To the uninitiated, getting around in London can seem daunting. What’s the difference between the train and the Overground? How do I know which bus stop to wait at? What on earth
is was the Emirates Air Line? All reasonable questions. This guide aims to equip you with all the knowledge you need to confidently and efficiently navigate the city.
The basics of getting around in London
Oyster cards & contactless
Just arrived or moved to London? Welcome. To get around town you can either use an Oyster card which you can pick up from any station and most newsagents will sell them too. You have to pay a £5 deposit which you can get back along with any remaining credit.
If you’re going to be returning to the city or staying for a while, then it’s worth registering your card online so you can keep your card topped up easily at any time.
Alternatively, you can use a contactless payment with a bank card or mobile payment instead – just tap your card on the reader at the gate. London transport accepts contactless mobile payment from Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay, Garmin Pay, bPay, and Samsung Pay. If you’re visiting from abroad you may be charged overseas transaction fees, if so, getting an Oyster card makes more sense.
For people moving to or commuting to London, your employer may run a discounted travel card scheme to allow you to get a season ticket which is deducted from your wages each month, which also means using an Oyster card rather than contactless.
Daily fare caps
Whether you use an Oyster or contactless, there are daily pay as you go fare caps at play, which limit the amount you pay no matter how many journeys you take on a given day.
For example: a zones 1-2 fare cap is set at £7.70 (from 1st March 2022), meaning you can take as many bus, Tube and Overground journeys within zones 1 and 2 in any given day and you will not be charged more than £7.70.
Daily caps are calculated from 4:30 am until 4:29 am the next day. Unless you’re on a real late one, you can often get home from a night out for free if you’ve already maxed out your Oyster. Weekly Caps are calculated from Monday to Sunday.
Table of Daily and Weekly TFL Fare Caps
Prices below valid from 1st March 2022.
|Zone(s)||One Day Cap||Mon – Sun Cap|
|1 and 2||£7.70||£38.40|
|1, 2 and 3||£9.00||£45.20|
|1, 2, 3 and 4||£11.00||£55.20|
|1, 2, 3, 4 and 5||£13.10||£65.70|
|1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6||£14.10||£70.30|
But what are these zones you speak of? The London transport map is divided into different zones, which roughly equate to how central a location is. For example, Oxford Circus in the middle of town is located in zone 1, while Richmond is 9 miles away from Waterloo and falls under zone 4.
Ticket fares are based on how many zones you travel through. So, travel within zone 3 will be cheaper than travelling from zone 3 into zone 1. Some stations, such as Stratford zones 2/3, sit on the border of two different zones. This means your journey will be charged at the cheaper rate depending on your direction of travel. If you travel into the city, your journey will be classed as starting in zone 2. If you travel further out of town, your journey will be classed as starting in zone 3. Each station and bus stop will tell you which zone you’re in, and they’re also clearly marked out on transport maps.
Buses Are The Cheapest Public Transport In London
Zones do not apply to bus fares, meaning you can travel anywhere in London for the same fare of £1.65 Additionally, the Hopper fare allows you to bus hop for one hour with no additional charges. Yes, that’s right you can make unlimited bus journeys within one hour of touching in with your Oyster or contactless. As long as you scan the same card on each journey you will not be charged again within an hour. Daily caps on buses are £4.95, and if you have the time, travelling by bus is easily one of the best and cheapest ways to see some of London’s landmarks.
Planning your journey
Even if you’ve travelled around London on a daily basis for a good few years, you’ll probably need to use an app to help plan your journeys. Apps can alert you to service updates, signal issues or changes to bus routes. TfL is great for basic journeys, live updates, station facilities and ticket types.
But CityMapper is your best bet for speed and efficiency. It has a sophisticated algorithm that takes into account how often different trains or buses depart, distance between stops and time of day to provide you with a selection of different route options. And it even lets you
know which carriage of the Tube to get on for a swift exit. It also shows you how much your journey will cost you, so you can work out a cheaper alternative if you plan ahead.
Failing that, Google Maps can be useful, especially if you’re walking. You can also download the map to your phone when you have wifi to avoid using your data (or if you’re here without a UK SIM)
The Tube (the London Underground network)
The London Underground network serves 5 million passengers each day, covering 270 different stations. It’s the oldest underground transport system in the world, and has been transporting people around the capital since 1863. Fortunately it’s had a few improvements since then. Most people call it the tube, and the majority of the central stops are underground. But as you get further away from the middle of town the network leaves its subterranean roots. In fact, 55% of the network is actually located above ground.
The Tube is a fast, efficient way to travel. Trains leave most platforms between two and 5 minutes (this is fairly standard, but they can be further apart, especially on Sundays), and take around two minutes to arrive at the next station, depending on the line you’re on.
The different lines each have a name and a distinct colour to help you trace your journey. Make sure you know whether your destination is northbound or southbound, or eastbound or westbound, as that will help you get to the correct platform and watch out for lines like the district and northern lines which have two different branches, although the branch name should be on the front of the train carriage as well on the platform screen and train announcements.
You can travel on most lines from 5 am until 1 am the next day. While at the weekend you can catch a reduced Night Tube service on a number of lines throughout the night.
The downside is the Tube can get hot and sweaty during busy periods and especially in the summer (although some upgraded lines now have air con). If you can help it, try to avoid the morning rush between 7:30-10 am and the afternoon rush between 4.30-7 pm.
If you’re travelling around central London, it can often be easier and more enjoyable to walk between destinations, rather than taking the Underground and changing lines.
London buses are brilliant at connecting the dots between train lines and other parts of the city. They are mostly double-deckers, meaning you can get a great view of the city streets as you travel. However, they are generally slower than the Tube and are susceptible to traffic.
Certain journeys can take two-to-three times as long during rush hour. When planning your bus journey, pay special attention to the route number and specific bus stop name and code. For example, if you needed to get the 45 bus heading north from Brixton, you’d need to look out for Route 45, Brixton Stop N.
There are 673 routes, 19,000 stops and 8,500 buses in London, meaning it’s easy to get confused if you’re not careful. If you get the right bus number, but wrong bus stop, you could end up travelling in the wrong direction.
Many bus routes also run 24 hours a day, so you can easily get home once the underground and trains have stopped running.
Travelling out of London
London’s major train lines connect the capital to the suburbs, the coast and even several European cities, So whether you’re looking for an easy day trip, a weekend hike or a city break, there are plenty of high speed trains to get you there. Flying in from abroad? Check out our guide to the cheapest ways into the city centre from London’s six airports.
The Overground is a great way to travel, and mostly covers zone 2 and beyond. You can travel east to west or north to south easily without having to go through central London or taking suburban railways – great for getting to places like Kew Gardens.
It’s a bit less frequent than the tube, but you get views of the city, air-conditioning and wider trains. On busy days, these little luxuries really mean a lot. Look out for the orange symbol, some stations like Highbury & Islington have both Overground and Underground stations in the same place, so it makes for a fast and easy transfer.
The Elizabeth Line
It may have been delayed several times, but the much anticipated new line opened in May 2022. Or at least, the first phase of it opened. It’s on the tube map and runs partly underground, but isn’t technically part of the London Underground. Confused? Here’s the quick explanation: originally called Crossrail, the whole line will eventually cover 73 miles connecting the suburbs with the city centre and Heathrow Airport. Eventually it will run all the way from Shenfield in Essex and Abbey Wood in South East London to Reading, Berkshire and Heathrow to the west of London. At the moment, the western tunnels aren’t connected to the central ones, but are expected to be in Autumn 2022.
Contactless and pay-as-you-go Oyster payments can be made on most of the central parts of the Elizabeth Line, and the fares are the same too. The line has slashed the travel time across several journeys (For example Liverpool Street to Woolwich is now halved to 15 minutes) and the new stations are much more spacious and accessible than a lot of underground stations too.
Passengers should eventually be able to travel the full length of the line from May 23, but in the meantime, if you get the chance to use it to travel through the central parts of the line, it should be a more pleasant experience than getting the tube.
Other Train Networks in and around London
There are also train networks running through London. They form part of the UK’s wider travel network, but can often save time on long journeys. For example, the Thameslink from Kentish Town in north London to Herne Hill in south London takes 28 minutes, while the equivalent journey by bus and Tube takes 53 minutes. The Thameslink is also one of the cheapest ways to get to Gatwick Airport or Brighton from London, with trains running from Finsbury Park, Farringdon, King’s Cross and Blackfriars. Other suburban networks include Great Northern Rail which connects Alexandra Palace in north London to Moorgate in the city in about 30 minutes.
Thames Clipper (ferry boats)
The Thames Clipper ferry network is an exhilarating way to travel. Connecting Putney in the west to Woolwich in the east, the boat zips along the River Thames, taking in some of London’s top landmarks along the way. You can use contactless and oyster on the Thames Clipper, but the river is divided into different zones from the underground and the prices are different too.
River services operate in three zones: west, central and east, and a single central zone journey is £8.70.
The Former Emirates Air Line (cable car)
The Emirates Air Line was the name of the cable car that takes passengers on ‘flights’ across the Thames from “Emirates” Greenwich Peninsula on the south of the river to “Emirates” Royal Docks on the north. It’s quite a niche mode of transport, only serving two stops, but it’s great fun nonetheless.
As of June 2022, the branding contract with Emirates has ended, so at the moment we’re not sure what the future of this cable car line holds!
Bikes in London
Cycling is often as fast (or sometimes faster) than getting the tube, and is a great way to see more of London and really get your bearings. There are dedicated bike routes all over the city, which will show up on CityMapper but are probably best accessed via Google Maps.
There are few places to hire bikes on the go around London, the biggest scheme is Santander Cycle which has over 800 docking stations across London (mostly in zones 1 and 2, and a limited number in outer London). You can just turn up and rent a bike for £2 a day (plus an additional £2 for each hour after that) and you can just drop it off at another docking station one you’re done.
One nice bonus is that journeys under 30 minutes are free. This means you can cycle for 29 minutes and dock the bike at a station, then get another bike out and do the same throughout the day to avoid additional charges.
If you find yourself doing a lot of cycling and want to get a bike of your own, see our article on where to buy a bike in London.
While navigating London by foot, one of the most important things is to understand which direction you are heading in. This makes it easy to follow directions from a helpful passer-by, or from your smartphone app. Luckily, there are lots of helpful maps all over town that show where you are, and where you are facing, in relation to nearby streets and attractions. These ‘Legible London’ maps are provided by TfL and form the world’s largest municipal way-finding system. Just one of London’s many claims to fame.