The ultimate public transport guide to London (tips from a local!)
If there’s one thing friends ask me when they’re visiting, besides what the best things to do in London are, is: how does public transport work in London? I get it though: it can be a little intimidating to find out how public transport works in a new city. So in this post I’ll explain to you in a simple way how exactly each form of public transport in London works. After all I lived there for seven months, and I can give you all the insider tips which will save you time and money!
Hoe does the Oyster Card work?
In The Netherlands we have the OV card and London has a similar system: the Oyster Card. This is a blue chip card which you top up at machines and touch on and off at the gates at every station. What many tourists don’t know is that they don’t have to buy single tickets, but they can just use the Oyster Card, just like locals do. You just request one at the ticket machines at the bigger tube stations or at one of the Transport for London windows (also at the bigger tube stations or at the airports). At these tube stations you’ll always find employees who help tourists with figuring out the ticket machines. I recommend to just get the Oyster Card ‘pay as you go’. You pay a £5 deposit and then have to put some money on the card. You can do so at the ticket machines, but also at lots of different shops who have the Oyster logo on their window. You usually have to pay a transaction fee in the shops though, which you don’t have to pay at the ticket machines. When you go back home you can deactivate your Oyster Card at the ticket machines again. You will then get back any remaining credit, but also the £5 deposit. How good is that? In other words: it doesn’t cost you anything to save up 50% on your travel expenses!
When you visit the website of the visitors centre of London you’ll see they will try and have you buy the Visitors Oyster Card and ship it to your house, but you’ll have to pay for the shipping! There’s really no need: just get the card once you’ve arrived in London.
The reason why it’s better to get an Oyster Card instead of buying separate tickets, is convenience and savings. It’s not possible to buy tickets on the bus anymore, and it’s much cheaper to travel with the Oyster card than buying separate tickets. In the centre of London you’ll easily save up about 50% per journey! The last reason is that the Oyster Card has a thing called the ‘daily price cap’. This means you’ll never have to pay more than the daily maximum: in 2016 this was £6.50 in zone 1. So even though you’re still traveling by tube or bus and still checking in: you’re not paying anything extra once you’ve hit the £6.50 mark. Really nice, because you’ve already hit £6.50 when you go on three tube journeys. So I recommend not getting separate tickets or ‘day travel cards’.
Wireless payment in public transport
If you have a credit card or bank card that allows you to pay wirelessly, you can also use it to travel. The fees are the exact same as with an Oyster card and the system is even easier: you just use your bank card to touch on and touch off, and you don’t have to top up any credit at any time. Does your bank card have this logo on it? In that case you can travel wirelessly.
How does the bus work in London?
Many tourists in London choose to use the tube. I get it: the ‘mind the gap’ experience is one you don’t want to miss :-). But I’d also recommend you to use the bus a few times. Not only is it cheaper (£1.40 per journey), but it also allows you to see much more of the city! Also, I’m sure everyone agrees you can’t leave London before you’ve taken a ride on a double-decker bus, right? My favorite one is the 453 to Marylebone. The best place to get on is Waterloo, from where it’ll take you along the Big Ben, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Baker Street (this is where Sherlock Holmes ‘lives’) to the chique Marylebone. If you make sure to get in the front seat on the top deck, you’ll get yourself a £1.40 sightseeing tour through London.
Useful tip: do you have less than £1.50 credit remaining but still have to get on the bus? The machine will give you an emergency fare. In other words: you still get to go with the ticket the machine prints out for you. They came up with this system so that people wouldn’t get stranded in the middle of the night and could still make it home. But the emergency fare obviously works during the day too :-).
Since last year you don’t have to pay for your connecting bus if you transfer within an hour. Before that, you had to pay for every bus. Progress, yay!
How does the tube work in London?
The ‘tube’ or ‘underground’, as Londoners like to call it (no one calls it the metro) is your fastest option in most cases, at least if there’s a tube station close to your destination. Otherwise your best call might be the bus, which often drops you off right where you have to be. I think the tube system is super clever. There’s all sorts of different lines, and you can easily see how and where you have to transfer. And not to worry if you miss your train: usually you have to wait between 2 and 5 minutes for the next one. A single journey will cost you £2.40, which isn’t cheap.
Try to avoid the tube as much as possible during peak hours and summer. During summer it’s extremely hot and sweaty, and during peak hours it’s so busy you’ll literally be queuing to get in. The worst station in my opinion is Bank. If you live near the start or end of a tube line you’re in luck, because there’s always a spare seat :). Make sure to keep an eye on strikes and construction work, because it’ll cause a lot of chaos.
How does the train work in London?
There’s basically five types of trains in London: first there’s the overground, the Tfl Rail and the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) where you can use your Oyster Card. Then there’s the ‘normal’ trains traveling outside of London and where you can’t use your Oyster Card. Lastly there’s the Airport Express trains (Heathrow Express, Gatwick Express, etc) where you also can’t use your Oyster Card. With the last two you have to buy tickets at the ticket machines, with overground, Tfl and DLR you can touch on with your Oyster cards as usual, at the entry gates.
The DLR is a short train line going from Stratford or Tower Gateway to Isle of Dogs and Greenwich (there’s different routes). This one is mainly useful if you have to get to East London, Stratford (from where you can travel outside of London or catch a bus to Stansted Airport) or London City Airport. I’ve done the latter once, and it’s really great: within half an hour you’ll be in the centre of London. The Tfl Rail is a train connection between Liverpool Street and Shenfield, so quite similar. You can also use your Oyster Card on this one.
The overground works just like the tube: it’s actually an extension. Outside the city centre the ‘underground’ simply becomes the ‘overground’ since it’s above the ground :-). Some locations are actually accessible both ways, but the underground is a bit more frequent than the overground. If you have to choose, I’d recommend choosing the underground. You can also use your Oyster card here.
Don’t ask me why London has so many different trains. I think in the end it’s about money, and the fact that any company can just exploit a train line. There’s not one central system, like in The Netherlands. It might sound a bit confusing altogether, but as long as you’re traveling within London you can use your Oyster Card for everything and you won’t really notice the difference. Only when you get outside of London you’ll find that every train belongs to a different company and has different tickets.
The Airport Express trains are quite self-explanatory. These are the trains that take you from and to the airport. They’re usually a lot more expensive than the buses and the ‘normal’ trains (which also run to and from the airport). You can buy a ticket at the airport or from ticket machines at tube or train stations. My biggest tip is to just take the regular train, instead of the airport express trains. They usually don’t take THAT much longer, but can be SO MUCH CHEAPER. But if you’re in a hurry: definitely look into it.
The ‘normal’ trains work differently from what I’m used to in The Netherlands, and I think it’s a super confusing system (you don’t want to know how many times I’ve been bragging about our system to English friends – and they agreed with me!). In the UK there’s quite a few different operators who exploit train lines (in The Netherlands it’s only one big one that exploits 90% of the tracks in NL). The ones you’ll probably be using around London are Southern, Thameslink, Virgin Trains and Greater Anglia. In other parts of the UK there’s a other operators (28 in total!). If you buy a train ticket, you can only use it on the trains of the operator you buy it from – unless you specifically choose the option at the machine for all available operators. To check out which operator you need, what time and where your train leaves, make sure to get the app Trainline (see below). You can catch trains to, for instance, Brighton, Cambridge or Manchester.
How can you travel by boat in London?
The Thames Clipper is a boat service between Greenwich and Putney and makes several stops in the centre of London. You can just touch on with your Oyster Card. Depending on your journey, it’ll cost you between £4 and £6 and it’s a really cheap way to see London from the water! I haven’t been on one of the boats yet, but when I go back to London I’d love to!
Rent bicycles in London
The ‘Boris Bikes’ (or Santander Cycles, which is the official name) are a true phenomenon in London: you can find them on almost every corner. The concept is quite simple: they’re like public transport bikes. This means you can rent them and bring them back to any station you’d like. In order to use them, you have to pay £2 per 24 hours. This is a fixed price and you have to pay with your bank card. The journeys are free, as long as you put them back within 30 minutes. After that it’ll cost you £2 for every 30 minutes. So let’s say you use several different bikes for 20 minutes each time, you only pay £2 once. If you use your bike once for, let’s say, an hour, you’ll pay £2 as a starting fee + twice a 30 minute fee of £2 = £6 total. So your bike is mostly beneficial when you go on short trips. I haven’t tried it though, since I think cycling in London is quite frightening ;-).
Taxis in London
True, the black cabs are a phenomenon in London, but I don’t think I know anyone who actually uses them since they’re quite expensive! If I needed a cab in London, I (and everyone I know) usually chose Uber. It’s really a treat for when you have to go home after you went out for drinks :-). Especially if you share your trip with multiple people, or if you use Uber Pool (where the driver picks up other people) it’ll only cost you a few pounds to get from one side of London to the other. All in all public transport is a lot quicker during the day, but at night (when there’s no buses or tubes running anymore) or when you feel like a bit of luxury, Uber is really my way to go! You can order an Uber with the Uber app on your phone. If you still want a black cab, you can just halt one in the streets. Want a discount? Use this code: “MILOUV23UE”.
Useful free apps for public transport in London
Citymapper – This app is truly my bible in London. I used it every day, several times a day. It’s super easy to use: you just put in your destination and it’ll tell you all the ways to get there by public transport (bus, tube, train), how long it takes and what time you will arrive at your destination. What’s even better is that you can save destinations like “home” so you don’t have to put in the address every time. Life saver. Definitely download it if you want to travel by bus too! (You do need wifi)
Tube Map London Underground – A simple app that just does what the name tells you: it’s a tube map of the London underground. You can easily see how your line runs, where to transfer, or you can sneakily look up where someone lives if he says he lives near Angel station.
Trainline – The life line when you try to find you way through the train system of the UK. You fill in your destination, what time you want to travel, and it gives you all the options. It also tells you if it’s a direct train or not and what operator you’re traveling with. The app also allows you to buy tickets! But you can also buy these at the machines at the stations.
Google Maps – Safe and familiar. Of course Google Maps gives you travel advice as well, but I’d rather use Citymapper (which I found to be more reliable). But it’s a perfect app to look for places to go and to find out how to walk to get somewhere.
There! I think that’s the entire guide for public transport in London, for your next trip :). If I forgot something, or if you have other questions (keep in mind I don’t work for TfL, so I might not know the answer!) please feel free to ask them in the comments!