How To Use The Tube in London – First Timers’ Guide

London underground sign by London Eye

London Underground is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to get around the city. But the Tube (as it’s locally known) can be daunting for first-time visitors. I lived and worked in the capital for over a decade, using the Underground daily. Here’s my guide to how to use the Tube in London.

What is the Tube?

The Tube is officially called the London Underground. It’s part of London’s public transport network with a vast number of train lines and stations connecting the city. Much of it runs underground and in popular spots, the trains run every few minutes. The Tube is managed by Transport for London (Tfl).

Understanding the Tube Lines

There are 11 different lines on the London Tube. Each line is colour coded making it very easy to use. Here are the Tube lines and colours:

  • Bakerloo – Brown line
  • Central – Red Line
  • Circle – Yellow Line
  • District – Green Line
  • Hammersmith & City – Pink Line
  • Jubilee – Grey Line
  • Metropolitan – Maroon Line
  • Northern – Black Line
  • Piccadilly – Blue Line
  • Victoria – Light Blue Line
  • Waterloo & City – Teal Line

The Overground, DLR & Elizabeth Line

Look at a London Underground Map and you’ll notice there are more than 11 lines on it. The main additional lines are the London Overground, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and the Elizabeth Line. For historical reasons, these lines are not officially Tube lines. But to you and me, they’re the same as the Tube – they interconnect the same and cost the same. In this article, I treat these as if they were officially The Tube. What are these extra lines?

The Overground – the same as the Underground but these trains run overground. As a tourist, you’re most likely to use it to visit trendy east London and Hackney.

Docklands Light Railway – driverless trains (fun not scary!) that look a little different to the regular Tube. It mostly covers the east of the city including London City Airport and Greenwich.

The Elizabeth Line – the newest east-to-west line that runs through central London and connects to London Heathrow.

There is also the London Tram which runs across south London but this is used mostly by locals.

Thameslink and National Rail stations are also featured on the Tube map as well as the IFS Cloud Cable Car (a sightseeing attraction). These are separate networks with separate pricing. More details below.

Planning your journey – Tube Maps & Apps

The best Tube map is the official Transport for London Journey Planner. However, if you have a smartphone, Tfl Go is the best free Tube app. It will plan your route from A to B, you can use it on the go, and it also has live updates. Don’t like the Tfl app? Try City Mapper.

I also recommend picking up a paper map at a Tube station or Tourist Information centre. As a first-time Tube user, it’s good to get to know the Tube network rather than just specific routes. Often, if can take a short walk to a better station you can get a more direct Tube route with fewer changes. I’ve written a separate guide to the 50 Best Things To Do in London. You might also like my guide to Where to stay in London – Area Guide & Hotels.

Euston underground station platform.

Tube pricing – overview

The price of each Tube trip depends on 3 things:

  • How far you travel – determined by zones.
  • When you travel – peak or off-peak.
  • The way you pay – paper ticket, Oyster or contactless payment card.

Tube Zones

The Tube network is divided into 9 price zones. Most tourist attractions are in Central London, which is mostly covered by Zone 1. At a push, you might travel to Zone 2 for somewhere like Camden Market or Zone 6 for Heathrow Airport.

Peak vs Off-Peak Travel

Peak hours are 6:30 am to 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays). Off-peak is any time that’s not peak. Peak fares cost more per single ride but it’s not much e.g. £0.10 more in Zone 1. I recommend avoiding peak travel; not for the cost but because it’s when the Tube is most crowded and stressful. Have a coffee and wander the streets until it’s off-peak time.

Ticket types​ – Paper Tickets, Contactless & Oyster Cards

London Tube is all about getting as many people through the stations as quickly as possible, and that means contactless payment is preferred. The ticket barriers are set up with large yellow readers, encouraging travellers to ‘tap in’ and tap out’ using a contactless payment method. You can use your bank card (debit or credit) so long as it has contactless functionality. Otherwise, you can buy a pre-pay Oyster Card.

If you have a payment card connected to your phone, you can also pay using your mobile to tap with services like Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay.

While you can still buy paper tickets for single trips, they are by far the most expensive way to use the Tube (price details below).

Benefits of using an Oyster Card

An Oyster Card is a smart card that you can pre-load with money and use as a fast pass into the Tube network.

Oyster Card advantages:

  • You don’t need to queue up for tickets every time you travel.
  • You can pre-load the card with credit and just top-up when you need it.
  • You don’t need to work out the zones – it works it out automatically.
  • The fees are capped so once you hit the cap, you get free travel after that.
  • You can use it on some National Rail Services (but not inter-city travel through the UK).

Standard vs Visitor Oyster Cards

There are two types of Oyster – standard and one for visitors. As a visitor, you can choose either. The trip fares are the same. Here are the main features and differences:

Visitor Oyster Card:

  • Buy it online in advance and the card will be sent to your home. This can save time when you arrive.
  • £5 activation fee (non-refundable).
  • You can’t register your card or top up online. You must top up in person.
  • Discounts on other Tfl services e.g. river tours and IFS Cloud Cable Car.
  • You can get a refund of unused credit.
  • Better if you’re planning a one-off visit to London.

Standard Oyster Card

  • You need to buy in person when you arrive unless you live in the UK.
  • £7 activation fee (non-refundable).
  • You can register your card and from there set up auto-top up and request a refund if you lose your card. These options might be limited if you’re not from the UK.
  • You can top-up online if you have registered your card.
  • You can get a refund of unused credit.
  • Better if you plan to visit London more than once or are moving to the city.

You can order your Visitor Oyster Card from the official Visit Britain Shop. Or you can find out more about buying a standard Oyster Card.

Pros and cons of using contactless

If you have contactless technology in your bank card, you don’t need to get an Oyster Card. You simply tap your bank card at the ticket barriers.

Advantages:

  • You don’t need to worry about Oyster credit or top-up.
  • You don’t need to pay the £5 or £7 Oyster activation fee.

Disadvantages:

  • you may have to pay international bank transaction fees for every ‘tap’.
  • you must tap in and out with the same card. I’ve made this mistake and ended up paying for a day’s travel on both cards.
  • beware card clash – don’t wave your whole wallet over the reader – it may take payment from the wrong card.

Tube Prices and Price Caps

By using an Oyster Card or contactless payment, you’re buying Pay As You Go (PAYG) single tickets. In Zone 1 & 2, each journey costs £2.70 off-peak and £2.80 peak. However, there is a price cap and once you reach it, you don’t pay any more that day. The current cap for travel in Zone 1 & 2 is £8.10. That’s the equivalent of taking 3 Tube rides – you get free unlimited travel after that. You can get full Tube prices on Tfl.

Using paper tickets

While you can still queue up at the machines and buy a paper ticket, your wallet will be punished for it. For example, you’ll pay £6.70 for a single Zone 1 off-peak trip versus £2.70 for the same trip using Oyster or contactless. Return paper tickets cost twice the price of a single, which is a painful £13.40 for a return trip. Unless you’re truly making a one-off journey, it’s worth getting an Oyster Card.

Buying Travelcards

You can also buy a Travelcard but these are only cost-effective if you’re using the Tube for 7 days or more. For example, a 7-day Travelcard costs £40.70 for Zones 1 & 2. However, a one-day Travelcard costs £15.20, which is more than you’d pay using Oyster PAYG, which is capped at £8.10 for one day.

Ticket machines and Topping up your Oyster

Every Tube station has a ticket machine where you can buy paper tickets, Travelcards or top up your Oyster.

Tips for using the ticket machines:

  • Try to avoid using them during rush hour – queues are longer and people are more impatient.
  • Plan enough time before your trip – there are often queues, especially at busier stations.
  • Know what you need to buy before you get there. For paper tickets, check the Tube map to see which zones you need and if you’re travelling at peak times.
  • Have your Oyster Card ready if you’re topping up – you will need to tap it to the machine reader to load the credit.
  • Try not to get flustered and end up with the wrong ticket. Ask for help if you need it.

Entering Underground Stations

London Underground stations are well sign-posted throughout the city. Often there are several entrances to get in, especially around big road junctions. You may need to walk through an underpass but you’ll end up in the main ticket area eventually. Stations can get busy and people move quickly. Take special care in the rain as the steps and floors can get slippy. Go with the flow of the people and you’ll easily find your way to the ticket area.

​Navigating the ticket barriers

There’s nobody more unforgiving than the commuter behind you as you fumble at the barrier. Try not to get stressed by it, but at the same time don’t turn up to the barrier and then start digging in your luggage for your ticket. Once you’re at the barrier, tap your card on the large yellow reader. All being well, the barrier will open. Pass quickly – it will close again if you hesitate too long (I’ve had it happen, it’s awkward and requires a member of staff to help). If you have a paper ticket, don’t forget to take it out of the slot at the top. This will open the barrier. If you have a one-way ticket, it will stay in the machine at the end of your journey.

If you have luggage, go through the special luggage barriers. It will be far easier for you and everybody else.

Sometimes, things go wrong – your tap doesn’t work or your paper ticket isn’t accepted. It happens. Try again and if it fails again, apologise, move back through the crowd and find a Tfl staff member.

Finding the right platform

London’s Tube platforms are generally named by direction of travel e.g. northbound and southbound. So, it’s important to know your general direction of travel to catch the correct train. Check the Tube Map to understand your route. While the Tube apps can plan your journey, they only offer a list of the stations you’ll travel through. You don’t get platform information.

Once you get to the platform, there will be a giant line map showing the stops on that route. If you don’t see the station you want, you’re not on the correct platform. Go back and try again. There are large full Tube maps on the wall in every Tube station if you need to double-check.

Checking you’re on the right branch

Some Tube lines branch with trains heading to different destinations after a particular station. One example is on the Northern line where you have the Charring Cross branch and the Bank branch. It’s easy to navigate if you check a map. In addition, the overhead boards on each platform that tell you when the next train is arriving will also say which branch the train is for. As a final backup, there are usually announcements onboard the Tube before it branches. This allows you to get off and wait for the right train.

What if you take the wrong tube?

Everyone does it. I mean everyone. Even me when I was commuting. What do you do? Don’t panic. Just get off at the next stop. In smaller stations, you can cross to the opposite platform which will take you back in the direction you just came from. If you made a bigger mistake or are at a bigger station, check a map and use your Tube app to plan a new route from your current location.

Tube and escalator etiquette

London’s commuters can be rude. I apologise on their behalf. It’s usually just tutting and sighing (so very British). You can avoid it by following good Tube etiquette:

  • Always stand on the right on the escalator. The left is for walking. If you’re in that lane, get ready for some cardio!
  • Don’t block the left of the escalator with your luggage. Put it in front or behind you.
  • Stand to the side and let people off before getting onto the Tube.
  • Don’t dash onto the Tube when the doors are closing, it will delay the train.
  • Take your backpack off inside the carriage and place it by your feet to free up space.
  • It’s legally ok to eat and drink on the Tube but avoid stinky foods.
  • Don’t litter and be careful with hot drinks.
  • It’s illegal to drink alcohol on the Tube.
  • Keep moving – whether it’s getting off the Tube or passing through the ticket barrier, don’t suddenly stop – you’ll cause a human pile-up. Walk a little further than step aside to a quieter area if you need to stop and catch up with your group.
Tube carriage in London.

Sitting and standing on the Tube

The Tube can get very busy. If you can, walk towards one of the platform ends where there are usually fewer people. You are more likely to get a seat in those end carriages. Practice good manners and offer your seat if you see someone in need. Standing on the Tube can feel scary at first. Hold tight and keep a little bend in your knees – this will help you sway rather than jolt as the train moves.

Tube Hours and the Night Tube

The Tube’s standard hours are 5 a.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday with slightly reduced hours on Sunday. There is a Night Tube service that runs 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays on the Central, Jubilee, Piccadilly, Northern and Victoria lines. Here is the Night Tube Map and you can find out more about the Tube Hours.

Sometimes it is quicker to walk

I spent 6 months riding the Tube from Waterloo to Covent Garden (with many Tube changes) before realising I could just walk over Waterloo Bridge. It was a beautiful walk with views of Southbank (though not as far as the Tower of London). My point is to check an actual map like Google Maps as well as a Tube Map as it can sometimes be quicker and more interesting to walk, especially in Central London.

Internet access on the Tube

The Tube used to be England’s biggest ‘not spot’ for mobile (cell) coverage. While roll-out has been slow and still isn’t complete, it’s vastly improved and you can now use your mobile on around 80% of the Tube’s underground network.

Free newspapers

You will see stacks of newspapers in Tube stations. Yes, these are free. While it’s not ok to litter the Tube, leaving your newspaper for another reader is common practice if you’re finished. Just place it on the seat or area behind you.

Step-free access

A lot of the older Tube stations aren’t very accessible, especially for wheelchair users. However, Tfl is making efforts and there is a specific Step Free Tube Guide if you need it.

Heathrow Terminal 5 Tube sign.

Getting to London Heathrow by Tube and Train

You can get to London Heathrow from Central London by:

  • Tube on the Piccadilly line. It takes around 50 minutes. Tubes arrive frequently. Cost – £5.50.
  • Train on the Elizabeth Line. It takes around 30 – 40 minutes but trains run less frequently than the Tube. The cost is £12.80.
  • Heathrow Express from Paddington via National Rail. Trains run every 15 minutes and take 15 minutes. The cost is £16.50 if booked online (£25 standard price).

Getting to London Gatwick, Stanstead and Luton Airports by Tube

The Tube does not travel to London Gatwick, Stanstead or Luton Airports. Instead, you have to take a train:

London Gatwick Airport – You have a choice of three train companies – Thameslink (from several stations in Central London), Gatwick Express or Southern Railway (both from London Victoria). I suggest Thameslink for low prices or Gatwick Express for speed.

Stanstead Airport – The Stanstead Express runs from Liverpool Street Station.

Luton Airport – Thameslink and East Midlands Railway run to Luton Airport Parkway, where you can catch an airport shuttle.

The Trainline is by far the best app for planning and booking train travel in the UK.

Taking luggage on the Tube

Plenty of people take luggage on the Tube. Just be careful where you put it as there aren’t luggage spaces or racks. You should keep your luggage next to you so you don’t cause a security alert. Make sure you don’t block the doors or aisle and keep hold of your roller luggage – it will move when the train moves. If you’re travelling with a lot of luggage, consider spending more on the dedicated airport trains – Heathrow Express, Gatwick Express and Stanstead Express – as they have dedicated luggage spaces.

The Tube vs Thameslink

The Thameslink is a bit confusing. Although it’s shown on the Tube Map, it’s a separate train network with separate prices that is mostly suburban trains for commuters. I used to use it when I lived near St Albans in Hertfordshire. Instead of using it to get around Central London, most visitors would only use Thameslink for specific journeys such as getting to Gatwick or for a day trip to Brighton. What’s useful about seeing it on the Tube Map is that you can see the best location for connecting the Tube with Thameslink trains.

The Tube vs National Rail

You’ll see red icons on the Tube Map indicating National Rail Interchange stations. These are the major stations throughout London that will connect you with the rest of the country. The British Isles really is your Oyster (pun intended) from London. You could journey from Euston to Liverpool (great if you’re a fan of the Beatles), Marylebone to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Waterloo if you want to visit the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery in Hampshire or even St Pancras to Paris. Though, can you really head to France if you haven’t yet explored the many things to do in Scotland.

Check out the National Rail Map if you’re thinking of exploring beyond London. But, while you’re in the city, use this guide and you’ll be zipping around the Tube like a local before you know it.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.