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Getting Around London

The Oyster Card (for London tube and buses)

Picture of an Oyster Card

Picture of an Oyster Card

Despite what you might have heard or read, London’s transport system is one of the best in the world. It is also one of the oldest, and therefore in terms of comfort and amenities pales in comparison to many other system in the world. However, it is the quickest way to get from point A to point B within central London, as the bus and tube network reaches virtually every street.

The easiest way to save money is to make sure you get an Oyster Card from a station office before you make your first trip. Whilst you can pay for a ticket by cash, using an Oyster Card could save you more than 50%; for example a cash fare for a single journey in Zone 1 cost £4, whereas with an Oyster Card it only costs £1.60. Also, there is a “daily cap” on Oyster cards… any journey after reaching this cap is free, which is advantageous if, as a tourist, you plan to travel often around London in a day. Trips across multiple zones cost more than within a single zone. The TfL website has a fare finder where you enter in your start and end stations and it tells you how much your journey will cost; It is extremely useful.


The tube station at Heathrow Airport has a ticket counter where you can buy Oyster Cards. You have to put down a deposit of £3 for the card, which is fully refundable when you return the card to the station at the end of your stay in London. You then have to top up the Osyter Card with amounts up to £20. There is also an automatic Oyster Card dispenser at Heathrow, which will take £3 in coins in exchange for an Oyster Card. There are then automatic top-up machines next to it where you can load money on the card, by cash or by credit card. If you don’t want to buy an Oyster Card, you can just buy single paper tickets from machines at Heathrow too.

Buses are the cheaper, but often slower, than the Tube but they do have the advantage of traveling above ground and you get to see more of London. In addition, several buses run 24 hour routes, whereas the Tube tends to run only from 5am till slightly past midnight. Bus journeys also cost less, £1 per journey (regardless of how far or to what zone) with an Oyster Card, £2 by cash.

Apart from the bus and tube network, there are the “tourist buses” run by private companies that make a route through all the popular destinations in central London; however, they charge more than £10 per person per day, and there is often a long wait between buses. Also, bus is usually the slowest way to get around London and a journey that might take only 15 minutes by Tube could take an hour by bus. These buses are open top tour buses which allow you to hop on and hop off as you please.

Official Tube & Train Map

A full size London Tube & Train Map (effective January 2010) is available on our London Tube Map page. While it is possible to get a bus map too, a whole London bus network map would be too big and unwieldy to use. Most tube stations and bus stops will have a local bus map showing bus routes from the stops around the station.

Realistic Tube Map – on Google Maps

As every seasoned Londoner knows, the official TfL tube map is not very realistic and true to scale. Some stops might seem very far from one another, yet are actually very close by. However, Google UK Maps have solved the problem by providing an overlay map on the London tube system on top of their regular street maps. This way, you can see the stations as well how the tube tunnels and trains actually run between the stations. Its fun to see if nothing else, but its also highly useful too.

Google Maps with accurate London Tube Map overlay

To see the London tube system overlay, first open up Google Maps UK, and enter in “London” or a London postcode. Then hover your mouse over the “More…” button at the top right of the map, and a pop menu will appear. Select “Transit” from the drop-down menu and voila… the whole London Tube system of stations, tunnels, and tracks appear on your map in scale and accurately.

Transport for London (TfL) JourneyPlanner

Transport for London, the company in charge of running the tube and bus networks in London, has a very useful Journey Planner tool on their website. This is probably the best and quickest way to plan your journey from any point A to point B in London. You can enter in your departure location and your destination location, either by postcode, street name, tube/train station, or a popular point of interest.

The most accurate way to use the tool is to use postcodes for all locations if possible. Otherwise if you just use the nearest tube stations, it doesn’t take into account the walking time to the tube stations, and it is much more unlikely to show you bus routes, even if they are much more convenient.

There are many advanced options to plan your journey, such as being able to input a time and date in the future. This is extremely useful as it will take into account any service suspensions or station closures if you are traveling on a weekend. You can also specify specific transport modes, for example if you want journeys only by bus or by tube.

Recently, TfL have introduced new features, such as being able to see a cycling route. This is extremely useful for bicyclists, as it is essentially a cycling-specific journey planner that shows routes that are not the shortest distance from A to B, but rather the quickest and the most cyclist-friendly route. Therefore it is likely to recommend routes with cycling lanes or quieter streets rather than busy motorways or A-roads.

New TfL London Bus Routes Map

The problem with the JourneyPlanner is that while it was great for intelligently mapping out the best route for you, it wasn’t able to tell you the routes of London buses and all the stops and stations along the way. TfL have now solved this problem by launching their new Bus Maps tool, which allows you to input any bus route number, postcode, address, landmark, or station. If you put in a bus route number, it shows you on a Google map the exact route along roads that the bus takes as well as the stops. If you search for a postcode, address, landmark, or station, it shows you a list of all the buses in the nearby vicinity area that you can take, as well as their routes. it is an extremely slick and easy to use tool, taking full advantage of Google’s map overlay feature.

Mobile JourneyPlanner

TfL have also released a mobile, or wap, version of their JourneyPlanner for use on mobile and PDA handheld devices. This means that wherever you are in London, you can plan your onward journey if you have a phone or PDA with internet enabled. The tool is text based, so you won’t be able to view maps of where the bus stops are or how to walk from point A to B, and it is a bit of a hassle to use. But it also has tube line and station updates, so you know which lines are running with a good service and which ones have severe disruptions.

Free London Tube email and mobile SMS alerts

London Tube mobile SMS alertAnother cool and very useful tool from the London Tube is the email and SMS travel alert service. After you set up a free account on the travel alert page, you can input journeys that you take regularly, such as your journey from work and back, and the estimated times that you normally take those journeys. TfL will then send you either email or SMS alerts about half an hour before your journey to tell you if there are any problems with your route (for example station closures due to flooding). This is extremely useful, and it has saved my hide a few times from being overly late to work! The service is completely free, even the SMS that you receive, so its an alert service that I recommend all Londoners to sign up for.


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  • http://www.appstorehq.com/oystercatcher-android-177988/app Lindsay

    For those folks with an Android phone you can download OysterCatcher by LongTap. This simple application finds you location using the phones GPS and displays the 10 closest top up shops. Very useful for when you are in a new area.