The public transport system in London is very complex so it deserves a detailed explanation to be able to get the most of it. It’s certainly not cheap but there are a couple of ways in which you could cut down the cost. This detailed guide would be of use not just for tourists but for people who’d like to stay in London for a longer time, to study or work.
Oyster or Contactless
What is an Oyster card?
The key to budget travel used to be the Oyster card- a top-up card valid for all means of transportation within the entire Greater London. You don’t actually need to use Oyster card anymore, though. Any contactless card would be charged exactly the same way. If only you don’t pay any extra fees for using your card abroad, you don’t really need the Oyster card.
Where to buy Oyster?
You can get an Oyster card from any train, under- or overground station, either from a vending machine or a manned ticket booth. The deposit for a card is £5 (fully refundable upon return). You can top it up with any amount of cash or, if you pay by card, with at least £5.
The benefits of using Oyster/contactless card
The main advantage of using Oyster/contactless card are the daily caps: the maximum amount of money you can spend in a day travelling within particular zones by any means of public transport, regardless of the number of the journeys. For example, the daily cap for zones 1-3 costs £8.20 [autumn 2019]. BUT if you traveled further than zone 3, you’d be charged extra for that. That’s one of the reasons why it isn’t worth to find accommodation beyond zone 3.
There is a separate daily cap only for bus travel which in 2019 was an affordable £4.50. If you’re on a tight budget, this cap is a life saver. Another amazing feature is a bus hopper fare: you’d be charged for a single journey even if you changed a bus, so long as the change happens within one hour from boarding the first bus. Very useful!
How to use Oyster/contactless card?
Just touch the card when you’re boarding a bus or on a yellow reader whenever you enter and leave the station.
As a general advice, always touch the reader only with your Oyster card, or a chosen contactless card, not with the whole wallet as then other cards in your wallet could be accidentally charged as well. Always remember to use the same card throughout the day, otherwise the travel cap wouldn’t apply.
Bus travel in London
The iconic red double-deckers are slow but very frequent and quite cheap. You’re very likely to use them during your stay. The route of each bus is written on the boards at the bus stops and most of the stops have electronic boards with live departures, too. There are also electronic boards inside the buses, showing the name of the upcoming stop. Upon boarding you’d need to touch a yellow reader next to the driver with an Oyster or a contactless card.
Buses are the only means of transportation which you can enter even if you don’t have enough money on your card. If you have less than £1.50 on your card, the reader would make a warning beep and an emergency fare ticket would be printed from a machine right next to it. Take it with you- it makes your journey valid. Your Oyster would have a negative credit until you top it up again. Be aware that you won’t be able to board another bus until you top up your card.
One more thing worth knowing is that London buses often change their destination suddenly. They basically cut the route short which would be announced by loudspeakers and shown on an electric display. If the driver asked everybody to leave and you still haven’t reached your desired destination, get a special replacement ticket from the driver. With this ticket, you could complete your journey on any other bus going in that direction for free.
Buses vs. other means of transport
Buses are by far the cheapest means of transportation in London but also the slowest one. Prepare for the traffic jams most of the time, apart from weekend mornings and late evenings throughout the week. The main benefit of travelling by bus is that the price doesn’t change depending on the distance or on the time of travel. It’s always £1.50 and the maximum amount spend in one day (if using the card) is just £4.50.
Now, getting from zone 3 to zone 1 by bus typically takes around 1 hour. If you stay further than zone 3, you’d either have to spend A LOT of time on the buses, or spend A LOT of money for other means of transport.
Underground or Tube has eleven lines – Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, Waterloo & City. The massive, criss-crossing network of 270 stations spreading across 8 zones is surprisingly easy to navigate. There are free tube maps at each station and the signs with the entire route are placed at the entrance to each platform, making mistaking the directions or lines almost impossible.
Overground is a suburbian rail with carriages looking like a mixture between a train and a tram. It doesn’t serve the zone 1 but encircles the entire city. It runs less frequently than the Tube but still quite often to make for convenient means of transportation. Out of tourist attractions, Kew Gardens, Richmond and Hampstead Heath are on the Overground routes.
DLR- Dockland Light Rail are short, tiny trains moving through special overground rails only in the regenerated Docklands area in the east London. For the tourists, it could be useful for getting to Greenwich from the City area.
National Rail -in the form of various companies serving different parts of London -has full-size trains which run less frequently than Overground (in the weekend, just once in half an hour). It’s also infamous for serious delays and cancellations which happen fairly regularly. You’d need to use the train if you want to visit Hampton Court or Windsor.
Using Oyster/ contactless card on a train
Any railway transportation, whether over- or under-ground requires touching the Oyster or contactless card TWICE: on the yellow reader at the gates when you enter the station and on the yellow reader at the gates when you leave the station.
It is very important to remember to touch the reader even if the gates are open. Otherwise you’d be charged automatically a penalty fine the next time you use the Oyster/your card. Smaller rail and overground stations don’t even have the gates so you’d need to find the reader somewhere at the station and make sure you touch it.
The price of the journey depends on which zones you cross and on the time of the day. You can always check it with a single fare finder on TfL website.
Avoiding zone 1- pink reader
Another useful feature of the London transportation is that you could pay very little money to travel even on very large distances, provided that you avoid zone 1. For example, an off-peak fare for Overground journey avoiding zone 1 would cost just £1.50 . This feature could be useful for visiting attractions located far away from the centre, such as Richmond Park, Kew Gardens or Greenwich, provided you don’t stay in zone 1 yourself.
How to avoid zone 1? Go to Transport for London website and click on Fares and then ‘Single Fare Finder’. Enter your starting point and destination. The system would give you various price options, which might include some ‘avoiding zone one’. Take a note of the route and find the relevant journey in the Journey Planner on the same website. The difference between various times (on/off peak) and routes could be significant, eg. £2.30 instead of £5.30.
If you have to change between Tube and any other rail transportation system (train/Overground), you’d need to touch the pink reader before making this interchange. The pink readers are sometimes a bit tricky to find but make sure you do touch one, otherwise you’d be charged more.
If you travel by anything else than a bus, make sure you do it outside the peak hours to pay less and have better comfort of the journey. The peak hours are: Monday to Friday from 06.30 to 09.30 and from 16.00 to 19.00. Avoid peak hours also because the rail transportation would be terribly overloaded and the buses would be stuck in the worst traffic jams.
Whether you need to get to/ from the airport or simply return after a night out, you have many options of nighttime public transport to choose from.
Five Tube lines run a 24–hour service on Fridays and Saturdays: Victoria, Central, Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines. The remaining lines stop operating at midnight.
Additionally, the Overground operates 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays between New Cross Gate and Highbury & Islington. You’d be charged an off-peak fare for Tube/Overground at night.
Quite a few bus routes are 24 hours as well. Mind you, the journey by a night bus on Friday and Saturday night might be as long as during daytime.
Transport for London ins and outs
Cheating doesn’t really work
Cheating doesn’t really work and is not worth the risk. The fine for riding without a ticket is VERY high: £80 (reduced to £40 if paid within 21 days).
Remember that even if you could enter the gates easily without touching the card, you wouldn’t know the situation at the destination. The smaller/more obscure stations tend to open the gates in the evenings on the weekends but it’s not a general rule. If you haven’t touched the Oyster card when you entered but you did it upon exiting, you’d be charged the MAXIMUM DAILY FARE. That hurts.
If you haven’t ‘touched in’ or ‘touched out’ by mistake, you could try to explain it to a member of staff (but only at the Underground station) and he/she could be nice enough to give you a refund directly to your Oyster card. It happened to me a number of times.
When the things go wrong – refunds
Oyster system isn’t perfect and has some internal errors. There are some situations you could be charged the maximum fare UNFAIRLY and then you’d need to apply for a refund. Those cases are:
1. You’re entering and leaving from the same station (for example because the train you’re waiting for got seriously delayed and you don’t feel like waiting for it).
2. You spend an unusually long time travelling from station A to station B (for example because you took the wrong train and went somewhere else instead and then had to go back).
In such cases, you could receive a refund only at the manned Underground station (it cannot be done at the train station). Explain your situation to a member of staff and he’d be able to give you a refund to Oyster card via vending machine. It’d be more complicated if you used contactless card.
Plan your journey
Citymapper is a very useful mobile app (available in website version as well) for travelling within London. It shows real time departures and walking time, calculates the fastest route for you, informing you as well of the cost of the journey. However, it wouldn’t always show you the cheapest option. If the time and convenience matters for you more than the price, City mapper would be an ideal tool.
Citymapper launched in 2019 a Citymapper Pass where you pay a weekly fare for unlimited bus Tube/OG/DLR, rail and bus journey within zones 1-4. It comes out slightly cheaper than Oyster prices but is available only to London residents and requires commitment of min. 4-weeks.
If you don’t have the access to the internet on the mobile, try planning your journeys in advance with Citymapper or Journey Planner on Transport for London website. Journey Planner isn’t as reliable as Citymapper as it doesn’t take in consideration you could simply walk from one station to another, nearby one. It just shows you the journey from station A to B. TfL website shows also live departures of the buses. Just click on the section Buses and write the name of the bus stop.