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Buckingham Palace with cars in front of it

London Transport – need-to-know

If you’ been to London before or already know how public transport works, skip this post and checkout the unusual travel options around London instead.

If you need to know the basics, here we go:

How public transport works

All public transport in London is run by TfL (Transport for London). All transport will accept any contactless card or mobile (GPay/Apple Pay) – indeed, you usually can’t pay in cash even if you want to. Just tap your bank card or TfL’s own card, “Oyster”, on the card readers at tube stations, buses, etc (more details on “Oyster” card further below). Remember you have to tap your card after getting on the bus, but not when you get out!

TfL is responsible for pretty much all the main transport options in London – so you can use your card on all these:

  • Tube, plus Overground and trains
  • Buses
  • Trams – only exist in far south London, so not useful for most
  • Boats – Thames Clipper service costs extra, but is part of TfL
  • Emirates Cable Car – this crosses the river from Greenwich O2 to Excel, and also costs extra
  • More detail below on all these options xxx

As well as the TfL options, there are (of course) taxis and if you’re interested in getting around London more comfortably, check thee taxi apps article for options, pricing and discount codes.

And there are several public bike hire options, where you can do short bike trips for as little as £2 for a full day – more details on this article.

How much does public transport cost? 

Quick overview of the costs below; see TfL for far more detail on single fares, or caps and travelcards.

Zone 1 and 2Zone 1-6
Single trip£2.90 (or £2.40 for zone 1 only)£5.10
Day travel£7.20 £13.20
Week travel£36.10£66.00
Month travel£138.70 £253.50
Travel costs in London – caps and travelcards

Oyster card and contactless

You can use a contactless card / mobile payment OR an Oyster card – and still have the same charges and daily/weekly caps. This is generally simplest, but there’s a few cases where you might want Oyster…

Reasons to get an Oyster card instead of using your contactless/mobile:

  • If your bank card will charge foreign transaction fees for every UK transaction
  • If you want a month’s travelcard (there’s no monthly cap on bank cards)
  • If you want a week’s travelcard and you’re not doing a Monday to Sunday trip. The bank card weekly cap applies Monday to Sunday, whereas the Oyster card weekly can can start any day of the week.

(Note: “travelcard” isn’t really another card, it’s just how TFL calls when you buy a weekly or monthly unlimited travels onto your Oyster card.)

How to buy an Oyster or Visitor Oyster

You can buy your Oystercard when you arrive at any airport (except, apparently, Southend – which isn’t London really anyway), or at any London tube station. You need to pay a refundable £5 deposit for the card. Charge it up with credit – reckon on:

  • £15 for a 2 day trip
  • £30 for 4 days
  • Or generally – £7 per travelling day for zone 1 and 2, and £13 if there are days you’re travelling to Heathrow Airport in zone 6 as well as around the centre.

Is there a Visitor Oyster card? Yes, and you can order a ‘Visitor Oyster’ to be posted to your home if you’d rather have it sorted before landing. Daily and weekly caps are the same as a regular Oyster, but for a couple of trivial differences.

  • No refund on the £5 deposit for a Visitor Oyster, though you can get credit back.
  • Visitor Oysters can’t have travelcards (but due to daily/weekly capping, this also doesn’t matter – unless you really need a month travelcard)
  • Some special offers and discounts are only available with the Visitor Oyster
  • You can’t register the visitor card, so no replacement if you lose it.

Note: if you’re landing at Heathrow, the Heathrow Express isn’t part of TfL and does not take Oyster

Once you have your Oyster, my recommendation is setting up an account and getting the app if you’re here for more than a few days. You can top it up as you go, and get unused credit refunded at the end. Or you can buy a daily/weekly Oyster travelcard, if you prefer to not have to top up/get a refund. But bear in mind, since fares are capped, there’s little reason to buy a travelcard.

Types of transport, and what’s available on contactless card or Oyster

TfL’s latest map is here.

Note not all of the below are part of the daily/weekly cap, but charged separately and sometimes with discount if paid with contactless or Oyster.

  • Underground: also called “Tube”. Generally safe, fast and relatively clean – better than New York, worse than Tokyo – and used by everyone. A few lines run all night at weekends. 
  • Overground: aka ‘Ginger Line’, the orange hollow line on the map – is a suburban rail network running around the suburbs. Pleasant spacious new trains with walk through carriages, most with aircon, but rarely go anywhere useful for non-commuters.
  • Buses: Slow! But cheaper than tube – £1.50 for an hour or £4.50 per day. Average speed is 4-9mph, so easily outpaced by bikes, jogging – or even walking on some days. But if it’s miserable outside, the central bus routes are an easy way to see the sights without being stuck on a tourist bus. See our suggestion of  best bus leisure routes.
  • DLR: or ‘Docklands Light Railway’ properly, the hollow green lines on the map – is an automated light metro system. IE: it has driverless trains – yes, you can sit in front and pretend you’re driving – and it runs on rails high above the ground, often with great views of city skyscrapers. Worth trying if you’re going to Greenwich, Stratford or City Airport.
  • Trams: used in far south London – Wimbledon, Croydon and around. Pleasant enough, but not relevant for most.
  • TFL Riverboat / Thames Clipper (not part of daily/weekly cap): Slightly more expensive but delightful options on a sunny day. Boats go a little bit westwards upriver to Vauxhall and Putney, but mostly go east – it’s several stops in the centre from Westminster to Tower of London, then they continue for up to an hour to Greenwich and Woolwich. Thames Clipper website has links to its price calculator and timetable.
  • Trains: Trains are more common than you’d think from the tube map, which only shows TfL train lines (hollow navy). These are the new Crossrail services which will eventually be joined together, crossing under central London as the ‘Elizabeth line’. There are, of course, many more train lines joining the dots – see this more comprehensive map, but note not all can be paid with Oyster – TfL rail to or from Reading or Iver, and the Heathrow Express, are not included
  • Cable car (not part of daily/weekly cap): also called the “Emirates Air Line”) is lovely with spectacular views on a good day. However, it doesn’t go to/from anywhere useful – most people just do the return trip from Greenwich to admire the views. The boat stops next to it – North Greenwich Pier, which is close to the Jubilee North Greenwich station. Both are a few kilometers from central Greenwich – walk, bus or boat to Greenwich Pier if you’re looking for its various tourist attractions. More details on TfL’s Emirates section.

Check our Unusual travel options post for more details on TFL River boat and Cable car.

Airports

Looking for how to get to/from the airports in London? check details on this post of the 6 London airports.

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