How to get around London

Mornington Crescent tube station © Simon Coppock

By Nigel Tisdall, your London expert

I write for Marie Claire, The Daily .... Read more

Getting around London - my advice

London is a big city. Approaching 700 square miles big, with a population of 7.5 million. Don’t be put off. Most of what you’ll want to see is in a reasonably compact central area - in fact, a surprising amount is best enjoyed by walking. And, even for first-timers, the public transport network is easy to use and pretty efficient.

Start with the London Underground (the Tube). It runs every few minutes, all day, doesn’t get delayed by traffic jams, and only in outer London does the coverage start to get patchy.

Few tourists will need to use the buses, but everyone should. They’re cheaper than the train and travelling above ground (especially on the top floor of a double-decker) is like a cheap tour of the city. Select routes run all night (unlike the tube) and the bus network extends all over town.

Visitors to east London and Docklands will want to get familiar with the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), while people heading south of the Thames need to get to know the railway network. The London Overground is a developing orbital train route, opening patchwork over the next few years and already including the very useful East London Line section.

Transport along the Thames by boat is an enjoyable and increasingly convenient way to hop between some destinations.

I’ve included information on driving in London, although it’s often a bad idea unless you’re planning to head out of town. By the time you’ve paid for parking and the Congestion Charge, you’d probably be better off grabbing a taxi or minicab.

There’s also increasing interest in cycling. Mayor Boris Johnson’s much talked about Cycle Hire scheme (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/12444.aspx) has now opened, and is proving to be a big success, but there are plenty of other places to hire bikes and cycling is increasingly safe and enjoyable way around town.

Transport for London (www.tfl.gov.uk, 020 7222 1234) has detailed information about the different methods of London transport. For the essentials, click these links:

Oyster cards
London Underground (the Tube)
Buses
Night buses
Docklands Light Railway (DLR)
Railways
London Overground
River transport
Driving
Taxis and minicabs
Cycling
Walking

For information on how to get to the city from any of London's airports, see my London flights page. 

London Underground (the Tube)

With trains running all over central London, the Tube is the city’s simplest method of transport - even first-timers pick it up very quickly. The easy-to-understand tube map (www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/1106.aspx) shows the stations on and intersections between 12 differently coloured lines, but it is schematic rather than strictly to scale - the distance between Charing Cross and Embankment stations on the black Northern line, for example, is a couple of hundred yards on foot, but seems much further on the map.

On escalators, always stand on the right-hand side to allow people in a hurry to walk on the left. Locals tend to get very grumpy if you don't!

Gripes? The Mayor’s promise to introduce late-running tubes (to 1.30am at weekends) has been shelved. So the midnight rush from the pub will continue for the foreseeable future. Weekend repair and upgrade work has been a real headache, with complete lines shut for Saturday and Sunday - check before you travel if time is tight. Finally, rush hour remains very unpleasant - avoid the hours from 8am to 9.30am and 4.30pm to 7pm during the week if you possibly can.

Timetables

Most tubes run every two or three minutes from about 5am to 12.30pm (about 6am to 11.30pm on Sundays).

Fares and penalties

Tube fares are worked out on a system of six zones, with Zone 1 covering most of central London. Fares are cheapest using an Oyster card. After 9.30am, a single costs £4 in central London or £1.90 with Oyster. If you start your day’s journeys after 9.30am, the total fare for the day will be capped at £6.60 with Oyster (Zones 1-2), the same price as for a paper ticket Travelcard under the same restrictions.

Travel off-peak if you can: prices are lower if you start your day’s journeys after 9.30am and you miss rush-hour crowds. You’ll also avoid overcrowding by not travelling between 4.30pm and 7pm.

Fares are extortionate if you buy a single without Oyster each time you enter a station. For example, heading from your hotel in Earl’s Court after 9.30am to the British Museum, then to the South Bank and back to your hotel, would cost £12 as three singles, but only £5.70 with Oyster.

If you’re caught travelling with neither a paper ticket nor an Oyster card with value on it, expect a £50 on-the-spot fine (£25 if you pay within three weeks).

Oyster cards

For a refundable £5 deposit (0845 330 9876) plus whatever pre-paid value you choose to put on it, the blue Oyster smartcard calculates the lowest fare for your journeys over the course of a day, so long as you touch it on the yellow reader at entry gates as you descend to the tube platforms and touch it again to the yellow reader when you leave at your destination station.

Touching out deducts the correct fare for your journey - if you fail to touch out, you will be charged the maximum possible fare when you next touch in.

Buses

Bus journeys in London can be a real pleasure. The no.11, for example, will take you from Liverpool Street station to Victoria, via the Bank of England, St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square - a quick, easy and cheap sightseeing tour that is especially pleasurable from the top deck.

Most central bus stops have timetables for the routes served by that stop; many list the stop you need by destination name, with the location of that stop indicated on a street map. Nonetheless, if you’re planning to be out beyond midnight, it’s worth figuring out your route back to the hotel before you set out: go to www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2605.aspx.

Fans of red, open-platform, classic London buses (Routemasters) can ride Heritage Routes 9 (from Trafalgar Square to the Royal Albert Hall) and 15 (from Trafalgar Square to St Paul’s Cathedral) for the price of a normal ticket. These buses are the real deal, right down the bell pulls for instructing the driver to stop. I find www.routemaster.co.nr handy for timetables and general information on the Heritage Routes.

Those beautiful Routemasters have been replaced on all other routes by wheelchair- and pram-friendly low-floor buses.

Rush hour is unpleasant - avoid the hours from 8am to 9.30am and 4.30pm to 7pm during the week if you possibly can. The hour after most pubs shut (roughly 11.30pm to 12.30am) can be uncomfortable too.

Night buses

If a taxi is too expensive or you can’t find one, a late-night outing is going to end with the ritual of waiting for a night bus. Some bus routes run day and night, but there are also specific night buses designated by an N in front of the route number. Tickets cost the same as during the day and must be bought before you board in central London.

Timetables

Bus route timings vary widely, depending on route, but are usually less frequent than tube trains. N-prefix night buses run every 10 minutes to half an hour between 11pm and 6am, but the wait always, always feels longer.

Fares and penalties

You must have a ticket or Oyster card with value on it to board a bus within Zone 1 - no tickets are sold on board.

Bus fares are cheapest using an Oyster card. Buying two or more paper-ticket singles in one day will always cost more than using an Oyster card. A single costs £2.20 (£1.30 with Oyster) and, however many bus journeys you make in a day, the fare is capped at £4 with Oyster.

Travel off-peak if you can: rush hour is roughly 8am to 9.30am and 4.30pm to 7pm, when many routes get very crowded. Pub closing time (usually 11.30pm) can also be busy on buses leaving central London.

If you’re caught travelling with neither a paper ticket nor an Oyster card with value on it, expect a £50 on-the-spot fine.

Docklands Light Railway (DLR)

The DLR is a mostly elevated railway that was built to service the Docklands redevelopment in the 1990s, and has been expanding ever since. It provides some brilliant views of the Dome and Canary Wharf, important connections with the developing 2012 Olympic venues around Stratford, and is much easier than buses for getting around this part of London.

DLR trains run from either Bank (in the City of London) or Tower Gateway (by the Tower of London) to a number of useful destinations, often requiring a change at Westferry. Visitors will most often want Canary Wharf or West India Quay (the Museum of London Docklands), London City Airport (see my London flights page), Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich and Woolwich Arsenal.

All the stations and intersections are shown on the tube map (www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/1106.aspx).

Rush hour is unpleasant - avoid the hours from 8am to 9.30am and 4.30pm to 7pm during the week if you possibly can.

Fares and penalties

DLR fares are cheapest using an Oyster card. After 9.30am, a single costs £4 (Zones 1-4) or £1.90 with Oyster. If you start your day’s journeys after 9.30am, the fare will be capped at £6.60 with Oyster (Zones 1-2), the same price as for a paper ticket Travelcard under the same restrictions.

Travel off-peak if you can: prices are lower if you start your day’s journeys after 9.30am and you miss rush-hour crowds. You’ll also avoid overcrowding by not travelling between 4.30pm and 7pm.

Fares are extortionate if you buy a single without Oyster each time you enter a station. For example, leaving your hotel in Canary Wharf after 9.30am for the Museum of London, getting the tube to the Tower of London, then heading back to your hotel on the DLR, would cost £12 as three singles, but only £5.70 with Oyster.

If you’re caught travelling with neither a paper ticket nor an Oyster card with value on it, expect a £50 on-the-spot fine (£25 if you pay within three weeks).

Railways

The overground rail network is most useful in south London, but is also handy for outlying attractions such as Hampton Court Palace. Most services now accept Oyster with certain restrictions, but check www.tfl.gov.uk or www.nationalrail.co.uk for details.

There are many commuters living in south London and beyond, so avoid the trains during rush hour (8am to 9.30am and 4.30pm to 7pm during the week) if you can.

Timetables

Check the National Rail website (www.nationalrail.co.uk).

Fares and penalties

The railways are run by a variety of private operators, which means fares vary. Check www.nationalrail.co.uk for details. The simplest option is often to travel with Oyster or a paper Travelcard for the appropriate zones, but ask at the ticket windows for your particular journey.

London Overground

A series of mostly overground lines, once run by different operators, are steadily being patched together into the London Overground orbital route. It will run through previously badly connected parts of north-east and south-east London, with much of the route due to be completed in 2011.

Already you can travel from Stratford in east London, through north London (passing Hampstead Heath), to Richmond in the south-west, and a very useful spur runs across the river joining West Croydon in south London to trendy Dalston in north-east London.

This growing network of stations and intersections is shown on the standard tube map (www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/1106.aspx).

Fares and penalties

London Overground fares are cheapest using an Oyster card. After 9.30am, a single costs £4 (Zones 1-4) or £1.90 with Oyster. If you start your day’s journeys after 9.30am, the fare will be capped at £6.60 with Oyster (Zones 1-2), the same price as for a paper ticket Travelcard under the same restrictions.

Travel off-peak if you can: prices are lower if you start your day’s journeys after 9.30am and you miss rush-hour crowds. You’ll also avoid overcrowding by not travelling between 4.30pm and 7pm. Fares are extortionate if you buy a single without Oyster each time you enter a station.

If you’re caught travelling with neither a paper ticket nor an Oyster card with value on it, expect a £50 on-the-spot fine (£25 if you pay within three weeks).

River transport

Transport for London (www.tfl.gov.uk; 020 7222 1234) have begun to make progress integrating river services into the general London transport network. Between certain destinations (Tate Modern and Tate Britain, Greenwich and the London Eye, the O2 Arena and central London), getting a boat is a quick and practical solution, albeit a little more expensive than the tube or bus.

I get the boat whenever I can, because I really enjoy being on the river. Many of the vessels have open areas so you can feel the wind in your hair and smell the Thames estuary salt. Some have on-board bars for a cup of tea or glass of something stronger. All of them give you a very different angle on London - a city that was, after all, entirely dependent on the commerce of its docks for many centuries.

Several private operators run services, with Thames Clippers (www.thamesclippers.com) the highest profile and most extensive. Details of routes and operators are available here.

Fares

Thames Clippers cost £5.50 single from Greenwich to the Embankment, £12.60 for a ‘roamer’ ticket (as many journeys as you like between 10am and 5pm). Holders of an Oyster card get a 10% discount on single fares; those with a Travelcard get better reductions. Other operators charge similar rates - full details of routes and fares are here www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2648.aspx.

Driving

Unless you’re planning to use London as a jumping-off point to explore nearby cities (Brighton, Cambridge, Canterbury and Oxford are all close) or drive through the countryside around the city, there are few good reasons to hire a car in London.

Parking is expensive and empty spaces are hard to find. Few hotels even offer parking spaces. The traffic is often slower than walking when you’re in central London, with frequent roadworks and traffic jams. And you’ll have to pay the £10 Congestion Charge (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging) when you drive into the centre of town from outside a designated zone between 7am and 6pm from Monday to Friday.

If you are driving, London speed limits rarely exceed 30mph until you hit the orbital M25 motorway that surrounds the city, and it is against the law to use a mobile phone (cellphone) unless you have a hands-free connection.

Taxis and minicabs

Red buses and black cabs - two enduring symbols of London. Every cabbie has to pass a stringent test known as ‘The Knowledge’ before they qualify, which means that they should know the best route between any two points in central London.

Cabs can only be hailed when their orange ‘For Hire’ sign is illuminated. It can be difficult to find a cab after pub closing time - if you've got a mobile phone (cellphone), try ringing Dial-a-Cab (020 7253 5000), Radio Taxis (020 7272 0272) or Taxi One-Number (0871 871 8710), which may levy a nominal booking charge.

Minicab drivers don’t have to pass ‘The Knowledge’, but their fares are often cheaper - contact Addison Lee (020 7387 8888) or text HOME to 60835 (standard call charge + 35p) and you’ll be sent details for Taxi One-Number and two nearby minicab firms.

Never get into an unlicensed minicab - if you’re unsure, it’s safest to ignore anyone touting cabs in the street and you can always check that a license disc is displayed in the front and back windows.

It’s normal, when booking any kind of cab by phone, to ask for an estimated price which you can then check with the driver when he arrives.

Cycling

London is improving as a city for cyclists, with the current Mayor Boris Johnson himself a keen cyclist - his Cycle Hire scheme (www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/12444.aspx), is a great inexpensive way to explore the city (please check the website for prices). You can also rent bikes from Velorution (www.velorution.biz) and the London Bicycle Tour Company (www.londonbicycle.com).

For many medium-length journeys, a bicycle is quicker than any other form of London transport - early in the morning and late at night, when the traffic is quiet, it is an absolute pleasure to swish through the city.

There are many cycle paths - some of them raised from the road, but most just green-painted lanes to one side of the main roads - and green boxes at the front of traffic lights give cyclists priority when the lights change.

Many car drivers are courteous and accommodating, although you will probably encounter some hostility on the roads. Obeying the laws of the road (not jumping red lights or riding on pavements, respecting zebra crossings and one-way signs) helps reduce antagonism for everyone.

Transport for London (www.tfl.gov.uk; 020 7222 1234) has route-planners and other helpful information. The London Cycle Network (www.londoncyclenetwork.org.uk) and London Cycling Campaign (www.lcc.org.uk) help promote cycling in the city. 

Walking

Many visitors are surprised to hear Londoners insist that this is a brilliant city to walk in. ‘But London’s so big…’, they say. True, but over many centuries London has grown organically, keeping bits and bobs of street plan and architecture from every era and through every disaster.

Many of London’s secrets are only discovered slowly and on foot - Wren churches tucked into impossibly tiny corners, an alley unchanged since Georgian times, a tree growing between huge modern bank buildings.

You’ll also find it’s far quicker to walk between a number of places: Leicester Square to Covent Garden, for example, is a slow and irritating journey by tube, involving lifts, waits and stairs, but it’s only a short walk.

If you haven’t got an iPhone with a good street map on it, you won’t regret buying the pocket-sized A-Z when you arrive. It has a comprehensive street index, so it’s easy to find out where you are. Don’t be afraid to get lost - in fact, you should expect to get a bit lost in the crooked and eccentric streets of the most historic areas of London. Finding where you again is a great way to explore the real city.

For more expert advice on London, follow these links: