How To Navigate London Public Transportation
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- Types of Public Transportation
- Forms of Payment
- Fares and Cost
- Hours of Service
- Using and Navigating Public Transportation
How to Navigate Public Transportation in London
Typically, when in large cities, especially in Europe, renting a car isn’t the best option for getting around as a tourist. Public transportation is readily available in most European metropolitan areas, making it easy to get from place to place. It’s likely also cheaper than a car rental, especially, when you factor in taxes, compulsory charges, tolls, extra driver fees, and possible credit card usage fees, to name a few. You also don’t have to deal with traffic, navigating an unknown city, left side driving (depending on the country), and you don’t have to worry about finding and paying for parking. For us, we also love it because we get to know a city and its people so much more thoroughly by taking a train, tram, bus or walking.
London is no different for us. Similar to New York, it doesn’t make sense to drive a car in London. Plus, there are Congestion Zones in many parts of London. Currently, charges are £11.50 per day, per vehicle that drives in a Congestion Zone between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm, Monday through Friday. To be prepared, before leaving Amsterdam and landing in London, we did some research on London public transportation. Here’s the break down…
Types of Public Transportation
First, let’s review the different types of transportation briefly. We’ll get into more detail a bit further along in our post. Keep in mind, the majority of public transportation in London is overseen by Transport for London (TfL).
The London Underground (The Tube)
The London Underground is usually referred to as The Tube. It’s probably the main mode of transport you’ll use around the city. It’s easy to find a station, as there are currently 12 lines, and you rarely have to wait more than 5 minutes to get a train. It’s also the fastest way to get around, usually faster than driving, hiring a taxi or an Uber.
The London Overground
The London Overground, for simplicity, can be seen as an extension of the London Underground and DLR (Docklands Light Railway), as fares and zones are similar. As the name implies, rather than running underground like a subway, it’s above ground. To distinguish these trains and routes, the train’s exterior is painted orange, and so are the route lines on maps.
Docklands Light Railway (DLR)
Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is a light rail system that serves the Docklands area of east London. Think of it as a part of the London Underground, as they, in large part, share fare systems and interchanges.
Tramlink is a light rail system that serves South London. It has connections with the London Underground, the London Overground and the National Rail system.
River Services are run by independent operators who manage their own tickets and services. Since buses and the Underground are less expensive, River Services are generally used for leisure and tourist attraction travel, but can be used for commuting as well.
The rail/train service in London is extensive, especially when compared to US cities. While it’s run by separate companies, there has been a great push for integration with the rest of the trasnportation system. The fares, tickets, zones, and most of the regulations are the same for National Rail as they are for the London Underground, DLR and buses.
The iconic red bus London buses are a great way to get around London, especially city center. Buses do not accept cash, but they do accept the Oyster card and Travelcards as well as an assortment of contactless payment methods, similar to the London Underground, DLR, and trains. Unlike rail, the Tube or trains, you don’t need to scan your card when exiting a bus, only when boarding a bus. Keep in mind that when you’re waiting for a bus, you’ll need to signal it (a wave of the arm will suffice) to make sure it stops. Some bus stops aren’t compulsory, meaning, if no one on the bus has requested the stop (by pressing the red ‘stop’ button), the bus driver won’t stop unless hailed.
Taxis are easy to spot, just look for the traditional British black cab. At the end of 2016 it was mandated that all taxis accept credit and debit cards. Taxi fares vary depending on the time you travel, check fares here. The base fare is £2.60 for all journeys and there’s a £2.80 surcharge for journeys that start from Heathrow Airport. Find more details on fares and taxi regulations.
Not usually considered a standard method of public transportation, but for us, it’s our favorite method of getting around, so it’s worth a mention. We found London to be a very walkable city. Just be aware that cars will be coming from the opposite direction than you may expect if you are from a country where cars drive on the right side of the road. We do recommend crossing at marked cross walks and waiting for the signal indicating that pedestrians have the right of way. And finally, as always, be careful, because even if you do everything right, you can’t insure a drive isn’t distracted!
Walk Unlimited is a great resource for walking London. Find walking maps, trails and current projects.
Forms of Payment
Gone are the days where you can hop on a bus or train and hand over a cash to an operator or cashier. Cash is either not accepted or discouraged by adding a forced surcharge for using it. London is no different. They have a cashless, pay as you go payment method, with a couple different options to choose from.
A pay as you go, reusable, and scanable payment method. Purchase an Oyster card at an automated machine in Underground, Overground and train stations. You can also purchase a card at Oyster ticket shops, visitors centers and by phone. There’s a £5 deposit for the card, but it’s fully refundable when you cash out the card. You can cash out the card at one of the automated machines in a station if it has £10 or less. You’ll get the full value returned to you in cash, including the £5 deposit. However, if the Oyster Card has more than £10, it’s a bit more complicated and may require mailing in the card to the TfL to get a refund. Oyster cards can be topped off at any time with additional funds at automated machines located in train and underground stations. Oyster cards are easy to use; just swipe them over the round yellow pads located on the gate when entering and exiting a station. Check the balance of your card at an automated machine or pay attention to the screen on the gate when you scan, as it will often display your remaining balance. For even more functionality with your Oyster card, create and online account with TfL and register your Oyster card.
Visitor Oyster Card
A pay as you go, reusable and scanable payment method. Almost identical to the Oyster card, but aimed towards visitors. These cards are purchased online and mailed to you; they can’t be purchased in London. The up side is that you’ll have them before you arrive in London, so as soon as you land you can use public transportation without worrying about purchasing tickets or an Oyster card. The down side is that there is a £3, non-refundable fee. Get more information, leaflets and details at the TfL site for Visitor Oyster Cards.
A ticket that allows unlimited travel, for a specified amount of time, on buses, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and National Rail Services in London. There are exceptions, but in general, travel is limited to zones 1-9. You can purchase Travelcards for different time periods, as well as travel limited to different zones. These cards can be cheaper or more expensive than a pay as you go method; it’s a matter of where you’ll be traveling to and from and running the numbers. Check the TfL site to find prices and details on Travelcards and purchasing Travelcards. To help decide if the Travelcard or the Oyster card is best suited for your travels, check out this ticket comparison.
London Pass with Oyster Card
The London Pass is a card that gets you access to over 60 attractions across London. See How We Saved Nearly $1,000 in Sightseeing in London using the London Pass. You can also purchase a Travelcard add-on to your London Pass. It’s just like a Travelcard and allows unlimited travel within London. If you choose this add-on to your London Pass, you’ll be paying a £3, non-refundable fee and the card will be mailed to you.
Purchase a ticket for a single trip. This method is discouraged because of the high cost of travel. For example, at the time of writing this, a single journey ticket for travel within Zone 1 is £4.90, while the cost using a pay as you go method (Oyster card or Contactless Payment card) is only £2.40. There is a time and a place for buying single fare tickets, but if you can avoid it, you should. Single fare tickets are paper tickets that are used a bit differently than pay as you go methods. Instead of swiping a card at the gate, insert it into the reader, magnetic strip down. The card will be returned to you and the gate will open. If the ticket doesn’t work but is valid, just show it to an attendant who can let you through.
Apple Pay, Android Pay and Barclaycard & Barclays Contactless Mobile can be used as contactless payment methods. You'll need to set up a contactless and oyster account and link your mobile payment account. Using mobile payments is very similar to an Oyster card and is a pay as you go method. You'll scan in and out just like an Oyster card by touching the top half of your phone to the card reader. Be sure the screen on the phone is turned on and that the battery is charged enough to last your entire journey.
Credit cards with a contactless payment feature (using RFID, NFC or MST to make payment, Wiki) can be used for payment. Most UK cards have this feature and can be used as long as the bank approves charges under £30 without a pin. Outside of the UK, contactless payment cards from American Express, Master Card, Maestro and Visa cards may work as well. Pay with the card by scanning it at the gate at the start of your travel and at the end of your travel. Be sure to scan the same card each time to benefit from capped fares and to prevent maximum fare charges. If you scan your card and get an error, you may have more than one contactless payment card simultaneously registering on the scan, this is called card clash. Learn more on the TfL site for contactless payment.
Fares and Cost
Fares are determined by the zones traveled in and through on a journey. The further out of city center and the more zones crossed, the higher the cost of the journey. London is divided into nine travel zones. Zone 1 is in city center and zones 6-9 are on the outskirts of town. Most of the tourist attractions and sightseeing are in zones 1 and 2. Heathrow Airport is in zone 6. Check the PDF zone map to determine what zones you’ll be traveling in and through.
- To find out what zone your hotel is in use Google maps to locate the nearest rail or underground station. If you have trouble seeing it on the map, you can alternatively look up Google Transit directions from your hotel to an attraction. Google will direct you to the closest rail or underground station. Using the PDF zone map, find the station closest to your hotel. Once you find the station on the map, you can see what zone it’s in. Zones are shown in gray and white rings and have a corresponding number listed on the map.
First and foremost, paying cash for a single journey ticket is the most expensive way to ride the Tube. For example, if you are starting in zone 1 and ending in zone 1, a single fare ticket will cost £4.90. When using an Oyster or contactless payment card (covered below) you’ll only pay £2.40. As you can see, a single fare ticket is more than double the cost! Check fare prices on the TfL site. Buses on the other hand, are always $1.50 per journey.
Price capping is a feature that will save you money if you’re making several journeys in the same day. It applies to all Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail Services and National Rail Services in zones 1-9. Daily capping is calculated over a 24-hour period (4:30 am to 4:29 am the next day) and works with Oyster cards and contactless payment methods. During a 24-hour period, your Oyster card or contactless payment method automatically tracks what zones you have traveled in and the fares you have paid. The amount you pay will be capped based on the zones you travel during that 24-hour period. So, if you travel only in zones 1-3, you will not be charged more than £7.60. If you stay in zones 1 and 2, you won’t be charged more than £6.50 (valid as of writing). For more detailed information, check the TfL site on price capping and don’t forget to view a PDF table of capped fares and zones. If you’re using a contactless payment method, be sure to use the same card each time, otherwise, you won’t be able to take advantage of price capping.
- Bus only Journeys: If you’re only traveling by bus, prices will be capped at £4.50 a day.
- Weekly Capping: Prices are also capped weekly (seven days), starting on Sundays. Weekly capping is only done with contactless payment. See the PDF Fares Table for capped weekly rates. Bus only journeys are capped at £21.20 per week.
Traveling during peak times is more expensive than traveling during off peak times. Peak times are essentially rush hour and are from Monday through Friday (excluding holidays) 6:30 am to 9:30 am and 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. The difference in fare from peak to off peak can be less than a pound to several pounds depending on the journey and zones traveled.
Take two buses or trams for the price of one. Use an Oystercard or contactless payment method when traveling by bus or tram and get the second bus or tram ride free, if you scan the same Oystercard or contactless payment method within an hour of the first scan. As always, there’s a bit of fine print. Hopper fare will not apply if you take another means of transportation (Underground, train, Overground, etc) using the same card in between the two trips on the bus or tram. You must have a positive balance after the first bus or tram journey (or clear it up within an hour of the first journey) to qualify for the free second ride.
Hours of Service
Hours of service vary by the type of transportation as well as the individual lines within the type of service. Timetables for all services can be found on the TfL site. You can also find the first and last tube of each line as well as general service details for each line. In the last few years the TfL has added 24-hour service on a few of the lines with great success. They will likely keep expanding this service. Right now, only a few Underground lines and buses are 24-hours. Night fares are considered off-peak.
Underground* - Friday and Saturdays the Night Tube runs on the Victoria, and most of the Central, Northern and Piccadilly lines.
Buses* - On Friday and Saturday the following bus lines run 24-hours a day with buses twice an hour (W7 is three times an hour): 34, 114, 123, 145, 158, 183, 296, 307, 319, E1, H32, W3 and W7.
* At of the time of this article. Check the TfL website for up-to-date information.
All wheelchair and mobility scooter users travel free on buses and trams. On the TfL accessibility page you can find more information on:
Using and Riding Public Transportation
Rail, train, Underground and Overground generally have gates that you enter and exit through. The gates will be closed and require you to either scan a card or insert a ticket to open the gate. You’ll notice that some gates have a red ‘X’ on them and others a green check mark. Use the gate with the green check mark, as the ones with the red ‘X’ are for traffic coming the opposite direction. Some stations don't have gates yet, but there are card readers available to scan in and out of. You will need to scan your card or ticket for both the start and the end of your journey. This allows for the correct payment of a pay as you go card (avoiding maximum fare unnecessarily) or the validation of your paper ticket.
- Contactless Payment or Oyster Card – Touch your card to the round, flat yellow pad on the gate. Your card will scan and if valid, the gates will open.
- Paper Ticket – Insert the paper ticket into the slot, which is usually located in front or below the yellow pad for a contactless payment or Oystercad. Upon inserting it, your card will be scanned, validated, and returned to you. The gates will open after you take the ticket. If the ticket is valid but doesn’t work (we had this happen a few times), show it to the attendant, they will confirm the validity and let you through.
Finding Your Way
At first, London public transportation can seem overwhelming and confusing. The first time we stepped into an Underground station we were lost and had no idea which way to go and which train to take. Remember, no matter how confused you may be, there are attendants who are happy to help. Just ask. There were a few times we asked attendants for help as well, as other people riding the train. They were always super helpful. Overtime, navigating our way through the stations and different types of transportation got easier and easier.
The Underground has 12 lines, each with their own name and color identifiers. Trains, rail and DLR also have color identifiers and names to follow. Not all stations serve all lines. Trains will arrive at numbered platforms. When you get to a station, look for signs that direct you to the line you wish to take. If you know the direction (East, West, North or South) and the line, then you can just follow the signage in the station. If you aren’t sure which line or direction you need to take, check the large signs, usually posted on the walls that show all stations serviced by each line. You can also use Google Transit to determine the line and stop you need to take, just be mindful that you may lose Internet connectivity when you travel underground. Once you know what line and direction you need, follow the corresponding signs until you get to the correct platform.
Once on the platform, if you want to double check that you’re in the correct place, look on the wall at the station map with all of the stops. Double check that your stop is listed. Often times, especially during rush hour, an attendant or two will be monitoring the platform and can help confirm you’re in the correct place.
Tip: Trains are labeled with the last and terminating stop. For example, if the train you're getting on ends at Edgeware, the train will be called the Edgeware train. If there are two trains on the same line that have the same terminating stop but branch off to different stops in the middle, they'll have another stop that's unique to that route added on to the name of the train. For example, a train ending at Edgeware but branches off to Bank, will be identified as ‘Edgeware via Bank’.
- Stay to the right. Just like driving, slower traffic stays to the right. When you’re going up the escalators and choose to stand, stay to the right, allowing those who are walking to pass on the left.
- When boarding, let passengers disembark first.
- Move to the center of the train, away from the door, to allow passengers to easily get on and off the train.
- At the gate, when someone enters ahead of you, you don’t have to wait for the barrier to fully shut before scanning your card or ticket.
- Give up your seat to anyone who needs it more than you do.
- If the train is crowded and you’re getting off at the next stop, don’t push your way to the doors. More than likely, many other people are disembarking at your stop as well.
- So that you don’t have to grab the person in front of you, or fall into the person behind you, assume a wide stance. Trains and buses start fast and can be a bit jerky. Assume a wide stance and hold on. You, and your neighbor will appreciate it.
- Be prepared at the ticket gate, if not, step aside so you aren’t fumbling in your pocket and holding up the line.
- Sit in a seat, not three. Don’t spread your legs/knees out, preventing others from using the seats next to you. (This is widely known as ‘manspreading’.)
- For up to the minute information on the status of TfL Rail, Tram, DLR, Tube/Underground, and Overground lines check the TfL status page.
- Subways in the UK are underground paths and walkways; they’re not underground trains like the Subway in New York City. So, if you see a sign that says subway in the UK, it'll lead you do an underground pathway. They usually are a means to get from one side of a busy street to the other, without having to cross traffic. Alternatively, a Subway sign could lead you into a sandwich shop (sorry, that was too easy, we couldn’t resist!).
- If there's a planned outage of any type of transportation in London, be aware that it'll probably severely affect all other modes of transport. For example, when we were in London there was a strike on the Underground. We thought we were being wise by taking the train instead. However, the trains experienced such high over crowding that the train system shut down. Buses were then the main mode of transportation and were overflowing with people all day long. It was a day of many failed plans and much adventure, read Remember That One Time in London When…
- Avoid traveling during rush hour if you can. Not only is it more expensive, but it’s super crowded! It can take waiting in line for a couple of trains before you can squeeze your way on board. And we literally mean squeezing your way on board. It gets so full that it isn’t uncommon for someone to get stuck in the door as it closes.
- If you do travel during rush hour, you’ll need to be assertive to get on the train. We also suggest, for the benefit of others on the train, to have good hygiene, because you’ll be up close with about one to two a dozen other commuters.
- Be sure you scan your payment card when starting and finishing your journey. If you don’t, the system will automatically record an incomplete journey and charge you the maximum fare.
- Traveling with children? Kids under 11 travel for free on buses and trams. They also travel free on the Tube, DLR, Overground, TfL Train and some National Rail Services if they're accompanied by a fare-paying adult.
- Google Transit is a good tool to use for public transportation directions, in London, or any other city for that matter. You can use it to plan directions for use right away or you can change the date and time of travel to get directions in the future. Just remember to change the travel time to the correct time of arrival or departure to be sure that you get the best routes for your specific travel time.
- Last but not least, do yourself a huge favor and download an offline map of the London Underground. We tried several, but ultimately decided on Tube Map - London Underground Routes from Mapway Limited.
More help can be found on the FAQ of the TfL site. We called in to the TfL customer service line to ask a question about refunds and found the service to be very good. We didn’t have to wait long and the person who helped us was cheerful, attentive, and able to answer all of our questions. If you want to talk to someone in person, make your way to a Visitor Center.