There are three practical methods for taming London’s sprawl: by Tube (historic and enchanting, but expensive); by bus (less expensive and less glamorous, but more edifying and often quicker); and by foot (the best method, but not always possible). Taxis are overpriced, Ubers require mobile data usage, and driving a car is lunacy.
A significant savings strategy is to choose a hotel that’s within walking distance of lots of the things you want to do. Fortunately, the city’s extremely walkable. Tube trains go shockingly slowly (34kmph/21 mph is the average and has been for more than 100 years); and in the center of town, stops are remarkably close together and the stairs can wear you out. In fact, if your journey is only two or three stations, you’ll often find it less strenuous to simply walk.
The Underground (also known as The Tube)
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. The Tube is 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. And yet there’s no older subway system on earth—the first section opened in 1863 while America was fighting its Civil War—and it often acts its age, with frequent delays and shutdowns. Check posters and whiteboards in the ticket hall to see what “engineering works” are scheduled.
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 Street). If such “urban archaeology” fascinates you, visit the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, one of the city’s family-friendly highlights.
There are 13 named lines, plus the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which serves East London, and a tram line in South London. Lines are color-coded: The Piccadilly is a peacock purple, the Bakerloo could be considered Sherlock Holmes brown, and so on. In 2019, the newly dug, £14.8-billion Elizabeth Line joined them. There’s no way to exaggerate how excited natives are to finally have a quick train line that links East London to West London; it has never existed before. What’s more, they’ll all have step-free access, once unheard of on the Tube. All told, the Underground serves nearly 300 stations.
The Tube shuts down nightly from Sunday to Thursday. Exact times for first and final trains are posted in each station (using the 24-hr. clock), but the Tube generally operates from 5:30am (0530) to just after midnight (0000), and Sundays 7am (0700) to 11:30pm (2330). On Friday and Saturday nights, many lines in Central London run every 10 minutes all night long: “Night Tube” trains are the Piccadilly, Victoria, Central, and Jubilee lines, plus the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line and a slice of the Overground between Islington and New Cross Gate. Still, if you plan to take the train after midnight, always check the Night Tube map and schedule beforehand. Transport for London (TfL) offers 24-hour information at tel. 0343/222-1234.
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-hr. and Night Bus routes.
HOW TO FIND YOUR WAY ON THE TUBE: 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, anthill-like, to the platform you need. Nearly every station is combed with staircases. 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, the carriage 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-hr. information service is also available at tel. 0343/222-1234. The best resource is the TfL Journey Planner, online at www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround. For specific journey information using a mobile device, 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 UK Bus Checker app shows 3D maps of routes and where the next bus is.
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 final destination before you board, so you can figure out the direction. 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.
The Underground’s website provides the excellent “London’s Rail and Tube Services Map” at www.tfl.gov.uk/maps/track/national-rail. It’s a truer picture than the Tube map alone because it shows all the places your fare card can take you by rail. (Buses are on separate maps.) The site also has terrific simplified bus maps that show you routes from any neighborhood. Plug in your hotel’s address, access Citymapper via Wi-Fi, and you’ll have your options.
FRUSTRATIONS OF THE TUBE: The Tube lists everything about itself in exhaustive detail at www.tfl.gov.uk, which contains more maps, planners, and FAQs than a normal person can use. As endearing as the Tube is, it is not perfect. In fact, it can be so dehumanizing that it has had to put up signs begging people not to abuse its staff (sad but true). Be prepared for a few things:
1. Stairs. Most stations are as intricate as anthills. Passengers are sadistically corralled up staircases, around platforms, down more staircases, and through still more staircases. Even stations equipped with extremely long escalators (Angel has the longest one in the system—59m/194 ft.) perversely require passengers to climb a final flight to reach the street. So if you bring luggage into the Tube, be able to hoist your stuff for at least 15 stairs at a time. (This is where backpacks make sense—but don’t be the person who leaves it on while on a crowded carriage.) For a list of which stations are step-free (there are only 66 so far), contact Transport for London Access & Mobility (www.tfl.gov.uk; tel. 020/7941-4600).
2. Delays. When you enter a station, look for a sign with the names and colors of the Tube lines on it. Beside each line, you’ll see a status bar reading “Good service,” “Severe delays,” or the like. Trust this sign—it’s updated every 10 minutes and lines close without warning. If you note “Minor delays,” don’t worry. Do worry about labor strikes—they’re unpleasantly common.
3. Heat. The network can be stuffy. In summer, health advisories are issued to passengers. The worst lines: Bakerloo, Central, and Northern. The best: Circle and District. Air-conditioning is being added—slowly.
4. Hellish rush hours. Shoulder-to-shoulder, silently shuffling through airless underground cylinders. It’s memorable in the wrong way.
5. Tough weekends. Unlike modern systems, which generally have two sets of rails in each direction, London’s ancient system has one set, so entire lines have to shut down when maintenance is required. Weekends are when this happens. This is a major reason why it’s smart to stay in central London, where you don’t depend on a single Tube line. Check in the ticket hall to see what “engineering works” are scheduled.
FARES, PASSES & TICKETS: London Underground (www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets) provides 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). Britain’s system is so complicated that it’s accused of having been engineered to bewilder travelers into paying more than they have to. But it can be boiled down to this: Get an Oyster card and load it with money. I’ll explain.
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 10 and under 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.
There are essentially three ticket types for visiting adults.
1. Via Oyster Pay As You Go (PAYG). This is the best option, and it’s 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, on all forms of in-city public transit. No matter how many times you ride the Tube (debited at £2.40 in zone 1—that’s a lot better than the £4.90 cash fare!) and bus (debited as £1.50—you can’t pay cash on a bus), the maximum taken off your card in a single day will always be less than what an equivalent Day Travelcard (see below) would cost. Which makes it the cheapest. Nonstop Oyster use will always peak at £6.60 for anytime travel in zones 1 and 2 (£4.50 if you only took buses), versus the flat rate of £12.30 you’d have paid if you’d bought an equivalent Travelcard. It’s called “price capping,” and it resets daily at 4:30am. 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 even one at Heathrow; ID may be requested). The card 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.) So. Buy an Oyster card. They’re sold at vending machines when you enter the Tube and then you can use it on buses, too.
2. Via Travelcard. Aimed at tourists, this is an unlimited pass for 1 or 7 days on the Tube, rail, and bus. “Day Anytime” Travelcards for zones 1 through 3 with no timing restrictions are £12.30. 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 £33 for travel in zones 1 and 2. For Travelcard prices that include more zones, visit www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets. You can load a Travelcard purchase onto an Oyster. Downside: Unlike PAYG, you may end up paying for rides you never use.
3. In cash, per ride. You could, but don’t. To travel a mile in zone 1 on the Underground, the cash fare is £4.90 (more than $7). I did the math: It costs 3.5 times more to pay cash to go a mile on the Tube than to go a mile in transatlantic First Class. What’s more, bus drivers don’t even take cash anymore. They do take Oyster.
The Tube does offer contactless payment on turnstiles’ yellow dots—charges are exactly the same as with Oyster—but there’s no telling if your card issuer or bank supports it. Apple Pay and American Express equipped with contactless payment should work. Visit www.tfl.gov.uk/fares-and-payments/contactless and confer with your issuer to make an educated guess whether you can use this method. If you do use Apple Pay, complete fingerprint recognition as you approach the turnstiles or you’ll hold everyone else up. Frankly, for visitors, an Oyster card is more surefire.
How to use tickets: Since pricing depends on how far you’ve gone, you must touch your Oyster card to the big yellow reader dot both before you board and after your trip—even if there are no turnstiles (so don’t forget). On the DLR, the dot may be at street level. The same goes 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. Inspectors regularly check passengers’ tickets and they won’t hesitate to fine you because they feed on the power.
How to pay at a vending machine: If you are using a swipe credit card to buy tickets from a vending machine, don’t pull your card out of the vending machine too quickly, or it will falsely tell you it’s declined. (Underground machines never hesitate to claim something is wrong with your card. Don’t believe them. Try a few times.) Vending machines usually accept cash and coins. If your credit card issuer offers a version of your card embedded with a SIM chip, order one ahead of your trip—it makes a lot of transactions a lot easier in London, where chip cards are the norm.
Buy ahead?: Although TfL will mail Oysters or Travelcards ahead of time, that’s a waste. You can purchase them at any Tube stop without shipping fees.
The Tube and buses are seen as one piece, so the same payment systems work on both. Buses are what smart Londoners use. 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 zoom 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£4.50, no matter the zone. Travelcards and Oysters (per trip £1.50; buy in Tube stations) are the best way to pay. You can make free transfers between as many buses as you want within a 1-hour window. Don’t ride without paying: Surprise card inspections are common. Note that bus passes and Travelcards expire at 4:30am the day after you buy them. The TfL supplies 24-hr. information at tel. 0343/222-1234.
Drivers do not accept money, and very few bus shelters have automated ticket machines (cash only, and don’t expect change), so you must have an Oyster card or Travelcard (get one in any Tube stop). All stations 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 the bus in front, by the driver, and tap your card on the big yellow dot to check in. An automated voice announces stops with plenty of warning. Press a button on a handrail to request a halt before the next one. (Unlike on Tubes and trains, which are charged by how far you go, buses are one price so you should not tap again at the end.) Get off via the door at the middle. Newer buses have reinstated a rear-door design with its own conductor, so on those, you can leap off that back entrance and break your neck whenever you like.
Routes that start with N are Night Buses, which tote clubbers home after the Tube stops around midnight; many connect tediously in Trafalgar Square, so pee before setting off. London has trams, too, charged like buses, but they’re in areas where tourists are unlikely to go.
RED LETTER DOUBLE DECKERS: A few routes are truly world-class, linking legendary sights. With routes like these, you won’t need to splurge on those tedious hop-on, hop-off tour buses:
* The 15 bus, which crosses the city northwest to southeast, takes in Paddington, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Fleet Street, St Paul’s, and the Tower of London. And it has antique Routemaster vehicles.
* The 10 passes Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gardens, Knightsbridge (a block north of Harrods), Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Goodge Street (for the British Museum), and King’s Cross Station.
* The 159 links Paddington, Oxford Circus, Trafalgar Square, and Westminster.
* The RV1 hits Covent Garden, Waterloo, the Tate Modern, and as a bonus, you get to ride over the Tower Bridge to the Tower of London.
These are the rail lines that aren’t operated by the Underground. These comfortable, standard-size trains go to suburbs, distant cities, and to neighborhoods the Victorians didn’t tunnel the Tube to, and they operate on a regular, reliable, published timetable—on maps, they are denoted by two red parallel lines with a zig-zag line connecting them. These lines, which for comfort are actually preferable to the Underground, are covered by Travelcards and Oyster PAYG for roughly the same price as the Tube as long as you stay in the zone system. (The major stations have information desks if you’re unsure about Oyster’s validity on any journey.) You must tap Oyster at the start and at the completion of each journey or you’ll be charged as if you took the train to the end of the line. If you accidentally tap in for a wrong or missed train, alert staff. They can ensure you aren’t penalized.
There are many termini, but you don’t have to hunt by trial and error. Check TheTrainLine.com website or app, call the 24-hr. operators at National Rail Enquiries (www.nationalrail.co.uk; tel. 08457/48-49-50), or plug your journey into your favorite map app such as the free Citymapper. Alternatively, each station posts timetables. Schedules are listed by destination; find the place you’re going, and the departures will be listed in 24-hr. time.
National Rail stations (not Eurostar or the Underground) accept discount cards for certain folks. Each card requires proof of eligibility (passport, ISIC student ID), but since they can be used for trips to distant cities, they pay for themselves quickly if you’re doing lots of rail-riding. Get them at rail stations:
* The Senior Railcard (www.senior-railcard.co.uk; £30 a year): Discounts of about 33 percent for those 60 or over.
* The 16–25 Railcard (www.16-25railcard.co.uk; £30 a year): Discounts of 33 percent for those 16 to 25, plus full-time students of any age. It requires a passport-size photo, which may be uploaded from a computer. If you’re applying in the U.K., bring a passport photo for that purpose.
* The Family & Friends Railcard (www.family-railcard.co.uk; £30 a year) is for at least one adult and one child age 5 to 15, with a maximum of three adults and four kids on one ticket; at least one child must travel at all times. It awards adults 33 percent off and kids 60 percent off. But know that two kids age 4 and under can travel with an adult for free at all times, even without this card.
Partly thanks to the dedication of a series of mayors, London’s river ferry services are now one of the most pleasurable ways to get around. The boats, nicknamed River Bus, cover a surprising amount of terrain quickly. Some of their most useful stops include right outside the London Eye, the Tate Modern, the Tower of London, Greenwich, and the O2. Getting from Greenwich to Embankment takes all of 45 idyllic min. (but on weekends, you may have to wait 30 min. for a boat back). 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 around £8.40 (£6.50 with Oyster). You will always save money if you buy a return trip instead of two one-ways, and always ask if your Oyster card or Travelcard grants a discount. The fast catamarans of Thames Clippers
(www.thamesclippers.com; tel. 020/7930-2062; generally 6:30am–10:30pm; bookable via its app) go every 20 min. during the day and are much cheaper and plentiful than the narrated tour boats. The RB1 route is particularly useful, hitting most of the major tourist stops plus Greenwich and the O2. One snag: On weekends, the queue to return from Greenwich can be 40 min. to an hour long. River Roamer passes, which allow you to take as many trips as you want on a single day after 9am, cost £18.50 for adults, £37 for a family of two adults and up to three kids. You can buy at the piers or, for a discount of a few quid, buy ahead via the Thames Clippers Tickets app, downloadable via www.thamesclippers.com/route-time-table/book-tickets-with-ticketing-app. Thames River Services (www.thamesriverservices.co.uk; tel. 020/7930-4097) is a sightseeing version of the Clippers and offers a £12.75 single/£16.75 return (£8/£10.50 children) ride from Westminster to Greenwich. It calls these “sightseeing” trips but note that it’s not fully guided and the Clippers are just as good. You can pay with Oyster.
Scattered throughout town, you’ll see racks of identical red bikes in racks. They’re yours to borrow, day or night! They are called Santander Cycles (www.tfl.gov.uk/modes/cycling/santander-cycles), but Londoners call them Boris Bikes, after the blowsy former mayor who brought them here (or Barclays Bikes after a previous sponsor), and they provide more than 10.3 million rides a year. Interestingly, it’s been reported this is the only part of Transport for London that makes a profit.
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 24 hr. for £2, and that gets you 30 min. (payments are on your credit card) every time you pull a bike out of the rack. Go past that, and you pay the same rate: £2 per extra 30 min. The idea is for you to use a bike as you need it, not to keep it with you all day. You are required to follow the same traffic rules that cars do, which won’t be easy, although the city’s huge parks are safer places to cycle. Locations of nearby docks are listed on every pylon. Use the free apps Santander Cycles or Citymapper to find nearby stations with space.
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. They’re even trained in first aid, childbirth, and assisting after an acid attack—so breathe easy. 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 £2.60 minimum. Trips of up to 1.6km (1 mile) cost £6 to £9.40 during working hours; 3.2km (2-mile) trips are £9 to £14.60; 6.4km (4-mile) trips are £16 to £23; and trips of around 9.6km (6 miles) hit you for a painful £24 to £31. Rates rise when you’re most likely to need a taxi: by about 10 percent from 8 to 10pm or all day on weekends, and roughly another 20 percent from 10pm until dawn. Trips that start at Heathrow cost an extra £2.80, and trips around Christmas and New Year’s Day tack on £4. Mercifully, there is no charge for extra passengers or for luggage. It has become customary to tip 10 percent, but most people just round up to the nearest pound. Some taxis accept credit cards (don’t count on it), 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.” 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 an unsolicited one. Among the top free apps that can hail the nearest ride: Splitcab (www.splitcab.co.uk), which finds people going your way to share the cost (and gives women the option of female-driven cars); Kabbee (www.kabbee.com; tel. 0203/515-1111), which canvasses cab fleets for the best fixed price; Minicabit (www.minicabit.com); taxi-calling app MyTaxi (once called Hailo; https://uk.mytaxi.com); independent share ride app Uber (www.uber.com), which is at odds with city regulators and may not last; and London’s reigning power minicab operator, Addison Lee (www.addisonlee.com), which makes more than £100 million in bookings a year from its free app alone.
Renting a 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 rates look like your rent back home. Streets were cramped enough when people rode horses, and now they’re dogged with one-way rules and police cameras that will ticket you for even honest errors, which you’ll definitely make since you’re just visiting. You’ll go crazy and broke, so why do it? If you’re driving out of the city for a tour of the country, fine, but do not rent a car for a London vacation.
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.