Travelling in London can be a costly and complicated affair if you haven’t done a little bit of homework before you land. Behold some insider tips and tricks for navigating London like a local.
The Oyster card: Not as confusing as it may first appear
Buying yourself an Oyster card is a smooth move for any visitor - it’s an electronic smartcard that you load with credit and use on all types of transport in London. A single ticket on the London Underground (Tube) costs £2.40 with an Oyster compared to the full cash fare of £4.90: if you buy a paper single ticket, you’re simply being ripped off
Where can I get one of these Oysters, you ask
You can pick up an Oyster card online, at most stations and in shops displaying the Oyster sign outside. You pay a £5 deposit then you top up the card with Pay As You Go credit. You can get back the deposit and credit you haven’t used by the end of your trip (£10 or less)
If you use the Tube for three or more journeys in central London during the day, the maximum credit taken from your card will be £6.50. You can see more information on fare caps in the different London zones here
Touch your Oyster card in and out on the yellow card reader each time you enter or leave a station or you risk paying a maximum fare. You only need to touch in once on buses and trams
My mum visits from Northern Ireland about 3 times a year and used an Oyster card for a while, but now she prefers to use her debit card (you can also use your credit card) instead of topping up the Oyster each time she arrives. A lot of people in London do the same these days - journeys cost the same as with Oyster, but check out the small print about this as overseas transaction fees will likely apply if you’re visiting from a faraway land.
If you don’t want to use an Oyster or contactless card, or you’re only in London for one day, you have the option of a one-day Travelcard (£12.10 for zone 1-2)
A side note on the Tube: How to make Londoners love you!
I’ve never witnessed it but apparently swans hiss if they’re annoyed... I imagine it’s a similar sound to the one Londoners are known to make if you break important rules like these on the Tube:
- Do not, do not, do not stand on the left when using the escalators in Tube stations. This part of the escalator should always be free to walk on so be mindful not to park yourself or your luggage on it. Speaking of which: avoid blocking the way for fellow travellers on train platforms and pavements, think about who’s behind you. It’s not personal, it’s just a very busy city!
- Avoid travelling at the busiest times if possible, especially if you have luggage or there are a lot of you. Rush hour is broadly 08.00 – 09.00 and 17.00 – 18.30 Monday-Friday
I never really used the bus when I visited London as an outsider, I was too busy getting ripped off buying paper single tickets on the Tube. When I moved here I realised that, with an Oyster card, you only use a maximum of £4.50 of your credit no matter how many buses you take in a day so I reckon it’s always worth researching the various routes to where you want to go when you’re here. Here’s a good tip if you’d been thinking of buying a ticket for one of those tourist buses that go around all the big London landmarks: Take the number 11 bus instead! Grab a seat on the top deck (right at the front is my favourite - at night I lean forward and pretend I’m on a spaceship).
Each bus journey in London is a flat fare of £1.50 before the £4.50 cap and you can’t pay in cash.
Taxis. Specifically, Uber
If you’re travelling in a group, it’s worth installing the Uber app on your phone and checking journey prices, especially at night. Extremely popular in London these days, Uber uses GPS to connect you with the nearest driver of whichever car type you need. Find out more here. Black cabs are London’s official taxis (they use meters) and you can catch one on the street or book in advance. Don’t use any other type of taxi unless you’ve booked in advance as it’s not safe.
Bikes and walking
You can rent a bicycle in London for as little as £2. Or, if you’d like to use your feet and legs to explore the city, there are plenty of interesting street maps [link to Undiscovered London map PDF?] available, including this walking map I really like which shows the distances between Tube stations.
Travelling at night in London
There are some Tube services at night and also night buses but if I’m travelling far (or I’m not drunk and wanting to sing karaoke on my journey home), I always check the price of an Uber, especially when I’m with a few friends as it’s possible to split the fare via the app.