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London Underground - Top Tips!

Updated on June 23, 2016
Cathy Le Feuvre profile image

Cathy is a writer/broadcaster based in Jersey, Channel Islands (Great Britain). Author (so far) of five books & a radio presenter/producer!

The London Underground.....travelling on the 'Tube'


London is an immensely popular destination for visitors from around the world with its mixture of history, culture and arts.

The capital city of the United Kingdom is a vibrant, cosmopolitan and exciting place - with ancient buildings from Buckingham Palace, the official residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, to the Houses of Parliament and its most famous 'resident' - Big Ben. Which, by the way, is a bell in a very prominent and elegant clock tower.

London has art galleries and museums enough to keep even the most determined culture groupie happy for weeks, not to mention the West End theatre, and shows galore! It's noisy and crowded, and sometimes a bit smelly but everywhere you turn you're surrounded by a sense of history and vibrancy which will blow your mind.

Whether you're visiting London for the history or to wallow in the arts, there is one thing you will probably not be able to avoid - THE LONDON UNDERGROUND.

Whether you want to or not, during any visit to London you will find yourself using the subterraneum transport system which meanders under the city streets and beyond. From experience, the first time an Underground Virgin steps across the threshhold and down into the bowels of the earth to catch a train, it can be a confusing and even rather intimidating initiation into a world like none other.

I know other writers have done something similar before, but to help anyone thinking of visiting London - I've put together my list of basic pointers which I hope will help you survive, or at least make you smile a little, and encourage you to take the London Underground Plunge!

And if you want more...I've also done Top Tips 2 ... click here for more

250 miles of track - 270 stations!
250 miles of track - 270 stations! | Source

1. The Tube

The London Underground is also known as the Tube.

When you get down to the platforms way below the surface of the city, you'll see why. The tunnels through which the trains travel are just like tubes.

Londoners 'ride the Tube' and 'take Tubes', go to the 'Tube Station' and carry 'Tube Maps'. And if you're looking for the London Underground on the internet, also try 'Tube'.

There are ticket readers at the entrance of most Tube Stations. Note the poster on the left .... an upcoming travel warning!
There are ticket readers at the entrance of most Tube Stations. Note the poster on the left .... an upcoming travel warning! | Source

Handy Travel Hints

Peak or Off Peak? The costs of travelling the Tube vary depending on whether you are travelling during Peak (06:30 to 09:30 and from 16:00 to 19:00 Monday to Friday) or Off Peak times.

Group Day Tickets are available for groups of 10 or more fare-paying passengers. These allow unlimited travel at any time and on any day within the zones paid for but you can only get these as paper tickets, not on an Oyster card, and you can't pre-order - you have to buy them on arrival in London.

Children aged 10 or under can travel free on buses and trams whether or not they are accompanied by an adult. On the Tube, DLR and London Overground services children can also travel free at any time as long as they are accompanied by an adult using an Oyster card or a valid ticket. There are limits to the number of 5-10 year olds who travel free per adult ticket so if you're the Von Trapp family you might like to look at the Tfl website. Child tickets are also available.

For more information about tickets and prices, to get your Oyster card BEFORE you arrive in London, and much much more....go to -

2. Follow the Colours

The London Underground is Colour Coded! All the lines are a different colour (see right).

So while travelling on the Tube, if you can't remember the name of the line you're on, or want ... and while you're jostling for space with thousands of other travellers and commuters it's easy to forget where you're going and how, and even why.... try to remember the COLOUR of the line. Follow the colour you want and you should find your platform, which should also have the colours (and the name of the line) displayed.

Look for the colour on the Tube Maps, and on the signs and on all the boards in the station foyers and concourses. That's a bit of a help. Most main stations also have 'updates' posted on signs .... so if there is a problem on any line you should be told about it. There are also regular announcements which may go something like this 'There are minor delays on the District Line eastbound and severe delays on the Hammersmith and City Line due to an earlier signal problem. All other lines are running on time.'

Some stations also display posters giving updates and others also have white boards where someone has hand written warnings like 'Delays on the Northern Line' or 'Bakerloo part suspended Elephant and Castle to Charing Cross'. If you have NO idea where you are or why you would want to know about an elephant and a castle, then this will mean absolutely nothing to you. In which case, it's worth trying to find a staff member and asking. Staff usually hang out near the ticket offices and ticket reader 'gates' to the stations and wear navy blue.

3. Get in the Zone

The London Transport System is split into 'Travel Zones' - Most services operate in zones 1-6, with Tube, London Overground and National Rail also operating in zones 7-9.

Zone One is the city centre. Most of the great London sights are in Zones One or Two and most visitors stay in those zones. But if you are slightly out of town you may discover you are in one of the outer zones. It may make a difference in terms of travel and accommodation costs.

The Zones do extend quite a distance. For instance, if you're flying in and out of Heathrow Airport you will be Zone 6 and it's about an hour ride on a Piccadilly Line train into Central London. Watch out though - the Heathrow Run can get really crowded. Don't be in a hurry to get anywhere fast but it is really convenient.

Gatwick Airport (which is actually not in London at all) is just outside Zone 6 and it's not directly on the Underground. But it's only a half hour (National Rail - mainline) train ride into London and a connecting Underground Station like Victoria (which is on the Victoria Line and the District and Circle Lines) or London Bridge (Jubilee Line and Northern Line). I travel through Gatwick a lot and find it very convenient!

4. Oysters - more than a shellfish

If you think Oysters are just for eating, think again.

The best way of getting around Central London is with an Oyster Card. These are pre-paid plastic cards which you can pre-load with credit and which means you won't have to queue or line up to buy tickets for every journey. With an Oyster you can just swipe on the card readers at the electronic gates on most Tube stations and you're quickly on your way.

The Oyster gives you unlimited travel on the Tube, buses, trams, DLR (Docklands Light Railway) and National Rail services within the London travel zones. You can also use your Oyster card to receive discounted fares on TfL (Transport for London) River Services.

Oyster is valid for all zones and automatically calculates the cheapest fare - you just need to remember to swipe in AND out on all occasions, otherwise you won't be charged the cheapest fare. The card reader on the gates will also give you an idea of how much is left on your ticket so if you need to, you can top-up .... this can be done at the Oyster machines in the stations or on-line.

You may also buy a Travelcard - which is a paper (also the size of a credit card) ticket.Your Travelcard MUST be valid for every zone you travel through. If you are visiting London but staying outside the city the best idea is to buy a 7-Day or Daily Travelcard (all Zones) which will get you around to everything you want to visit.

5. Take a Back Seat

I've already touched on the fact that the London Underground and its trains CAN get very busy. But there are a few handy hints which might help you being crushed.

The first thing you'll notice is that each train has numerous carriages and the REALLY busy cars are those that pull up alongside the 'exits' and 'entrances' to the platforms. Most people don't bother to move very far from the exit and entrances but just squeeze themselves on to the nearest carriage.

Depending on where those exits are, you can find more room at the front and on most trains there's usually more chance of breathing space in the carriages to the rear of the train. In fact, you may hear Underground staff (often there is a staff member on the platforms during busy times) advising you to 'move down to the far end of the platform'.

Here's a tip - don't jump on the first train that turns up. If you're not sure which will be the 'back' and which the 'front' of the train, wait for one to pass through, check out the direction of travel and while your Fellow Travelling Sardines pile onto an already stuffed carriage, walk calmly down to the back end of the train and, if you need to, wait for the next train to appear.

One warning - you can't move between carriages while the trains are moving. Once you're in a carriage, you are there for keeps or at least until you arrive at the next station. So please don't try moving to the back end of the train by opening the emergency doors at either end of most carriages. Well, not unless you want to risk death or serious injury!

6. Don't Panic - there's more than one train!

Unless you're really unfortunate and happen to be travelling a Tube line which is suffering disruption (unfortunately not uncommon) remember trains do come regularly. You really don't have to rush to catch a train, or even put up with overcrowded carriages. There will usually be another train along in a minute, or three.

On each platform there should be a digital Arrivals Board (usually hanging overhead), telling you when the next train, and the next, is due. If you are not in a hurry, it is sometimes worth waiting a few trains in order to board a car which is not overfull. Indeed, my long experience of travelling the Tube has proved to me that Underground trains often follow a wave-like pattern. Three or four really packed, one not so full - that's because all the passengers have popped onto the overstuffed trains and haven't followed this simple rule.

Eventually - within a few minutes anyway - one train should come along where there is just a little more space!


7. No Smoking! No Booze!

Smoking is not allowed on the London Underground. And drinking alcohol on the Tube is also prohibited.

8. No Cells! No Mobiles!

This doesn't mean that there are phone cops who stop you taking your cell/mobile on to the Tube. That would just be silly.... but a warning, you might be carrying your phone but you won't be using it undergound. There's generally no mobile signal on the London Underground.

On some lines part of which run overground before diving below there IS signal and at some stations in Central London you can get a signal in the station concourse. But once you descend you'll quickly lose connectivity.

Wi-Fi is now available in many of the stations which means that you'll be able to connect to the internet including your social media sites from the ticket hall, escalators and on the platforms in connected London underground stations.

However, the W-iFi service will not work in London Underground tunnels which means you'll lose connectivity when you are actually on the trains and travelling, and will only reconnect when you arrive at a Wi-Fi wired platform

A very busy Oxford Circus station in Central London
A very busy Oxford Circus station in Central London | Source

9. Always carry water

Much of the London Underground system is fairly ancient - some of it more than 100 years old! So there's no air conditioning to speak of on the Tube and while the authorities keep telling us that they are coming up with ways of better ventilating the system, the truth is that it can get VERY VERY hot down there.

During 'rush hours' (roughly the Peak times mentioned above) when Londoners of all shapes and sizes make their way to work and back in their thousands, and even late at night when theatregoers are making their way home, and especially during the summertime, the London Underground System gets VERY Hot and VERY crammed.

If you suffer from claustrophobia or just simply don't want to share intimate space with complete strangers, try to avoid the busy times....and always take a bottle of water. You need to stay hydrated to avoid feeling faint. This is not just my tip, it's something that London Underground suggest you do....please do always carry water!

But be warned - there are no toilets/restrooms/public lavatories to speak of in the London Underground System - so just sip lightly!

Why not take the bus?
Why not take the bus? | Source
There are even 'special' tourist buses ... if you prefer!
There are even 'special' tourist buses ... if you prefer! | Source
One of a number of Underground exits at Westminster Station - at the heart of British government
One of a number of Underground exits at Westminster Station - at the heart of British government | Source

Top Tips 2

This article is Part One of two articles to help you negotiate the London Underground.

For Top Tips for Travelling the Tube 2 (try saying that when you've not got your own teeth in or you've had a late night and one too many...!) click here.

Thanks for reading!

10. There's life Above Ground

The London Underground is great for getting into and around London. The lines criss cross Central London and using the Tube is a very effective way of avoiding vehicular traffic but not necessarily cutting down on walking - sometimes the walk between lines and platforms underground can be quite lengthy.

But being down in the bowels of the earth can mean you may lose touch with reality - it's always helpful to be aware of where the Underground relates to life above ground, because if you only use the Tube you are in danger of missing some of the best sights in London.

An example - you arrive at Oxford Circus and enjoy the fabulous shops in that area. You might then take the Tube (Bakerloo Line) to Piccadilly Circus to see the famous statue of Eros. You emerge from below, negotiate the traffic and crowds, take a quick look at the statue, battle for space with all the other tourists hoping for a photograph with the huge digital advertising screens which are also a feature there.

Then you decide to head for Leicester Square, to buy your (slightly cheaper) theatre tickets .... look out for the discount signs! You head once more below ground, to take the short (one-stop) Piccadilly Line journey to Leicester Square.

However, a quick look at a ground map and you'll realise that by taking the Tube from Oxford Circus to Piccadilly Circus you've missed one of the world's best shopping streets (Regent Street) and Leicester Square isn't more than a couple of minutes walk from Piccadilly Circus!

From Leicester Square you can find your way quickly to Trafalgar Square with several galleries and its fantastic fountain and monumental statues including Nelson's Column. Then it's just about a ten minute leisurely stroll to Downing Street (the heavily fortified home to the UK Prime Minister) and from there not far down to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of British Government and home to Big Ben. From Parliament Square you've not far to walk across the river and through to South Bank where you'll discover, among other things, the London Eye. From Trafalgar Square you can also walk to Horseguards Parade and down the tree lined Mall - the approach to Buckingham Palace, enjoying St James' Park and other wonderful locations along the way.

Many of the Central London sights are all within walking distance and so long as you're fairly mobile, it's a great way to really get the feel for the city, its people and its mad traffic! There are also buses (including tourist buses), and boats which will take you up and down the River Thames to places like the Tower of London!

So - unless you're in a terrible hurry, when you're travelling the Tube, ensure you pop up above ground from time to time and get to know the real London.


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