There are many airports surrounding London, but you will most likely fly into either Heathrow or Gatwick. Both are major hubs of air travel, Heathrow being one of the busiest in Europe. From Gatwick the only option for getting into central London is by train. The Gatwick Express service is the quickest way, around 40 minutes train ride to London Victoria station with underground and overground transportation to your final destination in London. If you want to save some money, and use double the time to get to Victoria, there are local trains you can catch into central London.
From Heathrow there are two main options to get into central London until 2023 (approx. year since the project keeps being delayed) when the new Crossrail train service opens. You can per now either take the quick and expensive route with Heathrow Express that will take you to Paddington in 18 minutes, or you can do the London Underground service that will take you all the way into central London underground stops on the Piccadilly Line. Visit London has a great page on travels to and from Heathrow. We have normally taken the Heathrow Express for the convenience of getting into central London fast, but the drawback is that you have to transfer either to a taxi (and that will cost you between 10-20 pounds to get to a central hotel) or to the underground with all that encompasses with stairs and luggage down and up to the station itself. So, if you are staying in a hotel that is close to any station on the Piccadilly line, we recommend to take the underground service from Heathrow. If you want to save money, and time, we recommend to purchase tickets in advance on the websites for the different express airport train services.
Central London Transport
There are 3 main ways of transport in central London: the underground or “the tube” in local lingo, taxis (cabs) or the famous London double decker buses.
TfL (Transport for London) or London Underground
The Underground has its origins in the Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground passenger railway which opened in 1863. Over the years several competing underground rail companies built their lines, and during the years they have merged and now make up the London Underground. It carries 5 million passengers per day on its 11 lines and it has 270 stations, and despite its name only 45% of the network is underground, much of the network outside central London is on the surface. We love the tube, it is by far the fastest and most efficient way to get around.
The underground is an experience in itself, and the sights and smells of the network of tunnels is like nothing else on the planet. It might seem intimidating at first, but after travels on many of the world’s underground services, we would claim that London has one of the most intuitive and simple setups anywhere. On the station get an Oyster Card, this is a refillable travelcard used on the underground and bus services in London and saves you a bit of money per travel compared to paying for single fares. Find out where you are going, you will see your line and the colour of the line you are going to travel with. Follow the signs for the escalators that bring you onto your line, there are signs all over, so just follow them and you are on your way. Let’s say you are going on the Central Line (red) to Queensway, just follow the red Central Line signs, when you are at platform level there will be two signs showing stations from top to bottom where the train on the track to your right or your left is going.
A tip is to have an idea whether you are going east or west for instance, since the two signs will say either eastbound or westbound. If you get a bit freaked out by the amount of people behind you on the stairs, just take a chance and step into one of the tunnels with the train tracks. On the tunnel wall is the same sign, just follow it from the top and downwards, if you cannot find your station on this map, you are in the wrong tunnel, just head 5 metres to the opposite tunnel and check the map there. Enter the train when it arrives, inside the carriages there are plenty of signs above the doors and windows showing where this train is going. Every station is announced, and the next station will be announced well in advance. Step off the train at your station, at Queensway take the lift to ground level, tap your Oyster card, and you are on the outside of the station on Queensway and the corner of Bayswater road. Just remember – mind the gap!
The bus service in London is also extremely easy to use. All stops have maps of where the buses go, and the route planner online is great. The best thing about the bus is that you can do a spot of sightseeing while riding around, getting the front seat at the top of the bus is a treat for young and old. And the views are spectacular. If we are visiting with newcomers to London, we tend to use the bus as much as possible, just because it gives great vistas of London daily life. And some of the routes are like sightseeing buses for real, especially the number 15 bus passes some of the great sights in London from Trafalgar Square (Charing Cross station), via St. Paul’s cathedral to Tower of London. Tap your Oyster card by the driver when you enter the bus, and away you go. A top tip is to avoid riding buses on peak rush hour, it will take too long because of traffic, so the underground is quicker in the morning and afternoon.
Taxis or cabs
Taxis are a good option, but they have become quite expensive later years. The classic London black cab is still an institution, and to ride one for a first-time visitor is still a treat. Just make sure you ride one outside rush hours in the morning and afternoon, waiting in a traffic jam is expensive. One cool thing about the London cabbies (drivers) are that they have years of schooling before they get their licence to drive black cabs. The examination or “the knowledge” to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them. It will take between 3-5 years and thousands of miles on a scooter or motorbike to study all the streets, if you see a person on a scooter with maps attached to the handlebars driving around central London, it is most likely a cabbie training for the knowledge. So, when you step into a London cab, you step into a vehicle with a human GPS driving you to your destination.