New to London? - Getting around London and the UK
So many options - so much to do. Knowing the basics will save you time and money! - Read on....
For working holiday makers and backpackers the first journey you take in the UK will most likely be from one of the three airports listed below. After travelling to Londons heart you will want get quickly familiar with the many options available. Reading this page will put you miles ahead - literally.
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Also check out our introductiory guide to London.
From Heathrow: Approximately 24 km west of Central London, Heathrow Airport is very well served by public transport – Tube, trains, buses and coaches. Follow the signs at your arrival terminal to the bus and coach stops, taxi stands and the walkways that connect to the Underground. By far the fastest (but more expensive option at £14 one-way) is the Heathrow Express train which will get you to Paddington station in 15 minutes flat; from there you can catch trains to the west and south-west of England as well as connect to other lines on the London Underground network. The cheapest option is a tube ride connecting to the Piccadilly line, it isn’t nearly as quick or comfortable as the Express, but will only cost you £4 for a single ticket. Visit www.heathrowairport.com or www.heathrowexpress.com for more information.
From Gatwick: If you’re in a hurry to hit the city centre try the Gatwick Express to Victoria station where you can then catch trains or buses to your destination. It takes about 35 minutes and will set you back £14 for a single fare (compare this to the £70 a cab will cost you). Or if you’ve got time to spare try a National Express coach. Prices start from around £6 and journey time to Central London is from one to three hours depending on stops and changes. Visit www.gatwickairport.com or www.nationalexpress.com to plan your journey.
From Stansted: Located about 56km north-east of central London, Stansted is London’s third busiest international airport. The Stansted Express is the fastest way to get from Stansted to central London, with trains running from 6am till midnight. Trains depart every 15 minutes with an average journey time of 45 minutes, setting you back £13 for a one-way ticket. You can then connect to other lines from Liverpool Street Station. Visit www.stanstedairport.com or www.stanstedexpress.com to find out more.
London Transport Services (known as Transport for London – TFL)
Once you’ve settled in and slept off your jetlag (see Working Traveller Accommodation) you’ll be itching to get out and about in London. The city’s transport system is a surprisingly efficient and accessible one, albeit expensive. You can generally get from zone to zone with only having to change tubes or buses once, sometimes not at all. See also London Orientation.
The London Underground or the Subway is known as the 'Tube' in London. It is fast and convenient (when there isn’t a breakdown or staff strike) and allows you to shoot across the entire length of London without a clue as to the traffic chaos (or weather) above. Stations are easy to come by just look for the underground sign and usually within they are also usually in walking distance of each other. Most Londoners use the Tube and it can be stiflingly crowded at peak times (8-9.30am and 5-6.30pm) so don’t expect to find a seat or to find a spot to put your coat down when you find it so stuffy you need to de-robe!
Stations are split into six zones, depending on location, (see tube map) and fares are charged accordingly.
A single cash fare starts from £3, while an off peak (can be used from 9.30am Monday to Friday) one-day Travelcard is £4.90 for travel in zones 1 and 2 (all the major city-centre sights are located in Zone 1) and is probably the best option for a day out in London. A Travelcard will give you unlimited travel within the zones you have purchased for, including use on buses – very handy when it starts to rain and you’re in between Tube stations!
The newest way to purchase travel tickets for any TFL service is on an Oyster card, a new re-usable, plastic card that you scan at ticket barriers. You basically purchase your single fare, Travelcard or weekly ticket on your Oyster (for a lower price than paying cash) and then when your ticket expires you buy another on the same Oyster card. Oyster cards can be used on the Tube, National Rail, Buses and Trams. The cheapest single fares are on an Oyster card - £1.50 in Zone 1 and £1 in Zone 2.
Another way of using an Oyster is to ‘pay as you go’, this means you put a cash amount on your card (you can do this at most Tube stations) and use it until it runs out. Every time you touch the card to one of the electronic readers it will tell you how much you have left on your card so you know when you have to top-up. This way of travelling is especially handy when you first arrive in London and are unsure where your day will take you; as long as you have money on your Oyster you can hop on the Tube or bus as you please for a lower price than if you were to pay cash (you also don’t have to rummage around your wallet for coins!) or buy a paper Travelcard. Oyster cards also have daily price capping which means you are charged the appropriate Oyster fare for each single journey you make, then if you make several journeys on the same day, once the total cost of these journeys reaches a cap, any further journeys you make that day will be free, unless you travel beyond the zone(s) covered by your original cap.
The Tube runs from around 5.30am till midnight, depending on where you are beginning your journey, and conveniently links up with bus stops and National Rail stations.
The new double-deckers buses
London’s iconic red Routemaster buses are no more, having been successfully phased out by the Mayor despite protests from Routmaster lovers and traditionalists. This means no more hopping on and off as you please and having to wait for the scheduled stop. There are however a few Routemasters in service on heritage routes in Central London. These are aimed at tourists and standard travel fares apply, but it’s worth taking a ride if only for the nostalgia. Visit London Buses for information on heritage routes.
The new double-decker buses with doors (don’t worry they’re still red!) link residential areas of London where the Tube tracks don't go, and also criss-cross Zone 1 as an alternative to the Tube. A ride on the bus in Zone 1 is £1.50, and only 80p (£1 during peak times) on an Oyster card. A Travelcard purchased for the Underground is also valid for bus travel. Travelcards can be bought at any London Underground station or from newsagents bearing the Travelcard sign.
Catching the bus is a great way of seeing London’s streets and getting your bearings of where stations, shops and sights are located, but they almost always take longer than the tube. The other problem can be knowing where to get off, so be sure to have an A-Z (an invaluable book of maps of London, make it your first purchase) or street map handy.
When regular bus services stop, night buses take over. They run less frequently but are very useful services to get you home when the Tubes shut down at around 1am. Night buses usually start around midnight and have the letter 'N' before the usual bus number. They seem to congregate around Trafalgar Square and the nearby streets that radiate out from the square, so head that way when the clubs and pubs close and you're desperate to get home for some sleep. Other key hubs for night buses are Victoria Station, Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road Station, and Camden Town Station.
National Rail is the collective name for the train companies who operate Britain's rail service, the above-ground equivalent of the Tube. These trains can be excellent to use if you live out of Zone 1 and just off a Tube line and want a speedier option than the bus. National Rail will take you in to Zone 1, but not far, as the Tube takes over from there for obvious town planning reasons. Main National Rail stations closest to the centre of London are Paddington and Victoria servicing the West and South West, King's Cross and Euston servicing the North, and North East, Waterloo servicing the South and London Bridge and Liverpool Street servicing the South East and East. Most lines connect with the Underground and Travelcards can be used on them. If you'll be using this service frequently, you can purchase a National Rail TravelCard. Visit National Rail for more information on services and fares.
As much a feature of London as the red buses, these famously shaped taxis, where you can face the other members of your party limousine-style, are a good way of getting around. The drivers know London like the back of their hands and you will see would-be drivers zipping around town on mopeds with books open in front of them - they are studying for their Black Cab test! Short trips in and around Central London aren't too expensive but it would be unwise and costly to use this as your main mode of transport. Cabs are available when the yellow sign above the windscreen in lit, just stick out your arm to signal one. Fares are metered (the meter starts at £1.40, and then rises by 20p every 219 metres travelled) and there can be additional charges for extra passengers, front-seat baggage and for ordering a cab by phone. See London Black Cabs.
Mini cabs are unregistered, freelance competitors of Black Cabs. These are normal looking cars parked on the side of the road offering transport. Mini cabs cannot legally be hailed on the street – they must be hired by phone or pre-booked through a mini cab office (there’s bound to be one on any high street). They are not metered so you will need to agree on a fee for the ride before getting in the car, while some companies offer set prices for popular destinations such as the airport. Be wary of drivers who approach you, especially if you’re female, as there are reports of 10 sexual assaults per month by illegal mini cab drivers. To find reputable mini cab companies in your area visit Find a Ride for a list of licensed private operators.
One of the best ways to see London is to explore it on foot. Not only will you save money (and stave off the effects of the infamous ‘Heathrow injection’ by burning some calories!) but you will see the shops, pubs, restaurants and theatres tucked away in lanes and side streets you would otherwise miss on the Tube or bus. You can grab a map and plan your own route, follow one of the sign-posted walks such as the Thames Path, or simply stroll the streets to see all that London has to offer.
Driving in London
If you’re brave enough to get behind the wheel in London (motorists not used to city traffic be warned!) ensure you are properly licensed (see www.dvla.gov.uk) and that you are aware of the road, traffic and parking rules (visit Traffic Enforcement for an overview). After a campaign to ‘help get London moving’ Transport for London introduced The London Congestion Charge – a fee that must be paid by every vehicle that enters a specified central London boundary from 7am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday. The charge is £8 but can increase if you don’t pay it on the day of travel. The aim of the Congestion Charge was to reduce congestion (the average vehicle speed in central London had fallen below three miles per hour), improve the bus network and encourage use of other modes of transport such as bicycles. London is a great place to see on two wheels and is full of cyclists weaving in and out of traffic and enjoying the many leisure routes around town. If you’re keen on pedal power visit London Cycle Guides for maps and a list of cycle routes.
Also, arm yourself with other WORKgateways' useful tips and information.