I’ve had the good fortune of living in an incredible city for most of my life. I’ve also had the fortune to go to lots of other different cities around the world, and most don’t even compare to London for me. The unique combination of food, people, my obvious bias and obviously most importantly London’s public transport.

I mean, look at the tube map alone!

London Tube map
A work of Art!

If we then compare that to the NYC one, which is serving over double the population of London we can see that one is far better than the other.

NYC Subway map
A bit mid.

This will mainly be focused (as per usual), on my experiences. I won’t be talking about the best specific routes, because you should always just use a travel app unless you’re Jay Foreman. I will also take a brief tangent to talk about the UK rail system because there are plenty of train stations in London.

Payment

The cheapest way to go for pay-as-you-go journeys is to use an Oyster card. These can be picked up at any tube stations, and you can just dump money onto them. You ’tap-in’ when you get into a station, take all of your transport on that method1 and then ’tap-out’ when you get off. You can also tap in and out with contactless cards, Apple Pay & Google Pay. Important detail - only one person can travel per card (Apple Pay with a card counts differently to just that card contactless).

Please, for the sake of locals use a card. Its far less faff, far more reliable and most importantly it’s fast. You don’t want to know what I’ve heard from less polite Londoners about tourists. People remember British politeness, but also forget our nature of grumbling about problems.

For smaller train stations, you might not see actual barriers, and just pads to tap out on, or you might see all of the barriers open. You do still need to tap in and tap out - if they work out that you didn’t tap in or out then they’ll just charge you for whatever they think you did (charges table here). Typically, they’ll be open if there isn’t a member of staff present - they need to be able to sort out issues or open the gates for emergencies so if nobody’s there then they have to keep them open.

Buses are only tap-on, tubes charge a fee based on which zones you start and finish in and I think trains work the same way21. There are also numerous ways to reduce the cost, like getting an Oyster Photocard if you fit certain requirements, and children under 5 travel free. There’s the hopper fare where you can travel on any number of bus journeys within 1 hour once you’ve paid £1.75. There’s also the daily (and weekly) travel caps for the tube. These latter two are applied automatically so you don’t need to worry about them.

Individual Methods

Tube

The London tube map looks like confusing at first but that’s mainly due to two requirements - a need for it to be small enough that the stations are legible as well as wanting to vaguely conform to the real world station locations. It looks a mess, but you get used to the bits you use, and you can also just use a travel app for pathfinding.

Every tube will stop at every stop on its route (with exceptions like Turnham Green unfortunately) - if the tube you’re on will go past a stop then it will stop there. There are 3 main steps to navigation on the tube: the line, the direction and the terminal stop.

The line refers to which colour the tube is on the map - but in London they all have names3 because of their unique history4. Most stations will serve at maximum two or three lines. The exceptions are the huge Network Rail stations (like Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross and Waterloo) which often serve five or more tube lines as well as trains.

Then, each line runs in two directions - either North/South-Bound or West/East-bound. Then, each tube station will have maps right next to the junctions for the different directions. Each tube will also have a map on the inside of just the line that that physical tube serves. The part that some people get confused on is the terminal stop. In each of the directions the tube serves, there will be one or more terminal stops. For example, when going West on the District Line, you can end up at Wimbledon, Richmond or Ealing Broadway. In Central London you don’t need to worry because you’ll be in the core where you can get on any train. You only really need to worry about the terminal stops for getting further outside central London. For example, if you’re going from the Science Museum in South Kensington to the Tennis in Wimbledon on the District Line you’ll need to make sure to catch a Wimbledon train rather than an Ealing Broadway one.

In Central London, the tube is almost always the fastest way to get around - faster than a taxi, faster than a bus and faster than walking.

Bus

The buses (surprisingly enough) are more complicated but very similar in operation. Each number acts as its own line with a route of stops. You also get the same issue of terminal stops but these are far less of an issue compared to the tube. There are two main differences:

Firstly, buses will not stop at stops unless asked. Usually, this isn’t a problem (especially at larger stops), but if nobody presses the button and nobody is waiting then the bus will happily keep on going without letting you off.

Next, buses have individual stops for the two directions they will go in which can be quite far apart. If you’re trying to find the stop for Hyde Park Corner to hop onto a 22 to Oxford Circus, make sure to get to the right Hyde Park Corner to make sure you don’t end up in Putney Common.

Train

Trains in the UK are the transport method with the most variability in fares because all of the train companies are operated separately (with exceptions of conglomerates) and integrate to different degrees with the larger TfL ecosystem. Trains typically have more seats, wider & longer carriages and possibly other amenities like toilets or bike racks.

If you’re in London, you can just tap-in and tap-out as normal - be very careful though because there is a border for when you can and can’t tap in/out. There also isn’t the same system with different terminal stops so that’s simple. The complexity comes with the fact that different trains stop at different stops on the same routes. The best bet is to check the departure board before you leave so you know that it stops at the stop you need it to stop at.

When buying tickets to go outside of London, most people would book via Trainline. Whilst this will definitely work, for some things they charge fees (like on certain refunds). Most people don’t realise that you can download one of the TOC5’s apps and book tickets for every other TOC. Then you don’t need to pay fees for some actions. If you can, I’d also recommend getting some kind of Railcard - there’s ones for students, couples, young people, old people, families and more.

River Boats

Finally, the river boats. There are only 6 routes, and they stop at every station and every station goes both ways. They also get reliable mobile phone reception, often have cafes and toilets and also give a lovely riverside view of London. The disadvantages are that its insanely expensive (on the scale of public transport at least - on the order of £5/6 per journey), and often slower than the tube or bus.

The main clientele is City of London workers who live near the river but don’t want to take a Black Cab (to be explained later). They enjoy it because they can get a fair bit of work done on it, unlike with the tube or bus. People also like using them because they’re a more comfortable and quieter ride compared to the tube/bus and the cafes are always appreciated.

Private Hire

Private hire is pretty self-explanatory because most cities have it and it isn’t particularly different here.

  • Uber is the dominant app for quick & relatively cheap cabs and all Uber drivers are all supposed (iirc) to be licensed by TfL.
  • If you have the money, you can also get a Black Cab which is the famous London one - all the drivers are supposed to know Central London off by heart, and they can also use the bus lanes (other bus lane exceptions here). Black Cabs also have a very limited number of reasons for refusing fares and must have wheelchair ramps.
  • We also have bicycles to hire - Boris bikes6 are the official ones, and you can also use the Lime Bikes, Forest Bikes and more that I’ve probably forgotten.
  • There are also rickshaws. Please always be careful with them - some of them aren’t licensed and make sure to always check the prices before you start to avoid getting an insanely high fee for a short journey.

Closing Thoughts

London’s public transport is insanely good and one of the reasons I so love London - I can leave home, get to the nearest tube stop (via like 4 different buses) and get to anywhere in central London in under half an hour. Unlike in some other cities, the tube really makes the city feel tiny (also aided by the weird development of the city7) - I can get to the West End, Harrods, Leicester Square, The Ritz, and all of the big tourist attractions with zero effort.

Whilst from these footnotes and bracketed sections it might seem that the only concrete rule with TfL is that there will always be exceptions these mostly don’t apply and when they do it’s relatively obvious.

I would also like to partially credit TfL with helping me to develop my independence - the ability to be able to go out anywhere anytime without needing to rely on other people has been incredible. TfL most definitely has problems (be it the exceptions, the inaccurate bus times, the long times for fixing things or the endless strikes), but I love it and wouldn’t wish to swap it with any other city’s public transport system.


  1. There are exceptions though - for example, the Heathrow Express has a ticketed system. Sometimes you can also get on a train via tapping in but you’ll need a ticket at the other end - watch out if you’re going beyond London. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Single Fare Finder here↩︎

  3. For some Londoners, it’s a point of pride to be able to correctly match all of the colours and the names. ↩︎

  4. The London Tube is one of the oldest in the world and the lines have their names for a variety of reasons. For example, the Bakerloo Line used to just serve Baker Street & Waterloo, and the Jubilee Line was opened not too far (in time) from the one of the Queen’s Jubilees. ↩︎

  5. Train Operating Company (like South Western Rail, Avanti West Coast, Great Western) ↩︎

  6. Technically they’re the Santander Cycles, but no self-respecting Londoner would ever call them that. The nickname comes from the Mayor of London who introduced them - Boris Johnson. ↩︎

  7. Technically, the City of London is older than England itself. The Normans tried to create a new capital city (in what is now Westminster), but both grew and grew and eventually merged making the distinction pointless. London is technically a Conurbation rather than just a normal city. ↩︎