Getting out of the London rain? Better not be using cash.
London's transit system is in flux, and tourists are getting the worst of it. All spring, the Underground was plagued by strikes (and the constant threat of them) because Transport for London, which governs it, announced intentions to close most of the Tube's staffed cashiers' windows. Instead, TfL said, everyone would simply buy their tickets from machines.
TfL says the closures would be no sweat since most Londoners don't use them. Only 3% of riders used them, it said.
On July 6, the bus network made its own sacrifice to the gods of payment automation. Drivers on London's iconic red double-decker buses no longer accept cash. Naturally, tourists have entirely different habits than locals, and they're confused about the harsh new rules. Londonist reports that baffled out-of-town visitors are boarding buses, cash in hand, and being refused service.
It's pretty short-sighted of London, one of the most popular cities in the world for tourists—nearly 17 million international visitors in 2014—to unleash this at the height of summer travel season.
But the deplorably tourist-unfriendly behavior doesn't end there.
Here's the wrinkle: Transport for London's vending machines do not accept American-style magnetic-swipe cards. They only work with European-style chip-and-PIN cards. Until now, if you wanted to use a magnetic-stripe credit card to pay for transit in London, you had to go to the live person behind the window, because they were the only ones who could process your credit card. But now those helpful staffers will not be there for you. In Transport for London's view, only 3% of riders use the windows—but how many of those people are tourists?
If you're going to London, you must now do what Londoners do: Get an Oyster card. You won't have to worry about cash again after the first purchase. These transmitter-equipped credit card-sized cards store the value of cash on them, and you can load (and re-load) them using vending machines at Tube stops (and the occasional kiosk at some bus stops) all over town.
So for the foreseeable future, if you're going to ride London public transit, you must pay at a vending machine (cash works at some of those), and you must always buy a pre-paid Oyster card. Happily, the price of a ride using Oyster is always cheaper than using cash (on a bus, it's nearly £1 cheaper, in fact), so in the end, the change will save tourists money—it's just that the transition has been heedless and unhelpful, as if international tourists barely matter to London's economy.
My advice: Use the manned transit desk at the arrivals hall at Heathrow 1, 2, or 3 (most people fly in to that airport, and it will remain manned even after the changeover) to load up your new Oyster card. When you leave town again, have less than £10 left on your card and from the same desk, you'll get that money back as well as the £5 deposit for the Oyster card. (Full details on London's transit system can be found on Frommers.com, here.)
Other places where you will always be able to find a human being to process your American-style credit card are at the Travel Information Centres at King's Cross, Liverpool Street, Victoria stations, and at Piccadilly Circus' Tube stop.
London isn't the first tourism city to disregard the practicality of being a visitor—see "The Meanest Roads in America," about Florida's equally heedless march toward cashless toll booths—and as long as civic authorities design their systems out of bureaucratic convenience rather than wide, visitor-friendly utility, navigating the cashless age will be an increasing burden of the traveler.
Photo credit: Au Morandarte/Flickr