How to Use the London Underground
This post is a quick and easy tutorial on how to navigate the London Underground (a.k.a. the Tube), including hours of operation as well as info on tickets, transfers, and other helpful tips.
- Tickets, Fares and Oyster Cards
- The Tube Map
- Operating Hours
- Tips from Locals
- to/from Heathrow Airport
- Tourist Buses vs. the Tube
LONDON UNDERGROUND TICKETS AND OYSTER CARDS
Buying a ticket for the London Underground is pretty straightforward, but for most visitors, getting an Oyster Card is the way to go.
So, for a more in-depth explanation, check out our previous post about ticket prices and options here in London. Below is our summary.
There are 4 ways to pay for your rides on the Tube.
- Paper tickets
- Visitor Oyster Card
- Contactless Credit Cards
We normally recommend avoiding paper tickets and recommend that you buy yourself an Oyster Card.
You can wait until you arrive in London, however, you can order it in advance (called a Visitor Oyster Card), have it mailed to your home, and it comes with some additional discounts of interest to tourists.
Rides with an Oyster Card are much cheaper than paper tickets.
You can add as much money to these as you wish and there is a daily limit that you will spend, so the rides get cheaper the more you use them.
You can use the Oyster Card the next time you come back to London or you can get up to £10 plus the £5 deposit back when you leave London (except for Gatwick Airport where you only can retrieve the deposit).
Travelcards, particularly the 7-day Travelcard, also have benefits for the traveler.
Read our post on which London Oyster Card or Travelcard to buy.
London Underground Fares
While there are 6 travel zones for the London Underground, most visitors to London will travel largely within Zones 1 + 2.
How much you pay depends on when you travel, whether during peak hours (06:30 – 09:30 and 16:00 – 19:00 Mon-Fri) vs. off-peak (all other times), where you travel to and from, and whether you are using a paper ticket vs. an Oyster, Travelcard, or contact credit card.
|Zones Traveled||Single Ticket Adult||Single Ticket Child (11-15)||Oyster and Contactless Cards (Peak)||Oyster and Contactless Cards (Off-Peak)|
If you have one of the latter, then you will pay somewhere between £2.40 and £2.90 per ride within Zones 1 + 2. The most expensive ride (Central London to Heathrow) will cost either £3.10 (off-peak) or £5.10 (peak).
Oyster and Travelcards can be used on all of London’s public transportation options, including buses, DLR, the Overground, suburban trains (within London), a water taxi, and even a gondola.
If you use an Oyster Card or a Contactless Card, then there are daily limits to what you will spend. These caps are dependent on where you are traveling within.
So, for example, if you stay within Zones 1 and 2, the cap for an adult is just £6.80 for the Underground and £4.50 for buses. So, the more you ride, the cheaper each ride is.
Children under 11 travel for free and there is a 50% discount on Oyster Card fares for children 11-15 years of age.
To receive this discount, you need to grab a Tube staff member at any Underground station, including Heathrow.
We help you determine which type of card or ticket you need in our in-depth post on Oyster Cards.
UNDERSTANDING THE TUBE MAP
Picking up a Tube map is easy! They are available for free at most stations on the Underground network. The maps on offer at the stations are small – perfect for carrying around in your pocket.
Below is a map of the London Underground. You could also download a PDF version.
Don’t be embarrassed to consult your map as you travel through London, even Londoners themselves occasionally need to check where it is they are heading to!
Some people will actually have an app on their phone sporting the London Underground tube map – though we think Google Maps App is very good.
If you look closely at the map, you will notice that the center part is shaded white (zone 1) with a ring of gray shade (zone 2) which is also surrounded by white again (zone 3).
Again, most visitors to London will spend much, if not all, of their time in Zones 1-2.
Focus on Colours
Every line on the London Underground has a different name and colour. The names and colours will appear on your Tube Map, and also all over the various stations on the network.
For some, memorising the names is easier, but in general, colours can be the simplest way to learn your way around, and also to use when asking for/receiving directions.
Generally speaking, any particular line will either head north-south or east-west.
FREE TOURS BY FOOT TIP:
Start your holiday in London with our All-in-One London Tour, which takes in most of London’s legendary tourist sites and utilizes the London Underground. Get a tutorial directly from us.
OPERATING HOURS AND THE NIGHT TUBE
It’s important to remember that the London Underground system doesn’t run 24 hours a day every day and that timings may be different on weekdays vs. weekends.
Although each station has different timings, in general, the first tube trains start running around 5:00 am – 5:15 am and finish around 12:00 am – 12:30 am from Mondays through Fridays.
On Sundays, the Tube begins a bit later, around 6:00 am – 6:15 am and the final trains depart around 11:30 pm – 12:30 am.
Sundays also carry a reduced service which means there are not as many trains running as on Mondays to Saturdays.
Weekdays: 7:00 am – 9:30 am and 16:00 (4pm) – 19:00 (7 pm).
Like any major city, London has a very busy rush hour in the mornings and in the evenings when the majority of people are travelling to and from work.
If possible, try to avoid travelling on the tube during these times, particularly if you have any large baggage/luggage with you as space is an absolute premium which means you may have to wait as multiple trains pass you, until there’s one with enough space to fit you in.
If you need a place to store luggage, read our advice here.
The Night Tube
As of 2019, some London Underground lines are now operating as The Night Tube, a 24-hour Underground service which operates on Fridays and Saturdays.
Really, this service should be called the “Overnight Tube” as the regular operating hours reach midnight every day of the week.
There are 5 lines making up the Night Tube and there are fewer trains operating, which means wait times are more than the standard 2 – 5 minutes. The lines and approximate timings are:
- Victoria Line – Trains every 10 minutes
- Jubilee Line – Trains every 10 minutes
- Piccadilly Line (Cockfosters to Heathrow Terminal 5 ONLY) – Trains every 10 minutes
- Northern Line (Camden Town to Morden) – Trains every 8 minutes
- Northern Line (Camden Town to High Barnet) – Trains every 15 minutes (No Night Tube on the Bank and Mill Hill East Branches)
- Central Line (White City to Leytonstone) – Trains every 10 minutes
- Central Line (Leytonstone to Loughton/Hainault) – Trains every 20 minutes
- Central Line (Ealing Broadway to White City) – Trains every 20 minutes (No Night Tube on other branches of the line)
NOTE: The Night Tube operates with standard fare prices. Your daily travel card will be valid until 4:29 am the morning after you have purchased it.
TIPS ON NAVIGATING THE UNDERGROUND
Now that you know how to pay and how to use the Underground map, we now will provide you with our top 7 tips for navigating your way through the system, from how to enter a system, how to board the correct train, how to change lines, and when to walk instead of taking the Tube.
Underground Tutorial Tours
While these are not specifically Underground tours, your tour guide will assist you in learning how to master the system and to offer you some tips and tricks for riding the Tube.
1) Entering and Exiting Stations
All Underground stations have ticket barriers – large grey machines where travellers either insert their paper travel cards into or tap their Oyster cards on top of.
At first glance, most barriers all seem the same but they are actually divided into three different purposes; Enter, Do Not Enter, Bags/Buggies.
Some of the barriers will have a green arrow displayed – this means this is a barrier that you can travel through. Insert your paper ticket, or tap your Oystercard on the yellow pad right next to the sign displaying the green arrow.
The barriers in front of you (just left from the arrow) will open and allow you to walk through.
Other barriers will have a red X displayed – this means this barrier will not open for you and is either closed or being used for visitors traveling in the opposite direction.
Lastly, some barriers are quite large, with signs displaying buggies, luggage, and wheelchairs. These barriers are much larger than the regular grey ones and are there for people travelling with added items/persons.
They will not close as quickly as the others, giving travellers time to get themselves and all possessions through to the other side.
Read our post on taking the Tube from Heathrow Airport to Central London.
2) Find Your Correct Direction
Checking on your map will help you determine which direction you are travelling in, which will help you find the correct platform and train for your journey.
At every station, there will be maps like these showing the two directions that the trains will be travelling in, and under each direction will be a list of all the stations the train will stop at – in order!
This makes it easy not only to see which platform you need to be on but also how many stops it will take you to get to your destination.
3) Don’t Board the Wrong Train
Sometimes, multiple Underground lines share the same track at a station. If you aren’t paying attention, you could board the wrong train.
As the trains pull into the platform, you can take a glance at the front of the train. Here will be displayed the final destination of that particular train.
Also, on every platform there will be an electronic sign displaying the time until the next train arrives, and which station will be its’ final stop.
4) Lines that Split
Another potential mixup is lines that split. Some lines can have 2 or 3 different ending tracks, so you need to be aware of this. Take the image below as an example.
For example, suppose you plan on boarding a District Line (green) train at South Kensington Station (the black square) with a final destination Wimbledon (the bottom-most black arrow).
You would be taking a westbound train.
However, you can see from the map that there are two additional tracks with different ending points (Richmond and Ealing Broadway), all a part of the District Line heading westbound. As you probably can tell, you could end up missing the first tennis match.
5) Changing Lines
The Tube map can often be misleading in that many tube lines crisscross over each other on the map, but do not actually connect to one another in reality.
If you want to know where you can change from one Tube line to the other, you need to look for the white circle on the line on your map.
Any time you see one of these, it means you can change from one line to another or to British Rail.
Check out our tips on using the Underground with luggage and kids.
6) Sometimes You Should Just Walk
The London Underground Map is definitely NOT geographically accurate. Oftentimes it is easier to walk instead of getting on the tube to travel just a stop or two.
There is a map that gives the walking times between stations (pdf).
A good example of this is Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line. On the map, they appear a fair distance apart, but in reality, it would take you just 4 minutes to walk the journey yourself.
Another good example is Charing Cross and Embankment – it’s just a 2-minute walk from each station!
7) Step-Free (Handicap) Access
For those with limited mobility, there are clues on the Underground map that will let you know if there is step-free access. This is also useful if you are travelling with exceptionally heavy suitcases.
Simply look at the map, and on some stations, you will see a blue circle with a white figure in a wheelchair. This means it is possible to get from the street into the train without any stairs or escalators.
The white circle and a blue figure in a wheelchair denote stations with step-free access from the street to the platform.
At these stations, you will need assistance to get into and out of the train, either with a ramp or the help of fellow passengers.
Note that in larger stations, such as Waterloo, the blue circle appears on one line only, which means the other two lines do not have step-free access. Transport for London has this helpful video.
A final note – Although London is generally a safe and welcoming city for visitors, pickpockets and thieves operate throughout the entire London Underground network.
Please be aware of your surroundings, keep hold of all of your possessions, and avoid the habit of simply putting your ticket/credit cards/keys/mobile phones into your pockets – this will make you an incredibly easy target!
Also, never leave your belongings unattended on a train or in an Underground Station.
To avoid a faux pas and keep from being marked out as a typical tourist, here are a few tips for Tube etiquette when travelling along the Tube.
1. Have Your Ticket Ready
Do not approach the ticket barriers until you have your Oystercard – or paper ticket – ready.
If you walk to the barrier and then fumble through your pockets/bags for your ticket, it will delay other travellers and oftentimes can mess with the barrier censors, potentially causing the barriers to lock.
[Remember you need a ticket both to BEGIN/ENTER and also to FINISH/LEAVE your journey!] Be sure to read our blog post on the Oystercard and Travel Card.
2. Stand on the Right
When riding escalators up and down in Underground Stations, please remember to stand on the RIGHT. Travellers who wish to move up/down whilst on the escalators will be doing so on the left-hand side.
If you stand on the left you may find yourself politely asked to move to the right, or simply shoved past by a multitude of commuters.
This also includes your belongings/suitcases – they must be on the right of the escalators as well. It is poor form and bad manners to take up the left side of the escalator with your belongings.
3. Stand Behind the Yellow Line
Stand BEHIND the line (not on top of!) in order to limit any risk of death or injury.
You may occasionally see passengers swiftly walking down the platform directly on top of the yellow line – but do not follow their lead!
4. Move Down the Platform
As soon as you get onto the platform, move either right or left. You will find many people gathered at the entrance to the platform, meaning people cannot get past them and move onto the platform to get their train.
TIP: Besides just being courteous, the rear and front of the trains tend to be less crowded so moving down the platform means you’re more likely to get a seat!
5. Let Other Passengers Off First
6. Move Down Inside the Carriage
Once you are inside the Tube – move away from the door! Standing in place will impede others who are trying to board.
Also (especially during peak times) it is important to move as far down into the carriage as possible in order for the maximum amount of people to fit onto the train.
You will see Londoners standing in between the benches on busy Tube carriages, and you should follow their lead.
7. Keep Feet and Bags Off the Seats
Particularly on crowded trains, it is unacceptable to take up an entire seat solely for your possessions – or your feet!
8. Do Not Lean on the Poles
The poles that are placed throughout the Underground train carriages are meant for people to hold on to.
Leaning against one of the poles means blocking the pole for those that may need it to hold balance whilst the train is moving.
9. Mind Your Earphones and Your Meals
The music you are listening to should not be loud enough for anybody else on the Tube to hear. Also, it is best to avoid eating hot/smelly food on the Underground.
10. Get Out of the Way of Those Getting Off the Train
When you are on the Tube and at a stop that is not yours, make sure you are not in the way of those who are trying to exit the train.
Occasionally, you may need to step outside of the train to let passengers off if the carriage is very crowded – this is expected behaviour, and you will be able to step right back on once the departing have left.
11. Stand Up for the Elderly and Pregnant
Be aware of who comes on the Tube at each stop and do not be afraid to offer your seat.
Occasionally you may see women with a small ‘Baby on Board’ badge with the London Underground logo pinned onto their coats.
Some men even take it upon themselves to stand up for any woman who comes onto the train so chivalry is not completely dead in London!
12. Take Your Rubbish Home With You
Rubbish left behind on the Tube is unsightly and can be quite disgusting.
There are no bins on Underground trains or at most Underground Stations which means it is expected that you will take any rubbish of yours off the train and home/back to your hotel with you when you leave.
On the London Underground, a little bit of courtesy and kindness can go a long way.
Commuting and travelling in the city can be quite stressful so try to remain courteous to others as you go about their business, and hopefully, they will do the same as you go about yours!
HOP-ON-HOP-OFF BUS VS. LONDON UNDERGROUND
If you’re visiting London and aren’t sure about riding the London Underground, then we hope our tips above have made you more confident and willing to use the tube to get around town.
However, we understand that some people may still be a little anxious or unsure about the benefits of taking the tube, as opposed to riding one of London’s hop-on-hop-off tour buses.
To help you make up your mind, we’ve listed a few pros and cons of each below.
Hop-on-hop-off buses can be useful in getting an overview of the city or learning your way around town. They are also quite useful for people who aren’t physically fit enough to walk through London day in and day out.
However, whenever possible, we strongly believe that the best – and quickest – way to get around town is by taking the London Underground or to walk.
[Note that if you wish to take a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, we have a handy page HERE to help you choose which one to ride]
Pros of a Bus Tour
- easy to understand routes
- convenient stops at the most popular tourist attractions
- climate controlled all year (on the inside)
- tickets often include night tours, boat cruises or free attractions.
- commentary along the routes
Cons of a Bus Tour
- more expensive than riding the subway
- routes are only one-direction
- wait times can be very long due to seasonal or even daily traffic
- buses can be crowded
- bad weather is always a risk
Pros of Riding the Underground
- (relatively) inexpensive
- flexible routing
- very warm in the winter
- you get to travel like a real Londoner
- Almost always faster than a bus
Cons of Riding the Underground
- not all stations are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers
- can be really hot and sweaty in summer
- can be really crowded during rush hours
- no commentary
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