To the untrained eye, a map of London public transport is just a crazed sprawl of lines, colours, stops and stations. This deluge of information makes visiting London for the first time an extremely confusing experience.
In light of this, we thought we’d do the city’s vast tourist population the mammoth favour of creating the ultimate guide to London public transport. Here, you’ll be able to get to grips with things like the London Underground, the London Overground, the DLR and London’s many bus routes.
Payment Options for City Visitors
The easiest way to pay on London public transport is by simply using a contactless credit/debit card. Google Pay and Apple Pay are both also accepted.
Don’t have contactless or don’t want to use your bank card abroad? There are tons of alternative forms of payment available. You could invest in a Visitor Oyster card which is a smartcard that you can top up with any amount before your trip. However, it’s worth noting that these cards are only available to purchase before you arrive in London and cannot be bought after arrival. The Visitor Oyster card can be used on all forms of London public transport and you can top it up at over 4,000 local shops around London.
Alternatively, you can purchase a visitor pass (for two or three-day stays). There is also an array of travel cards available that range from one-day to one-week long and there a number of group and family options are available too.
The London Underground
The London Underground network (commonly known as the Tube) is perhaps one of the most straightforward modes of transport in the city… Once you get the hang of it that is. Spanning 270 stations and around 250 miles of track in total, the underground network can appear daunting at first glance, but it’s important to understand that you won’t require the majority of the network.
Most of London’s most popular landmarks and attractions can be found in central London, which means you’ll mainly just be using the Central, Piccadilly, District and Circle lines. Other notable lines in central London include the Northern, Bakerloo, Victoria, Jubilee and Metropolitan lines.
Interestingly, only 45% of the London Underground is actually underground. But in central London, all tube lines are underground, so if you start seeing sunlight through the window, you’ve probably overshot your mark!
The easiest way to navigate the London Underground is through using apps such as Tube Map and Citymapper – these tools give you the cheapest and fastest route and give you instructions on platform changes.
Top tip – the London Underground has its faults from time to time. Always check line status before heading out, some stations/lines may be experiencing delays or closures.
The Night Tube
Whether you like classy cocktail lounges in Mayfair, busy bars in Camden or quirky clubs in Shoreditch, one of London’s biggest attractions is its varied nightlife. With the city’s Night Tube service, you can get back from a night out more easily than ever. Running 24 hours a day on Friday and Saturday only, visitors are able to use the Central, Piccadilly, Northern, Victoria and Jubilee lines at any time of the night. There are also a number of night bus services available across London.
The Docklands Light Railway
More commonly known as the DLR, the Docklands Light Railway is an automated light metro system that solely serves east London and the redeveloped Docklands area. Opened in 1987, the DLR was created to complement Canary Wharf – now one of London’s two major financial centres.
Often seen as a modern extension of the London Underground, the DLR is perfect for getting from the City of London to Canary Wharf. The majority of the DLR is also raised high above the ground and offers stunning views of one of London’s most futuristic skylines.
The London Overground
Another appendage of the London Underground, the Overground network serves much of the city as well as the county of Hertfordshire. Comprised of 112 stations, the Overground network offers an alternative form of London public transport around some of the city’s most affluent suburbs, but cannot be used to reach London’s most central areas.
If you’re a first time tourist, the likelihood is you won’t require Overground services. However, this form of London public transport can be used to reach popular green spaces such as Kew Gardens and Hampstead Heath, and busy train stations like Euston and Liverpool Street.
Just to make London public transport more confusing, in addition to the London Underground, the London Overground and the DLR, London is also served by a number of National Rail links. These links span much of Greater London but, like the London Overground, can’t be used to get around the city centre.
National Rail services are frequently used to access to city’s many airports. Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Southend can all be reached using National rail links. The most widely used train stations are Victoria, Waterloo, Liverpool Street, King’s Cross, St. Pancras, Euston, Paddington, Blackfriars, Clapham Junction and London Bridge.
Permeating the entirety of London, the city’s numerous bus routes offer the cheapest alternative to the London Underground. For just £1.50 passengers can use any bus in London, providing efficient access to many areas of the city. You can also change buses as many times as you like without paying another fee, providing the changes happen within one hour of the initial payment.
It is understood that around two-and-a-half billion journeys are made on London buses each year, which is around one billion more than journeys taken on the tube each year. This goes to show how much of a good option London’s buses are and how they usually provide better access to the areas of the city that aren’t close to a tube station.
Additionally, city visitors can also make use of London’s hop-on sightseeing buses that offer a great way of exploring the city’s most acclaimed attractions both easily and quickly.
When many think of public transport in London, they tend to think of busy roads, dark tunnels and impatient commuters, but, unknown to many, Thames river boats are actually becoming a popular mode of transport. Officially known as Thames Clippers, these riverboats offer services from Putney in west London to Woolwich in east London.
With 17 vessels in operation, London’s “river bus” services are understood to be used by around 8,500 passengers every single day – that’s over three million passengers a year! Slightly more expensive than tube or bus travel, the Thames Clippers make up for it by providing visitors with a unique view of central London.
In addition to the Thames Clippers, there are also more relaxing river tours available – perfect for first-time London tourists! These sightseeing tours often operate in a similar way to sightseeing buses, and you can also book afternoon tea and dinner cruises that create an atmosphere like no other.
Need to get somewhere fast and don’t fancy mingling with the masses? London is famed for its taxis (black cabs) and they can often be seen whizzing around the busy city streets. All black cabbies in London have memorised at least 320 routes before getting their licence – a level of commitment which is handy when navigating London’s labyrinthine streets. In addition to black cabs, London also benefits from a number of cheaper taxi services including Uber.
A preferred mode of transport among many city tourists, London’s public bicycle hire scheme provides a green alternative to conventional types of public transport. Perfect for whizzing around central London and exploring the city’s most popular green spaces, the Santander hire bikes have become a staple of London’s bustling tourist infrastructure.
With docking stations dotted all across London, you’ll never stray too far from the opportunity to hire one of these bikes. Did you know that over 70 million journeys have been made on these bikes since 2010? Also, the record for the most cycle hires in one day is 73,000!
You can hire a bike for as little as £2 and can return it to any docking station when you’re finished riding.
In addition to all of the many modes of London public transport, there are a few others that certainly stand out. In south London, a tram network connects the westerly Wimbledon to areas such as Croydon, New Addington and Beckenham in the east. Handy for exploring south London, the city’s tram network cannot be used in central areas of London.
One of London’s newest public transport services, the Emirates Air Line cable car connects the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks in east London. Going straight over the River Thames, the cable car offers passengers unbeatable views of Canary Wharf and other areas of London.
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