most pushchair wielders will take you out at the ankles rather than give you any space ( a huge and slightly bitter generalisation there!)

You're on the home stretch..

Posted by emma
1734 posts

Upstairs on the bus
One of the best things ever to do in London is travel at the front of the top deck and "drive the bus"! Do it at least once whether you are an adult or a child. If you are an adult and a child gets on it is nice to give them the front seat but it does depend how kind you are feeling. It's not obligatory, adults have as much right to fun as kids! (Old double decker buses used have a mirror periscope device so that the driver could see what was happening on the top deck. Since they now have CCTV they no longer have these mirrors which means you no longer have the opportunity to pull faces at the driver from the front of the bus! Kids today don't know the meaning of fun.)

As is traditional, the back of the top deck is the spiritual home of the gobby teenager. They travel in packs, listening to appalling music on their phones whilst eating chips. For this reason I would generally avoid the back 4 rows of the top deck, not for safety reasons but because that are pretty annoying, I know, I was one once.

School children get free bus travel. This means they no longer save there bus fares to buy sweets, cigarettes or chips like previous generations.They annoyingly actually travel on the buses, usually in huge groups. Although harmless best to avoid school commute times if you can ( this free bus travel isn't provided out of the goodness of the councils heart. It is so parents can't complain when their children are allocated schools on the other side of the borough!)

If you have mobility issues I really wouldn't try getting upstairs if you can avoid it. The stairs are steep and can be difficult to manoeuvre when the bus is moving. What ever you do hold on tight.
But to reiterate a point that is regularly made, if you have mobility issues the bus is definitely easier than the tube.

Getting off the bus
Most buses now have an indicator board and announcement that tells you when you are approaching each stop. If you want the bus to stop press the bell (buttons found around the bus) a sign will illuminate saying "bus stopping". Do not repeatedly press the bell. Do not let your children play with the bell. Do not accidentally lean in the bell. Bus drivers get grumpy about this!

As a general rule you will only be allowed off a bus at designated stops, the driver is not allowed to let you off anywhere else for safety reasons. That said, if you have been stuck in traffic for ages a polite request sometimes works but not always.

Occasionally a bus will terminate early before it's final destination. This is usually because it has been delayed on its route. If this happens you will have to get on another bus. If you have a travel-card just touch in as usual. If you are using pay as you go ask the driver for a transfer ticket which you can show on the next bus to avoid paying twice for your journey.

Bus tickets
London buses no longer take cash. You really do need a travelcard or Oyster card or you can use a credit card that allows contactless payments. If using oyster pay as you go or a contactless payment card a single adult bus ticket is £1.45.

Travelcards will let you travel on all buses in zone 1-6 regardless of the zones you have bought. So a 1-2 travel card will let you travel on tubes in 1-2 but buses in 1-6. This is a total bargain! Look how far out zone 6 is and you will see what I mean.

The new ticketless system will allow you to go one journey in debit. So if you try and travel on a bus but don't have enough money on your pay as you go card when you touch in the machine will beep and show a red light. It will then produce a paper ticket that shows that your ticket has run out of funds etc. You can still take the journey but It will only do this once and is designed so that people don't get stuck unable to get home.

I think that is everything! I hope it is of some help but in summary......Use buses!

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
2076 posts

"The general rule is that you get on a bus via the front door and exit via the rear door."

We found out about this rule when we boarded from a middle door then went forward. The operator did a lot of screeming.

Posted by mincepie
Paddington and Canary Wharf, London
122 posts

Well done Emma! An excellent guide.

Couple of additional observations:

Even in central London, do stick your arm out to hail the bus to get on, and do ding the dinger to get off. The drivers don't always stop unless you tell them. I had one sail past Baker St station because I assumed he would stop...nope. When in doubt, indicate!

If more than one bus arrives at the stop at the same time and you want the one that is coming behind, go to him. Many bus drivers will stop one time only and won't pull up to the bus stop in turn. You will be standing there having waited patiently and he'll pull away leaving you waiting.

And well said about the priority seats. They are there for people who have difficulty standing (elderly, pregnant, on crutches, etc) and need the seat more than the average heathy person. The public is allowed to sit there with the understanding that the seat is cheerfully offered by the occupant to a priority person.

Posted by Mary
Leesburg, VA, USA
306 posts

Thanks for the refresher course Emma. We'll be in London again later this month, and will take the tube and bus to the Museum of London to save a lot of time (and feet) instead of walking there from the St. Paul's or Barbicon stations.

Posted by emma
1734 posts

Mince pie, good point about the bus not coming to you if more than one bus arrives at the same time.
I always seem to need the one at the back of the queue!

Posted by Rebecca
Nashville, TN, USA
1290 posts

Thank you, Emma! Great post! I must say, I got a great laugh out of "The following is based on my experience of using a bus stop at South Kensington every morning where I am able to watch the confused public transport traveling tourist in their natural habitat." Hopefully, fewer of us will be confused after reading your most informative and helpful post!

Posted by Philip
London, United Kingdom
2877 posts

Yes, there has been an official policy change by TFL that you need to flag the bus down and ring the bell at all stops. Not very well announced, they claimed that according to bus drivers that was the way passengers were behaving anyway.

I do disagree with Emma about how fast buses are. It varies from trip to trip, but my impression is that far too often journeys are scheduled with plenty of free time in case of delays, and as a result there's a lot of obvious never getting out of second gear, deliberately slowing down and waiting for traffic lights to turn red, and stopping for 30-60 seconds at every stop even if nobody wants to get on or off.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
6030 posts

Thank you so much for this helpful information. I'll be in London later this month and plan to use the bus system. I was feeling a little uncertain, because it didn't seem as straight forward as the tube. I'd rather see things as I go than be underground whenever it's possible or makes sense. Now I feel more confident. Thanks again!

Posted by Kathleen
Reston, VA, USA
553 posts

Emma, if this is how you avoid ironing, you are a great woman! Thanks for this extremely helpful info. I am one of those who's been to London several times but almost never used the bus; this will give me courage for next time.

By the way, I really appreciate your explanation of the true meaning of "fine." Now I know why I react badly when I ask my husband how I look and he says "fine"... must be my English ancestry!

Posted by LeeB.
211 posts

I LOVE LOVE LOVE riding at the front of the top deck of the bus. You can see so much more -- architecture on tops of buildings for one -- that you miss out when on the lower deck. And of course you see tons of people stepping out in front of buses -- drivers must have nerves of steel. I'd be screaming at the pedestrians; good thing I'm not the driver.

And it's also fun when you are outside of London visiting the country by bus -- in the top deck you can see over the hedgerows into people's houses -- or just see more sheep and cattle.

In late spring and summer, you can sometimes get an open top bus -- like the ride I took from Penzance to St. Ives -- it was a sunny warm day but super breezy on the open road. Needed my parka. ;) But I managed to survive.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13884 posts

Thanks so much emma. Anything to get out of ironing, eh?

If you are tall it is better to sit in the second upstairs row rather than the front - there's very little legroom in the front row.

What has happened to the great British queue? I agree that it is now more of a scrum. gggrrr.

Posted by Diana
Michigan, United States
359 posts

And we wondered why no one could tell us how to use the buses in London?!!! Very confusing for a first time visitor. We were there for a week in May and wanted to ride the buses but couldn't figure it out. The Tube was simple by comparison. But thanks for taking the time to write this up. We MAY try it next time in London.

Posted by emma
1734 posts

Philip, I take your point that not all bus journeys are fast but for short to medium journeys I have found that once you factor in the time it can take to get to a tube station and then through the tunnels to the platform, and out again at the other end it is often more direct and quicker, traffic and slightly stroppy bus drivers allowing! Certainly not always though.

Kathleen, "fine" is one of the most powerful words in the english language! ;-)

LeeB i definitely agree about looking at the architecture as it goes past. Many buildings in London are pretty dull at street level but if you just look up you can see some beautiful and interesting details. The FCO building on Whitehall is a good example of this and also Oxford Street,especially the dull bit between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road. Some gorgeous details that you won't see unless you look up.

Nigel, i am now so used to not queuing at bus stops that it slightly freaks me out when I see bus queues in other areas of the country. I saw some stonking bus queues in Birmingham City centre a while ago. It looked like Apple were about to launch a new product.

Diana no one is going to force you to get on a bus, but try it once and I am sure you will be converted! What's the worst that can happen?

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
2245 posts

If you are in a more outer London location with a single bus route the queue is alive and well. It breaks down in more central areas where there might be 4 or 5 routes at the same stop and no one knows who is going for which bus.

The bus is often quicker, even where there appears to be a straightforward underground route as it is more direct. Particularly true for trips a quarter of the way round the circle line.

On the other hand it is possible to walk quicker down Oxford Street than a bus because of all the traffic lights (and all the buses!).

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13884 posts

Unless I am going right across London I now tend to use the bus much more than the Tube. I find that by the time I make my way down the stairs to the platform, negotiating tunnels and more stairs, and then reverse the procedure at the other end, I can get quite a long way on a bus.

There are pinch points, like Oxford Street and Scotch Corner but by and large the bus is easier and not miles out on speed.

The views can be unbeatable.

Ride down Gower Street and look at all the blue plaques for the discoverers of modern medicine, ride the bus to Sloane Square from Harvey Nicks and marvel at the parks and architecture, ride a number 15 through the City.

A ride down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square and then left across Westminster Bridge will provide special views...

And when the days get short and the nights get long, ride (slowly, very slowly) down Oxford Street and round onto Regent Street and look at all the decorations across the streets and in the windows.

Then go for a search for Dickinsonian shop fronts....

Posted by emma
1734 posts

Couldn't agree more Nigel.
I have never knowingly ignored a blue plaque.

My favourite recent "looking up" discovery is the roof of the noticeably bland ( at street level) Tesco on Lower Regent Street. It has a really beautiful striped blue dome. And then further up regent street you have the stunning old frontage of the apple store. I could look at that mosaic for ever, or until the bus starts to move.

Posted by sewscana
5 posts

Emma, thank you. We (my husband & I) was so confused by website and how to use the bus, even though the first time we went to London for a day, we just hopped on the red double decker went upstairs and loved it. This makes total sense and our next trip (in the near future) we will be there for 8 days. We were planning to use the bus so we could see more of the city. I also appreciate your advice about where to sit, and I didn't know anything about the front seats...very good to know. oh, and also about the school children.

Posted by Dick
Olympia, WA, USA
1622 posts

Yes, the top deck is where it's at! Used to be where smoking was allowed (see Beatles' "A Day in the Life"), but now the best bet for anyone who can get up and down the stairs fast enough. And Nigel is right about the front-row legroom. We had a fun ride from Whitehall to Hampstead behind a family with kids in the front row.

Of course, Emma, when you tell people to "touch" getting on but not off, you mean touch your card for a moment on the conspicuous circle near the entrance until it -- what? Lights up? Rings a bell? I've forgotten.....

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13884 posts

It doesn't ring a bell or light up or anything so fabulous. The screen on the driver cab shows that the fare has been paid and how much is left on the Oyster card. If it hasn't been done correctly the driver will call after you. It is a very fast process.

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
2245 posts

OK thought I'd add to this thread by detailing some 'Great London Bus Routes'.

The first one I've picked is the 11, one of the 'original' routes dating back to 1906, although its end points have varied a bit through the years.

In the days when I was a regular on it the starting point was Hammersmith, but now it is Fulham Broadway station in Walham Green. Swings immediately to the Kings Road as it makes its way through Chelsea, passing close to the National Army Museum and the home of the Chelsea Pensioners to Sloane Square where another dog leg takes it round to Buckingham Palace Road, and Victoria Coach and railway station.

Up Victoria Street passed the mixture of shops and offices, many of which are government buildings including New Scotland Yard, and Westminster Cathedral. At the top make a left hand turn at Westminster Abbey round Broad Sanctuary onto Parliament Street and Whitehall, passing more 'historic' government buildings including the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, the entry to Downing Street, Horseguards Parade etc. (The Churchill War Museum being behind the Cabinet Office).

A 270-degree right turn at Trafalgar Square passed the National Gallery and up the Strand passed Charing Cross Station, round The Aldwych, passed the Royal Courts of Justice and into Fleet Street where the ghosts of some of the old newspaper buildings such as the Daily Express are passed, plus all the pubs the journalists used to go in all afternoon and the road to The Old Bailey before reaching St Paul's Cathedral up Ludgate Hill.

Continuing through the City passed the Mansion House, the remains of the Temple of Mithras (go back to Museum of London near St Paul's to see some of the artifacts) onto the Bank of England, through the financial heart finishing up at Liverpool Street Station (or nearby with all the Crossrail construction).

For best views overall, sit on the left.

Posted by Linda
Bromley, Kent,, UK
1775 posts

Nigel - a (green?) light shows when I tap in with my pass. Reason not sure about the colour is that only use the bus about once a month or so and memory can play tricks!

Posted by arao
7 posts

Wow, thanks Emma! I used to be exactly that - use the tube and think that I couldn't handle the bus info overload - till one day on my second trip I was stuck in Kensington on the day of a strike, needing to go all the way to Orpington. So began my bus education, and I've had the most fun riding on the streets and watching London go by - the Leiscester Sq crowd on a Fri eve had me gaping :)

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
1469 posts

@ Emma , Waiting for a bus tonight at about 20:00 to head back to Waterloo Road from Fleet Street near St. Brides after running out of steam ( all day on our feet ) , two buses passed and I remembered your wonderful post . A wave of the hand brought the third bus to a stop and two weary visitors were most thankful .

Posted by Dick
Olympia, WA, USA
1622 posts

@Steven -- And I can imagine your surprise when the driver said, "Oh, you must be a friend of Emma's!" ;)

Posted by ckroman555
47 posts

Thanks so much, Emma! On our first bus in Cambridge, we were so excited to have actually managed the right bus, that we barreled on immediately and the driver snapped, "Hey! I have people getting off here!" or something to that effect. So, important to wait for those exiting :)

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13884 posts

That is a difference between London buses and other towns and cities. London has a "on at the front, off in the rear" policy (except the 3 doored New Routemasters) whereas in many other places the front door is the only door and people need to get off before new ones can get on.

Posted by Michael
2 posts

Thanks for the useful information.

When entering a bus in London and touching in, should I say "hello!" or "morning!" or just walk past the driver and not bother him?

Also, when getting off from the middle door or the rear door, should I yell "thanks!" to the driver?

Each city seems to have different customs :-)

Posted by emma
1734 posts

It really doesn't matter and is very much up to you. If you are travelling in central London you are likely to be one of many getting on and off so it would hardly be noticed.
That said, I was brought up to acknowledge the driver so I say a quick thank you as I get on. If I am the only one getting off at a stop I might shout a further thank you but it really isn't expected.

Being a bus driver in London is an incredibly stressy job so they aren't known to be chatty!

Posted by Jane
Sapulpa, OK, USA
504 posts

Wow! I'm glad this post bubbled up to the top; we're going to be in London in a few weeks, and I hate looking like an idiot on public transportation. Thanks, Emma, for all the great info. Thank you Marco, for the bus route suggestions. Anybody else have any routes to suggest where we should just get on and ride? Michael, I'm glad you brought up etiquette. I know in many European countries you're expected to greet the driver. And I will school my tongue: no more "Fine!"

Posted by Michael
2 posts

Thanks so much Emma. That's very helpful. I can't wait to visit London :-)

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
5055 posts

Thanks for the long information. I most definitely use the bus in London which is a lot easier to use with luggage than the Tube, esp. getting from Kings Cross to Paddington. or vice versa upon arrival in London from SFO. It is an excellent true.

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
2245 posts

I might write up some more bus route tour details - didn't before as the post garnered no responses. Some good route numbers in addition to the 11 though are 9, 15, 24, 74 and the RV1.

Not running down the buses (!) but Paddington to Kings Cross can now be done step free on the Hammersmith & City / Circle lines. This is since the Bishop's Road station at Paddington was equipped with a lift.

Posted by Kay
Vancouver, WA, USA
448 posts

What a fantastic posting and train of comments. Thank you, everyone. This will help us be much more comfortable riding the bus in addition to the tube.