Transportation in London: The Beginner’s Guide

Information about all of the London transportation, including the tube, rail journeys, and London Oyster Cards

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Year visited: 2022

Time of year: May

Getting Around London

London is a HUGE city. And getting around it (and to and from it) can be complicated. Especially if you’re coming from a place where you drive yourself everywhere and public transportation is basically non-existent.

So don’t feel bad if trying to figure out the difference between the London Overground and the London Underground seems a daunting task. I’m going to explain everything I learned about London transportation. And if you have any questions that are not answered here, don’t hesitate to send them in an email.

Types of London Transportation

Platforms 5 & 6 (not 9 3/4) at King’s Cross Station.

When it comes to public transportation in London, there are a lot of options. So let’s just start with an overview of everything there is to choose from.

The public transportation in London is run by “Transport for London” or TFL. If you have data, you can download the TFL app for your phone, which will help you map your route.

Look for their symbol of the circle with a line through the middle of it.

The Underground/Overground:

The Underground is basically the subway of London. This is the most common and easiest form of transportation to get around the city.

It is also called the “tube.” There are 11 tube lines that connect the city of London.

The Overground is run by the same company, but uses the railway lines, running to the outskirts of the city.

Double Decker Buses:

The iconic buses can be seen all over London and its surrounding suburbs. These are cheaper but slower than the underground. However, sometimes you will have to take a bus as a “rail replacement” when work is being done on the underground/overground lines.

  • There are also a lot of “tour” buses that are operated by specific tour companies and not by the city of London.

Taxi Cabs:

The black taxi cabs are another iconic sight in London. You can take a cab from the airport to your hotel, or around the city so you don’t have to use public transportation or walk as much.

  • We did not use any taxis on our trip.


If you’re going on a day trip from London, you’re going to take a train. You will see a “National Rail” symbol on the tube map at all of the underground stations that also have a train station.

Train stations are hubs for travelers. You will find lots of restaurants, currency exchange and tourist shops here (and free public bathrooms!).


Of course, you can walk yourself almost anywhere in London. Even with using the public transportation in London, you will still have to walk to get to your destination. There are a lot of pedestrian only bridges in London.

The London Underground

What is the London Underground?

The London Underground, also known as the Tube, is a subway system that is the main form of public transportation in London.

There are 11 different tube lines that go all over London. You can take one tube line to a station where it intersects with another tube line to get where you need to go. Some underground stations also have rail stations connected to them.

You pay for the Underground with Oyster Cards, tickets, or just by tapping your credit card (more on this in the London Oyster Cardsection below). The cost of tickets varies throughout the 9 “zones” of the Underground.

What are the Zones?

There are 9 zones of the London Underground. The farther out the zone, the more a trip will cost. You can see the zones grayed out in the background of the map above.

Zone 1 covers the main part of central London, and is where most tourists will travel within. The only time we traveled outside of zone 1 was from Heathrow Airport into the city, and to Watford Junction for the Harry Potter Studio Tour.

Really the only thing you have to know about the zones is that if you travel farther out, it will cost more money.

What are peak vs. off-peak times?

Peak times are the busiest at the tube station, like the morning or evening commutes. Peak times on the London Underground are:

  • 6:30-9:30 am

  • 4:00-7:00 pm

Traveling at these times will also cost more money than traveling at off-peak times (although if you use pay as you go, you don’t realize how much money you’re spending!).

Sometimes you just have to get up early and deal with it, because you have a train to catch, or you want to make the most of your time in London. But I can say from experience that it is best to avoid the 8 am rush at Victoria Station!

During peak times there are guards on the Underground platforms to try to keep the chaos organized. There will be trains at the larger stations almost every minute, so don’t panic if you can’t squeeze yourself onto the tube.

Another tip for peak time travel is to go all the way to the end of the platform, where it will be less congested.

But again, if you can avoid the main stations, like King’s Cross or Victoria, do yourself a favor and wait till the madness has died down a bit.

Do they close the Underground for bank holidays?

Sometimes certain lines or parts of a line will be shut down for maintenance. They try to do most of this work on Sundays and Bank Holidays, when there is no mad rush to the office (yes, even post-2020).

When this happens, TFL will provide replacement buses to cover the route that is shut down. This is where checking your route on the TFL app comes in handy, as you can see where you need to go to get to your destination.

You can also ask the TFL employees at any tube station to help direct you if you are confused or are unable to access the map.

Also remember that if the line is shut down and you are taking a replacement bus, it is going to take you a lot longer than normal to get to your destination, so be sure to leave extra time.

We were there over the UK Labor Day weekend (first Monday in May) and the Overground line we needed to Watford Junction for the Harry Potter Studio Tour was shut down.

We had to take another Overground line partway, and then two more buses to get there. At each stop we asked the worker to make sure we were going to the right place. Instead of 20 minutes, it took an hour and a half.

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the tube lines. On the way back we were able to take a bus directly to a different Overground station where we could get back into London, but we almost missed it because we didn’t recognize where it was going!

Tips for using the London Underground:

  • It is super hot on the underground! I always took off my sweater before getting on the train.

  • It’s good to know what direction you’re going. The trains are labeled “Victoria Westbound” or “Jubilee Northbound.” There are always maps you can look at to make sure, but it’s a lot faster if you can just jump in the crowd heading “eastbound.”

  • There are screens that tell you how long you have until the next train.

  • If you’re stuck on a stopped train and you want to get off, or if the doors close too early and you’re trying to get on, there is a button in the middle of the door you can push to open it.

  • Every line has a different color, and you can tell what line you’re on because the handrails inside the trains are painted for the color of their line.

  • A handicap symbol on the tube map indicates that that station has elevators (or lifts).

  • Look for the Underground symbol (circle with the line through it) to help spot your nearest Underground station.

The London Overground

London Overground vs. Underground

I’m honestly still a little bit confused about this…

Because the Overground line we needed to take was shut down for maintenance, we did not get on the Overground at a large station like London Euston. We got on the Overground at Queen’s Park, which is a small station.

The Underground train we were riding moved above ground during the journey, so that when we arrived at Queen’s Park, all we had to do was get off and wait for the Overground train to arrive.

Essentially the difference is, at a larger station when you get off the Underground you will have to go up to the rail station that is above ground. So it will be just like transferring for a rail journey out of the city (see section below), except that it is still run by TFL. At a smaller station, like Queen’s Park, the tube lets you off above ground, so you don’t have to go anywhere to transfer to the Overground.

Do you have to switch stations from the Underground to the Overground?

As I mentioned in the section above, at a smaller station, you will not have to go anywhere to change from the Underground to the Overground. The train itself will move above ground before you arrive at the station, so that when you arrive, you are already on the Overground platform.

At a larger station, like London Euston, you will arrive on the tube underground and have to make your way through the station and up to the rail station above.

You do not have to go outside or access another station. You just have to follow the signs from one part of the station to the other, just like when you change lines on the tube.

Can you use a London Oyster Card on the Overground?

Yes. The Overground and the Underground are both run by Transport for London, so you can use your London Oyster Card here.

London Oyster Cards

Since I have sooooo many questions about using London Oyster Cards (or Travelcards??), this section of frequently asked questions is going to be looong…

What is an Oyster Card?

An Oyster Card is a card that you add money to, and then use it to pay for public transportation in London.

You swipe in with your Oyster Card when you enter the tube station, and then swipe again to get out.

You can add money to your Oyster Card at the kiosks in the station.

Should I get a Visitor Oyster Card, or a Regular Oyster Card?

I didn’t really know what the difference was, so, being a visitor, I ordered a Visitor Oyster Card.

In hindsight, there is not much difference, but ultimately the Regular Oyster Card is a better deal.

Regular Oyster Card:

  • You buy this card once you arrive in London. Purchase it at the window or kiosk in any underground station, including at Heathrow Airport.

  • There is a £5 charge for the card, which will be added back to the card after 1 year, as “pay as you go” credit. You can then get the £5 refunded, if you do not plan to go back to London.

  • It does not expire, so if you do not use up all of the money you loaded onto the card, you can reuse it if you ever return to London (and can find your card!).

Visitor Oyster Cards:

  • You can order Visitor Oyster Cards online ahead of time and have them mailed to your house.

  • You can pre-load the card when you order, so when you arrive at the airport you are already good to go. All you have to do is swipe your card and board the tube.

  • There is a £5 charge for the card, which does not get refunded.

  • It does not expire, so if you do not use up all of the money you loaded onto the card, you can reuse it if you ever return to London (and can find your card!).

  • They ARE much cuter than the Regular Oyster Cards (see above picture)!

  • Some London attractions offer discounts if you have a Visitor Oyster Card.

Ultimately, the biggest difference is that Visitor Oyster Cards come in the mail before you leave, so you’re ready to start using public transportation as soon as you land in London. But you will have to buy a Regular Oyster Card when you arrive.

They both charge a £5 fee for the card, but you can either get that refunded or use it toward a journey on a Regular Oyster Card (after 1 year).

You can also add a Travelcard to a Regular Oyster Card, which is helpful if you will be in London for more than 5 days.

Do I need to get an Oyster card before I come?

If you choose to use the Visitor Oyster Card, you do need to order it ahead of time. Make sure you order it with enough time for it to be mailed to your house before you leave.

You do not have to use a Visitor Oyster Card. If you do not have enough time to order one, or just decide that the Regular Oyster Card is a better option, you don’t have to do anything until you arrive in London. Then just buy it when you get to the Underground station.

Do I need an Oyster Card to travel around London?

No, you do not need an Oyster Card to use the London transportation. Since you are now able to tap and pay with most credit cards, instead of tapping your Oyster Card at the gate, you could tap your credit card.

You can also purchase “1 time” tickets at the windows or kiosks, instead of using an Oyster Card for London transportation. But since there is a daily cap on how much your journeys cost, it is usually cheaper to use an Oyster Card or credit card (which will also cap at the daily limit) than to purchase one time tickets for each journey.

Does each person need their own Oyster Card?

Yes, you will need one Oyster Card per person using London transportation.

Do kids need an Oyster Card?

Children under 11 can travel for free on London Public Transportation, and therefore do not need an Oyster Card.

Children 11-15 can get a discounted Oyster Card. Read more about Oyster Cards for kids.

How much money should I put on my Oyster Card?

£25 is a good starting point for a few days in London. Then you can always add more.

We were in London for 4 1/2 days, and traveled one way from Heathrow Airport (we did not return to the airport, as we were traveling elsewhere in England). We put £45 on our Oyster Cards, and had about 2 pounds left at the end of our time.

I put £25 on the cards to get us started when I ordered them, and then we added £20 at the kiosk later.

What if I run out of money on my Oyster Card?

If you don’t have enough money for the cheapest possible journey on your Oyster Card, it won’t let you through the gate.

If you have enough money for the minimum journey, but you travel farther than this, your Oyster Card will maintain a negative balance. You will have to add more money to it at the kiosk or window, including enough to cover the negative balance, before you can travel with it again.

  • Pro Tip: You can check your remaining balance on the little screen when you walk through the gate, so you can always keep track of how much you have left.

Can I get a refund on my London Oyster Card?

You can get a refund of up to £10 of unused money on your Oyster Card.

You can get a refund at the kiosk at the tube station.

Neither Visitor Oyster Cards, nor Regular Oyster Cards expire, so if you are able to save them and ever return to London, you can still use whatever money is leftover on them.

Can I use my Oyster Card on the buses?

Yes, you can use an Oyster Card on most forms of London transportation. Oyster Cards work on the Underground and Overground lines, as well as buses and the Thames Cable Car.

Look for the Transport for London symbol of the circle with the line through the middle.

  • Note: Oyster Cards do not work for London “Hop-on Hop-off” tours.

The London Underground symbol (and Sherlock Holmes mosaics!) at the Baker Street Station.

How to Get to London from the Airport

How to get to London from the airport:

If you’re looking for London airport transportation, there are several ways to get from the airport into London. The most common way is to take the tube.

The Tube/Underground

If you’re looking for transportation from Heathrow to London, you can take the tube on the Piccadilly Line into London. It takes about an hour to get into central London.

Just follow the signs for transportation into London to the tube and Heathrow Express. If you have a Visitor Oyster Card, you can go ahead and swipe into the tube station and you’re all set. If you don’t have a London Oyster Card yet, you can go up to the window or the self-service kiosks and get one.

  • Good to Know: Heathrow is the only airport directly connected to the London Underground.

Heathrow Express/Gatwick Express

The fastest London airport transportation is to take the Heathrow Express, or the Gatwick Express, but it is also a lot more expensive than taking the tube. It takes about 15 minutes to get into central London.

You can take the Heathrow Express from Heathrow Airport directly into London Paddington.

Or you can take the Gatwick Express from Gatwick Airport directly into London Victoria.

  • Pro Tip: If you want to take the Heathrow Express, book 90 days in advance to get a hugely discounted rate.


You can take a bus from the airport to London. This is the cheapest and slowest option.


You can order a taxi at the airport to bring you to your hotel. This will get you directly where you want to go, but is the most expensive form of London airport transportation.

Do people bring their luggage on the tube?

I was so nervous about dragging my luggage all over the public transportation in London, but it is very common to see people with luggage on the tube. Especially if you get on the tube at the airport, you will be journeying with your fellow luggage-bearers, so you don’t have to feel self-conscious about lugging your suitcases with you.

How to get to your hotel in London:

To get to your hotel using the public London transportation, just take the tube from London Heathrow. You will have to see which station is closest to your hotel. If it is not on the Piccadilly Line, find a station where the Piccadilly Line connects with the line at your station, and transfer.

You will have a bit of a walk to get from one line to the other line at the station.

Then take the tube to your station, and from there you will just walk to your hotel.

We took the tube from London Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, and then transferred to the District Line to get to Victoria Station, which was the closest to our hotel.

From there we had a 5 minute walk to get to our hotel.

Where to stay in London:

If you’re also worried about lugging your suitcases around the city (like me…), don’t be! It is perfectly acceptable to drag your suitcases down the street from the nearest tube station to your hotel.

That being said, I always prefer to stay as close to the train/tube stations as possible, to avoid long luggage hauls.

All of the major stations in London will have hotels nearby. So take a look at Google Maps, and check out some of the hotels near the train stations.

Here are a couple suggestions near Victoria Station:

Cherry Court Hotel

This is where we stayed. It was a super cheap price for a really great location, just a few minutes walk from Victoria. We had no trouble rolling our suitcases down the street.

With the great price at a great location comes some caveats… The room was the absolute tiniest I’ve ever seen! There literally is no extra room to spread out in at all.

This hotel is in an old converted town house, and there are several other townhouse hotels in the neighborhood, so there are a lot of options.

Doubletree by Hilton

This hotel is a lot more expensive than the Cherry Court Hotel, but it is beautiful, and it is right across the street from Victoria Station, so you really can’t beat it for location.

They have several locations throughout the city, so I suggest just looking around Google Maps and seeing what’s available near any tube station.

Another suggestion:

Premier Inn

This is a reliable hotel chain in the UK. You will see them all over the country, as they are the largest chain in the UK.

We stayed at a Hub by Premier Inn in Edinburgh, and it was really nice for a reasonable price.

Rail Journeys

The train stations were my favorite part of London (is that weird…?). While tube stations just have kiosks and… tubes (except for a few larger stations such as Wesminster, where you will find the occasional fast food joint), train stations are full of restaurants, shops, and a buzzing energy.

If you look at a map of the Underground, some of the stations will also be marked with the red “National Rail” symbol. That means this tube station also has a train station above ground.

Train stations are basically like airports, and have everything a tourist could need:

  • Information booths

  • Currency exchange

  • ATMs

  • Toilets

  • Free WiFi

  • Fast food restuarants

  • Sit down restaurants

  • Lots and lots of stores

(Now you see why they are my favorite part of London?)

As fun as the train stations are to just sit in and people watch while nibbling on a chocolate croissant, the point is actually to go somewhere. So here are some answers to my frequently asked questions about rail journeys from London, as well as some other useful information.

Should I buy my rail tickets ahead of time?

We bought some of our tickets ahead of time, and some we bought at the station. Honestly, it doesn’t matter that much; it really comes down to personal preference.

If you buy tickets ahead of time, you can save money. Some of that is because ticket prices can be cheaper in advance, but the main reason is because you can see all of the price options, which will vary greatly by time of day. If you’re able to be flexible with your time, you can look for tickets ahead of time and pick the cheapest ones. If you just show up at the train station ready to go, you will have to pay whatever the next trip costs.

Like the tube line, train tickets will be more expensive during peak times (early mornings and evenings). But, if you’re doing a day trip from London, those are usually the times you want to travel anyway, so you will just have to pay peak prices.

The biggest benefit of not purchasing your tickets ahead of time is that you don’t have to panic trying to navigate peak time at the tube station trying to make your way to wherever your train departs from. Or if you haven’t quite adjusted to the time difference, you don’t have to force yourself to wake up earlier than you want to.

So if you want to have everything planned out and ready to go ahead of time, or if you want more control over your ticket prices, order your tickets ahead of time.

If you want to be able to be flexible and not stress about getting to the station on time, just go ahead and order them at the station. You can still choose a cheaper option if you’re willing to wait at the station or somewhere nearby until the train that you want.

What is an open return?

My biggest question with pre-ordering our train tickets was did we have to purchase our return ticket times ahead of time?

It’s one thing to have to get up and to the station at 9 in the morning for a train to Oxford, but it’s another to decide with absolute certainty how long you want to spend in Oxford before you come back.

You can order your train tickets ahead of time for a specific time, but you also have the option of an open-return. This means that you can come back whenever, which is much more convenient.

Usually, you have to pick a “peak return” or “off-peak” return, as it will cost more money to return during peak times. As mentioned above, peak times are:

  • 6:30-9:30 am

  • 4:00-7:00 pm

If you’re unsure if you want to book an off-peak or peak return, you can always go up to the desk to buy your tickets. We did this on a short train journey from Oxford to Moreton-in-Marsh. The attendant asked if we were returning that day, and then gave us our tickets at the off-peak return price, even though our return train was later in the day.

Can you buy tickets on the train?

Yes, you can purchase tickets on the train.

At the larger stations you will not be able to get through to the platform without a ticket, but at the small stations like Moreton-in-Marsh, you can.

Reasons you might want/have to purchase tickets on the train:

  • You booked a return trip from Oxford, but you really want to go all the way back to London and it makes no sense to get off a London-bound train at Oxford so you can buy tickets to London and wait an hour for the next train (this is an oddly specific example…)

  • You accidentally got on the wrong train. Or you purposely got on the wrong train because your train was going to be delayed, but then you had to buy tickets because you were still on the wrong train (also oddly specific… but not our mistake! We witnessed a confrontation between the employee and the man who had got on the wrong train and took OUR seats and refused to pay for another ticket!)

Also beware, buying tickets on the train is probably the most expensive option around!

Are there food and bathrooms on the trains?

Yes, there are bathrooms on the train, usually you can spot them by the door when you get on.

Some of the trains had a snack counter also by the door, so you will walk past it to get on and off. One train had an app you could use to order food.

Some of the trains did not have a food counter. They had “first class services,” which will include food if you are in first class, but otherwise not.

In general, shorter train journeys, like our train to Oxford, which was the final destination from London, will have snacks available in first class. Longer train journeys will have a snack counter in every car, and more meal options availble.

You can also count on most train stations to have bathrooms and food options available, except in the smallest towns, like in the Cotswolds.

Can you bring luggage with you on the train?

Yes, you can bring your luggage on the trains. This is the main form of transportation throughout the UK, so it is very common to lug your suitcase through the train stations.

There are racks above the seats for small bags, just like you would find on an airplane. There are also larger racks by the doors for big suitcases.

Tips for taking a rail journey from London:

  • If you’re going to board your train, and the doors inexplicably close 10 minutes before it leaves, you can just push the button on the door to open them again! This also works if you are getting off, but the doors don’t open.

  • In small towns, the platform might be shorter than the train! If this is the case, you might have to walk through a few carriages to get to one that is on the platform.

  • Some trains have reserved seats, while others are first come/first served. If a seat is reserved, it will have a little red light above it.

  • Someone will come through to check your ticket. You can use a paper ticket, or show the ticket on your phone. If you are on a longer journey, you only have to show your ticket once, even though they come through to check after each stop.

  • Pro tip: If you are running late for your train, you can board any car. You don’t have to walk (run) all the way to your assigned car. You can always walk through the train to get to your seat after it departs.

Possible day trips from London:

The Bodleain Library in Oxford.

There are so many places to visit in the UK! A lot of places are close enough that you can visit them as a day trip from London.

I prefer to be able to stay in one place and leave all my stuff there, then travel two hours by train to visit somewhere on my list, as opposed to spending one night in London, then moving on and spending one night in Warwick.

How far you’re willing to travel for a day trip is up to your personal preference, but here are a few ideas of places to visit from London:


Oxford is a 1 hr. train ride from London Paddington Station. It is a very popular day trip from London. We visited Oxford from London, as well as Moreton-in-Marsh, a small Cotswold Village 30 min. past Oxford by train.


We did not visit Bath, but it is easily accessible by London transportation, in just under an hour and a half from London Paddington. This is one of the UK’s top cities to visit, so it is definitely worth a day trip from London.


We took a 2 hr. train from London Marylebone to visit Warwick Castle. Two hours is probably my maximum for how far I like to travel on a day trip, but again, that is personal preference. We really enjoyed Warwick Castle, and got back to London with still plenty of time in the afternoon and evening to enjoy.

Other London Transportation Options

The Millenium Bridge (of Harry Potter fame), one of many pedestrian only bridges in London.


The cheapest way to get around London is of course to walk. You can always save money by getting off the tube a stop or two early and then walking the rest of the way.

There is a walkway all along the side of the Thames River which is nice for a stroll. This walkway will pass many of the major attractions, such as The Globe Theater, The Tate Art Museum, the London Eye, and the view of Big Ben and Parliament across the river. There are always a lot of street vendors and entertainers along this route.

There are a lot of pedestrian only bridges you can use to walk back and forth across the Thames. If you want to walk across Westminster Bridge to get to Big Ben and Parliament, this is not a pedestrian only bridge, but there is a large sidewalk and bike lane. Just follow all the (hundreds!) of other pedestrian tourists who will also be walking across.


The iconic red double decker buses are also a great (and cheaper) way to see the city. You can use your London Oyster Card to ride the buses around London. Look for the Transport for London symbol (circle with a line through the middle) to indicate a bus stop.

You may have to wave the driver down, as buses do not always stop if no one is getting off at a particular stop. When you want to request a stop, push the “stop” button by your seat to let the driver know to pull off at the next stop.

We did not ride any buses in the city, but I did fulfill my dream of riding a double decker bus when we had to ride the rail replacement buses to the Harry Potter Studio Tour because part of the Overground was shut down.


Another iconic London sight is the black cab. We did not used any cabs, but that is always an option if you are willing to pay for a cab.

You can also use Uber in the city of London.

Any other questions?

If you have any more questions about London transportation, feel free to email me or comment below.

Also be sure to check out my beginner’s guide for your first visit to London.

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