You might think that with almost 9 million residents and 19 million annual visitors all trying to get from A to B, travelling around London might be a bit of a nightmare.
However, it’s actually a lot easier than you probably think, with one of the best public transport systems in the world.
In fact, there are plenty of ways to get around the capital, whether it’s the iconic double-decker buses, the equally well-known London Underground (‘the Tube’) or other forms of transport such as taxis, water buses or just good old-fashioned walking.
That being said, it can be a bit overwhelming as a visitor, so we’ve put together this guide to getting around London as a tourist to try and help make things a little bit easier for you, a useful guide whether or not you’re staying at one of our serviced apartments in London.
The underground, known as ‘the Tube’ to locals, carries an amazing 1.37 billion passengers a year and is by far the easiest way to get around.
There are a total of 11 different lines with 270 stations serving 26 of the 32 London boroughs, with some stations even lying outside of Greater London.
The whole network runs over 250 miles in length, so it’s almost guaranteed to get you to most places that you need to be!
On some journeys, you may have to transfer onto another line, but this is really simple and there are lots of clear directions to show you where to go for each line.
One slight downside to the Tube is that, while it isn’t expensive, it can cost a bit more than other methods of transport, especially if you’re just paying for single, one-way journeys.
The price that you’ll pay will depend on how many of the network’s nine ‘zones’ you’ll be crossing (zones 1-6 cover Greater London, with 6 to 9 covering areas outside of Greater London) as well as how you’re paying.
When paying with cash, it costs £4.90 for travel between zones 1-3, £5.90 between zones 1-5, £6.00 between zones 1-6, and £5.90 between zones 2-6.
When paying with an Oyster card or debit card, fares range from £2.40 for zone 1 to £5.10 between zones 1-6, with off-peak prices cheaper by around 50p-£1.
If you pay by Oyster or debit card, you can also get special discounts for children, students and elderly travellers.
However, if you’re using a contactless card which was issued outside the UK, be sure to check whether you’ll incur any charges for using it.
While the majority of the Underground runs from 5:00 am until midnight (with a reduced Sunday service), the recently introduced Night Tube services mean that the Central, Victoria, Northern, Jubilee and Piccadilly lines run 24 hours a day on a Friday and Saturday.
If you’re worried about getting lost, don’t worry, because the Tube map is very easy to follow, with maps posted on the wall of each station and signs telling you which direction will take you where.
There are also lots of TfL staff on hand at the stations who will be happy to assist you.
One downside of the Tube is the risk of delays and cancellations, which can cause a lot of inconveniences. While there’s nothing you can really do about this, we would recommend avoiding the Tube during rush hour (7am-9am and 4pm-6pm), if you can.
Many visitors with disabilities worry about whether they’ll be able to easily access the Tube, with lots of steps down to the platforms and lots of crowds during peak times.
While these two factors can make it challenging for those with mobility problems, lots of the stations have escalators or lifts down to the platforms.
Your best bet is to check out this step-free Tube map from TfL to plan your journey. It’s also a good idea to get on at the front carriage so that the driver can see you and allow more time for you to get onto the train.
“You wait ages for a London bus… and then two come along at once”, or so the saying goes!
However, with over 9,300 vehicles in the fleet and 19,000 stops around the city, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
One of the great advantages that the bus holds over the Tube is that you get to see the sights of the city while you’re getting from A to B, which is ideal for tourists!
Each of the stops will have a detailed map and schedule for you to work out which bus you need and when the next one will come, with most routes running every three to ten minutes. However, as with the Tube, delays are possible during peak times.
Do bear in mind also, that buses only stop at their designated stops and cannot let you off in between.
To get the driver to stop at the next stop, just press one of the red buttons and you’ll see the ‘bus stopping’ light flash up.
Buses are usually cheaper than the Tube, with a single fare costing as little as £1.50 and a day bus pass costing £5.
Tickets can be bought from the driver as you step onto the bus, although bear in mind that buses no longer accept cash so you’ll have to pay with either an Oyster card or a contactless debit card. Some bus stops may also have a machine where you can buy your ticket before boarding, including paying with cash.
Another added bonus of the bus service is that once you’ve paid for your initial ticket, you can use it to ride any other bus for free within an hour, providing you use the same card, and you can only spend a maximum of £4.50 in one day with the Oyster and Contactless card cap.
The London buses run 24 hours a day, with a night bus service running while the Tube is closed through the night.
The night buses are a lot less frequent and only stop on request, so be sure to let the driver know where you’re going when you get on or make it clear to them that you want to stop.
All of the London buses are low-floor vehicles for accessibility and bus travel is free for wheelchair users too.
This makes it very easy for all travellers to get on and off the buses and they all have a retractable ramp too.
There’s also extra room set aside for wheelchair users who have priority in these designated spaces. Guide dogs are also welcome on buses as long as there’s enough space.
If you’re staying a little further out of the centre of the city, then chances are that you’ll have to catch the Overground at some point during your stay.
The Overground has only been around for ten years or so, but it provides great access to the outer reaches of London, with 112 stations across eight lines covering areas such as Watford, Richmond, Clapham, Croydon, Dalston, Stratford and more.
The Overground operates in a similar way to the Underground in terms of payment, with charges determined on how many zones you travel through during your journey.
The Overground currently runs on a similar timetable to the Underground, although the Dalston Junction to New Cross Gate line is operating 23 hours at weekends as of December 2017, with more lines following suit soon.
The Overground often links up with the Underground, National Rail services and the DLR, although the services are less frequent (around every five to 20 minutes).
One of London’s oldest transport networks is the River Bus, which dates back to the 19th century when it was one of the quickest ways to get around and the only way to cross the river.
Of course, nowadays, it’s not going to necessarily be the quickest way to get around, but this doesn’t mean you should discount it immediately.
Sailing down the river is a much more relaxing way to travel and see the sites from a different perspective. Plus, at least you know that you’re not going to have to worry about getting stuck in traffic!
The River Bus truly gives you some of the best views of the capital’s main sights, such as the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye and all the boats have toilets and refreshments on-board.
Unlike an actual river tour, there won’t be any commentary for the sights, but you can download the free Thames Clippers in:flow app to turn your phone into your own audio guide!
The fare will depend on how many river zones you travel through, but you can view a full list of fares here.
Tickets are purchased either from a machine or ticket office at the pier and, if you’re going to be using it more than once, you might want to buy a River Roamer ticket which allows you to hop on and off throughout the day.
Oyster cards are also accepted on MBNA Thames Clippers and give you a discount similar to the Tube (just make sure that you tap on the yellow reader at the start and end of your journey!)
There are 21 piers along the Thames from which you can catch the River Bus, from Putney in the west to Woolwich in the East, with departures every 20 minutes along five different routes.
The buses run from early morning until late evening, with some routes operating from 5:00 am until midnight, and the River Bus Express is a dedicated service running before and after events at the O2 in North Greenwich.
All of the piers are accessible for wheelchairs, except for Cadogan Pier, Wandsworth Riverside Quarter Pier and London Bridge City Pier.
All of the river buses have step-free access and some of the newer craft will have designated wheelchair spaces.
Staff will also be happy to help you with boarding and disembarking the boats but it’s a good idea to provide a bit of advance notice to the operator.
London is also home to a great cycle hire scheme which you can try for free for the first half hour.
Officially the Santander Cycles scheme but popularly known as Boris Bikes, after the famous politician, Boris Johnson, this is a great way to get some fresh air as you explore the sites.
Bikes cost £2 for 24 hours of access and you can ride it wherever you like before returning it to any docking station across the city when you’re done.
You can find your nearest docking terminal here and pay with a bank card using the touchscreen terminal.
You can also use the official Santander Cycles app which will allow you to pay on your phone and send release codes for the bikes directly to your device.
The bikes are available 24/7, 365 days a year, with over 750 docking stations and 11,000 bikes in operation around the capital.
Emirates Air Line
The Emirates Air Line cable car is hardly the quickest way to get around London but it does offer some of the best views!
The cable car runs from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, with the journey taking around ten minutes (five during peak times).
Adult fares cost from £3.50 per ticket and children’s tickets cost from £1.70, while a return or 360˚ tour (non-stop return journey) will cost from £6.80 per adult or £3.40 for children.
You can use your Oyster or contactless card to pay or just buy tickets at the terminal.
The Air Line runs until 11:00 pm most nights, with special extended ‘Night Flights’ available after 7:00 pm with music and video in the cabins to enhance your experience.
Lots of Londoners avoid the traditional black cabs like the plague, simply because they’re the most expensive way to get around the city.
This being said, they are pretty iconic and it’s something tourists often like to cross off their lists!
To know if a taxi is free, check the yellow ‘Taxi’ sign at the front. If it’s illuminated, the cab is free to hire. Blacks cabs are obliged to accept any journey up to twelve miles or up to an hour.
Cabs have a minimum charge of £2.60 and a trip of a mile will probably cost between £5.60 and £8.60 during peak hours, with a 10k journey costing as much as £23 to £29.
Rates also go up by 10% from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm and then by 30% from 10:00 pm to the early hours.
On top of all this, it’s customary to tip your driver by about 10% or at least to the nearest pound. All black cabs now accept card payments with no surcharge too.
You can see why we recommend avoiding taxis where possible but, in some instances, it just can’t be avoided, in which case you’re probably best ordering an Uber.
However, this opens up a whole other issue, with Uber recently losing its license to operate in London.
Currently, though, Uber drivers are still working in London while the decision is being appealed and it could be overturned in future.
The whole situation is too complicated to go into here so it’s best to do some research before you arrive to see the current status of Uber in London!
Unlicensed minicabs are illegal and, more importantly, unsafe so they should definitely be avoided. Remember that only an official black cab can be stopped by a customer and pick customers up off the street.
Any private hire minicab has to be booked in advance and cannot pick you up off the street.
Black cabs are all wheelchair accessible and will carry guide dogs at no additional cost, with a range of other aids such as ramps, swivel seats and induction loops.
No matter how long you’re staying for or how long you’re going to be using the transport network, it’s probably a good idea to get an Oyster card or a Visitor Oyster card.
They’re electronic smart cards and are usually the cheapest way to get around the city, whichever mode of transport you choose. To use them, simply touch the card on a yellow reader at the entrance of the Tube or rail station or on the terminal inside the bus or tram.
Bear in mind that if you’re travelling on the Tube you need to touch in at both the start and end of your journey, whereas on buses and trams, you just need to touch in at the beginning.
You can pick one up at either a TfL Visitor Centre or Oyster ticket shop, or you can order a Visitor Oyster before you arrive in the city.
Visitor Oysters cost £5 plus postage, after which point you can add as much credit as you want to your card (about £20 should cover you for a weekend).
If you run out of credit, you can either top your card up at the same places from where they can be purchased or via the TfL Oyster app.
You may also have heard of Travelcards, which are one-day paper tickets which allow you to travel as much as you like for the day across the bus, Tube, DLR, tram, Overground and most National Rail services.
You can also buy a seven-day Travelcard but these are loaded onto an Oyster as opposed to being issued on paper.
Generally, we would only recommend choosing a seven-day Travelcard if you’re staying in the city for longer than a week and will just be staying in Central London.
If you’re travelling in a group of ten or more, then you’ll probably want a Group Day Travelcard.
If you don’t want to get yourself an Oyster or Travelcard, you can just use your contactless credit or debit card if you have one.
These cards work in exactly the same way as Oysters and Travelcards but there’s the added benefit that you’ll never run out of credit and that your fares will automatically be capped so that you pay the cheapest fare.
Travelling with Children
Travelling around a busy city with children can be stressful at the best of times but, thankfully, they can usually travel around London either for free or at a discounted fare.
As long as they’re travelling with a fare-paying adult or have a 5-10 Oyster photocard, children under 11 can travel for free on the Tube, DLR, Overground and most rail services. They don’t need an adult or an Oyster card to travel on buses and trams for free, as long as they don’t look older than 10.
Children aged 11-15 can travel for free on buses and trams and will get a reduced rate on the Tube, DLR and Overground as long as they have an 11-15 Zip Oyster photocard.
16 and 17-year-olds can also pay half the adult rate on the Tube, DLR, Overground, tram and most rail services with a 16+ Zip Oyster, as well as travel for free on buses and trams.
If you’re travelling with children aged 11-15 who don’t have an Oyster card, you can get a discount rate set on an Oyster or Visitor Oyster Card that will allow them to pay half the adult rate for up to 14 days. This can be done at any Tube station, TfL rail station ticket office, or visitor centre.
Many people choose not to drive in London, especially in the centre and during peak times, and, with such a good public transport network, it’s easy to see why.
However, if you do choose to drive, there are a few things you should know.
Most importantly, if you’re not from the UK, remember that we drive on the left and that all drivers and passengers must wear seat-belts at all times!
If you are coming from outside the UK, your non-UK driving licence will be valid for up to 12 months, but you should also make sure that you’re properly insured and familiarise yourself with the Highway Code.
If you drive in the centre of London, you’ll probably be affected by the Congestion Charge.
This charge costs between £10.50 and £14.00 and applies if you enter the specified zone between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm (excluding Bank Holidays and weekends). You’ll know if you’re entering the zone as you’ll see a large letter ‘C’ in a red circle.
The charge can be paid online in advance, by midnight the next day or using the CC Auto Pay by phone or text message. If you fail to pay, you’ll have to pay a Penalty Charge Notice of £130, although this is reduced to £65 if you pay within 14 days.
If you’re a Blue Badge holder you’re exempt from the charge but will have to register with TfL before you travel. Some electric and plug-in hybrid cars also qualify for a discount.
Here’s a list of some of the best smartphone apps which will help make getting around London that little bit easier:
TfL Oyster App
The official Oyster app allows you to top up your Oyster credit, buy Travelcards and check your balance, as well as see your journey history.
While Google Maps is good for navigating around the city, Citymapper is a great alternative which provides up to date information about public transport, including disruptions and offline maps.
Santander Cycles App
This free app shows you Santander Cycle’s availability and the quickest route to your nearest docking station. It’ll also send a release code to your phone and allow you to hire a bike without using the terminal at the docking station.
MBNA Tickets App
The MBNA ticketing app allows you to buy tickets for the river bus services wherever you are, without the need to queue up or print off a paper ticket before you arrive. Simply activate the ticket on your phone before you travel and show it to the crew.
Hopefully, this guide has made things a little bit clearer for you with regards to getting around London. We’d also definitely direct you to the TfL Journey Planner, which is probably the easiest way to work out how to get from A to B, and their extensive collection of maps too.