How to use the public transport in London

Student in London Tube station
(Image: Bea Represa / Flickr)

The Great British Mag contents team published this guide on how to use the public transport in London on 24 January 2020.

If you’re planning on moving to London then read this guide on the transport options because London has a vast transport system, with many options to get from A to B. 

Our guide also gives you budget conscious international students tips and hacks to save money and time. 

What is an Oyster Card?

An Oyster card is a payment method for public transport in London. It can be used for trains, buses, trams and ferries across the city.

Download the Oyster app, to get automatic top-ups, buy season tickets (with discounts – but more on that later), view journey history, report the card lost or stolen and learn more general information.

Oyster cards cost £5 and you can get them at ticket machines in tube and train stations, Oyster ticket shops or visitor centres.

Travel using contactless debit card

If you don’t have an Oyster card, you can use a contactless debit card or even your phone (if you have a debit card set up on it).

There are some advantages of using a contactless card over an Oyster card. Contactless automatically recognises a weekly cap – which means you could pay less throughout the week, depending on where and how much you travel – while Oyster doesn’t. Also, you won’t need to pay £5 for the Oyster card.

But a big disadvantage of using your contactless debit card is that you cannot take advantage of the 30% student discount that you get by having an Oyster card. Also, if you’re using a foreign contactless card, you’ll be charged transaction fees or sometimes they may not be accepted at all.

Student discounts on travel around London

If you’re over 18 years old, you can get the 18+ Student Oyster photocard, which offers 30% off adult-rate Travelcards or Bus and Tram Pass season tickets.

Let’s break that down: Travelcards give you unlimited travel at any time on the bus, train, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and even River Boat services in London. 

You can get them just for one day (for anytime or for off-peak travel, which is after 9:30am on weekdays) or one week, one month, three months, six months or one full year.

Follow our price comparison to see how much you could save:


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18+ Student Oyster fare







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Save money with the 16-25 railcard

For travelling outside of London, you could get the 16-25 railcard, which gives full-time students a 30% discount off rail travel for just £30 a year.

Once you buy this railcard, you can purchase discounted train tickets to anywhere in the UK. A useful website through which to find the cheapest train tickets around the UK is Trainline.

What is the London Tube

London’s famous underground railway network is known as the Tube. It’s absolutely huge and helps over 5 million people get around the city each day.

To use it, you’ll need to tap on with your Oyster or contactless debit card as you enter one of the 270 stations and then tap out again as you leave the station.

There are 12 lines in the Tube network: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, Waterloo & City and the Elizabeth Line (although this last one is yet to be open, at the time of writing). There’s also the DLR, Overground and Tramlink.

London Tube lines
London Tube lines (Image: Michael Moore / Flickr)

What are London zones?

London is divided into nine zones, with zone one being central London. When you are working out where to live look at what zone your university campus is, what travel options are available to you and how much it is going to cost. The easiest way to do this by using the TFL Journey Planner.

Does the London Underground have lifts

If you are travelling with luggage or are wheel chair-bound you can plan your journey in some cases by using stations that have a lift (also known as elevators). However, only around a quarter of Tube stations and half of Overground stations offer step-free access so you may will have to plan your journey. Find out a full map of stations that offer step-free access on the TfL website.

Is the London Underground disability friendly

If you are a student moving to London with a physical disability,  you will be able to use the public transport, including the Tube but be aware you will need to plan your journeys in advance. All Transport for London staff have had disability equality training and should be able and willing to assist you. You can ask for help with tickets, travel information and boarding the train.

Can you use a wheelchair on the London Underground

The TfL Tube Map shows passengers which of the 78 stations have step-free access for wheelchair users. Stations are marked with a white wheelchair symbol that have platforms with a gap or step to the train. Those stations marked with a blue wheelchair symbol are step-free from street right onto the train.

This Step-free Tube guide shows the height and width of the steps and gaps at accessible stations. As well as the stations where there is no step-free access to street level, but passengers can change between lines with no steps.

All trains have priority seating, clearly marked next to the doors. These are for disabled people, pregnant women, older people and those travelling with children. Customers are expected to vacate these seats if they see someone who requires a seat. If no one offers, feel free to ask.

If a lift is broken when you arrive at a step-free station, ask a member of staff to help you re-plan your journey. If there is a single accessible bus journey to the next step-free station, or your destination, then this is the route you will be advised to take. If there is not, London Underground is obliged to order you a taxi at their expense, to your destination or another step-free station from where you can continue your journey.

This also applies when the line is closed, and the rail replacement bus service is not accessible or does not stop at an alternative accessible station.

Can I use the London Underground if I have impaired hearing

Yes you can, If  you have problems with your hearing all ticket offices are fitted with induction loops, which you can use by switching your hearing aid to the T position.

Once on the Tube all stations are announced to help you get off at the right station.

Can I use the London Underground if I have impaired eyesight

If you have impaired eyesight or are blind you can ask TFL staff for assistance to get onto the platform and board the Tube. If you have an assistance dog, staff will help you to avoid escalators where possible, or stop them to allow you and your dog to walk. However, this may not be possible at busy times.

Can I get help if I am on the Tube platform

Many Underground stations have help points on the platforms. In an emergency you can contact the station control room, or failing that, the police. Many of them also have buttons to press for passenger information, and induction loops if you have impaired hearing.

Are there toilets at London Underground stations

Some of the more modern bus stations have toilet facilities and a limited number of Tube stations. However, if you have a disability you will be able to access toilets at a limited number of  Tube stations by using a Radar key. The keys cost £4. Call Disability Rights UK on 020 7250 8191 or order online. Ask staff to find out if the station has toilet facilities.

Hacks to shorten Tube journeys

Here are some top tips to shorten Tube journeys in London:

  • Avoid travelling during peak hour (around 7am-9am and 5pm-7pm) as this is when most people are heading to and from work. But if you absolutely need to travel during these times, don’t expect a seat
  • Know your exits and plan where to get on the train so that you don’t need to walk as far to leave the station when you get off at your stop.
  • Check whether it’s faster to walk. Some Tube journeys take you via multiple stations or are longer. For example, the walk from Covent Garden to Leicester Square is only five minutes but it takes much longer by Tube.
  • Don’t always follow the signs when changing from one line to another. Sometimes it’s quicker to exit and join the Tube line you want.

How do the buses work in London

There’s nothing more iconic than London’s famous red double-decker buses and they’re surprisingly easy to use.

With a pay-as-you-go flat rate of £1.50, it’s incredibly convenient and even offers a ‘hopper fare’, where you can use as many buses as you want  within an hour for the initial £1.50 you paid.

Unfortunately, you cannot use cash to pay for your journey, so get that Oyster or contactless debit card ready before you get on the bus. But unlike the Tube, you only need to tap on with buses, not tap off.

Top tip: If you’re using an Oyster or contactless card, there’s a daily cap of £4.50. That means if you catch a bus three times in one day, any more bus journeys on top of that are free. 

But be careful, London’s unpredictable traffic could make you late for class.

Iconic bus routes

Instead of getting expensive tour buses, you can catch various buses to see some of London’s iconic sites. 

The number 15 bus is best for tourists on a budget, as it snakes through East London and stops right in the centre of the city. You’ll pass landmarks like St Paul’s Cathedral, Brick Lane, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Trafalgar Square and The Strand.

Another great route is the number 14, which takes you to lots of museums, like the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) or the Natural History Museum.

Number 24 goes along the Thames River,  Battersea Power Station, Parliament Square, Tottenham Court Road and Camden.

London bus

Commuter ferries in London

You can make your journey across the Thames by using ferries (also known as rivers buses) There are six routes run from 22 piers between Putney and Woolwich in London.

You can use your Oyster card or contactless debit card, with fares starting at £4.50 for a single journey at the adult rate or £3.30 for valid student travelcard holders.

Emirates Air Line

The Emirates Air Line is a cable car link across the River Thames and the fare is £4.50 for an adult or £3.50 for an Oyster or travelcard user. It spans across one kilometer and goes between The Royal Docks near Canning Town and the Greenwich Peninsula to the Exhibition Centre London, which is better known as the O2 Arena.

Taxi options in London

Another iconic London experience are the black cabs scattered around the city. Although they can be a little expensive, they can be one of the easiest ways to get from place to place.

Your taxi fare will depend on the type of taxi you take, the time of day and whether it’s on a meter (which means they charge a fixed price per mile) or whether it’s based on a fixed price for a destination. So our advice is always check with the driver before the start of the journey.

Another option could be apps like Uber, Bolt, Gett or Addison Lee. There’s even a motorbike taxi option if you’re feeling adventurous. And to make your taxi journey why not opt for sharing a ride, by going for that option via the app.

Car hire in London

If you’ve got a valid licence, you could also rent a car and drive yourself around the city. You can also hire a car or van by the hour via companies such as Zipcar and E-Car Club.

Bicycle hire in London

One of the best ways to see the city is by bike, with London boasting some of the best and convenient cycling lanes in the world.

You could buy your own bike or you can rent one from one of the many bike hire companies that have popped up across the city. All you need to do is download the app, add your credit or debit card details and follow the on-screen prompts and then put in a code on the bike of your choice.

The most recognisable ones are the Santander bikes (sometimes called ‘Boris bikes’), with locations all across the city. 

Another bike you could try is Ofo, with over 1,800 of them across the city. They can be left anywhere (you’ll often see them leaning up against random walls on the street) and cost 70 pence for each half hour used – with a daily cap of £5. Be careful though, there are some boroughs in London where you can’t leave the bike when you’re done, including Westminster, Kensington, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets.

24-hour travel around London

London is one of the best cities in the world for offering 24-hour public transport services. Five of the 12 Tube lines (Victoria, Central, Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines) offer 24-hour services on Fridays and Saturdays, called the Night Tube.

While many London bus routes run all night too – just look for an ‘N’ in front of the bus route number.

Airports in London

Heading to the airport? London has six of them: London City, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, London Luton, London Stansted and London Southend.

London airports map

But if you’re looking to use your Oyster card or contactless debit card to get there, you can only do so for Heathrow. For the rest, you’ll have to catch the various express trains from locations across London.

For example, if you’re off to Gatwick, head to London Victoria for the Gatwick Express. Or if you’re off to Stansted, catch an express train from London Liverpool Street. It’s also important to note that some of the airports aren’t technically in London, like Luton and Southend.

Can’t be bothered with any of that? Get the Kabbee app to find cheap and efficient rides to the airport. And an even cheaper option would be to catch a bus, such as Easybus that sometimes does tickets for a £1.

Apps to make travelling around London easier 

Every savvy Londoner has a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to navigating around the city with ease.

One of the best tips we can give you is to download the Citymapper app. It calculates the best way to get around London from wherever you are to wherever you need to go. The app offers the fastest trip possible with real-time data on public transport.

It even gives you the best place to get on the train so you have less walking time to leave the station once you get off at the right stop.

You can also use the London Transport Planner website to plan a journey from place to place. 

Not moving to London and want to know about the transport options across the UK.