Dramatically busy, feeling like a rock concert mosh pit, with shouts of ‘can you move further down please’ as you manoeuvre and contort like some standing game of Twister, generally a sweltering hot sweatbox with suspicious and potent odours. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Still one of the most reliable and frequent underground services in the world, it helps connect London.
The London Underground is the iconic transport network of the capital, but given the history and development of the tube, it can seem quite like an ancient labyrinth, near impossible to navigate! With 11 lines, 270 stations and 400km of track, it can be quite daunting to try and find your way around.
Here are my top tips for making sense of the underground
Understand The Tube Map
There are 11 tube lines plus Docklands Light Railway, Emirates Airline, TFL Rail and London Trams. The map can look quite daunting and intimidating. Each line has unique colour identifiers. The tube map has a grid and an A-Z to help find your tube station. So if you are looking for Victoria, you would look down the list, see that this is in Grid D4 and then you can identify where the station is and what lines it has.
Each station has both directions of the tube, and they will be either North-South bound or East-West bound. By looking at the map, you should be able to see which direction you will be travelling. North Greenwich to Baker Street will be moving North or Westbound. So when you get to the station, you can know in advance which platform you will be heading to, saving any confusion at the platform.
Prepare In Advance
The TFL website has a fantastic journey planner, where you can enter where you are travelling from and to, whether it is a tube station or even a bus station. Make a note of your journey route, including your changes. I know this makes a lot of sense, but honestly, if you have an idea of where you are going, it will make your journey so much easier.
Getting around central London, the distance between each stop is roughly two minutes. It is a good rule of thumb, that if you are travelling 5 stops on the same line, it will take about 10 minutes. Around central London (zone 1), the tubes are approximately every 2-3 minutes, but sometimes the platforms can be a bit of a walk away from each other, so give yourself a little bit more time, just in case.
Apps like Citymapper help with planning your journey and waiting times until the next tube or Tube Map give up a portable and searchable map with the current London Underground service updates. There are lots of apps available for the London Underground so it is just a case of finding which platform is best for you. I would recommend not paying for these apps though, its a bit unnecessary.
Know Your Peak Times
Not only is the tube ridiculously busy between 8:00-9:30am, if you buy an off-peak travel card or use an oyster card after 9:30am, the fares are significantly lower! So have the lie in and enjoy your breakfast. There is an afternoon peak time between 4:30-6:30pm but this does not have any effect on tube fares, it is only the morning peak time. This is only true of the tube. Some mainland train services do have afternoon peak times that vary dependant on the provider, so if you will be travelling elsewhere, it is worth checking.
Check Your Changes
It is essential to know where you will be changing different tube lines, as there are very busy interchanges and if you are able to utilise your travel plans appropriately, you can either avoid these changes to make your journey a bit easier. For example, Oxford Circus is a hellish change, especially around Christmas with the number of shoppers to the area, I would instead take an extra 5 minutes changing my routes that facing that! With the amount of development on the underground and upgrades, some stations are closed to certain lines at certain times. So always check before you travel!
TFL website has a very cool map with the walking distances between stations. For example, if you want to get from Charing Cross to Embankment, you can either get the Bakerloo line, or it is a 2-minute walk between the two stations. Leicester Square to Covent Garden is a short 3-4 minute walk or one stop on the Piccadilly line, but Covent Garden has lift service (or like 500 stairs) and gets shut because of overcrowding. Heron Quays DLR station is much closer to the Canary Wharf underground station than the Canary Wharf DLR station. Sometimes it is much easier to walk between stations, so have a look at those maps as well!
Know Your Limits
The London Underground is a complex network of tunnels, deeper and deeper beneath London. For those who have mobility issues, check out the TFL website for maps with step-free access, avoiding stairs and avoiding tunnels (FYI central line has some very narrow tunnels walking down to the platform!). I do get quite claustrophobic, especially if it is quite warm weather as well so I would tend to walk than get the tube or make sure that I always have water when I travel, and if it is a bit too much, get off and take a breath!
Nothing spots a non-local like how they manage the tube! Honestly, I have so many pet peeves and would really recommend following these tips!
- Stand on the right and walk on the left on an escalator. This is actually from when the elevators used to curve meaning the people of the left would need to step to get off (fun trivia fact!). If you stand on the right, it allows people to move quickly down on the left and avoids the awkward tutting of commuters!
- When you get off the escalator, don’t stop! There is a conveyer belt of people heading towards you, and they have nowhere else to go if you stop dead at the bottom, they will fall into you. If you are lost or confused about where you need to go, move forward and to the side, to let people run past you.
- Let people get off the tube first! I get it, the tube is busy, you want to get on and preferably in the seat that I have just vacated, but I need to get off. If you let everyone off first, there is more space for then everyone to board.
- Don’t hold the doors. The next tube will generally be along in a minute or two. Keeping the doors open causes delays to the overall service and Londoners don’t like delays.
- Move down inside the carriage. Please. There is lots of space in most cases, but people just hang around the doors (normally as kids swing around the central pole!) but if you just move down it means more people can get on.
- Be realistic in your expectations. It might seem cliched or stereotypical, but Londoners avoid eye contact on the tube. They are too engrossed in the phone/book/kindle/iPad/paper to notice what is going on around them, and generally have headphones in as well to dampened their senses of the commute. They might not see that you require a seat or quite what is going on. Don’t be too hard on them though, if you need a chair, politely ask those seated in the priority seats and someone will generally move for you. If you need a seat just before you a tired though, probably not going to work out very well. Those who are pregnant, elderly, with small children or with a disability will mostly be accommodated.
The underground is a great way to travel around London, just make sure you are prepared to make the most of your journey
It’s barely changed since the faceless colour committee originally selected it in 1908 when the first map of the Underground was designed and the Bakerloo conclusively became brown, a very early twentieth-century brown, which brings something of the nineteenth century with it – the colour of Sherlock Holmes’s pipe, a Gladstone bag, a grandfather clock.