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london public transport underground

The Tourist’s Guide to London Public Transport

Public transport in a new city is always tricky. Not to mention that things get even worse when the city is one of the most popular, busiest capital in the world: London.

With a population constantly on the rise (over 10 mils) and other few millions of tourists each year, transportation in London can be… tricky. I know it was for me.

The Basics

Transport for London (TfL)

The TfL – as it’s most commonly used by locals – or Transport for London is the entity that coordinates the public transport in London. No matter if it’s the underground, trains, buses or bikes, it all falls under TfL.

The TfL website is full of info and updates. They give you info about delays for tube lines, maps, traffic updates and many more. I highly recommend visiting their website before arriving in London to get all the info you need. Also, download some of the maps on your smartphone – they’ll be super handy.

The Oyster Card

The Oyster card falls under the administration of TfL as well.

Basically, Oyster card is a card for tickets. You can top up the card in many places. You just add money on it and when you use public transport, you tap it on the special devices and the corresponding fare will be withdrawn.

The Oyster card can be pre-ordered and delivered to your home, so you have it when you arrive in London. Although, I really don’t recommend buying one if you have a contactless card that can be used internationally without extra charges. We’ll talk more about it.


Buses

London buses are famous. Everyone knows about the red double deckers in London. We literally learn about them in school. I mean it.

A bus ticket costs £1.5 and it’s valid for an hour.

When you get in the bus, you tap your contactless card or Oyster card on one of the card readers. Some buses have it only in the front, next to the driver, others also have them in the back and in the middle.

Can I use multiple buses with the same ticket?

Yes. If you’re in the one hour period of time, you can use as many buses as you want. After the hour expires, you’ll be charged for a new ticket.

Do I tap in if I’m within the one hour ticket?

Yes. You have to tap in every single time when you get in a new bus. In this way, the system can identify if you’re within the one hour ticket or not. You won’t be charged anything if an hour hasn’t passed.

london public transport double decker

Other quick notes:

  • always go in on the front door and get out on the middle/last door. There are new buses where you don’t have to do this, but keep in mind as a general rule: in – front door only, out – middle and last door, just to avoid angry looks from passengers.
  • ring the buzzer when you want the bus to stop. I didn’t really get this – but I think it works more for night buses. When you want the bus to stop at the next bus stop, ring one of the buzzers. If you don’t and there is no one at the bus stop, it’s quite likely the bus won’t stop.

The Tube

Famous and particularly for Londoners is the tube. It’s also known as underground, but NEVER as the metro or subway. We also learn about it in school too.

Fares

For me, the tube fares were the trickiest. The maps and everything you need for directions is straight on point – it’s quite easy to use it (especially if you previously used the underground in another city).

Here are some reasons why the tube ticket prices are tricky:

  • The Tube network is divided into 9 different zones – zone one being the very central zone of London and the most expensive. Each zone has different fares.
  • during peak hours fares are higher than regular. Peak hours for London tube are:
    • 6:30 am to 9:30 am
    • 04:00 pm to 08:00 pm

london public transport underground

So, the system calculates your ticket price based on the zone(s) you’ve travelled and according to the on/off-peak hours. I could never evaluate how much it will cost since we travelled throughout different zones for one trip. You can see the London tube fares here (I warn you, it’s tricky).

Pros for the Tube

  • it’s easy to use, all stops have maps and staff who can help
  • it’s the fastest way to travel around London
  • the network is huge and you can easily find a station

Cons for the Tube

  • during peak hours is expensive and very crowded
  • it’s difficult to predict how much it will cost, especially if you don’t live in London
  • it’s expensive compared to other ways of public transport

Also, super important: you must tap in and out of the tube. 

Otherwise, the system won’t know your itinerary and will charge you extra (a lot). Usually, you can’t simply get out without tapping out, but in case the gates are opened, be sure you tap out too.

Underground vs Overground vs Trains

Ironically enough, more than half of the underground network is not actually underground. There are zones and lots of stations that are at the surface. This can be easily confused with the Overground.

london national railway symbol

Source: quora.com

The Overground is a division of trains that connects London with its suburbs. There are also Underground stations that are on the surface.While the Underground and Overground have very similar symbols, train stations are marked with two opposite red arrows. Trains that go through London also fall under TfL, so there aren’t any extra charges.

The key point is that each way of public transport that happens in London falls under TfL. So fares will be the same based on the category of transportation. 


Coaches

Coaches connect London to other parts of England, UK or Europe.

Since they don’t serve transport in London, they fall under different companies to manage.

We used National Express to get from Luton to central London. You can find the list of coach companies here. That list is suggested by TfL so if a company is not listed there, the safest thing to do it to not use their services.

So for coaches, the fares will be higher – depending on the destination and they are used for destinations outside London – like Luton Airport which is freaking far away.


Bikes

The official bike renting system is sponsored by Santander Bank, so you’ll see lots of Santander docks across London.

It costs £2 to use a bike for 24h. The first 30 mins of each ride are included. So let’s say you get a bike at 9:00 am and by 9:20 am you put it back into a docking station and get a new bike from 9:20 until 9:40. You won’t pay more since both rides were less than 30 minutes.

I didn’t go for bikes because I’m simply not that good at biking when there are people around.

You have to install their app where you can connect your debit or credit card. The app shows you the stations map and how many bikes are available at each docking station so you know if one is full or empty.

Santander bikes are the most common, but there are other providers that use the same system.


In Conclusion…

Public transport in London is diverse, busy and highly accessible. To sum up this lengthy post, here are the key takeaways.

Underground/The Tube

  • always be sure you tap in AND out
  • different fares according to zone and peak time
  • the fastest way to travel in London
  • trains that run throughout London have the same fare

Buses and Trams

  • you always have to tap in – no tap out needed
  • a ticket costs £1.5 and it’s valid for one hour
  • you can use multiple busses throughout the one-hour availability, but you always must tap in
Bikes

  • it costs £2 to rent a bike for 24h
  • the first 30 mins of each journey throughout the day are free
  • extra charges of £2/30 mins will apply for longer journeys
  • there are different service providers

How about the Oyster card?

If you have a contactless debit or credit card that does not charge extra fees for international use, then you absolutely don’t need an Oyster card.

The card costs £5 (one time) plus how much you want to top up with. The credit on it will stay there forever so in case you come back to London, you can use it.

I didn’t get it and I was perfectly fine with my contactless debit card. The only thing you have to keep in mind when using a contactless debit/credit card is that you have to use the same one when you tap in and out of the tube.


I really hope this (not so short) guide about London public transport will come in hand on your first trip to the British capital. Have you been to London, what was the trickiest thing about the public transport? Let me know in the comments!

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