London can be an overwhelming city, especially when you are unfamiliar with the public transport system. At first glance, the map of London’s Underground appears to be a maze of non-navigable lines, plastered with so many stations that it leaves you wondering how big London actually is. Trust me I have been there. My first few times in London I had some embarrassing mishaps getting from A to Z, including taking a train to the very end of a line after directions told me to ‘go towards’ that particular station. Luckily, as directionally challenged as I may be- I always learn from my mistakes.  (Even if it takes an hour and a half detour and three zones to get me there.)

London’s Underground, commonly referred to as ‘The Tube’ by Londoners, rang in 2013 by celebrating its 150th anniversary. (They must be doing something right!) It is often hailed as one of the world’s greatest metro systems, and it sure beats taking London’s outrageously expensive taxis when you have somewhere to go. With that in mind, here are my five tips for using London’s Underground. I hope they help you spend less time learning from your mistakes, and more time exploring the wonderful city of London.


Underground Map

The notorious ‘cobweb’ map of London’s Underground. Note: this is not up-to-date.

1. Know Your Colors 

The Tube is divided into twelve different lines, each with their own corresponding color. If you take a look at the key in the map above, you can see that this is fairly straightforward. When you are planning your route on the Underground, it makes it easier if you can identify both the line name and color when you arrive at a hectic Underground station. For example: if you are  making your way from Victoria Station to the Tower of London, you should take the Circle line (yellow) to Tower Hill. It may seem more complicated when you need to switch once or twice during the route, but the same rules apply so just break it down. Always double-check the route map directly off the platform so you can be sure you are headed in the right direction to the correct station.


2. Buy an Oyster Card

In most cases it pays to buy an Oyster Card, a plastic smart card that replaces the need for traditional paper tickets. If you are in London for a long weekend or longer, it can save you quite a bit of money. A Day Travelcard for Zones 1-2 (most tourist attractions and central London hotels fall into this area) will cost you £7.30 and allows unlimited peak and off-peak journeys on the day of purchase. The Oyster Card can be pre-loaded with funds, and only charges you for single journeys which run £2.80 during peak times and £2.10 off-peak. The card is still capped at the Day Travelcard price, so you won’t spend more money either way. The great thing about the Oyster Card is it gives you the freedom to use public transport more or less on any given day without worrying that you haven’t gotten your money’s worth. A Visitor’s Oyster Card can be purchased at any Underground station, and can also be used on the DLR, buses, Emirates Air Line, and river services. (The latter two will be charged in addition to your daily capped rate, but will be discounted.) It is possible to purchase the Oyster Card in advance on the Transport for London Website here, if you prefer to have it shipped to your country before arriving in London.


Oyster Card

The Oyster Card.


3. Use Underground Etiquette 

At 5:30 pm on a Tuesday, in the midst of rush hour, the Underground can feel like a dog eat dog world. In reality, no matter how busy it is- there are rules to follow. First, always stand on the right. Whether you are walking down stairs, riding up on the escalator, or navigating one of the Underground’s super long passageways on your way to your platform, stay on the right. You will get run over/yelled at/pushed if you are on the left side of things and someone faster and more in a hurry than you wants to get by. You will learn this one quickly, trust me, but it is better to avoid physical and/or verbal punishment altogether. Be mindful of the signs, they will always instruct you which side to be on!

When you are boarding the train, wait until the passengers getting off have departed before you climb aboard. In busy times, you may need to use your best judgement- sometimes it is smarter to throw etiquette out the window if you want to squeeze yourself into the last remaining spot on the train. Generally though, let the people getting off go first.

Finally, do not stop in the middle of the station or platform to read your map or check directions. Always, always, always move to the side first so you don’t block any oncoming people traffic. (This one annoys the heck out of me.) The people of London can be a serious and determined bunch, don’t be the blockade between them and where they want to go.


4. Avoid Rush Hour

If you have noticed, most of the problems you will encounter on the Underground that I have mentioned also involved rush hour. From 7am to 10am and 5pm to 7pm, ‘The Tube’ is a warzone. It is every man, woman, and child for themselves, as eager and stressed commuters pack into trains to and from work. If you finally make it on to a train, expect to have your face pushed up against some extra tall man’s armpit or sweaty back. It isn’t pleasant, and I have serious admiration for the people who can pretend to read a newspaper that they are holding over five different faces. It is best to just avoid the mentioned time periods when you can, if it is unavoidable be sure to keep your wallet out of sight and your deodorant freshly applied.


London Rush Hour

Space for twenty more.


 5. Be Cool 

I mention this in both the literal and figurative sense. The Underground can be very hot, especially during the summer months. On average it stays around 68F (20C) but combined with thousands of people in a small , not well ventilated space- it can be uncomfortably hot. It was even recently announced that excess heat from one line of the Underground is going to be used to heat an entire London borough. Wearing layers is smart, even in London’s coldest months you can see people carrying their jackets while underground. 

Also, just be cool. Most mistakes you will make when taking the Underground will come from rash decision making. The system is simple, take the time to understand it, and plan out your route. Don’t expect to hop any line and figure it out as you go. Think ahead, take the extra 15 minutes to look at the map, and take it easy. Taking London’s Underground is one of the best experiences you will have when visiting the city. Enjoy mingling with locals (just don’t look them in the eyes or start a conversation) as you take one of the world’s most efficiently run public transportation systems from one attraction to the next. 


I hope these are helpful tips, if you have any more please comment below and share them. Walking around London, and riding bikes is also highly recommended by yours truly!


Image Credits: underground: London Attractions Guide, underground birds: _dChris, Oyster card: Annie Mole, Underground ltbluesoda