One of my favourite things about London is it’s iconic underground train network known as The Tube. Even though regular commuters may complain about over crowding during peak times or occasional cancellations, it’s really one of the most efficient public transport systems in the world moving over 1.2 billion (with a b) passengers a year. Although London’s buses are my choice for a scenic transport option, it’s undeniable the underground is really the fastest way to get across the city.
At first glance, the underground map looks a little overwhelming, but after a couple of trips, and these top tips, you’ll be riding the tube like a Londoner.
15 Top tips to travel the London Tube like a local
1. Keep moving
A sure fire way to raise the ire of commuters on their way to work is to stop in the middle of a walkway, at the end of an escalator or at the ticket gates. Not only can this slow everyone down, it can be a bit dangerous because you are likely to be bowled over by the wave of people coming along behind you. If you need to stop and check a map or sign, find your ticket or tend to a child, find a safe place to pull over.
2. Keep right on escalators
You will see little signs that tell you to “keep right”, this lets people in a hurry walk past on the left and keep the traffic moving. (In Australia we keep left, so it may feel a little strange at first) Remember to keep your suitcase to the right also.
3. Avoid peak times
If you can avoid travelling between 6.30-9.30 am and 4-7pm you will find the journey much more pleasant and almost be guaranteed a seat. Peak times on the tube can be quite overwhelming and very claustrophobic, be prepared to move shuffle along with the crowd and if the platforms are overcrowded, you may have to wait in the walkway tunnels till the congestion clears. Some of the stations are worse than others.
4. The tube map is not a real indication of the city layout
Don’t fall into the trap of using the tube map to navigate your way around London, it’s not to scale and highly stylised so stations that look fairly far apart on the map may be only a few minutes walk overground.
I found this amusing fact in a Times article “The shortest distance between two adjacent stations on the underground network is only 260 metres. The tube journey between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line takes only about 20 seconds, but costs £4.30. Yet it still remains the most popular journey with tourists.” It’s only a 3 minute walk above ground!
This version of the tube map is a much more accurate representation of how the tube is located geographically.
5. Be prepared to walk
Just because the map shows two lines connect at a station doesn’t mean that the platforms of different lines are anywhere near each other. Connections/interchange tunnels can be quite a distance and sometimes a short walk above can save a huge one below ground. Locals avoid interchanges if possible – this map shows street level walking times between nearby stations.
6. Get an Oyster card
If you intend on spending more than a day in London, an Oyster card is the easiest way to pay for your fare. It can be used on all public transport including buses and overground trains and automatically calculates the best fare. Just tap on and off at ticket gates to get through the barriers. The readers are pretty powerful so you can leave the card in your wallet or pouch and just tap your wallet on the reader. Make sure you keep it separate from other tap and go cards when doing this as the reader may also deduct a fare from your credit card.
You can order a preloaded Visitor Oyster card online or do what I did and just pop into any newsagent to purchase a regular one for £5. The £5 can be refunded at the airport when you leave and you can top it up with cash at newsagents and train stations when your balance is getting low.
7. Kids travel free with a paying adult
Children under 11 travel free on most forms of transport including the tube and buses when accompanied by a paying adult, but take my advice, use the wider gates at the end or risk getting stuck as the gates close pretty quickly to stop fare evaders. I have experienced this first hand, getting stuck is pretty embarrassing.
8. Stand at end of platforms for emptier carriages
Move down the platform and you will find that the carriages away from the station entrances tend to be emptier. This may vary depending on the line but as a general rule I have found the first and last carriages are less crowded during peak times.
9. Tube lines are colour coded and platforms are clearly labeled
The Underground has 11 colour coded lines which help you navigate to your destination. If you need to change lines just follow the coloured sign to the line that you need and you’ll never get lost. All stations have maps everywhere so you can double check if you are unsure.
To check if you are on the correct platform which goes to your destination, refer to the signs at the entrance of each platform which indicate where the train will be stopping (See tip 1). If the line splits to 2 destinations, check the electronic signs on the platform which tell you where each train terminates.
10. Download a Map app
There are several apps with London tube maps that are much more convenient than carrying a paper map. The one I found most useful was City Mapper. It’s what the locals use to get around and providing you have data on your phone (see this post), it will give you maps and several transport options for getting anywhere you want to go.
11. There is always another train coming
If the train is very crowded, just wait for the next one. The services are super frequent and you may only need to wait a couple of minutes until another train arrives.
12. No loos
Very few stations have toilets. The ones that do may have hard to find toilets or have privately run facilities which may charge for around 50p for use, so make sure the kidlets go to the loo before you start your journey. Here is a handy map which shows accessible toilets and baby change facilities. I can’t vouch for cleanliness though as I tend to avoid train station toilets wherever possible.
13. Few stations have step free access
Stairs, stairs and more stairs, great for getting fit but not so good if you have a pram, are in a wheel chair or have heavy luggage. Older lines and stations aren’t very accessible and you may find that catching a bus on certain routes are more convenient. This map shows stations with step free access.
A couple of really old and really deep stations like Covent Garden only have big old lifts which means they can get really congested at busy times. If you don’t fancy being squished in a small metal box with other commuters there is an emergency spiral staircase of 193 steps, the equivalent to a 15-storey building. Covent Garden is now exit only so the only way is up!
14. Let people off the train first
It makes sense the letting people off a crowded train allows room for you to get on. Stand to the side of the doors until everybody has alighted.
15. Mind the Gap
I couldn’t forget the classic announcement ‘Mind the Gap’, you hear it so much that it becomes ubiquitous, but depending on the station, some of the gaps between train an platform can be really large up to 35cm in fact (about 1 foot). Take care especially if you have children with you as they can easily misjudge the size of the gap. Here is an interesting article that explains why there are such large gaps at some stations.
So there you have it, 15 helpful tips to make your trip on the London Underground stress free.
Feel free to add any extra tips that I’ve missed below in the comments, I’m sure other readers will find it super helpful.
If you are heading to London soon you may also find this post useful – 5 Essentials to Help you Hit the Ground Running in London