Getting Around in London, or the Best Way to Use the Underground

I know – London transport is not really a common topic here.  But I was inspired, shall we say, by the increased number of tourists I’m seeing in London. And with the Olympics coming up, I thought I would post about tips on using the Underground.  Otherwise known as the Tube.

  1. Stand on the right: I’ve noticed every city appears to have its own rules of escalator etiquette.  In London, it’s stand on the right, walk on the left.  And please please please do not come to a stop at the bottom (or the top) of the escalator.  You’ll cause a pile-up, though in typical Londoner style, people probably won’t say anything – they’ll just give you dirty looks.
  2. Familiarise yourself with North, South, East, West: I don’t mean that you need to carry a compass.  But the Underground platform signs will have Northbound, Southbound, etc, so it’s useful to know if you want to go to a station to the right of yours on the map (i.e. East) or above (i.e. North) or below (you get it).
  3. Don’t panic if you miss your stop: In most cases, you can just get off at the next stop and cross the platform to the other side to catch the next train back.  If you’re very unlucky, you’ll end up having to go via a couple of staircases or escalators.
  4. Stand near the end of the carriage if possible: Right, this is a summer thing.  There is no air-conditioning (*cries*) and in summer, the temperature can hit crazy levels.  However, there are windows at each end of the carriage which can be lowered for ventilation, and trust me, this will be a life-saver.
  5. Stand in the aisle: I know this contradicts the previous one, but if you’re not at one end of the carriage (and not getting off at the next stop), move further inside and stand between the two rows of seats.  Because fewer people do this, you may actually get some personal space back (as opposed to being crammed in near the doors).
  6. Signal when you’re getting off at the next stop: And this is if you are stuck in the middle of the carriage, it’s packed and you need to get off at the next station.  Although eye contact is a rarity on the Tube, people do look around the carriage.  So indicate when you’re planning to get off – turn towards the doors, rearrange your bags, adjust your handgrip on the rail – you get the idea.  That way, the people next to you won’t be startled when you start making your way off the train.
  7. Walk to the end of the platform:  The worst place to wait for a train is at the platform entry/exit.  Because everyone does.  Walk to the end – chances are this is the best place to get on the train and it will be a lot less crowded.  Caveat: If the previous station’s platform entry/exit is at the far end, ooops.
  8. Let people off the train first: I know, basic, right? But it makes getting on the train much quicker.  And wait your turn – some stations do queues at peak hours.  On the other hand, don’t be overly-polite and let everyone go ahead of you – there is likely to be a very irritated person behind you waiting for you to get on.
  9. Get an Oyster card: Never ever do the cash fare.  It’s twice as expensive as a pay-as-you-go Oyster card.  And consider travel cards.
  10. Ask for help: Contrary to public perception, we Londoners are generally a helpful bunch, and can tell you the closest station to Big Ben or the London Eye – though it may take a while for us to remember, because we never go there.
  11. Consider walking: Those two stations that look so far apart on the Underground map?  They’re probably 5-10 minutes’ walk, especially if they’re in Zone 1.  Marble Arch > Bond Street > Oxford Circus = 10-15 minutes down Oxford Street at a brisk walk and dodging shoppers.  Same for Oxford Circus > Piccadilly Circus.  Or Piccadilly Circus > Covent Garden.
  12. Or taking the bus:  Check out these very handy maps – and bus stops generally have clear route maps as well.  And there are announcements on the bus as to where you are.  Plus you get to see a lot more of London.
  13. Figure out the colours: Red = Central. Dark blue = Piccadilly.  It helps when service update announcements are made.
  14. Announcements and “Good service”: You’ll hear “There is a good service on the Jubilee line”.  What it really means is that there is a normal service, i.e. trains are running.  “Minor Delays” – still do-able usually, you’ll have to wait a few minutes extra.  “Major Delays” – a bit hit-or-miss.  If you’re lucky, you’ll time it right and your train will actually start moving within ten minutes or so.  But start thinking about alternative routes.  “Suspended” – ouch.  Go find the nearest bus stop.
  15. Stand on the right: See #1.  This is really important.

So that’s my top 15 tips for using the Underground!  If you’ve been to London (or live here), would you agree or disagree?  What transport tips would you give visitors to your city?

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6 thoughts on “Getting Around in London, or the Best Way to Use the Underground

  1. Don’t meet anyone’s direct gaze or you’ll turn to stone. Don’t try to read over their shoulders. Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.
    Stare at people, then look away at the last minute – everybody does it.
    A good way to get a seat to yourself is to cough a lot. Or talk to your imaginary friend. That works, too. Sometimes.
    Don’t smile and chat. They’ll think you’re insane, or rude.

    • You made me laugh – all so true! Though I admit to doing the read-over-shoulder thing occasionally – can’t help it.

      The only time I do see strangers talk on the tube is when it’s obvious they’re on the way to the same event, for instance the FA Cup final or Wimbledon – and then again, they’re probably not Londoners 😉

  2. Lynne: LOL!

    I’d add to 7 – Walk to the end of the platform: if you just got to the platform and the train is there and it’s packed, it’s sometimes worth just waiting for the next one and walking to the end of the platform in the meantime. Just look at the screen and see when the next one’s expected. It’s often just a couple of minutes.

    Also, if you’ve got issues getting around, it’s worth printing out one of the maps you’ll find at http://www.tfl.gov.uk/gettingaround/14091.aspx
    They’ve got maps marking “step-free” and “avoiding stairs” stations. Those are also useful for when you’re carrying heavy suitcases (I once had the brilliant idea of changing lines at Green Park while carrying 2 heavy suitcases, before it became step-free -never again!)

    • Oh yes – the “wait for the next train” tip! I do that all the time – then again, I’m just lazy.

      And I have actually never used the step-free maps though that’s a good one. I remember kicking myself when I changed at Waterloo from the Jubilee to the Bakerloo line – it was miles and I could have just walked across the platform at Baker Street. Live and learn.

  3. Li, being an ex-Londoner, I agree with all your advice. And I would add another tidbit – if you don’t know where you are, and ask someone in central London who is on the street with you, they probably don’t know either as they are most probably visiting too. So, go into one of the shops and ask. Or, if you have to ask someone on the street, aim for someone older (younger people are usually tourists/backpackers).

    • There have been times I’ve been asked directions, and I’ve ended up saying “It’s around here somewhere… but I’m not quite sure where”! I’m good with maps though 😉

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