Visit London on public transport
London transport is one of the world’s largest and busiest systems and there are many ways to get to where you want to go. Transport for London (TfL) provide plenty of useful information about travelling on public transport and Londoners themselves are usually very helpful if you need to ask for help or directions. Don’t hesitate to ask TFL staff or fellow travellers for assistance if you need it. When you visit London you can travel by underground (metro/subway), train, bus, bicycle, tram or riverboat!
The Underground aka The Tube
The most popular mode of London transport is the Underground. This is London’s metro/subway system, and it is known as The Tube. It is the fastest way to move around town unless your journey is a very short one, in which case walking, or hopping on a bus might be quicker and easier. Londoners will complain about the tube but really, it is an amazing thing. It is the oldest subway train system in the world (it was 1860 when the first trains started running) and it transports millions of people around every single day of the week.
The tube’s general running hours are from 5.00 – 24.00, Monday to Saturday, with a reduced service on Sundays.
There are 12 tube lines, each with their own name and colour. Tube maps can be downloaded in pdf format from the TFL website.
There are 9 travel zones, with zone 1 being the most central, and moving outwards. The further into each zone you go from the centre, the more expensive it will be to get there. Zones 6 to 9 are on the outskirts of town.
As mentioned, the tube is not a 24 hour service so it worth checking to see if tube trains are running if you want to travel very early or very late. It is also worth avoiding peak travel times and checking if there are any delays or diversions on your route if you have to be somewhere at a certain time and want to avoid surprises. TfL offer a journey planner on their website.
Using the tube is straightforward once you know where you want to get to. Make sure you end up on the right platform, but if you do find you are going in the wrong direction, simply get off and go back the other way. Follow the signs when you get off a train to transfer to a different line, or to exit to get above ground again. There are tube maps at all underground stations, also below ground. There are useful screens on the platforms that inform you where the next train terminates, and how long before it arrives. Public announcements will keep you up to date about any delays and changes in routine.
Take care on the platform and keep yourself, bags, belongings and children well behind the yellow line. It is customary to wait for passengers to get off a tube train, before the people on the platform get on. It is chaotic and unpleasant when the people on the platform surge forward as soon as the train comes to a stop, blocking the way for those who want to get off. One last useful tip: on the escalators underground standing still, whilst going up or down is done on the right hand side and those who want to walk, do so on the left hand side.
London Overground is a suburban rail network run by Transport for London with the trains running over ground and beyond the tube network. You can use your Oyster card as a means of payment on these trains and they inter-connect with the tube. They are represented by the colour orange on a tube or train map. Overground maps can also be found on the TFL website.
Mainline trains are suburban and they travel in and out of London from all of the mainline stations. This is usually a faster and cheaper way of getting to your desired destination than going by car or cab, especially if you are travelling to and from the London airports. National Rail website.
The mainline stations in London are: Waterloo, Paddington, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Euston, Charing Cross, Victoria, London Bridge, Fenchurch Street, Farringdon and Liverpool Street. All of these have direct tube links, except for Fenchurch Street. You can use an Oyster card on some of these commuter trains, but not all. If you visit London It is worth booking your ticket online and in advance to save money and to reserve a seat – please see our section devoted to tickets.
Docklands Light Railway
The Docklands Light Railway, or DLR is a driver-less, light metro system that was opened to serve the redeveloped Docklands area of east London. It also runs to London City Airport. There are 45 stations in total in the system and most of these are elevated or at street level, with a few running partly underground also. The fare system is the same as for the tube, with some DLR tickets only available, and tickets for the riverboats that go from DLR stations.
London transport will always be known for it’s red double-decker buses. These days there are many kinds of buses in service – some aren’t red, aren’t double-decker and only a very few have conductors, now.
Tourists needn’t be wary of using the buses when they visit London. Travelling this way is one of the most pleasurable ways to get around and it is also the cheapest, besides walking or cycling! The bus service in London has improved considerably in recent years. Sit back and enjoy the ride and the views of London’s neighbourhoods and sights, especially if you are moving around the centre of London.
When you visit London remember that you cannot pay your bus fare with cash on the bus. You will need an Oyster card or you can use your debit card. The introduction of convenient travel cards such as the Oyster has made travelling this way much faster and easier than in years gone by. Now you will not wait around while people are scrabbling to find the right change to get on. You are not charged by zone if you travel by bus either, making it very cost-effective.
It is important to make sure you are on the correct side of the road so that you are heading in the right direction for your destination and also that you are at the correct stop to take a certain bus, of course, so check the info posted at the stops. Buses will not stop at any bus stop…only at their own designated stops. Sometimes a designated stop will be a “request stop.” This will be clearly marked and this means you will need to hail the bus to make it stop as it approaches. The last stop that the bus makes will be written on it’s front and side, along with it’s route number. Not all buses will go to the final destination on their route, so it is worth checking this before you get on.
Feel free to ask any locals waiting for the bus for assistance. Maps of bus routes.
The Routemaster bus
The famous and beloved Routemaster Bus deserves a mention. This is the most popular bus of all in central London and the one that many visitors associate with London. These red double decker buses have an open back end and a conductor. They disappeared completely for a while in London, but due to public demand have made a very welcome re-appearance, re-vamped and designed especially for use in the centre. There are two stair-cases inside and the back is open. Take care when getting off the bus: make sure it is completely stationary and be aware of cyclists, pedestrians and motor-bikes around you, as well as traffic. Conductors do not collect or check fares anymore, they are there to ensure passenger safety when getting on and off. During off peak times, there may not be a conductor on the bus and the driver will control the opening and closing of the doors.
Some Londoners travel this way as part of their commute to work each day to beat the traffic and it can be a fast and frequent way to get around. For the visitor and tourist river buses may be used more for the pleasure of being on the river and seeing the many familiar sights along the way than as a mode of London transport, but this can be a useful way to get around. Thames Clipper website.
Unlike river tours, there is no commentary on these trips, but refreshments are sold onboard and staff are available to help with boarding and disembarking. There are also apps to download which will make your phone into an audio guide for some of these trips, if you so desire.
Use your travel or Oyster card either for full or part payment for these journeys.
Tram use in present day London transport is very limited, but from 1860 to the 1950’s trams were in constant use in London, and were very popular. Gradually this mode of public transport was replaced, but trams seem to be making a bit of a comeback in London with more routes planned for the near future. Transport for London recently won an award for safety and security on the trams!
Tramlink was introduced to South London in 2000 and runs from Wimbledon to Croyden and Beckenham.
Access to the trams is step-free and is free for wheelchair users. They run every 10 minutes from Mondays to Saturdays and the tram system has many similarities to the bus route system, which is good news. You are not charged by zone and bus passes are valid on the trams. Travel cards and Oyster cards are also valid as forms of payment. TFL – trams.
Cycling in London seems to have taken off in recent years and is increasingly popular. It is a fun and cheap way to get around. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend that visitors and tourists take off gleefully on London’s streets on these bikes…once you see what traffic and driving can be like on the busy roads in the centre, we doubt many of you would want to do this anyway. You may enjoy bike hire for shorter journeys on the lanes through the parks, for example, on some of the super highways for bikes, or in quieter, more open parts of town, if the sun is shining! Cycling is prohibited on pavements.
The bikes you rent from the Transport for London Santander Cycle Hire Scheme are known as Boris Bikes, named after the mayor of London who introduced them. There are 700 docking stations for these bikes, including in many of the parks. They are safe and sturdy and have 3 gears and a journey of under 30 minutes is free.