London Underground Hero
Travel Tips

How to Use the London Underground:
A First-Timer’s Guide

There are many things I love about London. Heck, I started this website because there are so many incredible things about this city that I want to share! One of them is definitely the widespread public transit system that both locals and visitors use. The London Underground is the cornerstone of that system.

If you’re planning your first trip to London, the London Underground – also called the “Tube” – can seem overwhelming. On the map, there are a lot of colored lines all jumbled together like rainbow spaghetti! This guide will give you the basics of how to use the London Underground for your first trip.

In this post, you’ll learn a little bit about the Tube, how to get tickets (and which ticket combos I recommend based on your trip length), how to navigate the Tube, and other tips for traveling on the Underground. By the end, you might not be a pro at how to use the London Tube, but you’ll be off to a great start – and once you board your first train, you’ll get the hang of it quickly!

9 Facts About the London Tube

London Underground - Tower of London

Before jumping into the logistics, it’s helpful to cover a few important facts

  1. The London Underground is operated by Transport for London (TfL) – TfL also operates buses, trains, and other public transit in London.
  2. London is divided into 9 Travel Zones – Most London attractions are in Zones 1-2, and most people stay in those areas too – so you usually only need to have the fare for Zone 1-2 journeys.
  3. There are 270 stations and 402km of lines – You’re never far from a station, especially in Central London.
  4. There are 11 London Underground lines – Let’s see if I can do them all from memory: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, and Waterloo & City. (I had to look up two – Metropolitan and Waterloo & City; I’ve never ridden on either of them!)
  5. All Underground lines run from roughly 5am to midnight daily – This means you can pretty much get around London any time, any day on the Tube!
  6. The Rush Hours on the Tube are from 7:30-9:30am and 5:30-7pm – If you can avoid these times, you’ll have a much less crowded, much more comfortable ride. 
  7. There’s a Night Tube – It runs on Fridays and Saturdays on the Victoria, Jubilee, and most of the Central, Northern, and Piccadilly lines.
  8. Roughly 1.35 billion people ride the Tube annually, and 5 million per day – Both visitors and Londoners alike ride the Tube
  9. on a daily basis. It’s one of the best ways to get around London!
  10. The London Underground first opened in 1863, making it the oldest metro system in the world – Wow! ‘Nuff said.

Now that you’ve got the basics, let’s jump into how to actually use the Tube, from buying tickets to navigating the system.

How to Pay on the London Underground

London Underground - Oyster Card - Amanda Slater via Flickr
Photo credit: Amanda Slater via Flickr

I have an entire post breaking down the different payment methods and payment “plans” (how often you pay for rides) on the Tube – trust me that it’s way more complicated than it needs to be!

If you’re really curious, you can read the whole thing here, but I have a quick breakdown of my suggestions depending on how long your trip is:

If Your London Trip is 5 or Fewer Days

  1. When you arrive at the airport, purchase a return ticket from the airport station to the station nearest your accommodation.
  2. Once you arrive in London, purchase an Oyster Card and load it with £40. This will be enough to ensure you can ride as much as you want within Zones 1-2 for your entire trip.

If Your London Trip is 6-7 Days

  1. When you arrive at the airport, purchase a return ticket from the airport station to the station nearest your accommodation.
  2. Once you arrive in London, purchase a 7-day Zone 1-2 Travelcard (a pass) for £36.10.

If Your London Trip is 8 Days or Longer

  1. When you arrive at the airport, purchase a return ticket from the airport station to the station nearest your accommodation.
  2. Once you arrive in London, purchase a 7-day Zone 1-2 Travelcard (a pass) for £36.10.
  3. On the 8th day of your trip, add on £10 for every single day of your trip or £15 for every 2 more days you are staying in London. (So add £10 for an 8-day trip, or £15 for a 9-day trip, £25 for a 10-day trip, and so on.)

Note that I’m always assuming you are staying in Zones 1-2 while traveling around London. This is where the majority of sights and attractions are, so you should have no problem with this system.

How to Navigate the London Tube

London Underground - Station Entrance

Once you’ve got a ticket, you’re all set, right? Well, yes – but it helps to know where you’re going, and what the experience will be like. Here are some tips on how to navigate the London Underground.

Entering & Exiting Stations

First, let’s cover entering and exiting the stations. When you enter, you’ll encounter a set of gates. You can see which gates are entry and exit gates based on the red/green indicators. I’m sure you can figure out which ones are which!

To open the gates and enter, you need to insert your ticket into the slot or “tap in” by briefly setting your Oyster/Contactless card on the yellow disk to open the gates. Then be sure to safely stow your payment method away – there are pickpockets on the Tube and they love a fully-loaded Oyster card!

When it comes time to leave the station at the end of your journey, you also need to “tap out.” It’s a big rookie move to forget you need to have your ticket/card ready as you approach the gates. Again, the gates will have green and red indicators of which ones you can use. Pull out your ticket or Oyster/Contactless card and again put it briefly on the yellow disk to open the gates to exit.

Know Which Lines You’re Traveling (or Their Colors)

London Underground - Full Carriage

Once you’re in the London Underground, it helps to know two things: which line(s) you’re traveling, and which direction you’re going (more on that below).

As I mentioned, there are 11 London Underground lines, plus the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground, London Trams, and TfL Rail. You probably won’t ride the Trams or TfL Rail as these typically go out of Zones 1-2, but you can expect to ride the Overground and/or DLR depending on which of my London itineraries you’re following.

The easiest way to know each line is by color. For example, the Central Line is red, the District Line is green, and the Piccadilly Line is navy. The entire system is color-coded this way on signs and maps – and even on the trains themselves. So even if you forget the name of the line you want to ride, you can more easily remember the color.

Know Your General Direction

Another important component of making sure you get on the right train to your destination is knowing the direction you want to go. Thankfully, London is pretty well-oriented on the compass rose, so all of the Tube lines have directions: northbound or southbound, eastbound or westbound.

The only times you might get confused is if you’re riding the Northern (black) line – yes, you can ride a southbound Northern line train – and if you’re riding the Circle (yellow) line, which given its name, changes direction depending on where you get on/off the line.

Split & Branched Lines

London Underground Map Portion

See that black line, which represents the Northern Line? It’s in two parts of London at once – how does that work?! As if it wasn’t complex enough, there are also some lines in the Underground system that split or fork:

  • The Northern line splits as it passes through Central London. Pay attention when boarding to see which branch you’re on as either “via Charing Cross” or “via Bank.”
  • The District line has several branches in West London. Be sure to check which destination the train is headed to if you’re traveling on the District line in Zone 2.
  • The Central line forks in West London in Zone 3 and has a crazy loop thing in Zone 4 in East London. You probably won’t encounter either of these if you’re sightseeing in Central London though.

Even if you get on the wrong branch or fork though, it’s easy enough to correct – and you don’t pay extra for riding the wrong part of the line (you only pay when you exit, remember?).

Helpful Apps for Navigating the Underground

There are a number of apps for navigating London, but my recommendation is one called Citymapper. TfL also has their own app, TfL Go, though I haven’t ever used it.

Citymapper integrates all of the different London public transport options (including buses) and has real-time info to help you plan and navigate. It really is a one-stop app for getting around London.

I recommend plotting your route using the app, and remembering the first few steps, then putting your phone away. You don’t want to be walking around with your phone in front of your face such that you get lost or make yourself a target for thieves. (I have only encountered thievery once in the Tube all my times riding, but it’s always better to be cautious than to lose your phone!)

London Tube Etiquette

London Underground - Etiquette

I have a whole post about London Tube etiquette too, because there are a lot of tips to give, but here’s a quick version of it if you don’t want to read the whole thing:

  1. Stand on the Right – When riding escalators and otherwise, if you are standing or moving slowly, stay to the right.
  2. Move Down the Platform – When you arrive on the platform, move down. Especially during rush hours, the train platform can get crowded and it’s best to distribute yourself along the platform.
  3. Stay Behind the Yellow Line – While waiting for the train, stay behind the yellow line. The trains have horns and conductors will use them if they think you’re too close and might be hurt by the train.
  4. Let Others Off Before Boarding – Even on a crowded platform, there won’t be room for everyone on the train if you don’t let people off first.
  5. Mind the Gap – My favorite British-ism, this means to make sure you don’t misstep if there’s a gap or step-up/down between the train and the platform.
  6. Move to the Center of the Carriage – Even if you’re only riding one stop, it’s best to move into the center of the carriage if you can to make space for others.
  7. Hold On – There are loads of railings on Tube carriages to help you not lose your balance. Use them!
  8. Look Up Upon Exit – The signs pointing to the exit are at eye level as you exit the train. There will probably be people behind you, so move right along to exit the platform.

Those are my top London Underground etiquette tips; you can read the rest in my post.

Accessibility on the London Underground

One last important point about riding the Tube concerns if you are a traveler in need of accessibility accommodation. The London Tube system has improved dramatically over the past decade to offer more stations and lines that are wheelchair accessible. You can see if a station is wheelchair accessible with a little blue wheelchair icon on the Tube map.

If you are traveling to Central London and use a wheelchair, check out the resources from TfL on “step-free” journeys here.

Now you’re ready – you can totally manage riding the Tube now! Have any questions? Let me know in the comments.

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