London’s public transportation system (primarily tubes and buses) is pretty awesome. In fact, the only thing that isn’t so awesome about it is that it is expensive. Very very expensive. But other than that, it’s efficient and will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.
The tube is London’s underground subway system with 11 lines spanning over 250 miles and 270 stations. Each line has a name and color associated with it, making it quite straightforward. The tube network is divided into 6 zones, with zone 1 being the very center of the city and zone 6 being quite far outside of it. Tickets prices are determined by the zones you travel to and from, though the vast majority of tourist attractions are in zones 1 and 2, making a zone 1-2 pass completely sufficient.
Tubes run very regularly during the week, and quite regularly on weekends as well, though sometimes parts of certain tube lines are closed for construction. The tubes operate from around 5 in the morning to around midnight. While there is not yet any 24-hour tube line, there are some night buses that operate through the night covering the major routes. Black cabs, uber, and mini cabs are, of course, always an option as well.
To use the tube, you can either buy paper tickets or an oyster card. An oyster card is a reloadable plastic card, which costs £5, but is refunded if you return it at the end of your stay. You can either buy individual trip tickets or day/week passes, which are cost effective if you plan to rely heavily on public transportation as these are also valid for the bus.
We would highly recommend grabbing a free tube map from any tube station (or you can easily find one online if you want to have a look before you arrive) and giving the tube a go during your stay. Just be sure when you take the tube that you “mind the gap”. The space between the train and the platform can be very large in places, though it would be hard to miss the never-ending “mind the gap” reminders.
The famous double-decker buses, which many people naturally assume are just tourist buses, are actually the buses Londoners use as part of their public transportation system. They are not tourist buses, but we do highly recommend them for tourists! They are fantastic. There are over 670 bus routes, over 50 of which are night buses, and a total of 19,000 stops. There are bus stops everywhere and buses go to places tubes do not. Bus stops are also more closely spaced than tube stops. Walking from one tube stop to the next might take 10-15 minutes, whereas you can usually walk to the next bus stop in about 5 minutes.
Now, the trick with buses is that it’s pretty impossible to ever learn what bus goes where if it’s not a route you frequently take. And Londoners will not know either. While there are maps at bus stops showing you the route the buses at that stop will take, it’s not really efficient to walk around from bus stop to bus stop finding a bus that will take you where you want to go. For this reason, you should either plan ahead and look up the necessary route online, or download an app to your smartphone. We highly highly recommend Citymapper – it is a life saver for getting around the city.
The other negative with buses is that they are, of course, prone to traffic and construction delays during rush hour times, though the fact that there are often dedicated bus lanes still make buses a faster option than cars.
But forgetting even the usefulness of buses, buses are a fantastic way to see the city, particularly if you are lucky enough to nab the undeniable best spot on the bus – one of the two front seats on the upper deck. We would encourage you to use buses for transportation, but even if you do not, at least hop on a bus at some point during a light traffic time (morning or midday weekend, perhaps) and ride it around the city. It’s great fun.
We don’t generally recommend using black cabs because with the fantastic tube and bus system, there really isn’t any need to. For one, they are so expensive. But they are also prone to very heavy traffic. When we first arrived in London and took a car from Heathrow airport to the city center on a Monday morning, the car ride lasted 2 hours, often in start and stop traffic.
That said, there are times when you may need or want to use a black cab for whatever reason (like it’s late at night and the tube has shut down) and in that case you should know they are awesome. Black cab drivers are consummate professionals and very skilled at what they do. They train and study for years before being given the license and have a pretty good reputation. They are always metered and almost all of them will accept credit cards these days, but worth confirming before you get into the cab. The rise of uber and mini-cabs are increasing competition for black cabs and are forcing some out of business.
Both Uber and mini-cabs are alternatives to the black cab. While Uber and mini-cab drivers also hold a license, they are not trained in the same way and the checks and standards are not as vigorous as those for becoming a black cab driver. Other than the training, the other main difference is that they are not available for hailing on the streets. They are private hire vehicles that must be arranged in advance for pick-up and drop-off. Some of them may also operate at a fixed fee based on distance instead of a meter, which should be agreed to in advance. Many people who use these cars do so because the rates are cheaper than those of a black cab. In the entirety of our time in London, we have not used Uber or mini-cabs, so we cannot comment from personal experience.
We know you know, but it bears repeating: people drive on the left in the UK, so please make sure you look both ways, constantly, continually, and obsessively when you cross the streets in London. There are really helpful signs on the pavement in front of you telling you when to “look left” and when to “look right,” because it’s very confusing and scary when double-decker buses are passing by at full speed, in the opposite direction from what you’re used to.