The big red one

We know that a large number of London visitors come from the USA, and, unless you live in a big city, you will be more used to driving and less used to public transport, certainly on the scale found in London.

Bus travel is really great if you are not in a hurry. You get to see lots of sights in relative comfort. But getting onto a bus is not the simplest thing in the world if you are not used to it, and drivers are typically not helpful.

So, here are a few practical tips.

There are no cash fares. Use an Oyster card, contactless credit card or paper pass. All buses have the usual yellow card reader, usually at the front by the driver.

Bus shelters show route maps, but there are also apps which help, if you have a mobile device that will work here. Many routes run at night, too, though sometimes the destinations change slightly (sometimes routes merge).

Not all red buses are red. Some can be other colours because of advertising.

Always let passengers off the bus before you get on. The reasons are surely obvious. Seats are marked priority for elderly, pregnant etc. This does not mean you cannot use them, just give them up if someone needs them more than you. And no smoking of any kind on the bus.

Here are the typical bus designs you will encounter:

an increasing majority of central London buses are these curvy buses. They are double decked and have three doors. If you are using card, any door can be used for exit or entrance as there are card readers at each door. If you have a paper pass, you must enter using the front door and show your pass to the driver.

two door double decker. These are being phased out. Enter at the front and exit at the middle door.

old fashioned Routemaster. There is still one service, the 15, where these run as a tourist attraction. These have conductors. Entry and exit at the back. DO NOT got on or off a bus except when it is stopped at a bus stop. It’s dangerous.

single deck two door. Like the second double decker example, get on at the front and off at the back.

single deck one door. These tend to be used on smaller routes outside the centre of London. Get on or off at the front door. Let the passengers off first.

We are not covering coaches eg to airports, or tourist buses, because they tend to have people to help you anyway and are not really ‘public’ transport.

If you like buses, especially old ones, don’t forget the London Transport museum, and there is a bus museum at the old race track in Brooklands.

Shocking stuff

I want, in these blogs, to give simple, practical and, hopefully, reassuring information to visitors to London. I know, as a solo traveller, that there are always things you don’t understand about how things work in a new place. If you come here, you should have a great time for every minute you are here, not spend hours worrying about how buses work, for example.

Then you see blogs and videos from others giving information too. Some are good, others not.

There is one by a large American guy with a pony tail, I won’t say a name, who makes a lot of travel videos that are either “don’ts” or “shocks”. These are accompanied with videos of his young children messing about in whatever place it may be he is talking about, highly inappropriate in my mind for many reasons.

One of his past London shocks was, it’s a big city. The implication is, it’s unmanageable. For someone who claims to have been coming here over twenty years, not realising it is a big city looks like bad research. Anyone coming, even for the first time, must surely realise that a population approaching 9 million is not small.

One of his don’ts was, don’t be surprised if you don’t understand what British people say. No-one does.

Now… If he had said, ‘as you travel the country you will find strong accents in some places that can be a little hard to follow at first’, I would agree, and say of course, just as in the USA. But to say no-one understands them…? You wouldn’t say that about France, because, if you don’t understand French, it’s all impenetrable.

Another don’t was, don’t be surprised if you find British food that is almost edible. British food has improved, and it may still not be good, but it’s possible to find something to eat, maybe.

I could point out that most high streets are dominated by American chains, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and so on.

There is great food in this country, and there is slop, just like anywhere else. You get what you pay for. There are world class standard restaurants and caf├ęs. If you are coming to the UK, don’t just go for McDonald’s everyday. Try pubs, local restaurants. there is great variety. Let’s not condemn all UK food equally.

I agree there are chain restaurants that can be awful, but others that are great and good value. There are small, family run places that will treat you to some of the finest food you will have ever. And there are the tourist traps.

And, just because it’s not American does not mean it’s wrong.


One of the worst things about traveling on your own, and probably the only thing that always concerns me, is eating out. Now, I love a nice meal, in comfortable surroundings, with a glass of wine or two and friendly service, and I always leave a good tip. But it is something that is quite hard to do.

Go into a restaurant on your own and ask for a table and you get one of three reactions:

  1. a genuine welcome, they find you a nice table, give you attentive service and make you feel welcome
  2. you can go in but you have to be out by a certain time
  3. sorry, single people are not served

The first is very rare. If you find a place that accepts single folk and serves good food, treasure it.

The third is most common, in London and in much of the UK. The restaurant does not have to serve you, or anyone, and at least you know where you stand. You can appreciate they would rather have two people at a table than one, but I always try to eat at quiet times and surely an occupied table is better than an empty one?

The second reaction is the most common. Actually, in London, even in a couple or group, you are frequently given a time limit. Get out by X or else… Personally, I think it is a reflection of their speed of service in cases like this.

My worst experience was at a well known pizza chain in a very large branch on the south bank of the Thames. This is somewhere that seats maybe two hundred people. I arrived at around 4.30pm. Even though maybe 10 people were in there, I could have a table only until 5pm.

I ordered starter, pizza and a drink. Drink and starter came quickly, as did the bill! Then there was a long wait for pizza.

At 5pm, I was packing up to leave as instructed when the pizza arrived. I ignored it, left cash for what I had eaten and was ready to go. The confrontational waiter asked why I was not paying for my pizza. I haven’t eaten it, you told me I had to go by 5pm, I am going. I think he was more concerned not to get a tip, to be honest.

The waiter was shouting at me to pay the full amount, then a ‘manager’ was called. I explained – they had told me to leave by 5pm, and I was off. There were still maybe 20 people in the place, it was empty. They were extremely rude, but eventually I left and went to McDonald’s. I wrote to head office for the chain, but no reply of course.

YouTube etc

I do sometimes watch YouTube and similar sites. I look for videos that are instructional or informational mostly, or mathematical puzzles.

I immediately switch off (actually I ‘dislike’) if there are glaring spelling errors. You may think that’s harsh as I know people can have problems with spellings, but it seems to me that if you are setting yourself up as an ‘expert’ in some field, and know that you have word issues, it wouldn’t be that hard to spend an extra five minutes checking, or getting someone else to check, that the captions you include make sense.

I also hate when you pick a video that sounds helpful, like “How to do X”. You get through lots of crappy adverts and the person telling you to click subscribe and hit the bell, and lots of waffle about ‘sorry I haven’t done a video in a while because the cat had fleas’ and then you get to the substance. The first thing the presenter then says is “well, I’m not really an expert in this field…” by which time I am gone.

Even worse is when they contradict themselves.

There is a woman who does videos about Americans in London. I am not going to put a link, but you can find her easily enough if you really care.

One is about things not to do if you are having a short trip to London. It includes going up The Shard, and going on the London Eye (The Shard is the tallest building and the Eye is the big wheel, both giving you lovely views over the city and beyond).

Two reasons given are: expensive, but cheaper if you book in advance, and, weather may not be great and you may not see much.

Well, I could argue about those straight off. They are lots of money, but not as much as, say, the Empire State Building, which makes them look good value.

But there’s another video by the same person, about essential things to do while on holiday in London. The London skyline is “iconic” she says, so why not try the London Eye or The Shard.