I’ve briefly touched on getting around London in my post on moving there. In this series of posts I want to elaborate on that advice, just to help all you poor sods faced with the epic task of trying to navigate public transport in London. Let’s dive right in, because much like my worst day travelling, this is going to be ugly, long and potentially sanity destroying.

In London you can:

  • Walk
  • Cycle
  • Tube
  • Train
  • Bus
  • Taxi or
  • Uber/Lyft

Note: For now we just have the Tube, more modes of transport will follow when I can bring myself to relive those experiences.

how to navigate public transport on the tube subway London underground how to guide to get around London city

But first you need to know…

The Basics:

Most of the transport in London is run by TFL who are a local government agency responsible for keeping us all moving. It’s their logo that is the iconic circle with the line through it that people associate with the Underground. They are the big cheese that control fares and travel and I for one welcome our omnipresent transport overlords.

So in order to become part of their special club you will need an Oyster card. Buses in London do not accept cash and you don’t want to line up at a ticket machine every time you go to get on the tube. Oyster cards can be purchased from any ticket office or machine for £5. This is refundable so hold onto the card and you can cash it in at the end of your trip.

Oyster card London travel public transport navigating the tube underground swipe or tap in

Oyster card and the yellow reader you swipe/tap on

You can then top up your Oyster card with pre-paid credit or load a travelcard that lasts for a week, a month or a year. You can top up at most corner shops as well as at ticket machines in station entrance halls. A travelcard gives you unlimited travel on buses and tubes in whichever zones you choose. If you are planning to spend 5+ days in the city then a weekly travelcard is a pretty good deal (33 quid for zones 1-2).

The tube is split out into zones and you are charged according to how many zones you cross/visit. Going from zone 1 to zone 6 will cost you more than just travelling within zone 1 or 6 on its own. For most touristing requirements you will stay in zones 1 & 2. If you travel further than your travelcard allows the total is deducted from your prepaid credit rather than sitting within the cost of the travelcard.

To get to Heathrow you will travel to zone 6 but it’s not worth buying a zone 1 – 6 travel card for a week, you are better to just pay for that single journey on its own from your pre-paid credit, that will greatly reduce the cost of the travelcard overall.

Oyster card London travel public transport navigating the tube underground swipe or tap in

The white and grey areas will show you which stations fall into what zones.

If you have a contactless (Pay-Wave/Apple pay) card then you can use this to travel on buses and tubes too and you will be charged the same amount as a pre-paid Oyster. The maximum daily fare no matter how much travel you do is £6.60.

To get on a bus or a tube you swipe your Oyster/Contactless/Apple pay card on the reader by the driver or at the gate. To avoid looking like a rookie, make sure you have your preferred payment method ready to go, if you stall at the gate people will grumble. If you are on a bus you don’t have to swipe off as this system isn’t based on zones. Buses you pay a fare of £1.50 for an hour of riding, if you hop off your bus and swipe onto another bus within a hour you won’t be charged again (thank you Sadiq Khan!). If you are on the tube you will need to swipe out so make sure you’re ready to go when the escalator spits you out at the top. If you swipe in with only 50p on your card, your card balance will go into negative once you leave and you will have to top up before you will be able to swipe in again.

If you are going to be staying for longer than a week then it’s a good idea to register your Oyster and any contactless cards you might be using on the TFL Site. This will track all of your journeys and tell you if there are any incomplete ones. For some reason a reader will occasionally not pick up a swipe and charge you the highest fare for that line. If you have registered your card you can check for this and then really easily apply for a refund online. I claimed at least £30 worth of incorrect fares back once I found out this was possible.

You can also use apps to help you navigate the city, a lot of people are fans of CityMapper which is a massive help if you’re new to the whole system. My true ‘like a local’ moment was when I deleted that from my phone. I found that the suggestions it was serving up weren’t always the best way to get places now that I had my insider knowledge. Google Maps is equally as good as CityMapper if you do need to check where you’re going or how long until your bus arrives.

Pro Tips:

  • If you’re coming from the airport then look for the wide gates at tubes stations, these move slowly and will allow you to get your bags through without crushing you in their mechanical jaws.
  • At some stations there aren’t any manned ticket booths to be able to ask for help. In this situation you will have to use one of the electronic machines to top up and buy tickets. Just follow the steps on screen and don’t be afraid to ask the person behind you for help (not all Londoners are as scary as everyone makes out).

So if that wasn’t confusing enough let’s kick off with the biggest, scariest and best bit of London transport.

THE TUBE…essentially a sweaty can full of stranger’s farts that you pay to stand in.


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