The London Underground is brilliant! OK, so it’s a little expensive, weekend engineering works are infuriating and I’m definitely biased. But trust me, it really is brilliant. This complete guide to the London Underground will help you overcome some of the trickier elements of travelling on the tube.
It is, a complex world of unspoken rules, and if you break them, you know about it. If it is your first visit to London, or you’ve been a few times and you want to feel like a local when using Transport for London, here is my ultimate guide to etiquette on “The Tube”.
Complete Guide to the London Underground
The first, and most important thing you need to know is: The Tube is fast. Not the trains necessarily, but everything else.
Double your normal walking speed or face a build-up of quietly tutting, furiously polite people behind you.
The trick is to be prepared. Check the map to see which line you need next, whilst sitting on the previous train. Also, be sure to have your ticket or card ready at the machines. You need it to enter AND exit. You will be very unpopular if you reach the barrier and then start looking for it.
The Tube Map
One of the modern world’s design classics as originated by Harry Beck in 1931. There have obviously been additions, edits etc but it remains true to the original design idea. It is a schematic version of the tube which means it’s not geographically accurate (zone one is hugely zoomed in so that you can find your way around). Each line has a different colour and a different name.
As you can see above, the tube map is marked into zones (the white and grey areas). If you are visiting London, you will probably be located in zone one for the majority of your trip. The more zones you cross, the more you pay. If you are using the outer zones, you’ll save lots by NOT entering zone one.
Once you have decided on the line you need, you can consult one of the boards below to work our which direction you need. These are separated into Eastbound, Westbound, Northbound and Southbound. At some busy stations, these are located at the bottom of very busy stairs, so it may be a good plan to work this out ahead of time using your handy little map.
Tickets and Contactless Payments
The Oyster Card is a contactless plastic card, the same size as a credit card. These can be used on the tube, the bus, trams and river services. You can buy one at any underground station, for a refundable £5 deposit, and top it up at the machines. At London Heathrow Airport, London Gatwick Airport and major London rail terminals like Victoria and Paddington you will find visitor centres, they can help you decide how much you will need. If you are planning on doing a lot of travel, you may consider a travel card, however, the card will cap your daily travel at the same rate so if you aren’t sure, hit top is with a cash value for the best value. It will save you a considerable amount of money when compared with buying paper tickets.
You can top up at tube stations and corner shops but not at bus stops. Sell it back to TFL on your departure.
If you have a contactless card, either from the UK, or that doesn’t charge you to use it in the UK, you can use it in exactly the same way. You can touch in and out, use it on the buses and it will cost the same and cap your daily fares. It means you’ll never have to top up or worry about not having enough money on your Oyster.
Stand on the right!
I repeat, stand on the right!
The left-hand side on the escalator is for those who want to walk, and commuters will send rays of hate at you until you move. If you have a large bag, tuck it to the right and stand one step in front or behind it. It just wouldn’t be a complete guide to the London Underground with reiterating this.
Don’t stop at the top or bottom to sort yourself out. Walk until you are in a free space and then do it. (This isn’t exclusively for the tube, it’s just good health and safety practice).
On the Platform
Don’t stop at the point you emerge onto the platform. The platforms are pretty long; there’s usually six carriages on the trains. This means you can move along and find a spot that is quieter. This allows more people to enter the platform and it is much safer. Remember to stay behind the yellow line.
If you have just disembarked and you are near the platform entrance, step to the side as quickly as possible. Londoners HATE to miss trains (what!? THREE minutes until the next train, you must be joking!) and so you may be bowled over by dashing commuters while the train doors are still open.
In the spirit of creating a complete guide to the London Underground, here is dirty little secret. We have mice; little grey ones. They are terrified of you, so don’t panic. You won’t find them scurrying across your shoes and into your bag, the closest one has ventured, in my experience, is about a metre away, and that took ten minutes. In a feat of evolution, they are the same grey colour as the tracks. Darwin was on to something.
All seats are free game, apart from the priority seats which are meant to be vacated for elderly, disabled and pregnant people, or anyone who clearly needs to sit.
Don’t bump shoes with the people opposite you, and don’t take up a seat by putting your bag on it, or suitcase in front of it. This results in principled people demanding that you move it, so they can take a seat. By that point, it may be too late to effectively set yourself up again and you’ll have a very uncomfortable ride.
Each tube line has its own design of seat cover and some of them are quite nice and very famous. If you go to TFL’s London Transport Museum (seriously worth a visit) you can get all kinds of Bits and bobs with these designs on. Take a look at their website here.
The only rules here, move down inside the carriage to allow people to board easily. Don’t lean against the poles, this prevents other people from being able to hold on to them. I have been guilty of shoving my hand between someone’s back and the pole and digging my knuckles in until they noticed that there were eight other people that needed to anchor themselves with it.
This is a special and horrendous time that I try to avoid at all costs. From 07:00 – 09:00 and 17:00 – 18:30 the tube is a different beast. No longer the mild-mannered passengers and the seats up for grabs. Instead, you will be shouted at, jostled and crammed in. The trains can be so packed that you have to let a few go past, especially if you are based in zone one. These trench-coated commuters are very unforgiving of slow walkers and all the other things mentioned above. When it’s really busy, you may not be able to reach and pole to hold, but at this time, you can just wedge yourself in and lean on the people around you.
Don’t travel with luggage at these times unless you absolutely have to. You will really struggle to fit in and I know someone who was shouted at by commuters, he is cabin crew and was trying to get to work as well.
Everyone says that you can’t make eye contact on the Underground, and that simply isn’t true. You can if something particularly noteworthy has happened. If there is someone on the carriage who is one sandwich short of a picnic, if the driver makes a joke over the speakers, or if you are delayed for a really long time. Other than that, keep your beautiful blues to yourself. It’s not that we don’t like you, it’s just that we don’t want to make small talk all the way until our stop. And heaven forbid that that’s your stop too! It’s just not worth the risk and so we keep our heads in our books, our phones and our newspapers.
Other Top Tips:
- Standing in between the seats, rather than near the doors means you’re closer when a seat vacates and you stand a better chance of snapping it up.
- Pick up a small tube map at every station on the network or there’s plenty of apps.
- Speaking of apps, download the Tube Exits app. This tells you where to stand in the train to ensure you can walk straight off the train and through the exit.
- There is no phone signal underground, but you can get Wi-Fi on the platforms for free if you are a customer of EE, Vodaphone, O2, Three or Virgin Media. If not, you can buy daily or weekly passes.
- Keep your music in your headphones (and not too loud).
- Avoid eating hot food on the tube, your fellow passengers don’t want a nose full of your sausage roll.
- Most tube lines have little no air conditioning so if you are travelling during one of our very rare heatwaves, keep some water with you. You might not need it but there may be someone else who does.
- Keep your eyes peeled for closed or “ghost” stations. Between Kings Cross and Caledonian Road on the Piccadilly Line, you will pass through York Road. The sound changes and if you stick your nose to the window, you can just about see this little time sharp.
- As a rule, you are not allowed to walk through the trains on most lines. However, the new trains on the Circle, District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines have been built so that you can now walk through the entire train, giving you a better chance of finding a seat.
Not Using The Underground
Sometimes the Underground is not your best option. London is a great city to walk around and the tube can be a bit of a money drain. If you pay a full cash fare between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, it’ll not only take twice as long, but cost you more per metre of track than a trip on the Orient Express!!!
Want to see a handy walking map? It will tell you how long it takes to walk between tube stations. Walking between Aldgate and Aldgate East takes about 4 minutes, to take the tube could be about 15!
This map has been produced by TfL and is available here.
There is also a regular and wide-ranging bus service. The buses don’t take cash at all and so you really will need an Oyster card or contactless bank card for these. Buses are a cheap way to see the city and they’ve introduced a “Hopper fare” which means you can get as many buses or trams as you can within an hour without paying a second time.
For timetables, fares etc check the TfL website here
Then there’s trams, river services, the Overground and even a cable car but that’s all another story…