Navigating the Metropolis: SCL’s Guide to Public Transport in London

Navigating the Metropolis: SCL’s Guide to Public Transport in London

Categories: Camden, Excursions, Kentish Town, London Living


Picture this: you wake up on your first morning in the UK, wide-eyed and excited about your adventure in London. The city's energy hums around you, double-decker buses dance through the streets and an indescribable energy pulses from everywhere you go.

But a small voice might whisper, “How will I ever get around?”

Fear not! It’s easier than you think.

Public transport in London is an intricate network of buses, trains, and underground trains (known as the Tube) that seamlessly connects every corner of the metropolis. With a little planning and knowledge from our article today, you'll be getting around the city like a seasoned Londoner.

We’ve split this article into two halves: first unveiling the nuances of how to travel around the city, and then covering payment options for London transport.

Popular Public Transport Options For International Visitors

Let's start with the basic transport options to help you get the lay of the land.

Underground (Tube): The Tube is the iconic symbol of London's public transport system. It's fast, efficient, and connects most parts of the city. Use the Tube to reach iconic landmarks and attractions.

Overground Trains: Overground trains run on the surface and offer a scenic alternative to the Tube. They connect suburban areas to central London and provide access to a wider network of destinations.

Buses: London's bus network is extensive and covers almost every corner of the city. Buses offer flexibility and allow you to see the city's streets up close, but be aware that this is the slowest way of travelling within the city.

Important Notice: The Kentish Town Underground Station will be closed for upgrades until summer 2024. During this period, SCL Kentish Town students are advised to use Chalk Farm Station (15-minute walk) or Camden Road Station (17-minute walk) as alternative access points to the Northern Line and Central London destinations.

Navigating London Zones with Ease

London is divided into nine Travel Zones, with Zone 1 encompassing the central areas and the further zones expanding outwards. Your journey's fare depends on the zones you travel through.

Think of it like unlocking different chapters of London's adventure:

  • Zone 1: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square – all the iconic sights you know and love are nestled in this central hub, making it the perfect base for exploring.
  • Zones 2-6: As you move outwards, you'll discover hidden gems like Camden Town's vibrant markets, Notting Hill's charming streets, and the trendy bars of Shoreditch. Each zone offers a unique flavour, waiting to be savoured.
  • Zones 7-9: Venture even further and explore the Greenwich Observatory, Hampton Court Palace, or Windsor Castle. These outer zones offer a glimpse into London's historical and natural beauty.

Tip: Remember, Londoners are generally friendly and helpful. Don't hesitate to ask for directions if you're feeling lost. And finally, keep in mind that walking is always a great option. You'll discover hidden gems and soak in the city's unique atmosphere at street level. Plus, just imagine all the pics you’ll take for the ‘Gram!

Student in tube covent garden

If you call one of our SCL International College campuses your home, below is a quick travel guide for you.

North Acton Campus: Located in Zone 3, you're within easy reach of central London's excitement, just a few Tube stops away from the buzz of Zone 1.

Camden Town Campus: This vibrant hub thrives in Zone 2, putting you right at the heart of London's alternative scene and quirky charm.
Kentish Town Campus: Immerse yourself in the local life of Zone 2, with easy access to Camden's lively markets and Hampstead Heath's peaceful green haven.

Hanger Lane Campus: Opening in Summer 2024, this brand new campus is nestled in Zone 3 like North Acton, offering convenient access to central London and beyond. Get ready for stunning views, modern facilities, and a vibrant student community in this exciting new chapter of the SCL International College story.


Travel like a Londoner: Understanding the Basics

Now that you know how to find your way around without getting lost, in this second half of today's article, we’ll explain how to pay your way around the city,

For most everyday purchases, you can use contactless payment methods.

  • Swiping your bank card is the quickest and most widely accepted method. However, if you're using a card from your home country, be mindful of potential international fees and less-than-ideal currency exchange rates. While you can use contactless cards on some buses and stations, it's important to note that every time you tap your card on a London bus, Tube, or at a shop, you're making an international transaction. This triggers the exchange fee, which is usually calculated at the daily exchange rate set by your bank or network.
  • Alternatively, Google Pay and Apple Pay offer the same convenience, linked to your existing smartphone, so you can leave the wallet behind and explore with one less thing to juggle. Just be sure to check those currency rates and fees!
  • You can open a UK bank account as a foreigner in England, but this can take some time and extra paperwork, so it's only worth doing if you plan to stay in Great Britain for several months or more.
  • If you're staying in London for longer than a few days, then we suggest you consider using services like Revolut or Wise, which offer local currency accounts and contactless compatibility. These work just like an Oyster card for public transport and shops, saving you frustration and fees.

Oyster Card 101: Your Gateway to London's Public Transport

The Oyster Card is a little plastic card, about the size of your bank card, that becomes your magic key to London's transport kingdom. It's like your personal bank for travel, all topped up with money ready for paying your way on buses, tubes, trains, even those cool overground trams. You just tap it on the yellow card readers at stations or even on the bus itself, and voila, you're in!

Important Tip: Please be aware that the Oyster card covers extensive areas within London, but it won't be valid for journeys outside the city's boundaries. If you're planning day trips to Oxford, Brighton, or other destinations beyond London, you'll need paper tickets specific to the chosen train or coach service.


Five ways to purchase and top up your Oyster Card

  1. Ticket Machines: Have you noticed those machines with yellow readers at the stations? They're your Oyster card vending pals! Just follow the simple steps, choose how much travel money you want to add, and pay with your bank card or cash.
  2. Online Top-Up: If you prefer obtaining your Oyster Card online, head to the Transport for London website or download their handy app. You can register your Oyster card, add more travel money anytime, even check your travel history.
  3. Oyster Ticket Stops: These friendly shops scattered around the city are happy to sell you an Oyster card and top it up for you. Just look for the "Oyster" sign and let them know you're a newbie – they'll be happy to guide you through the process.
  4. National Rail Stations: Some train stations sell Oyster cards, but not all. Check before you go.
  5. TFL Visitor Centre Kings Cross, St. Pancras: If you prefer a personal touch from London travel experts, head to the TFL Visitor Centre, where helpful staff stand ready to answer all your Oyster Card queries, from buying a new card to topping it up.

All You Need To Know About Paper Tickets

Paper tickets might be suitable for specific routes and offer a straightforward option for a single or return journey. And they are necessary for your train journeys outside London because your Oyster card won’t work beyond the city limits.

You can purchase paper tickets at the machines at the tube stations, ticket offices or national railway offices - check before you travel.

Situations where paper tickets might be needed include:

Arriving at the Airport: Depending on your arrival airport and chosen transportation method, you might need a paper ticket for your initial journey into London. For example, Heathrow Express only uses paper tickets, while the Elizabeth tube line accepts both Oyster and paper tickets.

Travelling beyond London: Trips to Oxford, Brighton, and other non-London spots require specific paper tickets for your chosen train or coach journeys.

Very Short Stays: If you're only in London for a day or two and plan on taking very few journeys, individual paper tickets might be a viable option. However, even for a couple of rides, carefully compare the cost of separate tickets against the daily capping benefit of an Oyster card.

Tip: Remember, in almost all cases within London itself, the Oyster card offers unbeatable convenience and cost-effectiveness. However, these specific scenarios are worth keeping in mind to ensure you have the right ticket for your journey.


London Day Trip Ideas

Get your backpack ready and explore Brighton, a beautiful seaside town located less than an hour away from London. The easiest way to travel to Brighton is from London Victoria Station, and while you can't zipline to Brighton, you can when you're there!

Do you fancy punting on the River Cam, like a true Cambridge student? Or losing yourself in a magical maze of cobbled streets and hidden courtyards? Soak up the magical atmosphere of this historic city, where every corner seems to hold a secret story. Getting there from London is a breeze – trains run from King's Cross Station in about 45 minutes, so you can be punting down the Cam before you know it!

Tap into Adventure with Day Travelcards

Planning a full day of exploration? Day Travelcards are prepaid paper tickets which grant unlimited travel within specific zones for 24 hours. You can choose from various zone combinations to match your itinerary, making them ideal for sightseeing sprees.

Why Choose a Day Travelcard?

  • Short-term value: Day Travelcards offer daily price capping, meaning you pay a maximum amount no matter how many journeys you make within your chosen zones. This is a lifesaver for hop-on-hop-off explorers.
  • Stress-free: No need to navigate the complexities of fares or worry about running out of tickets. Relax, tap your card, and enjoy the ride!
  • Day Travelcard vs. Oyster Card with Daily Capping: Both offer daily fee capping, but the Oyster card allows you to top-up as needed, making it ideal for longer stays. Day travel cards are perfect for short bursts of exploration.

Unlocking the Power of Group Travelcards: Explore London with Friends

Are you travelling to London with friends or family? Look beyond individual Day Travelcards and discover the magic of Group Travelcards. These special tickets offer incredible value and convenience for groups of 10 or more, letting you navigate the city's transport network together and save as you go.

Travel Tip: Don’t forget to keep our curated SCL Explorer Map handy so you can discover hidden gems and find the most Instagram-worthy spots during your study trip in London.

Getting Around London: Travel Tips and Hacks

In summary, here are our top tips for making your way throughout London like a pro:

Plan Your Journeys: Use the Transport for London (TFL) website or the fantastic Citymapper app to plan your journeys, check travel times, and find the most convenient routes.

Embrace Off-Peak Travel: Travelling during off-peak hours (such as early mornings, midday or late evenings) can significantly reduce travel times and avoid crowds.

Travel Smart: Avoid peak travel times (7-9 am and 4-6 pm) to minimise congestion and delays.

Be Mindful of Your Surroundings: Keep your belongings secure and be alert for potential pickpockets, especially in crowded areas.

Benefit from Daily Caps: London's public transport operates on a "daily cap" system. This means that no matter how many journeys you make within a specific zone combination (think of zones as city circles), you won't pay more than a set amount per day.

Have Fun and Explore: Public transport is a great way to immerse yourself in London's culture and connect with locals.

Embrace London and Learn English with SCL International College

We hope you enjoyed our simplified guide for visitors from around the world. To get all the details on all other travel card options, feel free to check out the Transport for London website.

And in case you want to feel more comfortable navigating London markets or ordering a cup of tea like a pro, we encourage you to learn more about our English language programmes. These programmes are designed to help you gain confidence, connect with locals and experience the city through a new lens.

Our English learners can join free walking tours, led by Gen, a passionate Londoner who knows the city’s hidden gems and captivating stories.

For any other questions, get in touch with our SCL representatives via our contact page or email at


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