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London Underground
London Underground

Everything You Need to Know About Getting Around London

Picture of Ruaidhrí Carroll
London Travel Writer
Updated: 31 January 2018

From Buckingham Palace and the London Eye to St Paul’s and the Natural History Museum, there’s lots to see and do in the UK’s capital. Covering the best ways to pay for transport, your options for getting around London, and our advice on which modes of transport are best, this is the essential guide to getting around London.

Paying for transport

Generally speaking, it’s best for anyone planning to get around as much of the city as possible to invest in a travel card, particularly anyone staying outside Central London. Travel cards enable travel on the entire TFL network – tubes, trains, trams, buses, the DLR, the Overground and TFL Rail – within the zones paid for.

It’s best to use a contactless bank card or an Oyster card for getting around London – buses don’t accept cash, while using paper tickets on the tube, rail or tram networks, though possible, is much more expensive and time consuming. Contactless bank cards are automatically capped when the daily or weekly limit (travelcard price) is reached.

Oyster card

An Oyster card, the essential travel pass in the capital for anyone who doesn’t have a contactless bank card | © Pixabay

People who don’t have a contactless bank card can get a daily, weekly or monthly travelcard activated on an Oyster card. Oyster cards can be picked up from any tube or Overground station, as well as from Oyster Tickets Stops, which can be found at many newsagents across the capital. There’s a £5 deposit to get an Oyster card – but this money, and any remaining pay-as-you-go balance up to £10, can be retrieved from any tube station ticket machine before leaving the capital.

Transport options

Obviously the cheapest way to get from A to B anywhere is to walk. Perks include the health factor, as well as being able to easily explore anything that catches the eye en route – but walking isn’t always practical.

Santander Cycles can be found at docking stations all over Central London. It costs £2 to access the bikes for 24 hours, with the first half an hour of every journey included in this fee. Every additional 30 minutes (or less) is charged at an additional £2 – but this can be avoided by docking the bike when the first 30 minutes is nearly up and grabbing another one to restart the clock. Download the Santander Cycles app to see an interactive map showing live bike availability at nearby docking stations.

Santander Cycles

A Santander Cycle dock in Central London | © Marco Verch/Flickr

Serving 19,000 stops in the capital, London’s iconic red buses go pretty much everywhere. They cost just £1.50 per journey – and passengers can hop on and off as many buses as possible within an hour thanks to mayor Sadiq Khan’s ‘hopper fare’. Uniquely, South London offers the added option of the tram. Like the bus, the tram is £1.50 per journey and the hopper fare applies.

Then, of course, there’s the London Underground, the first major subterranean travel network in the world. Besides the 11 tube lines, there is also the London Overground, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and TFL Rail, while the Elizabeth line – aka Crossrail – will be joining the network at the end of 2018. Charges for different journeys vary depending on the zones crossed, but a single journey within Zone 1 (Central London) costs £2.40 using a contactless bank card or an Oyster card. More details about fares can be found on the Transport For London website.

London Overground

London Overground at Richmond terminus | © Jim Linwood/Flickr

Finally, there are riverboat services. They’re not necessarily the most practical option, but they’re a great experience nonetheless. Bars onboard most boats offer the opportunity to kick back with a drink and soak up the summer sun while taking in some of London’s most iconic landmarks from an alternative perspective on the River Thames.

Understanding the Tube Map

It’s been an iconic symbol of London and a pioneering example of schematic design in transport maps ever since it first took its modern form in the 1930s, but the Tube Map can be confusing to the untrained eye. First things first, it’s not geographically accurate, so don’t assume that the proximity of two stations on the map necessarily means they’re close together, or vice versa. That said, most stations in Central London are fairly close so if it’s a question of jumping on the tube for one stop or walking, it’s often just as quick to walk.

Most of the map is dominated by the vast London Underground network, but a few of the other lines are worth noting. All transport options that aren’t part of the London Underground network – which itself is only actually 45% underground – travel above ground, so phone signal won’t be a problem.

Harry Beck on tube map

Harry Beck was the man responsible for producing the tube map in the modern schematic format Londoners know and love today | © Train Photos/Flickr

The orange line is the London Overground, while the green and white line represents the London tram network in South London. Then there’s the Docklands Light Railway – the teal and white line – which connects the Canary Wharf financial district to East London and parts of South London. TFL Rail is represented by the blue and white line and extends east from Liverpool Street to Shenfield, which, while technically outside London, is considered part of the capital for ticketing purposes. This brings us neatly on to our next point: zoning.

London is divided into nine ringed zones for the purposes of fare charges. Central London is represented by Zone 1, while the other zones extend out in ring formations around the preceding zones, up to Zone 9, which is the most suburban of all of London’s transport zones.

So, what’s the best way to get around London?

Everything else considered, anyone staying in Central London should definitely try to walk around the capital as much as possible. There’s lots to be discovered travelling around on foot that even the most seasoned Londoners won’t necessarily know about.

If walking is too slow, consider using the Santander Cycles – they’re a decent compromise between the scenic advantages of walking and the speed of the buses and tubes. Also, deviating from the public transport routes and seeing the lesser known streets will make for a more authentic experience of the capital – and could sometimes even be quicker than buses, especially when there’s traffic. However, in cases where speed is of the essence, tube or rail travel is probably the best bet.

Cycling around London

Cycling is the quickest way to get around the capital without having to stick to the official transport network | © Gary J. Wood/Flickr

Transport apps

When it comes to travelling around London, there is nothing more authentic than going old school and using the traditional tube map. But sometimes it can get a bit frustrating and that’s where Citymapper fills the void. It has up-to-date travel information on all services, including when the next service will be arriving, as well as offering route planner options for more complex journeys. Google Maps and Tube Map can come in pretty handy, too – everyone needs a backup when it’s time to rush.