London transport can be complicated. Should I get an Oyster Card or buy single journey tickets? How does the zone system work? And, if you don’t get it quite right, it can be extra expensive as well.
Underground, Overground, here are a few questions to help you navigate yourself around London’s transport system.
London transport, that’s just the tube right?
Wrong, Transport for London covers a range of options for getting around the city: Underground ‘tube’ service, buses, the Overground and National Rail trains, the Dockland’s Light Railway (DLR) and trams. In reality, you’ll probably use the first two services the most.
Where am I heading?
When considering London transport, you need to get into the zone. That’s because London’s transport system divided into nine (very) roughly concentric circular zones, radiating out from zone 1 in the center. Generally speaking, it costs more to travel the further out you go, although bus fares remain the same throughout the city.
Most of the major tourist attractions are in zone 1—British Museum, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, etc—and many hotels too, though some of the cheaper options may be in zone 2 and beyond. It’s possible to visit London and to rarely stray beyond zone 1, let alone zone 2, although it’s not quite the wilderness out there: Hampton Court, for example, is in zone 6. The zones are marked on maps of the tube and posters, and sometimes at the station itself. You can view an online map here.
When will I be traveling?
Transport costs vary depending on whether you are traveling at peak hours or off-peak. To get the cheaper off-peak rates, you need to start your journey after 9:30 AM on Mondays to Fridays. Saturdays, Sunday and public holidays all count as off-peak too. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not only less expensive, it’s also probably considerably more pleasant to travel off-peak, away from the stressed commuters, if you possibly can. In the afternoon, it depends on how you are paying for your transport: no off-peak hours apply to Travelcard users, but for those using pay as you go Oyster, peak hours apply between 4 PM and 7 PM. And, don’t worry, I’ll explain the difference between a travelcard and an Oyster card later.
What are my best ticket options?
While you can still buy tickets for individual journeys, this isn’t really cost effective if you plan on making more than a couple of journeys each day. In addition, from the July 6, cash payments will no longer be accepted on London buses, meaning you (and the rest of the city) will need to be a bit more prepared when stepping out. And this might be the most complicated part of your journey, because there are a number of different methods of ticketing available:
What is it?
This is what the majority of Londoners use. It’s an electronic card that you tap onto a reader at the entry and exit barriers at tube and rail stations, or simply tap once onto the reader when getting on a bus. There’s a £5 deposit, then the card can be loaded with a 7 day, a month or even year’s travel pass for whatever zones you require. On top of this, you can add money to Pay As You Go (PAYG): payment is deducted for each journey you take, depending on your method of transport and how far you travel.
Why would I want to use it?
Staying for London for any considerable length of time? This is probably the option for you. This is what the majority of Londoners use. It’s a very flexible system: most people get a travel pass to cover their commute and use PAYG to pay for journeys into zones not covered by their pass. Also, only using PAYG can actually be a money saver if you only make occasional journeys on public transport and, if you are only using the card for PAYG, the money doesn’t expire (meaning you can hold onto it for a return trip in the future) and the cards can be passed over to another person when you’re done with it.
Why wouldn’t I want to use it?
Well, there’s not that much to differentiate it from the Visitor Oyster card (see below). The major difference and disadvantage is that you can’t order it in advance from abroad, so when you get to London you’ll need to get in one of the likely long lines of people waiting at a station ticket office (rather than at a machine). There’s the £5 deposit, and then the subsequent secondary station visit to get your £5 back at the end of your trip.
What is it?
As the name suggests, it’s a version of the Oyster card intended especially for visitors. No deposit for this card: it’s priced at £3, which is non-refundable. The PAYG works in the same way: you load your Oyster with credit which is deducted per journey you make, so a journey in zones 1 to 2 will deduct £2.80 during peak hours and £2.20 off-peak, or a single journey on any bus will set you back £1.45.
Why Would I Want to Use It?
You can order the Visitor Oyster in advance of your visit, preloaded with credit, allow 12 to 16 days for delivery to the States.
Like the standard Oyster, it’s a really convenient option. There’s a cap on how much you pay out using PAYG, which is really handy if you’re planning some extensive sightseeing to do. Say you only intend to travel about zones 1 and 2. Once you’ve done the equivalent of £8.40 (peak hours) or £7 (off-peak hours) worth of journeys over the course of a day, money will stop being deducted from your Oyster card for any subsequent journeys you make that day.
The Visitor Oyster card comes with some additional tourist-friendly perks, such as a 25% discount on the Emirates Air Line cable car and a 10% reduction on the fare for the Thames Clipper River Bus. The card can also be passed over to another person when you’re done with it.
Why Wouldn’t I Want To Use It?
It can’t be used for 7 day, month or yearly travel cards. You also have to be extra vigilant to make sure you ‘tap in and tap out’ on the reader for every journey you take on tube or train—even if the barriers are open—and at transport interchanges, otherwise you will be charged extra.
What is it?
A paper ticket purchased for a day or a week’s worth of travel around the Transport for London system. You insert it into the barriers at stations to open the gates, or show it to the driver on a bus. A day’s worth of travel in zones 1 to 2 is £9; 7 day is £31.40. A day is based on the transport system’s day, rather than being a strict 24 hours, so a ticket bought at 9:30 AM would be valid on a ‘night’ bus at 1am that evening, but not when the tube reopens at around 5:30 AM
Why Would I Want To Use It?
Again, you can order these in advance of your visit, meaning no standing in line when you step exhausted off that plane. While a day’s worth of travel works out slightly more expensive than using an Oyster card, the 7 day card can work out a lot cheaper if you are going to use public transport a lot over a week. And it also means that, unlike Oyster PAYG users, you don’t need to worry about traveling/not traveling in peak hours in the afternoon.
Why Wouldn’t I Want To Use It?
For visits of less than a week, the Visitor Oyster is better value. Oyster would also be more convenient if you intend on venturing beyond zones 1 and 2. Plus there’s the fact it’s made from paper and it’ll get soggy in the rain. (This is England. The rain is an important consideration.)
What if I don’t like any of these options?
There’s always the Barclays Cycle Hire program: read our EuroCheapo guide to how it works. Most of central London can be tackled on your feet. It can be a bit exhausting, but it is all walkable. The money you spend on getting a centrally located hotel may be worth it in terms of what you could save on transport. You can buy paper tickets for single tickets when your feet really need it, or perhaps even splurge on a black cab.