London has one of the most highly developed public transport systems in the world – an absolute necessity in a city with a population of between 9 and 14 million (depending on how wide you draw the circle). A car is a useless headache. Go local, and get comfortable using public transport, in all its forms.
The biggest people mover in the city is the subway. Officially it’s called the London Underground, but everybody calls it the Tube, due to the shape of the tunnels and trains. It’s an incredibly dense network, with 11 interconnecting lines, all color-coded. In central London – the area of most interest to tourists – you’ll never be more than a few blocks from a Tube station. Trains run from around 5:00 until 00:30, with some lines running even later, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. They usually come through every 5 minutes or so, though at rush hour they can be more frequent (like every minute or two).
There are a few drawbacks to the Tube, though.
London’s red double decker buses are as iconic as the old red public telephone boxes, and just about as useful. Ride a double decker one time for the experience and for the view it offers, but don’t expect to get anywhere quickly. Even though there are miles of dedicated bus and taxi lanes, London traffic still moves like maple syrup fresh out of the freezer. A recent study found that traffic in central London averages just over 7 miles per hour – slower than it was in the late 1800’s.
The one time when buses come in handy is when you’ve had a late night out – a really late night – and the Tube has shut down. Night buses operate on many major routes from around midnight until 5:00.
The Docklands Light Railway connects to several Underground stations and has very modern, automated trains that serve the east London Docklands area. Once a seedy backwater, the redeveloped Docklands is home to lots of modern office buildings and apartments. You’re only likely to use it if you want to visit Greenwich (Royal Observatory, Cutty Sark, Old Royal Naval College, National Maritime Museum). Trains run from 5:30 to 00:30 Monday to Saturday, and 7:00 to 23:30 on Sunday.
The river is the heart of London. It’s why the city is here. I make it a point to ride a river boat at least once on every trip to London, either on a River Bus to get from A to B, or on a River Tour to see the city from another vantage point. River Bus services are operated by MBNA Thames Clippers, and run about every 20 minutes in central London, from morning to early evening (schedules vary greatly, depending on route).
The routes I use the most are:
Believe it or not, there is also a London Overground. These above-ground trains form a circular line serving London’s suburbs. If you’re a first-time visitor you can pretty much forget about the Overground, unless you are trying to save money by staying in the suburbs. Overground trains run from around 5:00 to midnight Monday to Saturday, and from around 7:00 to midnight on Sunday.
London also has some trams that serve south London, but they’re of virtually no use to tourists.
Taxis. London’s black cabs are just as famous as the double decker buses (though fewer and fewer of the cabs are actually black). They seem to be everywhere, and are easily hailed on the street. Taxi fares usually work out to around £1 per minute of travel.
Minicabs. Minicabs are private cars with drivers. They function much like a taxi and are often cheaper, but they are not allowed to pick-up passengers without a reservation. Numerous apps and toll-free numbers allow you to book a minicab at anytime, and it will show up moments later. My favorite minicab company is Addison Lee, which has an Uber-like app for smartphones (without the Uber-like surge pricing). Using the app you can get a quote, pay for your ride, and it will give you the license plate number of the car and tell you how many minutes until your driver arrives, as well as showing you a map with the car’s location in real-time.
Your feet. Last, but not least – you may just find that you don’t need public transport all that much. Central London is surprisingly compact and walkable. With a well-designed plan for your sightseeing, you shouldn’t need to ride the Tube or take a taxi more than once or twice per day.
Greater London is divided into concentric rings, forming nine zones (download a map with the zones). Zone 1 covers most of central London, with Zone 2 encompassing the few areas of tourist interest outside of Zone 1. If you are staying in central London, the only time you might go beyond Zone 2 would be for Heathrow Airport (Zone 6), or to some special interest sight, like Kew Gardens or Wimbledon (both in Zone 3).
All forms of public transport are integrated into a single fare system, so the same ticket is good on any of them. You pay for tickets either by buying paper tickets, or by using some form of contactless payment (more about this below). Fares vary based on the number of zones you travel through, the transport service you use, the day you travel and the time of day you travel (peak or off-peak).
This all sounds so complicated you may be tempted to just hail a taxi, but it’s really not that bad. I’m going to simplify things a bit and present some scenarios based on average travelers. If you want the full picture, take a look at all of the fare options on the Transport for London web site.
Buy single paper tickets.
For Zones 1 & 2 these are £4.90, and are valid any time of day. Single tickets can be purchased at ticket offices or from ticket machines at Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and National Rail stations, and you can pay in cash or with a credit card.
Buy an Anytime Day Travelcard for Zones 1-4.
Travelcards are paper tickets you can buy for different time periods and travel zones. With a Travelcard, you can travel as much as you like, as often as you like on bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and most National Rail services in London in the zones you have paid for.
Day Travelcards come in two flavors, Anytime and Off-Peak (Off-Peak Travelcards are valid only after 9:30 on weekdays, anytime weekends and public holidays). Assuming you stay within Zones 1-4, there is no difference in cost between Anytime or Off-Peak Day Travelcards up to and including Zones 1-4. All of the variations are £12.10, so you might as well get the most inclusive one, the Anytime Day Travelcard for Zones 1-4.
Day Travelcards are available at Visitor Centres, or from ticket offices and ticket machines at Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and National Rail stations. You can buy the Travelcard with cash or with a credit card.
Buy a 7 Day Travelcard.
Valid for seven days from the start date (printed on the ticket), any time of day. You’ll need to decide how many Zones you plan to visit, but if you’re in London for a week you are probably going to be including places like Greenwich, Kew Gardens (both in Zone 3), or Richmond (Zone 4). If you want your Travelcard to cover your journey to and from Heathrow Airport, you’ll need Zones 1-6.
7 Day Travelcards are available at Visitor Centres, or from ticket offices and ticket machines at Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and National Rail stations. You can buy the 7 Day Travelcard with cash or with a credit card.
Use some form of contactless payment (see below). Really this describes most visitors to London
Use some form of contactless payment (see below).
Use single paper tickets or Travelcards.
Most locals traveling on public transport use some form of contactless payment. When boarding any form of public transport all you have to do is tap a special contactless card on a yellow disk, and Transport for London figures out the rest. Single rides in Zones 1-2 are typically £2.90 during peak hours, £2.40 off-peak, but the important point is that you don’t have to worry about it. Transport for London will charge you the appropriate fare, regardless of the type of transport, number of zones, or time of day. If you use public transport multiple times per day, you benefit from what is called ‘fare capping’ – your total charge for the day will never be more than the daily cap, which is £6.50 in Zones 1-2.
You trigger contactless payment with:
Visitor Centres are the place to buy your Oyster Card and Travelcards, as well as get loads of other information about London. Most Visitor Centres are open 8:00 to 18:00, though some are less and some longer. Where are they?
If you’re traveling with children aged 11-15, buy them a Visitor Oyster card before you leave home. When you arrive in London, ask a member of the Transport for London staff to add a Young Visitor discount to the Visitor Oyster card. This can be done at Visitor Centres, most Tube stations, or the Victoria National Rail station ticket office.
With the Young Visitor discount your child gets fares that are half the adult rate for up to 14 days.
Children under 11 travel free on buses and trams. Children under 11 also travel free on Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and some National Rail services when accompanied by a fare-paying adult (up to 4 children per adult).
For more information about public transport in London, including maps, fares and live details about schedule changes or maintenance delays, visit the Transport for London web site.
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