Let me start by saying that London has a great system of public transport. I might be weird, but coming from a 800-person village in Italy, London's easiness to get around without an expensive and polluting car was an enlighting moment and one of the main reasons why I fell hard for the city back in 2003.
Despite the distances - London city spans an area as large as 1,572 km² - it is always possible to get from A to B only using public transport. Did you know that the London Underground is the oldest metro system in the world? It first opened in 1863 with steam trains operating the route between Paddington and Farringdon, carrying 38,000 passengers on its opening day. Nowadays, it is one of the busiest systems in the world, carrying over a billion people around the city each year and up to 9 million people every day around its 270 stations and 11 lines across the city.
Author's note: having a car in London is not only useless but also you'll have to cope with horrible traffic, uber-expensive and difficult parking, and an £11.50 congestion fee which is charged for any vehicles entering central London during business hours on Monday-Friday.
TFL: Transport for London
Transport for London is the agency that manages public transit, which includes London's buses, tubes, and trains.
The city is divided into 9 transit zones that radiate out from the city center, with Zone 1 in the middle and Zone 9 at the outer edge of the city.
THE LINES OF THE LONDON SYSTEM
Nowadays, there are eleven lines in the London Underground. All of them have their own names and are coloured differently. These are the transport lines of the London system, including the London Overground, the TfL Rail (another overground railway network that takes you outside London) and the Dockland Light Railway (DLR), that uses only automatic trains.
Such an efficient and fast service does come with a price tag. And a quite high one, in fact. London's public transport system is one of the most expensive in the world. However, understanding how the fare structures work and what all the different kinds of tickets and journeys are will help you to make the best use of it and get the most value for your money.
You have to remember that your fare depends on three factors:
1. How far you travel
Firstly, costs for public transport depend on which zones you start and end in. Secondly, the number of zones you travel through on any given journey and which zones exactly they are will determine how much your journey costs.
For example, a journey from Archway (zone 2) to Waterloo costs £2.90/2.40 (peak/off peak) but a journey from Archway to Upminster (zone 6) costs £5.10/3.10 (peak/off peak).
PRO TIP: There are alternative fares that you should be aware of, for example for the trip above, by avoiding Zone 1 via Camden Town/Camden Road (or Kentish Town/Kentish Town West) and Stratford you can save up to £3.60 per single journey.
2. Time of day
Peak times are 06:30-09:29 and 16:00-18:59 Monday to Friday, except public holidays. Using an Oyster or Contactless card and beginning a journey on the Underground or by rail during these times, you will be charged the higher peak fare. Beginning your journey outside of these times, you will be charged less.
If you are lucky enough to decide when to travel, try to avoid peak times, they are not only the most expensive times, but also the most crowded ones.
For example a journey from Hyde Park Corner (zone 1) to Arsenal (zone 2) will cost £2.90 during peak hours, and £2.40 during off peak hours using an Oyster or Contactless card. Buying a paper ticket for the same journey will cost £4.90.
3. How you pay
Oyster or contactless payments are the cheapest ways to pay for single fares. As you read from the example above, paper tickets are over double a contactless fare, so there aren't any valid reasons to buy paper tickets anymore.
To get exact prices of journeys, you can use TfL’s single fare finder.
Paper tickets, Oyster and Contactless cards
While you can still buy paper tickets for the Underground and train networks in London, the entire system is going to be fully paperless in the near future. Note that you already can't travel with a paper ticket on buses and you can't pay cash on most of them either.
Oyster card is a smartcard which can hold pay as you go credit, Travelcard and Bus & Tram Pass season tickets. Use it to travel on bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus services and most National Rail services in London.
You need to tap in and out of your Oyster card on the yellow or pink readers at the beginning and end of your journey on the tube. On buses, however, you only need to touch in at the beginning of your journey as bus journeys all cost £1.50, regardless of time, location or distance.
You can get an Oyster Card from most tube and train stations as well as airports and they can be topped up with credit at all Underground stations and railways stations as well as in many shops around London that display the Oyster sign and online. When using an Oyster card to enter an Underground or railway station, the yellow card reader will display the amount of credit on your Oyster card, and when you touch out at the end of your journey, the reader will also display how much you were charged for the journey.
PRO TIP: Sign up for an Oyster account so you can see what's on your Oyster card, see your journey history and apply for refunds. If it gets stolen, or you lose it, you may be able to get a refund or replacement of any remaining pay-as-you-go credit or the days left on your Travelcard or Bus & Tram Pass. The card will be blocked so no one else will be able to use your Oyster card once you've reported it as lost or stolen.
These are any bankcard that display the contactless symbol, and can be used in exactly the same way as Oyster cards. The difference is that you do not need to load credit on to them, but just make sure you have enough of a balance in your account (or a high enough limit if it’s a credit card) to make your journey.
Travelcards vs Top Up: which is the right one for you?
You can travel on Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and most National Rail services using contactless or Oyster to pay as you go, or you can add a Travelcard to your Oyster card.
As a general rule a Travelcard is more expensive than an Oyster card or Contactless payment card. The exception is if you make 3 or more journeys for 6 days or more within a 7 day period. In this case a 7 day Travelcard works out cheaper than an Oyster or Contactless payment card. Otherwise an Oyster on a Pay As You Go basis or a Contactless payment card is cheaper.
Discount entitlements can't be added to a Contactless payment cards. So if you are eligible for free or discounted travel (i.e. children, students...), you should continue using your existing Oyster card. This in effect rules out children using Contactless payment methods.
If you have a Travelcard, you can travel on all buses in London that display the red roundel. If your Travelcard includes zones 3, 4, 5 or 6, you can also travel on all trams.
You can get weekly, monthly, or annual discounts if you'll be commuting to the same location each week. Each duration offers a different discount level, with longer durations (i.e. an annual pass) offering the largest discount. An annual pass can range from £972 all the way up to £3,048 depending which zones you're traveling to and from.
PRO TIP: if you recently moved to London for work, ask your employer if they offer a solution for yearly arrangements, some will in fact pay the cost of the pass upfront and then deduct a fixed amount from your salary each month. Handy!
When using an Oyster Card or Contactless card, the system will automatically cap the amount it charges you based on the daily capping fare for the journeys you have done, taking in to account whether you travelled at peak or off peak hours and through which zones your journeys took you.
See the table below for a detailed price structure (2018)
Concessions and discounts
+18 Students and Apprentice
You can get a 18+ Student or Apprentice Oyster photocard which gets you:
- 30% off 7 Day, Monthly and longer period Travelcards
- 34% discount on off-peak pay as you go fares and off-peak daily caps on Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and most National Rail services if you get a 16-25 National Railcard and add the discount entitlement to your 18+ Student Oyster photocard
Children travel free if under 11 years old or are between 11 and 15 years with an Oyster 11-15 Photocard.
Children's fares (11-15 yrs old) with an Oyster 11-15 Photocard are £0.75 off peak, £0.85 peak for any trip within zones 1 to 6.
If you reside in London and are over 60 you can get a Freedom pass or 60+ Oyster ID Card that makes free bus travel available.
PRO TIP: Discount entitlements can't be added to a Contactless payment card. So if you are eligible for free or discounted travel, you should continue using your existing Oyster card. This in effect rules out children using Contactless payment methods.
How to take the right train/bus
Before starting your journey, you should choose the line and follow the signs. To choose the right platform or side of the street, make sure to check the
final destination of the train/bus.
For further information on exact fares, where and how to buy credit as well as maps and live transport information, check the Transport for London website. (fares on this article are updated to April 2018)
Get the official TFL app here or, even better, download Citymapper the ultimate transport app in London and beyond.
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