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London, a sprawling city offering no shortage of things to see and do, can be a bit daunting when it comes to public transportation. But one huge advantage to getting from place to place in Her Majesty’s city is that many sights and attractions are in the most central neighborhoods.
Cheapos on-the-go can save quite a bit of cash on public transportation—and without walking everywhere, too. You just need to know how to get the best value out of the underground “Tube” system. Here’s a quick Tube primer:
London: The “Big… Onion”?
Transport for London, the main transportation authority, divides London into nine zones. “Zone One” is the city’s center, the “middle of the onion,” if you will. Think Trafalgar Square and Big Ben. Zones two through nine work out in rings from there, and are the outer “layers of the onion.”
The price of a Tube ticket depends on how many zones you pass through on any given journey. (Tip: Remember, buses work differently. You can travel on them all over London, in all zones, for one price.)
Three ways to pay for the Tube
1. Single Tickets: You could always turn up at any London Tube station, buy a single ticket, and be on your way. But, as locals will tell you, this is the most expensive and least practical payment option, especially if you plan to make many trips on the Tube during your stay in London. (Read more about single ticket prices.)
2. Travelcard: A second option is to buy a printed “Travelcard” for 1, 3, or 7 days. The price of the card depends in which zones you expect to travel. Also, 1-day cards are more expensive if you travel before 9:30 AM. Remember, most sights are within zones 1 and 2, so stick to those zones and you should be fine. (Read more about 1 and 3-day passes, and 7-day passes.)
* * However, travel agents (watch out!) will often try to sell tourists 7-day passes good for all nine zones, the cost of which is a hefty £68. For only zones 1 and 2, the same 7-day pass will cost only £25.80.
Tip: If you do need to go further afield, you can buy an add-on ticket (or just go by bus, if you can spare the time – the Travelcard will be valid.)
3. Oyster card: Finally, I recommend that you buy an “Oyster card,” a pre-paid “smart card” that always charges the lowest fare. You pay a one-time refundable deposit for the card (£2 if you buy it from a special tourist outlet; £3 otherwise) and then load it up with money. You can put 1, 3, and 7-day “Travelcards” on your Oyster card, or use your Oyster for single trips (at reduced rates).
* * Pay-as-you-go fares using an Oyster card are half what they are if you pay cash. Also, there’s a price cap per day, so you’ll never pay more than the price of a one-day travel card. (For more info on the price cap and how it works, go here.)
The Oyster card also gives you some security, because if you register your card and it gets lost or stolen, you can claim back any money you had on it. You can’t do that with a Travelcard.
When you’re finished with your Oyster, you simply return it to a Tube station, where an agent will refund your deposit and any money you haven’t spent. (Note: If you’re owed more than £5, it will be given to you in check form, in British pounds, which might be a pain to cash.)
Oyster cards are probably better than Travelcards for most tourists visiting London, as they’re convenient and charge the lowest single-trip fare. Plus, if you plan to travel quite a bit (and for more than one day), simply put a 3 or 7-day Travelcard on your Oyster card.
One final note
Check with your hotel and in tourist information centers for special offers available to Travelcard and Oyster card users. Benefits typically include reduced entry fees, special deals in restaurants, and more. These offers change frequently, so look for leaflets at Tube stations, or ask a station agent.