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In London there are two types of licensed "vehicle hire with driver" transportation services that the public can legally & safely hire...
Hackney Carriages are Taxis. They are also called 'London Black Cabs' and can be hailed from the street or taken from the rank at Heathrow. In London only Black Cabs can use the word "Taxi" so look for the luminated orange/yellow taxi light on the front of the cab to hail one. All Taxis in London are licensed by Transport for London.
'Minicabs', Limousine Hire, Chauffeur Hire and Airport Transfer Car Services are called Private Hire. All non-hackney licensed car & driver services, including Stretch Limo's, must be licensed in the UK. In London they are licensed by Transport for London. (Many services do not use or like the term "minicab").
Any private car & driver services offered on the street or inside the airport in the UK are illegal - use the licence checker below this article to find if your preferred company if licensed. Advice is... No license number, don't book that service and don't take that ride!
Nowadays London taxis come in a varitey of colours (although the majority are still black). There are also several models of London taxis; all take a maximum of 5 passengers, but two of the models can take 6 passengers. There is of course no difference in the price whether there is one of you or six. If you want to know more about the vehicles there are a number of videos on video sharing sites you can look for using the "london taxis" search term.
The drivers who ply the popular tourist routes can be some of the most knowledgeable and interesting people you will ever come across. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions about London as most are only too happy to talk about the local area with you. They have to study a an area within a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross Station, & and at the end of that study they have to learn all the major routes upto 12 miles. They learn an immense amount of knowledge during their study period, but don't expect them to know all 70,000 streets, and every "point" of interest of the hundreds of thousands within the greater London area.
Unlike many countries that have deregulated their taxi industries here in London a career driving a taxi is actually a REAL career choice! Stand on any street in central London and within 30 seconds (ok, that is a bit of a stretch!) you will see someone driving past on a scooter with a huge map on their handle bars as they drive around trying to prepare themselves for their knowledge test. This preparation can take years before the aspiring taxi driver has "the knowledge" required to become a certified taxi driver.
If you want to travel some distance, this can obviously add up, so a tip is to approach a taxi on one of their numerous ranks, and ask for a fixed price. Sometimes you may be lucky & get a driver who lives in that direction and will therefore do you a good deal. If you’ve got a group together going a short distance, it may end up being cheaper (as well as faster, and more pleasant) than taking the Tube . Much like in the USA, cab fares are metered and you can hail a Black Cab from anywhere (except while standing by white zig-zag road markings)
Tipping Your Driver: It is always appreciated, but is not mandatory. If you do want to tip and are wondering about an average amount, then a good number is 10%, however, most Londoners just round up the amount to the nearest pound. Obviously if you get an exceptional driver, such as one who cannot do enough for you, then you may want to give more. Payment in cash is normal (drivers carry change) but there is an increasing number that will accept the major credit and debit cards and may charge an additional fee for doing so.
The way to tell that a cab is free is to look at its taxi light above the windscreen. If it's turned on (it will be glowing yellow) then you can hail these taxis from the side of the street. Make yourself very obvious if you want to hail a taxi, as in the day there is a lot of traffic & pedestrians for drivers to be aware of, & at night the lower light makes spotting a raised hand that bit more difficult. Also try to stand in a place that is safe not only for you to get in, but also for the driver to stop. One other little tip is not to try and hail a taxi by a bus stop - if a hand goes up at a bus stop, then the driver will not know if it's for them or a bus.
Drivers must, unless they have good cause, accept any hiring up to 12 miles (20 miles if starting at Heathrow Airport), or up to one hour duration, if the destination is in Greater London. This accepting is only mandatory if the driver has stopped for your hail, but it is not mandatory for them to stop. If they refuse to take you once they have stopped, it's within your rights to report them to the Public Carriage Office.
"Why are there taxis driving around with their hire light off, but no passengers on board?" well there are many reasons this could be...
Ordering a London Taxi rather than hailing one
For many years there has also been several London Taxi radio circuits that you could book a taxi from, but nowadays technology has increased the variety of ways you can do this. You can not only book them via a few websites, but there are an increasing number of phone apps such as GetTaxi and Hailo. Within most of these methods there is the option to get fixed fares for airports & other long distant jobs that could otherwise be higher if traffic is bad.
Here are some helpful numbers from Transport for London in the links below this article for pre-ordering a London Black Taxi from the biggest providers. (Pre-booking a Black Cab through a company sometimes has an added fee).
Minicabs are normal cars which have been licensed by the Public Carriage Office so that they can be made available for hire. They can only be booked through a licensed Private Hire Operator, and not on the street. A Google search will bring up about 12 million websites for licensed companies in London - make sure they display their license number on their website, that they have a telephone number (starting 020 for London) and that you have an address, just in case anything goes wrong.
Anybody working as a private hire driver in London should have a full Public Carriage Office Driver Licence and a Fully Licensed vehicle - which can easily be checked by the round license plate in the front and rear windows. If the driver is not wearing his badge, he is not licensed to carry you. There are around 40,000 private hire drivers in London and 22,000 taxis; but only Black Cabs are allowed to pick people up off the streets, minicabs must be prebooked by phone or at their office. Note that hotels may offer to arrange transport for you, but that may be to their financial advantage rather than yours.
BE WARNED: Minicabs are not metered so always agree on a price when you make your booking. When you order one by phone, to make sure you get into the one from the firm you ordered, ask the driver for the destination and check he knows your name. If you want to go with a minicab company that will actually know how to get you home, it’s best to get a number from a native and call and organize a car well ahead of time.
Minicabs are perfectly safe if you pre-book. Their journeys have to be recorded at their office by law. You have the might of the Public Carriage on your side if there is a problem. NEVER get into a minicab that you have not pre-booked. You have no assurance that they are genuine.
Private Hire Airport Transfers must be pre-booked, and some accept pre-payment by credit card. Don't let this worry you too much as most credit cards do insure you, and they will investigate any complaints you might make about a company paid by your card. (Check your bank to see if this is true of your Debit card too!) Anyone approaching you inside the airport for a ride is illegal, uninsured (automatically by approaching you!) and probably will charge a different fare by the time you reach your destination...ask at the Airport Information Desk inside the arrivals hall for a list of local minicab firms if you haven't pre-booked. Pre-book by doing a search online, London Airport Taxi or similar. Have a look at following TripAdvisor page for more information on travel from one London Airport to another... or try a Google search for "london airport connections" for loads of airport transfer/private hire firms. Just check they are licensed and have a UK address you can write to if you have to complain.
London Black Taxis have a rank at all Heathrow terminals, and at London City Airport in the Docklands, but not at Gatwick, Stansted or Luton (none of which are in London!). They can of course take you to ANY of these, in fact, you can take a London taxi to anywhere in the world if your budget can stretch to it. Once a driver has stopped he is also obliged to take you anywhere in London. It is therefore best to get in before telling the driver where you want to go to.
The National Express coach is probably the easiest way of transporting yourself and a little luggage between airports and London. Again, see the TripAdvisor link above for more on this service.
You can, of course, hire a car to drive yourself while in London, though for most visitors this would be an unwise choice. For visitors, a car in London is more of a hindrance than a help. Driving and parking can be challenging, so make sure you know where you are going or can read a map on the go! Make sure you budget in fuel and the Congestion Charge for driving in Central London. This fee is £11.50.
Parking in London can be a bit exciting, double parking is illegal (you can expect to be towed away) and always be sure you pay your parking fee!! In some streets, you must pay by phone, rather than at a meter. There are also parking garages (car parks) where you pay an hourly rate to park your car.
Most car hire companies require a valid driver's license and a passport for ID, as well as a credit card that is embossed. There are many places you can find an affordable car to hire in London. As always, check the fine print on your rental agreement and always drive safely!
Rental Car Heathrow Airport
In addition to the sound advice above, please be mindful that all the car hire suppliers at Heathrow are located just outside the perimeter fence, approximately on a good day a 10 minute ride on any of the rental car courtesy buses. (The only exception is an Avis/Budget depot situated on site at Terminal 5). So whichever terminal you arrive at simply follow the car hire bus signs and jump aboard! You should book in advance as Heathrow is one of the busiest rental car location in Europe and you will obtain lower rates and wider fleet choices if you book in advance, in particular for larger vehicles, like minibuses, people carriers or vans. Alternatively you can collect your rental car at Heathrow and drop it at any location within the UK on a one-way rental. There is usually an extra cost to do this. Such bookings, to and fro, the Heathrow airport can be made online as well, using the online booking platforms by Avis, Hertz, RentalCarsUK, Green Motion and many more. They serve through mobile apps too, for the ease to book a car rental at Heathrow Airport while on the move.
Be very sure to check all the inclusives being offered for the price on quote. Opting for a Zero Excess insurance is always a recommedation.
London Transportation Resources:
Transport for London - London Taxi (Meter) Fares (as of Sept 2014)