London Transportation Tips by toonsarah
London Transportation: 1,828 reviews and 1,715 photos
In recent years these black and yellow maps and street signs have started to appear in many locations in central London. These have been introduced by Transport for London in an effort to encourage people to walk more in the city centre, especially for shorter journeys. Visitors often don’t recognise that two places may be only a few minutes’ walk apart – I’ve seen tourists get on a tube train at Leicester Square and alight at Covent Garden, not realising that they could have walked there much more quickly at street level than the time taken to descend the escalator, wait for a train and wait again for the busy lifts at Covent Garden!
The signs have a map of the immediate area and useful information about key landmarks that lie within a five and fifteen minute walking range. There is also access information aimed at people with disabilities, e.g. any steps on the route.
TfL are aiming to implement 3,000 signs in total by 2021, but there are already over 1,300 and in the tourist areas especially it shouldn’t be hard to find one. Look near junctions, tube station exits and near the well-known sights.
On a recent visit to Greenwich we took a new (for us) route – we travelled on the Thames Clipper service. This is a boat bus service and a great way to travel on the river. You don’t get the commentary that you get on the sightseeing cruises but you don’t pay their high prices either – and you can even use your Oyster Card.
There are five regular routes which between them cover the river from Putney in the west to Woolwich in the east, although to cover that distance you’ll have to change in central London. We boarded the RB1 service at the London Eye and travelled the approximately 35 minutes to Greenwich Pier. Other useful routes include the west London one which links Putney and Chelsea to the centre, and the “Tate to Tate” which runs between the two buildings of that gallery.
Boats on most routes run every 20 minutes during the day, more frequently during the peak rush hour times, and less frequently after 9.00 pm. There is no need to book in advance – just turn up and pay at the booth on the pier, or use your Oyster card, which entitles you to a 10% discount on the fares. A single fare on the longer routes (west London to the centre or central London to Woolwich) is £6.80 or £6.12 with the Oyster discount. You can also get return tickets (but we planned to return on the DLR – see next tip) and River Roamers if you plan to use the service a lot.
Seating on board is plentiful (maybe les so during the rush hour) and there is a snack bar where you can buy coffees, beer and wine, crisps and chocolate etc. The boats are fully wheelchair accessible and there are accessible toilets on board. All in all, this is a very comfortable way to travel.
A DLR train
Update August 2014: additional photos added
For me, as a long-time Londoner, the Docklands Light Railway (usually shortened to DLR) still feels like a recent addition to our transport options, although its first (short) stretch opened 23 years ago! It now provides a good network of connections around much of east London – not only Docklands as you would expect, but also down to Lewisham in the south east, up to Bow in the City, and connecting in the west at Bank to the main London Underground network (in addition to the Docklands connections to the Jubilee line at Canary Wharf and Canada Water). By 2012 there will also be an extension north to Stratford, linking London City Airport directly to the Olympic Park.
It claims to have “one of the world's most advanced automatic train control systems”, meaning that the trains have no drivers. As the website below explains:
” While trains may appear to stop and start of their own accord, the DLR is operated through a computerised system that is closely managed and monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at the DLR control centre. Control centre staff have access to a visual overview of the entire DLR network displaying exactly where each train is along the railway at any given time.”
Despite the initially unnerving absence of any obvious human control over the trains, I have always found the DLR a pleasant way to travel, and a trip out to Docklands to ride it and see the striking modern architecture is a great way to while away a few hours. If you have an Oyster card (see my tip on the London Underground), you can use it on the DLR too. The DLR network covers zones 1, 2, 3 and 4, and fares are the same as elsewhere in London (currently, in February 2011, that’s £1.90 for a single zone if you have an Oyster (a whopping £4.00 without!) and £3.10 for a four zone journey – all adult prices).
Update April 2014: ticket information updated, link to Oyster tip added
Although you no longer see the iconic Routemaster buses on London’s streets, you see plenty of others, mostly in the traditional bright red. In recent years there has been a policy of introducing more buses, and encouraging a reduction in the number of cars through the congestion charge. This makes travelling by bus in the city an attractive option – it’s reasonable value and unlike the tube you can see where you’re going and enjoy the sights along the way. But you’re still likely to encounter traffic jams, so I wouldn’t choose the bus if in a hurry.
If you do want to catch a bus in central London, look out for the bus stops where you should find plenty of information about the routes that pass that spot, and often about others in the area too. For complete route information though, download a map from the website below.
Once you know what route you want to take, you’ll need to buy a ticket, and these days that means buying one in advance (you can't pay the driver as you used to be able to do). There are machines at each stop but they don't all give change so make sure you carry some coins. It’s cheaper to buy an all-day pass if you’re going to be making lots of journeys, or even better, if you’re in town for more than a couple of days and plan to use the tube as well, get an Oyster (see my separate tip).
By the way, some of the routes pass so many famous sights they make a good value alternative to the sightseeing buses. Try the number 11 – you can start in the west in Chelsea, travel the famous Kings Road, hop off in Victoria for a short detour on foot to see Buckingham Palace, then return to the bus and head east past Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, to Trafalgar Square. From there the route follows the Strand and another famous street, Fleet Street, to St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London, where it finishes.
Update April 2014: links to separate tip about Oyster and local customs added, extra photos, small changes to text
Elsewhere, under Local Customs, I’ve provided a tongue-in-cheek guide to using the London Underground, or “tube” as it’s more usually called. Here though is some practical information you may find helpful.
Firstly, and I can’t stress this too much, get a map (downloadable from the website below, though it’s better to have one of the small folded ones you can pick up for free at every station). This is a complex transport system with many lines, and most of those branch a lot. Even locals refer to the map whenever they travel somewhere off their regular routes. Plan ahead, and check where you’ll need to change lines, and in what direction you’ll need to travel each time. Each line has a distinct colour and name, and all the passageways in the stations are well signposted, so armed with this information you should be OK.
Secondly, if you’re in London for any length of time at all, consider getting a so-called Oyster card. These can be bought for a fixed period of time, such as a month, or can be used to carry a certain amount of value, topped up in advance. Your fare is deducted each time you touch in and out of the tube system at the barrier gates, or when you board a bus. Travelling with an Oyster is always cheaper than buying a ticket each time, plus it saves you the hassle of queuing or finding change for the ticket machines. You can also upload a travel card on to an Oyster. But the system can be confusing so I've written a separate tip about its complexities to help you decide which fare option is best for you.
Thirdly, remember that as in any big city, crime can be a problem. On the tube this is mostly likely to take the form of pick-pocketing or bag-snatching, so do keep a careful eye on your belongings. Having said that, I’ve used the tube regularly all my life and so far have never been robbed – and yes, I realise I’m tempting fate saying that, but I do want to reassure you all. So get out there and enjoy the city!
My Oyster card
The most often asked question in the VT London forum is, I think, about ticket options for public transport. And no wonder! There are several options available and with so many variables (whereabouts do you stay? will you walk a lot or rely on buses and tube trains? how long are you staying? how many sights do you want to pack in? and so on) it is impossible to give a single “this is best” answer. Here though are some observations that will perhaps help you decide. Note that all prices are correct for 2014 – they typically go up in January each year.
Most locals, myself included, use a pre-loaded Oyster card to travel on London’s tube trains, buses, overground trains etc. It’s convenient and it saves a lot of money. As an example, a single tube journey in Zone 1 (the centre of town) costs £4.70 if you buy a ticket on the day but only £2.20 with Oyster. A single cash journey on a bus in the same zone costs £2.40 while an Oyster one is £1.45. Also, there is a daily price cap of £8.40 if you travel in peak time (i.e. before 9.30 AM) and £7.00 if you travel after that time, meaning that you will never pay more than that in one day however many journeys you make.
There is a very useful table comparing ticket prices with and without an Oyster card on the TfL website here. However this is on a page devoted to the Visitor Oyster which can be ordered in advance, and I don’t however recommend that you do this – unless you expect to be in a real hurry on arrival and unwilling to queue to buy one then. You will pay a non-refundable £3 “activation fee”, whereas if you buy an Oyster at the ticket office on arrival you pay a £5 deposit which is refundable. Although in practice I would suggest that if you plan to visit London more than once you should simply hang on to the card, with any credit left on it, and use it next time you come.
Once you have your Oyster you can pre-load it with a sum of money which then deducts as you touch it on the readers at the ticket barriers. When you notice it running low you can top up again, either at a ticket office or on a machine in the station. If you visit London a lot (or are moving here) you can even register online for automatic top-ups which are triggered whenever the total drops below £5.
As an alternative you can buy a travelcard for one day, seven days or a month. This entitles you to unlimited travel for that period. Personally I see no point in a one day travelcard as this costs £9.00 which is higher than the Oyster price cap. But the seven day one can work out cheaper than Oyster under the following conditions:
~ you are staying in London for a week
~ you expect to use public transport almost every day and for multiple journeys
~ you will mostly use the Underground rather than buses
At current prices (£31.40 for a seven day travelcard) you need to be doing an average £4.50 worth of trips per day to make the travelcard the better option, which means more than two journeys every day. If you’re spending the whole week in London itself (rather than doing day trips outside the city) and mostly using the Underground, there’s a good chance you’ll do this and a travelcard will suit you best. But if you won’t use public transport every day, prefer to take the bus much of the time, or are staying less than a week (or some odd days over) the Oyster will probably work out cheaper.
Oh, and just to add to the complications, you can load a travelcard onto an Oyster! So for a ten day visit you might want to get an Oyster, load a travelcard on for the first week and then top up enough to cover your remaining journeys.
As if all the above weren’t complicated enough, there’s one other factor to consider. If you buy your seven day travelcard at a mainline station rather than an Underground station it will carry the “double arrow” rail logo (see image) and will entitle you to a number of 2 for 1 discount offers at major attractions such as the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds and many more. The offers can vary so you need to check the relevant website and have to download a voucher before you go which you show with your travelcard. Note that these deals are only available to those travelling to the sight by train but that having a travelcard bought in a mainline station means that you will count in that category, as explained on the 2 for 1 website! Also note that you need a photo to buy a travelcard as you need an accompanying photo card.
So where does that leave us?! Well, everyone is different and their travel plans differ too. But as I see it, if you plan to spend about a week in London, travel a lot on public transport (and especially on the tube) and visit some of the sights for which 2 for 1 offers are available, you should get a travelcard and buy it at a mainline station. But if your use of public transport will be less (shorter stay and/or fewer journeys) you should do the maths carefully to see if the extra cost of a travelcard will be balanced by any 2 for 1 discounts you’ll take advantage of, and choose accordingly. An Oyster also makes sense for the frequent visitor to London as you won’t have the hassle of buying a card on future visits.
Kings Cross (morning rush hour)
The centre of London is encircled by number of mainline stations, each of which serves a large number of towns and cities all in the same general direction – e.g. Paddington for the south west of England and south Wales, Kings Cross for the north east of England and eastern Scotland etc. All of these mainline stations are in turn well served by tube lines, usually bearing the same name (but if you’re going to St Pancras mainline station, for instance, you’ll need Kings Cross tube station).
Train services are provided by a number of operators, who have contracts to provide services on certain lines. Prices are high by European standards, though there are bargains to be had. The general rule is that the earlier in advance that you can book your ticket, and the more flexible you can be, the lower the price. Try The Trainline for online booking – I find it easiest to identify the best value here and you can have your ticket sent to you in advance or collect it from the station on the day of travel.
If you‘re staying in Britain for any length of time there may be useful discount cards and passes, depending on your circumstances. For information on these check out National Rail Enquiries.
"Boris" bike at a docking station
At last London has a bike hire scheme, introduced in July 2010 and known colloquially as “Boris bikes” after the current mayor. The sponsors of the scheme, Barclays Bank, would I am sure prefer it that you referred to them as Barclays bikes, and certainly they deserve credit for supporting not only this scheme but also the development of ten so-called “bike super highways” – cycle routes into the city from suburbs in the north, south, east and west (only two are open as yet, however).
If you’re coming to London and plan to use the cycle hire scheme, do check out the website below, which explains everything you need to know. It might be worth signing up as a member – you won’t save any money but you’ll get a key that speeds up access to the bikes and can pay in advance online. Most visitors however will be happy to be what is called a “casual user” and pay at the docking station each time they hire a bike.
The costs are designed to reflect the fact that the bikes are really intended for short periods of use. There’s a one off “access fee” of £1 for 24 hours or £5 for seven days, and on top of that you pay a usage fee which increases the longer you keep the bike. The first 30 minutes are free, so you could do several short journeys during the course of a day for just the £1 access fee. After that prices rise - £1 for an hour, £4 for one and a half hours, £6 for two house, and so on, up to £50 for 24 hours. This high price I think is intended to put you off keeping the bike for that long – indeed the website advises that “To hire for more than a couple of hours it might be cheaper for you to use a company that specialises in hiring for longer periods.”
There are docking stations at all mainline stations and many other places in central London – a map on the website shows them all. If you click on a particular spot you’ll be told how many bikes are available right now, and how many docking points are free – very useful if you have internet access on your mobile phone.
I’ve not used the bikes myself but a friend who has tells me they’re very solid and a bit slow, but easy to ride and suitable for London streets. He’s had no problems so far either finding a bike ready for use, or an empty docking station for parking at the end of his ride. He also advises that you leave a bit of time to replace your bike in the docking station to avoid going over the free 30 minutes.
Plane at Heathrow Airport
If you fly to London you may arrive at any of five airports. Here’s a brief overview of each:
Heathrow Airport is London’s busiest and possibly best known. And by busy, I mean really busy – it is the world's busiest international airport and handles 471,000 air transport movements per year. A new fifth terminal has just opened (to much controversy as environmentalists questioned the need to make the airport even busier, while travellers suffered as baggage handling systems broke down under the extra strain). If you land here you have several options for reaching the city centre. The cheapest and slowest is the Underground, but I find that as good as any unless you’re in a real hurry. The Piccadilly Line will get you to central London in about an hour and is a pretty reliable service, with trains every few minutes at peak times. A faster though more expensive option is the Heathrow Express, which will take you to Paddington Station in 15 minutes – but bear in mind that depending where you are staying you will probably have to transfer to the Underground network at that point in any case. You could also take the mainline stopping service, Heathrow Connect. Otherwise there are taxis of course, but these are very expensive and with London traffic not necessarily quick.
Gatwick Airport lies to the south of London, and although almost as busy as Heathrow I find it a bit pleasanter to use. It does tend to be dominated by the package holiday and charter flight crowd, but there are only two terminals to navigate, queues seem better managed, and the shopping facilities are good if you find yourself at a loose end. It is apparently the busiest single runway airport in the world, and is the seventh busiest international airport in the world, with 79 airlines serving 227 destinations. The airport’s two terminals, North and South, are linked by a shuttle train, and mainline trains leave for London from a station at the South Terminal. The most expensive of these are the Gatwick Express trains (current charge £16.90 one way). Despite the name, these are only a little quicker than the cheaper stopping services, taking exactly 30 minutes, but do have the advantage of having plenty of room for luggage and a very regular timetable (every 15 minutes). All trains from Gatwick terminate at London’s Victoria Station, from where you can catch the Underground or a bus to various parts of the city.
London City Airport is the only one of London’s airports to be actually situated in the capital itself. It’s a relatively small airport, serving just over 30 European destinations, which makes it a pleasure to use if you get the chance but harder to find a flight to. If you do manage to find one, be warned – the airport’s runway extends into the River Thames, so you may get the uncomfortable sensation that you’re landing on water! Its relatively small size means there are fewer shops than at other airports, but you will find all the facilities you’re likely to need, such as places to eat and drink, buy travel essentials, change money etc. The best way to travel to and from London City is on the Docklands Light Railway, usually known as the DLR. Trains leave the airport every 8 to 15 minutes, with journey times of just 7 minutes to Canning Town, 18 minutes to Canary Wharf and 22 minutes to Bank.
Stansted Airport lies to the north-east of the capital, and is served by many of the low-cost airlines, including Easy Jet and Ryan Air. It has good facilities and a light modern terminal building designed by Norman Foster. The fastest way to reach central London from here is on the Stansted Express. Trains depart every 15-30 minutes, with an average journey time to Liverpool Street Station of 45 minutes. From there you can catch the Underground or a bus to various parts of the city. Alternatively, as with Gatwick, there are cheaper stopping services, but the difference in journey time is a little more marked.
Luton Airport is north of London and is used by charter flights, package tours and some low-cost airlines, e.g. Easy Jet and Monarch. I have to say it is my least favourite of London’s airports and I avoid using it if possible. For one thing, I find it less accessible – there are trains into the city, but to catch these you have first to take a shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway station. This service runs every ten minutes between 05:00 and midnight (and also connects with all trains calling at Luton Airport Parkway during the night), but it adds to the journey time and is the last thing you feel like doing after a tiring flight. The alternative is to take the bus into town, but this means driving on the very busy (and consequently often slow) M1. At the time of writing (Spring 2008) the motorway is undergoing extensive road-works in the Luton area and journey times are badly affected.
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