How-To Guide: Transport in London

OK, now you’ve settled in to your hotel, you’ve dealt with the worst of the jet lag, and now you’re ready to get out there and see London!  But it’s a VERY big city, so you’ll probably want to use public transport to get around (and maximize your touring.)  How does it work in London with public transport?

If  you’re going to spend more than two days in London, and plan to use the Underground (Tube), light rail, buses or trains even a few times per day, don’t bother with those “Travelcards” they sell in all the stations.  Your best bet is to do what locals (and savvy travelers) do: buy an Oyster Card.  It looks like this:

Oyster 1

(This is one especially for tourists.)

Or like this:

When you use the Tube, Docklands Light Rail (DLR), London Overground trains, London buses, and most National Rail services in the London area (for example, taking the train to Wimbledon), you don’t need to worry about a ticket: at the ticket stop, instead of inserting a paper ticket, you just touch the Oyster Card to the big yellow circle on the machine.  The readers look like this:


That yellow disc contains the Oyster Card reader.  So the first reason to buy an Oyster Card?  You don’t have to worry about those paper tickets anymore.  Oyster is much more convenient.

But here’s the biggest reason: an Oyster Card makes London travel a lot cheaper, because of something called “price capping.”  If  you buy a regular 24-hour paper Travelcard, you’ll pay £12.30 for Zones 1-2 (which covers most of the main tourist sites.)  The Oyster Card charges you for each trip you make BUT once you reach the daily “cap” it stops charging you!  So for the same travel you got with a Travelcard, you’d pay only £6.60 (the daily “cap”) with an Oyster Card!  

Where can you buy an Oyster Card?  You can get one at any Tube or train station in London, including at the Tube station in Heathrow Airport.  You’ll pay a one-time card fee of £3.00, but as you can see, even with the card fee, if you only used the card one day, you’d be saving money!

When you first buy the card, you’ll “load” it with however much money you want.  I always do about £10 per day.  That’s more than I need, but if I decide to take a train somewhere out of town, that adds to the daily cap cost.  But if you’ll just be traveling around London, £7 per day works just fine!  (You can always “top up” your card in every tube and train station.)

What if  you leave and still have money on your card?  You’ve got two options here.  First, you can just keep the card until your next visit to London, because the money never expires.  But if you’d rather get that money back, just follow these steps as outlined by the Transport for London website.

For a refund of any unused credit on your Visitor Oyster card, you can:

  • Use a Tube station ticket machine for balances of up to £10 (after 48 hours of using the card for the first time)
  • Take your card to a Visitor Centre (except Gatwick)
  • Post your card to us

If you take your card to a Visitor Centre (except Gatwick), your refund will be paid in cash or by debit/credit card. Your Visitor Oyster card will be cancelled, which means you won’t be able to use it for future travel.

You might be thinking, “I won’t travel enough to make an Oyster Card worth the money.”  Let’s look at some single (one-way) fares, and see if you’re right!

First off, here is the Tube map showing Zone 1.  (As you can see, Heathrow isn’t covered, but as noted earlier, the one-way fare to Central London is £5.70.)  However ALL the major train stations ARE in Zone 1: Liverpool Street (Stansted Express); Paddington (Heathrow Express and buses from London Luton); Victoria (Gatwick Express and buses from London Luton), and Kings Cross St. Pancras (National Rail from London Luton). As you’ll see below, most everything that the average tourist wants to see is within Zone 1. 

Tube Map Zone 1

These sights (with their corresponding Tube stations and lines as shown on the map above) are the most-visited spots in London:

  • Buckingham Palace  (Victoria: light blue line OR Green Park: light blue, dark blue, and grey lines)
  • Tower of London  (Tower Hill: green and yellow lines)
  • Big Ben/Houses of Parliament  (Westminster: green and yellow lines)
  • British Museum  (Russell Square: dark blue line)
  • Westminster Abbey  (Westminster: green and yellow lines)
  • London Eye  (Waterloo: grey, black and brown lines)
  • St-Paul’s Cathedral  (St-Paul’s: red line)
  • Tower Bridge  (London Bridge: black and grey lines)
  • Hyde Park (Speakers’ Corner)  (Marble Arch: red line)
  • Trafalgar Square/National Gallery  (Charing Cross: black and brown lines)
  • The Shard  (London Bridge: black and grey lines
  • London Dungeon  (Waterloo: grey, black and brown lines OR Westminster: green and yellow lines)
  • Tate Modern  (Southwark: grey line)
  • Kensington Palace  (High Street Kensington: green and yellow lines OR Queensway: red line)
  • Victoria and Albert Museum  (South Kensington: green, yellow, and dark blue lines)
  • Piccadilly Circus  (Piccadilly Circus: dark blue and brown lines)
  • National Portrait Gallery  (Charing Cross: black and brown lines)

***PLEASE NOTE: The Tube lines all have names and colors.  For example, the dark blue line is the Piccadilly Line, and the black line is the Northern Line, but those names can be confusing for tourists, since it’s not always easy to quickly figure out which color goes with which name.  So I just use the colors as used on all Tube maps!

I could go on about the many tourist sites in London, but you get the idea.  You could spend a week in Zone 1 alone and never see everything.

So what about those fares?  OK here goes: some sample one-way fares on the Tube.

  • Heathrow (Zone 6) to Central London (Zone 1): £5.70
  • Travel within Zones 1+2: £4.90 per trip
  • Travel within Zones 1-3 (for example, to Wimbledon): £4.90
  • Travel within Zones 1-4 (for example, to Kew Gardens): £5.90

So if  you only used public transport twice in a day, it would cost you £9.80 (instead of the £6.60 you’d pay with an Oyster Card.)  And that doesn’t include waiting in long lines at many stations to actually buy your tickets!

For convenience, price and ease of use, you just can’t beat an Oyster Card!

I hope you’ve found this information useful, and I wish you all the best in London!

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