Getting Around London: Guide to Public Transportation

People waiting on platform
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Thanks to its ease and accessibility, London might just have one of the best public transportation systems in the world. Run by Transport for London, the city's mass rapid transit lines and buses allow locals and visitors alike to get around the city without needing a car.

Before arriving in London, download an app called Citymapper. It recommends the best methods of transportation for any desired destination, and even gives you specific bus stops so you don't get lost. Once you have the app, you can start navigating the city like a local.

How to Ride the Underground

London's metro system is called the London Underground, or the Tube. There are eleven Tube lines in total, which connect most areas of the city and are particularly handy in central London. It's a quick and easy way to get around with simple-to-understand transfers.

  • Fares: Fares vary based on the distance and time of day. The fare is typically determined by zone, so a traveler using the Tube within Zone 1 will pay less than one traveling from Zone 1 to Zone 5. A single journey within Zones 1 and 2 is 4.90 pounds. TfL also offers one-day and seven-day travel cards for unlimited travel within a specific period. Tickets and travel cards can be purchased from automated machines within all Tube stations using cash or a credit card.
  • Oyster Cards: Purchase an Oyster Card to take advantage of lower fares. The plastic card can be filled with any amount of money and allows travelers to tap in and out of Tube stations and buses. A Tube journey within Zones 1 and 2 using an Oyster Card is 2.40 pounds. Oyster Cards also have a daily cap of 8.20 pounds within Zones 1-3, so you can travel unlimited on any TfL Tube or bus once you've paid that amount. Oyster Cards are available for a five-pound deposit at ticketing machines in all Tube stations. Contactless credit and debit cards can also be used in lieu of an Oyster Card to tap in and out of stations for the same fares.
  • Routes and Hours: The Tube generally runs from 5 a.m. until midnight, with specific opening and closing times varying by station. On Fridays and Saturdays, five of the Tube lines run on the Night Tube, which extends for 24 hours. These include the Victoria, Central, Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly lines, but do not include all stops on each line. Look for the specific Night Tube maps when planning your journey.
  • Navigation: Getting around the Tube is fairly simple. Each station displays signs indicating which direction to take each Tube line, so travelers can check they are going the correct way to their intended stop. Signs on each platform also display how long you'll need to wait until the next Tube train arrives, as well as its destination. For extra help, use TfL's "Plan a Journey" service online.
  • Service Alerts: Check the official TfL website for current service alerts or delays on the Tube, which can be affected by weather or construction. It’s also advisable to check for upcoming planned Tube strikes, which can result in entire lines being shut down for a day or more.
  • Accessibility: Some—but not all—Tube stations offer step-free access, so it’s important to check your route in advance if you need wheelchair-accessible options. The Tube map displays which stations offer these, and there is a specific step-free Tube map available on the TfL website. The Tube trains also feature priority seats near the doors for those who need them. 

How to Ride the Buses

The London bus system is extensive, with some buses traveling to destinations that the Tube stations don't reach. It's important to consider the traffic when opting to take the bus since rush hour can mean long delays.

  • Routes and Hours: There are over 600 total bus routes around London, with many serving central London. Bus routes that run 24 hours are indicated by a "Night Bus" sign. Determining the best bus can be complicated, especially when looking at a route map, so use Citymapper or TfL's "Plan a Journey" to help decide which is best for your travels.
  • Fares: The London bus is a cheaper option than the Tube since one adult ticket is 1.50 pounds. Buses don't accept cash, so be prepared with an Oyster Card or contactless payment card before boarding. TfL also offers the "Hopper Fare," which allows travelers to transfer from one bus to another within an hour for free.
  • Transfers: When switching between the bus and the Tube, travelers will need to pay each fare as there are no free transfers between the two. Having an Oyster Card can be useful if you plan to go on several TfL journeys each day because of the daily cap in Zones 1 and 2.

How to Ride the Overground

The London Overground is an extension of the Underground, with above-ground trains running to areas of the city the Tube doesn't reach. There are nine total Overground lines.

  • Hours: The Overground has similar hours to the Tube, with each station operating a specific first and last train time. On Fridays and Saturdays the Overground operates 24 hours on stops between New Cross Gate and Highbury & Islington.
  • Fares: The Overground has similar fares to the Underground, although the Overground can be cheaper when outside central London. A single journey within Zones 2 and 6 is 1.50 pounds. It's best to use an Oyster Card to tap in and out of the stations.

Using Taxis and Ride Sharing Apps

London's black cabs are iconic, particularly since the taxi drivers are deeply knowledgable about the city's geography. The official cabs can be expensive, especially when traveling long distances, so visitors may want to consider using Uber or similar ride share options. Lyft doesn't operate in London, but Addison Lee is a similar app that's popular with Londoners. To use the black cabs, look for taxi stands around the city, or raise your arm to hail one in a safe place.

Getting to and from the Airport

London has several airports, but most international travelers will arrive into Heathrow or Gatwick, both of which are accessible by public transportation. Heathrow, the city's biggest airport, connects to the Underground via the Piccadilly line, so travelers can opt to take the Tube all the way into the city. The airport also offers the Heathrow Express, a train that connects the airport to Paddington Station in only 15 minutes. Purchase tickets for the Heathrow Express in advance online to take advantage of cheaper fares. Gatwick has a similar train, the Gatwick Express, which brings visitors into Victoria Station in about 30 minutes.

Other Transportation Options

Because London is located along the Thames, there are numerous ferry boats that operate along the river. The Thames Clippers are one of the most popular options as travelers can use their Oyster Cards to travel to stops along each side of the river. Those heading to London's art museums can hop on the Tate To Tate Clipper, which connects the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain every 30 minutes.

Leaving the City

Major train lines connect London to all parts of the U.K. via several train stations, including Paddington Station, London Bridge Station, and Victoria Station. Use the Trainline website to search for the best train to your chosen destination when heading out of London. Most train lines will require specific tickets, which can be purchased online ahead of time or in the train stations. For those going to Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam, the Eurostar operates out of St. Pancras International, which can be accessed by the Tube at Kings Cross.

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