London is one of the world’s most popular destinations. A vast and varied metropolitan area with a wealth of attractions and centuries of history, the capital of the United Kingdom is Western Europe’s biggest city (to the east, both Moscow and Istanbul are significantly larger) and arguably the world’s best hub for getting anywhere else on the planet. But, it also can be a challenging place to navigate if you’re on your own and unfamiliar with London’s impressive array of transportation options.
Before we dive into any details on how best to get around, we should point out that public transportation in London is extremely safe. In most cases it is the cheapest and often quickest way to travel around town. Virtually every Londoner is well acquainted with the system and takes some sort of public transport on a regular basis. Although Londoners can come across as markedly reserved, they’re usually happy to field any basic questions you might have as a visitor.
Before you visit, take time to peruse the Transport for London website, tfl.gov.uk, for up-to-date info abour fares, routes, scheduled maintenance and more. The Traveller Information section of visitlondon.com is a great reference too.
Get an Oyster Card
First things first, when you arrive in London, purchase a Visitor Oyster Card. An Oyster Card is a smartcard you can use to pay for travel on London’s public transport.
We’ve listed single fare prices for most of the options below, but you should note that this pay-as-you-go card is almost always much much cheaper and far more efficient than paying for single journeys. It offers daily capping in line with prices for a Day Travelcard (so if you’re making multiple trips during a day it definitely pays off).
The Visitor Oyster Card differs from ordinary Oyster Cards as it offers a range of special offers and discounts for attractions and activities around London. There’s a Young Visitor discount can be added as well, allowing children aged 11 to 15 access to public transport for half full rate. Children under 11 years old travel for free.
For a Visitor Oyster Card, there’s an activation fee (£3 in 2017), which is non-refundable. If you buy your Oyster card in London you pay a deposit (£5 in 2017), which is refundable (in cash/coins) when you return the card at a station with attendants (you can do this at Heathrow and most mainline rail stations). You’ll find machines to purchase Oyster Cards at all airports and rail stations. You can also buy them online to have ready and loaded with credit for when you arrive. You put as much credit on your card as you like, and it never expires. TFL recommends £15 credit for two-day visit, and £30 for four days.
Mind the gap! London Underground (aka the Tube) is the city’s Metro (like the New York subway). It’s the mostly commonly used mode of transport not just for locals but visitors too. The network of 12 (mostly) underground trains covers much of London and even stretches out to stations in neighboring counties of Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire. There’s a Tube station at Heathrow Airport, offering a straightforward, inexpensive transport into town.
Generally, the Tube runs from 5 a.m. to midnight. But TFL is gradually rolling out 24-hour service. Currently, the Night Tube runs Fridays and Saturdays on five of the most frequently used lines including the Victoria, Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly lines and most of the Central line.
Before taking the Tube, have a look at its iconic map and note that it is not illustrated to scale. Often times, it’s quicker just to walk between stations. The best example of this is the short distance between Covent Garden and Leicester Square Stations. It actually takes longer and as many if not more steps to go by Tube than to take the one or two-minute walk between them.
Also, note that the map is divided into different zones. There are nine fare zones in London. What you might think of as “downtown” London is Zone 1. Most people visiting London as a tourist or for business find they spend the majority of their time in Zones 1 and 2. A single journey fare within Zone 1 costs £2.40 with an Oyster Card or £4.90 otherwise (for zone 2, it’s £1.50/£1.70 with an Oyster Card), while a single fare between the zones is £2.40/£2.90.
Like in any big city, the Tube (and all modes of public transport for that matter) fill up quick during rush hours in the morning when people are going to work and in the early evening when they’re heading back home. Usually, the cars at the far end of the train are emptier than those in the middle.
You can spot a London Underground station by the roundel, a red circle with a blue bar through it.
London Overground offers a similar service to the Underground but … well, we’ll let you figure out the difference. It connects Greater London and parts of Hertfordshire with a rail network of 112 routes. Launched in 2007, the cars are newer and cleaner than those of Underground trains. The Overground is especially convenient for travel in East and South London.
Most single trips cost £1.70.
Overground stations are marked with an orange roundel.
Mainline Rail Services
In addition to the Underground and Overground, there are national and regional rail services. Depending on where you are and where you’re going, these can be your quickest and most convenient option. They’re great for trips to/from London and other parts of the UK.
You’ll know you’re at a mainline station if you see the symbol of two white parallel bars with opposite pointing arrows on a red field.
London’s bright red double-decker buses are a cherished symbol for the city. They’re also a smart way to get around. Bus stops are marked with red roundels with info about which buses pick up there and maps of their routes and schedules.
The standard fare is £1.50 with contactless bankcards or Oyster Cards on all London buses.
Tip: When you see your bus coming, don’t assume it’s going to stop. Gesture for it or you might be surprised to see it pass right by.
The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is an automated light metro system good for trips around East London, particularly to/from the financial districts of the City of London and Canary Wharf. You can also access London City Airport via the DLR.
Most single trips cost £1.70.
Look for the blue roundel for DLR stations.
Tramlink is another light rail system. It serves South London, mostly around the Croydon area as well as Wimbledon.
The standard fare is £1.50 with contactless or Oyster Card on all trams in London. Paper single tickets are available from all ticket machines at tram stops for £2.60.
The Tramlink roundel is a green circle with a blue bar.
Bike lanes in London are better than in a lot of big American cities but not nearly as good as many in Europe. TFL has a self-service bike-sharing scheme for short journeys in Central London.
You can hire a bike for as little as £2 per ride with a bankcard.
There are more than 11,500 bikes at over 750 docking stations situated every 300 to 500 meters in Central London.
Clippers, Air Lines, Eurostar and More
A fun and scenic way to see London on the go is the Air Line, a cable car link across the Thames between North Greenwich (at the O2 Centre and Emirates Royal Docks). In reality, this isn’t all that useful for commuters, but the ride is fun and the views are amazing.
Another picturesque way to cruise through London is the Thames Clipper. This fleet of “river buses” connects piers along the Thames, including ones at Greenwich, the Tower of London, The London Eye and Westminster.
For trips farther afield, there’s the Eurostar with trains crossing the English Channel en route to Paris, Brussels and other parts of Europe. The Eurostar’s London terminus is St Pancras International Station.
Slated to open in 2018, Crossrail is a high-speed rail service connecting London with parts of Southeastern England from Shenfield, Essex in the east and Reading, Berkshire in the west and a handful of stops in Central London along the way.
London by Car
If you’re planning to actually drive yourself around London, be aware that traffic can be a nightmare and public transport is usually faster. Also, bear in mind there’s a Congestion Charge of £11.50 to enter Central London by car between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Of course, there are London’s Black Cabs darting across town too. London cabbies are incredibly knowledgeable about London and love to share advice. Look for a cab with its “taxi” light on. Get the driver’s attention by waving. Some cabs offer bankcard payment. Ask before getting in if you’re not sure you have enough cash for a ride. And just because they’re called “black” doesn’t mean you won’t see them in a variety of colors.
It’s worth checking to see if your ride-hailing apps work when you visit. You’ll certainly find Uber is popular in London and that rates are often considerably cheaper than Black Cabs.
There are also mini cabs in London. These are private hire cars, registered with the TFL, offering lower rates than Black Cabs. You’ll find mini cab offices near bigger stations and busier parts of town. Never get into a mini cab that you didn’t call for through an office and always look for a license in the front windshield of the car before getting in.
How well do you know London? Care to leave any tips on getting around this amazing city quickly, safely and cheaply? We’d love it if you left some advice in the comments section below. Cheers!