London Tube Tips: 12 Ways to Navigate the City’s Underground

Riding public transportation can be intimidating, and that was definitely the case for me when first using the London Underground (aka: the Tube). All the colorful lines of the map, different sides of the tracks and the passenger etiquette made no sense at first. There was also the added fear that I wouldn’t be able to navigate my way to the hotel, the London Eye or, even worse, to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace But, after hopping on and off dozens of times I became a semi-pro or at least adequate enough to list these London Tube tips to make your life easier.

London Tube Tips to Help Navigate the City’s Underground Transportation

1. Buy an Oyster Card

It’s official: traveling with the Oyster Card is a breeze! The Oyster Card is a reloadable smartcard that is filled with as much or as little money as you’d like to put on it. Though you do have to pay a £5.00 fee on new Oyster cards, it is typically much cheaper using it than just buying single tickets on the tube to each of your destinations. The bonus is that the card can be used on more than just the Tube. Its good for buses, trams, TfL Rail and much more!

2. Only Smart Cards Work at the Ticket Machine

A Smart Card is like a regular credit card except it contains an embedded microprocessor. They’re more popular in Europe and this American gal tried many times to reload my Oyster Card using an ordinary credit card on the ticket machine, but can’t understand why it won’t work. Until I figured out that I have to use a Smart Card, which I didn’t have at the time. Instead, I reloaded my card with the help of an in-person attendant.

3. Watch Out for Oncoming Traffic

The London Tube is the most practical (not to mention affordable) means of transportation, so A LOT of people use it. Whenever a train arrives, it unloads dozens, if not hundreds of people. So, remember this Tube tip: Step aside and do not block their way!

4. Have Your Card/Ticket Ready

Keep in mind that you need your card or ticket with you when you enter the train platform, so when you approach the gate barrier, make sure it’s already in your hand or pocket. This way, you won’t have to look for your ticket or card in front of the gate and risk holding up the line. Don’t forget: you also need your card when you exit!

5. Check the Underground Line Map

I cannot stress this hard enough: always double-check your destination on the Line Map. You don’t want to get lost and find yourself in the middle of nowhere. The stop in bold is where you’re at. Look for the stop you’re going to and the color of the line it’s on. If you’re still unsure, you can always ask the friendly staff around the station.

If you are like me and would feel more comfortable studying the map ahead of time, you can find it here.

6. Stand to the Right

Stand to the right side when riding escalators. The left side is usually for those people who are in a rush and would like to walk (or run) going up or down. My husband got caught on the left and that is not a place you want to be unless you intend on getting shoved, nudged and bumped. Absolutely, under no circumstances, stand to the right and leave your luggage on the left.

7. Check that You are on the Right Side of the Tracks

You may be on the right line, but are you on the right side of the tracks? This is as important as checking the right line to take because you might end up in the opposite direction of where you intend to go!

8. Mind the Gap

Wherever part of the world you are, as long as you’re riding a train, minding the gap is one of the most important underground tips you have to remember. “Mind the Gap” has been my favorite London terminology because of the way the conductor speaks it with his English accent to remind the passenger to be aware of the few inch gap between the train door and the platform.

9. Stand Behind the Yellow Line

The yellow line marks the place where every passenger should stand which is a safe distance from the tracks. You do not want to fall onto the tracks! Standing here also gives the arriving passengers a safe way to get off the train. However, some folks have no patience and shove their way forward even when people are still getting off.

10. Pay Attention to the Signs

The signs will help you know which trains that are arriving at the station. You have to be mindful of it because there may be a lot of trains that pass through the track that you’re on but goes to a different destination than the one you want. Just because you’re on the right line and side, doesn’t automatically mean that the train that passes is the right one you should take.

11. Do NOT lean on the Poles

I’m not going to lie, this was one of the Tube tips that I had a hard time abiding with. The poles inside the train are meant for holding on to, not for leaning against. Since there is only a limited seating capacity on the train, some of the passengers would just stand and the poles are there for support in case of bumps or sudden stops.

12. Watch the Signs Before Exiting

After you successfully find the right line, side, and train, the next challenge is to exit at the right station. There are diagrams inside the train to indicate the station, but for extra safety when the train stops, look out the window before exiting. There will be large signs that tell you the name of the stop you are at.

Whether you’re headed for a stroll at Hyde Park or heading back to your hotel, remember these London Tube tips and I’m sure you’ll find your way. Though the first day of my London Underground experience was frightening, by day two it was easy to navigate my way throughout Zone 1 without committing any tube faux pas—besides #11.

What London Tube tips would you add?

Other Essential Information about the London Tube

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How to Get the Beatles Abbey Road Shot in London
Attend a Proper British Afternoon Tea in London
The London Eye Ferris Wheel Facts
Stroll Through London’s Hyde Park
Learn Sign Language While Drinking at the Oldest Wine Bar in London

London’s Hyde Park: The Perfect Place to Walk

38 thoughts on “London Tube Tips: 12 Ways to Navigate the City’s Underground”

  1. I remember having to go to a job interview and leaving like two hours for fear I would get on the wrong line or miss my stop or just get utterly lost! But in actuality, if you take a few deep breaths, all the information is there. By the end I felt like a super genius in being able to navigate most of the tube without need for a map. Haha.

    • As soon as I learned how to read all the maps, I felt pretty damn powerful!
      By the end, I was giving directions to other tourists :)

  2. I love riding metro systems in new places. I haven't yet been to London so I'll have to heed your tips should I ever make it there. Overall, how complicated was it compared to some of the more well-known American systems?

    • After the initial “getting to the hotel from the airport”, it was fairly simple. Definitely easier than the metro in Barcelona!

  3. Great tips!  Sometimes the hardest thing about arriving in a massive city for the first time is figuring out how the subway/metro system works.

  4. Great advice! I'm in London every couple of weeks and I still lean on the poles though lol. I do hate it when people don't have their ticket ready to leave though – nothing more annoying! x

  5. I’m clumsy, I stood at least two feet behind the yellow line just in case I tripped :)

  6. From personal experience, I would add never plan to take the Tube with luggage during rush hour.

    • That’s a great one! I was so happy that I did not arrive or depart during rush hour :)

  7. Using the underground while on holiday in a big city like London comes always very handy. It helps you get fast from one tourist attraction to another. Thank you for this great tips.

    • I’ve learned that learning the transportation system is the first thing I should do in any country I travel to.

  8. Definitely opt for the Oyster Card, I was doing single passes and dropped a stupid amount of loot!

  9. I met some people in Edinburgh who told me that I absolutely had to buy an Oyster card. When I got to London and saw that it was almost 5 pounds to ride without one I thought, "yup, Oyster card it is…". Plus, the card is refundable when you leave so if you don't mind waiting in line when you're about to leave London you're fine.

    Mind the Gap = awesome! I knew about this saying but was still shocked at some of the gaps! Taking HUGE steps and/or stepping *up* to the door was an amazing experience (I'm a transit nerd)

    I found the signs confusing and when I was there, the Transit Authority was doing a lot of reno work and often the connecting stations on the map did not match what the announcer was saying

  10. I SO wish I'd had this when I was in London a few weeks ago! My husband and I were dazed and confused the first time we attempted to ride the tube. I'll definitely be coming back to this page for a refresher before my next visit to London.

    • The first time is always the most confusing. Thank goodness it got better with each ride!

  11. Great tips! I love public transit and riding new metro systems (I've collected system maps from every city I've visited for years) but they are always confusing at first. The payment system and etiquette is a little different everywhere you go–no one keeps to the right on BART, that's for sure! I'll remember this for next time I'm in London

    • I have always rented a car when I travel, so I am happy that now I can not be so frightened of public transportation!

  12. Do not stand on the left! Seriously, few things could make you less popular in London. And if you’re lost or need directions, I found people in London were (most often) helpful.

  13. Loved this info. I am British and it still was an eye opener. Yes it really is that easy to travel on underground..

    Dare you to smile and engage in a conversation with a fellow traveller. They really don’t bite (well not all of them) they just want to get to their destination as quickly as possible with no hassle.

    Underground is not a good place on hot day though heat in England is rare, it does happen.

    Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!!

  14. so if you are getting on the tube from the airport and you have your luggage, what is the policy, do you stand with it? Is there places to store it? Help, thank you!

    • Typically there are spaces for luggage near the doors or enough room to keep it near your seat. If it’s crowded, you may have to stand with it, but from the airport almost everyone has luggage, so don’t worry too much.

  15. I’ve yet to make it to London but when I go, I want to at least spend 2 weeks there cause there’s just sooo much I’d like to see!! Thank you very much for sharing this.

  16. The article was good and helpful for many I’m sure, but when in Rome? Remember it’s the London Underground…NOT Tube.

  17. As a native Londoner, this is a great guide for tourists! You can now also use any contactless debit or credit card on tubes, trains and buses – with the same fee structure as if you used an Oyster card. This is so much easier though, of course, means you don’t get to keep the Oyster card as a memento of your trip!


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