Looking at a map of London and plotting where to go can either have you breaking out your most comfortable walking shoes (still a good idea!) or making you realise you need to get your head around the transport options in the city.
Every time I go to London I always try and walk as much as possible, but really the city isn’t very walkable. It can be if you plan your days to be very tight in where you’re going – it’s doable, but if you have a lot to see, might not be for you.
No matter how organised you are, you’re probably going to want to use some form of transport to get around the city. In all honesty, all the transport options can get quite confusing, especially for tourists who might not need everything!
So if you’re coming to the city on vacation and need to figure out how to get around London as a tourist this post is for you. I’ll break it down simply for you so as not to overwhelm you!
What modes of transport can you use to get around London?
It can be overwhelming but the majority of tourists will just use the following when sightseeing around the city:
- London Underground / Tube
It’s also worth considering the following for specific routes or if you want to fit a lot into one day:
There’s also a couple of other ideas in this post but generally they are for certain areas of the city.
I like to use Google Maps to get the best way between stops and the Transport for London website is good for figuring out timetables and checking service updates (it can be a tricky website to navigate and understand, especially for what tourists need)
What to use for paying for public transport in London?
Once you start looking at the different options for getting around London the question of paying for transport comes up. It’s worth touching on this before looking at the different ways to get around.
You have a few options on how to pay for getting around.
- Contactless – either using your card or your phone if your card is linked to Apple Pay etc. Good for UK nationals or if your card has no overseas transaction fees
- Oyster card – buy and then top up to use. Good for overseas tourists
- Cash – not recommended as it’s more expensive, but can be done in a pinch.
Oyster cards and paying for public transport in London
An Oyster card costs £7 and you can then top it up to use it throughout your trip. This might make more sense than using contactless if your bank charges you for overseas transactions.
You can get Oyster cards:
- Any tube station
- Visitor Centres
- Oyster Ticket Stops in newsagents
- Online (if you live in the UK)
When you arrive at a station, or get on a bus, you hold your Oyster card or Contactless card to the reader and that registers your journey. You must also tap out when you leave a tube station – you don’t need to tap out on a bus.
If you pay by cash it’s always more expensive than using an Oyster card. For example – to get between Westminster and Kings Cross tube station will be £2.70 on an Oyster card but £6.70 in cash. Quite a difference!
Peak fares – you might be charged higher if you travel at peak times – between 06:30 and 09:30 and between 16:00 and 19:00
Caps – there’s a daily cap that is in place so you know you won’t exceed that. You can pay less, but you’ll not pay more. For example – if you stay in Zones 1 & 2 you can travel any time for a maximum of £8.10 per day. This doesn’t include river services
How to get around London as a tourist
Tube / London Underground
Look out for stations marked with the Underground symbol – a red circle and the word Underground
This is my preferred way to get around London as a tourist and it’s almost always what I look at first.
The London Underground is extensive and will get you to anywhere in the city almost!
The tube network can be confusing and there’s a lot of different lines so it’s a good idea to get used to how the maps look before heading to a station. I always like to have a paper map of the underground but having an image on your phone works well too.
The underground uses the Oyster card payment system so it can be a fairly inexpensive way to get around.
If you’re travelling to Heathrow airport it’s also worth knowing that the Picadilly line, and the new Elizabeth Line will take you all the way to there – it is in a different zone so will cost more than traveling in central London, but it’s a simple and easy way to do it.
Here are a couple of tips I have about using the tube as a tourist in London:
- Try to avoid the rush hour (8-9am and 5-6pm) – it can be incredibly busy, and even quite scary in some central stations
- Always check which line you’re going to be using and see if that one is at your station
- If not, see if another on the right line is walking distance as sometimes that’s easier than changing
- Work out where your line ends, even if you’re not going all that way as that’ll be the tube’s final destination and what is stated on the announcements and signs. This means you’ll hopefully not end up going the wrong way!
- Always check before getting on the tube that your intended stop is on the line – there’s always diagrams of the tube line and stops. Again, check you’re heading in the right direction too!
Look out for red buses – there’ll be a number and a destination written on the front
You’ll see red double decker London buses all around the city – another iconic form of transport for getting around!
I, personally, don’t use the bus as much as a tourist because I find that figuring out the right one to get on can be a little trickier than using the tube. But, buses do have some advantages over using the underground.
First of all, you don’t need to worry about getting through the stations and going up and down the many steps involved! Buses will drop you just where you need to be.
Buses are also slightly cheaper to use than other forms of transport, so if you’re traveling London on a budget, sticking to using the bus can save you some money. The daily cap is lower than using the tube and a single journey is cheaper too.
With Google Maps you can find out easily which public transport can get you to where you want to go.
You also get much better views than on the tube!
Taxi / Uber
To flag a taxi in London look for one with its light and on and stick your arm out! Alternatively look for taxi ranks outside train stations.
The London taxi is an iconic form of getting around the city and many tourists want to ‘take a cab’ at some point in their trip.
Taxis can get you to anywhere you want in London and the drivers have an amazing knowledge of the city. It’s convenient, private and definitely a bucket list item!
The downside to taxis are the cost. They can be a very expensive way to get from A to B, especially if you end up in the rush hour traffic jams.
London also has Uber which can be a similar, albeit less iconic, way to get around!
There are a few different ways that you can utilise boat trips to get around London as a tourist – they aren’t all sightseeing cruises either.
The Uber River Boat can take you from Central London all the way to Greenwich or perhaps drop you off at the Tower of London (plus many more stops) – it’s a fun way to get around! It’s a little more expensive to use than the bus and tube and the ticket doesn’t get capped either so make sure you budget for it.
The only suggestion I’d make for using the river boat is to be aware of timing when it’s busy – we almost missed our bus home one time because we’d got the river bus and the queues meant it took us a lot longer to get on it than we’d thought.
You also have some sightseeing tours that can get you around as well. They tend to be a little more expensive since they are marketed to tourists, but as part of your day they can be a good way to get around London:
Hop On Hop Off Tour bus
These tour buses can make life a lot easier for getting around London especially as they restrict themselves to the tourist sites that are likely part of your itinerary anyway.
They can be a fun thing to do in their own right, especially as you can see the London skyline as you travel and you might pick up more ideas of places to see as you go around.
The downside to these as a mode of transport around London is that they are only good for your day to day getting around – you can’t use them for getting to your hotel as they don’t generally allow luggage on them.
Another downside is that they can be comparatively expensive. But, if you treat them as a fun experience they can be excellent especially if you’re short on time and want to see as much as possible of the city.
If you fancy taking a bike for a cycle round some of London then you might like to look at the Santander Cycles schemes (it used to be known as the Boris Bike – the idea was Brough in by former London Mayor and Prime Minister Boris Johnson)
You can hire bikes for 30 mins for £1.65 and you pick them up and drop them off at docking stations around the city.
Cycling in London isn’t for the fainthearted although there are cycle lanes in much of the city. I haven’t tried it myself but if you’d like to check it out see the website here.
DLR / Overground services
There are some other services which aren’t the Tube but are similar. The Overground and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) are some other services you might see or need to use. The Elizabeth Line also isn’t technically a tube either (I don’t know – something about the size of it!).
Often these are outside of the central zones so you might need to pay more for your tickets and your daily cap will be higher, but the services are all able to be used with an Oyster card or Contactless just like the tube.
IFS Cloud Cable Car
If you’re in the Greenwich area you might want to also use the Cable Car to get around – it will take you over to the Royal Docks side of the river and it’s a unique way to get around and see a different view of the city.
You can pay for it using your Oyster, Contactless or cash at the station. You can also buy tickets online before you go as well.