Tips for easy use of Public transportation during London/ UK travel

United Kingdom or UK has excellent public transportation network. It is possible to explore most parts of the country using its vast network of trains, buses, ferries and so on. In this post, I am sharing a set of tips and observations from my trip. Reading these will help you optimize your experience visiting UK, in terms of time, money spent and convenience of traveling around using public transport.
1 UK Airport Transfers via public bus/train
Almost all airports have reasonably well connection to city centre using bus or train. Below are what I experienced
  • London Gatwick- Took Train to Victoria station, cost me 8 Pounds
  • London Southend- Bus from city centre- 2.5 Pounds
  • Edinburgh Airport- Airlink 100 bus- One way 4.5 Pounds, Open return ticket- 7.5 Pounds
  • Cardiff- Bus to city centre- 5 Pounds
  • Belfast- Took train to George Best Airport- 2 Pounds + 1 km walking (courtesy shuttle available on request, need to call and wait)
  • Dublin- Bus to city centre- 7 Euros, outskirts- about 14 Euros
  • Reaching London Gatwick for return journey- Booked National Express bus from Newport, 20.8 Pounds for one stop journey via Victoria coach terminal

Things to keep in mind:
  • If you are returning to same airport, check for open return ticket- which might save you a few pounds.
  • If you're heading to far away destinations, National Express and few other bus services might have convenient options right from airport, usually a few pounds cheaper than train fare.
  • Train fares vary by peak/off peak timing, day of the week and how early you book. Newport to Birmingham was some 86 Pounds on weekday, 48 on weekends.
  • In case of late night/early morning flights pay extra attention to ensure buses are available during your timings.
2. Getting around London City
Oyster card is a must- Buy one at airport or any shop in city- needs 5 Pound deposit + cash to load as per your desire. Paying via Osyter card is usually 20-30% cheaper than paying by cash
You can order Oyster card even from your home country, have it delivered by post before you leave for UK- but this will cost 2 to 3 Pounds extra for postage but the anxiety of having to get it before you leave. I felt more convenient buying one at airport- No extra charges.

London city is extremely well covered with a dense network of tubes (underground trains) + buses and river buses. River buses are too expensive- avoid if possible.
Most buses offer 1.5 Pounds unlimited ride for an hour. Google maps can be relied upon to advise on which bus/train to take, from where etc. I find them reasonably on time but do keep some spare minutes for buffer in case you miss the bus or it is late.
Peak hours can be challenging- trains and buses get filled to capacity. Plan to avoid rush hour if possible. (8-9 AM, 5-7 PM usually)
Buses will stop at a bus stop only if someone wants to get off or someone is waiting to board- be sure to press the stop button if you need to get off at next stop.

3. Intercity commute
How to commute between different cities in UK- Like Edinburgh and London or London to Cardiff etc?

#
Mode
Pros
Cons
1
Domestic Flights
Quick- time saving
Cheaper than train if lucky
Bags cost extra
Airport formalities
Possible delays
Airports far from city
2
Trains
Usually city centre to city centre- more convenient
Have toilets
Have USB charging

Peak hour/weekday/ last min tickets cost more
Need to haul bags up n down platforms
Seats not guaranteed
3
Buses- Like National Express
Usually a bit cheaper than train
Deals available
More luggage in hold
Guaranteed seats
Possible delays if RTC/ accidents on motorway
Advance/online booking needed often (except select shops/airports)

Option 1: Flights
Lots of budget airlines operate within UK- Ryanair, Flybe, Easyjet, Air Lingus and so on. You might find a cheap fare- like around 20-40 Pounds or even less if you are lucky, a bit more for last minute flights or if you are very particular about date, time, destination etc. I've flown London Southend to Dubin for 13 Pounds, Belfast to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Cardiff on Flybe for about 35 Pounds each.
However carry on bags cost extra and you need to be careful about several rules of low cost airlines, else you might pay more for your bags, check in, food etc than what you paid for the flight. Flight is convenient w.r.t time and at times even cost. But do factor that some airports are away from city- an hour and about 5 Pounds extra to reach city centre by bus from airport in most cases.

Option 2: Trains
Trains are good-fast and convenient- but at times fares can be high- weekday, peak hour tickets could be almost 2x the weekend ticket- advance booking helps if you're very sure of your date of travel etc.
I used train to commute to Bath from Newport n back, Newport to Swansea, London to Salisbury etc
Option 3: Buses
Many bus companies operate inter city buses. National Express seems most popular. There's also Mega Bus and few other companies. Most of them require online booking - both to ensure there's a seat and because driver may not accept cash and issue a ticket on the spot. You can buy a ticket in select airport counters/travel shops with cash. Prices vary depending on how advance you book, direct/one stop, departure time and so on. If you are flexible, you can grab some super cheap fares.

You can try some aggregators like busbud.com or checkmybus.co.uk or check directly on operator's website like National Express or Megabus
Buses usually offer a toilet, wifi,USB charging and go right into city centre, so fairly convenient. I could take a National Express bus to Gatwick airport from Newport for about 20.8 GBP, booked only 2 days in advance. This was one stop via Victoria and 50% cheaper than non stop service and lot cheaper than Train option

Option 4: Ferries
Ferries are available to Man of Isle, Dublin and other places- I tried visiting Man of Isle but it had ferries only on Sundays and didn't suit my schedule. You can check and plan- ferries are not very expensive if booked in advance. You can take ferry to France as well

4. Paying for public transport in UK- Cash vs Card
Unless you're visiting for very short time like a day or two, it will be useful to get a card for public transport- like Oyster card in London. But each city has its own card- if you are visiting for just a day or two, you could possibly manage with single ride ticket (usually 1.5/2 Pounds per ride) or Adult Day to Go ticket- 4 to 5 Pounds per adult per day, unlimited rides in city
#
Mode
Pros
Cons
1
Cash/Journey specific tickets
Possibly convenient, if you need very few rides
Day pass (Day to go) tickets are convenient.
No change given (except usually airport buses)
Fare could be a bit higher than card
Zone restrictions may apply for Day Pass
2
Travel Card
Like Oyster
Flexible- tap in and tap out at will
A bit cheaper than paying cash
Works on Tube, Bus, River bus
5 Pounds for the card
Refund process not easy
City specific- Oyster card won’t work in Wales or even Essex
3
Contactless credit card
Pay direct from your credit card
Check for bank charges
Not accepted everywhere yet
5. Transportation in other cities of UK
Edinburgh - I walked all around city, so didn't buy bus ticket. Used only airlink 100 Airport bus

Cardiff- There is a Day to Go ticket for 4.5 Pounds- unlimited ride within Cariff city limits, till Sully. Not valid to go to Barry- for which a separate 5.5 Pound ticket required

Bristol and Bath: Reached by train and walked around city. Didn't try bus. Bristol has river ferry, which can be handy

Belfast: Bought One day pass for 3.5 Pounds. Was told buying at information centre is a bit cheaper than buying it from driver.

Dublin (Not UK) - purchased Leap Card- read more in this post.

6. Visiting out of city tourist attractions using public transport
All tourist attractions in city are well covered by public transport. For out of city attractions you may have to manage with train + local bus/tour or walking depending on the attraction.

For Stonehenge, I took train to Salisbury (46.5 Pounds return), but from there I had to spend additional 31.5 Pounds for Stonehenge tour bus. So this trip cost me about 80 Pounds easily. There are some day tours which are cheaper (for Stonehenge alone). Unless there's huge savings, might be more convenient to book a seat in a coach tour.
For Giant's Casueway in Belfast, buses were available but I felt day tour gives better value and booked McCombs
7. Other things to remember w.r.t UK's Public Transport
  • Online transaction usually attracts about 50 pence to a pound in transaction charge above the fare. Didn't see a difference in fare online vs counter- so if you have enough cash, buying at counter will save you the bank fee
  • Remember to tap out- else maximum fare may be deducted
  • Keep an eye on balance- cash loading machines are available in major stations only
  • You can register your card online for theft/loss protection
  • Factor a few minutes more than what's shown in maps- you may need time to buy ticket from machine, or you might take a wrong turn, you may take more time to walk etc.
  • Tube stations have multiple exits- getting out of right exit saves several minutes of walking. If in doubt, ask someone.
Possible improvements:
Having one common card for all cities in UK [Read more]

Let me know if you have any comments.

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