Family guide to London Transportation

“What’s the best way to get around London?” is a question that I’m frequently asked by readers.  The short answer to how to get around London with kids is: the Tube + buses, Uber and walking – depending on the situation.  But there are exceptions.  In this post, I’ll cover all of the main family transportation options – including how to use the Tube in London, as well as buses, Uber, taxis / black cabs, minicabs (what are those anyway??), rail, bikes… and of course, walking!  I’ll also address options for paying.  And lastly, what Apps you should use.

But first, a cute public service announcement:

 

The Tube for Families (aka the London Underground)

UndergroundLondon has the oldest underground rail system in the world – with the first line from Paddington Station opening in 1863.  The London Transport Museum is a great place to visit with kids – right in Covent Garden – where you can learn all about it.  Many say that it’s also the best in the world. Despite how locals will whinge (a British word for complaining) about delays, the Underground is usually extremely reliable (with the notable exception of Tube Strikes, which you will hopefully never encounter).  One of the best aspects of the system is that the network includes not only the Underground – but also the Overground (not to be confused with National Rail – which are the larger trains between cities), Regional Rail within London, busses, and even river busses!  This means that you can use your Oyster card to pay for transportation on any of these systems, and also that the daily cap system will apply across the network.  I’ll address that later.  There is no question that you can use the public transportation in London to get just about anywhere in Central London.  In fact, we lived in London for two years, with three kids, and didn’t own a car!

TubeMap

London Tube Map

By far the most-used form of transportation in the city, the Tube (aka the Underground) is marked by these iconic signs, and follows this well-known route map:

 

 

The Tube operates in Zones 1-6.  The outer zones matter for commuting locals – but they rarely matter for tourists who will travel almost exclusively in Zone 1 in Central London (and maybe on rare occasions to Zone 2) on the Tube.  One thing to be aware of, is that the map is a marvel of graphic design, but as such doesn’t necessarily represent the actual geographic alignment or orientation of stations relative to each other.  If you’re interested (which you likely are not) in learning more about this, you can find more here.  But suffice to say that just because two stations look very near each other, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are.  Thankfully the TFL (Transport for London – the official City agency that manages transportation) has recently released a version of the map that does show walking distances between stations!

TubeMapWalkingDistances

But while the Tube is the default transportation option for most individual local travelers, many tourists find it intimidating.  There are several good reasons for this – including “it’s confusing”, payment and fares, crowds, and the general pace (especially considering kids and/or strollers).  Let’s address each of those.

First: “it’s confusing”.  The map is fairly chaotic, and it can make figuring out how to get around London with kids seem intimidating.  London is not built on a grid (in fact, it often seems like the opposite of a grid – whatever that is!).  If you’ve used the subway system in New York – which is probably the only American public urban train system that is comparable to the Underground – you’ll find that London’s system is far less orderly – with lines going in all directions as opposed to NYC’s north/south orientation in Manhattan.  This can be intimidating for a visitor who is not familiar with the map – especially with kids in tow.  My primary piece of advice here is to use an app (Citymapper – see below), to simplify any particular journey – which will usually require the use of one or at most two lines (with one change).  

Once you start using the system, most people find that it’s actually very intuitive to use.  When you get to the station, try to know as soon as you enter in which direction you want to head (north/south, east/west) – and what the last station in that direction is (check the map).  This is important information because you’ll likely need it to get yourself to the right platform.  If you’re not sure, consult your app, or a pocket tube map before you get into the narrower tunnels of the underground.  Or just ask a station employee if you see one.  They’re very knowledgeable and helpful.

FamilyBarrierOne of the best things about the tube for families, is that kids under 10 are free!  And kids 10-15 travel for a reduced fare.  Under 10’s don’t need an Oyster card, but they won’t be able to get through the regular turnstiles.  Just go to the handicapped / luggage / family gate which is usually all the way on the right or left side of the row of turnstiles, and looks like this:

One parent should press their Oyster card to the yellow circle, and the gate will open and stay open long enough for one or more kids to follow behind.  Sometimes there will be a station attendant there to watch or assist.


Tip: the gate will usually open more easily if you touch your Oyster card before you stand on the metal platform under the gate.  Not sure why – that’s just been our experience.


TubeSign_SmallWhen you get to the platform (where you wait for the train), you’ll usually be able to find a helpful sign – often on the wall on the other side of the tracks from where the platform is – which will show you just the section of the line  that is down-line from the station that you’re at.  Make sure that your destination is on this map!  When you get on the train, listen for the automated announcement that will confirm which train you’re on.  It will usually tell you the line and the last station on that route.  Note that some lines branch – so you may need to confirm that you’re on the train that’s headed for the right branch.  And if you’re down-line from the branch then the same platform will often serve trains heading for different branches – so always be sure to check where the train is headed.  The District Lines at Earl’s Court are probably the best example of this, and you’ll see this on the Northern Line as well.  But remember, worst cast, if you get on the wrong train, just get off at the next stop and head back in the other direction.  It’s really not a disaster.  Unless it’s rush hour, of course 🙂

Some stations tend to be a lot more chaotic than others.  In general, the more lines that a station serves, the more confusing it tends to be.

Unfortunately London Underground stations are not particularly stroller/buggy/pram friendly – and there are lots of stairs, which can be a real challenge.  With two parents, we found that it’s usually easier to just carry a stroller up/down stairs, rather than have the kid get out.  Just be careful on the stairs, of course.  One thing to look for is handicapped accessible stations – which are marked on the tube map.  These will have ramps or elevators (lifts) that you can use.

I highly recommend making taking the tube into a game.  If you have kids who are older than 5, it’s fun to make it a challenge to see if they can figure out how to get from point A to point B.  Just be sure that you leave extra time as they learn to navigate!

Payments and fares: As mentioned, kids under 10 are free!  This will usually make the tube the cheapest way to travel for families with young kids (although with a stroller it might not be the easiest way to travel).  Kids 10-15 years old need a special Oyster card which you can get through a manned ticket booth.  You’ll need ID for the kids to verify their age, so bring their passport.

Here’s a very helpful video on Oyster cards and how to use them.  In addition to an Oyster card, you can also get a daily or weekly travelcard, or pay for individual tickets.  Never get individual tickets – it’s basically the same effort as getting an Oyster card, and you pay more.  Once you have an Oyster card (with a positive balance), you just tap the card at the turnstile and you’re in.  Easy!  With an Oyster card, if you take the Tube or busses several times in a day, you’ll benefit from the automatic daily cap system – which is the maximum charge that you’ll pay in any given day.  For Zone 1, the daily cap is £6.50 – which is basically two, one-way trips.  So once you’ve traveled twice, all subsequent tube and bus trips in that day are free!  Pretty cool, huh?

And here’s a reference for fares.  Fares are kind of confusing because they depend on the Zones in which you’re traveling (mostly Zone 1 in Central London), as well as the time of day that you’re traveling.  A “ride” counts from when you enter the Underground, to when you leave – regardless of whether you transfer.  You don’t have to re-enter the system or pay again if you switch lines during the same journey.  But since the fares are capped, it really doesn’t matter too much what the individual fares are.

You may notice on the chart that the daily Oyster cap in Zone 1 is £6.50.  But you can get a daily Travelcard for £12.10.  So why would you ever get a Travelcard?  You wouldn’t.  It makes no sense, and I’ve never been able to figure out why anyone would ever get one.  If I’m missing something, please let me know in the comments!

Crowds / Pace.  This is a big reason why many families are afraid to take the Tube.  It can definitely get crowded, especially around morning or evening rush hour.  Or in the summer, the major tourist zones around Oxford and Bond Streets, Buckingham Palace (Green Park), Westminster, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square can be very busy anytime.

 


Tube Station Etiquette:

DO NOT stop in a fast moving spot in a station to examine the tube map to figure out which platform to go to – especially at commuting times (8-9AM, or 5-7PM).  The walking tunnels do get fairly tight as you get near the platforms – and if you don’t keep moving you’ll cause a significant traffic jam.  Most likely no one will say anything, because they’re British, but you will be the unlucky recipient of many an angry glare!

On the escalators, make sure that your whole crew is standing on the right, in a single-file line.  The left side of the escalator should be left open for those who want to trot down, or climb up – rather than just waiting as the escalator moves.  If your kids are standing on the left side of the escalator chatting, they are at risk of being run over by a busy Londoner who has somewhere VERY important to be.  Should they impeded his progress up or down an escalator, he will be very disappointed in your lack of parenting skill.


 

While there are crowds, they are mostly manageable except for during rush hour, when some lines (like the Central Line) can get really packed.  If you’re trying to take the Central Line from Notting Hill Gate to Oxford Circus at 8:30AM, it may be so crowded that it will be difficult to actually get on a train.  And if you’re trying to keep track of two or more kids, this can be very stressful.  My advice: if at all possible, plan your day so that you don’t need to travel during these times.  If you want to take the tube to go to dinner at 6:30PM, consider heading to that neighborhood around 4:45PM so that you’re within walking distance.  There will likely be something interesting to explore in the area.  Or take an Uber.

 

What’s the Overground?

OvergroundThe Overground is a train system, very similar to the Underground… except for one key difference.  Can you guess what it is?  ….  It’s OVER the ground!  Oh, and one other thing – the signs look like this:

Essentially it’s just an extension of the Underground system, and it runs mostly in a loop around the outer part of London.  It’s not very likely that you’ll encounter it as it doesn’t cover Central London – but if you do you can use your Oyster card just like you would any other underground train.

 

Buses

To really get everywhere via public transport, you need to learn to use the bus system.  Buses have many advantages over the tube for tourists.  One of the biggest is that you can see!  Unlike the Tube which is, well… a tube – the bus lets you see London during your journey, which gives you a much better feel for where you are, and the relative locations of different sights and neighborhoods.  Second, red London busses – especially the double-deckers, and certainly if your kids can snag the front seat on the second deck – are an iconic and fun part of the London experience.  And third – when traveling with kids – especially if you have a stroller – the busses can be much easier to manage because you don’t have to worry about dealing with any stairs, or long station walks.  Buses have a space on the lower deck for strollers so that you don’t have to collapse them. You can usually wheel them down the aisle – or sometimes the driver will let parents with a stroller board via the back door (which is right in front of the stroller area on the bus).  You should definitely ride at least one bus while you’re in London, and you may find that they provide the best method of traveling with kids.

The bus routes can seem very intimidating – but with an app like Citymapper, it’s definitely manageable for a tourist with kids.  Citymapper will tell you not only where to pick up the appropriate bus – but it will also alert you when you are approaching your stop.  See more in the App section below.

One downside is that buses – even given that they have dedicated bus-lanes – are still subject to traffic which can be slow at times.  This is especially true at rush hour – and also in August – when the major tourist areas can become very crowded.  During this time, buses can be crowded as well.  If you get on and the stroller area is already full, it can be a major headache trying to deal with so much crowding.  In this case, I’d suggest trying to be patient, and waiting for the next bus – or trying an Uber or taxi.  They’ll still have to deal with traffic, but at least you’ll be more comfortable while you wait!  Most of the year however, this won’t be an issue.

You can NOT pay cash to ride a bus.  It’s just not an option.  You can use either a contactless credit/bank card (which you probably don’t have if you’re American since we haven’t adopted this fantastically convenient technology yet), or an Oyster card.

 

Hop on / Hop off Buses: These buses are another option that many tourists consider for getting around London.  There are three companies (The Original London Tour, Big Bus, and Golden Tours) that offer the HO/HO Buses – and they’re all pretty similar.  Each company has a few different routes that cover the major Central London attractions (Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Tower of London, Big Ben & Parliament, etc).  You get a one-day, fixed price ticket for the buses that allows you to hop on and off wherever they stop (as the name suggests).  You can get a family ticket for 2 adults and 2 kids for about £65.

I think that there are two key benefits of using these buses: 1) They have human guides that offer commentary, and if you get a good one you can learn some interesting facts about London – especially if it’s your first time; and 2) If the weather is nice, sitting on the open-air second deck can be a delightful way to see the city and get a feel for the layout.

That said, I think that for most families, there are also significant downsides to using the buses.  They’re expensive.  A family of four can enjoy unlimited travel all over London on the public buses and the Tube for less than £15/day.  They can be infrequent and crowded – especially in the summer.  They can get stuck in traffic – especially because they tend to take very crowded routes.  Of course, this is the case with regular buses as well (even with the bus lanes).  And while a good guide can be a lot of fun, that’s a matter of chance.  I’ve had several readers lament that they were unimpressed with theirs.

For most families, I’d recommend other options instead of the HO/HO buses.  You can easily put together your own double-decker bus tour of the best London sights using Bus Routes #24, #11 and #9.

 

Rail

RailRail refers to larger trains, which mostly are used to get between cities in the UK, and are used by many commuters who live in the cities surrounding London.  You’ll take Rail (National Rail Service) if you go from London to Oxford, Cambridge or Windsor.  Rail lines and stations are marked by this symbol:

Most of the time, your Oyster card will not work on Rail between cities outside of London.  However if you’re traveling within London, sometimes it’s more convenient to use rail – and in those cases you can usually use your Oyster card.  For example I used to use my Oyster card between Ealing Broadway and Paddington Station, or when traveling from Waterloo Station to Richmond (which takes about 20 minutes, as compared to 45 minutes on the District Line). This is fairly confusing – and it’s best to just ask a station attendant if you have both Tube and Rail options from the same station and you’re not sure which is best.

 

Cars (Black Cabs, Uber, Minicabs and Rental Cars)

And what about cars? Even though few people drive them into Central London, you’ll still see them everywhere.  The local government does a lot to encourage use of public transport – and to discourage private car use in the city.  This includes the daily “congestion charge” of £11.50/day for driving in Central London between the hours of 7AM and 6PM on weekdays.  Also, parking is very difficult.  As a result, you’ll find a disproportionate number of private cars are very high end cars – as well as cars with private drivers.

But many of the cars that you’ll see are commercial: the famous Black Cabs, Ubers, and private hire or “minicabs”.

Black Cabs, along with red busses, are iconic sights in London.  You may have heard legends about “The Knowledge”, which represents the test that every official London Black Cab driver must pass to prove that they know their way around the many thoroughfares and circuitous side streets of the Capital.  Black Cab drivers are part transportation, part tour guide.  And many take the later part of their job very seriously.  They’ll answer any question that you have about the area, and they’ll take pride in their ability to do so.  The certification and licensing process is both thorough and expensive, and this is one of the reasons why the fares in Black Cabs are so expensive – with a typical ride of a mile or two usually costing about £10-15.

Taxi_smallOne distinctive feature of Black Cabs that is notable for parents with strollers is the design of the classic car – with it’s so-called “jump seats”.  Without any trunk (or “boot”), the car has plenty of room with a bench seat for two or three passengers, as well as two fold down seats that face backwards.  For parents with a stroller, this enables you to wheel the stroller right into the taxi without having to fold it up.  How convenient!  Or if you don’t have a stroller, the rear facing seats provide a fun way for a family to travel and talk.

You’ll find that in Central London, taxis will almost never have car seats.  This is just something that we got used to living there – but tourists may find it a bit unnerving.  If you choose to use car transportation, this is one of the risks that you will likely have to weigh – as it’s simply not practical to carry car seats with you throughout London.  If this isn’t something that you’re comfortable with, then stick to buses or the Tube instead.

 

Uber – For many of my readers, Uber is the preferred way to get around London with kids.  Uber is very common in London – and if you’re an Uber-user in the US, the app will work just as you’re used to in London as well.  Two tips for using Uber in London: 1) if you have a local UK phone number, put that number into your Uber account so that the driver can reach you when necessary; and 2) be sure that you’ve informed the credit card on-file in your Uber account that you’ll be traveling, so that it’s not flagged for fraud.

Uber is typically significantly cheaper than Black Cabs – by as much as 50%.  It’s more expensive than taking the Tube or bus – but if you are comfortable spending a bit more, it will definitely be the most convenient method of transportation.

The standard UberX will usually be a Toyota Prius or similar, and can usually hold a maximum of four people.  If you have small kids, the driver usually won’t mind if you put a child on your lap.  Of course it’s your call whether you want to take this risk from a safety perspective.  For larger families, request an Uber XL.

 

Private Hire / Mini-cabs – This is a term used to describe private taxis (not Black Cabs).  It’s unusual to use these for point to point transportation in London – but it’s common to use them to get to or from the airport.  While I typically suggest an Uber to get to the airport, using a booked car to get from the airport when you first arrive is a great option.  A good car service will make sure that they track your flight, and they will have someone waiting inside the airport with a sign with your name on it, which is a welcomed convenience – especially when arriving with kids and luggage off of a red eye!  I recommend booking in advance using JustAirports.com.  My readers have had good things to say about them!  

 

Rental Cars – Renting a car is an option if you’re looking to head out of the city for a daytrip or longer.  However there are a few factors to consider.  One obvious one is that you’ll need to be comfortable driving on the left side of the road!  Another is the previously mentioned Congestion Charge – which is administered via the omni-present traffic cameras around London.  Here’s a map that shows where the charge applies.  You’ll need to pay the charge online for each day that you drive in the congestion zone – however tourists may not realize that they need to pay, since they won’t receive any notice other than signs that are publicly posted.  If you don’t pay the same day, the charge goes up – and it will continue to increase for each day that goes by without paying.  For a rental car you’ll be responsible for the charges – but they may take several days or weeks before you receive any notice – which could potentially result in very significant fees.  Something to be aware of if you have plans to rent a car in Central London.  For most visitors, and most destinations, a train will usually be the best option.  However if you’re headed out to the British Countryside, the coast, or the Lake District, a rental car may indeed be the best choice.


Tip: You do not need an international driver’s license to rent a car in the UK.  If someone tells you differently, they’re trying to sell you an international driver’s license 🙂


 

Walking – Walking is often the best way to get around in London.  If you have young kids and you’re concerned about whether their little legs can manage a day full of walking, consider bringing a light, folding stroller.  This is useful for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s obviously good to have if you want to do a lot of walking and your little one can’t keep up.  But second, if your kids still nap, a stroller can be a great option that allows a younger kid to get some sleep while the rest of the crew keeps moving.  This gives you much more flexibility than if you have to head back to the flat mid-afternoon every day.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of walking is that it gives you the opportunity to stumble across something interesting.  And isn’t that one of the best parts of travel?  If the weather is good, consider walking as the first option!

 

Biking – When we lived in London, I biked to work (about 10 miles from Ealing to Central London) whenever I could.  It was a fantastic way to start the day, and London has great biking weather for most of the year.  But for tourists?  With kids?  I wouldn’t recommend it.  Traffic, driving on the left side, motorcycles and inconsistent bike lanes are all hazards.  Plus you won’t have a helmet (unless you want to carry them around all day!).  But there is one exception that I would make to this rule.  If all of your kids are older (about 12+), and are big enough to handle the ubiquitous rental bikes, biking through Hyde Park on a nice day is a ton of fun!  Just dip your (chip enabled) credit card into one of the machines and give it a try.  Or another great family biking option is in Battersea Park – which has a rental bike center (that’s open on weekends and in the summer).

 

Apps

Logo_CitymapperCityMapper: The king of all London-travel apps, and the best.  This London-based company has built the ideal travel app for London, because it excels at making it easy to compare travel options for all of the methods listed above.

Let’s say that you want to go from Buckingham Palace to the British Museum.  Pop open the CityMapper app and enter your starting point and destination, and it will give you your options:

CityMapper1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note that it highlights the options and relative durations for walking, biking, car and public transportation.  For public transportation, it also shows you several different options – usually the best tube and bus routes.  Were there any disruptions or closed or delayed lines, it would show you that as well.

Click on the Walk icon, and it will show you a recommended route and distance.  If you do choose to walk, I’d suggest actually using Google maps if you want turn-by-turn directions with verbal cues while you walk – as the CityMapper app doesn’t offer this feature.

CityMapper2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, let’s say that you want to take the Tube.  Click on the first option via the Piccadilly (blue) line.

IMG_7705

Here, the app shows you where to get on and off, and how to walk to and from those stations.  One feature that I really like is that it also shows you your total walking time.  This is useful, because it will show you that in this example, you might choose to take the Tube, but you’ll still actually spend 22 of your 28 minutes walking to and from the stations!  As compared to 34 minutes if you were to just walk to the destination.  Is it worth 6 minutes more time to not have to worry about the hassle of getting in/out of the station?  That’s for you to decide!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about taking a bus?  It takes about the same time as the tube – but with only 14 minutes of walking, instead of 22!  

IMG_7709So let’s say that you have two tired kids and a stroller, in that case the bus is probably the best choice, because it will be easier with the stroller, and you have less walking. The app will also show you exactly which bus stop to go to – with an easy to find letter marking.  And it will tell you the wait times, as well as which bus number(s) you can take!  Once you’re on the bus it will show you each stop on the route, and it can even alert you when it’s time to get off!   Thanks CityMapper!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or, if you want no walking, you can see cost estimates for Uber right from the app.  Click on the type of Uber that you want and the Uber app will open automatically, with your starting point and destination already entered!IMG_7707

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_7706And lastly, if you scroll all the way down the list of options, CityMapper will usually provide a bit of humor – with the option of transportation via jetpack, catapult, or sometimes teleportation!  Oh those cheeky Brits! 🙂

 

 

CityMapper will work remotely – so if you’re trying to plan out your day you can download the app from home and check the best way to get from point A to point B even before you go!  Also, you can save the route for offline use.  This is particularly useful in the Tube for getting off at the right stop without Wifi!

 

Final thoughts – How to get around London with kids

When you’re planning your itinerary before your trip, consider how you’ll get from one activity to the next.  Use Citymapper to estimate the travel times, and make sure that you’ve planned enough time with some padding for mistakes early in the process.  Try to view transportation in London as one of your family travel experiences – since it’s probably very different from how you get around at home!  Have fun, make it a game, and whatever you do, don’t stand on the left side of an escalator!!

 

 

Would you like some help or advice in planning your trip?  If so, just leave a comment or send me an email.  We also offer Custom Family Trip Planning services.  Click here to find out more.

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