Navigating the London Underground
Boasting 250 Miles (or 402km) of track, London is home to one of the largest and oldest underground rail network in the entire world. No visitor to London could go through their entire stay here in the capital without taking the ‘Tube’ – as Londoners call it – at least once! But for those of you who are new to public transport, or have never been faced with a rail network this large, navigating the London Underground can be a daunting prospect. What follows here is a handy guide to get you making your way through London using the most iconic transportation network in Europe.
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Buying London Underground Tickets
Buying a ticket for the London Underground can be a challenge in itself, so check out our previous post about ticket prices and options here in London. At Free Tours by Foot, we normally recommend you buy yourself an Oystercard – details of which can be seen within our other blog post.
Grab a Map of the London Underground
Picking up a Tube map is easy! They are available for free at most stations on the Underground network. The maps on offer at the stations are small – perfect for carrying around in your pocket.
Don’t be embarrassed to consult your map as you travel through London, even Londoners themselves occasionally need to check where it is they are heading to! Some people will actually have an app on their phone sporting the London Underground tube map – they are free to download onto your smartphone at the App Store for iTunes – so this could be an option for you if you’d prefer.
Focus on Colours
Every line on the London Underground has a different name and colour. The names and colours will appear on your Tube Map, and also all over the various stations on the network. For some, memorising the names is easier, but in general, colours can be the simplest way to learn your way around, and also to use when asking for/receiving directions.
Check our key for a brief guide:
Entering and Exiting the Station
All Underground station have ticket barriers – large grey machines where travellers either insert their paper travel cards into, or tap their Oystercards on top of. At first glance, most barriers all seem the same but they are actually divided into three different purposes; Enter, Do Not Enter, Bags/Buggies.
Some of the barriers will have a green arrow displayed – this means this is a barrier that you can travel through. Insert your paper ticket, or tap your Oystercard on the yellow pad right next to the sign displaying the green arrow. The barriers in front of you (just left from the arrow) will open and allow you to walk through.
Other barriers will have a red X displayed – this means this barrier will not open for you and is either closed, or being used for visitors travelling in the opposite direction.
NOTE: The regular barriers will close immediately after you have stepped through. Do not attempt to have multiple people pass through the barrier on a single ticket, as it will likely close onto the second person. Also, if you have large bags, DO NOT attempt to get them through the regular barriers as they will close onto your bag!
Lastly, some barriers are quite large, with signs displaying buggies, luggage, and wheelchairs. These barriers are much larger than the regular grey ones and are there for people travelling with added items/persons. They will not close as quickly as the others, giving travellers time to get themselves and all possessions through to the other side.
Find Your Correct Direction
In general, the Underground lines operate going north – south or east – west and vice versa. Checking on your map will help you determine which direction you are travelling in, which will help you find the correct platform and train for your journey. At every station there will be maps like these showing the two directions that the trains will be travelling in, and under each direction will be a list of all the stations the train will stop at – in order! This makes it easy not only to see which platform you need to be on, but also how many stops it will take you to get to your destination.
How to Find the Correct Train
As the trains pull into the platform, you can take a glance at the front of the train. Here will be displayed the final destination of that particular train. For example, if you are travelling northbound on the Piccadilly Line, the front of the train will read ‘Cockfosters’ or perhaps ‘Arnos Grove.’ Both those stations are on the northernmost point of the line and the station displayed will be the last one stopped at by that particular train. Travelling on the Piccadilly Line South, you may see ‘Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3’ or ‘Rayners Lane’ as these are the final stops for the southbound Piccadilly line trains.
Even easier than checking the train fronts, you will find that on many Tube platforms it is common for an announcement to be made at the station that will tell you which train is about to approach the platform you are on. Also, on every platform there will be an electronic sign displaying the time until the next train arrives, and which station will be its’ final stop.
Glancing at a Tube map and seeing all the different branches some of the lines break into can be quite daunting. However, it’s relatively easy to choose the correct branch/train if you know where to look!
A good example of split line stations is the District Line. If you are travelling Westbound on the District Line, you could actually be travelling to three completely different destinations! All District Line trains travel the same path until they get to Earl’s Court Station where the line splits into three. If travelling beyond Earls Court, use your map and place your finger on the station you need to get to and continue tracing to the very end of the line (it may be Wimbledon, Richmond or Ealing Broadway), and that will tell you which train you need to board.
The Northern Line is another split line. It is divided into two branches: Bank Branch and Charing Cross Branch. To find which part of the Northern line you need, locate the station you want to get to and trace the Northern line up and down with your finger. If one of the stations your finger touches is Bank Station, then that is the branch you need to take. Same process for Charing Cross Station.
The Tube map can often be misleading in that many tube lines criss-cross over each other on the map, but do not actually connect to one another in reality. If you want to know where you can change from one Tube line to the other, you need to look for the white circle on the line on your map. Any time you see one of these, it means you can change from one line to another.
Make Time and Save Time
When calculating how long your tube journey is going to take, a good rule of thumb is to give yourself 3 minutes for every station you pass through. So if you are travelling from Notting Hill Gate to St. Pauls, you pass through 8 stations which means your journey will take you around 24 minutes. Sometimes journeys can take longer or shorter, but this is a good way to give yourself an ETA.
Also, note that the London Underground Map is definitely NOT geographically accurate. Oftentimes it is easier to walk instead of getting on the tube to travel just a stop or two. A good example of this is Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line. On the map, they appear a fair distance apart, but in reality it would take you under 5 minutes to walk the journey yourself. Another example is Embankment to Charing Cross which, in reality, is a 2 minute walk away!
The fewer times you change underground lines, the quicker your journey will be. Some Underground stations (Monument/Bank and Green Park in particular) are VERY large and travelling from one line to another can take around 5 – 10 minutes!
If All Else Fails…
Simply ask! You will find London Underground employees positioned throughout the Tube network. They are easily identifiable by their navy blue uniforms/orange vests and are there to help. Also, you will find that most Londoners have a pretty strong grasp of the Tube network and would be happy to help you on your way. Employees in many of the major tourist destinations you will visit most likely commute into work from all over the capital so don’t hesitate to ask for advice and directions as you travel through town.
A final note – Although London is generally a safe and welcoming city for visitors, pickpockets and thieves operate throughout the entire London Underground network. Please be aware of your surroundings, keep hold of all of your possessions, and avoid the habit of simply putting your ticket/credit cards/keys/mobile phones into your pockets – this will make you an incredibly easy target! Also, never leave your belongings unattended on a train or in an Underground Station.