Updated: 2 September 2019
Where to stay and how to get around
ACCOMMODATION ADVICE AND TRAVEL TIPS
Guidance on finding budget and mid-priced accommodation, plus advice on using all kinds of public transport in London, including recommended maps and apps.
WHERE TO STAY?
People who know me and are aware I’ve been traveling to London for many years, both for work and leisure, often ask me where I’d recommend them to stay when they’re planning a visit. However, it’s a difficult thing to do. It depends on the district they’re visiting, and for example whether they prefer to stay close to areas for shopping, entertainment, nightlife – or perhaps somewhere quieter.
In the past I’ve tended to stay in smaller, independent hotels – but these are often older buildings with standards that can vary enormously.
For many years I tended to avoid chains such as Premier Inn, but I have to say I’m now a convert! For a start, you can find them in most parts of London – and in some areas there are a number of them.
Whilst prices in Premier Inns can vary according to how busy they are, their location and the date, they generally offer a competitive price for a high standard. In other words, good value for money. My experience of Premier Inns in London is that their design is all very similar – some people may say that’s boring, but you do know exactly what you’re going to get for your money. No hidden surprises, which compared with some London hotels can be a great advantage.
Secondly, as a light sleeper I appreciate their marketing slogan “A good night’s sleep or your money back” – and my experience is that they have better soundproofing than most hotels, together with exceptionally comfortable beds. So I’ve never needed to take advantage of their guarantee! In addition, they offer extremely good value breakfasts.
An alternative to hotels are self-catering apartments. My personal favourite are those belonging to a small chain called Marlin. They currently have seven properties in London, though with the exception of a relatively new one in Waterloo, they tend to be situated more on the east side of the city.
I have stayed in several of their properties. As with Premier Inns, you generally know exactly what you’re going to get for your money. The design of each apartment is similar and to a high standard. They offer a range of studios and apartments, mostly in new or newly renovated large buildings. Like all accommodation providers, prices vary enormously depending on how busy they are, the date and location.
Airbnb and similar
I have stayed in several Airbnb’s in London and have generally not been disappointed (I check descriptions and reviews extremely carefully). However, having experienced them myself, I don’t feel they are always particularly suitable for London short stays. But I can readily see why some people love the concept, especially for longer stays.
Online hotel booking agencies
Like many people, I occasionally use the services of hotel booking agents, such as Booking.com, Lastminute.com and others. These offer a service to hotels as on their own smaller, independent hotels would sometimes find it difficult to attract customers.
This is because on internet search engines they find themselves many pages down on a list of hotels in London’, as these are dominated by the booking agencies.
But on the downside, they have to pay a hefty commission for the privilege of being listed by these often enormous, powerful international web booking companies. And of course the more powerful they are, the more hotels are forced to rely on them for business and the more they have to pay to be featured.
So, on the occasions I use them to see what might be available, I sometimes find a hotel with a price, location and reviews that I’m comfortable with and then do an internet search to find the hotels own phone number. I explain I’ve seen they might have availability and ask whether they will match or beat the price quoted by the web booking company. The strict terms they have to sign up to with these powerful booking agencies is often such that they can’t always offer a lower room rate – but they can, and often will, offer a complimentary breakfast, room upgrade or other benefit. If you book direct, then it can save them having to pay a commission that I believe these days can be as much as 25%.
As far as I’m concerned, London has the most wonderful public transportation service. Buses, the Underground (or ‘Tube’, as it’s widely known), Overground rail services, the ‘black’ hackney taxis and these days of course the ride-hailing apps of Uber, Ola and several others.
Transport for London (TfL) is the statutory body responsible for transport in London. Its operations are overseen by the Mayor or London. TfL have 25,000 employees and amongst other things have responsibility for the Underground and Overground rail services, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), buses, cycling schemes, licensing of taxis and private hire vehicles and the road network itself.
Together with the Department of Transport, TfL will also be responsible for the new Crossrail (Elizabeth line) network.
The Underground or Overground are usually the quickest way to get about, providing of course there’s a station within walking distance of where you are starting your journey and where you are heading for.
The London Underground network is split into nine zones. However few tourists generally venture outside of Zone 1 or 2. Indeed, I would say that most tourists spend the majority of their time within Zone 1, which covers most of central London.
For a current London Underground map showing the relevant zones, please click here.
How to pay for travel on the Underground
Tube fares are capped if you pay with an Oyster, debit or credit card (see below for more about these methods). For travel within Zones 1–4 the maximum daily cost of travel is just over £10 – no matter how many times you travel within the day.
For one-off Tube journeys – if you’re not planning on making many Tube journeys whilst in London, you can still purchase a single or return ticket. Fares depend on the distance between the station you are starting from and your destination. They can be purchased from tickets machines at Tube stations.
However, if you think you’ll be making several journeys, then it’s cheaper to buy a One-Day Travelcard or an Oyster card or use a contactless debit or credit card.
One Day Travelcards
With a TfL (Transport for London) Travelcard you can travel as much as you like and as often as you like on buses, the Tube, DLR, Overground, and most local rail services within the zones you have paid for. You can purchase them through the ticket machines at Tube stations and most mainline rail stations and currently cost £13.10 per person (2019). These allow you unlimited travel on Tube, buses and DLR on the day you buy it.
Since they were introduced in 2003, Oyster cards have been the way that Londoners, and visitors, have paid for their travel on buses and the Underground. These can be purchased at any Tube station via the ticket machine. You can decide how much credit to put on the card and top up anytime thereafter. There is a charge of £3 for the card – and at the end of your stay this can be refunded to you at most stations; ask a member of staff for details.
More recent upgrades to the Oyster system mean that you can now use a debit or credit card (provided they are contactless) to tap in and out at stations and getting on buses.
Remember to tap. With an Oyster or contactless card, simply tap the card on the yellow reader on the top of the ticket gate.
How to pay for a bus journey
You cannot purchase a ticket for a bus on board. You will need to have either an Oyster card, contactless debit or credit card or travelcard.
Fares are standardised at £1.50 per journey, though you can get on unlimited buses within one hour without paying any more. Bus fares are capped at £4.50 a day, regardless of how many journeys you make within that time.
If you don’t want to use an Oyster card or credit/debit card, then you can purchase a daily unlimited bus travel pass for £5. These are available at many newsagents, kiosks, etc.
However, you can also use a One Day Travelcard (see above) – they are valid for buses as well.
Senior citizens and bus passes
Many people over the age of 60 will have a bus pass, entitling them to free travel on buses in England. Whilst these are valid on London buses, you will need to show the card to the driver when you board, as you cannot use them on the ‘touch’ system.
Unless you are permanently resident in London, they are not valid on the Tube or Overground networks, so you will need to either purchase an Oyster card or use your debit or credit card when you enter a station at the start of your journey and leave again at the end.
DOCKLANDS LIGHT RAILWAY
The DLR is run separately from the Tube and Overground rail systems. But as with both of these, you will need to use either an Oyster card or a debit or credit card to touch in at the beginning and end of your journey.
However, be warned – whilst at most Tube stations you cannot enter or leave without passing through electronic gates that will only open by touching in or out with the relevant card, this is not the case with the DLR. In most cases you don’t pass through gates – instead you have to remember to look out for the touch machines that are situated in various places at station entrances and exits at both ends of your journey. Ticket inspectors make regular checks on passengers, both on the trains themselves as well as at station exits. Those who haven’t touched in and out will receive penalty fines.
I find the Thames Clippers river bus services a great way to get around, providing of course your start point and destination are somewhere near to the river.
It’s a great way to travel up or down the Thames and is popular with commuters and tourists alike. The boats are comfortable, very fast and there’s plenty of seating, but you can’t reserve them – it’s first come, first served. There’s a small café on board offering coffees, teas as well as wine and beer, and simple snacks. However, there’s no running commentary as to what you see – you need a sightseeing cruise if that’s what you want.
All in all I think they’re a great experience. It’s certainly a fascinating way to see London from the river – as indeed are the many sightseeing cruises that are available.
You can buy tickets at some of the piers or on board. If you pay with an Oyster card or contactless debit or credit card you get one third off the fares
Services operate stop at many key points on the Thames – Westminster, London Eye, Blackfriars, London Bridge, Tower of London, Canary Wharf, Greenwich, etc.
For more information, including route maps, timetables and fares, click here.
In addition, you can find details of various river cruises on the Transport for London website.
Previously known as ‘Boris bikes’, they were introduced when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London and were originally sponsored by Barclays Bank. They have over 11,000 cycles for hire at around 750 docking stations across London. Rides cost from £2 – that is the access fee – for a ride of 30 minutes or less you pay no more; then for every extra 30 minutes you pay an additional £2. You can return the bike to any of the 750 docking stations, provided of course they have space; the app will show you which ones nearby have spaces.
You can either download the app beforehand or simply just turn up at a docking station and use your contactless bank card to release a bike and set off.
You can find more information by clicking here.
EMIRATES AIR LINE
This cable car over the Thames takes you from the Royal Docks to Greenwich Peninsula. This was one of the controversial travel innovations, along with the ‘Boris bikes’ that were introduced by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London.
Single journeys cost £4.50, but if purchased with an Oyster or contactless debit or credit card then its £3.70. You can buy tickets online or at the actual terminals at both Greenwich Peninsula or Royal Docks.
Kids: Free or half price
COMING TO LONDON WITH CHILDREN
Under 16s are eligible for free or discounted travel, depending on their age.
Children under 11 travel free on buses, the Underground, Overground and DLR when using an Oyster card or Travelcard and accompanied by an adult. (Maximum of four children per adult).
For children between 11 and 15 years old you should buy a Visitor Oyster card when you arrive in London – they are available at most Tube stations – and ask for a Young Visitor discount to be added to the card.
MAPS AND APPS TO HELP YOU GET AROUND
Having a map of the Tube on your phone or other device that can point you to the nearest station, give details of delays and a whole host of other services is extremely helpful.
Citymapper is used by many Londoners use to get around. You can tell it where you want to go and from where – and it will give you suggested routes, times, etc. – by Tube or bus, Uber, or even by bike. It will also factor in real-time delays on the recommended routes.
Another useful app to use when travelling on the Underground is the Mapway Tube App.
The London bus network is incredibly extensive and reasonably priced, but, thanks to the London traffic, it is generally a slower way to get around. However, you do get to see more, particularly if it’s a double-decker and you are upstairs. Remember that you cannot buy a ticket for a bus when you board – you have to use an Oyster card, a pre-purchased Travel Card or use a ‘touch’ debit or credit card.
UK Bus Checker
My favourite, very useful app when you are in London and using buses is UK Bus Checker. There used to be two versions – a London Bus Checker and a UK Bus Checker – but now the UK version covers London as well as most of the rest of the UK. Available for both IOS and Android devices, it is free.
OTHER WAYS OF GETTING ABOUT
The London black hackney cabs are of course one of the city’s unique ways of getting about. In my experience. No other city in the world offers a safer, more reliable way to get about.
Hackney cab drivers will have passed the unbelievably strict Knowledge test, meaning they will know virtually every major street (and often minor ones), most hotels, tourist sights – and the short cuts to get there, without using a satnav.
London hackney cabs have suffered of late from the increased competition from Uber, Ola and other private hire ride-hailing services, but they have fought back and there are now several black cab apps – including Gett.
Uber and similar ride-hailing apps may be a little cheaper, particularly at certain times of the day, but the drivers will often have little idea of the geography of London and will have to constantly rely on their satnavs – which sometimes don’t show them the quickest route, especially in busy traffic. Their drivers won’t have had to have passed the stringent vetting and other tests that the black cab drivers have to. Having said that, registering for Uber and having their app on your phone can be extremely useful at times.
Please note – I try to keep the information about accommodation and travel around London as up to date as I can, but obviously things can change at short notice, so I recommend you check with the appropriate website if you need the latest information.