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Your Complete London Underground Guide – Tube Etiquette and More

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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’ll 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 your complete London Underground guide to tube etiquette and more.

A blue and white tiled wall with Brompton Railway Hammersmith in green tiles above at Hammersmith London Underground Station
One of the old tiled walls at Hammersmith Station, a representation of the River Thames and bridge.

Your Complete London Underground Guide


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 gates. 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 zoomed in so that you can find your way around easier). Each line has a different colour and a different name.

TfL Transport for London Underground Tube Map

As you can see below, the tube map is marked into zones (the white and grey areas). If you are visiting London, you will probably be visiting 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 or a phone app.

District and Piccadilly line directions sign at Hammersmith London Underground Station

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, buses, trams, and many train and river services. You can buy one at any Underground or Overground station for £5. 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 Oyster card will cap your daily travel spend at the same rate as a travel card, so if you aren’t sure you’ll hit that rate, an Oyster card is the best value. It will save you a considerable amount of money when compared with buying paper tickets.

You can top up your Oyster Card at Tube stations and many local shops, or on the TfL Oyster and Conctactless app. The credit doesn’t expire, so you can keep it until your next visit or give it to family or friends. But if you aren’t going to use it, you can get a refund on the credit (if it’s under £10) at a ticket machine in stations. Be aware that refunding the credit cancels the Oyster card and you wont get the £5 for the card back, or be able to use it in future.


If you have a contactless bank or travel spend 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.


Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and other phone payment systems are all welcome.

Tube Etiquette Lesson One – Ticket Barriar Etiquette

You get two chances to swipe your ticket off peak and just one in peak (rush) hours! If your ticket, Oyster card or contactless card/device fails after this, move to the side and let those around you pass through. Once the rush has died down, give it another go.

Tube Etiquette Lesson Two – Escalator Etiquette

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 glares 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).

'Stand on the right' sign on a silver metal escalator at a London Underground station
Don’t slide down this or the signs will give you a rude smack on the bottom.

Tube Etiquette Lesson Three – Platforms

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.

The edge of a London Underground station platform with a yellow line a few inches from the white line on the edge
Keep this line between you and train until it’s time to board.

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.

Tube Mice

In the spirit of creating a complete guide to the London Underground, here is a 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.

A small brown mouse on a London Underground station platform
This little cutie was so hard to snap

Tube Etiquette Lesson Four – Seats

All seats are free game, apart from the priority seats which are to be vacated for elderly, disabled and pregnant people, or anyone who clearly needs to sit.

A blue moquette priority seat cover showing a pregnant lady, a lady holding a child and a person with a walking stick on a Piccadilly Line London Underground train
These are the seats nearest the door

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 moquette 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 souvenirs with these designs on. Take a look at their website here.

A blue moquette London Underground Piccadilly Line seat cover
The Piccadilly Line design has the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and Tower Bridge as part of its design

Tube Etiquette Lesson Five – Standing

The only rule here is, 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 to it.

A busy London Underground Piccadilly Line tube train interior with passengers seated and standing
The chap on the left is doing well, the one on the right makes me say “grrr”

Tube Etiquette Lesson Six – Rush Hour

This is a special and horrendous time that I try to avoid at all costs. From 06:30 – 09:30 and 16:00 – 19:00 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 a 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 a cabin crew who was shouted at by commuters, even though he was just trying to get to work!

Tube Etiquette Lesson Seven – Eye Contact

Everyone says that you can’t make eye contact on the Underground, and that simply isn’t true…sometimes. 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.

A busy London Underground Piccadilly Line tube train interior with passengers seated
The woman at the end of the seats is clearly breaking this rule!

Other Top Tips:

  • Standing in between the seats, rather than near the doors means you’re closer when a seat vacates and you have 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 (iPhone only). This tells you which carriage to take to ensure you can walk straight off the train and through the exit or to change lines quickly.
  • There is no phone signal when the trains are underground in tunnels. You can get Wi-Fi in the stations and on platforms for free if you are a customer of EE, O2, Three or Virgin Media. If not, you can buy daily or weekly passes. There is a plan to get 4G to every station and tunnel by the end of 2024
  • Only 45% of the Underground is actually under the ground! So on many journeys you can use your phone, but the signal can be patchy.
  • 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.
  • Only some tube and train lines have air conditioning, so if you are travelling during the summer, keep some water with you. You might not need it but there may be someone else who does. The Circle, District, Elizabeth, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan lines, London Overground, Trams and Thameslink trains have air conditioning or air cooling. The platforms and stations have fans, but are often hot!
  • 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 warp.
  • As a rule, you are not allowed to walk between the carriages on most lines. However, the trains on the Circle, District, Elizabeth, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan lines, London Overground, Trams and Thameslink have newer trains, built so that you can walk through the entire train, giving you a better chance of finding a seat.
Inside a Hammersmith & City Line London Underground Tube train
They have bendy joins between the carriages that create lots of space but can pinch your bottom if you aren’t paying attention.

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 card/device for these. Buses are a cheap way to see the city and there’s a “Hopper fare” which means you can get as many buses or trams as you want within an hour without paying a second time.
For timetables, fares etc check the TfL website here

Then there’s London Trams, River services, the London Overground and even the London Cable Car but that’s all another story…

Looking for fun things to do in London? Why not check out our Loving London series.

Final Thoughts on this Guide to the London Underground

After fifteen years in this town, and thousands of tube journeys I am still not an expert. We hope you found this London Underground guide useful. Those poor commuters who have to endure it at rush hour five days a week probably have loads more tips and tricks. If you are just visiting as a tourist, this London Underground guide to tube etiquette should see you through just fine.

Rosie xx

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18 thoughts on “Your Complete London Underground Guide – Tube Etiquette and More

  1. This reminded me so much of learning to navigate the subway when I first moved to NY. Really helpful tips (which I’m sure normal commuters would thank you for). Also love that you included some of the artwork.

  2. It’s so crazy that I shared my post underneath yours about travelling the UK. I love the tube (probably because I’m british) as its so useful and quick. From rural parts of the UK there’s a train an hour not every minute or two. My boyfriend struggles with the colours though, and I love how contactless is easier than oyster too for tourists!

  3. Wow, such a great and informative guide for commuting in London. Also, its great that you told us about the busiest time in the tube. Most travellers often make this mistake. Thanks for the post.

  4. Nice!This will come in handy when I’m visiting some friends later this year. Thanks for making such a detailed post!

  5. This is such an excellent resource to plan commuting in London & UK. With so many available options sometimes it’s hard to find the best option
    Thank you for sharing this, will definitely come in handy when I visit UK

  6. I moved from South Africa to London last year and this would have been so helpful back then haha! But great guide, been learning all of this as I go. Coming from a country that barely has public transport – it’s been quite a challenge 😀

  7. This is a great post! I love taking underground transit in any new city! it’s so convenient. Also, neat fact about all the lines having different patterns on the fabric! What a cool idea on London’s part.

  8. So helpful!! An English friend of mine actually lectured me about etiquette for the tube before we left for London, they take it very seriously! haha She said don’t be that tourist that steps off the tube, freezes and doesn’t know which direction to go and get in everyone’s way but just pick a direction and figure it out later, I followed her advice haha

  9. Great guide for the Underground! After living in the United States with high car insurance, fuel prices, registration, and taxes – the tube is cheap and easy trasnportation!

    1. I heartily concur! However, having a partner with a car always seems like a much nicer option when I contemplate the journey home when it’s late, cold and raining!!!

  10. I’m from Chicago and we have the “L” system..or elevated train that is partially elevated and partially submerged below ground. Think Batman Begins if you’ve never been there but less futuristic. It is my BIGGEST pet peeve when people put their bags on the seats next to them. So rude! Especially when people are clearly standing around the train looking for a place to sit. Great post, made me a chuckle a bit thinking about riding the trains!

    1. I have taken a few trips on L train. I think its pretty good but the wait for a train is far too long for my London habits. I had to wait a whole nine minutes for the red train once….it was torture. You have a very cool double decker train there too. It was a crazy contraption 🙂

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