Navigating London can seem overwhelming; I know because I’ve been there. But don’t worry, because in this blog I break down the London transportation system (prices, zones, airport transportation, maps, hours, etc.) using notes from my journey to London, and the how to get around on a budget so you don’t have to!
Understanding the Transportation System in London
The London tube system is broken down into nine different zones laid out in concentric circles from the inside out. London city center, also known as central London, is located in zones 1 & 2. When travelers say they want to see Buckingham Palace, piccadilly circus, etc. they are referring to these zones.
For reference, London City Airport and Wimbledon are in zone 3; Wembley Stadium in zone 4; Heathrow Airport is in zone 6; and Gatwick Airport technically doesn’t have a zone but is located outside zone 6. Overall, there are 32 administrative boroughs plus the City of London.
London Public Transport Options
There are 10 different options for getting around London: the London Underground (Tube), Bus, Docklands Light Railway, River bus, overground, Tramlink , Rail, Taxis & minicabs, cable car, and Santander cycles (Bikeshare program).
As you’re navigating the system, there are a few acronyms you need to familiarize yourself with.
- TfL = Transport for London. This is the local government that runs the majority of public transport services in London.
- DfT = Department for Transport . Government transport responsible for the English transportation network.
- DLR = Docklands Light Railway. The automated light rail system which offers seven lines.
- LO = London Overground. The tube that serves London’s suburbs.
Not that the Tube, London Overground and National Rail also operate in zones 7-9; but buses do not operate in zones.
London Transportation Hours of Operation
- Tube: 5am-12:30am; Night Tube Fr & Sat nights w/ reduced service.
- Bus: 5am-12:30am; Night bus midnight – 5am; a select few busses run 24hrs a day.
- DLR: M-Sat 5:30am-12:30am; Sun 7am-11:30pm.
- LO: M-Sat 5am-midnight; Sun 7am-midnight.
- Tram: M-Sat 5:30am-12:30am; Sun 7am-12:30am.
- TfL Rail: everyday 5:20am-12:30am.
As a helpful tip: before I left home, I downloaded an offline map of London using google maps. I also found and downloaded the London transportation maps (Tube, Rail, Bus, Cycle, River, audio, tourist, etc.) as a PDF to read in iBooks.
How to Get Around London on a Budget
Now that you know about the different zones, types of transportation, acronyms, and operating hours, let’s get into how to get around on a budget!
To find the cheapest ways of getting around London, you need to know how you’re going to pay for transportation. How you’re going to pay MATTERS to your budget! Below is a summary of what we will discuss.
- Types of Payment Overview
- Cheapest Fare Type
- Pay as you go – fare caps vs. Travelcards & Visitor cards
- Ways to Get Around
- Hopper fare (bus & tram journey less than one hour)
- Santander Bike
Types of Payment
Head this warning: Cash is the most expensive way to pay for public transportation in London! Do not pay with cash, as fares are almost double what you would pay with the other two methods below.
What is it? A plastic card that allows you to load money to pay for transportation expenses. You can load, and reload, money and different types of fares on it. The Oyster card has no expiration date so feel free to use it on a return trip!
Purchase info: £5 for the card + funds or travel passes. Also, there is a “Young Visitor Discount” that applies 1/2 off for kids aged 11-15 if you speak to an attendant and ask, specifically, for the “Young Visitor Discount” which is valid up to 14 days. Not that travel is free for kids under 10 years old traveling with a paying adult.
Visitor Oyster cards available, too! The only differences between a regular Oyster card and a Visitor Oyster card is with a Visitor Oyster card, you can get a refund for any amount under 10 pounds you do not use. Further, the cost of a Visitor Oyster card is £5 card + shipping + pre-loaded fares in increments. It also comes with gift-shop, food, and attraction discounts at select locations.
In this blog I will only refer to the regular Oyster card, not the Visitor Oyster because I didn’t find the Visitor Oyster to be useful, as most museums in London are free and I wasn’t interested in gift shop discounts.
Special Tip: Download the app & register your card – if it’s lost you can receive a refund. If not, tough luck.
Where to Buy: All tube, LO, and TfL rail stations, visitor centers, Oyster ticket stops and newsagents in London, some DLR & national Rail stations. I purchased mine from a touch-screen machine at the Heathrow Terminal 3 tube station.
How to use: Tap the card on readers. Valid only for one person.
Pros: Convenient, almost 50% cheaper than using cash, price capping automatically applies (once you hit the capping max, every trip after is free!).
Contactless & Mobile Payment
What is it? Your personal credit or debit card issued by your bank. Can be a physical card or key fob but it must bear the contactless card symbol. Contactless Mobile App (apple/google/Samsung pay, etc.).
Where to Buy: Request a contactless card from your credit or debit card company (if available). For mobile payments, setup & activate on your smartphone.
How to use: Tap your card/phone on card reader. You must use the same card to tap in and out, or else you will be charged extra.
Pros: Convenient, almost 50% cheaper than using cash, price capping automatically applies (once you hit the capping max, every trip after is free!). Don’t have to pay £5 for oyster card OR remember to purchase a specific pass.
Cons: If you’re bank/credit card company charges a fee for overseas/international transactions, this can add up quickly. If your oyster is next to your contactless payment you may be charged twice. Battery could die on your phone and you can only pay for one person per card. If you don’t feel comfortable whipping out your card in public, this is option is not for you.
OYSTER/CONTACTLESS PENALTY FARES: Charged if you don’t tap in/out when you’re supposed to with Oyster or Contactless card. £80 or £40 if paid within 21 days.
Types of London Transportation System Fares
Pay as You Go Fare
What is it? Pay for the trips you take on public transportation – no more, no less. Valid using Oyster or Contactless/Mobile payment. You can even calculate how much a single trip will cost in London using fare finder.
- Cheapest pay as you go fare are during Off Peak hours. Don’t travel from 6:30-9:30am or 4-7pm and you’ll pay the least. If you travel from 6:30-9:30am, you could pay up to double the cost.
- Night services are always off-peak hours
- Price capping saves money w/ Pay as you Go fares!
- What is it? Unlimited travel once you reach a certain “Capped” price point. You will never pay more than the capped amount
- AUTOMATICALLY APPLIES WITH PAY AS YOU GO FARES
- Capped price varies between each mode of transportation. There are daily, weekly, and monthly caps. Stick with one type to get the best rate. (ie- can’t take Tube, then bus – two separate capped fares).
- To calculate costs, add up the capped amounts for each day/week for your mode of transportation (Tube, Bus/tram).
- Pay-as-you-go is cheaper than…
- Travelcards. Unlimited trips for a set price.
- Tube: Zones 1-2 cap is £7 on & off-peak vs £13.10 travel card; from Heathrow (zone 6) cap is £12.80 on & off-peak vs. £18.60 & £13.10 travelcard.
- Check out this Pay as you Go Capped Fares vs Travelcard Prices in each zone calculator.
- Visitor passes: 2 day = £25.40, 3 day = £38.10 adults, valid ONLY during off-peak times. Overall it’s not worth it!
- Travelcards. Unlimited trips for a set price.
How to use:
- Oyster = buy card, load money, tap on reader.
- Contactless: Tap your card on a specific form of transportation as you’d like.
Cheapest Ways to Get Around London on a Budget – use Oyster and/or Contactless Payment
Bus or Tram
Type of Transportation Included? London has one of the largest and most comprehensive bus networks in the world, over 8k busses on over 650 routes. Don’t be afraid, this means you have more than one way to get where you need to and price capping applies to bus and tram fares!
How much is it? Depends on your age. Adults = £1.50 single cap, £4.50 daily cap, and £21.20 weekly cap; Under 11yo = free; 1/2 off adult fares for Young Visitor Discount. This saves a ton of money because taxis or an Uber starts around £6 for 1 mile!
Special Tip: Only touch in on buses and trams. Remember the hopper fare!
What is it? Started in 2016 and upgraded in 2018, the Hopper Fare is good for unlimited bus and tram journeys, within one hour of first touching your card.
Purchase info: Pay Adult single cap fare = £1.50; children under 11 are free. Pay with Oyster or contactless cards only.
Special Tip: Need to have money loaded on your card in order for it to apply. In other words, you can’t have a zero or negative balance. If you happen to board a bus with a £0 balance you need to load money within 1 hr to apply the hopper fare. The hopper fare applies to travel on the Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus or National Rail services between Hopper journeys, and Hopper fares will still apply!
How to use: tap card on card reader, fare automatically applied.
Pros: great for quick, short trips. Very affordable, get the “London red double-decker bus” experience or if you’re on your way to afternoon tea. Can ride day or night.
Cons: not great if there’s a lot of traffic or trying to go longer distances.
Type of Transportation Included? Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and National Rail services. Underground/Tube has 11 lines, 270 stations, and is the world’s oldest underground railway network.
How much is it? Depends on your age. Adults = depends on zone & time of travel, but within in Zone 1 around £2.40 one-way; £7 daily anytime & off-peak in Zones 1-2 cap, Zone 1-6 £12.80 daily cap. Under 11yo = free; 1/2 off adult fares for Young Visitor Discount.
How to get to/from Heathrow Airport to the city center of London: Tube fares from Heathrow
Tube peak hours (6:30-9:30am & 4-7pm) = £5.10, off-peak £3.10. Remember that Heathrow Airport is located in Zone 6, which carries a cap of £12.80 for that day! Taking the tube from Heathrow to London takes 45 – 50min.
This save a TON of money because an Uber X will cost £40-50 and a black Taxi to/from airport costs between £48 – 90 for a 30-60min ride.
How to use: Tap your card in and out at yellow card readers. If you’re traveling across London but not through Zone 1, you need to:
- Touch your card in on a yellow card reader at the start of your journey.
- Next, touch on a pink card reader when you change trains.
- Finally, touch out on a yellow card reader at the end of your journey.
This helps you to avoid higher pay as you go fare in Zone 1.
Pros: fast, convenient, don’t have to deal with weather underground, many routes, can go to/from airport cheaply.
Cons: CROWDED during rush hour, must walk up escalators/stairs.
What is it? A bikeshare program where individuals rent a bike for the day. There are 750+ docking stations and 11,500 bikes available 24hrs/day, everyday!
How much is it? £2 for 24hr rental. Free for first 30 min of each journey, then an additional £2 per 30 min after. Can ride, dock, visit site, pick up another bike, ride 30 min free, dock, etc.
How to use: Touch screen kiosk to “hire a bike” and follow directions. Pay with Debit or credit card. Green light = good to go!
Pros: great for quick, short trips. Can rent using app on iPhones or Android. TfL created fun bike ride routes around London to follow. Excellent exercise!
Cons: must dock the bike properly if you are not using it or you will be charged rate of £2 per each 30 min. increment. London weather is unpredictable (rain, wind, etc.) so you may have to “dock and walk” to your final destination. Charge for late, unreturned, or damaged bike up to £300.
How much is it? Free!
Pros: The cheapest option. Sometimes it’s faster to walk between tube stations than to actually take the tube. Walking guides available. May run into red phone booths along the way, great photo ops.
Cons: Unpredictable London weather, MUST watch where you’re going (look right/left street signs), feet can hurt if walking all day.
By knowing how to navigate the London transportation system, understanding that the form of payment matters, and choosing the least expensive options, you’ll be able to confidently get around London on a budget!
Have any additional tips? Leave them in the comments below!