So you’ve planned your trip to London. You know where you are going and you know how you are going to get there. The underground map looks easy enough. You say to yourself, I’m sure I’ll work it out. Well, consider London’s underground is possibly harder to negotiate than you might think. Being the world’s oldest underground network means that navigating its 11 lines, 270 stations and miles of tunnels is not as easy to work out as those based on the more modern systems. Even the names can be confusing. The Northern line also runs south and the circle line is more like a circle with a tail. By following a few simple guidelines listed here, hopefully you can ensure it’s a pleasurable, and not a painful experience to navigate the London Underground.
1. Ensure you get the most up-to-date travel information
Like any travel network, the London Underground is not immune to travel disruption, so before you set off you would be best advised to check out the Transport for London website. It will inform you of any delays on the lines and, especially at weekends, if there is any engineering works planned which might mean sections of the underground are closed altogether. There’s nothing more frustrating than planning your day in detail and then having to spend a few hours trying to work out the best way around a closure. Downloading an app such as Citymapper is also quite useful. It’s an A-B journey planner showing all modes of transport for the journey and includes an estimated arrival time, maps and other useful travel information.
2. Avoiding the rush
Rush hour during the week generally runs from around 7.30 am until 9.30 am and between 4 pm and 7 pm. Travel outside of these hours will be a great deal easier, especially if you are travelling with large cases or lots of luggage. Weekends can be very busy, especially on Saturdays, and certain stations suffer from overcrowding. Covent Garden can be particularly bad due to its access solely by lift or stairs. If your flight to the UK means you will be travelling during rush hour, rather grab a coffee at the airport and wait a little while. Even though you will be eager to get to your destination, pausing to avoid this rush hour will make your travels much less stressful.
3. Avoiding the crush
There are a number of stations that you should avoid, especially at certain times. Oxford Circus is a big draw for tourists and Londoners alike and you’ll feel more like a rugby player in the middle of a scrum than a tourist on a relaxed day out. There is so much to see in London, often getting off at another station and walking can make such a difference to the whole experience. Covent Garden is also a bit tricky. It is one of the few stations in London where the main access to the platforms is by lift. There are four lifts serving the station but steps at the very top still make it inaccessible to wheelchair users. If you don’t take the lift, there are a whopping 193 steps, so if you are a fitness fanatic then by all means you can make it a part of your London experience to climb them.
4. Escalator etiquette
Yes, standing on the right really is a rule, and if you are interested in the reasons why this occurred, there is an article, written by Archie Bland in the Guardian, that covers it. Although to confuse matters, Holborn station recently trialled standing-only on all its escalators. A new six-month trial was due to commence on 18th April this year, but perhaps I’d recommend following current convention.
5. Be a responsible traveller
London transport has its own list of unacceptable behaviours on their trains that include keeping your feet off the seats, giving up your seat for the elderly or pregnant women and not behaving unsociably. Many people travel on the underground with headphones on and as long as they are not sharing their particular taste in music with the rest of the train, it’s all good. Along with these rules, there are also a few unwritten ones. There are certain foods that seem to attract stares and faces of disgust. The really delicious-smelling ones that are consumed as part of a post boozy night out are definitely frowned upon.
In the UK since 2007, smoking has been banned from various locations including restaurants. London underground is one of those that also implemented the ban and does not permit smoking of any kind on the Underground. Drinking alcohol is also banned, however that’s not to say that you won’t spend many a late night journey in the company of the heavily inebriated.
6. What a carry on
Although there are a few grey areas with regard to what you can and can’t carry on the Underground, the general rule applies, use your common sense. There are the obvious ones such as nothing that would cause a security breach (weapons, bombs, etc.), but there are some which you might not have considered. Bikes are a no-no but then, since the advent of the “Boris Bike” (a hireable bike with pick up and collection points all over London), why would you? Dogs are allowed but only if they are friendly, although be aware that you will have to carry them through the ticket barriers. This will explain the number of small dogs such as Dachshunds on the underground of late. They have been dressed very well and seem to have taken the whole thing in their stride.
7. Ticket to ride
As a traveller, there are a couple of options when it comes to travel cards for the underground.
Option 1 - The Oyster card can be pre-purchased before travelling to the UK. Simply load credit onto the card, ensure you register both the beginning and the end of your journey by swiping it on the machines at stations and off you go. Transport for London has further information on the Oyster card, although be prepared, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Option 2 - Travelcards which can be purchased for 1 to 7 days or longer. These are valid for whichever zones of travel you select when purchasing and whether it is valid for peak or off peak times. It covers London buses, underground and Docklands light railway. It also gives discount on other travel such as the Thames Clipper River Bus.
Option 3 – Contactless payment card. Used much like the Oyster card, it totals the cost of all the days’ travel and is then charged to your account. It is worth noting that if you are travelling as a family, this probably isn’t the best method as each member needs a contactless payment card. Don’t forget you will also incur foreign exchange charges similar to using it to purchase goods/services.
Remember that the London Underground is among the most expensive in the world so it’s worth taking some time to work out the best option for you.
8. Dress accordingly
I’m not suggesting for a second that there is a dress code on the underground but just to be aware that there is no air conditioning on the underground and, especially in the summer, it can become quite stifling. In the winter, wear layers, it’s the only way. It may be freezing cold above ground, but as you descend into the depths and mingle with the masses, it can get quite warm, which leads me nicely on to the next point.
9. Ensure you carry water
Like any transport, it is subject to delays, and following the boy scouts’ motto ‘be prepared’, it is always best to take something to drink. Even if you don’t need it, perhaps you will get to fulfil your own good deed and help a fellow traveller. Lest we not forget that on the tube you are most definitely all in it together. A little mist spray bottle with water can also be very handy. Spraying it on your face when you’re hot immediately cools you down. You can purchase small bottles of these that fit in your pocket.
10. Time-saving tips
When calculating your journey times in London, a general rule to apply is that on average it takes 3 minutes to travel between stations. Between some stations it’s also actually faster to walk than to take the tube. Leicester Square to Covent Garden, for example, is actually faster to walk, although it doesn’t account for impromptu photos or shopping stops. Add all that time saved and you might be able to to visit that museum or art gallery you also had on your to-do list.
Finally, remember Londoners aren’t always as up tight as they may appear. If you need help, it’s worth asking. It’s the altruism in all of us that unfolds when you least expect it. Stick to the simple rules and hopefully you will have a much better London experience.
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