How To Travel on the London Underground

Fares and Navigation on the World's Largest Underground Network

If you visit London you will likely need to use the London Underground, commonly known as the Tube (probably because most of the tunnels are round). The Underground has been burrowing its way through the Capital since 1863. The first trains were steam driven (imagine the smell and smoke in the open carriages). Electricity didn’t arrive until 1890. Over 400 miles of Underground lines criss-cross London with frequent trains and station stops and many interconnections. To some extent London has grown up around its Underground stations and their names have become identified with their localities such as Leicester Square (pronounced lester) and Knightsbridge.

  1. The London Underground is a totally integrated system (like the New York Subway and the Paris Metro), so once you are underground you can change between lines as many times as you need to reach your destination. Unlike these (admittedly smaller) networks where all journeys cost the same, irrespective of distance, we have a complicated fare structure based on 6 concentric zones. The Central Zone, or Zone 1, includes the Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street and Buckingham Palace.
  2. If you are in London for just a day or so, you can buy 1 or 3 day Travelcards (valid from 9:00am to avoid rush hour) to cover the zones in which you want to travel. Travelcards can also be used after 9:00am on all London buses, the Docklands Light Railway and National Rail lines (after 9:30am) within the zones. If you need to travel before 9:00am you will need to buy individual single journey tickets.
  3. Travelcards have a magnetic stripe and you simply insert them into the slot in the front of ticket barrier. The ticket is read and then pops up from another slot at the top. When you remove the ticket, the barrier opens.
  4. For longer stays it will pay to invest in an Oyster photocard, which looks like a credit card and has a microchip. It stores credit and can be topped up at any Underground station. This requires some photo ID, which can be obtained at any Underground ticket office, so arm yourself with some passport size photos, though there are often photo booths around (a few of which actually work). Oyster is by far the cheapest way to get around London as the daily amount you pay is capped, regardless of the number of trips you make.
  5. To use an Oyster card, press it against the yellow card reader and the barrier will open and your card will be debited. Make sure you use the card reader at both ends of your journey or you will end up paying the maximum fare – so always check in and check out.
  6. Children under 5 travel free and from ages 5 to 15 at roughly half price, though they will need photo ID that can be obtained from the ticket offices. Children are also eligible for Oyster cards.
  7. Use the journey planner. To find your way around you will need to use the Journey Planner, the iconic diagram of the London Underground network. This is a schematic diagram, so distances between stations on the Planner do not reflect the true geographic distances.
  8. There are 11 different Underground lines ranging from the Bakerloo Line to the Victoria Line, each with its individual color code.
  9. Several lines share the same platforms for a number of stations, so you will need to make sure you get on the right train. Look at the indicator above the driver’s head or on the overhead displays.
  10. Trains travelling in opposite directions on the same line are usually distinguished as Northbound or Southbound, Eastbound or Westbound so it helps to know which compass direction you are traveling.
  11. Don’t try to be too clever in choosing the shortest route if it entails lots of changes. It’s usually quicker to take a detour and reduce the number of interchanges to a minimum.
  12. A great source of confusion is that many lines branch and not all trains go to the end of the line, particularly at off-peak times. You will need to look out for announcements that describe a train’s route such as ‘High Barnet via Charing Cross’, a reference to the Northern Line.
  13. Trains run till reasonably late, well past midnight, but it helps to find out the time of the last Tube to avoid having to get a taxi or navigate London’s night bus service, which my feral teenage sons know like the backs of their hands.

Jonathan Priest is passionate about London and enjoys helping people to discover its many delights.

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Great article! Next time I'll follow this advice!

By Tom Mungovan