Monday, 12 December 2016

A Train-Hiker's Guide to the UK

The UK rail network can appear confusing to people who are not used to dealing with such a large train system, but it’s easy once you can get to it. Every big city, most small towns and even many villages are somewhere on the rail network, so it’s a convenient way to get from place to place.

It's easy once you get the hang of it, honest!

Get a visitor Oyster card: These can be bought in advance and pre-loaded with as much money as you think you’ll need. If you do run out, you can always top it up. If you’re staying around London for the majority of your stay, they are indispensable. It means you don’t need to keep worrying about buying your underground pass every day. You can get unused credit back, too, so don’t worry about letting money go to waste.
Learn the Underground: Okay, you don’t have to memorise it, but at least know what the station nearest your hotel is called, and what line you take to get there. This way, you should reliably be able to find your way back to matter where in London you are. If you’re going somewhere particular, it’s a good idea to check your route before going for it. Nothing screams tourist like stopping to check one of the maps in public.
Print off the map: Obviously, don't get it out to check in the middle of the street, but if you need to duck inside a shop to check how to get home, it's easier if you have a copy of the map. We don't all have scars above our left knee with perfect maps of the London Underground. On that note, what happens to Dumbledore's scar every time they add a new line?
Don’t worry if you miss one train: Underground trains are incredibly frequent, and I’ve knowingly missed ones because it was too crowded or I wasn’t sure if it was going the right direction. I knew another one would be along in minutes. If you get down and hear a train leaving, it’s not a big issue. If you do find yourself on the wrong train, just take it until the next station, switch platforms, and get back on track! (pun not intended)
Know your boundaries: Oyster cards aren’t valid once you’re a certain distance outside the capital, so if you’re going further afield, make sure you buy a national rail ticket to your destination. If you are caught travelling with your Oyster card where it isn’t valid, you are liable for a fine.
Can you really visit Paris in a day: Sure, if you’re close enough to London. Get an early train to King’s Cross/St. Pancras, then take an early train (you’re talking about 7:00am) out of St. Pancras. Since it’s an international train station, there will be security and passport control to go through, so bear that in mind to get there on time. This can also be booked in advance. 7:00am train should get you there by 10am-ish, then you can take an 8:00pm train home.

Further Afield
When I say the UK rail network is massive, I want you to understand my
full meaning. This isn't even all the stations.

Know your ticket: Sometimes, your ticket will list a specific time train for you to get, or won’t be valid on a certain company’s train. (Virgin trains are notorious for this). If you’re on the wrong train, you may have to pay twice. If you have missed a train timed on your ticket, especially if it was caused by your previous train being delayed, find an information desk and explain the issue. They should place you onto the next train.
Keep your ticket: You’ll need it to pass though the barrier on the platform. Then someone will check it during your journey. And at your final station, you’ll need it again, to swipe it on the barriers to get out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a station without ticket barriers. So don’t throw it away mid-journey! If you're found without one, you can be liable for a fine.
Book in advance: if you know what days you need to travel on, book in advance. This can be cheaper, and you’ll also get to reserve your seat, too. You can end up standing on many trains if you don’t reserve a ticket.
What do I do with luggage: Big suitcases go in holders at either side of the carriage, small holdalls get placed above your seat in a luggage rack, and you can keep small bags like a handbag or shopping bags with you. If you have a big bag, be advised that many stations, particularly on the Underground, don’t have much in the way of lifts. So you may find yourself lifting that big bag up and down stairs more times than you would like.
Sunday service: Less frequent then it is during the week, and getting places may take you longer, too.
Fast service: means the train doesn’t stop at every little stop on the way, but goes directly to it's terminating stop.
Off-peak: travel outside of usual busier hours like rush hour.
Bring something to do: Now, I’m not denying that many routes have famously scenic views along them, but if you’re going somewhere that is not so scenic, it can get boring. A good book, a fully-charged phone or a handheld games console can go a long way. Most trains will have free wifi on the service.
Look round the stations: if you have time, that is. Most UK train stations, especially big city ones, are architecturally significant and surprisingly attractive. There are worse ways to kill time at one then by looking around one.
Beware of Parkways: Parkways are stations further outside the city, mainly used by commuters. If you’re wanting to get to the city, however, they’re not so good. Make sure you’re going to the central station and not one on the outskirts.
Rail Replacement Bus Service: if you see these words, ask yourself if you really need to do this journey today. Basically, it means that because of problems or engineering works on the tracks, part of your journey will be done over the roads by bus. The problems come if you get in traffic jams and miss your connecting train, and from sharing a crowded bus with a group of strangers.

I have to recommend that you give this article a read, too. There are some parts of UK rail travel I have not experienced personally, so there are things I haven’t been able to advise on.

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