The London Underground
Londoners call their 402km (249-mile) metro system the Underground, its official name, or just as commonly, “the Tube.” Its elegant, distinctive logo—a red “roundel” bisected by a blue bar—debuted in 1913 as one of the world’s first corporate symbols, and it remains one of the city’s most ubiquitous sights.
There’s no older system on Earth—London’s Metropolitan Railway got there first, which took no small leap of imagination and engineering. The first section, running from Paddington to Farringdon, opened in 1863. That was 33 years ahead of the next European city (Budapest), 34 years before Boston, and 41 years before New York—indeed, the original snippet that opened in 1863 is still in use today. The Tube is an attraction unto itself. It’s fun to seek out vestiges of the early system (1907 tilework on the Piccadilly Line; the fake house facades built at 23-24 Leinster Gardens to hide exposed tracks; abandoned stations like the one at Strand and Surrey St.). If such “urban archaeology” fascinates you, visit the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, one of the city’s family-friendly highlights. The Tube is also much more dignified than most American systems. In fact, seats are upholstered. That’s because the British know how to take care of nice things.
The Tube shuts down nightly. Exact times for first and final trains are posted in each station (using the 24-hr. clock), based on when they arrive in Central London, but the Tube generally operates from 5:30am (0530) to just after midnight (0000), and Sundays 7am (0700) to 11:30pm (2330). This year’s big news is that as of 2015, the network will start running trains 24 hours a day on weekends (from Friday morning to Sunday night) on the Piccadilly, Victoria, Central, and Jubilee lines and on the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line. Still, if you plan to take the train after midnight, always check the schedule beforehand.
What happens if you miss the last train? Don’t worry—you’re not stranded, although your trip may take longer or cost more. Just turn to the city’s network of 24-hour and Night Bus routes. Or, as a last resort, take a taxi.
How the Tube works
There are 13 named lines on the Tube network, plus the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) serving East London and a tram line in South London, which together serve nearly 300 stations. On an average visit, you’ll become familiar with a dozen or so stations. Lines are color-coded: the Piccadilly is a peacock purple, the Bakerloo could be considered Sherlock Holmes brown, and so on.
Navigating is mostly foolproof. Look for signs pointing to the color and name of the line you want. Pretty soon, more signs separate you according to the direction you want to go in, based on the Tube map. If you know the name/color of the line you want, as well as the direction of your destination, the signs will march you, cattlelike, to the platform you need.
If you need to change trains (and you will), the follow-the-signs method repeats until it’s time to look for the “Way Out,” which is Undergroundese for “Exit.” You’ll shuffle through warrens of cylindrical tunnels, many of them faced in custard-yellow tiles and overly full of commuters, and you’ll scale alpine escalators lined with ads. Stand to the right so “climbers” can pass you.
On the DLR (the Overground) and commuter trains, carriages may not automatically open. Push the illuminated button and it will.
One of the groovier things about the Underground is the electronic displays on platforms that tell you how long it’ll be until the next train. A 24-hour information service is also available at [tel] 0343/222-1234. The best resource is the TfL Journey Planner, online at www.tfl.gov.uk/journeyplanner. For specific journey information using a mobile, you can text your start-point and end-point—as full postcodes (what tourist knows those?), or station or stop names, in the format “A to B”—to [tel] 60835. TfL will fire off a text with the quickest route and scheduled times. The best resource is the free app Citymapper, which tells you which Tube, bus, or train to use, how long it takes, and includes mapped walking directions to the nearest stop.
The most confusing lines for tourists are the Northern Line (black on the maps) and the District Line (green). Owing mostly to the petty backbiting of the Victorians who built these lines as individual businesses, they split and take several paths. You can handle it. Platform displays and signs on the front of the trains tell you its route before you board, and you won’t get too far off course if you mess up. If you ride the DLR (and you should—it provides a lovely rooftop-level glide through the brickwork of the old East End and the monolithic towers of Canary Wharf), those lines split variously, too, but there are lots of chances to rectify mistakes.Search the London Underground’s website (www.tfl.gov.uk) for the “Tube and Rail Services map.” It’s a truer picture than the Tube map alone because it shows all the places Oyster will take you by rail. (Buses are on a separate map.) The site also has terrific simplified bus maps that show you routes from any neighborhood. Plug in your hotel’s address before you go, access Citymapper via Wi-Fi, and you’ll be set.
Fares on the Tube
London Underground (tfl.gov.uk/tickets) gives 1.1 billion rides a year—and seemingly every passenger pays a different fare. Rates go up every January (these rates were current at press time and will give you a sense of proportion). The LU system is so complicated that it must have been engineered to bewilder travelers into paying more than they have to. But it can be boiled down like this:
How much you pay: The center of town—basically everything the Circle Line envelops, plus a wee bit of padding—is zone 1. Heading outside of town, in a concentric pattern, come zones 2 through 6. Most tourists stick to zones 1 and 2; very few popular sights are outside those (Wimbledon, Hampton Court, and Kew being the main exceptions). Your fare is calculated by how many zones you go through, and the lower the zone number, the less you pay. If a station appears to straddle zones, you’ll pay the cheaper zone’s rate. One-way tickets are called “singles” and round-trips are “return.”
Astonishingly, kids under 11 travel for free when accompanied by an adult. Adults must buy their own ticket and then ask the staff to wave Junior through the entry gate. Ask an agent about the going discounts for kids.
How you ride: If you have a paper ticket for any train, keep it handy because you’ll need it to get back out at the end. If you can’t find it, you’ll have to fork over the maximum rate. If you have an Oyster card (see below), you must remember to touch it to a yellow reader dot both before you board and after you get off—even if there are no turnstiles, and that’s the part people always forget. Inspectors regularly check passengers’ tickets and they won’t hesitate to fine you.
How you pay: If you are paying with a swipe credit card, try not to use a vending machine. Even if you hold your hard in the slot for a few seconds, it may not recognize it and it will lead you to believe there's something wrong with your account when there isn't. Vending machines usually accept cash and coins. If you don’t have cash, go to the live human at the ticket window—if there is one. Although the move is incredibly unfriendly to tourists, Transport for London is shutting down ticket windows and bus drivers no longer accept cash, forcing you to use touch cards, so when you spot a manned window, seize the moment to ensure your Oyster card (see below) has plenty of value left in case you wind up at a station later where there’s no staff to help you.
Although TfL will mail you tickets ahead of time, that’s a waste of money; you can just as easily purchase them without shipping costs at the Travel Information Centre at Heathrow or at whichever Tube stop you first use.
There are essentially three ticket types for visiting adults.
1. In cash, per ride. Only fools buy at vending machines per ride. Why? The math. It costs about $7,920 in winter to fly 3,500 miles from London to New York City in First Class on British Airways—about $2.28 per mile. To travel a mile in zone 1 on the Underground, the cash fare is £4.70 ($7.90). So it costs 3 and [bf]1/2 times more to go a mile on the Tube than to go a mile in transatlantic First Class. Buses aren’t much better: £2.40 per ride. Drivers don’t take cash, so buy multiple rides ahead of time via cards (the next options).
2. Via Travelcard. Aimed at tourists, it’s an unlimited pass for 1 or 7 days on the Tube, rail, and bus. For 1-day cards covering zones 1 and 2, there are “Day Off-Peak” Travelcards good after 9:30am (£7.30) weekdays; they’re valid throughout the evening rush and weekends. “Day Anytime” Travelcards with no timing restrictions are £9. If you find you have to pop into a zone that isn’t covered by your card, buy an extension from the ticket window before starting your journey; it’s usually £1.50 to £2 more. 7-Day Travelcards cost adults £31 for travel anytime in zones 1 and 2. For Travelcard prices that include more zones, visit www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets.
3. Via Oyster Pay As You Go (PAYG). This is the best option, and its what locals use. Rub this credit card–size pass on yellow dots at the turnstiles and you get the lowest fares. You load it with cash and it debits as you go, no tickets required. No matter how many times you ride the Tube (debited at £2.20 in zone 1—that’s a lot better than the £4.70 cash fare!) and bus (debited as £1.45, or 95p cheaper than paying cash), the maximum taken off your card in a single day will always be a little less than what an equivalent Day Travelcard would cost. Non-stop Oyster use will always peak at £8.40 for anytime travel in zones 1 and 2, versus the flat rate of £9 you’d have paid if you’d bought an equivalent Travelcard. Getting an Oyster usually requires a £5 deposit, but you can get that back before you skip town at any Tube ticket office (there’s also a desk at Heathrow; ID may be requested). It won’t get erased if you keep it beside your mobile phone. And if you don’t use up all the money you put on it, you can get a refund as long as there’s less than £10 value left on your card. (Travelcards offer no refunds for unused monies.)
It’s most economical to get an Oyster PAYG and then do everything you can to plan days during which you don’t take transport at all. A significant aspect of that strategy is choosing a hotel that’s within walking distance of lots of the things you want to do. Fortunately, the city’s extremely walkable. Trains go shockingly slowly (34kmph/21 mph is the average and has been for over 100 years); and in the center of town, stops are remarkably close together. In fact, if your journey is only two or three stations, you’ll often find it less strenuous to simply walk.
Kids' Travel Discounts -- As long as they're accompanied by an adult, children under 10 travel free on just about everything public, including Tube, Overground, DLR, bus, and regular rail services. Children in this age bracket who look older than 10 should carry photo ID. Children aged 11 to 15 carrying a 11-15 Zip Oyster photocard travel free on buses and trams, and pay child fare on Tube, Overground, DLR, and regular rail services -- up to a maximum of £1.30 for unlimited off-peak journeys in one day. To obtain a Zip Oyster photocard, apply online at www.tfl.gov.uk/zip. The 16+ Zip Oyster photocard gets you single tickets at half the adult price on bus, Tube, tram, and Overground services, as well as child-fare Travelcards. Zip Travelcards are such a pain to obtain that they're probably not worth it. Non-UK citizens must apply at least four weeks before traveling and then they have to arrange to pick up the card at an office. There's an administration fee of £10, which wipes out savings during a trip of a few days' duration, and you'll need to upload a photo.
The buses in your city may not come often, but London’s are frequent (every 5 min. or so on weekdays), plentiful (some 100 routes in central London and 700 in the wider city), and surprisingly fast (many operate in dedicated lanes). Sitting on the second level of a candy-apple red double-decker, watching the big landmarks roll past, is one of London’s priceless pleasures. Best of all, the bus is cheaper than the Tube. The 1-day Oyster PAYG price cap for bus-only travel is £4.40, no matter the zone. Travelcards and Oysters yield the best fares (per-trip £1.45).
Some shelters have automated ticket machines (cash only, so you'd better get an Oyster card at a Tube stop at the start of your trip), but all have easy-to-read maps that tell you where to catch the buses going to your destination. Major intersections have multiple stops named with letters, and each stop services different routes; check the map in the bus shelter to find the letter stop you need. Many shelters even have electronic boards that approximate the arrival time of the next bus. Board by the driver and get off via the door at the middle; newer buses have also reinstated the rear-door design with its own conductor. An automated voice announces stops with plenty of warning. Press a button on a handrail to request a halt at the next one.
Routes that start with N are Night Buses, which tote the clubbers home after the Tube stops around midnight; many connect tediously in Trafalgar Square, so pee before setting off. Bus passes and Travelcards expire at 4:30am the day after you buy them, so if you have one for the day, you shouldn’t have to pony up money that night to get home. TfL 24-hour information: [tel] 0343/222-1234.
Even Londoners think taxis are crazy expensive. It’s not the fault of the cabbies. They’re the best in the world. Before they’re given their wheels, every London taxi driver (there are some 24,000 of them) must go through a grueling training period so comprehensive that it’s dubbed, simply, “The Knowledge.” On Sundays, you’ll see trainees zipping around on mopeds with clipboards affixed above their dashboards. Cabbies arrive inculcated with directions to every alley, mews, avenue, shortcut, and square in the city, and if they don’t know, they’ll find the answer so discreetly you won’t catch the gaffe. And then there are those adorable vehicles: bulbous as Depression Era jalopies, roomy as a studio apartment, yet able to do complete U-turns within a single lane of traffic.
But for this admittedly peerless carriage, you’ll pay a £2.40 minimum. Trips of up to 1.6km (1 mile) cost £5.60 to £8.80 during working hours; 3.2km (2-mile) trips are £8.60 to £14; 6.4km (4-mile) trips are £14 to £22; and trips of around 9.6km (6 miles) hit you for a painful £23 to £29. Rates rise when you’re most likely to need a taxi: by about 10% from 8pm to 10pm, and roughly another 20% from 10pm until dawn. Trips that start at Heathrow cost an extra £2.80. Mercifully, there is no charge for extra passengers or for luggage. It has become customary to tip 10%, but most people just round up to the nearest pound. Some taxis accept credit cards plus a 12.5% surcharge, but mostly, they are a cash-only concern.
Taxis are often called “black cabs,” although in fact 12 colors are registered, including “thistle blue” and “nightfire red.” If you need to call a cab, One Number ([tel] 087/1871-8710) pools all the companies, with a surcharge of £2.
Minicabs, which are hire cars that operate separately from the traditional black cab system, are easy to find using apps. Don’t accept a ride from one that approaches you. Among the top free apps that can hail the nearest ride: Kabbee (www.kabbee.com) which canvasses some 70 cab fleets for the best price, Cabwise (www.tfl.gov.uk/cabwise); Hailo (hailocab.com/London; minimum charges of £8 to £15), to which about half the city’s black cabs subscribe; independent service Uber (www.uber.com; it’s not usually cheaper than a black taxi); and London’s reigning power minicab operator Addison Lee (www.addisonlee.com), which makes £100 million in bookings a year from its free app alone.
One of the happy outcomes of the Olympics was a revitalization of London’s river ferry services, which are now one of the most pleasurable ways to get around. The boats cover a surprising amount of terrain quickly, with 16 stops, including right outside the London Eye, the Tate Modern, the Tower of London, Greenwich, and the O2 dome, among others. Getting from Greenwich to Embankment takes all of 45 idyllic minutes. You can go right under the famous Tower Bridge—and because it’s intended for commuters, it’s at a fraction of the price of a tourist boat.
Fares depend on how far you’re going, but for a trip from Westminster to Greenwich, expect a one-way fare of £6.80. You will always save money if you buy a return trip instead of two one-ways (round-trips are £12). Thames Clippers (www.thamesclippers.com; [tel] 020/7930-2062; generally 9am–9pm) fast catamarans go every 20 minutes during the day. Passes that allow you to take as many trips as you want on a single day are called River Roamer passes, and they cost £17 for adults and £8.25 for kids 5 to 15. Oyster cards get 10% off singles and returns, and those with Travelcards loaded into their Oyster can get £2.30 off single fares. Two adults and three kids can all use the same Roamer ticket for £36.
Narrowboat trips on London's canals, especially Regent's Canal, are also a good way of seeing the city. Bus no. 6 takes you to Little Venice, where you can board several tour boats. One of the best is Jason, which takes you on a 90-minute round-trip ride past London Zoo to Camden Lock. The season runs April to October, with daily trips at 10:30am, 12:30pm, and 2:30pm. The round-trip fare is £9 for adults, £8 for seniors and children 14 and under, free for children 4 and under. One-way fares are £8 for adults, £7 for seniors and children 14 and under. Contact Jason's, Jason's Wharf, Westbourne Terrace Road Bridge opposite 60 Blomfield Rd., Little Venice, W9 (tel. 020/7286-3428; www.jasons.co.uk; Tube: Warwick Ave.).
Scattered throughout town, you’ll see a fun addition to London’s street furniture: racks of identical blue bikes in racks. Guess what? They’re yours to borrow! They are officially called Barclays Cycle Hire, but Londoners call them Boris Bikes, after the blustery mayor who brought them here.
It works like this: You choose one and pull it out of the rack by lifting the seat. You ride it to any other docking station in the city with a free space, and you park it by slotting the front wheel in until a green light appears on the dock. When you’re ready to ride somewhere else, just get another bike. You buy the right to borrow bikes for £2 a day or £10 a week (payments are on your credit card) at the pylon standing above any rack and from there, you have 30 free minutes every time you pull a bike out of the rack. Go past that, and you start paying: £1 for up to hour, £4 for up to 90 minutes, £6 for 2 hours, and so forth.
The idea is for you to use the bikes in place of public transport, not to keep it with you all day. If you think your trip will take more than a half hour, just stop off at another rack, select a new bike after a 5-minute wait, and the clock restarts. You can do that as many times as you want, but you are required to follow the same traffic rules that cars do. Locations of nearby docks are on every pylon, use the free apps Barclays Bikes (http://tfl.gov.uk/barclayscyclehire; [tel] 020/8216-6666) or Spotcycle (www.spotcycle.net). Interestingly, it’s been reported this is the only part of Transport for London that makes a profit. Now one in four Londoners commute to work on a bike. Don’t expect many dedicated bike lines, but the major parks are sublime places for an afternoon ride.
London comes in two sizes: Greater London, which is huge -- 28 miles north to south, 35 miles east to west -- and central London, which isn't very big at all. Touring on foot is the best and cheapest way to get to know the smaller version. (And was the method used by quintessential Londoner Charles Dickens to get familiarized with his city: He walked everywhere, even as far as Rochester, in Kent.) Do note, however, that London was created piecemeal over many centuries. The city's layout adheres to no comprehensible grid or plan, and it's very easy to get lost. Arm yourself with a copy of London's iconic street atlas, the London A-Z (£6.95), on sale everywhere, or a smartphone with the Google Maps app locked on open -- though be aware that Google Maps is extremely data-hungry.
By Rental Car
Are you insane? Rare is the local who drives in central London, where there’s a mandatory daily “congestion charge” of £11.50 (don’t believe me? See www.cclondon.com), and where parking fees look like your rent back home. Streets were cramped even when people rode horses and haven’t improved, plus they’re dogged with one-way rules and police cameras will ticket you for even honest errors, which you’ll make since you’re visiting. Pay online or by phone (tel. 0845/900-1234) up to 90 days in advance, and by midnight on the day after you entered the Zone at the latest. Failure to do so will result in an automatic fine. Expect parking charges to be expensive, perhaps as much as £40 for 24 hours in a West End garage. You’ll go crazy and broke, so why do it?
London's roads are also among the most camera-dense on the planet, and you can expect to be photographed and fined if you err into a marked bus lane, park in the wrong place, park in the right place but at the wrong time, park in the right place but on a matchday at a nearby sports stadium, stop on a double-red line anytime, stop on a single red line outside designated times, turn right or left when you're not supposed to, run a red light, or come to a standstill in a marked yellow "box junction" -- even if none of the above were done on purpose. And don't think you'll avoid a fine if you're driving a rental car: the rental agency will pay up and bill your credit card automatically, perhaps with an "administration fee" as well.
On top of all that, the city's roads are haphazardly laid out and plagued by road works, one-way systems are baffling and undergoing apparently constant redesign, and car-rental rates are high. Visitors from outside the E.U. might be shocked at the price of Britain's heavily-taxed gasoline, or "petrol." The price is always on an upward trajectory.
CarRentals.co.uk is a handy price comparison site for London car hire, and the city has offices of all the main international competitors, including Alamo (www.alamo.co.uk), Avis (www.avis.co.uk), and Hertz (www.hertz.co.uk). Be sure to check whether your rental vehicle takes unleaded or diesel before refueling. Watch out for constantly changing speed limits -- enforced, of course, by cameras. The limit for traveling in a built-up area is 30mph (and some are marked only 20mph), but on an urban clearway that can shift up to 40 or 50mph, and then back again. So for all those reasons, we suggest you don't drive in London, unless it's totally unavoidable.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.