How to survive your first trip on the London Underground

The London Underground, normally just called “the tube”, is normally a nightmare for tourists. As a native Londoner it has never really confused or worried me, I’ve spent quite a lot of my life underground by this point in time, but for those who are not ready for it, it can be a horrible and crazy experience.

Most people think of the tube as a unique and special place, but we need to make sure that you don’t think that for all of the wrong reasons. Lots of movies and films and TV series have parts where they are filming in the London Underground, and the shots tend to look a bit like this:


It’s always presented alongside some sort of romantic ideal – whether it be a wayfaring stranger or a couple slowly meandering their way towards a station to go their separate ways, at least for the night – this can be true, but you have to time it right and know what you’re doing. If you just aimlessly wander in to catch a train into, for example, Covent Garden, then you are more likely to see this:


This is what people are talking about when they say that we live like rats and it’s a scary and disorientating experience. It’s not only the platforms that are the problem, but queuing to get your tickets with people impatiently watching over your shoulder, others running past you on the escalator demanding that you get out of the way, or simply not knowing where the hell the tube you’re supposed to be in leaves from.

So, let’s take a look at the most common complaints that people have and work out some solutions to them:

1) Queuing to buy tickets

This should never happen, if it does then you’re doing something wrong. There are two possible options, either you are staying in the centre, or you are staying on the outskirts and commuting in – in both of these situations it’s easy to avoid standing in line behind all the other suckers who are trying to buy their tickets from a machine, or from one of the very rare ticket booths that have actual people in them.
There are three ways of paying to get into the underground that immediately come to mind. Old-fashioned tickets, Oyster Cards and Contactless Payment Cards. The actual physical paper ticket version is going out of fashion very quickly for Londoners (however, it may be the best option for tourists),  if you prefer this way then I suggest you buy a travelcard and avoid single-journey tickets entirely. You never want to end up buying a single journey ticket.
The Oyster Card is the next choice,  it acts as a e-wallet which you use to tap a pad on the barriers so that they open. It is the cheapest way to pay for single journeys, however, if you want to travel a lot during one day I would recommend that you get a travelcard instead – the exact point when it would be worth getting a travelcard instead of an oyster is around 3-5 single journeys – depending on zones (more on that later). If you want to see everything then you will definitely be doing more than 3-5 single journeys during a day – it’s also possible to get a 7 day travel card – definitely worth it if you will be sightseeing for more than 3 days. More details on both of these, including where and how to purchase them, can be found on the TFL shop

The last method is contactless payment card – using your contactless enabled debit or credit card and tapping it onto the pad at the gates just like an oyster card in order to gain access to the London Underground. This is probably the most expensive way of doing it but it is a useful bit of time-saving information if you are just going to make a single journey, since you can just go straight through the barriers rather than waiting to buy a ticket.

*One important piece of information is that if you do have a contactless payment card and and oyster card, do not keep them together in your wallet and then use your wallet to tap on the barriers. It may charge you twice, which would not be a good start.


What Are Zones?

One common question that is asked, is what is a zone and what difference does it make to me? Well, as it turns out, it can make quite a big financial difference to you. It could even make you re-evaluate where you are staying due to the extra costs that you’d incur, especially on a family holiday.

Whatever type of ticket you are buying, they will be valid for times and for zones. Travelcards are no exception, they are either peak or off-peak (more information in the previous link) and are only for certain zones. In summary, most of what you will want to see and do will be in zones 1-4, with zones 1-2 being the “tourist” zones. In practice, this means that if you are staying, for example, somewhere between Morden and Colliers Wood (bottom centre of the map above) it will generally be cheaper to leave from Colliers Wood as it is in the next zone – the exception being if you are travelling at an off-peak time (weekdays after 9:30am) and using an Oyster or contactless payment card. Travelcards are limited by zones, too, and will be cheaper or more expensive depending on the zones you’re travelling too and from. Therefore, it is important that you know what your nearest station is going to be before you get there as this will remove a lot of confusion from your tube journey. Slowly wandering down and then working out where you are and where you need to go and if you, perhaps, need to change train will just make your first journey stressful.

Please note that you do not need to know all of this off by heart, I lived in London and used the London Underground regularly and only knew the one line that was important to me, and a few other bits and pieces where necessary. For everything else to do with planning, go to the planning a journey website.

Use it to plan your journey properly – see what is the fastest route etc.. we all use it, there is no secret London sense that we are born with, I promise.

2) Getting stuck in the middle of a HUGE crowd
There are a few reasons why this might happen to you, and they are all somewhat avoidable. Sadly, for the more adventurous and carefree travellers out there, getting around London efficiently takes a bit of planning – not sitting down for days with a ruler and protractor, but a few minutes before you leave everyday so that you know you’re not about to walk into the middle of a battlefield.

Engineering works / strikes / other delays
There are all pretty common, arguably more so than in other big cities with underground or metro services. Thankfully, the journey planner (link just above) will show you if there are any delays on your journey. Some engineering works and / or strikes can completely ruin a holiday in London. For example, if you are staying next to Morden (bottom of the London Underground map), and the nothern line (the black line) is closed or the service is suspended, then there is no other line that you can choose to use instead, so you will have to find an alternative way of getting into the centre. So, please make sure that you check if there are any planned closures of London Underground lines before you even book your hotel – it is a complete sweaty and humid nightmare if you get stuck in one of these and it doesn’t take long to have a look. If you don’t believe me, then maybe this piece of information can change your mind – a few years back the record temperature on the London Underground was 47oC.  You can check which lines are going to be closed or suspended here
Use the map above to check which colour of line goes where. If you are going to be staying somewhere in the middle of this big mesh of lines then there is a lot less to worry about.

Rush Hour
If you have small children or a loved one that you would like to see again on the same day then I would advice avoiding rush hours on the London Underground. Generally avoid the London Underground between 8am – 9:30am and 4:00pm – 6:00pm. If you want to go and experience what it feels like to properly commute in London then by all means go and experience it, but make sure to take a towel and some water with you. During the summer, in rush hour, it is not uncommon to be stuck in a tunnel because someone has fainted on the train in front of you because of the heat and needs to be taken off of the train. I was working in central London last summer when the temperature rose to 33 degrees and I had to take a change of clothes to work with me and get changed in the toilet when I got there because of how hot and horrible it can be.
The best tip is to try and have an early dinner somewhere, or to already be inside of an attraction so that you can avoid the stampede. You don’t want to be one of those people who come back from London and just say “it was expensive and busy and I hated it”. That’s another thing, London isn’t actually that expensive – you just have to know what you’re doing. But that’s another article!
The last point about rush hour is that you can quite easily go against the massive tide of people, i.e from the end of a line into the centre without experiencing a lot of traffic, but the stations will still be packed and if you are going to a big station where lots of people change trains, i.e Liverpool street or King’s Cross, then you’re still going to be in a train with lots of people.


How to Use What We’ve Learnt

Now that you’ve checked everything and planned it all to perfection, it’s time to use what we’ve learnt.

After you’ve managed to find the London Underground stop itself, see title picture, and you have walked down the steps you will see some barriers that look like this:

For some people it’s obvious what to do, for others it isn’t. The black circles that I’ve put into the picture are to show the green arrow and the red cross that will be on the RIGHT of each barrier. If it’s green then you can use it, if it’s red then you can’t. Simple.
If you have a paper ticket then it goes into where the red circle is. If you have an Oyster Card or contactless payment card, then you tap it against the sign in the green circle shown on the picture. You’re in!

Now, where to go. You know what line you should be on, but you need to find where that leaves from.

Once you’ve got past the barriers all you have to do is look for the right signs to guide you. Normally, they will look like the picture above. Please note that you have two options for the same line that take you in different directions depending on what your direction of travel is. The board on the right of the picture shows you that you are on the Central Line, but to the left the trains will take you east and to the right the trains will take you west. Please pay attention to this and make sure you have had a look at one of these before you get onto the train to make sure that you are going in the right direction.


Once you get off of the train you will either want to exit the London Underground or want to change trains. As soon as you get off you need to look along the platform (even upwards) to try and find signs that look a bit like this:


If you are changing trains then you just need to follow the above process, and if you want to get out and sight-see then just follow the way out signs. It’s as simple as that!



Other Bits and Pieces
Disabled access does exist, but not at every station and the staff at the stations are used to helping people if they so need it. However, there are stations that are designed with step-free access in mind – i.e from the entrance to the train with no steps at all. For more information about this, please click here.

When you get to the platform, don’t stand next to everyone else waiting to get onto the train. The trains are generally as big as the ENTIRE platform, so stand away from everyone else. The first and last carriages of the train are usually almost empty, even when the middle is completely full. More chance of a seat, generally cooler and quieter – no reason not to do this!

The London Underground, on SOME LINES, NOT ALL (YET), is open during the night time. It does, in fact, close on other lines and you don’t want to end up being stuck in Central London. Click on the following link for more information about the night tube.

One of the biggest problems is tourists not leaving themselves enough time to get to where they need to be and then running around. Rushing around in a panic on the London Underground would get me lost as well. Make sure that you leave with plenty of time for your first journey, or until you get used to it and where you are going. Go there when you don’t need to make very quick decisions (e.g rush hour or when the last train is about to leave) and just simply follow the signs. If you need help, then just ask. We are actually quite friendly people and will stop to help you. The trick, however, is to not ask people who are clearly trying to just get to work or somewhere important, ask someone who seems to be wandering around quite happily and I’m sure you will get some help! I’ve helped plenty of people during my time on the London Underground, as have many of the people I know. We are also a useful source of information!

I’m very interested in hearing what your first time on the London Underground was like. Did you have any problems? Did you get into any strange situations?
Also, if I can help with anything else then please let me know. I will reply to everything.


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