London is a big place. People always underestimate the amount of walking they will have to do in London. Yes, there is a good public transport system, but it has miles and miles of corridors and lots of steps, and you’re going to have to use them. So possibly the most important piece of advice you’ll receive for your entire trip is:
Pack comfortable walking shoes! (You’ll thank us for that later)
A to Z
When you get here, spend your first £6 on a map book called mini London A-to-Z (pronounced ‘zed’ in the UK).
London is a dense medieval city, and does not fit neatly on survey grid. Street names change within just a few steps. It’s very easy to get lost – we speak from experience!
This map is the best available – it shows every single street in central London, not just the major ones that the free tourist maps show you. All the cabbies and delivery drivers carry large-format A-to-Zs to help them out.
The mini A-to-Z will fit in your pocket, and covers most areas of the historic city you’re likely to visit. It’s invaluable for getting around downtown. For the digital generation, it’s now an app for download.
You can always hand the paper copy on to your SCA group’s next travellers – it’s a thoughtful gift!
Getting around London
London is developing a truly integrated transport system, by putting all the systems related to transportation under one roof – Transport for London, or TfL. This organization manages the Tube, buses, light rail, trams, and some (but not yet all) overground trains.
The newest addition is the Overground, shiny-new air-conditioned trains that share some conventional rail routes. Look for the orange route on the Tube maps.
Especially useful is the Journey Planner. Enter the address, post code, or name of nearest Tube stop of your starting point and destination, and it will give you a selection of travel choices.
All Londoners use this tool regularly, along with an A-to-Z.
Tickets: you can get zoned tickets for 1 day, 3 days, 7 days or a month, which should probably cover most peoples’ visits.
Check the site for children’s fares: kids under 11 are free on buses, Tube, light rail, and trams, all the time. 11-14 year olds are free on bus and trams, all the time. It gets trickier for teens (requires photocard), but they can still get free travel. Be sure to read the details for yourself.
These are the electronic passes that regular travellers use, that are replacing paper travel cards.
You can ‘charge’ your Oyster card with daily/weekly/monthly passes, or just ‘top up’ with cash for occasional trips.
You ‘touch in and touch out’ at Tube stations (so the system knows how far you’ve travelled) and touch in once on the bus (bus fares are a flat rate).
To push users towards electronic payment, TfL has bumped up cash fares significantly, to over twice the price of an Oyster card trip.
If you’re coming to London even for a few days, it’s worth getting an Oyster card. You can buy an Oyster card online, or pick one up in person at most stations. You can even return it at the end of your trip, if you want to get your card deposit back.
Oyster card for visitors
These are available to tourists (that’s you) from your local travel agent, before you leave home. If you wait til you get here to buy one, you buy the same card as regular Londoners.
Tube & trains: There are 6 zones for the purposes of Tube and Train travel, radiating out from central London, which is Zone 1. The fee increases for each zone.
Here is the Transport for London map page
Buses: For bus travel, London is a single zone, with a flat rate. Any travelcard gets you onto the buses as well.
The Tube (London Underground)
The best way to get around London. Here are a few pointers for easier traveling:
- It takes an hour to get anywhere, no matter where you are in London unless you’re already within walking distance. If you want to be on time for something, say a film, train or interview, leave an hour and a half before you have to be there. This will be the day the tube breaks down and you sit for 20 minutes chewing your fingernails (we speak from experience!).
- Always stand on the RIGHT of the escalator on the Underground. The left side of the step is the ‘express lane‘. Standing on the left makes you an obvious target for pickpockets – and is also the fastest way around to hack a Londoner off!
- Carry a bottle of water with you in summer. In summer, the tube (especially the older lines) is unpleasantly hot and stuffy, up to 30oC (86oF).
- Wear layers you can remove easily in winter. The heaters are turned on, and you’ll be glad you can shed.
- The Underground stops operating about 11:45 to 12:15 on most nights. So unless you want to catch a taxi, plan accordingly. If you have to change lines, take this into account!
020 7222 1234 is the London Travel Information line. You can get information about any journey or company.
Sadly, the classic Routemaster buses (the double-deckers with the open entrance at the rear, like Harry Potter’s Knight Bus) were taken off service for most routes in early 2006. They averaged 50-60 years old, were a rough and bumpy swaying ride, and couldn’t accommodate buggies or handicapped passengers. They were fun for an occasional ride, but not great for regular commuters.
However, if your visit isn’t complete without a double-decker ride, they remain in service on two ‘Heritage’ bus routes during the day, that take you through central London.
If you already have a London map, a ride on a Routemaster on these routes is a cheap and cheerful alternative to the commercial bus tours.
The new Routemasters – new buses styled to imitate the Routemaster look – are now on the roads.
Bus maps are posted at most bus stops. If in doubt, ask the driver. Day Buses stop between 10:30pm and 12:30am at night.
Similar to many popular day routes (sometimes extended for extra coverage), start after midnight and operate all night, at about half-hour intervals. All Night buses have the prefix “N”. Look for the blue signs at bus stops
London has a cycle hire system covering much of the centre of the city, South Bank, and into the East End. ‘Barclay bikes’ (aka ‘Boris bikes’) are rentable with a credit or debit card, and are great for short trips. You’ll spot the stands everywhere. The bikes themselves are very sturdy, with three gears and hand brakes; you can adjust the seat height but nothing else. They’re built for ‘average’ adults – no provision for kids’ seats (so far).
Read the transaction rules carefully – the system only accepts one transaction per credit card, per day. Fortunately, if you have a problem, you can call the toll-free line (number is on the pay stand) and sort it on the spot (ask me how I know).
Although they may look a little confusing, the UK has a very good train system. We recommend it as a good way to get anywhere in the UK if you are on a limited budget or don’t (want to) drive on the left hand side of the road. Whilst there are occasionally delays, both the service and the food has improved over the last few years.
08 45 48 49 50 is the National Rail Enquiries line.
You can book tickets, and get information about any journey or company. This is an indispensable number if you intend traveling by train. Write it down now!
Tickets – There are several types of rail tickets, and you can choose the one you want to match your available time and budget.
Booking a week or more ahead will save you a great deal of money.
It is also a very good idea to reserve a seat when you book your ticket – especially on the peak hour and weekend trains, otherwise you can find yourself standing for half an hour or more.
Tip: Remember, if you hold an Oystercard, you don’t have to pay again for train travel in the Zones the card covers.
The Train Line – a useful site with journey planner. It’s a good idea to check out off-peak hour options, as they are often much cheaper.
National Rail – the national site with another good journey planner.
Daily services leave from most central city piers, and there is a pleasant cruise between Westminster and Greenwich with amusing and informative commentary on the scenery. During summer (Mar – Sept), the boats go as far as Hampton Court, but we don’t recommend this trip as it’s long (3 ½ hours one way), boring, has poor food service, and the ferry is rather grotty.
Travelcards are not accepted on riverboat services. Tickets are available at the departure pier.
River Services Official Website – offsite link.
‘Cabs’ refer to the classic black hackney cabs (which are no longer all black, having fallen prey to advertising).
However, if you need to go somewhere, they will know where to go. Before being licensed, all black cab drivers have to undergo “The Knowledge” which requires them to drive all over Greater London and memorize it.
Avoid catching taxis in rush hour traffic in central London (7:30 – 9:30am, 4:00 to 6:30pm) unless you are feeling rich. Taxi drivers like to be tipped (10 – 12.5%). They are more expensive than mini-cabs, usually by about a third, but the taxis are a fun way to chauffeur yourself around and are big enough to have a small toga party in.
‘Minicabs’ are another car+driver service, that you book from a licensed company, or directly from a streetfront office. The cars are ordinary vehicles (not hackneys), and have no ‘taxi’ light on the roof, but they should have a ‘private hire’ or ‘pre-booked only’ sticker in their window, within the classic roundel-and-bar logo of the Underground.
They typically cost one-third to one-half less than a black cab for the same ride; the drivers don’t have the same London-wide knowledge, but know the immediate area and the major routes well.
However…never catch one in the street, from a guy offering you a cab (outside a club or restaurant). This is a quick scam to get robbed and beaten up.
When you call, always get a quote for the ride (or you could be ripped off by the driver). Remember to tip him/her if they were polite (10 – 12.5%). In central London there are also mini-cab dispatch shops where you can also catch one. They generally have cars lined up outside. Again, ask a price first.
Driving in central London is recommended only for the insane, and those who like to meditate in traffic jams… The average speed through central London in 1898 was 11 m.p.h. The average speed through London in 1998 was exactly the same – need we say any more?
The English road network is a labyrinth. Roads outside London are very picturesque, however unlike the US and most of the continent, there are few motorways that go directly to places (illogical, but true). Traveling between cities via road takes longer than expected, and requires basic mapping and navigation skills. A good summary is “Expect to get lost. At least once. Probably more often.”
However, should you wish to hire a car, you need a valid international or UK/EU drivers license which is over a year old (for all drivers), plus a secondary form of ID and a credit card. You will have to pay a deposit, but most companies will accept a credit card deposit.
Buy a decent map to cover your trip. You can always pass it on to the next folks who travel to the UK from your SCA group! But unless you are an extraordinary navigator with an instinct for direction, you’ll need a map – “directions” from friends or family are seldom enough. If you’re lucky, the rental may have a sat-nav unit.
Also beware of the London Congestion Zone, clearly marked on the roads with a white C inside a red circle (On a roundel gules, a C argent). It costs £8 per day, 6 days/week, to drive in the zone. Your rental agency should tell you about it.
Getting into London from the airports
Remember! There are 5 airports: London City within the city, and Heathrow, Stanstead, Gatwick and Luton outside London. Heathrow has 5 terminals and Gatwick has 2, so make sure you know both the airport and terminal where you are going!
Most international flights go to Heathrow Airport.
London City: well served by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to all points within the Underground.
Heathrow Airport, with detailed info about train service, coach buses, Tube, and cabs. Briefly:
- Two train services run between Heathrow and London: Heathrow Express (well advertised, 15 mins to Paddington station) and Heathrow Connect (far less well advertised, 30 mins to Paddington station, half the price of the express)
- Coaches (big buses) run from Heathrow to the major train and Tube stations, both in London and surrounding areas. They’re a lot cheaper than the train, but get stuck in traffic, the same as cars do.
- The Tube runs to Heathrow – the Piccadilly line ends at Heathrow, so all trains have lots of seats and room for baggage. Buy an Oyster card at the station and put your first few pounds on it to take you into town. This is the cheap-and-cheerful solution for those on a budget.
- Taxis and hired (rental) cars: Hackney cabs, chauffeured cars serve Heathrow at designated pickup points, and often have fixed rates to major train and Tube stops. If you have a lot of luggage or a group of people travelling together, it’s worth researching their costs. The major car rental companies all have desks at Heathrow.
From Stansted, catch the Stansted Express train from the airport to Liverpool Street Station (Tube, train and buses). Stansted is also served by coach.
The Gatwick Express train runs to Victoria station. Takes 35 minutes, and runs every 15 minutes. The Express is clearly sign-posted and you can buy a ticket for it from the conductor on the train itself (I recommend that), or from the autoteller machines or the ticket office at the airport. It’s quite a nice ride as well – mostly through the countryside.
You can also get a regular service train to London Bridge from Gatwick.
Luton airport: connected to London via St. Pancras train station, and by coach.