Travel Cheat Sheet: How to Get Around in London

Image Credit: Colleen Casey

Image Credit: Colleen Casey

Taking a trip across the pond to visit the Queen, Big Ben, and all the other sites of foggy London town? In addition to knowing that when the Brits say “biscuit” they really mean “cookie,” you should probably be aware of the ins and outs of the city’s transportation options. From black cabs to the underground, follow this guide and you’ll be zipping around London like a local.

1. Trains

The London Underground, or Tube, is the city’s version of the subway. Its eleven lines carry more than 1 billion passengers each year, and the various routes spread out from the nucleus of central London into the city’s extensive surrounding suburbs. How long you plan on staying in London and how far you travel will determine the most economical way to travel on the tube (this comparison sheet may be useful.)

For longer vacations that rely heavily on this mode of transportation, a 7 day pass Oyster card is probably the best bet. The travel card is split into various tiers, depending on which “zone” you travel in. The zones are clearly marked on tube maps, making it easy to determine where your traveling will take place. Most of the main attractions are in zones one and two, but you may find yourself staying further away from the city center to save money.

The Oyster card is reusable, and if you end up doing a pay-as-you-go method, they are a must. If you’ll only be purchasing day passes, you will buy a paper ticket in London. Travel cards can be purchased online and shipped. To use a travel card in a station, touch the card to the electronic reader before the gate; paper tickets are fed into a slot in gate, and appear on the other side.

The London Overground is a suburban rail network. If you are staying on the outskirts of the city where lodging is less costly, this may be your ticket into London. There are currently four routes, journeying through 21 of the 33 London boroughs.

2. Buses and Bikes

Approximately 7,500 buses service London, going to 19,500 stops. Cheaper than the tube, taking the iconic red bus during your London stay will not only save you money, but will allow you to see the city as well. It is also the only mode of transportation for late night journeys. First and last tubes times vary by line, but no tube will offer 24-hour service until 2015, and even then, that will only be available on the weekends. The trade off for this form of transportation is time. You may see more sights, but it is also likely the journey will take longer. Like the tube, passes can be purchased for the bus, or an Oyster card can be used.

Another way to see the city is by bike. The Barclays Cycle Hire – nicknamed “Boris Bikes” after Mayor Boris Johnson — are ubiquitous in the capital. The bikes are rented and paid for with a debit card. A rental lasting less than an hour costs only 1 pound, a little under $1.70 at the current exchange rate. Bikes can be returned to any docking station, which will also have a map of nearby attractions. Even if you don’t plan on biking in London, the map is a great go-to reference if you aren’t sure where you are.

3. Cabs and Walking

Only licensed black cabs are legally allowed to pick up passengers on the street, and they can be prohibitively expensive. A one mile journey can take upwards of six minutes, with cost estimates around 5.60 to 8.80 pounds (around $9 to $14). It may be a good option if you’re in a pinch, and if you know you’ll be out late one evening, consider booking a minicab ahead of time. A number of private companies provide this service as well, and you’ll want to check out reviews before selecting a company.

Hands down, the cheapest, easiest way to get around London is to walk. This can be lost when looking at the London Tube Map. The map, like many subway system maps, is not the best geographical representation of the city. As one clever blogger pointed out in 2003, there are multiple stops where it is actually faster to walk from station to station than to take the Tube. Cost and time effective, walking is the best way to discover the hidden gems of London as well. Narrow twisting side streets that reveal the beauty of the city won’t be seen from a bus seat, or when you’re stuck underground.

4. Airport Travel

Of course, not every journey is conducive to walking. Getting to and from the airport, for example, is hardly time to bust out your sneakers — or “trainers” if you want to practice your UK-speak. One route to take to and from the airport is to hire a taxi through the airport. Heathrow offers this service, and so does Gatwick. As explained earlier, this is not going to save you much money. A private company can be used, but you’ll want to verify the listing before handing over credit or debit card information.

A second option is to use the Heathrow or Gatwick Express. These are trains that go to and from the respective airports. The Heathrow Express runs between Heathrow and Paddington Station, while Gatwick journeys between the airport and London Victoria. To Paddington from Heathrow can be as little as 21 pounds (about $35) for an adult, and the cheapest adult ticket from Gatwick to Victoria is 17.70 pounds (about $30). Finally, you can take the tube to the airport. It may take a bit longer, but it will be the cheapest option. To go from Charring Cross in Central London to Heathrow, the cost would be between 3 and 5.50 pounds, depending on method of payment and time of travel.

Finally, if you will have internet access during your London stay, be sure to check the Transport for London website to see if there are any line closures for the tube or travel notices to be aware of. Spending precious travel time marooned because the District Line has a train broken down is not how anyone wants to spend vacation time, especially if it was avoidable.

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