Are you planning a visit to London and wondering how to get around? The good news is that the public transport system is excellent with many options available to visitors.
The downside however is that all those options can be a bit mind-boggling! First-time visitors to London and returning travellers alike can find the transport systems a real challenge. With multiple forms of transport on offer and multiple ways of getting around London, it can make travel planning seem very daunting.
This guide is aimed at simplifying the many options available for getting around London and also provide some helpful ‘Top Tips’ along the way. It is based on our experiences of visiting London many times over the years (as well as Tracy’s years of living and working in the city)
IMPORTANT SAFETY INFORMATION
Follow these safety and hygiene measures to help protect you and everyone else on the transport network. Advice from the Transport for London website includes the following:
- Wear a face covering
- Keep 2 metres apart from others where possible
- Follow signs, listen to announcements and pay attention to Transport for London staff
- Wash your hands before and after your journey
- Carry hand sanitiser or use sanitiser points at stations
- Use contactless or your Oyster card to pay for your travel
- Follow government advice for safer travel and check the safer travel information sheet
Good to know – The British government body for overseeing all transport links and transport systems in London is: Transport for London (TfL) which includes the London Underground and overground rail networks, buses, tram links, Docklands light railways and the River Services. It provides up to date journey information on services/ delays and ticketing options.
The Oyster Card (What is is and why you need one)
What is an Oyster Card?
- In easy terms, an Oyster card is a smart card that provides a cash-free alternative to pay for transport around London.
- It can be used on all transport for London (TfL) services.
- It is the cheapest option for travelling around London. Around 50% cheaper in price than buying a single travel ticket.
- Daily prices are capped and when you reach the limit you pay no more (this, however, does not apply to Thames Clippers which have no capping policy).
- Cards never expire – the credit stays active for 24 months provided it is used at least once in that time.
- Unused credit can be refunded by returning the card to a Tfl.
- Anyone can buy an Oyster card irrelevant of where they live though there are 2 types – a Visitor Oyster Card and a Standard Oyster Card.
- For overseas visitors buy your Visitor Oyster card before you leave home and have it posted to you or you can buy a Standard Oyster Card when you arrive in London.
- The standard Oyster Card can be purchased using cash or credit card at any TfL visitor centres or trains stations and any Oyster ticket stops. Including Heathrow airport.
- Note that there are no longer any manned Tube or Docklands Light Railway (DLR) ticket offices and ticket machines have to be used. These are well signposted.
- ‘Top Up’ – Credit can be added at any of the above centres or download the TfL Oyster App.
- For UK residents Oyster Cards can be purchased in advance online and sent to your home. The buyer decides on the credit that is to be added, the first £5 covers postage and packaging.
What is the benefit of buying a Visitor Oyster Card?
If you are visiting London from overseas the Visitor Oyster Card may be a cost-effective option.
- As with the Standard Oyster Card, the Visitor Oyster Card is accepted throughout London on nearly all public transport.
- Top up the pay-as-you-go-credit as you need.
- There is a £5 activation fee
- Really useful as it does not expire so it can be saved until your next visit to London or given to family/friends.
- It is the cheapest option for travelling around London (around 50% cheaper in price than buying a single travel ticket)
- As with the regular Oyster Card, daily prices are capped and when you reach the limit you pay no more.
- Children under 11 years of age travel free.
- Note that there is no child version of the Visitor Oyster card and all children aged 11 to 15 will need their own Oyster Card
- The Visitor Oyster card also gives up to a 26% discount on Emirates Airline cable cars and up to a 19% discount on single journeys on the Thames Clipper riverboats.
- Look out for special offers and promotions for discounts on attractions.
Where can I purchase a Visitor Oyster Card?
- Visitor Oyster Cards can’t be purchased on arrival in London.
- They are available to purchase in advance before arriving in London from the Visit Britain Shop
- Arriving from mainland Europe via the Eurostar? Oyster Cards can be purchased on the Eurostar trains arriving from mainland Europe to London St Pancras International train station.
- ‘Top Up’ Credit can be added at any of the above centres or download the TfL Oyster app.
- If you are visiting for 1 -2 days £20 will roughly cover travel around Central London and a return trip to London Heathrow Airport, 3 – 4 days budget £30, 1 week around £50 (Guidance only as prices may vary depending on which travel zone you will be travelling in)
TOP TIP – If you are arriving from overseas and have friends or family in the UK you can purchase a Visitor Oyster Card and have it sent to a UK postal address.
How do I use the Oyster Card?
- Standard and Visitor Oyster cards are really simple to use.
- ‘Tap – on’ by touching your card onto the yellow card reader at the start AND at the end of each journey. On the
- London Overground trains.
- National Rail trains.
- Buses and Trams – ONLY at the start of the journey.
London Public Transport options
History of the Tube
- The world oldest underground rail system with construction starting in the 19th Century.
- Designed by Marc Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and is stated as being the first tunnel built under a navigable river.
- The first underground (tube) train ran on the 9th January 1863. The line used is still in action and is part of the Metropolitan line.
The Tube today
- Commonly called the ‘tube’ by majority of regular users.
- Recognised as operating 270 tube stations.
- 11 train lines.
- Carries more than 1 billion people every year.
London Underground Map
- The tube map is very much a London Icon and instantly recognisable.
- Designed by Harry Beck in 1931.
- Easy to follow and use, gives only relative position of stations to each other rather than geographical locations.
- Each station is roughly half a mile apart.
- Specific line colours in use since 1907.
- All lines are given equal representation.
- The London Underground symbol, or ‘roundel’, in use since around 1925.
- Instantly recognisable London icon symbol, that can be seen throughout London to identify tube station and access from a mainline train.
- Inspiration for the TfL icon
- London Underground (Tube) line colour as represented on the tube map as follows
- Central line – Red
- Piccadilly line- Dark Blue
- Circle line – Yellow
- Bakerloo Line – Brown.
- District – Green.
- Hammersmith and City – Pink.
- Jubilee- Grey/silver.
- Metropolitan – Magenta
- Northern – Black
- Victoria- Light Blue.
- Waterloo and City – Turquoise.
- DLR – Parallel Turquoise lines horizontally.
- London Overground – Parallel red lines horizontally.
- Emirates Air line cable car – Triple Parallel red lines horizontally.
- Tfl Rail – Parallel dark blue lines horizontally.
- London Trams – Parallel Green lines horizontally.
- (National Rail – Red railway logo)
- Zones – These are applicable to all Tube lines, Docklands light railway (DLR) and National rail services.
- Zones 1 to 6 – works on concentric circles from an the area of Central London.Zone 2 – an area that wraps around Zone 1.
- Zone 3 – wraps around Zone 2.
- Zone 4 – etc.
- Zones 7 to 9 covers North West London areas outside of the greater London areas not included in zones 4 to 6.
- Maps are easy to download, a very good example is from the Tfl which shows the tube and overground rail map alternatively many London guide books come with a free underground map.
Good to know!
The Visitor Oyster card can be used in any zone and the cheapest fare is automatically calculated for you! How good is that!!
London Overground (LOROL)
These are suburban trains that run, above ground level on a separate network to the tube network.
- 6 specific rail routes operated by Arriva trains.
- There are 112 railways stations and the routes link 23 of London’s 33 boroughs:
- Highbury & Islington to West Croydon/Clapham Junction/Crystal Palace.
- Richmond/Clapham junction to Stratford.
- Gospel Oak to Barking.
- Watford Junction to Euston.
- Liverpool Street to Enfield Town/ Cheshunt and Chingford.
- Romford to Upminster.
- Also runs north into the county of Hertfordshire.
- Forms part of the UK’s National Railway network but is run by TfL.
- Logo recognisable as a similar logo to the tube, but with the word ‘overground’ as a central banner that identifies station or platform entrances.
- Combines well with tube routes.
- Download the TfL map which shows the combined map of all stations tube and overground.
READ MORE – Complete guide to using the British rail network
Docklands Light Railway (DLR)
- This is a Metro system that is fully automatic – no driver.
- Easy connection with the Tube network at stations:
- Tower Gateway _ (Tower Hill) stations.
- Heron Quays.
- Canning Town.
- Canary Wharf.
- South Station to – Docklands, Greenwich and Lewisham.
- Opened in 1987
- Operated by Tfl.
- 45 stations over 7 train lines.
- Connects with the London Cable Car and also London City airport.
- Operates 24/7
- Logo recognisable as a similar logo to the tube, but with the abbreviation DLR as a central blue banner inside a hollow green circle.
- Use your Oyster cards on DLR.
- Can pay also with Contactless cards.
- All buses are bright “London Red’ and famously distinctive.
- 8600 buses on around 700 routes and over 20,000 bus stops!
- Does not operate in zones (like the tube).
- Tap- on’ by touching your card on to the yellow card reader at the start of each journey
- Oyster card payment is 1.50 pounds per journey.
- Bus only travel will cost a maximum fare of 4.50 pounds per day.
- Hopper Fares – Unlimited use for 60 mins on trams or buses from the minute you tap on for your first journey.
- Available for purchase – Daily bus & tram pass, £5.00, 7 day £21.20, monthly £81.50.
- Only tap–on when entering the bus, No tap- out needed.
- Cashless buses, no ticket purchase is possible inside the bus.
- Payment is via:
- Oyster card
- Visitor Oyster card.
- Contactless payment card.
- Bus pass (London or UK resident over 60’s card)
- Enter via the front doors of the bus, exit in the middle or at the back doors of the bus.
- Children under 11 years of age travel free on London buses.
- Discounts are available for those under 18’s and also for students.
- Most services are 24/7. Can be additional services laid on if the Tube is closed.
- London Buses do not use a travel Zone area of work and are based on single journeys.
Good to know
- Use a mixture of the tube and London buses to get a good view of London.
- Best 3 sightseeing bus routes:
- Route 24 Pimlico to Hampstead Heath.
- Passes – Westminster Abbey, Downing Street, Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column, Camden town.
- Fulham to Liverpool Street.
- Passes – Kings Road (Chelsea), Westminster Cathedral (Abbey), Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Strand, Fleet Street, St Pauls Cathedral, Ends near Spitalfields market.
- Aldwych to Hammersmith.
- Passes – Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Knightsbridge (Harrods shop), Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park.
- Route 24 Pimlico to Hampstead Heath.
- Introduced in 2000
- Runs in South London, and is operated by Tramlink.
- Service runs between.
- Wimbledon, Croydon, Beckenham, New Addington.
- Has easy access with no steps.
- Frequent service, every 10 minutes.
- Ticketing and card use are the same as using the London buses.
- Fast River Thames services run every 20 minutes from all major London Piers.
- Started in 1999.
- 20 high-speed boats.
- Runs between 3 zones:
- West Zone from Putney. (RB1 and RB 6)
- Central Zone, between Battersea Power Station and Canary wharf. (RB 2 and RB 6).
- East Zone, Canary Wharf to Woolwich (Royal Arsenal). (RB 1, RB 4 and RB 5)
- Visitor Oyster car holders get a 10% to 19% discount on single journeys on the Thames Clipper riverboats.
- Example travel times:
- Putney to Blackfriars = 56 minutes.
- Battersea Power Station to London Bridge = 30 mins.
- Tower to Greenwich = 21 mins.
- North Greenwich to Blackfriars = 42 mins.
- Royal Wharf to North Greenwich = 3 mins.
- Woolwich to Canary Wharf = 32 mins.
- Ticketing options include:
- River Roamer – Unlimited all-day tickets.
- Single and return tickets.
- Park and Glide – Park your car at the O2 arena and use the river bus.
- Season tickets.
- Uber boat – launched August 2020
- Partnership with Clipper service.
- Advance purchase tickets to guarantee a seat.
- Use Qr technology to board. Payment via Uber account.
Emirates Airline Cable Car
- Popular London attraction with views of the London Skyline and the River Thames.
- Travels between the Greenwich Peninsular to the Royal Docks.
- Catch from North Greenwich or board from the Royal Victoria (side of the river).
- 10 single trip tickets for £17
- Adult ticket single trip is £3.50 (Adult) £1.70 (Child)
- Visitor Oyster card receives up to 26% discount on Emirates Airline cable car.
- Option to hire a Cable Car for a round trip for up to 10 people.
- Range of packages including a champagne-filled flight and sunset trips.
- Flights every 30 seconds.
- Takes around 10 minutes. Peak times, journey time around 5 mins.
- After 7 pm flights take around 12 mins.
- Return flights are an option.
- Runs Monday to Friday from 7 am to 10 pm, Saturday from 8 am to 10 pm, and Sunday from 9 am to 10 pm.
- Weather permitting.
Nicknamed ‘Boris bikes’ after Boris Johnson who introduced them whilst mayor of London you will see Santander Cycles all over the capital.
Hiring a cycle for unlimited journeys of up to 30 minutes within a 24 hour period costs only £2. If your journey takes longer than 30 minutes you will pay an additional £2.
Download the app or go to any docking station with your bank card and follow the instructions! It really is that easy!
Which is the best way to get around London?
We recommend trying a mix of these options. The Tube is quick and easy but you won’t see much of London from underground! Buses are great fun and there are some great routes to take to see the main sites.
If you are heading to Greenwich take the Thames clipper at least one way! The views from the river are worth it (another option is a Thames river cruise)
Expect to do lots of walking and if cycling is something you enjoy there is the Santander bicycle option.
Heading to Scotland by train? Read our review of the Caledonian Sleeper Service
Accessibility on London transport. Note that the London Underground is not the most accessible with lots of escalators and stairs to negotiate. You can find out more to help plan your journey on the official accessibility section of the TfL website.
There are lots of great posts about London in my London Travel Guide.
More to read
- 8 Fairytale castles near London to visit
- Tips for visiting London for the first time
- Best UK Tours 2022/3