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I am wondering how the transport system in Central London works.

What ticket do I need to travel in the centre all day? Is there a top-up card I can use?

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    I like that you assume that it works. – Valorum Jan 16 at 10:02
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    Come on, people. Voting to close as "too broad" means that you believe the question is too big to reasonably answer. The fact that this question has been comprehensively answered means it is not too broad, by definition. – David Richerby Jan 16 at 11:31
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    @DavidRicherby I agree in this case, but not with your generalisation. From the help centre - "if you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much". The fact that a question has been comprehensively answered doesn't mean it is not too broad. Broad questions can be answered with broad answers (e.g. the hypothetical entire book in the extreme case). – JBentley Jan 16 at 13:41
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    @JBentley What justification do you propose for closing a question as unanswerable, when it already has answers? Sure, the question may be asking too much but some nice person came along and said "That's a lot but I'm prepared to do this." What benefit does closing the question have? – David Richerby Jan 16 at 13:44
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    @JBentley Questions with lots of unconnected parts should be closed (and then split up!) because having lots of different questions on the same page makes it hard for people in the future to find the answer to any one of those questions. Such a question is therefore harmful and needs to be fixed. What harm does a "the answer is too big" broad question cause? I can't see any. Remember that the rules exist to serve us and not the other way around. – David Richerby Jan 16 at 13:50
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What ticket do I need to travel in the centre all day? Is there a top-up card I can use?

If you are just traveling for one day you have a few main options.

  1. Buy a paper travelcard for the zones you want to travel in.
  2. Buy an Oyster card, top it up with pay as you go credit and take advantage of the daily cap.
  3. Use your contactless credit/debit card for pay as you go.
  4. If arriving in London by train buy a train ticket that includes a travelcard.

The Oyster card is probably only a good option if you plan to come back (you can get your deposit and unused credit refunded but it's extra hassle) and you should be aware of bank charges if you use contactless with a foreign card. Paper travel card is the simplest but nowadays is more expensive than Oyster/contactless capping.

I am wondering how the Central London transport system in London’s works.

The system is fiendishly complex and getting ever more so. This post tries to cover the basics but it's impossible to cover everything in the space of a Stack Exchange answer. Fortunately most of the complex corner cases aren't really a huge concern for the occasional visitor.

The first question is whether your service is included in the system. For services that run on rails (Train, Tube, DLR and Tram) that question is mostly answered by the "London rail and tube services" map, but note that the mappers sometimes jump the gun. For example at the time of posting Heathrow Express does not take Oyster/contactless.

London buses are also part of the system, but I'm not sure how far you can travel from London before the buses stop being London buses.

The area covered is mostly split into Zones, but there are a few areas which are outside the Zones where special fares apply.

Oyster

Oyster is a smart card issued by TFL. Cards can be obtained from a wide variety of locations including rail and tube stations. There is normally a £5 refundable deposit. They can hold both Pay As You Go credit and some types of travelcards. It is also possible for certain discounts to be registered on an Oyster card though this is unlikely to be relevant to visitors. Oyster cards can be registered for online journey history, top-ups, etc. but they don't have to be.

There also exist "visitor" Oyster cards. These are only available outside London, they have a non-refundable £3 charge instead of the refundable £5 deposit, and they entitle the holder to discounts on a handful of tourist attractions. Otherwise they are basically the same as a normal Oyster card.

Pay as you go

Pay as you go charges for each individual journey. You can pay either by using pay as you go credit on an Oyster card or by using a contactless credit or debit card. The fares depend on what zones you travel to/from, what modes of transport you use, and whether your travel is at peak or off-peak.

On trains, tube and DLR you must touch in and touch out at the yellow Oyster readers (which may or may not be integrated into barriers) at the start and end of your journey, but not normally when changing from one train/tube/dlr service to another. In some cases to get the lowest fare when taking unusual routes you must touch "pink" Oyster readers at your change locations.

Touching in without touching out or vice-versa will lead to an incomplete journey fare being charged which is expensive and does not count towards caps.

On buses and trams on the other hand you only have to touch in for each bus/tram, on the busses you touch in on the bus, on the trams you touch in on the platform before bording there is normally no touching out. Wimbledon is a special case as the tram platform is behind the train/tube gatelines.

Fares are subject to daily caps which depend on where you have travelled. If you pay by contactless there are also Monday to Sunday caps which apply to an entire week of travel measured from Monday to Sunday. Generally the daily caps are cheaper than a paper day travelcard while the Monday to Sunday caps are the same price as a weekly travelcard.

If you use contactless your travel will be billed daily, keep this in mind if you use a foreign contactless card with a per-transaction fee.

Travelcards

Travelcards are available for various zone contributions, daily, weekly, monthly and annually. Daily travelcards are issued in paper form, longer term travelcards must be loaded onto an Oyster card.

Travelcards and capping do not apply to "Emirates Air Line" (A cable car service in the docklands) or "Southeastern High Speed" and will not apply to "Heathrow Express".

Buses

Buses are the cheapest way to get around London. The single fares are lower than other forms of transport and there is the bus hopper fare which in some cases lets you make two journeys for the price of one. All travelcards regardless of zone are valid on all London buses and similarly when determining caps a bus journey does not add any zones to your list for capping purposes.

Paper tickets

Paper single tickets are available for tube services, but they are considerably more expensive than Oyster fares.

Rail services will offer regular rail tickets like other services in the UK. There also exist some combination rail tickets offering rail journeys in combination with either an individual tube journey or a day travelcard for the tube.

There are no paper single tickets for London buses, though paper travelcards are valid.

I'm not sure what the paper tickets situation is with DLR and trams.

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    This excellent answer does omit Thames Clippers, which operates much like a bus service, including taking Oyster Cards. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 15 at 18:49
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    Travelcards are more expensive than pay-as-you-go. Source: a TFL advert I saw on the Tube today. – Darren Jan 15 at 21:46
  • Ok, seems that has changed. I'll edit the post later. – Peter Green Jan 15 at 21:49
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    Paper tickets are still available with DLR (which charges equally expensive zonal fare like the paper tickets for the tube), but is no more for trams. – B.Liu Jan 16 at 7:08
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    @MartinSmith As far as I know, that advert is targeting short-stay tourists and occasional travellers, and has a lot of caveats on the small prints. The tipping point is around 5 days or a week, in which travelcard becomes cheaper (usual assumptions apply). No guarantees for the future as PAYG fare continues to be frozen and travelcard price continues to increase. – B.Liu Jan 16 at 8:12
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Peter Green's answer is an excellent summary of payment methods, but I'd like to add a few more things about some practical aspects of travelling in the centre of London:

Day-to-day transport

In central London, the London Underground is by far the quickest way to travel - much quicker than going by bus or usually even by taxi. If you're in a hurry, do this. When using the Underground, there are two things you want to know - which compass direction you're travelling in (platforms are signed for example as Eastbound or Westbound), and that you should stand on the right hand side of escalators (if you're in a hurry, you can walk on the left hand side). There is no phone signal on most Underground lines, and station stops (where Wi-Fi is available) are usually only brief, so knowing where you're going before you go underground will save you trouble.

When it comes to the Underground, though, it's also worth pointing out that there are occasionally stations where it might look quicker to take the tube on the map, but really a walk would be better.

  • Most famously is Covent Garden tube station, which has only lifts/elevators (no escalators like most central stations) and gets very crowded in peak tourist times (meaning it can take a long time to exit the station), but is an incredibly short walk from Leicester Square and only a slightly longer walk from Holborn stations.
  • If you're tempted to change onto the Piccadilly Line from the Northern or Central lines to get to Covent Garden - don't bother, just exit at Leicester Square or Holborn and walk above ground.
  • As a rule of thumb, the newest Jubilee and Victoria lines are generally the fastest, followed by the early-1900s Northern/Piccadilly/Bakerloo/Central/Waterloo & City lines, followed by the mid-Victorian so-called sub-surface lines (Metropolitan/Circle/District/Hammersmith & City). The latter, however, are more comfortable, with more spacious, air-conditioned trains, due to the way the lines were built (by digging up the roads, putting the lines in, then putting the roads back, as opposed to the later lines which were built using "proper" tunnelling methods) - this is also why these four are the lines where you're most likely to get a phone signal.

However, if you're on a budget, or you're just not in a hurry, and if you're not particularly interested in trains, or the London Underground's heritage, you may find it more enjoyable to travel above ground on buses, as obviously in that case you can see the sights while you're travelling. Though there isn't a general bus map produced any more, most journey planners (including TfL's own, the excellent CityMapper, and Google Maps) will show bus-based options. London's buses are quite easy to travel on, especially if you're used to other parts of Britain where buses can be fiendishly complicated - in London, stops are always clearly announced and payment is straightforward with an Oyster or Contactless Card (see Peter's answer). Buses in London don't even require hailing these days - just standing confidently at the bus stop and looking the driver in the eye is enough to make buses stop.

More touristy (and interesting!) options

No answer about travel in central London from a tourist's perspective would be complete without mentioning a few of the more esoteric methods of transport. These might be more expensive than other methods, but they can be quite enjoyable.

As mentioned in a comment to Peter's answer above, there are the Riverboat (Thames Clipper) services. These operate along the River Thames, so if your origin and destination aren't both close to the river you're kind of out of luck! But if they are, you have the option of catching a boat from a pier. This is more expensive than buses and the London Underground, and also isn't included in Travelcards (though Travelcard holders can get a discount), but it's a very enjoyable, and also surprisingly speedy, trip along London's famous river. As with most London transport you can pay with Oyster or Contactless credit/debit cards, and you can also buy paper tickets from machines.

If you're in the North Greenwich and/or Custom House areas and fancy an excuse to go on a nice tourist attraction, there's the cable car (currently branded as the Emirates Air Line). This is a trip across the Thames in a pod hanging from a wire suspended above the river. It's ostensibly a mode of public transport, but it's really ust a tourist attraction. But it's a pretty great one - you get nice views of London and of the river. If you do need to get from North Greenwich-Custom House and you don't mind spending a little more and taking a little longer, this is a nice way of doing it!

Finally, there's the bus route 15H, the Heritage Routemaster bus. These are the "classic" 1950s-designed red London buses with the frontend that looks like an old car and the open platform on the back which you can jump on and off at any time and from which a conductor takes your fare. Now, unfortunately, these don't take contactless debit/credit cards, but they do take Oyster cards (I'm not sure how much they cost), as well as paper Travelcards (no additional charge) (trivia: these are the only things which take Oyster card but not contactless payment cards). They run from Tower Hill (for the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the one that lifts in the middle) along the north bank of the Thames to Trafalgar Square (for Nelson's Column), via St. Paul's Cathedral (along with plenty more sights!). If you're a tourist who wants to travel on a classic London bus and see some classic London sights, this is a great way of doing it!

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    Deep-level tube lines have more frequent trains, much better headways (due to the generally newer signalling systems), and higher line speeds (in the underground sections). They also don't generally have flat junctions with conflicting moves, which in practice slows things down greatly on the subsurface lines. I would definitely be interested to see average speed figures though to make certain of this! – Muzer Jan 16 at 13:41
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    I believe Bus 15H costs the same as other buses, but hopper fare does not apply (last bullet point). – B.Liu Jan 16 at 19:28
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    "station stops (where Wi-Fi is available)" – note that station Wi-Fi is free only for those with a Virgin Media / EE / Vodafone / O2 / Three mobile plan, i.e. not most international visitors. Others would need to pay: £2 / day, £5 / week, £15 / month. (info page) – Dougal Jan 16 at 23:23
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    @Dougal I have an O2 contract and so I'd completely forgotten that it isn't free! – Muzer Jan 17 at 9:38
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    "Request Stops" no longer exist although I believe they may still be some old signs around. whatdotheyknow.com/request/buses_not_stopping_at_compulsory . I would personally always hail just to be sure – matt freake Jan 17 at 10:44
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Don't forget walking. Central London is small, and it may sometimes to be as quick to walk from A to B, and much more interesting. London is crammed with interesting buildings, squares and sights, so much so that when I visit London I always walk if I have the time.

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    But I would advise if wandering around using a smartphone for navigation to be aware of the possibility of moped enabled theft. Especially in hotspots like Camden. – Martin Smith Jan 16 at 9:51
  • Right, but for all us non-residents, the Tube map intentionally obfuscates distance in favor of topology. Can you suggest your top-five walks, esp. if they start/end on a Tube station and avoid bad or slow interconnections? Camden is one, along the Thames maybe another, V&A to Hyde Park another...? – smci Jan 16 at 22:10
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    @smci - this map may help - content.tfl.gov.uk/walking-tube-map.pdf – matt freake Jan 17 at 11:01
  • @mattfreake O, that is nice! Bookmarked. – Jan Doggen Jan 17 at 14:02
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    @PatriciaShanahan: I'm aware of all that, but that doesn't give a quick at-a-glance reverse-distortion of distance vs topology that the Tube map has instilled in each of our brains. Nor suggest a top-five walks in Central London. – smci Jan 18 at 20:31
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These answers are comprehensive, but IMO too verbose and overwhelming for a visitor who is new to the system.

Put simply:

All buses & underground trains accept contactless credit/debit card (or android/apple pay) which is the simplest way to pay and guarantees you will not pay more than the daily cap.

If you do not have a contactless credit/debit card, purchase an Oyster top up card from a station and use this instead.

Get a good travel app such as citymapper to help plan your travel or else pick up a tube map from a station

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Just to add to the other (excellent) answers, another option for travel in London might be to hire one of the TfL Santander Bikes (or 'Boris Bikes', as they used to be known).

Admittedly, for the novices this is probably only a good idea at a quiet time on a day with good weather, but if the conditions are suitable then it's a pleasant way to get around London. It's also cost-effective, as you pay £2 for a daily fee then if you can manage it such that each trip is less than 30 minutes 'dock-to-dock' then all trips that day are free. (Otherwise it's another £2 for each 30-min period in a trip after the first 'free' one.)

There's a phone app from the App Store or Google Play that shows docking stations locations and bike & free space numbers, which helps planning trips during the day, so you can see what your options are as the day progresses.

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