London certainly sprawls, but at least it’s got a public transit system up for getting 9 million people where they’re trying to go. There are more than 270 stations and 11 lines that connect them in London. You may be able to use public transport to get anywhere, but it doesn’t mean figuring out your route is so easy. The tube map looks like a tangled mess of colors, and when you factor in the overlapping train and bus lines, you can get lost in a hurry.
Perhaps there’s no better way to experience London in full swing than to go underground. Heading to London and want some help navigating one of the world’s oldest transit systems? Here are some tricks on how to use the London underground without looking like a complete idiot.
Take a Look at the Map Ahead of Time
Rather than trying to sort things out when you get into the station, take a look at the map before beginning your journey on the tube. It will be helpful to understand how the city fits together, and it’s far easier done before you’ve already gone underground. Download a PDF Tube Map (December 2019).
The World is your Oyster Card
The Oyster card is a smart card that you can use to travel on London’s bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus services and National Rail services throughout London. Simply put, you can use your Oyster card for just about everything. The Oyster card also entitles you to a significant discount on fares – about half of what you’d pay in cash.
Order an Oyster card before you arrive in London to avoid the hassle of paper tickets and higher fares.
Travelcard vs Oyster vs Contactless
Single fares for the London underground are both expensive and inefficient. If you’re making more than one trip within London, you should pay by Travelcard, Oyster, or Contactless.
Travelcard offers unlimited transit for a period of time (one day, one week, or one month) at a flat rate. Oyster Card is for pay-as-you-go transactions and is the preferred method for most commuters in London. Finally, Contactless is a popular payment method that Londoners use to pay for just about everything via direct withdrawal from their bank account.
While Travelcard may sound like a good idea for visitors, it is only cost-effective if you intend to make 3+ journeys per day or travel outside of Zone 1 and 2. The pay-as-you-go Oyster Card is generally considered the cheapest tube fare option for tourists to London.
How to Load your Oyster Card
Reloading your Oyster Card is simple. Most stations have a machine where you scan your Oyster Card against the reader, select the £ amount of your reload, insert your credit card, and rescan your Oyster Card. Next step? Get on with your day.
London’s public transport is paid based on the length of your trip, which zones you travel through, and whether you’re traveling during peak hours. You’ll scan your card upon entry and swipe out when you leave at your end station. While fares vary tremendously, I’ve found most trips within London averaged between £2-£4.
Make your Journey Simple with Apps
There are a couple of apps that have saved me a lot of headaches. If you’re traveling without data on your phone, I’d recommend downloading the following apps to supplement Google Maps:
Tube Map – London Underground App. Tube Map is a London Tube planner app that works offline to help you get from one spot to the next. If you know your departure and end station, Tube Map details your quickest or simplest route. Tube Map also has a night mode feature to help you navigate your way home when it’s too late for the usual service. Get on App Store or Google Play.
CityMaps2Go: It’s easy enough to get lost in London. Exit the tube on the wrong side or miss your bus stop, and what seemed like an easy walk on Google Maps gets confusing in a hurry. CityMaps2Go offers a detailed map of London map that is pre-loaded with landmarks, restaurants, museums, and more so you can get directions on the fly. Get on the App Store or Google Play.
Know your Lines
London is serviced by an extensive network of tube and rail lines. You can avoid a bit of confusion by understanding the terminology and symbology of each line.
“The Tube” refers to the London Underground that services most of the city, “The Overground” is the rail network that serves Greater London, and “The National Rail” is the train service that connects London to other parts of the UK. The”TfL Rail”, “DLR”, and “Tram” are smaller, more specific networks that service certain neighborhoods. When you look at a transport map, the symbols below will be used to indicate which lines are accessible from any given station.
When possible, staying underground keeps things simple. Take a look at alternative stations near your end destination when planning your route to determine if there’s an easier, more direct way to travel!
Know your Zones
There are six primary zones in London. Zone 1 is considered Central London while Zones 2 and 3 are a mix of inner and outer London. Zones 4, 5, and 6 are primarily outer London with some areas outside London entirely.
Fare zones dictate the cost of travel from one point to the next, and traveling within Zone 1 during peak hours typically costs a bit more. Most attractions and popular neighborhoods sit within Zones 1 and 2.
Inside the Stations
How to Use the London Underground
The London Underground is easy enough to navigate if you’re familiar with mass transit in another city. Here’s a simple idea of how your trip should go:
1. Enter the station and follow the signs toward the correct line. The tube lines are indicated by a color, while the rail network is indicated by the symbols (above).
2. Most lines will have two platforms to choose from (ie. Northbound and Southbound). Before impulsively hopping on the train, take a minute to look at the list of stops to ensure you’re going the right way.
3. On the platform, you’ll see a digital display that indicates both the endpoint and arrival time of the next train. Please note that some trains have divergent routes serviced from the same platform. In this case, the sign will say something like “Endpoint (via Station Name)”. If you’re lucky, your desired station is along that side of the split. If not, you may have to wait for the next train to get where you’re going.
About the Night Tube
On Fridays and Saturdays, there are 5 lines (Central, Victoria, Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly) offering 24-hour service. While not all stations are open, this is wildly convenient and far cheaper than calling an Uber after a night out.
When you’re sweating and trapped underground, ignoring tube etiquette is a surefire way to make commuters hate you. If you’re traveling during peak hours, be sure to have your Oyster card out and ready by the time you get to the scanner. When making your descent on the escalators, keep right for standing or pass on the left.
When your train arrives, give space to people trying to exit the train before shoving your way on. Once inside, move down inside to make room for people hopping on or off the tube along the route. Finally, if you manage to snag a seat, don’t be a jerk. Keep your eye out for families or elderly people who could use the chair more than you.
Arriving in London
Actually arriving in London can be one of the most stressful parts of your trip. As London has frequent public transport from the airport, there’s really no need to book a taxi. Arriving at Heathrow or Gatwick? Here’s how to reach London from the airport.
How to Get from Heathrow to London: The most affordable way to get from Heathrow to London is by tube. The Picadilly line gets you to central London within 50-60 minutes for about £6. If budget isn’t an issue, the Heathrow Express offers the quickest transport between Heathrow and central London, taking about 15 minutes (£22-£25).
How to Get from Gatwick to London: The Gatwick Express runs service to Victoria, taking 30 minutes (£17-£35). There are also Southern train services along with service to London Bridge and Saint Pancras departing several times an hour. Finally, you might consider National Express or easyBus depending on your arrival time.