London England: How to Get Around the City
The Tube, the Overground, Black Cabs, Minicabs… What Do I Choose?
By Hannah Monahan
If you’re traveling to London, maybe for the 2012 Olympics, transportation around the city might be a foreign topic. Like any city, London has many options for getting around to see the sights.
From the different forms of public trains and their fares, to the famous London buses, riverboats, two types of taxis, and motorbikes there are a bunch of options to choose from. A chapter in the book, Moon Living Abroad in London by Karen White, explains the pluses and minuses, the dos and don’ts of each option to help you make an informed decision about traveling in London.
Karen White was born and raised in California, but always dreamed of living abroad in Europe. Studying abroad in England, she fell in love with the country and decided to move to London to continue her graduate studies a few years later. Meeting her British husband sealed her fate as a Londoner for life.
She is now a freelance copywriter, producing marketing material for British and US companies. She writes this book with knowledge of the city and with the helpful perspective of what a newcomer to London should know, because she once was in the situation herself.
Ask any visitor to London what 10 things they find memorable about the city and their reply will probably include a mention of the underground. This is hardly surprising as London’s Underground was introduced back in 1863, making it the oldest underground railway in the world. One downside to having the oldest underground system in the world is that it always seems to need refurbishment, which can be very frustrating for its passengers. Just at the moment it seems that one or two lines are closed every weekend for engineering work, which can make getting around on Saturday and Sunday a bit of a challenge.
Author Karin White writes About Living and Traveling in London.
The temperature on the Underground’s trains can sometimes get unbearable during summertime heat waves, and have been recorded at more than 117 degrees F, though new air-conditioned trains should ease this.
Zones, Fares, and Oyster Cards
Fares for the Underground, DLR, and Overground trains within the TfL network are based on travel between its nine zones, with Zone 1 being the most central, Zone 6 extending out to Heathrow airport, and Zone 7-9 stretching out to Amersham or Chesham in the suburban county of Buckinghamshire.
Fares are based on the zones traveled through, with there being a single ticket bought in the station. You could also use a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual pre-pay travel pass known as a “Travelcard.” These allow you to make unlimited journeys within the zone(s) covered, and are good on the Tube, buses, Overground trains, and Docklands Light Railway.
Remember that paying for each individual journey is the most expensive way to travel, and you are much better off getting a travel pass of some sort.
The other way to pat for the Tube is with a pay-as-you-go Oyster card. Transport for London introduced its smartcard with an embedded radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip – The Oyster Card – back in 2003. Travelers simply swipe in and out of the ticket gates by touching their Oyster Card to the yellow contact pad.
I suggest that you get an Oyster Card fairly quickly as TfL wants to encourage people to use it rather than tickets or Travelcards, and has adjusted its fares to reflect this, with single journey using an Oyster Card costing significantly less then the other options. One bit of good news is that students and children pay a bit less to use public transportation in London. Those ages 10 and under can travel for free on the Underground, buses, DLR, and Overground, providing they are with an adult using an Oyster Card.
The Underground (Tube)
Each year more than one billion passengers are carried by the Underground, and in peak times of the year, such as the pre-Christmas period, passengers numbers swell to more than four million a day. By anyone’s standards, that is a lot of people using the Underground system and its 11 different train lines, and it is small wonder that at peak times traveling on a train can seem more like being a sardine packed in a can, rather than a commuter on a train.
Unlike the name suggests, the Underground isn’t completely underground. At least four of its lines can be classified as suburban routes, while the rest are the deeper Tube routes. This is at least how they are in central London. However, nearly all of the Underground lines go aboveground for some of their journeys, which is why there can be major delays when it snows.
Traveling on the Tube during the rush hour (usually around 7:30- 9:30 A.M., and 5-7 P.M.) can be a nightmare, with people being packed into very crowded trains. If you aren’t commuting, I’d suggest that you try to avoid traveling the rush hour if you can.
One of the most iconic sights you’ll see in London is its bright red buses. Unfortunately, the old-style open-backed Routemaster with a conductor selling tickets isn’t used these days, except on the Heritage routes for the number 9 and 15 buses, both of which travel along popular tourist routes. TfL is also trying to design a new (safer) version of this old classic, so watch this space… London may be getting a new breed of bus.
To catch a ride on a bus you have to be at a bus stop – look for a red sign on top of a pole. There may well be a line (“queue”) of people already waiting for the bus, so don’t barge in front of those who are already there.
One vital piece of information is that there are two types of bus stops: a normal bus stop where the driver pulls in to let on passengers and a request bus stop where a bus will only stop if hailed. Always check to see if you are at a request bus stop by looking at the sign on the bus stop – it will say Request Stop on it.
Docklands Light Railway (DLR)
This electronic tram system is the latest addition to London’s network of public transportation, and it services Docklands and City airport, as well as going over the River Thames to Greenwich and beyond. As it is above ground and snakes through the ultramodern Dockland complex, this train can be a fun way to explore this area of London.
Completing the Underground system is London’s network of overground trains, connecting greater West and East London without having to go through the middle of town, as well as creating north-south link in both greater West and East London. Now these trains are part of the TfL, a journey on the Overground costs the same as the Tube of DLR.
You may not think of traveling by riverboat as a credible option for getting around London, but you would be mistaken. Traveling on the river is a great way to see London, especially Tower Bridge.
Taxis & Black Cabs
Black cabs are the only taxis that can be hailed in the street or used from a designated taxi rank. These tend to be located near to where people are likely to need a taxi, such as outside a train station, grand hotels, tourist attractions, and large shopping areas.
You can tell a taxi is available by looking at the yellow light on the front of the black cab’s roof. If it is lit up, then the cab is available. All fares in the black cab are metered and depend on the distance and journey time, the number of passengers, and the time of day.
The other type of cab available in London is a minicab. All minicabs must be pre-booked by phone or
Biking in London is becoming more popular.
email and are generally less expensive than a black cab. Unlike a black cab, a minicab is a privately owned car, and the driver has not undergone the same level of training as a black-cab driver.
It is important to only use a reputable minicab firm that is licensed by the London authorities – they will have a Transport for London license disc on both their front and back windscreens. Your hotel should be able to organize a minicab for you from a reputable firm.
Those who prefer to travel under their own steam will be pleased to learn that an increasing number of Londoners use two wheels to get around. Although London still has a ways to go, the authorities are still trying to make it a friendlier place for “cyclists” by introducing cycle lanes on many roads throughout London.
Motorbikes or Scooters
If using a bike sounds like too much hard work, then you could always try a motorbike or scooter. These have the advantage of being able to weave in and around traffic, avoiding the worst of the congestion, getting you to your
destination that much quicker. Traveling by scooter or motorbike gives you the freedom of a car but at a fraction of the cost. They also don’t have to pay the congestion charge (at least not yet) but do have to pay for parking sometimes.
Buy this book on Amazon: Moon Living Abroad in London
Hannah Monahan is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and a communications major at the University of Mass in Amherst.
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