How To Get Around London: 2024 Guide to Public Transport

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As a Londoner who’s spent a significant amount of time on London public transport, I’ve become something of an expert in getting around. From the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street (which should be avoided at all costs on Saturdays) to the serene paths of Regent’s Park, I’ve explored most parts of London.

For first-time visitors, especially those who aren’t from big cities, it can be intimidating to work out how to get around London. So look no further, I’m going to share the best options for exploring one of the world’s best cities. Here’s how to get around London.

Oxford Street is another iconic London location and a great place for shopping

Part 1: Understanding London’s Public Transport System

London’s public transport is generally very efficient, one of the world’s best public transport systems. And it’s not just me saying that – the Global Transport Index agrees. The number of Tube lines, buses and other modes of transport may seem confusing at first, but with a little bit of background information, you can get to grips with it quickly.

London is a very safe city, so you won’t need to rely on taxis and Ubers to get around – walking, the Tube and buses are all generally very safe at any time of day.

London public transport is managed by Transport for London (TfL). The system encompasses the Underground (Tube), Buses, Overground, DLR (Docklands Light Railway), and River Services. Each mode of transport offers its unique way of seeing the city, but understanding each of them work will help you find the most efficient ways to explore London.

The Best Way To Get Around: The Underground

The Tube is often the fastest way to get around, especially for longer distances. Spanning 11 lines and serving 270 stations, it’s a network that can initially seem daunting. However, with a bit of practice, it becomes surprisingly navigable.

The colour-coded Tube map is your best friend here; it’s a design classic for a reason, simplifying the sprawling network into an easily understandable diagram. If you only want to focus on one mode of transport, this is the one. 

Silver machine to buy and load money on to Oyster cards for use on London public transport.

Oyster and Contactless: The Cheapest Way To Pay

The Oyster card system has been in place for many years. Rather than buying a paper ticket, you could just pre-pay money onto a card, tap in at stations and on buses and then the system deducts the most efficient fare for your travel. 

The network has been further updated so you can now pay for travel on the TfL network if you have a contactless debit or credit card, or using Apple Pay or Google Pay. 

Every station and bus has a reader point to tap your card by the entrance. These may be bright yellow, or will say Google pay and Tap In. Once you have tapped in properly, the orange light next to the reader will turn green and the gate will open.

Gates at a tube station showing a touch pad for tapping an Oyster card, phone or bank card.

If for some reason you don’t have access to those methods, you can still get paper travelcard tickets, but contactless card payments are both much cheaper and much more convenient. It’s also easy to lose the paper travel cards, in which case you would have to purchase another one. 

Contactless payments limit your daily TfL spending to make sure you don’t pay more than is necessary, and the fare itself is lower as TfL wants to encourage this method. 

There are two types of Oyster cards. A Visitor Oyster Card that you order in advance has been posted to your home and is ready to use when you arrive. The standard Oyster card can be bought in London at Tube stations. You can add more money to either type of card using machines at Tube stations. 

The main reasons to buy a Visitor Oyster card are so you can get a Young Visitor discount applied so kids aged 11-15 travel using lower rates, or if your bank charges high transaction fees when travelling.

It might be best to load money on an Oyster card once rather than paying extra fees each time you use contactless payment depending on your bank’s policy for using your card abroad. 

Otherwise, the best option for adults generally is to just use contactless payments.  

Things To Remember:

  • You MUST tap in and out on the Yellow pads by the gate. Occasionally at an unstaffed station further out on the network, the gates will be left open – you must still tap in or out to avoid being overcharged or receiving a penalty.
  • You MUST use the same payment method for the whole day to get the correct rate – don’t mix and match different bank cards and Apple Pay. 
  • You cannot use the same payment method for different people. If you try to use the same bank card or Oyster card for multiple people to enter a Tube station it will act as if you have tapped back out rather than a second person tapping in, or just won’t open the gate at all. You could end up overpaying or getting a penalty charge. 
The tube is a great way to get around the city and is also very safe.

Part 2: The London Underground – The Most Efficient Travel Option

The London Underground, commonly known as the Tube, is the heart of the city’s transport network. During the day on most Tube lines you won’t have to wait for more than a few minutes for the next train. In central London you will always be within walking distance of a Tube station, and you can use the Tube to get to the majority of London attractions. 

The Tube lines are Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, and Waterloo & City. Between them, you can most of the city with relative ease.

Mastering the Tube Map

The Tube map simplifies a complex network into an easy-to-understand guide. Each line is colour-coded, with stations and interchange points clearly marked. 

Platforms will be marked both with the direction of travel, and will also have an image of the stations that you will pass through in that direction. 

Electronic signs above you on each platform will tell you when the next train is due, and its final destination. 

The TfL website and app can help you plan the most efficient way between two stations, and the Citymapper app is also worth downloading.

Avoiding the Rush

Londoners know that the Tube can get crowded during peak hours, typically 7:30-9:30 AM and 5-7 PM on weekdays. And when I say crowded, I mean you will be squished up against strangers with very little personal space, especially during the morning rush hour. 

If you can, travel outside these times for a more comfortable journey. Also, some stations can get particularly busy – I’ve found that avoiding major interchange stations like Oxford Circus or Bank during rush hour can make for a more pleasant trip. Seriously, if at all possible I will avoid Bank station. 

Navigating Transfers

While direct routes are ideal, sometimes you’ll need to change lines. Stations with transfers are well-signposted, guiding you to your next line. You don’t need to tap in and out when transferring between lines at a station. 

 Some interchanges require a bit of a walk, so factor this into your travel time. Stations like King’s Cross St. Pancras are large and can be a bit confusing at first, but they’re well-marked and staffed with helpful TfL employees. 

You will find sometimes that it is more efficient to get out and walk between stations rather than transfer. If you don’t know the city, use Google Maps or the Citymapper app to check whether it is more efficient to walk or use public transport. These apps will also tell you the exact route on public transport including which Tube lines you will use.

For example, walking between Leicester Square and Covent Garden takes just 3 minutes, but if you take the Tube you have to account for all the time it takes to get to the platform as well as the actual journey time.

Zone System and Pricing

London’s transport system is divided into zones, roughly formed in concentric circles.  Zone 1 is central London, radiating out to Zone 9. Fares are based on how many zones you travel through, so understanding this can help you manage costs.

Travelling in fewer zones is cheaper, but the majority of London landmarks and points of interest are in zones 1-2. Aside from travelling to and from airports, it’s unlikely you’ll need to venture further out. 

Etiquette on the Tube

A few unwritten rules can make your journey smoother.

Make sure you have your payment method in your hand before you reach the gates – nothing will annoy busy commuters more than having to wait behind you at the gate while you look through your bag for your bank card.

Always stand on the right on escalators, allowing people to pass on the left. Let passengers off the train before boarding, and move down inside the carriage to make space.

Quiet carriages aren’t a thing on the Tube, but it’s courteous to keep noise to a minimum, especially during commute hours. 

Accessibility

While many older Tube stations still lack step-free access, TfL has made significant strides in improving accessibility. Check ahead if you require step-free access or other assistance – the TfL website has comprehensive information on this.

Using the Night Tube

For late-night travellers, the Night Tube operates on certain lines on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s a safe and affordable way to get home after a night out, covering key areas across the city.

Part 3: Elizabeth Line – London’s Newest Addition

Technically the Elizabeth Line is not part of the London Underground (Tube) network, but it functions in the same way as the Tube and connects with some Tube stations.

The carriages themselves are by far the most comfortable option out of the whole TfL network. As they are newer they are quieter and also…air-conditioned, which most Tube lines are not. 

It has fewer stops than the Tube lines, so it may not always be the most efficient option between stops in central London but is very useful if you are travelling all the way across the city. 

From my home in east London out to Heathrow Airport in west London, the journey on the Elizabeth line takes around 1 hour. Previously it would have been 1½  hours by public transport, or between 1½ to 2½ hours by car.

The convenience far outweighs the noise of the line running past the back of my garden!

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

Part 4: Buses – The Next Best Option

While the Tube is great for speed, London’s iconic red buses offer more scenic view of the city. Here’s how to make the most of the bus system.

Advantages of Bus Travel

Buses are perfect for shorter, more local journeys, or when you want to see more of London. They’re often a better choice for routes that aren’t well-served by the Tube, and they can be a more direct option, avoiding the need for transfers. Plus, you get to see the city rather than travelling underground.

Using the Bus Network

With over 650 routes, the bus network might seem overwhelming at first. However, bus stops have maps and service timetables, making it easier to plan your route. The front of each bus shows the route number and destination, and inside, most buses announce stops and display them on a screen.

Paying For The Bus

Like the Tube, you can use contactless payment card on buses. Unlike the Tube, you only tap in on the Yellow pad, don’t tap back out. A great feature of the bus system is the ‘Hopper Fare’, which lets you take unlimited bus or tram journeys within one hour for the price of one. 

Things To Remember:

  • You only tap in on buses, don’t tap your payment card when exiting.
  • If you aren’t used to buses, you do need to hail them to stop. Most bus stops serve more than one route, so raise your hand when the bus approaches and the driver will stop. Otherwise, they may assume you are waiting for a different route and pass straight by.

    Likewise, when you approach the stop you want to get out at, you’ll need to press one of the buttons throughout the bus to notify the driver to stop. If someone else has already pressed it and the Bus Stopping light is on, don’t press it again. 

Live Bus Trackers

Real-time bus tracking apps are a lifesaver, especially when planning your journey or waiting at a stop. They give you live updates on bus arrivals, so you can time your travel effectively. I’ve found these particularly helpful during off-peak hours or on less frequent routes.

They aren’t always completely accurate but can be a helpful guide. Unlike the Tube, the buses are dependent on traffic so although most routes will be fairly frequent, they may not be evenly spaced out if they get stuck in traffic. 

Tower of London in Autumn

Scenic Routes for Sightseeing

Some bus routes offer particularly scenic views of London’s landmarks. For instance, route 15 offers a trip through central London past St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. 

Route 11 runs through Chelsea, past Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and across to Waterloo. Route 12 also goes through Westminster, then up to Trafalgar Square, through Soho and up to Camden.

Sitting at the front on the upper deck of double-decker buses will give you some great views of famous places. 

Night Buses

For those out late, night buses are a reliable option. They cover most areas of London and are safer and cheaper than a taxi. Routes are prefixed with an ‘N’ and run with less frequency but cover major routes across the city. I would just recommend that you sit nearer the driver on a night bus.

Safety and Comfort Tips

Buses are generally safe, but as with any public transport, it’s wise to stay alert, especially late at night. Keep your belongings close and be aware of your surroundings.

Part 5: Walking – The Cheapest Way To Get Around London

Walking in London is not just a mode of transport; it’s the best way to sightsee. As a Londoner, I’ve found some of my favourite spots in the city on foot. Here’s why you should consider walking for your shorter journeys or a leisurely exploration of the city. 

Advantages of Walking in London

Walking allows you to appreciate the city’s history, architecture, and culture at your own pace. It’s often the quickest way for short distances. Plus, it’s free and healthy!

Just remember – London is a huge city. It would take around 2 hours to cross between the western and eastern edges of Zone 1, so you should expect to use some form of public transport alongside walking around the city. 

Navigating London’s Streets

London’s layout can be a labyrinth, especially for those used to cities on a grid system. While having a map or GPS on your phone helps, don’t be afraid to wander a bit off the beaten path – you might discover a quaint café, a historic alleyway, or a beautiful piece of street art.

Keep your eyes out for blue plaques on buildings which mark places of interest, particularly places where historic figures lived and worked. 

Safe and Scenic Walking Routes

There are countless scenic routes across London. Strolling along the South Bank of the Thames offers iconic views of the city. Walking through the Royal Parks like Hyde Park or Regent’s Park provides a refreshing break from the urban environment.

Neighbourhoods like Covent Garden, Soho, and Shoreditch are great for leisurely walks, brimming with character.

Pedestrian-Friendly Areas

Some areas in London are particularly pedestrian-friendly. The City of London (the ‘Square Mile’) is compact and walkable, with landmarks like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. The West End, known for its theatres and shops, is also best explored on foot.

Walking Tours

For those interested in history tours or specific themes, London offers a multitude of walking tours – from guided historical walks to self-guided thematic trails like the Beatles’ London or Jack the Ripper tours. These can be a great way to learn about the city from knowledgeable guides.

Safety Tips for Walking

While London is generally safe for pedestrians, always be mindful of traffic, especially when crossing roads, as vehicles drive on the left. Be aware of your surroundings, especially in busier or less familiar areas.

A driverless DLR train travelling on a track beside London skyscrapers.

Part 6: Overground and DLR – Beyond the Underground

The London Overground and DLR cover parts of London that the Underground doesn’t reach as extensively.

The Overground is particularly useful for travelling between outer boroughs without heading into central London, while the DLR offers a unique, driverless experience, often providing front-row seats and stunning views of the city, around in the Docklands area.

These parts of the network are generally less useful for tourists as they cover areas that aren’t so central, but they function in the same way as the Tube – just tap in and out at stations. 

One significant difference is that at some DLR and Overground stations, there are no gates – you must still tap in and out at the entrance, or risk getting a fine if you are caught.

Part 7: Cycling in London

Cycling in London is becoming more common, however I would only recommend this if you are a confident cyclist. Unfortunately, London drivers don’t always treat cyclists as kindly and safely as they should. Several parts of the city have dedicated cycle lanes to keep cyclists safe and encourage the use of bikes. 

Hiring Bikes in London

For those without their own bike, London offers easy bike hire options. The Santander Cycles scheme has docking stations across the city. These publicly available bikes are still sometimes called ‘Boris bikes’, as Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London when the scheme was first introduced.

Hiring a bike is simple – just use the docking station terminal or the app to release a bike, then return it to any docking station when you’re done.

Safety Tips for Cycling in London

Safety is paramount when cycling in a bustling city like London. Always wear a helmet, be aware of other road users, and follow traffic rules. Using dedicated cycle paths where available is safer and often quicker than navigating through traffic.

Always signal your intentions to other road users, don’t cycle on pavements, and give way to pedestrians at crossings.

Part 8: Taxis and Ride-Sharing – Convenient but Costly

Sometimes, you need the convenience of a door-to-door service, especially late at night or when you’re in a hurry. That’s where taxis and ride-sharing services come into play. In London, these options are plentiful, but they come at a higher cost compared to public transport.

A black cab on a London road with red London double decker buses and cars behind it.

Black Cabs: The Classic Choice

The classic Black Cabs are icons that London is known for. They’re known for their reliability and the expertise of their drivers, all of whom have passed the rigorous ‘Knowledge’ test, memorising every street and landmark in the city.

Black cabs can be hailed on the street or booked via phone or apps. They offer safety and comfort, though at a premium price.

Ride-Sharing Apps: A Modern Alternative

Ride-sharing services like Uber have become increasingly popular in London. They offer the convenience of booking through an app, often with lower fares than black cabs. However, prices can surge during high-demand periods, so it’s worth comparing costs before booking.

This isn’t the best way to get around the city during the day, and personally, I only use them for shorter journeys at night or if I am carrying anything heavy. Walking at night is generally still safe, but sometimes I just can’t be bothered!  

Minicabs: Pre-Booked, Fixed Fares

Minicabs are a good alternative for planned journeys. Unlike black cabs, they must be booked in advance, usually by phone or through a local minicab office. They offer fixed fares, which can be more economical for longer trips. 

Safety and Comfort Tips

Safety is key when using these services. Always ensure you’re getting into a licensed vehicle, especially with minicabs. With black cabs and ride-sharing services, confirm the driver and vehicle details before starting your journey.

The only vehicles you should flag down on the street are Black cabs – don’t ever get into a minicab that you haven’t pre-booked with a proper company. 

Accessibility Options

Many taxis and ride-sharing vehicles in London offer accessibility features, such as wheelchair access. When booking, you can specify any special requirements to ensure the vehicle meets your needs.

View from the South Bank of the River Thames across to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament with boats on the river

Part 9: River Services – A Unique Way to Travel

If you’ve taken even the briefest glance at a map of London, you’ll have seen the River Thames flowing directly through the middle of the city. Although these aren’t generally used by Londoners on their daily commute, they can be a fun way to explore a bit more of the city. 

As the city originally developed around the river, many famous landmarks sit along the banks of the Thames. There’s something truly special about seeing the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and the Shard from the river, especially at sunset when the city lights start to twinkle.

The Thames Clippers and other riverboat services operate along the river, connecting various parts of London. These services are not only practical for reaching destinations like Greenwich, Canary Wharf, and the O2 Arena but also offer a leisurely way to view the city’s landmarks. 

Using the River Services is straightforward. You can use your contactless payment for easy access, and there are regular services throughout the day. I would note that the fares are separate so your your daily contactless cap of Tube and bus journeys will not include any river trips. 

Part 10: IFS Cloud Cable Car

This is the cable car running between Royal Docks and Greenwich. It’s more of a sightseeing experience than a practical travel method, but can be enjoyable to get views above the river in the Docklands area of east London.

The name varies according to the current sponsor, so in some blogs and websites that haven’t been updated, you may still see it listed as the Emirates Cable Car. 

Part 11: Driving In London

This is the only option that I wouldn’t recommend in central London. Finding anywhere to park is difficult and expensive. There are lots of one-way streets, speed restrictions and time restrictions. There are lots of cameras around to catch people breaking the rules.

I live in east London and find having a car very useful but I still never drive in Zone 1. It’s not an efficient way to get around the city unless you are exploring further out.

Part 12: Travelling Around London As A Family

If you are visiting with children, under 11s can travel for free on the Tube or buses with a fare-paying adult. If they look like they are older than 10 you may need proof that they are eligible for free travel. On buses you can just tap in and get on with your child. 

At Tube stations you will need to go to the wider gates for wheelchairs and buggies. These gates are slower to close to allow for users who cannot get through the standard gates. If you try to take your child with you through the normal gates they may close before you can both get through. The wider gates are also usually manned by staff to assist users who need help. 

Gates at a Tube station, with wider gate for wheelchair, pram users and visitors with children

For children aged between 11-15, order a Visitor Oyster card and have it posted to your home. When you arrive in London you can ask staff at Tube stations to apply a Young Visitor discount and then they will pay lower rates when using that card for up to 2 weeks.

If the discount has been applied, only the child can use it. An adult must not use a Visitor Oyster card that has had a discount rate applied. 

So, let’s say you are travelling as a family of a 4-year-old, a 13-year-old and 2 adults. You could order 3 Visitor Oysters in advance, when you arrive in London get a staff member to apply a discount to the 13-year-old’s card, use the machines to add money to the cards and the 4-year-old should go through the wide gates with one of the adults. 

Alternatively, order one Visitor Oyster card for the 13-year-old, get the discount applied and then the 2 adults can use their preferred Contactless payment method. 

Bear in mind that this does require planning, you need to order them far enough in advance for the Visitor Oyster Cards to be shipped to your home. If you don’t get one in advance then you will need to buy paper tickets at child rates for the teenager or just pay adult prices. 

Where To Stay In London

BUDGET pick
Hyde Park

Urbany Hostel

A hostel close to Bayswater tube station and Hyde Park, this is a great option for visitors to London on a tight budget.

mid range pick

Z Hotel Strand

This hotel is very central and reasonably priced. That does mean that the rooms are not very big, but as you’ll be exploring the city you don’t need more than a comfortable place to stay in a great location.

Luxury pick

Claridge’s

If money is no object, then Claridge’s is a stunning ultra-luxurious hotel. It sets the bar for many of the best hotels in the city. The price tag reflects the high quality, but if you budget isn’t a concern then this might be for you.

Conclusion: How To Get Around London

Navigating London is fairly easy once you get the hang of it, and for further information, there are videos available to help you with practical demonstrations.

Almost every part of London is well served by some form of public transport. The key to getting around is mixing and matching the different options. Given that public transport covers most towns and cities in the UK, it’s also a great way to do some day trips from London.

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