Checklist for a new city: how do you figure out how to live like a (temporary) local: Transportation
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
We’re only two cities into this journey, but we’re seeing some patterns begin to emerge. What, specifically, do you need to figure out to live like a local, for a limited time? We’ll explore other categories in the future, but the most important, for us, is figuring out transportation.
We’re traveling without a vehicle, so understanding public transportation and walking paths are paramount. In this blog, I’ll explore the details of transport in Lisbon and London. As we visit other cities, I'll update.
There are many options to navigate public transport (subways, trams, buses, and ferries). The trams, funiculars, and elevators were built beginning in the 1870’s. The original trams were pulled by horses, but were quickly adapted for electricity. They connected the lower part of the city with the hilltop neighborhoods such as Biarro Alto, Alfama, and Estrela. Subways (known as the Metro) were built in the early 1950s and feel quite modern. Buses started in 1944. In 2018 the buses were updated to be more fuel efficient, using natural gas, diesel and electricity.
Except for the Navegante card (see below), you can buy your cards at all subway stations from a machine. You must use a bank card, not a credit card, at these machines. Some machines take cash.
You can buy a tourist card (only good for 1, 2 or 3 days) which also includes museums. This was not a good option for us since were were staying two months. Price €6.40 for Lisbon only, €9.55 if you include light rail (to get to Sintra or Cascais, for example) or ferry to Cacilhas. (All Lisbon prices from January-March, 2022) These are good options for short-term visitors.
You can buy a Via Viagem card and just add money as you need it. The pass itself is less than a Euro, and one-way on the metro or bus is €1.50. Prices for funiculars, elevators, and trams are slightly different, and you can use your card or pay in cash on everything except the metro.
We decided to buy a monthly transport pass (Navegante), since we were staying two months, and are likely to return. This pass is primarily used by residents, and you are required to list a local address to get one. Getting the pass was kind of complicated, but to be useful, you need to get one right away. Information about this card can be found here.
Here are some tips about the monthly pass (Navegante):
a. You have to apply on one day and go back to pick it up on the following day (“urgent requisition”. (You can also apply and get it in the mail a week later, but for travelers this is less useful). We recommend you look up the application in advance; if you don't speak Portuguese, it probably makes sense to translate the questions (we used Google Translate) and figure out the answers before making the trip to apply for the card. We wished we had done this, as it took us a quite some time to complete the application. (see it here)
b. To get the card the following day, you have to apply at one of two metro stations: Marques de Pombal (Blue Line) and Campo Grande (Yellow Line) stations. There is a special office in those subways where you can get the application and take a number to submit it and pay for it. We had to ask at the information window where that office was located. You need to take your passport, and you need to get small photos made. At Pombal, there is a photo shop next to the office where you can get instant photos for a few Euros. You take a number to apply for the card, and when your number is called, you present your application, passport, and photo. Indicate on the application that you want the "urgent" option. The next day, you go to the same window to pick it up. We recommend avoiding lunch hour as the line can get very long (over an hour).
c. The Navegante is convenient to use – it works on all forms of transportation except some funiculars. We didn’t get the one that also includes the rail service outside Lisbon, because we knew were weren’t going to use that very often. So we had to buy tickets for the train to Sintra, Cascais, and the ferry to Cacilhas.
d. In January, 2022, when we bought the card, the card itself cost €12 each. A monthly pass for me (Lisbon only) was €30, for my husband, who is 65, €15. You pay more for Lisbon metro area €40 and €20, respectively). The card is good for four years, so if we go back to Lisbon during that time-frame, we can still use it. You have to top it each month.
e. The card runs from the 1st to the last day of the month. So we had to pay for a month to use it half of January and another month for half of March, and a month for February. Looking back, we would have spent less money if we had just used a regular top-off Via Viagem card, because we walked most of the time. But, we were happy to have the convenience of the pass.
In addition to figuring out how to pay for public transport, we quickly figured out main walking routes from our residence. In Lisbon, this is tricky because of the hills. Some routes are definitely easier on the legs than others. Google Maps doesn’t always know this – our second day, it sent us up very steep stairs when we learned we could have easily taken a gentler route. We also learned that Ubers are easy to get and – if you have 3 or more people - as cheap as public transportation (although of course not if you’ve already paid for a pass). The trams are extremely crowded during rush hour and on weekends.
Like Lisbon, London has a network of subway lines (called “Underground” or “Tube”), light rail and train lines that lead out of the city, and boats on the Thames. The subway lines are extensive, making it relatively easy to get anywhere in the city. The underground system dates back to 1863, when the world’s first underground railway was created, powered by steam. In 1890, electricity was brought in and by the early 20th century the system was fully electric. The underground stations served as bomb shelters during WWI and in 1940-41 during the Blitz in WWII. Today there are 272 stations on 12 lines (the new Elizabeth line, opening in May, 2022, is the 12th – the first to go across from east to west), and it is surprisingly easy to navigate. Some of the lines are fully wheelchair accessible, and all of the new Elizabeth line stops will be.
Understanding the pricing is more difficult here than in Lisbon. The metros are more expensive than the buses, and peak times are more expensive than off-peak. Here you can find options and fare calculation. A one-way ticket from our flat in Camden Town to Central London is £3.20 during peak and £2.60 off peak (all prices from March-April, 2022). There are daily and weekly caps. Daily cap for travel in Zones 1 & 2 is £7.70. Here is a travel cap calculator. Bus fare is £1.65 and caps daily at £4.95.
The Oyster card: You can buy an Oyster card to top off and pay as you go, but that isn’t any cheaper than contactless credit card or Google pay. The card itself costs £5. If you are a daily commuter, or plan to make extensive use of public transit, you can buy a 7-day card, monthly, or annual pass at big discounts. You can buy the Oyster card at machines located in the specified Tube stations. You can also set up an account online to buy and top up your card.
Contactless credit card, Google pay using your phone: Since the contactless credit card and Oyster card (pay as you go) are the same rates, we opted to use our contactless credit cards to swipe in and out. This offers the convenience of a card, and it cost-effective when you are not using transit daily. The daily cap helps keep the cost manageable. You don’t have to buy a card, you can just use the one you have. Note: a lot of U.S. credit cards are not "contactless" cards, and will not work. The contactless cards have this logo:
Buy a ticket: You can buy a paper ticket at machines in the Tube stations, but this is the most expensive fare. I would only recommend it if you are planning virtually no other use of public transit and don’t have a contactless card or Google pay.
Like Lisbon, London is a very walkable city. It is easy to navigate and there are many cafes and shops accessible to pedestrians. Unlike Lisbon, there are virtually no hills. Of course, London is very big, and the many parks and sights are a bit more spread out. Ubers are also everywhere in London, and for two people, not much higher than metro fare (depending on whether you’ve taken metro earlier in the day and thus it might be capped.) For 3 or more people, Uber is probably as cheap or cheaper than public transport. Bus fares are a lot cheaper than underground trains.
In the main, both Lisbon and London are much easier to navigate without a car than most cities in the midwestern U.S., where we’ve mostly lived. It is worth taking some time in the first few days of a slow-travel stay to figure out how to get around.
Commuter type cards
Pay as you go
Lisbon (prices from January-March, 2022)
Navagante cards: (apply once €12, top off in metro stations monthly €30/month adult, €15/month senior, physical card lasts several years, discount for 65+, can use on all forms of public transport except some funiculars; best per ride fare if you use it regularly. For Lisbon metro area, €40, €20 for senior
Via Viagem cards €1,35 one-way fare,(buy at metro stops, use on all public transport except some funiculars, add money as you need it)
Single fare tickets €1,50 one-way,(buy at metro stops, use on metros and buses; or, buy fare on buses & trams from driver, at higher cost)
Tourist cards (24 hr. €21, 48hr. €35, or 72 hr. €44, cards, includes museums and other tourist attractions plus subway, bus and tram; good if you are only in the city for a short time).
London (prices from March-April, 2022)
Oyster card £5 for card itself, with weekly, monthly, or annual rates; buy at specified tube stations or online; best per ride fare if you use it regularly. Weekly pass is £38.40. Special tourist Oyster available & has tourism discounts.
Oyster card with single fare rates; less money than weekly, monthly, or annual out of pocket but more money per ride £2.60-£3.20 Central London per ride. Buy at specified tube stations or online. Daily cap around £7.70 for Central London.
Buy paper tickets at tube stations and train stations £6.30. More expensive than any other fare per ride.
Use a contactless payment card or Google pay card. No need to buy anything you don't already have. Convenient, and same price as Oyster card top-off cards £2.60-£3.20. Daily cap around £7.70 for Central London. Bus fare £1.65, caps daily at £4.95.