The London Underground (The Tube)

The main source of public transport in London revolves around the Underground (or the Tube as it is known to Londoners). This extensive network of 12 lines can get you to most places in the centre of the city quickly. Delays on the Tube are not uncommon, so look out for service updates immediately beyond the ticket barriers at most stations or listen for announcements on the platforms. However, even with a delay here or there, the Tube is often the fastest way to cover a large amount of ground.

Trains and platforms are described as Eastbound, Westbound, Northbound or Southbound depending on the direction of the line and the station.  However, be sure to confirm that the direction of the train more or less coincides with your destination. The front of the train, and the platform indicator, will show the ultimate destination of the train which is usually (though not always) the last station on the line. It can still be confusing until you get the hang of it all, but don't despair, help is at hand: Tube staff are knowledgeable about the system and can always be found at station ticket barriers and also on most platforms.  Also, most platforms have white circular Help Points from which you can contact a central information point. Press the green button to report an emergency and the blue button for general queries. At some stations the Help Point also has a red fire alarm that you should use if you spot a fire.  It's also very helpful to pick up one of the free maps available at all train station ticket offices. Each line has its own unique colour so its easy to identify each line on maps and signs throughout the system. Similar maps in a variety of languages can also be found online. 

The Tube maps on the station walls are diagrammatic representations of the routes and are drawn so that they are easy to read:   they do not provide an accurate depiction of the physical location of the stations. Thus, even though you would not be able to determine it from the official Undergound map, some tube stations are within easy walking distance of each other . Knowing this can be useful if you know that where you are going is near a particular tube station: it could save you an unnecessary change onto another line with the attendant waste of time.  Here's a list of stations within walking distance of each other:

  • Paddington (B, Ci, Di, H) - Lancaster Gate (Ce)
  • Great Portland Street (H, Ci, M) - Regent's Park (B)
  • Great Portland Street (H, Ci, M) - Warren Street (N, V)
  • Great Portland Street (H, Ci, M) - Goodge Street (N)
  • Warren Street (N, V) - Euston Square (H, Ci, M)
  • Euston (N, V) - Euston Square (H, Ci, M)
  • Bayswater (Ci, D) - Queensway (Ce)
  • Tottenham Court Road (Ce) - Covent Garden (P)
  • Farringon (H, Ci, M) - Chancery Lane (Ce)
  • Cannon Street (Ci, Di) - Bank (Ce, N, W, DLR)
  • Cannon Street (Ci, Di) - St Paul's (Ce)
  • Mansion House (Ci, Di) - St Paul's (Ce)
  • Blackfriars (Ci, Di) - St Paul's (Ce)

The letters in parentheses are the lines: B - Bakerloo, Ce - Central, Ci - Circle, Di - District, DLR - Docklands Light Railway, H - Hammersmith & City, M - Metropolitan, N - Northern, P - Piccadilly, V - Victoria, W - Waterloo & City.

And two particular pairs of stations to note: Holborn (Ce, P) and Covent Garden (P) and Leicester Square (N, P) and Covent Garden (P) are so close together that if you are travelling to Covent Garden and pass through Holborn on the Central line, or Leicester Square on the Northern line it's quicker to walk from either station than it is to change to the Piccadilly line for Covent Garden.  While you are in Covent Garden you might want to visit London's Transport Museum .

Getting yourself a street map that has Tube lines and stations marked will help overcome these problems.   

It's almost a necessity to get an Oyster Card or a Travelcard.  Single tickets are priced starting at the intentionally absurd price of £4.50 (Zone 1 -3), if you pay cash.  The point is, they don't want you to pay cash. Using an Oyster card, a single fare is £2.10 if you are travelling within the central Zone 1. So the most affordable way to ride the Tube all day to your heart’s content is to buy an Oyster Card (£8 including £5 credit) or a Travelcard, both discussed below. Note that, in an apparant effort to create a bad impression, the Visitor Oyster Card offers no benefit other than home delivery at 25% higher cost than picking up a regular Oyster card when you arrive. 

It’s best to avoid the peak hours of travel on the Tube, both to save money and to avoid thinking you’ve just boarded the last train out of Calcutta as everyone squishes their way into the overcrowded car. And don’t forget to heed the “Mind the Gap”  announcements that will continuously remind you at many stops.

On hot days it is also advisable to take a bottle of water with you as Underground trains are not air-condtioned. During particularly hot spells of weather water is sometimes handed out on the Underground. Delays seem to also happen more often during the summer and can make this situation worse if you haven’t brought some water to help keep you cool and hydrated.

First and last trains: Last trains leave central London at around 00:30 weekdays, 23:30 sundays.  First trains leave the suburbs around 05:00. Check the TfL Journey Planner to establish if you can make the trip by Tube when travelling early or late. Finally, if you are travelling with a group of up to five and it's not rush hour, you might find that a taxi doesn't cost much more than the Tube would cost for the lot of you, and it can be much quicker, for short trips.

Travelcards 

You can buy a Travelcard for 1, 3 or 7 consecutive days for any combination of travel zones. If you’re just sticking within Central London, pick up a Zone 1 & 2 pass.

There’s no need for an All-Zone pass unless you plan on heading out to the more suburban areas of London. Fees for Travelcards start at £6.60 and are valid on  the Underground, Docklands Light Railway. Bus system and National Rail (but not the Heathrow Express) for the entire day, depending on whether you bought a Peak or Off-Peak pass. They also give you a one-third discount off river services. Off-Peak passes start after 9:30 am. A Travelcard for 7-days covering Zones 1-6 will cost an adult £50.40 but can be worth purchasing if you will be using the transport system across a variety of Zones, hopping on and off a lot of trains each day that the Travelcard will be valid.

Another tip is to check the days on which you will be travelling before deciding on a multiple day Travelcard. If the three days you choose to travel on include a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday it may be cheaper for you to buy a combination of 1 Day Travelcards, or simply buy an Oyster Card and let it calculate the appropriate price.

Engineering work and planning your journey

The Underground is experiencing a phenomenal programme of repair, refurbishment and modernisation work. This is the oldest and one of the most extensive subway systems in the world, and following some years of under investment by governments of all political persuasions it has finally been recognised that things wear out and need fixing! With the 2012 Olympic Games coming to London this work has taken on even more urgency and has become an even bigger talking point for Londoners and the British media than previously.

Unfortunately, for long-term gain this means short-term pain and some stations, station facilities (escalators/lifts etc) and sections of line may be out of service at various times, especially weekends and/or late evenings/early mornings.

All these planned closures are well publicised, look for posters and leaflets at stations and listen for announcements over the PA systems on trains and stations. Better still, check whether the route you want to take is affected before you travel by visiting  the deidcated section of their website: Check before you travel by using the TfL Journey Planner (which also works for bus, tram, DLR, river and some suburban rail routes). There is also a 24 hour, 7 day per week telephone number +44 (0) 20 7222 1234 you can call to speak to a real life travel advisor who will help you plan a journey. Unusually for the UK these people are actually based in London and not in some random call centre miles, or even continents away, now there's a novelty! Finally if you really need to speak to someone face to face, or find yourself hankering after a bus tour while in London, visit one of the TfL Travel Information Centres.

The Bus System

Outside of the centre of London, Tube stations are farther apart, so buses help fill the gaps.  Also, the budget-conscious will find that the bus offers a cheaper alternative, even if it is a slower journey.

A bus ticket costs £2.20 if paying with cash. It costs £1.30 if using an Oyster Card with a dail price cap of £4.00). You can top-up your Oyster from tube stations and newsagents. The One Day Pass is valid until 4:30 the following morning, so you don't need to worry about getting home after a late evening out. The bus is a nice alternative to the Tube as well because it offers more chances for sightseeing. Plus, it gets you out of the stuffy, un-air conditioned Underground stations, which is definitely a good thing to keep in mind during the hot summer months.

The bus stops are well signposted and each stop gives information about all the bus destinations, alternative stops nearby for other buses, frequency, etc. On most routes buses are frequent during normal Monday-Friday daytime hours, with them becoming less frequent early morning, late evening and weekends.

Do note that in very busy areas serviced by many buses - like Oxford Street - not all buses stop at the same places. Each stop will have a large sign showing on a map where all the various buses stop. In the center of the city most stops require that you purchase your ticket from the red vending machine before you board the bus, just show the ticket as you board. At stops with no machine you can purchase the ticket from the driver.  While the tourist mantra that "all buses eventually go to Trafalgar Square" is not quite true, the entire city is well covered by bus routes and most trips can be completed with no more than one change.

A Travelcard purchased for the Tube is also good on the buses, but bus passes are not good for the tube.

If using the buses the spider maps are especially useful as they give complete details for each major bus stop. It is helpful to find the closest stop to your hotel and to print out that spider map before you begin your trip. The only tricky bit is that the overview map is very short of detail and the novice traveller will need to click on several options before finding which bit of London matches their location. If your hotel is a bit away from a Tube station, be sure to find the information on a bus route that takes you to the Tube. 

But other than that, you're not likely to be able to have information on all the bus routes in advance.  You can always try finding a stop near wherever you happen to be, and reading the information there.

On regular buses, only board via the front door and either show your ticket or pass to the driver, touch your Oyster on the reader or hand him the stub of your Saver ticket. On bendy buses you may board any of the three doors, and there is no need to show your ticket to the driver. There are Oyster readers at each door. The exception is for those using Saver tickets - you must still board at the front and give the stub to the driver. 

Routemaster red bus heritage routes

Finally, if you want to experience "heritage routes" ride on an old Routemaster red london bus, a design icon synonymous with London, you can use the 9 from the Albert Hall to the Aldwych and the 15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill. So if you head down to Trafalgar Square you can still experience the thrill of squeezing yourself in to tiny seats, sitting uncomfortably close to total strangers and most of all, jumping out the back while the bus is still moving! The good news is that standard fares apply on both historic routes, Bus Passes, Travelcards, Freedom Passes, Oyster cards and Saver Tickets will be accepted. Routemaster buses have taken out of public service from all other routes. Routemasters are used by several private companies for london tours and entertainment - at a price!

Bus Stops

There are two types of bus stops; compulsory and request.  Compulsory stops are white with a red roundel; request stops are red with a white roundel.   The principle is that buses will always call at compulsory stops unless they are full but only at request stops if a passenger on board rings the bell once to signal that he/she wishes to get off or if an intending passenger at the bus stop hails the bus by holding his/her arm out parallell to the ground.   In recent years, Londoners have taken to signalling their desire to get on or off a bus by ringing the bell/holding their arm out irrespective of whether the stop in question is compulsory or request.   Visitors are advised to do likewise: there is now a risk that even at compulsory stops drivers will carry on regardless if no-one has indicated that they wish to get onor off.   Two tips about ringing the bell: (i) if someone has already rung it there will be a STOPPING sign illuminated at the front, so there's no need to repeat the operation: and (ii) remember to signal in plenty of time - the driver won't brake hard if you suddenly signal as he/she passes the stop.

Night Buses and 24-hour Buses

Night buses cover the whole of the London and generally run all through the night at frequencies ranging from hourly to 4 an hour, seven nights a week.   The most densely trafficked routes are the radial ones from the centre out into the suburbs and vice versa.   Those that follow exactly the same route as their daytime equivalents carry the same route numbers.   However, some differ from the daytime routes: these can be recognised by the prefix ‘ N’ in front of the route number.    Check the times and the route detail on notices at the bus stops.   Also, remember that, as at night all stops are officially treated as request stops, you should always signal to the driver that you want to get on or off.

Light Rail and Trams

You can think of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and the Tramlink as extensions of the Underground. Travelcards purchased at Tube Stations will be valid on the DLR and Tramlink.

The DLR is the easiest way to reach a number of attractions in East London.  The DLR connects with a number of the other train services (including connections at Tower Hill or Bank Stations) and can be used to reach Greenwich, Canary Wharf, and Stratford.

The TramLink runs across South London with three routes. The first takes you across South London starting at Wimbledon with many connections to the National Rail System. The ride from Wimbledon to Croydon takes approximately 25 minutes, then carries on to New Addington arriving about 15 minutes later. The second route goes from Croydon to Beckenham Junction taking about 22 minutes. The third routes runs from Croydon to Elmers End and takes about 15 minutes. TramLink is considered part of the bus network so a Travelcard or bus pass is valid regardless of zones..


River Services

There are a number of different routes along the River Thames. The faster commuter services operate all day from Masthouse Terrace Pier to Embankment and from Putney and Chelsea Harbour to Blackfriars during Peak Hours only. These routes will pass a number of places of interest including the Houses of Parliament and London Bridge. A return fare from Putney to Blackfriars will cost approximately 12 pounds.

There are also a number of leisure cruises available. The length of time it takes on a number of routes means that you should consider them an attraction in their own right rather than as just a means to get from one place to another. The journey along the River Thames, once out of the City, gives you the chance to view a number of the Riverside towns and a chance to see a large variety of birds and other wildlife that live on the banks of the River Thames. Most leisure services will also have toilet facilities (important on a two hour plus trip) and light snacks and drink available (although these can be expensive so plan ahead and bring your own). A number of routes will only make a couple of round trips each day so it important to get hold of the timetable and plan your trip in advance. The timetable will also vary depending on tides, weather conditions, and season which is another good reason to plan ahead as much as possible.

Fares for River Services vary a great deal between routes (and provider). Travelcards will get you a discount off the price of the Riverboat services if you show your Travelcard at the time of purchasing your ticket (this discount is currently 1/3 off the price). You can also purchase DLR Rail and River Rover tickets (around £9) which combine travel on the DLR with hop-on, hop-off travel on City Cruises riverboats between Westminster, Waterloo, Tower and Greenwich Piers. You should try to purchase your ticket from the ticket office prior to boarding the boat at the pier where you are stating your journey. However on some services you will need to buy your ticket on the boat so don’t worry if you can’t find a ticket office or if its closed.

National Rail

Once you leave Central London or if you are travelling South of the River Thames, the best public transport option will often be National Rail. There are numerous connections to the Rail System from the Tube. Travelcards can be used for travel on the National Rail (but not the Heathrow Express). Single and Return Fares are also available. Oyster cards can be used up to Zone 6 except certain services including Heathrow Express,  Heathrow Connect and HS1.

There are a number of attractions within Central London that also require you to transfer to a National Rail Train as no underground station is available. Attractions within London that have an “overground” station only a short walk away include Buckingham Palace, The National Gallery, The Tower of London, and the London Aquarium. The easiest way to access Hampton Court Palace will be the South West Trains which runs directly from London Waterloo to Hampton Court (although the journey by Riverboat can also be a good option if you have the time).

Complete information on the London transport system can be found on the Transport for London webssite. This site also provides a Journey Planner which can be useful, although it might not always bring up the best route.

Public Transport Etiquette

Here are a few rules that will help the users of public transport in London get on amicably with their fellow passengers:

Allow passengers to exit before boarding. Move to the centre of a crowded train if possible. Give up your seat to those who might really need it.  Avoid loud conversation. Avoiding eye contact with other passengers may seem odd but is a solid British tradition. You will note the number of passengers engaged in heads down focus on the latest issue of Metro. Some, though not those who have to clear up the mess, consider it OK to leave your newspaper on the train and it is fine to pick up an abandoned one that has been left behind. If you are wearing a backpack or carrying parcels, take care that they do not interfere with the space of others. It is generally best to hold your backpack in front of you while travelling on public transport, especially during times when services are particularly crowded. Have your ticket ready on entrance and exit. Move down the platform as best you can during peak travel times. Check the indicator for the next train time before crushing into a crowded train. Sometimes an extra minute on the platform brings along a much emptier car.

Please be aware that during the peak hours most people are only interested in getting from A to B and usually travel at great speed with their heads down. Don't take it too personally if someone is rude after they have just run in to you, just accept that their pace of life isn't as peaceful as yours :) 

Please stand to the right and walk on the left when riding the escalator. Don’t be the one who holds everyone up because they are standing on the left of the escalator.   Don't stop and stand at the bottom of the escalator to check your map or look for the correct platform.  Remember hundreds of people are being propelled towards you and they can not stop.