A Guide To The London Underground
A guide to the London Underground for visitors including how to get the best value, safety tips and 'etiquette' on the Tube.
Most tourists visiting London will use the Underground, ‘the Tube’ as it’s known to the locals. It’s the world’s oldest and biggest metro system with over 260 stations, and 16,000 staff keeping things moving and every day it handles 2.5 million passenger journeys. Using the Tube you can get from Heathrow Airport in the west out to Epping Forest to the east of the city. You can travel from the crowds of Oxford Street out to peaceful Richmond Park, Henry VIII’s favourite, out in leafy Surrey.
The different lines are named: Piccadilly, Central, Jubilee etc. They are also colour-coded to help you find your way around. This is particularly helpful if you’re at a station such as King’s Cross where half a dozen tube lines intersect. Many Londoners know the shortcuts within stations but it’s very easy to get lost in a maze of tunnels and corridors so it’s definitely best to follow the signs!
The platforms tell you which direction the trains are going to help you avoid going wrong. Announcements are made on the trains themselves - these help the visually impaired but are particularly detailed in central areas to also help tourists. The front of the train and the electronic departure boards give the final destination so with a quick look at a tube map you know you’re heading in the right direction before you even get on.
A word of caution about the underground map: It’s designed to show how the lines intersect - it isn’t drawn to scale and doesn’t reflect what is happening on the surface. For example, to get from Temple station to Holborn on the Tube would take a long, long time according to the map, with several changes between lines. Above ground, it’s actually a ten minute stroll past the fabulous building of England’s High Court and along a road full of bars and open-air cafes. An A-Z street map, which always includes a map of the tube as well, should help.
The busiest times on the network are between 08:00 and 09:30 and 17:00 to 18:30. This is the weekday rush hour to be avoided if at all possible. Unfortunately, the tube system is overstretched with millions of people relying on it rather than add to traffic gridlock. Many people who arrive in London at this time tend to go and relax with a coffee and newspaper while the rush hour subsides. It makes for a much more pleasant journey!
The network is divided into six fare zones. The city centre and many tourist sites are in Zone 1. However, wherever you travel you must have a valid ticket. If not, you are liable for an on-the-spot fine. Even if you have genuinely lost your ticket you may still have to pay so look after it!
You can buy a ticket at any underground station. You can use ticket machines but it helps to have as near the correct money as possible. If the machines run out of change then you have to join a queue at the ticket office. Depending on the station, and the time of day, this can be a long wait. The queue at Victoria station is particularly notorious. Lots of travelers come into London via Gatwick airport and get a train straight to Victoria. Armed with backpacks, suitcases and often not clear on where they’re going or what ticket they need, it can be a stressful welcome to England.
You can simply buy a single or return ticket to your destination. These can only be used on the date of purchase and up to 03:00 the next day. The under fives travel free and children pay less than adults. If you’re planning to make several journeys a day or you’re staying in London for a few days, single tickets can become very expensive. Instead you could buy a Carnet. This is a booklet of ten single tickets for Zone 1, which are valid for up to a year. You can use them yourself or if you have any left over after your trip give them to anyone else who might be visiting London.
There’s also a range of Travelcards that offer cheaper travel. One day Travelcards can be used after 09.30 during the week and at any time on weekends and public holidays. Even if you only plan two or three short hops on the tube during a day, these work out much cheaper than buying single tickets. Cheap family and group tickets are also available.
Perhaps the best option if you can is to arrange a visitor Travelcard through your travel agent before you arrive. You can’t buy these in the UK and they are specifically designed to make it cheaper and easier for tourists to get around London. These are also valid for travel on London buses, and many local overland trains and they come with a range of discounts for tourist attractions. You can opt for a visitor Travelcard to cover 1,2,3,4 or 7 consecutive days and the more you use it, the better value it is.
Many stations have ticket barriers. You insert your ticket (face up) into the slot on the front, the ticket will then pop up on the top and you have to remove it before the gate will open. If you’ve bought a single ticket and it is used up because you’ve completed your journey, the machine keeps the ticket, but don’t panic, the gates will still open! If you’re carrying luggage or have a pushchair or wheelchair, ask the staff for help and they’ll open a side gate to allow you through.
Have your ticket handy when you’re about to go through a gate. Nothing upsets stressed-out commuters more than somebody standing in front of a gate fumbling in bags for their ticket and holding up everybody behind. If you can’t immediately find your ticket (it happens to all of us), stand to one side while you look for it if you want to avoid the stares and glares from fellow passengers.
On escalators, always stand on the right hand side. It is an unwritten rule of London travel that the left-hand side is for those who prefer to walk (or if late for work) run, up the escalators. Running up them is not advisable for safety reasons but at many stations you will notice that on every escalator there are two streams of people - the ones happy to let the escalator carry them, and the others who prefer to rush up the left hand side. Tourists can make themselves very unpopular if they stand on the left, preventing people from overtaking if they want to!
Don’t smoke - it’s forbidden anywhere on the Tube network even if the station itself is above ground and you would be liable for a large fine if caught.
Do keep your camera in your bag. Flash photography is prohibited for safety reasons as it can affect the driver’s vision.
Keep your bags and any belongings with you at all times. This is partly because like any big city pickpockets target the centre of London. However, a bag left unattended could also lead to a security alert. This means a delay to your journey and possible closure of stations while the police and bomb squad check things out. Ten, fifteen years ago, when terrorism was more of a threat than today, it wasn’t unknown for thousands of people to be stranded because somebody left their packed lunch on a tube train!
Finally - just exercise common sense. If traveling in the early morning or late at night it makes sense to be careful. Stations are covered by closed circuit cameras (as are many of the trains) but it’s better to travel with someone or stay near station staff and travel in a carriage which has other passengers in or is close to the driver rather than an empty one. I have traveled by tube as a lone female at all times of the day and night and never had a problem. It’s still the quickest and easiest way of getting around London! Enjoy!