London Underground

As someone with a great sense of direction who usually can find my way just about anywhere, I didn’t anticipate any challenges as I prepared for our trip to London. Then I looked at an Underground map and the headaches began.

The map makes travel around London seem overly complicated. With dotted lines, overground routes, and disconnected stations, I was lost before arriving. Tube lines intersect and crisscross around the city with extreme intricacy, and determining where routes begin and end and which trains can be reached by which station seemed a lesson in futility. Add to that the complexities of buses, and it’s all a messy system only understood once you’re in it.

The Girl Gets Around (with the TFL App)

Experienced travelers without an unlimited budget know that public transportation is the best way to get around any city. In London, that’s the Underground, aka the Tube. Generally, stations are within a thirty-minute walk of just about anywhere, and nearly all stations are interconnected in some way though it may require changing trains three or even four times.

The city of London created the app TFL Go with the most up-to-date information for each station. Thanks to the app, we knew that one route (mapped out the day before) was untraversable the morning we wanted to take it due to construction.

Deciphering the map became less confusing once we were actively in the city. In truth, the map looks far more frightening than the reality. Stretched lines between stations simply means there’s some walking within the same station, often with stairs. Dotted lines mean limited service on that route, perhaps only on weekends or busiest times of the day. More clarity can be found in this article. Generally though we put far too much energy into trying to figure out which route was best, and instead should have just focused on staying near a station – any station.

(Don’t) Miss the Bus

The TFL Go app provides up-to-the-minute information for both Tube and bus routes, though the Tube is decidedly less confusing. Navigation is made even easier with signs above some bus stops and nearly all Tube stations showing the number and destination of vehicles at the stop or station, and how soon they will arrive.

We often found that a bus was faster than the Tube, although it’s not without its challenges. Even after nine days in London, we were still making transportation mistakes. The app suggested we should catch the Number 28 bus, which was next to arrive at the stop. Fortunately I tracked our progress separately on GPS, and after a few stops realized that we were heading in the wrong direction. We exited at a nearby Tube stop and were able to jump on a train, heading the right way back to our rental.

London is Your Oyster

There are a few ways to pay for travel, but the easiest and cheapest two are the Oyster card and the online app. The app is simplest for singles, couples, or those comfortable with technology. Simply scan a barcode at the station and money is deducted from a prepaid account. It’s as simple as Starbucks yet has its own challenges, first that the app can’t be loaded from the United States. It also requires each family member to have their own account and own phone. Alternatively, the Oyster card can be purchased very easily at any station for each individual.

An Oyster card is simply a plastic card preloaded with funds (like the app) and money is deducted with each trip. Travelers pay a maximum amount each day based on the zones being traveled between. Most visitors will travel between Zones 1-3. Thus, when the maximum is reached, travel as much as you’d like without paying any extra. That limit came in handy particularly when we found ourselves on the wrong bus, or when we exited at the wrong tube stop. The card can be easily purchased at any machine at any Tube station.

A Pound Late and a Dollar Short

The Oyster card costs £7 per card as of 2024, which is non-refundable but can be reused and reloaded for future trips. There are two other options while using an Oyster card: either preload money that is deducted until reaching the daily limit, or purchase a Tourist Card.

The Tourist Card is a bad deal for a one- or three-day option, but financially a good deal for a weeklong visit for anyone planning to travel nearly the maximum amount each day, or roughly three trips. The cost is £40.70 for seven days within Zones 1-2. We had eight full days in London, so we used the seven-day travel card, then added £10 to each card for the last day. Because we had to take public transportation to get nearly everywhere we wanted to visit, this option worked best for our family and allowed us to travel freely every day without worrying about spending too much. Because my daughter is 15, we were able to get a half-price discount for her tickets. Ask anyone at the Underground kiosks and they can make the adjustment on the card.

At the end of the trip, visitors have the option to have the remaining amount refunded (which can be done at the machines), ask for a refund by website, or simply keep the remainder on the card and use it for a future trip. Helpful descriptions of fees can be found on this site.

A final note about paying for things in London. Every shop, restaurant, and busker accepts credit cards. With a simple tap, we paid for every souvenir, bottle of water, and even 30p to use the public restrooms at the Tower of London. Our arrival was a bank holiday weekend, so I panicked that we would have trouble finding an ATM with cash. By the second day when we still hadn’t exchanged money, I realized it wasn’t even necessary.

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