Tuesday 15 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #1: Public Transport

It has been an exhausting few weeks, and I'm only just into my first week of teaching at a Popular Further Education College. But I promised myself and some fellow palaeontologists that I would do a short series of posts on how to survive in the UK.

The reason for this is that SVP is coming to Bristol next week - it's the first time the conference has ever been held outside North America, and this is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin Of Species. The most popular question I've been fielding from American and Canadian friends has been sorting out our terminally bewildering public transport system, and mostly the trains.

Firstly, to prepare yourselves for travelling in the UK by train, read the guide at The Man In Seat Sixty-One. He can explain how our system works far better than I can, and to be honest I'd only be rehashing what he says. As a general rule, flexibility is inversely proportional to the cost of the ticket - if you get a very cheap ticket it is likely to only be valid on the specific train you want to book.

Monday to Friday before about 9:30am is peak travel time, and you probably won't be able to get discounted rates. Some companies also restrict travel between 4pm and 6pm as that's the afternoon commute. It is impossible for a train to sell out of tickets, but you may not be guaranteed a seat, and they really can pack you on like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. We used to have a lovely national railway system called British Rail, but then it all got privatised (this has made a lot of people very angry). This is why there are so many different companies, all calling their tickets different things, and with such variation on routes and prices.

However, if you're booking travel from London to Bristol, then this route is served by First Great Western from London Paddington station. You can book with non-UK credit cards, and you can collect your tickets from the self-service points at the major stations.

If you're planning on spending a week or so in London (and especially if you're planning to take buses around the city), you will find it cheaper to buy an Oyster card. This can be loaded with a weekly pass (or longer) or simply loaded with cash to pay as you go. It will save you 50p a day on a daily travel pass for whatever zones you travel in, and if you take the buses only it will cost £1 per journey rather than £2. This will make it well worth the £3 deposit you have to pay to load it.

Beware that the London Underground is not 24-hour, although it is only really shut for five hours tops overnight. We do have night buses, but they aren't frequent and unless you're a jammy sod like me and have a night bus stop at the bottom of your road, you'll have a long and increasingly sober walk from wherever the bus gets you to. Taxis are expensive, but a licensed black cab is trustworthy. We have had problems with unlicensed mini-cabs, and if you are a young woman on your own just get the black cab.

Most of the city of London is pretty safe, and applying the same common sense to London as you would to any American town or city is sensible. Don't go down dark alleys if you're on your own, don't flash your cash around or wear your very expensive DSLR round your neck, and keep alert for disturbances or fights. I personally would not go to Finsbury Park, Hoxton, Brixton or anywhere with a postcode beginning with an E alone after dark. But I have many friends who live in or near those areas who are similarly terrified of the area of London in which I live!

Coming up, eating out, the language barrier and etiquette.

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