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The Cheapest Way To Travel Around London – Navigating London On A Budget

London is expensive, there’s no escaping that fact. However, there are ways of reducing your costs – staying in hostels, visiting free attractions, and getting around without taxis and Uber.

Want to know more? Then keep reading!

London, known for its expansive and efficient public transport network, offers various options that cater to budget-conscious travellers. As well as locals, like me!

And things have moved on enormously since I was a teenager queueing up at a ticket office at a station in North London for a paper ticket that was far too easy to lose.

This guide will explore the most cost-effective ways to get around the city and answer a few of the most common questions. 

The tube is a great way to get around the city and is also very safe.

Understanding London’s Transport Network

London’s transport system is vast and includes buses, the London Underground (commonly known as the Tube), London Overground, trams, river services, and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). 

For visitors, navigating this network efficiently and affordably is one way to reduce your costs – getting around via taxis and rideshares is both expensive and inefficient. Public transport is the way to go. 

I have a complete guide to getting around London on public transport that goes into each part of the system in detail. 

Automatic barriers at a Tube station, with a yellow pad on the right sie to tap payment methods against.
A typical gate at a Tube station with a reader to take payment by card, Oyster or phone.

Contactless Payments

London’s transport network is run by Transport for London (TfL), and they want you to go contactless. Paper tickets are now rarely used, and most people tap in and out using their bank card or phone. 

For a bus, you just tap your card once when entering the bus, not when you get off.

For the Tube, DLR, trains etc, you must tap both when entering and exiting the station. Even if you get to the exit and the barriers are open, you still need to tap to exit, otherwise you’ll be charged the maximum fare. 

Using contactless methods means that you pay as you go, up to a limit. You can go all over the city, use the Tube, buses, tram, and TfL trains and you’ll pay no more than £15.60 even if you get on 20 buses and 30 tube trains. 

As a visitor you’ll probably be spending most of your time in central London. Most of the major landmarks fall in TfL Zones 1 and 2. 

The TfL map is divided into rough concentric circles – by the time you hit zone 6 you’ll be in mostly residential areas so you probably won’t be going that far out. Keeping to zones 1 and 2 reduces your daily spending cap to £8.50. 

Note: There is an exception to this – if you go out to Heathrow Airport, there is a premium rate. 

Contactless is the way to go, and TfL is so keen on it that a paper ticket for the same journey will cost more money. 

A ticket machine specifically to buy and add money to Oyster cards
Oyster card machine are found at most Tube stations.

Oyster Cards

The Oyster cards were a big deal when they were introduced – load money onto a card and then top up as needed, making it more efficient to get in and out of stations and buses. 

Now that most credit and debit cards are contactless and most smartphones have Apple or Google Pay, Oyster cards have fallen out of favour. You can still buy them at Tube stations, but there are only a few reasons why it makes sense to use an Oyster.

  1. They are a great souvenir
  2. If your bank charges high foreign transaction fees so topping up an Oyster once incurs fewer fees than constantly using your card when travelling.
  3. If you are travelling with a child aged 15 or younger and want to add a discount to an Oyster card for them. 

Important Info: if you want to add a discount to an Oyster for a child, you must order a Visitor Oyster to your home before travelling to the UK. Once you arrive, ask a TfL staff member to add the discount – you can’t get the discount put on an Oyster card that you buy in London. 

The fares for Oyster and other contactless methods of payment are the same.

TfL doesn’t care if you tap your phone or buy an Oyster, as long as you use the same method of payment throughout the day. 

Each person travelling needs their own method of payment – you can’t use the same bank card for multiple people. 

A double decker red London bus, with Tower Bridge in the background.

Buses and Trams

For those looking to save even more, London’s buses and trams offer the cheapest flat-rate fares across the city.

A single journey on any bus or tram route costs just £1.75 when you pay with an Oyster or a contactless payment method, regardless of the length of your journey. 

Even better, if you get on other buses within an hour of tapping on the first bus, you won’t be charged a second fare. This is the Hopper fare scheme, designed to make commuting affordable for people who live further out and need multiple buses to get into the city centre.

If you only use buses and trams all day, the spend cap is £5.25.

Cycling

Another economical way to get around London is by bike.

The Santander Cycles scheme, popularly known as ‘Boris Bikes’, after the former mayor Boris Johnson, provides a public bike-sharing service that is simple and inexpensive. 

For a small access fee, you can take an unlimited number of 30-minute rides within a 24-hour period. Docking stations are widespread, making it easy to pick up and drop off bicycles throughout your day.

London has many cycle lanes around the city, but I would still only recommend this to experienced cyclists, and you need to know a bit about London road rules. 

Drivers don’t always keep a safe distance from cyclists. Also, on a few occasions I’ve seen cyclists almost get hit when breaking the rules and going through red lights and crossing in front of cars.

If you aren’t a confident cyclist, it may not be the best method for you. 

Walking

Of course, the most economical travel method is walking. London is a fantastic city to explore on foot, and many of its most famous sights are closer together than you might think. A great route to take past many famous sites is along the South Bank.

However, London is big. If you love walking then by all means, it’s a great way to see the city. For efficiency, use the Tube at least some of the time. 

Public Transport Outside London

The UK is much more than just London, however the Oyster card system is specifically for London and TfL – you can’t use it to get to other parts of the UK. National Rail is the UK-wide train network, and you need to buy tickets for those services separately. 

FAQs

Is using contactless payment cheaper than buying a traditional ticket?

Yes, significantly cheaper. If possible, avoid buying paper tickets for travel on the TfL network. 

Do I need an Oyster Card in London?

No, a contactless credit or debit card, or a phone with ApplePay or Google Pay function and cost the same as Oyster cards.

Is Public Transport In London Safe?

Yes, London is generally very safe, and public transport is a great way to get around safely. 

Is the Elizabeth line more expensive than the Tube?

In Central London, the fares are the same for the Tube and Elizabeth line. If you are heading to the end of the Elizabeth line at Heathrow you’ll pay more, but generally they cost the same.

Conclusion

Travelling around London doesn’t have to be expensive. With tools like the Oyster card and contactless payments, you can explore the city efficiently and economically.

By planning your routes and travel methods with a focus on cost and convenience, you can ensure that your London adventure is both enjoyable and affordable.

If you like using trains to get around, have a look at the best day trips to take from London by train.

If you are still working out how many days you’ll need in London and how to plan your trip, I’ve got lots of London guides to answer your questions.

Happy Travels!

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