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Getting the Best Out of London's Transportation

Ricardo from UK and Susan (aka Panda) from UK

London has a comprehensive and sophisticated public transportation system, which enables the visitor to move swiftly, economically and safely about the city. It gets pretty overcrowded and uncomfortable during the rush hours, but at other times you can move around in reasonable comfort.

The public transportation system has a number of component parts, including:

For private transportation, you have London's famous black cabs.

Fare Structure, Travelcards, Zones

Before looking at the various options, it's worth familiarizing yourself with the fare structure, so that you don't end up paying too much. The fares for individual trips are quite pricey, so if you make a number of trips and pay for them separately, the cost can build up alarmingly.

Oyster Card

The answer is to buy one of the several types of "travelcard" available, which greatly reduce the cost of a day's travel. For example a ticket costing £6.00 will cover your whole day's travel in zone's 1 and 2 (see below for explanation) on all the above public services. This ticket is available provided your first journey of the day starts after 9.30am, which is ideal for most tourists.

There are one and seven day Travelcards and the cost is determined not only by time of day travel can start, but the number of zones covered. The £6.00 card is for one day in zones 1 and 2 only, whereas the card covering zones 1 to 6 costs £8.00. You would need the zone 1 to 6 card if making a visit to outer London to visit places like Kew Gardens. There are also special travel cards for tourists, but these are not always the best value.

Travelcards are available either as a card ticket or they can be loaded onto an Oyster Card, a strong, reusable plastic card. You can also load cash onto an Oyster for Pay as You Go (PAYG) travel: this is useful for occasional journeys on a day when you do not expect to travel much – but the total charge per day is capped to the same amount as the Travelcard. Individual Oyster Pay as You Go journeys are much cheaper than cash.

The underground maps displayed at every station show the travel zones clearly, so it is easy to make an informed decision about which travel card you need. The travelcards can be purchased from all Underground Stations and from many newsagents' shops (not One Day cards) in London (they display a blue sign saying Ticket Stop or Oyster Stop).

Visit the excellent Transport for London (TFL) website for details of the price structure of the whole system and the zone map (see links in Resources below).


London's buses go everywhere in the city and if you don't believe me, just look at the map for Central London (you will find one on TFL). The map is a treasure in itself, because when you zoom in, you can see all the main roads, all the parks, all the attractions, the actual locations of all the tube stations and of course, where all the buses run. Similar maps are available on the TFL site for all the areas of outer London too. Have a look at the bus spider maps too, which show the routes in a diagrammatic form, which is easier to follow.

Contributors to the Slow Travel Message Board often praise London's sightseeing buses and I wouldn't argue. But the more intrepid traveler, armed with a bus map and travel card, can see all the same wonderful locations and many more for a fraction of the cost.

You can pay for individual journeys on the bus as you get on. Single journeys of any length in the central area cost £2.20 (£1.30 Oyster PAYG with a daily cap of £4.00) . If you have a travelcard, you do not pay extra; just show it to the driver. To use an Oyster, you simply lay it flat on the reader next to the driver's cash point: you don't need to take it out of the plastic wallet that is supplied with it. Unlike the tube or train, you don't need to put the card on the card reader when you exit. Bus travel for children under the age of 11 is free: young persons 11-15 can get free bus travel with an Oyster Photocard, although this does have to be ordered well in advance (see the TFL site for details).

If you are a night owl, it's good to know that there is an extensive network of night buses, running right across London. Again details are available on the TFL site.

Bus travel does have its disadvantages. You can get stuck in traffic and move very slowly, but I would urge all visitors to do at least some of their traveling this way. You see so much more and somehow get more of a feel for the city by seeing it from the top of a double-decker.

Double Decker bus - route #65, taken outside Kew Gardens

Double Decker bus - route #65, taken outside Kew Gardens

The Underground and the Dockland Light Railway (DLR)

The Underground offers travelers rapid transport about the city from early in the morning until about midnight, every day of the week. Central London is very well covered and most locations are only short walk from the nearest station. The system also provides access to Heathrow Airport and many parts of outer London

There are 12 different lines, as shown on the famous London Underground Map and for practical purposes the DLR can be considered part of the system. The trains run frequently on all the lines and there is no need to worry about timetables. Once you have arrived on the platform, a train will usually arrive within a few minutes.

Although the trains on the system are all quite modern, there has been under-investment in the infrastructure over the years and hold-ups and breakdowns are not as infrequent as they should be. Nonetheless, the system works pretty well most days and visitors will generally find it a very effective way of getting about.

Buying Tickets

Buying tickets is easy, because most stations have manned ticket offices (where you can also ask for guidance) and ticket machines. Some of the machines, particularly in the larger stations, take credit cards and can top-up Oyster cards.

Once armed with a ticket you access and exit from the system through automatic barriers. Both entering and leaving the station, you put your ticket into a slot beside a gate, the gate opens, and your ticket is given back to you. If you take a ticket outside its designated zone, it won't open the barrier and you will have to pay an excess charge. With an Oyster card, you simply lay the card on the reader. You must also have it read on the way out – even if the barriers are open, it is important to register your exit, or you will be charged the maximum daily fare.

Tips for Traveling on the Underground

Traveling on the Underground can be a bit daunting at first, so here are a few tips to help you on your way. First of all, it's a good idea to spend a little time planning each journey, preferably before setting out from your base. Once you have identified the stations at the beginning and end of the trip, use the Underground map to identify the line or lines you will be traveling on. When the journey involves more than one line, note the names of the stations where you will have to change trains. Note also the direction of travel on each line, i.e. Northbound, Southbound, Eastbound or Westbound.

Most stations serve one line only, but many serve two or more. In the latter case, follow the signs for the line you require and, so that you get a train going in the right direction, look for signs saying such things as "Southbound trains" or "Piccadilly Line Westbound". Once you arrive at the platform, look for a prominent diagram showing the stations served and make sure the one you want is on it. If it isn't, you will need to retrace your steps and find your way to the platform serving the opposite direction of travel. When changing lines, you will need to follow pretty much the same rules and there will always be clear directions to the line you want.

Piccadilly Line train at Osterley Station

Piccadilly Line train at Osterley Station

London's Mainline Railways

Many visitors to London don't even think about using mainline trains and in the central area there is rarely any benefit from doing so. But if you look at the comprehensive map of the system, you will see that if you are making journeys to parts of North, South East, and South West London in particular, the mainline often provides the best access. Fare prices are similar to the underground and remember that travel cards for the underground also cover mainline trains within the 6 zones. If your journey on a mainline train starts within the 6 zones but ends outside, you should not use the Oyster PAYG, but buy a destination specific ticket instead. Some mainline stations within zone 6 have open exits (no barriers) but there will be a card reader to validate entrance and exit for Oysters.

If you buy a train ticket which crosses London on a longer journey (e.g., you could buy a ticket from the south coast to Scotland, travelling into and out of London on the way) your ticket should include travel on the underground. You simply put your ticket through the gate reader like a paper Travelcard or single ticket.

Mainline trains are generally less frequent than the underground, so you should use a timetable in planning your journey. If you have access to the Internet, the Network Rail timetable is excellent. Once on the website, just click on "planning your journey".

London's Black Cabs

Taxi cabs in any major western city tend to be expensive and London's are no exception. But, as any seasoned traveler will tell you, the advantages will sometimes outweigh the cost, particularly if you have lots of heavy luggage. Only official black cabs (not all of which are actually black these days) can be hailed in the street.

All London cabbies have to pass a tough exam called "the knowledge", which means they will almost always know the quickest and/or shortest route to where you want to get to. There is also a strictly regulated pricing system, which means you can always read the correct price off the meter. The price structure is shown on the TFL site and it can work out reasonably economically, if four people share.

Tipping is discretionary and anything above 10% would be considered generous.

Black cab on Victoria Embankment

Black cab on Victoria Embankment

Using Other Taxi or Private Car Services in London

Transport for London LicenseWhen booking private car services (minicabs/ private hire as they are also known in the UK) online, look for the Transport for London licensing logo (a pale purple circle, with Private Hire or Taxi, written across it) on the website, together with the operator's license number. You can then use this to check if it is a properly regulated operator, who has taxed and insured roadworthy vehicles and properly licensed drivers by entering the number (without the 0 in front) here, on the Transport for London website. Private hire vehicles have to be pre-booked, either by phone or online, or hired for immediate use in person at minicab offices. They cannot be hailed in the street and cannot tout for business.


Slow Travel Photos: London Transportation photos

www.tfl.gov.uk: Transport for London (TFL), details of fares, zones, maps for public transportation in London, details on all forms of transportation (including taxi rates)

www.nationalrail.co.uk: National Railway, trains

These links below are to specific places on the TFL website:

Price Structure of the Whole System

Bus Maps

Black Cabs Fare Structure

Travel Zone Map (this link opens a PDF file)

London Underground Map (this link opens a PDF file)

Map of London's Mainline Railways  (this link opens a PDF file)

"Ricardo" lives in Surrey, England and is a regular visitor to Italy and France. Susan, a moderator for our forums Slow Travel Talk, also contributed to this article.

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