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Transport in London is extremely expensive, so try to walk around the attractions as much as you can or buy a sightseeing card/tour that includes transport. The prices are calculated depending on the zone you travel in, the time you travel at and whether you are a child, adult, student or elderly traveller.
The transport system in London is slightly different to the normal transport system in the rest of the UK because this is run by Transport for London (TfL), under the Mayor of London’s authority. The Mayor of London is elected every five years by the people of London, so rules, prices and many other things change regularly with this.
Travelling by Tube
The most important means of transport in our capital city is the underground, or as the locals call it “the tube”. This was the first underground railway system in the world and is the most extensive in the UK.
London has 11 different tube lines that operate very regularly. When waiting at a station, you’ll notice that the central lines arrive every 3 or 4 minutes. The tube, however, isn’t open during the night. It closes from midnight to 5am, with only a few exceptions on Friday and Saturday evenings with Night Tube services.
The best way to get around London using the tube is to use the TfL Journey planner, available as an app and a website, but Google Maps generally provides the right directions and tube lines too. You can normally get a copy of the underground map at tourist information centres, most tourist attractions and even in your hotel. I definitely recommend taking a look when you first arrive so you can see how the city is laid out.
London is divided up by zones. The city centre is zone 1 and as you get further outside the city, you reach zone 9. Travel is relatively cheap within one zone, but the more zones you travel, obviously, the more expensive it will become. When you purchase travel cards or travel discounts, they often only apply to certain zones, so make sure you always read the small print! Most tourist attractions are in zone 1, with only a few outside, so you should be OK if you’re only visiting the sites. Note that London airports are either outside of the London zones or in further away zones.
Tips from a native for travelling by tube
Follow the signs and stand on the right. If you wander around the London underground you’ll see that everything is very organised. When walking along the extensive corridors or standing on an escalator, you’ll see everyone standing on the same side. This leaves the other side empty for people who want to travel faster. You may hear some very angry people if you stand on the wrong side!
Be prepared! Everything moves very quickly in London and Londoners get very frustrated when they have to stop behind somebody. Make sure you have your ticket ready to walk through the ticket barriers very quickly and make sure you know which tube line you’re taking. If you stop, everybody else will stop behind you.
Tubes use “northbound” “southbound” “eastbound” and “westbound” directions. So even if you are travelling on the Jubilee line, when you get to the platforms it will say “north” or “south” and you need to know which direction you’re going. If you’re travelling as a tourist, it’s a good idea to look it up beforehand. Be alert and try to read all the signs around you to make sure you’re going in the right direction.
Move quickly to get on the tube! The tube doors don’t stay open for very long, so you need to push and shove to get onto the tube, or just wait for the next one.
You can pay using contactless with your bank card. This is great if you have a UK bank card, because you simply scan it at the barriers and it will deduct the cost of the journey. I wouldn’t recommend this if your bank uses a different currency otherwise you’ll be charged an exchange rate and possibly a bank fee each time you scan it.
Stand behind the yellow line when waiting on the platform, you may hear the speakers telling you to get back otherwise (which can be rather embarrassing in front of an entire platform!)
Mind the gap. When travelling through the London underground you’ll endlessly hear the expression “mind the gap”. There is sometimes a gap between the actual train and platform when you step on and off it. Sometimes it’s almost invisible, but sometimes it’s slightly larger. Just be careful you don’t fall down it or drop anything down the gap!
Driving in London
In most countries, when travelling around different cities it can be much cheaper to hire a car and drive around yourself. In most UK cities, it is the same case, but in London this is different and this is all because of the congestion charge.
This congestion charge applies between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday, excluding bank holidays. If you are travelling in London, most of the city centre is covered by this congestion charge. You can see the congestion charge symbol when you are entering this area and there is a map that shows exactly where this area is. If you are driving into this area, you must pay this charge.
If you pay on the day you enter this zone or before, you will be charged £11.50, if you pay the day after you entered this zone, you will be charged £14. If you haven’t paid this congestion charge, you will be fined £160. Your vehicle’s number plates are registered and you’ll be sent a letter through the post. If you have rented a car, the rental company will receive this charge and pass it on to you, perhaps with an additional expense.
Note that this is a daily charge, so if you travel in this area every day, you’ll need to pay £11.50 every day. However, you can travel in and out of this area as many times as you want within the day you have paid for. As you can see, this can turn out to be a very expensive means of travel, so public transport may be a better alternative.
Discounts in London
There are a few discount options that can help you travel around London better. There is the railcard for overground trains, which we mentioned in our previous blog, a travelcard and the Oyster card. There are two different types of Oyster card that you can invest in as a tourist- Oyster Card and Visitor Oyster Card, both have their perks.
Both cards look the same and can be used on the bus, tube, DLR, tram, overground rail services and even boat. Both cards cost £5.00 and are top-up cards. So when you first receive your card, it will be worth £0 and you need to top it up. For example, you might add £20 to your card. You can top up your card at most tube stations in London on the machines or at a few ticket offices. Some newsagents around the city will also top it up for you. If you download the TfL app, you can insert your card details here and top up using the app instead.
Each time you travel using the tube, you will need to scan your Oyster card at the ticket barrier. You will do the same when you leave the next station and the cost of that journey will automatically be deducted from your card. You can easily check your card balance using the TfL app.
Visitor Oyster card
Using an Oyster card is much cheaper than using a travelcard or a single ticket. For a travelcard or single ticket, you don’t need to pay a £5 activation fee, however the individual prices of tickets are more expensive. With a travelcard or if you use cash to buy a single ticket in zone 1, for example, it will cost you £4.90. If you use an Oyster card or Visitor Oyster card for that same journey it will cost you £2.40, so you can quickly save money using this method.
In addition, the Oyster card/Visitor Oyster card has a daily cap. This cap depends on whether you travel during peak/off-peak hours, the zones you travel in and the type of traveller you are. For example, the maximum you will be charged for zones 1 and 2 as an adult, is £7.20 on a daily basis or £36.10 on a weekly basis. A daily cap is calculated from 4:30am one day to 4.29am the next day. A weekly cap is calculated from Monday to Sunday. This is an example where a flexible 7-day travelcard may be cheaper because your week can start and finish on any day of the week. You may be overcharged during the week, but you will be refunded once the weekly cap has been reached.
Tips from a native for using an Oyster card
Remember to tap out when you get off. Sometimes ticket barriers will be open to reduce congestion. This doesn’t mean, however, you can simply walk through. You must remember to tap your card out. If you don’t tap out, your Oyster card will assume you have travelled to the furthest distance and, therefore, charge you the maximum single journey price. It’s better to avoid this and simply tap out.
Check you are charged correctly. There are a few times where I have travelled around London, tapping my card in and out, and I’ve been overcharged for a single journey in one zone. If this happens, make sure you get in touch with TfL straight away to complain and you’ll be charged correctly.
Connect your saver cards. If you decide to use a Railcard, you can connect it to your Oyster card, so your discounts will apply to your London travel too.
Another discount option is the travelcard. This can also be purchased from TfL and this is a physical paper card. It also provides unlimited travel on the bus, tube, tram, DLR and overground train services in all of London’s nine zones. Travelcards are only available for one day (both anytime and peak) or for seven days. At the time of writing, a 1-day adult travelcard for zones 1-4 costs £13.50, whilst a 7 day travelcard zones 1-2 costs £36.10. All travelcards are stamped with a date, so you cannot use them whenever you want and when you use the 7-day travelcard, these days must be consecutive.
It’s clear to see that you need to be prepared when you visit London to make sure you’re spending your money wisely on transport. This can be an extortionate cost and I definitely recommend saving up your money for the tourist attractions instead of transport around the city. If you visit in summer or are lucky enough to have good weather, all the main tourist attractions are fairly central and not too far from each other, so you could always walk around and take in the British culture along the way.
*The material and information provided in this post is for general information purposes only.