London certainly sprawls, but at least it’s got a public transit system up for getting 9 million people where they’re trying to go. There are more than 270 stations and 11 lines that connect them in London. You may be able to use public transport to get anywhere, but it doesn’t mean figuring out your route is so easy. The tube map looks like a tangled mess of colors, and when you factor in the overlapping train and bus lines, you can get lost in a hurry.
Perhaps there’s no better way to experience London in full swing than to go underground. Heading to London and want some help navigating one of the world’s oldest transit systems? Here are some tricks on how to use the London underground without looking like a complete idiot.
Take a Look at the Map Ahead of Time
Rather than trying to sort things out when you get into the station, take a look at the map before beginning your journey on the tube. It will be helpful to understand how the city fits together, and it’s far easier done before you’ve already gone underground. Download a PDF Tube Map (December 2019).
The World is your Oyster Card
The Oyster card is a smart card that you can use to travel on London’s bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus services and National Rail services throughout London. Simply put, you can use your Oyster card for just about everything. The Oyster card also entitles you to a significant discount on fares – about half of what you’d pay in cash.
Order an Oyster card before you arrive in London to avoid the hassle of paper tickets and higher fares.
Travelcard vs Oyster vs Contactless
Single fares for the London underground are both expensive and inefficient. If you’re making more than one trip within London, you should pay by Travelcard, Oyster, or Contactless.
Travelcard offers unlimited transit for a period of time (one day, one week, or one month) at a flat rate. Oyster Card is for pay-as-you-go transactions and is the preferred method for most commuters in London. Finally, Contactless is a popular payment method that Londoners use to pay for just about everything via direct withdrawal from their bank account.
While Travelcard may sound like a good idea for visitors, it is only cost-effective if you intend to make 3+ journeys per day or travel outside of Zone 1 and 2. The pay-as-you-go Oyster Card is generally considered the cheapest tube fare option for tourists to London.
How to Load your Oyster Card
Reloading your Oyster Card is simple. Most stations have a machine where you scan your Oyster Card against the reader, select the £ amount of your reload, insert your credit card, and rescan your Oyster Card. Next step? Get on with your day.
London’s public transport is paid based on the length of your trip, which zones you travel through, and whether you’re traveling during peak hours. You’ll scan your card upon entry and swipe out when you leave at your end station. While fares vary tremendously, I’ve found most trips within London averaged between £2-£4.
Make your Journey Simple with Apps
There are a couple of apps that have saved me a lot of headaches. If you’re traveling without data on your phone, I’d recommend downloading the following apps to supplement Google Maps:
Tube Map – London Underground App. Tube Map is a London Tube planner app that works offline to help you get from one spot to the next. If you know your departure and end station, Tube Map details your quickest or simplest route. Tube Map also has a night mode feature to help you navigate your way home when it’s too late for the usual service. Get on App Store or Google Play.
CityMaps2Go: It’s easy enough to get lost in London. Exit the tube on the wrong side or miss your bus stop, and what seemed like an easy walk on Google Maps gets confusing in a hurry. CityMaps2Go offers a detailed map of London map that is pre-loaded with landmarks, restaurants, museums, and more so you can get directions on the fly. Get on the App Store or Google Play.
Know your Lines
London is serviced by an extensive network of tube and rail lines. You can avoid a bit of confusion by understanding the terminology and symbology of each line.
“The Tube” refers to the London Underground that services most of the city, “The Overground” is the rail network that serves Greater London, and “The National Rail” is the train service that connects London to other parts of the UK. The”TfL Rail”, “DLR”, and “Tram” are smaller, more specific networks that service certain neighborhoods. When you look at a transport map, the symbols below will be used to indicate which lines are accessible from any given station.
When possible, staying underground keeps things simple. Take a look at alternative stations near your end destination when planning your route to determine if there’s an easier, more direct way to travel!
Know your Zones
There are six primary zones in London. Zone 1 is considered Central London while Zones 2 and 3 are a mix of inner and outer London. Zones 4, 5, and 6 are primarily outer London with some areas outside London entirely.
Fare zones dictate the cost of travel from one point to the next, and traveling within Zone 1 during peak hours typically costs a bit more. Most attractions and popular neighborhoods sit within Zones 1 and 2.
Inside the Stations
How to Use the London Underground
The London Underground is easy enough to navigate if you’re familiar with mass transit in another city. Here’s a simple idea of how your trip should go:
1. Enter the station and follow the signs toward the correct line. The tube lines are indicated by a color, while the rail network is indicated by the symbols (above).
2. Most lines will have two platforms to choose from (ie. Northbound and Southbound). Before impulsively hopping on the train, take a minute to look at the list of stops to ensure you’re going the right way.
3. On the platform, you’ll see a digital display that indicates both the endpoint and arrival time of the next train. Please note that some trains have divergent routes serviced from the same platform. In this case, the sign will say something like “Endpoint (via Station Name)”. If you’re lucky, your desired station is along that side of the split. If not, you may have to wait for the next train to get where you’re going.
About the Night Tube
On Fridays and Saturdays, there are 5 lines (Central, Victoria, Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly) offering 24-hour service. While not all stations are open, this is wildly convenient and far cheaper than calling an Uber after a night out.
When you’re sweating and trapped underground, ignoring tube etiquette is a surefire way to make commuters hate you. If you’re traveling during peak hours, be sure to have your Oyster card out and ready by the time you get to the scanner. When making your descent on the escalators, keep right for standing or pass on the left.
When your train arrives, give space to people trying to exit the train before shoving your way on. Once inside, move down inside to make room for people hopping on or off the tube along the route. Finally, if you manage to snag a seat, don’t be a jerk. Keep your eye out for families or elderly people who could use the chair more than you.
Arriving in London
Actually arriving in London can be one of the most stressful parts of your trip. As London has frequent public transport from the airport, there’s really no need to book a taxi. Arriving at Heathrow or Gatwick? Here’s how to reach London from the airport.
How to Get from Heathrow to London: The most affordable way to get from Heathrow to London is by tube. The Picadilly line gets you to central London within 50-60 minutes for about £6. If budget isn’t an issue, the Heathrow Express offers the quickest transport between Heathrow and central London, taking about 15 minutes (£22-£25).
How to Get from Gatwick to London: The Gatwick Express runs service to Victoria, taking 30 minutes (£17-£35). There are also Southern train services along with service to London Bridge and Saint Pancras departing several times an hour. Finally, you might consider National Express or easyBus depending on your arrival time.
Alfredo RJuly 20, 2017 at 5:36 pm
If I’ve known this before the time I went to London it would’ve been way easier hahaha great article as always Taylor! 🙂
Taylor RecordJuly 24, 2017 at 4:46 pm
#1 Fan, Alfredo! Are you coming to Berlin to visit??
DavindaJanuary 15, 2018 at 3:18 pm
Circles where lines intersect or pass thro stations usually means you can change between lines. It is very easy as the stations and platforms are well-signposted for the different lines. You can usually pick up a small map to carry with you and there are maps all around the platforms and trains, so you do not have to keep the route you are taking in your memory. If you are going to use it for some time, you might find it worthwhile to get an Oyster Card: it is a lot cheaper and easier. Particularly if you are a regular visitor.
AileenJuly 12, 2018 at 10:58 am
There is no advantage in using an Oyster Card over contactless… the system calculates it automatically and never charges you more than you’d pay on an Oyster. It means you never run out of credit (assuming you have credit in your bank account!), which can be a problem with Oyster… saves you having to go to a mchine and relaod the Oyster (32 years living in London…)
IvanSeptember 21, 2018 at 9:56 pm
Hi Aileen, I’m going to London soon and I been wondering what option is better for me, the travelcard or the oyster card?
I’ll be there for two months and i want to choose the cheaper option to get on
TaylorSeptember 24, 2018 at 6:05 am
How long will you be in London, Ivan? How many times a day do you expect to travel? Happy to ask my friend that lives there currently!
IvanOctober 11, 2018 at 3:58 pm
I’ll be there in London about 2 months. I expect to travel often because I go there to study and visit some places.
JDKMay 24, 2019 at 12:41 pm
actually this is not true. There is one advantage to using the Oyster card. It is this: if you fail to touch out using your contactless bank card and therefore causing an ‘incomplete journey’ then there is nothing that staff at stations can do about it. This will incur you a charge of between £5.60 and £8.30 depending on the time of day. However, with Oyster it is possible to get your money back immediately. This does happen frequently. Also if your bank are not processing charging quickly enough LUL will not let you travel with contactless – it won’t open the gates.
CammiNovember 30, 2018 at 4:26 pm
We’ll be arriving in London in a little less than 3 weeks. I figured we’d just get the Oyster Cards, but can someone explain the difference between the Oyster Card and Contactless? Are these two totally different things? I just downloaded the TfL Oyster and contactless app, but I haven’t continued forward yet with setting up an account. There are 4 of us traveling, myself, my husband, and 2 of our kids (ages 20 and 17). We will not always be traveling together, either, as the kids will want to go off on their own. Any help is appreciated! Also, is there a good app to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B? I downloaded Tube Map-London Underground app, but I can’t figure out how to use it to get from Stansted Airport (which is where we’ll be arriving) to our hotel.
TaylorDecember 3, 2018 at 11:24 am
Hey Cammi. To answer your first question, the Oyster Card is the transport pass while Contactless is a feature on credit/debit cards. If your card is enabled, you should notice a symbol that looks a bit like the wifi symbol, sideways. Many business travelers/commuters prefer Contactless, but for me, I found it more comfortable to load up my Oyster Card so I knew exactly how much I was spending. As for the App, Tube Map is my favorite for the underground, but getting from Stansted to London might be a job best suited for Google Maps. Probably your easiest way into the city is the Stansted Express Train (or the National Express Bus, if you’d like to save a bit of money). Hope this helps a bit, but anyone living in London, feel free to weigh in?
BenjaminMarch 22, 2019 at 4:01 am
Incredible, i feel so much more confident about visiting London now. I have a few questions, I’m hoping you can answer. This June i will have a 12 hour layover in Heathrow Airport. This gives me the opportunity to fulfill a dream I’ve always had of visiting the Emirates Stadium, as I’ve been an Arsenal Fan since birth.
I’d like to use the tube because i feel like it will add to my experience. In your opinion what will be the best way to get all the way to North London. Also I’m wondering what Uber fares are like in London.
TaylorMarch 24, 2019 at 9:35 am
Hey Benjamin. Congrats on getting to visit London after a lifetime of waiting! Checked with my friend who lives here, and she said:”Super easy. Piccadilly line goes straight from Heathrow to Holloway Road, where the stadium is. Maybe 1 hour and 20 minutes?” Seems like this will be just as easy and a lot cheaper than taxing an Uber. It’s a huge city, so the fares definitely aren’t cheap. Enjoy your trip!
HafildSeptember 24, 2019 at 7:46 am
If I travel from Heathrow (zone 6) to Finnsbury (zone 2) without changing train (Piccadilly Line), do I get charged with zone 6 – 2 only?
DelaneyOctober 15, 2019 at 1:29 am
Hey Taylor, this is a great article! Im moving to London from Canada in over a week and it will be my first time even being in England… im super nervous, but excited!! This made me feel better about using apps and a better idea of the Oyster card situation. If I try to order an oyster card before I arrive, is it a physical card they send to an address??
Taylor RecordOctober 15, 2019 at 10:47 pm
Hey Delaney. You’re able to order a Visitor Oyster Card, though I’m not completely sure how long shipping takes. Since your trip is coming up next week, you can also get an Oyster Card at the airport and some of the bigger underground station. Congrats on your upcoming move!