There are numerous ways of getting around London: Black Cabs, Uber, Tube, National Rail, Bicycles, Walking, Boats, the list goes on. Which are the best for which purpose? How do I pay for them? How do I navigate London’s streets efficiently?
In a city like London, the options can be overwhelming - even for locals. This article will lift some of the fog on how to get around London, and highlight what we consider as the best modes of transport, payment methods and navigational tools. There’s too much to cover it all, but if you enjoy it, please let us know on Facebook or Twitter. We might publish an extended version in the future (like, with boats and such!).
London Underground aka Tube (and rail)
The London Underground - aka the Tube - is probably the most famous way of getting around London. It is more than “just a stuffy, hot way of getting around London”, though: The pioneering London Underground is the oldest underground railway system in the world, dating back to as far as 1863! We’re talking steam trains underground, electrified trains in 1890 and cutting edge design and business strategies in the beginning of the 20th century! But I’m getting off track (see what I did there?) – if you want to go down that road, check our London Underground and Tube Tour.
The Tube is great for medium and most long distances (say 2 km / 1.5 miles or more). It covers all of Greater London, and prices depend on what zones you go through. A journey in Zone 1-2 is £2.40* on PAYG (I’ll explain what that is in a bit). If you travel through more zones, prices vary and are subject to peak and off-peak, meaning it’s more expensive during rush hour. You can find out prices for single journeys on the TFL website, or if you’re looking for an easier fix, use the app Citymapper (another thing I’ll get into later).
The best thing about Tube prices on PAYG: day caps. In zones 1-2, if you hit £6.60* by using tube, overground and/or bus, you pay no more. Every journey you make after that in the same zones is free! For a comprehensive list of Day Caps, check out TFL’s adult day caps and Travelcard tabke.
By the way, all of this applies to National Rail journeys inside the TFL area as well. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using either or both. Please be aware that the concept of the Tube running services at night (aka Night Tube) is a very new one, and only available on certain lines and days.
For medium distances (or if you can’t / don’t want to walk), the bus is usually a good option. For £1.50*, you’re allowed to travel as far as you like, with one free bus change within one hour. This makes it a great option as well if you have a longer journey and time on your hands, or if you are on a budget.
Using the bus has two benefits: First, you see a great deal. Underground, all tunnels look the same (the stations don’t, though!). Above ground on a bus, you see the city and get a sense of direction. Second, it's cheaper with unlimited travel distance and a bus-only day cap of £4.50*.
Another alternative for those comfortable with left-hand driving is cycling. Given the amount of traffic in London, bicycles are often a faster (and environmentally friendlier) option for short and medium distance journeys, compared to let’s say a bus or a cab.
If you don’t have your own bicycle, the cycles provided by TfL are quite affordable: You’ll get unlimited free 30 minute rides throughout the system for a total of £2.00*, payable only by credit card. Since this year, there are new players in town as well: Obike and ofo Bikes. According to The Guardian and Wired, the two major Chinese companies are set to secure a major piece of the bike sharing market in London. This might get interesting, so stay tuned.
TFL's bicycle docking station in Southwark, picture by Nick-D, via Wikimedia Commons
There are loads of dedicated cycle lanes nowadays (thanks, Sustrans!), which enable bicycles to circumvent heavy traffic even easier than before. Cycling also means that you will get to know the city even better: Navigating by yourself, finding your way through London’s old and new streets, you’ll get to know it from a whole different perspective.
Most of the inner city is actually walking distance – Buckingham Palace to the Tower of London are just about 5km (~3 miles), and it’s a beautiful riverside walk with loads to see. Even TFL itself has a webpage dedicated to walking. So, while at Insider London we’re great fans of our public transport system, as walking tour guides we really recommend exploring the City by foot! It’s free, faster than you might think, and you’ll always be able to pop into that interesting shop, that free gallery, or just grab a bite to eat.
How to pay on public transport
On to the most confusing part of London’s public transport system: payment. Cash, Oyster Card, Visitor Oyster Card (yes, there’s a difference!), Travelcards, contactless cards,… the list goes on. We’ll give you a concise overview. If you’re looking for a long read with more detail, head over to our fellow writers at London Toolkit: They have a whole section about this on their website.
First, cash payment for individual journeys in London is next to impossible on the transport modes above. If you only have cash, you’ll need a station with a ticket booth or machine. Please don’t try to buy tickets on a bus or a train – it’s not possible, and you might run into trouble. We also advise against single journey paper tickets, eg for a tube journey. They’re ridiculously expensive, sometimes more than double(!) the price of PAYG: Zone 1-2 single journey paper tickets are £4.90* compared to £2.40* on PAYG. So, if cash only works at ticket machines, and single journey tickets are unadvisable, how do we pay? You’ve already seen it: PAYG.
What is PAYG?
It’s short for Pay As You Go, and it involves a contactless payment card. There are mainly three options: The standard Oyster Card, the Visitor Oyster Card or the more recent contactless credit card. If you’re a student or below 18 years, you’re eligible for student or child discounts. London Toolkit have put together a comprehensive list of PAYG compared to paper Travelcards. We’ve boiled it down a bit:
What all PAYG have in common
All PAYG methods are contactless. They are electronic cards the size of a credit card (or indeed a real contactless credit card), which you hold against the round yellow card reader on your transport vehicle on entrance. For individual journeys, all PAYG fares cost the same (almost) and are the lowest ones available. They all have the same day caps, which vary depending on what zones you travel through.
"Please touch your card onto the yellow card reader." | Picture by Kenneth Jorgensen, via Wikimedia Commons
Oyster Card and Visitor Oyster Card
There are standard Oyster and Visitor Oyster Cards. They both work like prepaid tickets. You put a certain amount of money on them, and then pay for your journeys by touching the card against the card reader to deduct your fare. When money’s run out, you have to recharge at a ticket machine. When you don’t need the Oyster Card anymore, you can return it and will get any balance up to £10* refunded. You can do so at virtually any Underground Station with a ticket machine (except at Gatwick airport, though). If you’re not from London and travelling with children: Children under 11 travelling with an adult go free. Children between 11 and 15 years can have a discount set up on their Oyster or Visitor Oyster Card to pay half adult-rate. Concession rates for young adults aged 16 or older are only available to London residents.
The differences between the two: The standard Oyster cards are available at any tube station and cost £5* deposit, which will be refunded when returning the card. The Visitor Oyster Cards are available online before your travel, but they cost a £5* non-refundable activation fee plus shipping (also consider shipping time). They have a nicer design than the standard cards, and you get discounts at many major attractions, shops and restaurants. However, keep in mind that if you want an electronic 7 Day Travelcard, you will have to get a normal Oyster, not a visitor one..
Contactless Credit Card
If you have a credit card with contactless technology, you can use this instead of your Oyster. If you don’t know whether your card has that technology, it’s indicated by a symbol similar to a sideways WiFi symbol (some banks might require you to activate the service before using it). These cards work like Oyster cards, but the money will be taken directly from the bank account by the end of the day (which sometimes leads to cheaper prices). This saves topping up a card, or running out of balance when you’re on a rush. Be aware of banking cost: While most banks in the UK don’t charge for the use of contactless debit cards, overseas banking fees and exchange rates might apply if you’re using a foreign bank.
Travelcards are pretty straightforward: You pay for the card, and travel with it at no extra cost in its specified area. Mostly, you’ll be better off with the PAYG day caps, especially if you’re only travelling within Zones 1-3. There is one instance where they become interesting though: If you’ll travel seven days a week with more than three journey’s per day, you’ll usually be better off with a 7 Day Travelcard. You can buy Travelcards as paper tickets, or as electronic tickets, which you can load onto your standard Oyster card (not the visitor one!)
Navigation - How to find your way in London
Finally, how do we navigate London…?
Well, not with the tube map. Many people tend to place locations in London based on the Tube map because it’s so iconic and memorable. But: It’s a diagram, not a geographical map. That often confuses visitors. Take Westminster: According to the Tube map, it’s on an East-West bend of the Thames. In fact, it’s on a North-South bend! TFL does have a good reason for the change, but it’s misleading nonetheless.
This is what the tube map looked like if it was a geographic and scaled map. For a readable view please visit Wikimedia Commons.
So, how are you supposed to find your way?
Our tip: Citymapper is the best app to get around in London. It shows you all the available modes of transport (including many that we haven’t mentioned here), as well as a quite reliable time and price projection. If you have an active internet connection and GPS location, live times are included. There’s walking, bus, tube, cycles, taxis, regular trains and things you’ve never heard before (I’m looking at you, Black Bus!).
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Want to find out more about our beloved (and sometimes hated) Tube? Check our our London Underground and Tube Tour. If you're keen on discovering other hidden secrets of London as well, browse our tours - we're sure you'll find something interesting!
*All prices as of November 2017.