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Ultimate Guide to Getting Around London: Public Transport Made Easy

  • Post last modified:June 23, 2021
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Other than walking, the best way to get around London is by public transportation. Primarily, the Underground (a.k.a. the Tube) London’s subway train system. In addition to the Underground, public transportation in London also includes an extensive bus network, an overground, TFL rail, a tram, and even a cable car.

Driving and parking a car in and around central London is best to avoid. Traffic can be horrific, parking can be prohibitively expensive, and London has congestion fees.

London’s public transportation system is efficient and extensive. In this guide to getting around London, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about using London’s public transportation system.

Getting Around London Pinterest Pin

Planning a first trip to London? Also check out our Beginner’s Guide To London, with tips on visiting 20 must-see attractions for first time visitors. All in zone 1.

What are London Public Transportation Zones?

London is divided into nine transportation zones. Zones correlate to fare charges.

Zones start in center of London at zone 1 and extend into some areas of Essex and Hertfordshire. Prices increase as you move from one zone to another. Though each mode of transportation, i.e., subway, bus, river bus, etc., have their own pricing structure.

Except when going to the airports, or Greenwich, most tourists will only travel within zone 1. For more information on transportation between London and the airports, see our post on Getting Into London from the Airports.

How Do I Find My Way Around on London Public Transportation?

Transport for London’s (TFL) journey planner makes planning a route very easy. All you need is your starting station and your destination station.

The journey planner gives you the price, estimated time, and route for your journey. It includes walking times, transfers and will advise of any delays or closures. It even says what mode of public transportation is best.

Don’t want to walk more than 20 minutes? Need a step free route? Want to go via a certain stop to meet up with friends? The journey planner also allows you to edit your preferences for the way you want to travel.

Alternatively, use the Underground transportation map to work out which Underground lines and stations you need. There are boards at each station, or you can pick up a printed version of the map at most stations. We use this online version which includes walking times between stations.

Be aware, line delays and closures are common, especially on weekends. Travel advisories are usually prominently displayed at the entrance to the Underground stations. Check advisories before planning your journey.

London Underground Closures Sign showing service status on the Tube lines.

What Are “Peak Hours”?

Try to avoid traveling on public transport during peak hours, Monday to Friday 6:30 to 9:30 am & 4 to 7 pm. This is when most public transportation is more expensive and most crowded.

If you are only traveling on the Underground within zone 1, the peak price is the same as off-peak. Any travel starting or ending outside of zone 1 does cost more for peak hour travel.

Buses do not have peak hour pricing, but they can also be very crowded during peak hours.

A Little About the London Underground

London’s Underground subway system, affectionately called the Tube, is usually the quickest way to get around London. It covers most of the city center and stretches out into the boroughs.

There are 12 Underground lines, plus 5 other transportation lines noted on the Underground transportation map. A different color and pattern represent each line. The colors make it very easy to figure out your journey on the map.

It is also worth noting that the Underground is an attraction in its own right. It is the world’s first underground passenger railway with a history and character all of its own.

Most stations outside the center are actually above ground. In the city though, many of the lines are so far underground they were used as bomb shelters during WWII. It’s impressive to stand at the bottom or top of the steep escalators of the Piccadilly line at Leicester Square Station for instance.

Though the Tube can be intimidating, especially during peak hours, take a moment in your journey to look around. It might surprise you just how beautiful the Underground is.

Underground sign at Charing Cross Station

Where are London’s Main Attractions?

Look for the “bottle” on its side in the middle of the Underground map.  The bottle is outlined by the Circle (yellow) line. At the bottom of the bottle are London Paddington and Earl’s Court in the west. At the neck of the bottle, is London Liverpool Street and Tower Hill in the east.

The most popular London attractions sit within this bottle shape, which is zone 1.

How Much Does the Underground Cost?

Individual journeys within zone 1 of the Underground cost £2.40 (2021) using an Oyster or contactless card. Daily caps are set to £7.40 for zones 1 and 2.

Without an Oyster or contactless card, single fares within the Underground zone 1 are £5.50 anytime. It’s so much cheaper to use a contactless or Oyster card.

Day Travelcards, for unlimited travel within zones 1 to 4, cost £13.90. So, if you don’t have a contactless card or Oyster card, it’s best to buy a Travelcard for multiple journeys within a day.

See the Paying for London’s Public Transportation section of this post for more details.

When is the Underground open?

Each line on the Underground has different first and last train times. Typically, most lines on the Underground start around 5:30 am and run until midnight Monday through Saturday.

Many lines run a reduced Sunday service. Trains still run pretty regularly on the main lines in the center of London. If you are traveling beyond zone 1, it is wise to check timetables or the journey planner.

There is a Night Tube service that runs 24 hours on Friday and Saturday. These five lines are the Victoria, Central, Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly. Trains run about every 10 to 20 minutes during the night service.

How Do I Transfer Lines on the Underground?

If you need to transfer lines, know the name or the color of the line you need to change to. As the train arrives, look on the walls and above the exits for signs marking the way to the transfer line. If there are no signs above the exit hallway, this usually means the passage only leads to the station’s exit.

Once you exit the station gates, you need to pay another fare to get back into the station. If you cannot find your transfer line, ask for help before exiting the gates.

Most Underground stations with multiple street exits have attractions well signposted. If you leave a station and you are not sure where you are, look for a street map. These are usually located close to the station exits and corners on main streets.

London street map for the Hyde Park Area

Why Must I “Keep Right” on the Escalators?

Londoners use the left side of escalators to walk, and sometimes run up and down to their trains. Those who prefer to stand, keep to the right. It is good etiquette to allow those faster than you to pass.

What Does “Mind the Gap” Mean?

You will hear and see this announcement (over and over again) as you travel through London’s train system. Some stations have a sizable gap between the train and the platform. It is easy to hurt yourself if you are not paying attention.

Is There Wi-Fi on the Underground?

London Underground is Wi-Fi enabled at 260 stations. This service is only free to certain UK mobile phone networks. Others must buy a Wi-Fi Pass to use the network. See the TFL Wi-Fi page for how to enable your phone based on your phone network. 

How Accessible is the Underground?

If you need to avoid steps while getting around London, it is important to plan ahead. Transport for London is working hard to make more transport accessible and step free, but they still have more to do.

On the standard Underground map, stations are marked for wheelchair accessibility. However, TFL’s website has a detailed page explaining the various options, including a “Step-free Tube guide.”

An alternative option to the Underground, are the buses. They are equipped with ramps and wheelchair accessible seating.

Getting Around on London Buses

Buses are very easy to use, but they are not always great for getting around London. They can be very slow, especially in heavy traffic. Though there are a few reasons you may want to use the bus system.

You are never really more than a 10-minute walk from an Underground station in the center of London. However, outside the center, walking can be 30 minutes or more. Buses make it very easy to get to the trains or even to a destination not near a train station.

The bus is also great for those with mobility challenges. They are equipped with ramps and have wheelchair accessible seating. Plus, they cost significantly less than taxis.

Our favorite use of the buses is for sightseeing. It’s pretty cool to sit in the front seat of the top deck on one of the iconic red double-decker buses. You get a view like no other.

Just don’t confuse the Hop-on-Hop-off tour buses which look very similar. These cost significantly more than the public transportation buses and you need a separate ticket to use them.

TFL has put together a bus leisure routes guide on which routes pass by key city attractions. Each route has a PDF which can be printed, making these services really easy to use.

London bus preceded by famous Black Cab Taxi

How Do I Use the London Bus System?

Signage at the bus stop details which bus numbers stop there. There is usually a route map or timetable displayed which tells you where the buses go. TFL’s website includes searchable bus route maps.

Most bus stops also have digital displays with the route number of the upcoming buses and their estimated time of arrival.

Flag down a bus by putting up your arm and giving them a little wave. When you want to get off, push the stop request button before reaching the bus stop. These little red buttons are usually located on the poles around the bus.

If you are nervous about when to get off, most buses have digital signage which posts the upcoming stop. Sit where you can see one of these signs if necessary.

If you are on the top deck of the bus, you need to get down quickly when it is your stop. Unfortunately, drivers are known to not stop very long.

How Much Do the London Buses Cost?

Buses cost £1.55 (2021) for an unlimited 1-hour hopper fare if using an Oyster or contactless card. Buses are also included in Travelcard fares which is currently £13.90 for a zone 1 – 4 day card. Its important to know, buses do not take cash.

Buses also do not run peak hour fares. The daily cap on buses is £4.65. This is substantially cheaper than doing one of the city tour buses.

See Paying for Public Transportation for more details.

Getting Around on the London River Buses

London has 22 river bus stations along the Thames. For visitors, the most feasible trip is between Westminster and the Tower of London to connect these two landmarks. This is a more pleasant, but slightly more expensive way to get around compared to using the Underground.

The river bus is also great for those going to the O2 Arena for events. There is a special express service which runs between the London Eye and North Greenwich in 30 minutes, only stopping at London Bridge.

River buses accept Oyster and contactless payment. It is also possible to buy single fares, however these are more expensive.

An alternative to the public transport river buses, there are plenty of tour companies cruising the Thames. There is even service to Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace, though these require separate tickets as they are not run by TFL.

London River Boat on the Thames River with the Houses of Parliament in the Background

Paying for London’s Public Transportation

What is an Oyster Card?

An Oyster card is a prepaid touch-point card which works on most London transportation. This includes the Underground, the buses, the tram, the DLR, the Overground, TFL Rail lines, the cable car, and the River Bus. The exception here is mostly for long distance trains which go to London.

For most overseas tourists, buying an Oyster card is usually the easiest and cheapest option to pay for London’s public transportation. It is almost half the price of a single fare or a day Travelcard.

If you plan to do two or less trips on London public transportation, it may be better to consider a single fare or Travelcard ticket instead.

How Do I Purchase an Oyster Card?

You can buy Oyster cards from ticket machines at any Underground station. Some newsagents and visitor centers also sell Oyster cards. Look for the blue “Oyster Ticket Stop” sign in the window. There is a £5 refundable deposit to purchase an Oyster card.

Each person traveling must have their own card. The card does not allow multiple travelers on one card.

In 2021, individual zone 1 journeys on the Underground cost £2.40 using the Oyster card. Daily caps are set to £7.40 for zones 1 and 2. If you are in London for two or more days, we suggest putting a £15 credit on your card. This will make the initial total paid £20 (including the £5 deposit).

You can add additional credit, usually in £5 increments, at any of the automated machines or anywhere you can purchase a card. Credit on the card never expires.

Register your card with the Transport for London website. If the card gets lost or stolen, they will refund your credit.

How Do I Use the Oyster Card?

At the ticket gates for the Underground and some rail stations there are large yellow circular pads. Press your Oyster card against the pad. If you have sufficient funds, the gates will open. You need to tap the card on the yellow pad again to exit the station. 

For buses and the tram, only tap your card as you enter, not as you exit.

For the River Bus, tap in when asked by staff, and tap out as you leave. The staff must see you tap in.

Can I Check My Oyster Card Balance?

You can check your Oyster card balance at the ticket machines in Underground stations. 

Also, when you touch out of Underground stations, your balance will flash up on the small black display on the exit gate.

How Do I Get a Refund on My Oyster Card?

You can refund unused credit up to £10, plus the £5 deposit, at any Tube station ticket machine.

You can also claim a refund online by creating an account and registering your card on the Transport for London website.

What are Daily Caps?

The Oyster card sets daily spend caps for travel within London. Once you travel so much in a day, and reach a certain spend threshold, you will not be charged anymore that day.

In 2021, the daily cap for travel within Underground zone 1 and 2 is £7.40. This is roughly equivalent to three journeys at an Oyster card anytime fare of £2.40.

Buses have a £1.55 unlimited 1-hour hopper fare and are capped at a £4.65 daily fare.

Note that the daily caps for the Underground and buses are different and do not count towards each other.

Can Oyster Cards Be Used on Airport Express Trains?

Oyster cards can be used to pay for travel on the Heathrow and Gatwick Express trains between the airport and central London.

The costs of traveling on the express lines does not contribute to the maximum daily caps.

There is no discount for using an Oyster card over buying a standard ticket. See our post on Getting Into London from the Airports for more information.

Can I Use a Contactless Card or a Mobile Payment Device?

Contactless credit/debit card holders can use their cards in lieu of an Oyster card. The fares and rules are the same. The key difference is that the Oyster card is a prepaid system.

Cards with a wi-fi looking symbol, four curved lines, are enabled for contactless payment.

Simply walk up to the gate and scan your card against the yellow circular pad. You do not need to register your card for it to work. Though you may want to register your card with the TFL to check payment history or apply refunds, etc.

Multiple cards associated with a joint account need to be registered so you are charged correctly.

The Underground also accepts some mobile payment systems, such as Apple Pay, Fitbit Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and a few others. They work the same as a contactless card.

Should I Use My Foreign Contactless Card or Mobile Payment Device?

When using a foreign contactless card or mobile device, here are some things to consider:

  • Does your bank charge foreign transaction fees? If so, using a card for multiple small transactions on public transportation is not wise.
  • Each person traveling must have their own card or device. You cannot have one person charge the card then hand it back for another person to charge their journey. This doesn’t work.
  • Depending on your bank, your contactless card, or the card associated with your mobile payment device, they may not work in the UK.

If you do not have a contactless card or mobile payment device that can be used in the UK, purchase an Oyster card to pay for use of London’s public transportation.

Note to US Credit Card Holders

UK credit cards use a Chip and Pin system. Most US cards now have chips, but do not have a PIN. This may cause issues at automated pay machines. Use a debit card, cash at the machine, or find a newsagent selling Oyster cards.   

It is worth noting that primarily only Mastercard and Visa are accepted in the UK. Only larger stores accept American Express, though AMEX works well on the Underground. Discover Card is hardly accepted anywhere. 

What is a Visitor Oyster Card?

Visitor Oyster card is also available. This card must be bought ahead of time as they are mailed to your residence. A postage fee is applicable for this service.

A Visitor Oyster card works the same as a regular Oyster card, but there are a few key differences noted in the table below.

Unless you want to have your transportation tickets sorted out before you travel, we do not see the value in the Visitor Oyster card. We recommend buying the regular Oyster card once in London.

Oyster Card
  • £5 deposit is refundable
  • Must purchase in-person, in London
  • No additional postage costs
  • No special discounts
  • Refunds available for lost or stolen cards registered with TFL
  • Travelcards can be added
Visitor Oyster Card
  • £5 deposit is NOT refundable
  • Must purchase online, sent by mail
  • Additional postage cost
  • Includes discounts around London
  • Cards cannot be registered, lost or stolen cards cannot be refunded
  • Travelcards cannot be added

Can I Buy a Single Fare or Travelcard?

It is possible to buy a single fare for the Underground and various rail lines. It is not usually recommended because they are almost double the price of using an Oyster card. They can be useful if only doing one or two journeys and you don’t want to be concerned with getting refunds on the Oyster card deposit.

A single fare within Underground zone 1 is £5.50 anytime compared with £2.40 when using an Oyster card.

Day Travelcards allow unlimited travel within purchased zones on the Underground, the bus, the TFL rail, the overground, the DLR, the tram and some National Rail lines. A day Travelcard for zones 1 – 4 costs £13.90. In comparison, an Oyster card caps Underground travel for zones 1 and 2 at £7.40 and the bus caps at £4.65 a day.

If you take the National Rail into London from the outskirts, sometimes a Day Travelcard works out cheaper than paying by Oyster or contactless. We often used to park in Slough and come into London for the day. In our case, the Day Travelcard worked out as the best value.

Can I Rent a Bicycle in London?

Santander sponsors bicycle rental all over the city. These can be an economical and a fun way to get around. Though it’s worth noting that London is not as bicycle friendly as many cities in Europe.

Many bike lanes share the road with traffic and have no separator. Keep in mind, roads in London are relatively small. Riding alongside a double-decker bus can be a harrowing experience.

Riders must follow all the same rules as a motorized vehicle. Bikes are not allowed on the pavement unless signage says otherwise. Going on the sidewalk or disobeying the rules of the road could result in an on-the-spot fine.

If you are looking for somewhere to ride with minimal traffic, consider Hyde Park, the city’s largest green space. Alternatively, check out TFL’s Cycle Map for routes.

London Bike Rack. Santander rental bikes parked in a bike rack.

How Much Does Renting a Bicycle in London Cost?

Rental charges on the bikes are most economical for multiple short trips in a day. For longer trips, it is quite pricey.

  • £2 gives you access to a bike for 24 hours.
  • Any journeys less than 30 minutes do not cost anything additional.
  • Journeys over 30 minutes, cost £2 for each additional 30 minutes.

In other words, if you check out a bike 5 times during a 24 hour period and use the bike for 25 minutes each time. The cost is £2.

However, if you take one journey for 2 hours then return the bike to a docking station, the cost is £8.

It is important to return the bike to a docking station. Damaged and non-returned bikes are charged £300.

Is London a Walkable City?

Definitely yes! Actually, London is going after the title “world’s most walkable city” as the government implements their “Walking Action Plan”.

Sidewalks are large, pedestrian crossings are frequent, and there are even road signs reminding visitors which way to look when they cross. Also, there are a lot of pedestrian only zones.

In general, London is an amazing place to get in your daily steps. With so many hidden gems across the city, walking is the ultimate London tourist activity. Beyond the typical London attractions, take a look at the architecture. The city is beautiful, and walking is one of the best ways to see as much as possible.

Though walking is a great way to get around, London is too big to get everywhere on foot alone. We suggest using public transport to your starting destination. Then walk to other nearby attractions. One of our favorite walking routes which takes in several key attractions is detailed in Day 3 of our London Guide for Beginners. Enjoy!

How Do I Get a Taxi In London?

London takes the taxicab industry very seriously. All drivers must be licensed, pass the London taxi driving test and are all police background checked.

London has both black taxis and minicabs.

Minicabs must be booked through a licensed minicab office either in person, by phone or by app. Radio Taxis is a popular service to use.

For your safety, when you book, they provide the vehicle registration, drivers first name, and the driver’s private hire license number. If these details do not match, do not get in the car. Also for your safety, the details of your drivers name and vehicle, along with your journey are recorded.

Minicabs are not allowed to pick up non-booked fares. If you need a ride in a hurry, you can hail a black cab from the side of the street. Taxis will have ‘For Hire’ lights lit on their roof if available. Alternatively, keep a look out for taxi stands.

The Free Now app also works with licensed taxi drivers. It gives you the option to hail a licensed taxi with your smartphone, if you don’t see any close by.

Taxi fares are complicated, but TFL gives a good example of typical rates.

Does London Have Ride-Sharing Services?

At the time of writing, Uber does operate in London and most UK cities.

Actually, there are several companies now operating in the UK, including home-grown ride-share platforms, such as xooox, and Kabbee.

Need More Help Planning Your First Trip to London?

We hope you have a great trip to London. For more information on this awesome city, check out our other guides.

Travel Resources

We recommend and use these companies to arrange our travel plans; they make travel planning easy and affordable. If you have questions on our experiences, feel free to ask us!