London

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London is one of Europe’s biggest cities and for many years was the centre of the English-speaking world. London today has a rich history with many remnants of its imperial past, yet it is a city facing the future with a diverse population and loads of attractions.

London is also most backpackers’ gateway to Europe and is an enormously popular city to find work and it makes a great base with its cheap and frequent transport connections to the rest of the UK and Europe.

It is a very expensive city, particularly for accommodation, but there are many cheap places to eat and a lot of the major attractions (including many world-famous museums) are free.

Practical information

For an up-to-date look at what’s happening around London, including information on gigs and theatre plus finding work and accommodation, pick up a copy of one of the free weekly magazines such as TNT from your hostel or from boxes outside tube stations and pubs around town. For more in depth entertainment listings Time Out magazine is available free on Tuesday mornings at most tube and train stations in zones one and two.

Local transport

Despite constant grumbling from Londoners, London has a brilliant public transport system that is comprised of buses, trains, trams and the underground.

If you’re planning on spending longer than a week in London, you should consider either getting an Oyster Card or using Apple Pay or a contactless payment credit card. Transport fares paid using Oyster Card or a contactless payment card are substantially lower than the regular cash fare.

Bus

London’s double-decker buses are a tourist attraction in their own right and riding on the top deck is a must for every traveller. Although slower than the tube, buses are an excellent way to get around London since they give you a totally different perspective of the city.

The destination, along with major stops, is indicated on the panel on the front and sometimes the back of each bus.

Bus fares on London buses are £1.50 with an Oyster card or contactless payment card. You can’t use cash to pay your bus fare.

Although train and tube services stop shortly after midnight, there are a number of bus route that operate throughout the night. These night buses have route numbers prefixed with the letter “N” and run from around 11pm to 6am. Most night buses stop in Trafalgar Square, which makes this the place to head for if you’re in Central London and you don’t know which bus to get. Night buses cost more than regular buses and they don’t accept one-day Travelcards although weekly and monthly passes are accepted.

There are also a number of touristy bus services that operate a circuit of the major tourist attractions. They give a running commentary, which some people may find entertaining and the open-top double-deckers provide excellent photo opportunities. Although these tourist buses may seem like a good idea at first, they are a bit tacky, they don’t give you the opportunity to mingle with the locals, and most importantly they are expensive. It’s a much better idea to grab a Travelcard (or use an Oyster card or other method of contactless payment) and take a regular bus and spend the money you’ve saved down at the pub!

Because so many local buses pass by Central London’s top sights, some local bus routes (including buses 8, 9, 11 and 24) offer great low-cost alternative to the expensive hop-on hop-off tour buses. Click here for a great overview of the top scenic bus routes in London.

Tram

The Tramlink tram service operates around Croydon in the southern suburbs and it is unlikely that you will use this service. Fares are the same as the bus.

The Underground

The London Underground or the tube is the world’s largest public transport network. Commonly referred to simply as ‘the tube’, the Underground network is made up of 11 lines plus Docklands Light Railway that provides an elevated network in the East End. Each line in the London Underground is named and indicated by a different colour on tube maps that appear at stations and on each train carriage. Because each line generally runs on its own tracks, you will have to follow the signs to transfer to a different line.

Following the fire at Kings Cross station in 1987, it is now illegal to smoke anywhere on the London Underground, even on stations above ground.

Some stations on the Underground network have curved platforms. This means that trains don’t always stop flush to the edge to the platform creating a gap between the train and the platform. It is a good idea to pay attention to avoid falling in the gap when getting on and off your train. This has led to the Underground’s most popular public safety announcement “mind the gap”.

Suburban trains

London’s suburban trains are run by several different companies and carry more commuters than the London Underground. Suburban train services fill in areas that aren’t covered by the underground and generally run every 20 minutes or so, with more frequent trains operating the closer you get into central London. Trains on some routes (such as Waterloo to Clapham Junction) run almost as frequently as the tube.

The London Overground is a network of suburban train lines (running a circular route through north and south London and also incorporating the former East London line of the London Underground) that are more closely integrated with the underground system than other suburban train lines. The London Overground appears on most tube maps.

You probably won’t be using surburban trains in London unless you want to go to places in south London, if you want to get to the good hitchhiking spots or if you are travelling beyond or out of London.

The Travelcard is accepted by virtually all suburban train services, the few exceptions include airport services such as the Heathrow, Gatwick Express and Stansted Express train services.

River ferries

There are ferry services that link piers along the River Thames. The three main commuter services run between Chelsea Harbour and Blackfriars Millennium Pier, between Savoy Pier and Greenwich (via Canary Wharf) and between Hilton Docklands and Canary Wharf.

Ferry fares range from £4.20 to £9 (£3.90–7.20 if you pay by Oyster Card, contactless payment card or Apple Pay) although tourist river cruises are more expensive.

Emirates Air Line

The Emirates Air Line is a suspended cable car that operates a short route in the Docklands offering a unique perspective of London. The fare is £4.50 each way (£3.50 each way if you pay by Oyster card).

Fares

Fares are based on a zone system with six zones in the London area. Everything you are likely to want to travel to is located in zones one and two.

A single ticket valid for zone one on the tube costs £4.90 (cash fare) or £2.40 with an Oyster card, Apple Pay or contactless payment card. One-way ticket prices for other zones are as follows:

Zones Cash fare Oyster/contactless payment (off-peak) Oyster/contactless payment (peak)
1 £4.90 £2.40 £2.40
1–2 £4.90 £2.40 £2.90
1–3 £4.90 £2.80 £3.30
1–4 £5.90 £2.80 £3.90
1–5 £5.90 £3.10 £4.70
1–6 £6 £3.10 £5.10

As you can tell from the above prices, the tube can be a very expensive way of getting around town. However, there are a number of ways of reducing the cost of getting around London.

If you’re not getting an Oyster card then a Travelcard is a much better deal than individual tickets (although the Oyster card is still the best value). Travelcards allow unlimited travel during a set period.

Most visitors to London buy a travel card each day, but a weekly ticket a better option if you’re staying more than a couple of days. If you’re staying outside zone two, it is considerably cheaper buying an off-peak Travelcard for travel after 9.30am.

One-day Travelcards are not valid on night buses, although travel on night buses is included in weekly and monthly Travelcards.

Zones One day off-peak One day peak Seven days
1–2 £12.30 £12.30 £33
1–4 £12.30 £12.30 £47.30
1–6 £17.50 £12.30 £60.20

You will need a Photocard if you are buying a monthly Travelcard or a seven-day rail-only season ticket. Photocards are available from tube stations, Oyster ticket shops and London Travel Information Centres.

Although the Travelcard represents big savings over individual tickets, the Oyster card is still better value because the Oyster card daily price cap is lower than the cost of the corresponding Travelcard.

Oyster card, contactless payment cards and Apple Pay

If you’re planning to spend a lot of time in London, the pre-paid Oyster card can save you a lot of money. Transport fares are substantially lower – in some cases you can save up to two thirds of the cash fare – when you pay using this smart card. For example a short tube journey in central London costs £2.40 with the Oyster Card compared with the £4.90 cash fare. Daily price capping means the maximum you pay is £6.60 a day for travel in zones one and two. This is a great idea since you don’t have to buy a day pass if you’re not sure whether you are going to travel enough to get the value out of it.

The Oyster may not be worth it if you’re only in town for a couple of days as it is easy to leave credit on your card when you leave town, but it is a great idea if you’re in London longer than a week or if you plan on returning.

An alternative to the Oyster card is to use a contactless payment card (such as an American Express, MasterCard or Visa with contactless payment technology) or a contactless payment app (such as Apple Pay). Using these contactless payment cards/apps gives you the same price as using an Oyster card and this can be the most convenient option since you don’t need to buy, top up and carry a separate card. You can also use Apple Pay on an Apple Watch or compatible iPhone (iPhone 6 or newer).

If you’re using Apple Pay, you need to ensure that your Apple Watch or iPhone has enough charge to complete your journey as you’ll be charged the penalty fare if your battery is drained and you are not able to touch out at the end of your journey.

Most contactless payment cards will work on London’s transport network, however there some MasterCard and Visa cards issued outside the UK that will not work. Also note that contactless payment cards issued outside the UK may incur additional foreign exchange fees. If you have a contactless payment card issued in the UK, then this is usually the easiest option, but otherwise buying an Oyster card will be your cheapest option.

You are charged the full adult fare if you use Apple Pay or a contactless payment card. If you are eligible for a concession fare (such as a child or senior fare) then you’ll need to buy an Oyster card.

Remember to validate your ticket or you could be up for a £50 fine.

Taxis

London’s black cabs are as famous as its red double-decker buses, and many visitors consider a ride in a black cab all part of the London experience. Unlike taxi drivers elsewhere, London cabbies can’t get their licence until they’ve passed a rigorous test called ‘the knowledge’. Getting the knowledge involves two to three years of studying a map for three hours a day followed by another three hours whizzing around London on a moped. By the time taxi drivers have graduated they know the shortest distance between any two places in London. Tipping isn’t always expected although it is commonplace to add an extra 10%.

Minicabs are a cheaper alternative. Because they are unlicensed they are not allowed to pick up passengers off the street (although many minicabs hang around pubs at closing time) and you generally have to call them or wait for them at the office of a minicab company. Minicabs don’t have meters so you’ll have to negotiate a rate beforehand. Don’t expect the professionalism of a black cab.

Driving

Although driving is one of the best ways to explore Great Britain, most travellers sensibly choose to avoid driving in central London. Although there is a fairly comprehensive network of motorways radiating from the outer suburbs, which are joined by the M25 Orbital Motorway (ring road), there are no motorways that run through the centre of town and this results in bottlenecks and traffic jams.

Congestion charge

In an effort to reduce congestion, a daily congestion charge of £11.50 (£14 if you pay the following day) is levied on every car driven into a designated area in central London. You are required to pay the congestion charge if you drive or park in the congestion-charging zone between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday. Motorbikes and scooters are exempt from this levy.

A brochure with a map showing the boundaries of the congestion charging zone is available for download from the Transport for London website.

Payment may be made by sending a text (SMS) message from your mobile phone; however you first have to register your name, address, credit card and vehicle details either by phone (0343 222 2222) or online. Alternatively you apply for CC Auto Pay, although this is designed more for residents and other frequent users and is not a popular option for visitors to London.

If you’re planning on renting a car in London to explore Great Britain, it is a good idea to make sure that the rental car office you’re picking the car up from is located outside the zone to avoid having to pay the charge.


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