How to get around the UK without a car

You arrive at Heathrow airport, fresh off a ten-hour plane ride and excited to begin exploring your new surroundings. But first things first: how are you even going to get off the airport grounds? And how will you get around after that? That’s where a few transportation tips I learned from other students who had studied abroad in England before I did came in handy—and I hope they can be helpful to you, too.

In the airport

First of all, the London airports, though there are many of them and some are quite large, are nothing to fear. There will be signs everywhere pointing you in the right direction. Your first stop should be the bus or train station connected to the airport.

Airport express trains

Many of the London airports have an express train service that will get you to central London for between £10 and £20. You can buy your ticket ahead of time for your arrival date, or you can purchase it at the airport.

Heathrow Express

Gatwick Express

Stansted Express

You can also get from Heathrow to London by the tube.

Trains

If the cost for the express trains is a little too high, you can take a regular train instead. They do not leave quite as frequently and will have multiple stops along the way.

When booking a train journey, you can select either a specific time or an “anytime” ticket. If you choose a ticket for a specific time, it will be a bit cheaper, but you must be on the train at that exact time. If you miss your train, you may have to buy a new ticket. Railway staff are pretty strict in the UK—they check tickets at every stop, and if you have the wrong ticket, you could be fined.

An “anytime day single” or “anytime day return” ticket allows you to travel from your start point to your destination on any train on your specified day. An “off-peak single” or “off-peak return” may be an option on a weekday—you still have flexibility, but you cannot travel during rush hour. Your booking website will specify which trains are considered “peak” for that day. The “anytime” or “off-peak” tickets are a good option when you don’t know exactly what your schedule will look like for the day.

The further in advance you buy your ticket, the cheaper they will be. Trains can get very expensive if you are taking long journeys, especially on short notice.

Pro-tip #1:

Most of my friends used Trainline to book train tickets, but Trainline has a booking fee! Use a direct rail service website to book, such as Greater Anglia, and you won’t have to worry about booking fees.

Railcards

If you are staying in the UK for a while, it might be beneficial to purchase a railcard. I used the 16-25 railcard—if you don’t fit into that age bracket, you can visit the Railcard site to see if there is an option that applies to you.

In order to buy a railcard online, you must have an address in the UK to have it delivered to. You can also buy railcards at some train stations. After you have your railcard, when you book a train ticket, you can add the railcard and it will give you a discount.

You must travel with your railcard to be eligible for the discount. If you forget it at home, you can be fined.

Oyster cards

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You use an Oyster card to get around the tube (underground train) stations in London. You can purchase and top up your Oyster card at any tube station.

Pro-tip #2:

You can link your Oyster card to your railcard to get a discount on off-peak tube journeys. Just ask the staff person at the tube station to link it for you.

Pro-tip #3:

When you leave the UK, you can get your initial deposit for your Oyster card back as well as whatever is left on the card up to £10. Use the machines at the tube station to deactivate your card.

National bus services

My friends and I traveled primarily by a few bus services while we were studying in England.

Megabus

Megabus takes longer to get around than a train does, but it’s the most budget-friendly option for travel in the UK, especially when you book early. Some Megabus journeys are as inexpensive as £1-£5.

One limitation to Megabus is that it has fewer route options than other bus or train services. For example, the Megabus from Norwich, where I was living, only made one stop: London. If I wanted to use Megabus to get to different city, I would have to figure out how to transfer at the London Victoria coach station. Even so, two Megabus trips often proved cheaper than one train trip.

National Express

National Express is more expensive than Megabus, but it also has more route options. I used National Express to get from Heathrow airport to my university on my first day in England and to get from my university to Gatwick airport for my flight back to the US. It’s easier than the hassle of bringing luggage to London on the Megabus and then getting from London to the airport by train.

National Express is also often less crowded than Megabus, so if you like to stretch out a little on a long bus trip, it might be a better option for you.

Local bus services

If you’re doing a lot of travel in the countryside, local buses will become your best friend. They can be time-consuming, but they will get you places trains do not go. When I was exploring little towns in Wales, I took buses all the time.

Bus timetables can be a little tricky. I usually use Google Maps to find the fastest bus route to where I want to go, but I also check timetables online to confirm the times and stops. Google Maps provides a link to the website for the bus line it is recommending you use, which is where you can find pdf timetables.

Some buses to touristy areas might only run during the summer. Google usually knows when this is the case.

Around Christmas, I got stuck waiting for a few buses that never came. Bus schedules change for holidays without any update to the timetable posted at the bus stop.

Pro-tip #4:

Make sure you have plenty of cash on hand. You can’t pay for a bus by card. I typically budget around £5 for a round-trip bus ticket.

Pro-tip #5:

To let a bus know you want it to stop, hold out your hand.

Pro-tip #6:

Things shut down earlier in the UK than they do in the US. If you are relying on a bus to get you home at the end of a day trip, make sure you find out when the last bus of the day departs. It might be earlier than you expected.

Taxis

Taxis were a last resort for us since they can be very expensive. In my experience, a 15-minute cab ride could cost around £25-£30. But sometimes that beats a 45-minute walk, like when you’re going to the Norwich airport at 4am, traveling from a remote estate house to a tiny train station with nothing but muddy fields in between, or needing to get home fast when it starts to rain.

It looks like you can use Uber within London as well as to get to London airports—I never explored this option.

Public transportation is a mixed bag. My semester abroad included many moments of running to catch the bus or train; missing it and having to wait an hour for the next one in a deserted town with nothing to do but sit and mope; and awkwardly trying to sleep next to a stranger on an overnight Megabus.

But I always felt very fortunate to have so many options for public transportation at my disposal. At home in Minnesota, it’s almost impossible to get around without a car unless you live and work in the city. The UK’s public transit networks are incredibly extensive—anywhere you need to go, there’s a train or bus that can take you there.

4 thoughts on “How to get around the UK without a car

  1. This is a good read. The transport can be frustrating at times but certainly ahead of life in the US which can be limited unless you’re in a big city. Worth knowing you can also take the tube from Heathrow rather than the train 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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