How to use the London Underground: The Complete Guide

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The London Underground has a confusing reputation in the city – it’s simultaneously known for being the best way to travel cheaply and easily around the big city, while also being notoriously difficult for beginners to understand. While it is definitely worth using the underground while visiting or living in your luxury London student accommodation, it can be hard to negotiate the first couple of times you use it, which is why we decided to write this helpful guide to the Tube!

There is always the opportunity to ask for help or guidance navigating your way around London when you arrive at a Tube station, but having prior knowledge also never hurts, so we’ve put together the complete guide to using the London Underground, complete with insider knowledge to help you decipher all the Do’s and Don’t’s of the Tube!

Understanding the Tube layout

The London Underground is divided into nine zones, with zone 1 holding Central London, and zones 6 to 9 sitting on the outskirts of the city. There are eleven Tube lines that travel throughout these zones.

The fare you pay on the Tube will depend on a variety of factors: how far you’re intending on travelling, the time of day you’re travelling in and how you choose to pay – Oyster and contactless payments are the cheapest ways to pay for single fare journeys, with cash payments coming out significantly more expensive.

Tube services usually run from around 5am until midnight on most services, although Night Tube services run on some lines during Friday and Saturday evenings.

The London Tube map

Devised in 1933 by Harry Beck, the London Tube map has been in use ever since, providing clear indications for the general train directions (northbound, southbound, eastbound or westbound) along with any interchanges that may occur.

Finding a Tube map is relatively easy – Transport for London (TfL) produces plenty of free maps and guides that can help you to get around, which can be picked up at any London Tube station. There are also large Tube maps located in each station for you to check your expected journey on, alternatively, you can view this one on your phone.

Stations are shown on the maps by one of two signs – they will either be represented by a line for regular underground stations (which do not allow you to change between different lines), or by a white circle surrounded by a wide black outline for interchange stations (where you are able to change between lines. The routes between these lines will be signposted). All stations that interchange with a National Rail station will show a red symbol next to them.

Tube prices

The London Underground is one of the cheapest ways to get around the city, and the journey is made significantly cheaper when you use an Oyster card, Visitor Oyster card, Travelcard or pay by contactless. Cash is typically the most expensive way to pay for your travel – especially when considering the price of single fares, so we recommend getting an Oyster card as soon as possible if you’re planning to use the tube. An adult cash fare for a single journey within zone 1 is £4.90, while the same Tube fare paid with any of the above payments costs only £2.40 – less than half the cash price!

For anyone using a contactless payment card that was issued outside of the UK, it is advisable to check for any transaction fees or bank charges if you’re planning on paying in this way.

However, your payment type is not the only way you can save money while travelling on the Tube. There are a variety of discounts available, including for students, so make sure you check what’s out there! Plus, if you’re planning on spending a day sightseeing around the city you can get a London Pass, which will save you even more money.

Navigating the London Underground

Before beginning your journey, it’s always best to grab a Tube map, or at least check the big maps that can be found on the wall in the entrance of every station – although if you feel you still need guidance during your journey, each train has maps of the line it travels along plastered on its walls – check them if you’re ever unsure where you’re going!

It’s always best to take the time to plan your journey beforehand – including any changes you might need to make during – as many stations only serve one line, so you will have to ensure you know which stations are the correct ones to change at.

For stations only serving one line, you can easily follow the signs throughout to reach your line. However, for the stations that serve more than one line you should always keep an eye out for signs pointing to the line that you need (the signs will also show the colour of the line as well, so you can just look for that if it’s easier to remember).

Once you’ve reached the platforms for your line, you’ll have to make sure you know which direction you’ll be travelling in (northbound or southbound, westbound or eastbound). There are maps on the wall between platforms signalling where you are currently, and showing the stations that each service will be stopping at. Find your destination and head to that platform (memorising a few stops from that service can also be helpful in identifying if you’re on the correct train).

Typically most stations will only have one line travelling through each platform, but on those that serve multiple lines you will have to be certain you get on the correct train when boarding. Every platform will have a digital sign that will display what train will be arriving next, plus where it is going and how long until the train will arrive at the platform. The train itself will also have its destination on its front, and will usually announce the line throughout once you are onboard.

Useful tips for using the London Underground

Navigating the Underground itself can seem like quite a lot to remember, but there are also plenty of other helpful tips that can make your journey easier for you and everyone around you if you know them beforehand.

  • Avoid travelling during rush hours (on weekdays between 7-9am and 5:30-7pm) if it’s possible, as this is when the Tube can become unbearably busy.
  • Always check the front of the train before boarding to make sure you’re heading to the correct destination.
  • When using the escalators, always stand to the right – this lets people in a rush have the chance to run up the escalators on the left hand side (and be warned, if you stand in the way you will be pushed past).
  • If you have to stand while travelling, move down inside of the Tube carriages so that the doorway isn’t blocked for people entering and exiting the train.
  • While waiting for the train, stand behind the yellow line on the platform – this is for your own safety, as many incidents involving people between the train and the platform arise from people standing too close to the edge of the platform.
  • Mind the gap – you’ll hear this often, and it has similar reasoning to the tip above – be aware of the gap between the train and the platform edge.
  • Always offer your seat to anyone travelling who is unwell, elderly, pregnant or travelling with small children (it’s just common decency, and an unspoken rule throughout the city).
  • If you’re standing during your journey make sure to hold onto the rails – the train will jerk you about.

Travelling with children on the London Underground

When travelling through the Underground each adult will need one Oyster card or ticket, while up to four children under the age of 11 can travel for free with an adult who has an Oyster card or Tube ticket. You simply have to ask a member of staff at the station to let your children through the barrier once you are heading through.

11-15 year olds travelling on the Tube will either need to have an 11-15 year old’s Travelcard, ticket or Oyster card. These will allow free travel on buses and trams, as well as child rate travel on the Tube, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services that operate in London.

Children that are 16 and over are counted as adults, and therefore have to pay adult fares.

If you’re travelling with a small child on a busy train, it is better to have your child on your lap so that it is more difficult for you to be separated during your journey.

London Underground Accessibility

Unfortunately, access to most Tube stations is via numerous steps, which can be quite difficult for anyone trying to travel with mobility problems, especially during peak times.

Many of the deeper level Tube stations have escalators to their platforms, but almost all of these stations also have a number of stairs between the street level and the ticket hall, as well as to the escalator/lift and the platforms.

When you are boarding trains on the London Underground, those with mobility issues should be aware of a general step up to 8 inches (20cm) either onto or off the train. If this could be a problem for you, make sure to travel in the first carriage so that the driver is able to see you more clearly and can allow plenty of time for you to get on and off of the train.

London Underground Opening and Closing Times

The Tubes opening and closing times can vary between lines, but the first London Tube trains usually begin running at around 5am from Monday to Sunday, with reduced operating hours on Sunday.

London metro trains typically run until around midnight, but you should check with the staff at the Tube station you plan on using so you can find out exactly when your last train runs.

On certain lines, there is a 24-hour underground service operating.

In An Emergency

During an emergency on the Tube there are lots of options available to you depending on the severity of the circumstances.

If you can wait until you reach the next station on your line, you can contact a member of London Underground staff there. Each platform has a Help Point where you can reach the control room.

If you begin feeling unwell during your journey, try and wait until the next station and find a member of staff for help there. Be aware that during the summer months the Underground can become very warm, so it is always worth having a bottle of water with you in case of emergencies.

All carriages on London Underground trains have emergency stop cords to be used if all else fails, which can be pulled to raise the alarm. If part of the train is still within a station, the train will stop immediately (make sure you’re holding on to something, as the stop will be sudden), otherwise, it will continue its journey to the next station. If the emergency cord is pulled in a non-emergency, you can be fined.