Your most comprehensive resource for finding out all the details you might need to know about transport is the TFL (Transport for London) website. However, it can be a bit complicated to find all the information you need. So for a basic introduction to London’s transport network, please read on.
London is split into 9 travel zones. These zones dictate how much your fare costs when you are travelling by Underground (also called the tube) or rail. This is important to remember when choosing where you will stay (the more zones you need to travel through each day, the more expensive your trips will be). Most of the things you will want to see are located in Zones 1 – 2. Popular attractions which are located outside of these zones includes parts of Greenwich (Zone 3), the Harry Potter studios at Watford (Zone 9), Kew Gardens (Zone 3) and Wimbledon (Zone 3).
An Oyster card is pretty much a must-have when travelling in London nowadays. It is a contactless pass used for travelling on the Underground, trains and buses. If you are in the UK you can order an Oyster card online, or else you can buy them from many Underground and train stations and Travel Information centres. Chances are wherever you arrive into London, there will be somewhere to buy an Oyster card.
Once you have your Oyster card, you need to load Pay As You Go credit onto it or a travel card. If you are not intending to use public transport a lot – for example, perhaps you are staying right in the middle of the city and will walk most places, or perhaps you are visiting friends or family and will be driven around – then Pay As You Go credit will be fine. Fares charged to Oyster cards are cheaper than what an individually purchased paper ticket would cost, so it is still worth getting the Oyster card rather than buying tickets.
Travel cards are a way of getting discounted travel if you will be using public transport a lot. It is not a physical card but gets loaded onto your Oyster card. You can buy weekly, monthly or yearly travel cards, and again, you can load these onto your Oyster card at most (if not all) tube and train stations. If you want a monthly or yearly travel card, you have to register your Oyster card first. You can choose what zones you want your travel card to cover – the more zones, the more expensive it is. For most visitors I recommend a Zone 1 – 2 travel card and a bit of pay as you go credit, so you can travel outside of those zones occasionally. Daily travel cards are unnecessary because the Oyster system automatically caps your charges each day – once you reach the maximum you can continue travelling for free.
Once you have your credit or travel card on your Oyster card you are set to go! To pass through the gates to get into a station you need to touch your Oyster card to the yellow disc on the right hand side of the gate (not the left… if you touch it to the yellow disc on the left and wonder why your gate isn’t opening, it’s because the next gate along has opened!). When you arrive at your destination, you will need to do the same thing to get out of the station. If you need to change trains along your journey, you will be able to change between lines without going out and back in through the gates, meaning it all gets charged as the one trip, provided it is on the same network. If you need to change from the Underground to a normal rail train or to the DLR, you are changing networks and so you will normally need to tap out of the first system and tap in to the next. This then gets charged as two separate trips, unless you’re travelling on a travel card of course.
Smaller suburban stations will often not have gates to get in and out of the station, but there will be an Oyster card reader near the entrance and exit, so make sure you do not forget to ‘tap in’ or out at these stations too. Buses only require you to ‘tap on’ – they charge a flat rate so you don’t need to tap off at the end of your journey.
The Underground (also known as the tube) is, funnily enough, mostly not actually underground. But it is mostly underground in the city, which is where visitors will spend most of their time. Trains generally run every 2 – 3 minutes or, on the busiest lines during peak hour, every minute. It is handy for travelling over long-ish distances around the city – but don’t forget about buses which are sometimes faster for short trips (see the bus section below). You can use your Oyster card or buy tickets from a ticket machine. You can get a map of the Underground network at most stations or online.
The rail network is separate to the Underground, as mentioned in the Oyster card section. Generally there are more train lines than Underground lines the further out into suburbia you get. Most travellers hanging around Zones 1 and 2 won’t use rail a lot. Trains often don’t run as often as the Underground and you might find yourself having to wait ten or fifteen minutes for the next train to your destination. Again, you have the option of Oyster cards or tickets.
DLR (Docklands Light Rail)
The DLR only runs over a small area (strangely enough, what was originally the docklands!). Unless you are staying in East London, chances are you won’t use it. Sometimes the DLR is incorporated into Underground stations so you don’t need to tap out and back in to switch between the two, but often it isn’t. If you fly in or out of London City Airport then you’ll use the DLR to get to and from it.
Buses are great for relatively short trips, or if you are not close by to a train station. Their main drawback, of course, is that they can get stuck in traffic. If the Underground experiences a delay, normally the train is only a few minutes late. If a bus gets stuck in traffic it might be fifteen minutes late – or change its route altogether, depending on what the hold-up is. They are great though if you can’t or don’t want to walk a lot. From the 6th July 2014 buses will no longer accept cash, so you will have to travel with either an Oyster card or another contactless payment card (eg. if you have a Visa with a contactless chip in it). Most buses only let you board from the front, but there are new buses which let you board at the back too (and there is an Oyster card reader by the back entrance).
There are multiple taxi services in London. Black cabs are the most famous, and you can get a ride in a black cab by either booking one (by phone, online or the phone app HailO) or hailing one in the street or at a taxi rank. Black cabs are the only company allowed to pick up off the street without a booking. One of the other common options are mini-cabs, which you must pre-book. Do not get in a mini-cab if you have not booked it – they are not allowed to wait in taxi ranks or be hailed off the street, so there is no guarantee you are getting into a legitimate taxi if you haven’t requested it. There are other taxi companies springing up around the place like Uber. These companies allow you to book a taxi via their smartphone app and, so I’ve heard, are often cheaper than black cabs (although again – they cannot be hailed and must be pre-booked). They are very unpopular with cabbies because they are able to get around some charge due to the fact they technically don’t have metres (they use GPS on smart phones instead), which means they can charge less. Black cab drivers have also passed The Knowledge, an in-depth test of their knowledge of London’s streets, which takes between 2 and 4 years to learn. On the other hand, I have (and know other people who have) had an experience with a mini-cab driver who asked ME for directions to where I’m going.
Taxis of course are expensive, regardless of which company you use, and I’d really only recommend using one if you have a lot of luggage which you cannot carry, or are not going too far. We have used taxis three times – all in the process of when we first moved to London and had to move all our luggage. When you are holidaying, you should not have so much luggage you cannot use public transport.
Walking is, ultimately, the best way to get around the London city centre. You have the best photo opportunities and are not restricted to somebody else’s route. You will likely find things are closer together than you first realised. Eventually I will have some suggested walking routes online which will give you some ideas for sight-seeing by foot around London.
Google maps is a fantastic resource for getting around London. If you have the Google maps app on your smartphone, you can tell it to get you to a certain location from your current location (which it knows from your GPS) and whether you want to get there by car, walking or public transport. It will normally give you several public transport options, depending where you are. If you are driving it will also tell you what the traffic is like along the route. I highly recommend it for people visiting London. I still use it whenever I need to get somewhere I haven’t been before, or don’t visit a lot.