Backpacking · Europe · Gap Year · London · Long term travel · Survival Guide · Uncategorized

Surviving London III: Public Transportation

This portion of the guide is going to be broken up into a general understanding of the transit/Tube and a bit about how to navigate the buses.
Let’s begin!
Train Stations

Waterloo Station

Most stations are massive and include a dramatically large number of stairs/escalators. I’d wager that you spend more time GETTING to the train than you actually do on the train, most of the time.

Yeah, that happens

They also tend to be incredibly crowded in Zone 1 (Central London), even worse during rush hour. So anticipate fighting people to get onto trains and out of the station.

The dominant card you need to use in London is called an Oyster Card, which you can pick up at any airport in London. You can also get them from transit staff who operate the ticket booths. But if you are entering London via an airport than it is suggested you just get an Oyster card there. An Oyster card is a reusable electronic card that “costs”£5, in reality, you just need to “top up”£5 to get the card. Technically this is referred to as a ‘deposit’ and you can get your £5 back if you return your Oyster Card to the TFL. So the Oyster card is essentially free, seeing as you’ll be using it to travel anyway so putting at least £5 on it isn’t hurting you.

The Yellow electronic reader is what you use to tap in and out of the trains in London.
The Yellow electronic reader is what you use to tap in and out of the trains in London.

Why do I need an Oyster Card? This card is reusable and you can constantly add money to it (also known as “topping up” or “pay as you go”). Using an Oyster card saves you tremendously more than paying cash, especially when “capping applies”. For example: Paying cash for a one way journey on the London Underground is roughly twice as much than what you pay if you tap your Oyster card. Capping” is when your card has been used in one day totaling to “X” amount of transportation charges. Depending on the zones involved, the capping allows you to keep traveling after your card has been capped at the necessary amount of charges. It’s important to note that your Oyster card will work in Greater London as well as Central London. In turn, you can use it on: underground and overground trains/rails, and any red buses.
***You can’t use cash to pay for bus fares within London anymore. Instead, they’ve been implementing Contactless payment, which you can read about here.

Types of trains

Tube system of London Courtesy of TFL

There are a variety of signs that you’ll see which indicate different forms of transportation throughout London. They all take a variation of the ‘Red Roundrel‘.

London Underground is an orange circle with a blue band.

There are approximately 11 Underground train lines in London, not including the DLR. These are all color coded (much like you’ll typically find in big cities) and a tube map provides you with information about the crossovers and destinations of these routes. It’s worth it to snag a map from a rail station to become better acquainted with the system if you’re staying longer than a couple days.
Things to keep in mind
1. Be careful of routes that split. This is somewhat difficult on the London Underground, especially if it’s packed. They always scroll the destinations on the LED panel that tells you what train you’re on, and typically a voice over/the attendant will tell you the next stop.
2. Routes that split aren’t limited to the Tube. Not all overground trains/rails will always go to your stop, you have to listen to the listing of destinations when the trains arrive. I’ve had this happen to me on a couple of occasions when I was CERTAIN I knew where I was heading. Always ask if you’re really confused, it’s better than wasting time backtracking.
3. Fees vary when in different zones/during peak and off peak times.

Each zone is listed as a fare zone on the London Overground service.
Each zone is visibly  listed as a fare zone on the London Overground service.

Off-peak is considered anytime after 9:30am and either before 4:00 or after 7pm M-F, all day Saturday and Sunday. Which means if you buy an “off peak” ticket it’s cheaper, but also you cannot technically travel on the transit during the peak hours. Peak hours will always cost you more. The fares fluctuate according to peak/off peak hours and also are dependent on what zones you’re passing through, and what day it is. It can get incredibly confusing at first. With a peak ticket, you can travel at anytime but it is much more expensive. Each zone (there are a total of 9 main zones) has it’s own fare and you can see the listing, here.

Types of Passes

A Day Travelcard and a Single train pass.

There are a number of options for train passes and you can customize them based on routes. However, the ones i’m covering here are the most general and useful options (I found) available.
1. Travelcard Day passA day pass in London varies in price based on the zones you request. You CAN get an off peak Day Travelcard for zones 1-6, and 1-9. But, Zones 1-2 or 1-4 are only available as Anytime (Peak) Day Travelcard. **These cards need to cover the zones you’re entering, otherwise you will be charged extra and run the risk of not being able to enter the train (since you don’t have the proper coverage). Off peak: £8.90 (regardless of whether it’s only Zone 1 travel or Zone 1-6 travel)  Anytime/Peak: £9.00, £11.40, or £17.00 depending on the Zones.
2. 7 Day pass– You can get a 7 Day pass put onto your Oyster card, which is rather convenient.  At £31.40-£57.20 a pop you can get unlimited travel between the zones you have placed on your card. For example, I had a weekly pass for Zone 1-2 which cost me £31.40. I did find that I still had charges if I arrived into Zones 1-2 from Zone 6, not just for Zone 6 (which would be obvious since my pass wasn’t covered in that zone), but for entering Zones 1-2. I never solved this problem, so i have no real idea why. But I imagine it probably had to do with peak hours. You can also travel on any bus in any zone, without incurring extra charges, by using your 7 Day Pass.
3. Single/Return Passes– You can get a one way pass (like pictured above on the bottom right), which covers the charges from the terminal it’s administered from until you reach your destination. These vary in price based on Zones and peak hours. Return passes will save you money if you need to return to the destination you start at (like if you’re leaving your hostel and entering Central London).
**There are more passes than the ones I covered here. I simply focused on the ones that are most useful, in my opinion. If you have different needs than any of the passes i’ve listed, you can find more options at

Finding your Bus:

A typical bus stop sign.
A typical bus stop sign.

Double decker buses are all over London (as to be expected), generally riding the bus is considerably cheaper than taking the trains so it’s worth it to try to use them. You also have a lower ‘cap’ AND you can use them with a 7 Day Pass in any zone without paying extra.
When riding the bus you have a couple of important things to keep in mind:
1. You need to know the acronym of the bus stop you need to be waiting at, as well as, the direction of the bus. The acronyms are somewhat difficult at first, but luckily Google Maps will give you the acronyms in their directions. Keep this acronym! Pictured above is ‘HS’, all bus stops have an acronym like this (even a single letter, but most are double).
2. Adult Fares as follows
£1.45-“Pay as you Go”
£4.40– Daily cap
3. A 7 Day Bus pass also includes the tram.

Oh and,
If you need to use the National rail, you’ll see this

National rail sign
National rail sign

Generally, you’ll see this on your tube map at certain stations, these stations have National Rail access. Not all National Rail stations serve all rails, so you need to know which station you need of you’re looking to use the rail.

Now that i’ve finally completed this section of the guide, I hope this is useful to you!
If you visited London recently, what type of pass did you find most helpful? Do you have experience with the Contactless feature?


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