Sightseeing? Go local
Regular city buses let you explore a city and give you insight into its culture in ways that tour buses or even rental cars can’t — and for a lot less money.
Embedded in an SFGate article about where residents would like to see new subway lines built in San Francisco (yes, there are folks who actually want more subways in their cities) is a slideshow on the most scenic rides in The City on local streetcars and buses.
It’s a great idea. But San Francisco is hardly the only city in the world where you can do that.
In addition to — or even instead of — the traditional tour bus or rental car on your travels, use local city buses to see the local sights.
City buses can give you a unique look into the soul of the world’s great cities — and save you major money doing it.
There’s nothing wrong with the traditional old-school tour bus. The hop-on, hop-off version, which will sell you a 24-hour pass for set routes that take you popular tourist sites all over the city, can be really useful in getting your bearings in town and helping you decide which sites are worth a longer visit, or more than one.
And for absolute flexibility and freedom, nothing beats having your own wheels, whether a rental car or even a bicycle.
But to both see the sights and see the city as the locals see it, it’s hard to beat the local bus system. Especially when so many modern city buses come with huge picture windows that permit a virtually unobstructed view.
YOUR ROLLING WINDOW
That view will give you a feel not just for tourist attractions, but for neighborhoods, communities. It’s one of the great ways to pick up the vibe of an unfamiliar city.
Further, most city transit systems offer day passes or even permanent transit cards that grant you unlimited rides on any line, all day or for as many days as you like — and all for a fraction of the what the tour buses charge.
When planning a visit to a major city, whether in North America or elsewhere in the world, check their Web site for tourist information, especially tips on the most scenic or practical of their bus routes. Check with the local convention and visitors bureau and ask them the same questions.
If you don’t find what you need on the Web sites, do it old-school: Call the headquarters office and ask.
Google Maps not only will let you mark points of interest ad overlay bus and streetcar lines on the same map, but even give you a ground-level photographic view of the route with its Street View feature. By the time you hit the ground, you’ll be well prepared.
Also ask if the municipal transit company offers daily or weekly passes you can use to get around without needing exact change.
No other city seems more custom-made for bus touring than London, with its iconic red double-decker buses that offer unrivaled city views to resident and visitor alike.
LONDON IS YOUR OYSTER
No worries about exact change, either. In fact, you can’t even use currency on a London city bus. Order one of their pre-paid Visitor Oyster cards from Transport for London before you leave on your trip and you literally are ready to roll the moment you arrive. Just touch your card to the yellow card reader once as you board the bus.
That’s it. You’re good to go. You literally can ride all day doing this. And as long as you confine your wanderings to Zone 1 and 2, where the vast majority of London’s major attractions are, your card won’t be debited more than 6.50 British pounds. At today’s rates, that works out to about $8.
By comparison, a 24-hour pass on a popular double-decker tour bus in London costs $33 each for adults, $15 for a child and more than $80 per family. Do the math, eh what?
If your card gets low on funds, you can easily add more credit to it. And that credit will stay on your card until you use it; it never expires. So if you want to return to London someday — and there’s a good chance you will — you don’t need to buy a new card. Ever.
Many of the world’s major cities offer such paycards to riders — and some, like London, have specific cards especially for tourists. Aside from the great views and the cheap rides, there’s another cost-saving benefit to the traveler — no need to pay for parking, which can be hellishly expensive in most big cities and hard to find.
CHEAP GLIMPSE INTO CULTURE
Sometimes, the buses themselves can offer you a glimpses into local culture, especially in developing countries, where local drivers often own their own buses and jitney. They decorate them however they wish, turning them into everything from mobile street art to rolling shrines.
Manila’s jitneys — sometimes called “jeepneys” — are famous for that. So are buses in Pakistan.
Nowhere is this kind of four-wheeled transit culture more on display than in Kenya, with its colorful, chaotic matatu minibuses. In the capital city, Nairobi, they practically are a way of life.
Matatu owner/drivers compete for passengers. That means having the most eye-popping graffiti-like artwork on the outside, from bumper to bumper — and wi-fi and the most banging sound system inside, often playing popular tunes by up-and-coming young Afropop and hip-hop artists.
In fact, getting your songs played on a popular matatu is a good way to become a popular musical artist in Kenya.
When the workday is done, some matatu owners rent out their vehicles as party buses that will shuttle you safely from club to club, and keep the party going en route. No worries about drinking and driving.
Expect a memorable ride on a matatu. Just don’t expect a quiet one.
Whether as a cheaper alternative to pricey bus tours or just for a more intimate perspective on the city you’re visiting, local public transit can be a real value.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.having the most eye-popping vehicle art on the outside,