How to Use the Tube in London (Without Pissing off the Locals)

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London underground sign by London Eye

I’ve been using the Tube in London a lot recently and as I’m no longer living or working in the Capital, I’m starting to see the underground transport network in a whole new light. Sure, the Tube is awesome – it’s one of the best mass transit systems in the world, but it can be a beast to use. It’s over crowded, the whole thing seems to move at the speed of Hussein Bolt and there are more unwritten rules about using the Tube than are contained in the entire history of the British legal system (probably).

But worse than that, I’ve never met a bunch of transport users more unforgiving than Londoners. For a city that is one of the most visited in the world, the locals are pretty unwelcoming to the tourists. Sure, they’ll let you descend into the depths of the Tube network (because they’ve not yet figured out a way to keep tourists out) but step one foot wrong and they’ll be tutting, shoving and snarling all the way to the last stop.

So, what can you do to blend? How can you use the Tube in London like you were a local? With a fresh set of tourist eyes, I’ve been riding the Tube and picking through the unspoken etiquette – the things that become so normal you forget they’re not normal when you live and work in the city. The result: my tips for using the Tube in London.

If you’re visiting London, you might like my guides 50 Best Things To Do in London | Where to stay in London – England | How To Visit The Tower of London

And what about these day trips from London: 17 Best Things To Do In Stratford-upon-Avon | How To Visit The Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery

1. Get an Oyster Card

Oyster card

Photo: Annie Mole

This tip is as much for your wallet as it is for not pissing off the locals. An Oyster Card is a smart card that you can pre-load with money and use as a fast pass into the Tube network. And you’ll really want that fast past when you have 10, 15, 20 locals piling up behind you tapping their feet wondering why you don’t just tap your damn Oyster Card. Speaking of which, the card works by tapping it onto the black circle on top of the entry barrier when you get into the Tube station and doing the same on the way out.

Not only is an Oyster Card the quickest and easiest way of using the Tube (you don’t have to queue up for tickets each time or fiddle with getting the paper in the slot), the cost of a ride using an Oyster Card versus single tickets is WAY cheaper.

How much cheaper? Less than half the price of a normal ticket!

A one-way single ticket ride in Zone 1 is £4.80.

A one-way single ride in Zone 1 with Oyster is £2.30.

Talk about Tourist Tax if you don’t have an Oyster Card!

You can buy day passes instead of using an Oyster Card, which cost £6.40 and give unlimited travel in Zone 1.  But there’s little benefit – with an Oyster Card, the system will automatically cap your spend at £6.40 if you take enough single rides in one day. Plus, the Oyster Card takes all the stress out of figuring out how many zones you may or may not pass on your adventures – Oyster Card calculates it all for you.

How do I get one of these magical Oyster Cards I hear you cry? Easy: just look for the Oyster Card sign in the ticket office. You’ll have to pay £5 as a deposit, but you get this back when you return the card at the end of your trip…or just keep hold of it if you’re planning on returning to the city (i.e. haven’t been killed by the locals). The funds don’t expire.

Where you can and can’t use your Oyster Card: the benefit of the Oyster card is that you can also use if for buses, trams (more common outside Central London), the Docklands Light Railway, the Overground and some National Rail Services. You can’t use it for the Heathrow Express, but why would you want to take one of the world’s most expensive train journeys when you can get into Central London easy enough by Tube?

What about the Visitor’s Oyster Card – you may have seen online that you can buy a Visitor’s Oyster Card. I personally don’t really see the benefit unless you’re TFL (Transport for London) who get to bag a non-feundable £3 from tourists. Do as the locals and buy a regular Oyster Card and save yourself £3.

A word on contactless bank cards: we have these whizz-bang ATM cards in the UK and for purchases under £20, you can tap your card on a reader and the money is taken from your bank account without you having to enter a pin number or sign anything.

The good news is that if you have a contactless card, you don’t need an Oyster Card at all – just use your bank card to tap in and tap out. But, beware! Don’t try to act too local – you know, tapping your entire wallet on the reader – because you risk ‘card clash’ where the system will take the money from whatever card it reads first. Great if you’re still carrying you ex’s credit card. Not so great if it makes you overdrawn on the wrong account.

2. Get a Map

 Having used subway systems all over the world, I’m not being biased when I say that the colour coding of the London Underground is so easy to use it must have been designed for idiots by drunk people. That’s great news for tourists but even the smartest tourist using the most idiot-proof system is going to need a Tube map, because as simple as the system is, the network is vast.

Sure, there are Tube maps pinned to the walls in all stations and the signage at each stop is great, but you can’t beat your own map for quickly checking if you’re on the right track (literally). Pick up a map at any Tube station, print one at home or, better yes, download an app.

3. Know where you’re (damn well) going

Baker Street tube station

Photo: oxborrow

Having a map and reading it aren’t the same thing. The are a bunch of places on the Tube map that are easy to confuse, as I explained recently to the tourists who stood in Kennington Tube station (where there is nothing of interest) looking for South Kensington, many stops and line changes away (where most of the museums are).

Double check your destination before you travel. If you’re using the app I recommended, it will even plot the fastest or simplest route for you.

The upshot, you won’t be that person who dithers at the platform wondering if you should get off or stay on the train, blocking the exit for locals who, I have to tell you have very, very…very IMPORTANT places to be.

4. Stand on the right, walk on the left. ALWAYS.

Escalator London underground

Photo: anniemole

If there’s one thing that hacks off the locals more than anything, its people who don’t follow the rules on the escalators. It’s pretty simple, duh. Stand on the right. Walk on the left. Always. If you want to get off the escalators alive, or at least without an awkward tap on the shoulder and a snarled, “Excuuuuuuuseeeeee me!!!” (Londoners are mean but politely so), stick to the correct side. And never, ever, let your luggage block the walking side, there will be tutting so loud it will carry all the way to Buck House.

5. Let passengers off the train first…kinda

It doesn’t matter that there is another southbound Northern Line train in 3 minutes, the entirety of London is programmed to cram onto the very next available train, because this city waits for no man (woman or child). So, despite the fact that trains are frequent and carriages plentiful, there is rarely an easy stroll onto a Tube, especially in rush hour.

Instead, Tube riders crowd around the areas where the carriage doors will open. Of course, this is a pain in the ass for people already on the train who want to get off. So, be a good sport and move to the side, as you’ll repeatedly hear the tannoy announce…just don’t move too much. Step completely aside to let the woman and her buggy off and you’ll muck up the whole order of things. Locals who have spent the past two minutes jostling and shuffling into the perfect space will lose their spot and the pile on, when people have piled off, will become a free for all. And, Heaven forbid, you cause a local to have to wait a whole extra 3 minutes for another train.

Of course, real locals know that the best way to get on a Tube is to dash between the doors at the last seconds, when the beeping has started and the doors are closing. Sure, the doors will give you a vigorous smack in the face before bouncing open just long enough to let you pull your hair and bag loose and shrug off the awkwardness before they close shut again. Get three door jumpers in a row and, guess what – the train is delayed by 3 minute!

Spotting Tube Ninjas: there are three levels of expert when it comes to Tube riders: those who know exactly where the train will stop and the doors will open (Tube Beginner); those who know the same detail but can distinguish between the single doors and double doors (Regular Commuter); those who not only know everything there is to know about door locations, but also know which carriage to get on so that they alight in the exact spot for a fast exit at the other end (Tube Ninja).

If you are a Tube Newbie and want to advance quickly, just look for the biggest crowds and join them (assuming they’re not all toting cameras and following a guide waving an umbrella (other Tube Tourists)).

6. Take your backpack off inside the carriage

Actually, this one bugs me. With 104 people squeezed into a space designed for 42, there’s nothing more frustrating than someone’s huge bag or backpack taking up space. Take it off and rest it on the floor where space is far less cramped. Though, do keep hold of it – the Oliver Twist thieves of London may be better dressed these days but they still work the streets…and the Tube.

A word on rush hour: for the sake of your health, safety and sanity, avoid rush hour if at all possible. The exact times drift a bit (it starts that bit earlier on a Friday evening, as you’d expect), but if you don’t need to be on the Tube before 9am and between 5pm and 7pm, steer clean. Trust me. You’ll thank me for this.

7. Wash. I’m serious

Being armpit height, I’ve been the victim of more than one stinky armpit in my face on a crammed Tube in the summer months. Most locals are pretty dapper. They wash daily, iron their clothes and in the intimate, cramped space of the Tube, nobody will thank you if you decide today is the day to go shower free…because you’re on holiday and why not. Other people’s noses is why not.

8. Hold tight. Serious riders only

You see it time and again – the Tube moves and a gaggle of foreign girls heap over, they giggle, apologise for the spilt coffee/the map in the eye, the handbag contents strewn across laps. The Tube: it moves. Hold tight. You’re not going to find any Londoner helping you scrape your face off the floor and chase your favourite lip gloss down the aisle.

9. Get off the Tube and keep moving!

How to use the Tube in London

Photo: gcwest

Did I say the thing most likely to annoy a local is the escalators? Well, it probably holds joint first place with people stopping dead still in front of then, particularly when everyone’s getting off the train. It’s not that Londoners are intolerant…ok, they are – very, very intolerant, but by stopping the second you get off the Tube (to check where your friend is, to get your bearings, to check your map), you’re stopping the 54 people behind you from getting off too. And we all know how fast and vicious those doors are. If you’re not sure of your next move when you get off the Tube, head towards the wall of the platform and do your checking there. Many tuts will be spared in the process!

10. Actually, don’t use the tube at all

How to use the tube in London

For the last few years that I worked in London I tried not to use the Tube at all – because why would you even want to after reading this? Not only that, London, particularly Central London, is a lot more walkable than you think. Try it and be smarter than many of the Londoners who zombie their way through the Tube network each day without taking a gulp of fresh air – and that’s how you really piss off the locals!

Have you been on London’s Tube system? Any other tips? Let me know in the comments below.

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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.

4 thoughts on “How to Use the Tube in London (Without Pissing off the Locals)”

  1. This is funny, Jo…but also completely accurate! #4 is essential. It amazes me that other cities with busy transport networks (Berlin, I’m looking at you!) don’t implement this rule, it makes things so much smoother. But you’re completely right with #10. Especially as a tourist, if you’re staying in the centre, there’s little reason to use the Tube. Walk, or take a bus if you must – at least that way you’ll see something! I don’t necessarily agree with you that the Tube is one of the best transport systems in the world; there are others that do better (24 hour opening, MUCH better value, more modern and spacious stations and trains, better connectivity outside of the centre – again, Berlin, I’m looking at you) but given how busy it is, London’s Tube does alright. Using it as a visitor now rather than a commuter it at least doesn’t make me want to kill everyone in sight…most of the time, at least.

    • Ha ha, Sam, I took my dad to London recently and I was the one tutting and tapping him on the shoulder to get on the right. I super bugs me and I agree it should be an international requirement. Hmmm, I wasn’t a fan of Berlin’s metro – the numbers and letters never made sense of corresponded (or maybe I was using it all wrong). It just doesn’t seem intuitive. That said, yes, London should definitely be a 24 hour service or at least later than midnight! Some lines are going to be running later from this summer – let’s hope that’s the start of things to come. But, as always, walking is best!

  2. I found this article vastly amusing and helpful, too! We had no problems navigating the Tube at all, and I don’t recall getting tutted at much either (or else my selective hearing tuned them out!).

    • Thanks, Katrina – glad you liked it and glad the Londonders left their tuts at home – you must have been a model Tube user 🙂


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