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Ahh, The Tube. If you live in London and you don't have a chauffeur driven car, a wage that can pay for billions of taxis or an expense account as long as my arm, you're likely to find yourself clattering along on this thing at some point. It is the fasted and most efficient way to get around London.

Most of the time.

The tube runs a very comprehensive service throughout Central London, and then spiders out to the suburbs and even into neighbouring counties. There are an ever-growing number of different tube 'lines', each recognised by their colour on the map. Currently, they are (and I hope I don't forget any...)

Picadilly (Indigo)
Northern (Black)
Victoria (Blue)
Central (Red)
Jubilee (Silver)
Bakerloo (Brown)
District (Green)
Circle (Yellow)
Hammersmith & City (Pink)
Metropolitan (Purple)
East London (Orange)
DLR (Blue/Green)
Waterloo & City (Pale Aqua)

The map, a simplified drawing of each route, shows each line and the stations on it. Stations with a circle show where lines cross each other. Stations with a simple 'notch' are those only served by one tube line only. Most central stations are designed to be served by two or more routes, to make travelling to different destinations easy. Stations are named after the roads or landmarks they are on / near. Bear in mind, the more tube lines that run through a station, the bigger it probably is. It's easy to get lost at Baker Street, Bank, / Monument, Kings Cross and Green Park, for example.

The London tube map looks confusing at first but is actually very easy to read once you've got used to it. There's one at every station and on every platform, and you can also pick them up for free when you buy your tickets. It is split into six main 'zones' which define prices. Most tourists will never venture outside zone 2 except if they're arriving from Heathrow (which is served by the Picadilly Line and is classified as Zone 6). All the main areas of the city centre are in Zone 1, including the national rail stations (Kings Cross St Pancras, Paddington, Victoria, Marylebone, Waterloo, Liverpool St, Euston).

Tickets can be bought from ticket outlets like newsagents, or from some national rail stations, or (of course) from Tube stations. There are three choices. Buy from staff (queues are likely, especially at big stations), from coin-only machines, or from the newer touch-screen machines that accept notes and cards. These also have buttons to change the language. There's a chart by the machines where you can look up the price of a single ticket to any destination, but usually if you're travelling on the tube all day, a travelcard will be cheaper.

A day travelcard after 9.30am for zones 1 & 2 is a reasonable £4, (£4.70 for zones 1 - 4) and allows unlimited tube travel for the whole day, up until the service stops (at about 1am depending on the day of the week). Travelcards are also accepted on London Buses and on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) zone-permitting. You can also buy weekend travelcards for about £6.50, and weekly travelcards for zones 1 -2 (can be used all day including before 9.30 and is about £20). Other weekly / peroid travelcards are available but you'll need a photocard ID. They're free from tube stations and ticket outlets (like newsagents) but take a while to sort out.

Children under 15 can get 1/2 price travel, and 16-17 yr olds and full-time students can also get 30% off their travelcards with a student photocard, however you'll need a stamped application form from your school / college / university to get this, and it costs £5 to apply (and takes about a month to arrive).

When you first start using the tube, it can be daunting, so plan ahead! Pick up a map the day before or download one from the tube website ( before you go to London. The stations are dark and consist of lots of narrow tunnels and corridors. There are plenty of signs around the stations, but you do need to know which line you want, and which direction you're going in, so consult the map before you go through the ticket barriers. People who use the tube constantly know exactly where they're going and where to stand, and everyone moves fast. They won't be happy if they're stuck behind someone who doesn't know what they're doing. You have to get used to walking on the correct side, standing only on the RIGHT on the escalator (so people can walk / run up or down the other side) and knowing in advance which line you need and whether you're going north, south, east or west. People who stand around by the maps, talking and blocking exits and entrances can be a real annoyance, especially at busy times. The tube can be VERY busy until about 10am and after about 4.30pm onwards, so bear that in mind.

Outside of busy times, if the tube is running to speed (this doesn't happen very often) it can be quite a pleasant ride. Older trains (like on the bakerloo and victoria lines) aren't very nice, but newer ones (Jubilee and DLR in particular) are much nicer and you should get a seat at less busy times. If you're going out of the city centre you might even get a nice view when the train moves overground. There's about 2/3 mins between stations (average) and the good thing about the tube is that if you do accidentally miss your station, you just hop off at the next one, cross over the platform and go back.

At busy times, it all changes though. Trains travel slightly faster to make up for the longer stops at stations. People are aggitated and if you're lucky (aren't we all) you'll be the one who gets their head right in the armpit of the sweaty city banker who's been madly gesturing all day and doesn't know what deodorant is. Peak time travel on the tube is not fun, but if you've ever worked in London, it's something you put up with, because it's the only way to get home in time for dinner (peak buses - don't go there either!) I spent a bit of time working in the Southwark / Waterloo area, travelling on the Eastbound Jubilee line to Stratford each evening smack bang in the middle of the busiest time. it wasn't fun, and the Jubilee is the nicest, newest line.

The Jubilee Line runs through Westminster, Waterloo and Greenwich, and is lucky enough to have the nicest trains, the cleanest stations and the best platforms. Because of the amount of people throwing themselves in front of the tubes, newer stations now have glass doors and windows all the way down the platform. The doors of the tube line up with the doors on the platform and open together, so nobody can get on the track before a train arrives. The upside of this is you know where the doors will be so you can stand ready. The bad news is, so can everyone else.
These newer stations also benefit from being the first to have street-to-platform access for wheelchairs, pushchairs and heavy luggage. Yes, there are LIFTS!

Once you've used the tube a couple of times, you'll pick up on the ettiquette and become one of those constantly rushing people with a scowl on their face. Stand on the right, walk fast, don't try to strike up a friendly conversation,(you're not funny, you're a nutter) and let people off the train before you get on.

With regards to reliability, the tube goes one of two ways. It can either be fantastic and you'll reach your destination on time with no problems. But it can also be a pain in the arse. I suffered from a lot of travel problems last year when a train de-railed at Chancery Lane and the central line was closed for months. My travel time tripled and it once took my flatmate 4 hours to get home. However that's the only time a tube has crashed and the problems have been sorted out. Now the only real frequent bugbear is the new link-up between Kings Cross and EuroStar, which means trains around Kings Cross (especially Circle, District and Hammersmith & City, which follow the same track for a large portion of their journey) are often cancelled on weekends. The website is good for checking these details, and there's usually annoouncements on trains / at stations too.

London Underground have update boards that explain how well each service is running, so check these at stations BEFORE beginning your journey to be sure. Most problems are down to signalling failures or suicide attempts and are cleared up within an hour or so. They try their best, but with a system so huge, things are bound to go wrong sometime.

The tube is the best way to get around London quickly, just be prepared so you know what to expect. Travelling at peak time can be crowded and sweaty (especially in Summer) and slow, easy-going tourists are not appreciated by most of the locals. You'll be expected to be fast and efficient and know the rules! Also, avoid if you're claustrophobic! As the official name suggests,a lot of the tube travels underground through small tunnels, there's no air-conditioning, only vents and it's always hot down there, so dress appropriately. Londoners wear layers!

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Comments about this review »

TitleyTravels 26.07.2012 20:44

Very good review, with great advice, even if it's a bit out of date after 8 years. Funny to see how much has changed.

paganini1782 27.11.2006 20:24

The tube really is a great form of transport in my opinion - Quick, easy and fairly cheap. Go down a flight of stairs at one stop, and pop out on the other side of the city in minutes. Fantastic review by the way

CherryBlossom 13.05.2004 04:07

Considering how many people travel by tube, you might be surprised to know that there's only ever been one baby born on it. I almost made that two! ~Sharon

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This review of Getting around in London by tube has been rated:

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