10 essential tips for the London Underground

10 Essential Tips for the London Underground-4

I’ve been a tourist in London. I’ve been excited to catch the tube so I feel like a local, swiping my Oyster card through the turnstiles and letting myself be swept along with the crowds of daily, stone-faced commuters to the platform. I’ve giggled when the announcement warned me to ‘mind the gap’. I’ve talked loudly to friends on the London Underground and observed that no-one else in the carriage spoke so much as a word, drawing the conclusion that Londoners were sour, boring people.

Then I moved to London. And I began making a hellish, hour-long commute each way. A mere 8 miles took an hour and three different tube lines; one of which was the dreaded Northern line. I now feel a kinship to these poor, sour, boring people I once observed and, although I’m now lucky enough to have a short walk to work, I have compiled my 10 essential tips for the London Underground, which you may find either depressing, interesting, hilarious or helpful (depending on your own personal level of commuting hell):

1. If you see someone who won’t budge an inch despite a few feet of spare platform on either side of them: leave them alone!

This may sound completely ridiculous, but the truth is that this poor commuter has probably perfected their journey in order to waste as little time as possible. If they stand in this EXACT position on this platform, they will get onto the tube at EXACTLY the right door to exit at the PERFECT location to then leave the station and smoothly transition to the next leg of their journey.

Trust me. I’ve been there. If I couldn’t get on the tube at the correct door my commute would be ruined. RUINED!

2. Feel free to stare. Just don’t make eye contact.

The tube is a fantastic place to people-watch, and everyone does it. I’ve seen people flawlessly apply makeup, laugh out loud at books, sob unashamedly, pick their nose, clip their fingernails…there’s no shortage of people-watching on the London Underground, but the aim is to not be caught.

If someone catches you staring at them, just look away as quickly as possible and pretend you never saw them. Do not engage; that’s just creepy. Which brings me to:

3. If you talk to a stranger on a tube, you’re a tourist.

End of story. Locals just don’t do it. Want to know why?

4. When you’ve been spooned by a stranger on a tube, you just want to forget it ever happened.

During the course of my eight-month-long commuting nightmare (OK, I know a lot of people have it a lot worse than me, but still. It sucked), I had to get pretty intimate with way too many strangers for my liking. When sandwiched between two large, sweaty men and the woman in front of you flicks her hair into your mouth and when, as you unjam your hand from between yours and someone else’s thigh to remove said hair, your hand accidentally brushes the crotch of another man pressed against you, the only way to cope is to pretend you aren’t there, and to pretend no-one else is there.

I really don’t want to make eye contact, much less strike up a conversation, with someone I have just been that intimate with. You may think all Londoners are grumpy and humourless, but it’s just a way to deal with the hideous reality of a crowded tube ride.

5. Consider walking.

Although it may look like a long distance on the tube map, that journey you’re about to take could be a 100 metre walk. The tube map, although extremely easy to read, is not to scale and doesn’t show the true distances between stops.

For example, Embankment and Charing Cross stations are about 100 metres from one another, but if you were to look at the tube map you would probably change at Embankment to either the Northern or Bakerloo lines – the process of which would take far longer than the two-minute walk.

10 Essential Tips for the London Underground-4

London Underground Zone 1“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

6. Buy an Oyster Card.

If you’re a tourist in London, purchase an Oyster Card from Transport for London. You can have them sent to you in advance, or simply purchase one when you arrive in London, then top it up with a pre-paid amount or a weekly/monthly travel card, depending on how long you will be here and how much you will use public transport.

Valid on tubes, buses and many trains, the Oyster card will save you loads of money. Without an Oyster, a one-way tube journey in zone 1 is £4.90, but with the Oyster it’s just £2.40. It has the added bonus of saving you about 0.12 seconds at the ticketing turnstile; a difference which could save you the embarrassment of – God forbid – delaying a commuter’s journey.


10 Essential Tips for the London Underground-4

I wrote this one in capitals because it’s a source of frustration for all Londoners, despite the plethora of signage on the tube escalators. If you are not walking up the escalators, that’s fine – but please stand on the right.

Plenty of people are in a hurry, and they want to run up those escalators as if their job depended on it (which it might). If you break the number one rule of tube travel, don’t be surprised if a frustrated commuter is less-than-polite about it.

8. Carry water.

This is one tip I seem to always forget, and I always regret it. In summer, the tube is nothing short of an overcrowded sauna, and in winter when you’re wearing layers to combat the cold above ground, it takes about 2.5 seconds on the warm tube to feel uncomfortably hot.

If your tube happens to be held at a red signal for 15 minutes whilst you are silently boiling, a bottle of water is like gold!

9. TFL is your best friend.

OK, that’s not entirely true. When the tubes go on strike or they hike ticket prices up – again – Transport for London is absolutely NOT your best friend. TFL is also not your best friend on a weekend when you discover that the tube you were about to get on is closed for weekend maintenance (it’s been a number of years since the full tube network was operational on a weekend).

But to find out if the weekend’s engineering works will affect you, to see which lines are running well or to plan your journey, check out the TFL website.

10. Forget the rules; you’re a tourist!

After all of these tips and observations, if you’re a tourist then just forget the lot (well, except number 7 – that’s an important one) and enjoy your time in London. If you want to talk to strangers, go ahead – they may give you weird looks but don’t let me stop you from enjoying the excitement and wonder of travelling on the world’s oldest underground railway.

After all, I’ve been a tourist too. Just excuse my newly-acquired sour London demeanour.

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10 Essential Tips for the London Underground-4

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  • Julia says:

    I don’t know, I came back from my tourist trip in London completely raving about the tube system! Compared to the subways I’ve become accustomed to, London’s system is like walking peacefully through a field of flowers. It’s easy to navigate and CLEAN. Also, it seemed only to be filled with safe looking people – ie. commuters. Haha.

    I’ve feared for my life (and my health) on certain Boston and NY lines, and also been confused to the point of tears in these underground mazes in the U.S. But, I was also only using the tube in London for a week, so maybe I just lucked out. You’d know much better than me!


    • Elle Croft says:

      True, it is wonderfully safe, clean (in general) and reliable. BUT when you have to rely on it twice a day and it frequently breaks down or you have to be in awkwardly intimate situations, it does wear a little thin. But I know what you mean; compared to many other public rail systems it’s a dream. I’ll admit that we’re spoiled ;-)

  • Ryan Chits says:

    Sound, sound advice there Elle. I can empathise with all the points you mention and I’m GLAD I’ve never been a woman on the tube!

  • Lucy says:

    Totally agree with every point! Speaking of TFL, there’s a great app – I think it’s just simply called ‘Tube Map’ which can plan a route, tell you updates on lines and generally helps me get out of sticky travel situations! (I promise I don’t work for them, just really like the app)
    I also think it’s important, whilst taking note of these generalities, to be polite and well mannered. No one hates it more when someone pushes in front of you for no reason when you’ve been waiting for longer, or someone just has no regard for manners in general.
    That’st my two cents!
    Great post, Elle!

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