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London Heathrow Airport (LHR)

Heathrow Airport (LHR) is one of the busiest airports in the world. It is the main airport for long-haul flights in and out of the UK and is often a stopover route to/from Europe. Being the busiest and largest, it has the best facilities of the airports in London, and is the only one with direct access to the London Underground, making it the cheapest airport to get to.

First flights are around 05:30 and last flights around 22:30 as there is a midnight curfew, so unless things are running really behind its unlikely you will land or leave in the middle of the night. However, for a flight around 6am you may have to either take a taxi in the early hours, or the last tube the night before and simply hang around till check in.

I rarely buy food at the airport (pack your own!) and there aren’t many good vegan options at Heathrow. M&S ready meals are a good bet and most you can even take on the plane.

Getting to and from Heathrow Airport:

By Tube:
London Underground is the cheapest option option for getting to and from Heathrow Airport. The Piccadilly line runs directly from Terminals 1-3, 4, 5 (3 separate stations) through Central London and up to North East London, and will cost you about £3-4 depending where you exit (Make sure you buy an Oyster Card first). It takes about 1hour to Piccadilly Circus, and trains run frequently from 05:00 ~ 23:30 Mon – Sat, and 06:00 – 22:30 Sun. In peak hour this could be a bit of a hassle for some, with packed trains and platforms should you need to change lines. But the line starts at Heathrow so you will have a seat, and you will probably need the tube to get to your final destination anyway.

By Heathrow Express:
This is the fastest, most comfortable, but more expensive, train service. Taking you between Paddington Station and Heathrow Terminals, trains run approx every 15min between 05:00 ~ 23:30 7days a week, and take just 15min non-stop. Paddington Station is on the Bakerloo, Hammersmith & City, Circle, and District lines so it is a great Tube interchange point. Tickets are £20 single or £34 return (valid 1 month). You can simply purchase at the station, or book online at heathrowexpress.com.

By Heathrow Connect:
This service lies somewhere between the above two options. Also between Heathrow and Paddington, taking approx. 28min and trains leaving every half-hour, 05:00 ~ 23:30, a one-way ticket will cost £9.50 (£19 return). Buy at the the station or heathrowconnect.com.

By Coach:
National Express Coaches run from Heathrow to various stops around London, approx 05:30 ~ 21:30, about £6 one way. A bus to Victoria Coach station will take around 45min if you’re lucky.

By Taxi:
Taxis are the most expensive option, but if you’re in a group or family or simply prefer taxi, it may be worth it. Try going through a mini cab agent, or taking a Black Cab to avoid any dodgy drivers. A fully metered ride in a Black Cab to Central London should cost around £60. A mini cab might be able to do it for around £35-40. Do NOT listen to touts who approach you about “cheap taxis”!

By Bus:
Unless you are staying somewhere near Heathrow, I would not recommend trying to use local bus directly from the airport.

London Luton Airport (LTN)

Luton Airport is home to Europe’s two biggest, budget airlines, Ryan Air and EasyJet, as well as some Thomson & Monarch. Budget airlines means budget facilities, very strict carry on and check-in restrictions (you even have to pay £1 for a bag for your liquids if you don’t have one).

There is no Tube access, but there is rail access once you get the bus to Luton Airport Parkway. You will need a ticked for the bus unless you already have an inclusive train ticket. From here, you can get a train towards Kings Cross St Pancras and change to the London Underground. Note, that if you are getting a train towards Luton, you cannot exit at Luton Airport Parkway with your Oyster Card, you must buy a separate rail ticket, so don’t use it to enter at your station, even if it has a reader!

There are various coach options between Luton and Central London, but not always convenient and often need to book ahead. If you are close to a pick-up point, try EasyBus, and if you can book in advance £2 tickets are possible (but rare). See all coach options here.

Typical or budget-airline bases ,Luton Airport is further out than others, making Taxis even less of an option. A black cab could be up to £70 and a mini-cab £50.

Barclays Cycle Hire (A.K.A. Boris Bikes)

Boris Bikes

The Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, or “Boris Bikes” (nicknamed after London Mayor Boris Johnson, who introduced the bikes) lets Londoners hire bicycles for short journeys.

Basically, you pay an “Access fee” which allows you to hire the bikes, and a “Usage Charge” which you pay on a per-journey basis, depending on how long you need the bike, up to 24hrs. You pay at the dock machine, which then gives you a code to release a bike, and then you park it again at another dock near your destination. You will be charged at the end of your access period, or when you hit £50, whatever comes first.

There are some 6000 bikes spread over 400 docking stations, almost all within Zones 1-2, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding an available bike or empty slot within central London. If you do, the machines and maps at the dock will tell you the closest available bike/space and you can even download an app for your smart phone. TFL monitors the traffic of bikes and redistributes them (via hybrid transport vehicles) to keep the spread even.

The bikes themselves are quite heavy and chunky, and although I have seen someone take it on a skate ramp, you probably don’t want to do any particularly long, hard or difficult journeys on these bikes. They are best used for short trips, and the first 30min use is FREE! If you are planning any more intense cycling you might be better off going to a specialised cycle hire company.

COST
Note, you will need a Credit or Debit card to pay at the machine or online.
For full cost and payment information visit TFL.

Member Access: Yearly Subscription £45, Quick Access Key £3
Casual User Access: 7days £5, 24hrs £1

Usage: <30min FREE, 1hr £1, 90min £4, 2hrs £6, 2.5hrs £10, 3hrs £15, 6hrs £35, 24hrs £50 Other Charges:
Late Return Charge (more than 24hrs or your Access period runs out) £150
Damage Charge, up to £300
Non-Return Charge £300

More information on the TFL Website.
Download a docking station map as a PDF.

London Underground

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London Underground. The Tube. The Metro. Trains. Whatever you want to call it, London’s Underground Train Network is both amazing and a nightmare, and what all Londoner’s love to hate.

London was the first city in the world to have an underground rail network, opening with 3 lines in 1863 to the 10+ lines and extensive network it runs today. Its age, however, is one of its downfalls, with small tunnels and platforms resulting in smaller trains and a lower passenger capacity.

At its best, the Tube is amazing. It covers London extensively, trains run every couple of minutes, the prepaid Oyster Card System makes fare payments quick and easy, and its relatively fast.

An Oyster Card is a prepaid card you can buy from, and charge/top up at, any Tube station (and some convenience shops). The card costs £3, and can also be used on Buses, the DLR, and River services. Simply tap in and out at each station and it will automatically deduct the correct amount from the balance on your card. Fare Prices run in Zones, with Zone 1 being the most expensive and covering Central London, and Zones 4+ being outer london. The cheapest Zone 1 single Tube ride is £1.90, Zones 1-2 peak hour £2.50, and there are daytime caps around £6-8. Check other Fares here. Without an Oyster Card, single cash tickets are £4! So buying an Oyster Card should be your first purchase in London! Pick up a Pocket Tube map at the same time.

At its worst however, the Tube is a horrible, horrible nightmare. Overcrowded trains, little-to-no ventilation, continuous disruptions to service with faulty trains & tracks, line closures, station closures, no service between midnight and 5am, all while prices increase year after year. Gross mismanagement has meant all the “engineering works”, “line upgrades” & “service plans” have run way past deadlines, and in cases even made things worse than what they were intended to fix. Oh, and don’t forget the staff strikes!

Actually the worst point of all, is that its potential is so great, yet it very rarely lives up to it. And yet, you cannot navigate London without it. So, even as a tourist, you will too will develop a love-hate relationship with the Tube.

Check the TFL website often to see what lines are down and plan your journey, particularly on weekends.

London Tour Buses

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There are 2 main Hop-On Hop-Off Tour Buses in London, Big Bus Tours and The Original Tour. They essentially offer the same thing: Unlimited trips on any of their Double-Decker Open Top Buses within a 24hr period; Stops at all the key tourist points in London; Live guides in English and pre-recorded guides in foreign languages; “Free” Thames River Cruise; Free walking tours; And vouchers for some of London’s attractions.

They are both very similar. Original Tour is older, and a little cheaper at £23 to Big Bus’ £27, but Big Bus Tours seems to have more frequent buses, and staff at almost every stop to give you information and updates on buses.

If you are in London only for a day, and want to cram in as much as possible, Big Bus Tours might be worth your while if you want the ease of the hop-on hop-off system and guides along the way. However I think you can do it just as easily using the Tube and walking, it will cost you less, and you don’t have to cram it into one day.

London Buses

London Aug 2011

Find Bus Routes here.
Oyster £1.30, Cash £2.20

The Big Red Bus. Possibly London’s most famous Icon. They have been updated over the years, but the modern double-decker red bus retains its roots, with the addition of electronic sign and audio updates to let you know where you are and where you are going. There are also “bendy-buses” on some routes.

Most bus stops have maps, and a list of destinations and bus numbers you can get from the area, so you can use them to check where you are, which stop you should be at, and which bus to catch. On busy streets, like Oxford street, there are many bus stops and bus routes, so each stand will only be for certain buses and you may have to walk to the next one.

Many bus routes run 24hrs, usually marked with an N (eg: N98), so you can get around at any time of the day, but still a lot of routes finish around midnight and you will have to find other ways to get home. Generally buses are every 10min or so, but bad traffic often causes delays, so never count on the journey taking the estimated time. It’s also very common that rather than buses being 10min apart, 2 will come within 30seconds of each other. The first being rammed with people and the 2nd empty. Then you have to wait 20min for another 2 to come at the same time. More TFL efficiency I guess.

All buses are fitted with Oyster Card readers, so just tap in when you get on the bus. You do NOT need to tap out, as bus fares are set prices. Just be sure to have your Oyster card topped up, or you will have to buy a £2.20 cash ticket (exact fare). Oyster cards have a daily price cap of £4 (buses only). If the Tube Stations are closed, look for a convenience shop to top up at.

You can still catch a ride on an original Routemaster Red Bus on one of two Heritage routes or occasionally on Rail Replacement services when the Tube is down. H9 (Heritage Route 9) goes between Kensington High Street & Trafalgar Square, while H15 is from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square. Standard bus rates apply and they have been fitted with Oyster Card readers.

London’s Bus drivers may be skilled, being able to drive these huge vehicles on London’s tiny roads, but they are notorious for being a**holes. They often get into arguments with passengers. So often I have seen drivers simply skip stops, even when the bus is not full. This is particularly bad when it happens at night and the next bus could be 30min away; They close the door on people and drive off; Are often completely unhelpful to passengers asking for information etc; I was once on a bus that intentionally drove off with a customer’s arm jammed outside the door. All because he wanted to know where the bus was going! I am sure they have to put up with a**holes themselves, but they really should offer better customer service.

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London Taxis

Black Cab

Taxis in London aren’t cheap. There is a minimum fare of £2.40 and even a short trip can cost £10. There are 2 main types of taxis in London, the famous Black Cabs (run by Transport for London) and Mini Cabs which are private cars run by various private companies.

Black Cabs:
The Hackney Carriage used for London’s Black Cabs is almost as iconic as the big red bus! They are the only official, traditional, fully metered taxis in London, and the only ones you can flag down on the street. Of course, you can also book them via phone or online, (see the TFL’s taxi page) but you will pay a £2 booking fee, and sometimes what it costs for it to get to you! They are fitted with GPS systems so its good to know the post code of your destination. A trip from Central London to Heathrow would cost you about £60.

Mini Cabs:
Mini Cabs are private cars managed by private companies. There are hundreds of them all over London, with offices on most high streets. You cannot flag one of these down on the street, you must book them over the phone or through their office and it is illegal for them to take passengers without a booking. Only use licensed mini cab companies and make sure you settle on a price before getting in the car. Nightclubs often have their own mini cab service, so if you are leaving late at night check with the staff before you exit, they probably have a booking agent outside. Do NOT take a mini cab from a driver that approaches you or isn’t connected to an official booking agent, there have been numerous stories about unlicensed drivers harassing and assaulting passengers.

You can use TFL’s Cabwise by texting “CAB” to 60835 and they’ll use GPS to text you your two nearest minicab numbers and one taxi (black cab) number. It costs 35p plus normal text rate but you will get reliable booking numbers.

Driving in Central London

If you drive into Central London between 07:00 ~ 18:00, Monday to Friday, you will have to pay the Congestion Charge. This is a fee meant to discourage drivers, thereby reducing traffic congestion and pollution in central London, (which I think is a great idea!). If you pay via auto pay it costs £9 per day(!). You can pay, check exemptions and read other information at TFL.

Nevertheless, there is still heavy traffic in Central London and driving somewhere will probably take you a lot longer than expected. Buses and Taxis share Bus Lanes to get around traffic but if your in a private vehicle forget about it. Parking is also expensive, and inspectors are everywhere. I have seen inspectors writing tickets at 10pm on a Saturday night and first thing on a Sunday morning, so never assume they won’t be around!

Riding a motorcycle however is not a bad idea. You can cut through heavy traffic, they are exempt from the congestion charge, and parking is cheaper (sometimes free). Just don’t leave it on the street in a bad area or it may be damaged, vandalised or stolen!