From tubes to buses to boats to black cabs, figuring out the most efficient and cheapest ways to get around London can be daunting if you’re not familiar with the city. I’ve lived and worked and studied and commuted into London after moving from the US to London for the past 7 years, so I’ve got all the answers you’re looking for!
The Best Ways to Get Around London
First, before telling you where to buy tickets, let’s talk about the best ways to get around London for visitors. Whether you’re going to check out these quirky things in London or bringing the kids to London’s best toddler-friendly attractions, this is how to get there!
This doesn’t include tours or Hop-on, hop-off buses, but actual transportation that both tourists and Londoners use to get around.
The London Underground, or “The Tube” as it’s more commonly known, is the most popular way to get around.
The city is divided into different zones, which affects how much a single journey is, but the tube itself covers all of London that a visitor could possibly want to see, and it connects up directly to Heathrow Airport.
Visitors like the tube for its safety, ease of figuring out the map, and iconic London status. To me, this is the top way to get around in London and the one I use most often. I’ll talk more about prices and what you need to use the tube below.
One of the most surprising things to visitors is that double decker red buses aren’t just tourist buses – they’re real, functioning London buses that Londoners get to go from place to place.
The bus system in London is extensive, and this can be a good way of traveling when you want to see the sites out your window instead of going underground.
The downside of buses are that you can get stuck in London traffic, which the Underground doesn’t have to deal with (though of course the Underground gets very busy so you’re dealing with the traffic of people to get through rather than cars!)
There are also 24 hour buses, which is convenient if you miss the last tube back towards your accommodation.
To use a bus, you can check the app Citymapper or Google Maps (clicking the Public Transportation Option) to see which bus stop you need to go to and which number bus you need to get.
Once waiting, you should make sure someone puts their hand out to let the bus know you want to get on. Often in London there will be plenty of other people needing to get on so you won’t have to worry about being the one to do this, but in case you find yourself alone at a stop, it’s good to know.
When the bus arrives at your stop, you will enter via the front door usually while others depart from the back door to keep it one steady stream of people.
National Rail Trains
If you want to go somewhere like Watford to see the Harry Potter Studio Tour or maybe Great Missenden, which inspired many of Roald Dahl’s stories, you will need to get a train (an actual train, not a tube train).
The prices on these vary depending on when you’re going and at what time, but the best site to use to look up the routes and prices is called Trainline – click here to explore Trainline.
You can buy tickets ahead of time online and print them out, or sometimes you will order them online and then collect them at the station, or you can always buy on the day at the station.
I would recommend buying as soon as possible if you’re traveling outside of greater London, however, because prices may go up and can be expensive on the day.
For popular routes, ie from the airports, read more below.
Black cabs are an iconic part of London life and seeing them in the streets is something that every visitor wants to remember. London without black cabs would be like New York without yellow taxis. And if you want to take one a short distance just to say you’ve done it, go right ahead.
I would caution you against using them as a main route of transport or a way to travel long distances however, as black cabs are more expensive than other car transfer options, usually.
If you’ve used Uber elsewhere in the world, then you can just transfer your knowledge of this app over to London as Uber does operate in central London.
For many Londoners, this is the perfect way to get around within the city if they do not have the mobility to use the tube or buses or if they are carrying a lot of luggage that they don’t want to deal with on public transportation.
Another type of taxi service is a prebooked one that you cannot hail from a street corner. Instead you book using their app or online ahead of time, sort of a mix between the black cab model and Uber model.
I use them particularly for airport runs, as they offer the most competitive pricing from London airports to central London.
The one I use the most is called Addison Lee.
I include river boats because there are some people who “commute” on these, and sometimes they’re a great way to see London from a different angle while traveling from one London landmark to the next. For instance, you can go from Westminster Pier (near Big Ben, Westminster Abbey) to the Tower of London by river boat.
River boat tickets are not too expensive about £6 a person and can be paid with Oyster card Pay-As-You-Go money.
You can also buy tickets at kiosks outside the piers if you don’t have an Oyster card. Click here to see the timetables.
When I first moved to London, I lost a lot of weight because I walked EVERYWHERE. Not only because I was a poor college student, but because I found it more freeing to walk places than to get on a crowded underground or bus.
I walked miles and miles, all around town – to my classes, to the shop, to the bank.
Walking is a great way for visitors to see London, as well. Use this handy walking map from Transport for London to see the walking distance between tube station to help you decide if you should just walk it, and make sure to use the standing maps on tons of corners to navigate your way around.
While it is possible to cycle in London and you can rent a bicycle called a “Boris bike” from various stands around the city, I wouldn’t recommend any cycling to visitors unless it’s simply through Hyde Park.
London traffic is just too insane, and especially if you’re coming from a country where you drive on the right and not the left like in England, it’s a recipe for disaster.
If you’re just visiting London, please for the love of all that is good in the world, do not rent a car. Tons of people in London never ever learn how to drive because it’s not needed. Save yourself.
How to Use an Oyster Card for the Tube and Buses
The main two ways for visitors to access the London Underground and London buses are Oyster cards and contactless debit or credit cards. Many cards in the US still are not contactless, so I would recommend for the sake of keeping it easy to plan to get an Oyster Card.
You also cannot use cash on a London bus – you must have an Oyster card or contactless payment card.
Oyster Cards are a £5 deposit, that you can get back when you’re done with the card, and you can either load “Pay as you go” money onto them, a “Travelcard” onto them, or a combination of both.
“Pay as you go” money is what it seems like it is – you add any amount of money you want, typically at an Oyster Card kiosk in the tube station, and then each time you travel it will deduct the amount you’ve used from the amount left on the card.
You can continue “topping it up,” as they call it. If you don’t have enough money for even the shortest journey, the light will turn red when you go to “tap in,” which is what they call it when you put your Oyster card on a yellow card reader at the turnstile. If that happens, you know you need to go back to the kiosk and add more money.
A “travelcard” is basically like an all-access pass for a certain number of days in certain London zones. So most tourists would want a Zone 1-2 travelcard to get to most places in central London, but you can look on the map to see where your accommodation is to make sure you don’t need more zones.
Then, you can choose how many days your travelcard will last for – 1, 3 or 7 days.
You can also have both a “travelcard” and “Pay as you go” money on your Oyster Card at the same time. So say you had a travelcard for Zones 1-2, but wanted to go to Wimbledon in Zone 3 – when you “tapped out” after arriving at Zone 3, your card would know that you went outside of your travelcard zone and would then charge the remainder from your Pay as you go money.
Should I Use Pay-as-you-go credit or a Travelcard?
To keep it simple, it’s more cost effective to use a Travelcard only if you get the 7 day one. If you need less than 7 days, use Pay-as-you-go money.
This is because there is a daily “cap” on Pay-as-you-go-money, so once you take enough journeys to exceed that cap, it won’t charge you for your journeys the rest of the day.
How Much Pay-as-you-go-credit should I load onto my Oyster Card?
The daily cap for Zones 1-2 (the most popular London zones for tourists) is £7 per day, so multiple that by however many days you think you’ll be using the tube, plus a bit extra for cushion in case you go outside of those Zones.
Can I Get the Pay-as-you-go-money back?
Yes, when you are ready to leave London and have taken your last Oyster card journey, go to an Oyster Card kiosk that takes cash (it has to take cash to refund it, so it can’t be a card-only one), and tap your Oyster card on the appropriate place on the screen.
It will give you the option to click “Refund,” and then it will spit out both the £5 deposit money and any money left on the card.
If there is more than £20 in Pay-as-you-go credit left on the card, you would have to mail in to get a refund, so try not to go too crazy with adding tons of Pay-as-you-go-credit onto the card above and beyond what you think you’ll need.
How to Get from London Airports to the City Center
One of the questions I get asked most often, both from visitors and study abroad students in London, is how to get from London airports into the city. As with many airports, London’s are mostly outside of the city center.
There’s no room for a giant airport in London, which you’ll find out when you start realizing how space is at a premium in this capitol city.
How to Get from London Heathrow to London
Getting from London Heathrow to London is one of the easiest journeys as it’s the best connected. This airport takes international and European and domestic flights.
Prebook an Airport Transfer with Addison Lee
If you don’t feel like dealing with your luggage on public transportation, you can always book an airport transfer with Addison Lee ahead of time. This is often the cheapest option over Uber or a black cab.
Take the Tube
You can access the London Underground from any Heathrow Terminal, as there is a stop for Terminals 1, 2, and 3 and a separate one for Terminals 4 and 5.
You can purchase an Oyster card at the airport station and it will only cost £5.10 one way. There are a ton of people who use this route, so you won’t be the only one on the tube with your luggage.
The tube line that runs to Heathrow is the Piccadilly Line, and then you might need to switch to another line later on to get closer to your accommodation.
The Heathrow Express is a train that takes you from Heathrow Airport to London Paddington Station. It takes about 15 minutes and can cost as little as £12 one way if you book in advance (though the closer you get to your date of travel, the price can go up).
You can buy tickets online, or buy them at the Heathrow Express station (signs will point you in the right direction once you clear customs and immigration).
The Heathrow Express is great if you are staying somewhere around Paddington, but you will have to navigate from Paddington to wherever you want to go, so check to make sure the tube (Piccadilly Line) won’t drop you closer to where you need to go.
How to Get from Gatwick Airport to London
Gatwick Airport is the other large airport in London – I fly out of here more often due to direct flights being offered to my home city and have a lot of experience traveling in and out.
Prebooked Airport Transfer
Just like Heathrow Airport, you can book a prebooked airport cab transfer through Addison Lee if you want someone to help you with your bags and take you directly to your hotel or AirBnb.
Gatwick Airport is not connected to London via the London Underground, so trains are your major options if you don’t want to do an airport cab transfer.
A Gatwick Express ticket runs at about £17 if you buy in advance online (one way), and it goes from Gatwick Airport to London Victoria station in 30 minutes. From London Victoria, you could then hop on the London Underground or get a cab to your final destination.
You can also buy tickets on the day for a more expensive price.
Other Trains from Gatwick
You can also get other trains from Gatwick going to various stations like London Bridge, London Blackfriars, and London Farringdon that run about £12 (and will take a bit longer and have more stops).
To investigate the best train route to your destination, you can use Trainline.com, or go to Google Maps, plug in the address of your hotel, then click on the public transportation button (looks like a bus) and it will give you some options and the choice to buy tickets on those services.