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Many tourists are petrified of using the London Underground at first because London seems like a big city (it is) and they fear a system they haven’t used before.
However, in this guide to using the tube in London, I’m going to show you exactly why you shouldn’t be afraid of public transportation in London, how to take trips on the tube as a visitor, and point you to all of my resources on everything from London Underground tube tips to using Oyster Cards in London (not real Oysters) to other ways to get around London.
Before you descend into the center of the earth and straight into a businessman’s personal space, here are some basic rules for surviving the London underground.
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How to Ride the London Underground: Tube Etiquette
1. Stand on the right, pass on the left
If you remember nothing else, REMEMBER THIS.
When standing on an escalator in any tube station, you must stand on the right hand side.
This is a London non-negotiable.
If you find yourself standing on the left blocking foot traffic, you will feel the stares of a hundred impatient and standoffish Londoners burning a hole in the back of your head.
You will be written about on forums.
You will find yourself on the front page of the Evening Standard next to the words “WANTED.”
2. Wait for people to get off the train before you get on
This seems obvious, but you would be surprised about the number of people who treat a tube door like a two-way street.
It’s a one-way street, and this means you need to let everyone rush out before you rush on.
The train won’t leave without you, I promise.
3. Put your bag/backpack/gigantic purse by your feet
There is NOTHING WORSE than someone with a giant backpack holding 63 textbooks, 8 lunch bags, and 6,000 pens barging their way onto the tube and taking up the space of 4 people with their belongings.
If you’re standing, put the bag by your feet so other people can squeeze in.
AND, if possible, put a leg through a strap so no one can run away wit your purse.
Yes. It happens.
4. Lower your voice. And then lower it again.
Americans are notorious for this, but other foreigners (and drunk Brits) are at fault as well.
A journey on the tube is sacred.
It’s for reading the newspaper.
It’s for drafting your ‘hate you’ text to your ex on your phone.
It’s for calming your nerves before you step back out into the world and attend your third job interview of the day.
It’s not for catching up with your friend over dinner, it’s not for singing, and it’s DEFINITELY not for yelling over other passengers to speak to your friend from school three seats down.
Talk quietly or see the previously mentioned stares of English people who think you’re an absolute idiot but won’t say anything to you about it.
I know it doesn’t sound threatening, but hell hath no fury like a Londoner forced to listen to you gab.
5. Do not make eye contact
Especially during rush hour, you’re going to be really close to some random person and the least you can do for them is to not acknowledge the situation you’re both in.
Eye contact is official, it’s permanent, it’s a way of marking the occasion.
This is not an occasion to be marked.
6. Move down inside the train
Riding public transportation isn’t actually rocket science, so you may be able to figure this one out by yourself, but judging by how many times I hear the phrase “MOVE DOWN INSIDE THE CARRIAGE” while on a single tube journey, we should probably rehash.
If you get on a busy train, and there are people waiting to get on, you have two options: get off or move to fill some empty space.
Unfortunately the last space people want to fill is the space in between the seats, furthest from the doors.
I totally get this.
I will do everything possible to not have to move down inside the carriage, but sometimes, you’ve got no choice.
It’s go time.
Just huff a little to yourself, pick up your backpack as instructed in Rule 3, don’t make eye contact with the people who now have their faces in your crotch, and suck it up.
This is the tube carriage, not a horse-drawn one, so lower your expectations accordingly.
7. Stand to the Side to Ask for Directions
If you need to ask for directions or look at a map, make sure to stand aside and not in the flow of people coming on and off trains or on and off platforms.
There is plenty of space to either stand up against the walls or move down the platform so you aren’t in people’s ways and can take the time you need to figure out where you’re going.
8. Remember You Need to “Tap In” and “Tap Out”
Everyone can figure out that you need to “tap in” to get on the train because you won’t be able to go into a tube station without presenting a ticket or tapping your Oyster card on the reader, but sometimes people forget you also need to do this when you exit.
This can leave people unprepared to exit the turnstiles with a long line of people behind them are you’re searching through all of your luggage to where you stashed your ticket when you were trying to follow all of the other rules above.
So just make a note to keep your ticket or Oyster card in an easily accessible place so you can slide on out of the station with ease.
9. Be Aware of People Who Need the Seats More than You
Especially at rush hour, you may find that there are no seats to sit in to begin with, which is par for the course, but at other parts of the day, you’ll want to make sure to look around at every stop to see if someone is getting on, like a pregnant woman, elderly person, or someone with a “Please offer me a seat” badge that helps those with non-visible disabilities let others know that they may need a seat.
If there are plenty of seats to choose from, no worries.
But if there are no seats left and you are sitting in one of them and a person who looks like they need the seat more than you gets on, the courteous and right thing is to offer it to them so they can either have the seat or have the opportunity to decline.
10. Remember the Tube Doors Open Automatically
The tube doors open by themselves, with no need for you to press the button.
You can press it, but you’ll look a bit like an idiot and nothing will happen any faster.
This is one instant way to tell a tourist from a local, so do as the locals do and just wait for it to open or close!
How to Use the London Tube Map
The London Tube map has won awards for being one of the easiest public transportation maps in the world to read (which you can find out more about at the London Transport Museum).
The basics are: the map is divided into 9 Zones.
It works a bit like a tree trunk, with the zones being circles that start with Zone 1 in the center and Zone 9 the furthest out.
Most visitors will only ever go in Zone 1, with some in Zone 2 and then a few in Zone 3 for attractions like Wimbledon.
The price of your journey depends on which zones you travel through.
When you look at the map, you will see different colored routes, called lines, and they are referred to by name and not by color.
For instance, the black line is the “Northern Line,” the dark blue line is the “Piccadilly Line” and the brown line is the “Bakerloo Line.”
How to Navigate London Tube Stations
In tube stations, you will see both the color and line name displayed when trying to navigate your way around, however.
Just like other subway systems, you can stay on one line for the duration of the journey, or you may need to switch lines at some point.
You can tell when you are able to switch lines because the lines will intersect or run parallel to each other with empty white circles next to them showing you that this is an interchange.
Some of the lines run North and South and some run East and West, but you don’t necessarily need to know exactly which way you’re going, you just need to follow the signs that have your stop displayed on them.
When you get onto a platform, there will also be big signs which show all of the stops that trains from that station can make.
The final thing to note is that you can see when the next train is coming on signs above the platforms.
However, you should make a note of the final destination listed on that sign and then check on the big tube maps on the walls if your stop is included in that.
Sometimes, tubes will stop short of the end of the line or there are some lines, like the Northern Line, that have “branches,”.
If you check the station that is listed as the end station on the departures board and then find the stop you are currently at on the map, you will be able to see if the station you want to get to is between those two points.
If it’s not, wait for the next train that is going out to the stop you want.
This is not a problem in central London for the big tourist attractions, but would be if you were going towards the very end of a line.
How to Use Oyster Cards in London
For more information on how to use Oyster cards in London, check out my guide to Oyster cards which walks you through exactly what you need to do to buy an Oyster card, use an Oyster card, and make an Oyster card worth your while.
You can also learn more about the cost of the London underground, whether kids go free, and more information on buying travelcards in my guide to getting around London.
Is the Tube Safe?
The tube is an incredibly safe method of public transportation.
It has its own police force, and unlike other subways systems in places like Paris or New York, it’s actually pretty clean and well policed.
You won’t usually find much “life” on the tube like people playing accordians or being loud, as Brits in general tend to stick to a more orderly fashion.
The tube mostly runs an early in the morning until a midnight service, but some lines do have full night service on the weekends.
It is still safe to travel on the night tube, but as always when following London safety tips, be aware of your surroundings.
If you do notice anything suspicious, you’ll find signs up everywhere encouraging you to report it to the Transport Police in person or using a specific number listed – there is the option to text them, as well, to be more discreet.
You should also be sure, at any hour of the day, to not stand too close to the platform edge when a train is approaching to avoid any tragic accidents based on the crowds of rush hour.
And, of course, as you will hear lots of time when taking the tube, you should “mind the gap,” which is to say, “watch out for the gap in between the train and the platform and don’t fall in it.”
The gap can be very small in some stations, and large enough for a human to fit through in others.