Learn everything you need to know about trains, buses, metros, and more with our guide to public transport in the UK.
Getting your head around the public transport system in a new country can be challenging. Whether you’re catching the bus to work or taking the train for a weekend away with your family, it’s a good idea to know exactly what to expect when you take public transport in the UK.
To help ensure you have everything you need to know, our guide to UK public transport includes the following information:
- Introduction to public transport in the UK
- Taking the bus in the UK
- Coach travel in the UK
- Traveling by metro in the UK
- Train travel in the UK
- Traveling by tram in the UK
- Airports in the UK
- Taking a taxi in the UK
- Useful resources
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Introduction to public transport in the UK
If you’re a new arrival to the UK, you’ll soon discover that one of the British public’s favorite pastimes is complaining about the country’s public transport. But are all those complaints justified? Well, like many of the UK’s public services, that largely depends on where you live. In large cities, public transport networks are well-developed and cost-effective. However, in smaller towns and cities, the service can be temperamental at best.
For longer journeys, the train network is relatively accessible and, despite what the locals will tell you, fairly efficient. It can, however, be very expensive, so take advantage of any travelcard discounts or special offers when you can. Payment systems vary throughout the country, from cash to contactless mobile phone payments. Disabled travelers are generally well-catered for, but in more rural areas you may need to phone ahead to ensure your journey runs smoothly.
Taking the bus in the UK
Whether you’re in central London or a rural Welsh village, the local bus is the most likely form of public transport you’ll come across in the UK. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the bus is the most popular form of public transport. That said, the quality, cost, and efficiency of bus travel can vary wildly across the country.
In some cities, including London and Reading, for instance, the bus network is operated as a ‘not-for-profit’ by the local government. This helps to keep fares relatively low and services of good quality. In other areas, however, routes are run by private companies; resulting in a significant increase in bus fares in certain parts of the country, particularly rural areas. Despite this, for many UK residents, the bus remains the most accessible mode of public transport.
Top tips for bus travel in the UK
If you’re planning to travel by bus in the UK, here are some things you should know:
- An increasing number of buses in larger towns and cities accept contactless payment on-board. In some areas, such as London, you are only able to pay using either your contactless credit/debit card or a local transport card, such as London’s Oyster card.
- In more rural areas, contactless payment may not be possible. However, there may be a ticket machine at the bus stop/station. Alternatively, take cash to avoid disappointment or check with your local operator ahead of time.
- You do not need to check out when you exit a bus in London. However, outside the capital you may need to, so check what your fellow passengers are doing when leaving the bus.
- Discounts are usually available for those aged under 18, full-time students, and old-age pensioners.
- Free Wi-Fi is available on some bus routes.
- Be careful not to miss the last bus home! Check timetables ahead of time as some buses, particularly outside urban areas, often stop running in the early evening.
Coach travel in the UK
While buses run on local routes, coach travel in the United Kingdom operates on an intercity network that connects the country’s largest towns and cities. At your local bus station, you’ll be able to buy tickets and plan your journey. Alternatively, you can check online. There are several regional and national coach companies, although National Express and Megabus operate the largest number of nationwide routes.
Coach travel is often significantly cheaper than train travel when it comes to traveling across the country. This makes it a good option for those traveling on a budget, as most large towns and cities have direct coach connections to London. International coach routes also operate from London’s Victoria coach station. These are also often cheaper than plane or train tickets, and direct routes go as far afield as Bucharest in Romania. Just remember to bring your passport!
Top tips for coach travel in the UK
Before booking your coach trip, check out this advice:
- Coach travel in the UK isn’t the quickest mode of transport. For example, London to Edinburgh takes over 11 hours on a coach, compared to 4.5 hours on a train. Make sure you pack enough snacks and drinks for the journey.
- You can make significant savings by traveling by coach. For instance, when booked in advance, London–Edinburgh train tickets can cost up to five times more than coach tickets.
- Coach operators also offer special offers on their ticket sales, so be sure to shop around to find a bargain.
- Free Wi-Fi is available on some coaches.
- Coaches will make comfort stops at service stations during the journey. Here, you’ll be able to use the toilets, buy refreshments, and stretch your legs. The driver will inform you of the departure time before you exit the coach, so be sure to listen and don’t get left behind.
Traveling by metro in the UK
If you’re living and working in London, it’s highly likely that the Tube is a part of your everyday commute. Operated by the Mayor of London via Transport for London (TfL), it is an iconic part of London life. Fares are determined by ‘zones’ and you can either buy tickets at stations, use your Oyster card, or pay with your contactless debit/credit card. Since 2016, 24-hour night tube services have been operating on certain lines at weekends.
However, London isn’t the only UK city with a metro system. Newcastle, Glasgow, and Liverpool all have underground networks. Fares and timetables vary between cities, but these metro routes offer a quick and efficient alternative to the local bus and train network for commuters and residents in these areas.
Top tips for metro travel in the UK
Before going underground, read these top tips:
- The London underground can get exceptionally busy during rush hour. Travel outside peak times if you can. Not only will your journey be calmer, but you will also avoid paying peak fares.
- When traveling around London, you’ll often find it’s quicker and easier to simply walk between some underground stations than take the tube. TfL has published a series of tube maps that highlight walking distances between tube stations.
- Arriving at London Heathrow airport? Traveling by tube is the cheapest way to get into central London.
Train travel in the UK
The UK has a rich and proud history when it comes to train travel. This can be seen at the country’s impressive train stations, including London St Pancras International, Bristol Temple Meads, and Huddersfield. Generally, trains in the UK are clean, easy-to-understand, and relatively efficient. The UK train network is split into different smaller franchises, which then have their own operators. This is confusing for both locals and visitors alike and causes significant regional disparities in levels of service, cleanliness, and price.
Unfortunately, train travel in the UK is fairly expensive, especially when you buy tickets on the day of travel. Prices do vary between operator, however, there is usually only one operator on each route which limits your scope of saving money this way. You can limit the expense by buying tickets ahead of time. But ensure you get on the right train for your ticket to avoid any unexpected charges by not having the correct ticket. For information on services and to buy tickets, visit the UK’s train passenger online service, National Rail.
There are just three international train stations in Great Britain: London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet, and Ashford. From these stations, you can catch Eurostar services to several European destinations, including Paris and Brussels. Despite its name, international trains are not available from Stratford International in east London. On the island of Ireland, trains cross the border between Newry (in the North) and Dundalk (in the Republic).
Top tips for UK train travel
Before you board, check out these top train tips:
- There are various ticket options for UK trains. ‘Anytime’ tickets can be used at all times, but ‘off-peak’ and ‘super off-peak’ are only valid at off-peak times. Ask the station staff if you are unsure whether you can travel as you can be fined if you board the wrong train!
- Take advantage of the railcards on offer from National Rail. These can save you a lot of money on train tickets and are available to everyone.
- Generally speaking, always buy a ticket before you board the train, whether at the station or online at your local train operator’s website, such as Chiltern Railways or LNER. However, on some more rural routes, you may be able to buy tickets from a conductor on board. You will likely be required to show your ticket during your journey.
- Some trains offer free Wi-Fi.
- Many larger cities have several main train stations. London alone has 14 terminus stations, so make sure you know which station you should be using ahead of time.
- If your train is canceled or delayed, you are eligible for a refund. Simply visit the ticket office at the station and enquire about claiming your money back.
Traveling by tram in the UK
If the local train or bus isn’t enough for you, you can always hop on the tram instead. Several cities across the UK have tram systems, which see light trams run along tracks on both public roads and segregated routes. Generally speaking, UK cities either have a metro system or a tram system – only London has both.
On some tram networks, such as Manchester’s, you can use your contactless payment card on-board. However, in other cities like Edinburgh, you will need to buy a ticket from a ticket machine prior to boarding. On the whole, UK trams are surprisingly clean, modern, and affordable. They also often provide excellent views of the city.
Top tips for UK tram travel
Get up to speed with UK trams with these top tips:
- Some tram networks operating a zone system for their ticket pricing. Be sure to have the right ticket before boarding unless you can pay via contactless debit/credit card.
- Some trams offer free Wi-Fi for passengers.
- Be careful when walking along tram routes in city centers. Trams can be surprisingly quiet so keep your wits about you.
Airports in the UK
Arriving in the UK by air is fairly straightforward. There are a number of international airports located across the country. There are also many domestic airports that provide essential routes for local residents; particularly those serving the UK’s many island communities. London Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport, followed by London Gatwick and Manchester.
Airports in the UK are generally well-maintained and have a range of shops, restaurants, and bars while you wait for your flight. All are connected to their cities by public transport, whether by tram, train, coach, or local bus. London is served by six airports, but only London Heathrow and London City are on the tube network. You can reach the others by train and coach.
Top tips for traveling through UK airports
Flying somewhere? Read our top tips for UK airports:
- Leave plenty of time to get to the airport. This is especially the case in London when delays are commonplace on the routes leading out of the city center.
- You’ll need your passport to travel abroad, even to other European countries.
- Most of the larger international airports offer lounges that offer refreshments and changing facilities. Get in touch with your chosen airport to inquire about lounge options.
- All London airports can be accessed using the railway. These services, including Stansted Express and Gatwick Express, are often quicker and more convenient. Coach services into the capital are also available and can work out cheaper; particularly if you book ahead of time. However, these services often take longer.
Taking a taxi in the UK
When it comes to UK transport, for many expats the sight of black cabs on London’s streets will be a timely reminder that they’ve arrived in their new home. Black cabs are commonplace in central London, and taxi drivers are famously knowledgeable about the capital’s routes and neighborhoods. Outside central London, all towns and cities in the UK have their own taxi services should you need one.
Most large towns and cities will have taxi ranks where you can find a cab. These are often located near train/bus stations or in central areas. Alternatively, you’ll be able to book a taxi with a local company ahead of time in most towns, cities, and villages. All taxis in the UK – both black cabs in cities and local minicab firms – are licensed. You should never get into an unlicensed taxi.
Top tips for traveling by taxi in the UK
Going by taxi? Don’t hail before you read these top tips:
- You can only hail black cabs in the street. All other taxis can be taken from designated taxi ranks or by calling your local taxi service and booking a minicab ahead of time.
- Black cabs run on a meter so you’ll be able to see the total cost throughout the duration of your journey.
- You can pre-book taxis to airports ahead of time, although be prepared to pay significantly more than you would on public transport routes.
- Feel free to tip your taxi driver should you wish, but most locals will simply round it up to the nearest pound.