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Handy guide to the London Underground

Are you sure you are going to take the London Underground to move around its streets? Do not miss this post to get the most out of the fastest transport in the city.

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

12 min read

Handy guide to the London Underground

London, United Kingdom | ©Diane Picchiottino

Travelling on the London Underground can seem a bit complicated at first with so many lines and stops but once you get familiar with it and get the hang of it you will see that using it is quite intuitive.

To make it easier for you to move around the London Underground, in this guide I tell you everything you need to know about how it works, its schedules, the tickets that exist, how to buy them and more. You will see how you will end up moving around the British capital as a Londoner!

1. Get a London Underground map

London Underground Map| ©CSOdessa
London Underground Map| ©CSOdessa

Being one of the most extensive in the world, the London Underground connects very well the different points of the British capital and connects with most of the tourist attractions in London so it is certain that at some point during your stay you will use it to move around.

I recommend you to download a London Underground map in PDF on your cell phone, so you can always carry it in your pocket and take a look at it whenever you need it. Even in those moments when you don't have Internet access.

Another option I suggest is to download the official Transport for London app (available on iOS and Android), where in addition to the subway map you can also search for routes and directions in the city to plan your trips, see the quietest times to travel, check live bus and train schedules as well as see the latest updates on the transport network.

If you would like to learn more about the London Underground, all the ins and outs of the subway, how it was built and the legends told about it, you can take a look at the London Underground tours available.

Book a London Underground tour

2. How does the London Underground work? How much does the ticket cost?

London Underground ticket| ©Guo Bobi
London Underground ticket| ©Guo Bobi

The London Underground is divided into 9 radial areas starting in the historic center and covering almost the entire city. Most of the main tourist attractions of the British capital are located in zones 1 and 2, where you will probably move all the time unless you are staying far from the center.

London Underground fares vary depending on the area of origin and destination of the trip. That is, the price if you make a trip that has its origin and end in zone 1 will be different from one that starts in zone 1 and ends in zone 3.

The price of a single metro ticket is quite high. For example, the cost of a ticket from zone 1 to 3 is about £5.50 or from zone 1 to 4 is about £6.00 but to find out the exact cost of the journey before you move I recommend you visit the Transport for London website where you will find all the updated fares.

From an economic point of view it is not very advisable to buy this type of ticket if you are going to spend several days in the city and plan to use the subway frequently because you will spend a lot of money. It is also not recommended in terms of time because you will have to stop at the vending machines to buy it every time you want to use it.

Are there season tickets to use the London Underground?

Fortunately there are other alternatives to the single ticket for use on the London Underground that will help you save money on your travels around the city: the Oyster Card and the Travelcard.

Book a London Underground tour

3. The Oyster Card

Oyster Card| ©London Chow
Oyster Card| ©London Chow

The Oyster Card is a rechargeable card with balance with which transport prices are cheaper than buying a single ticket. As you use the card to move with the London Underground, the balance will be deducted from the card.

During peak hours the 'peak fare' applies from Monday to Friday between 6:30 AM and 9:30 AM and 4 PM and 7 PM while the 'off peak' fare applies the rest of the time, weekends and holidays.

How to buy an Oyster Card?

You can purchase your Oyster Card at vending machines at any subway station in the city.

The good thing about this system is that if you do not speak English too well you can change the language of the machine to Spanish and follow the steps that it indicates. This way there will be no confusion. You just choose the amount you want to put on the card, then the method of payment and that's it!

How do I use it?

To access the London Underground with an Oyster Card you have to pass it through the yellow sensor at the turnstile both at the entrance and exit. This last step is essential even if you find the turnstile doors open because the Oyster Card calculates the fare when you swipe the card to exit.

If you forget to do this, the card will detect the trip as incomplete and will not be able to calculate your journey, so you will be penalized in your balance.

How do I top up my Oyster Card?

It's very simple! It is done in the same machines where you buy the Oyster Card and can be recharged with a bank card or cash. No more hassle.

How do I return it?

Until February 2020, to get an Oyster Card you had to deposit £5 as a deposit which on the last day of your trip was refunded along with the remaining balance (provided you had £10 or less) at one of the vending machines where you bought it when you were no longer going to use the card.

Thereafter, the £5 deposit will be automatically refunded as a balance after one year when you take a trip with the card. After that time you can claim a refund within six months or you will not be eligible for a refund.

The refund process involves deactivating the card at the vending machine, which you can then keep as a souvenir of the trip as it will just be a piece of plastic.

However, if you plan to return to London in the near future, you will not need to surrender the card as it does not expire and you can always use it again later by reloading it.

Book a London Underground tour

4. The Travelcard

Travelcard| ©Hazel Nicholson
Travelcard| ©Hazel Nicholson

The Travelcard is another alternative to the single ticket and the Oyster Card to travel on the London Underground. It consists of a card with which you can travel unlimited travel on the London public transport network for a certain period of time.

Although there are monthly and annual Travelcards, these are intended for residents of the British capital while for tourists are sold Travelcard 1 day and 7 days.

How to buy a Travelcard?

To buy a Travelcard there are many facilities as they can be obtained at different points of sale. Depending on the place this card will be given to you in one format or another.

  • Railway stations: It is issued on the spot at the National Rail counters as a printed cardboard ticket. To purchase a 7-day Travelcard here you will have to provide a passport photo. It is an interesting option because with it you can get 2 for 1 discounts at various attractions such as St. Paul's Cathedral or Madame Tussauds Museum.
  • Subway stations: Here you can buy a 1-day Travelcard. If you wish to purchase the 7-day Travelcard, you will receive it loaded on an Oyster Card. Unlike the National Rail Travelcard, this one is issued by the London Underground company and with it you can not get the 2 for 1 discounts at tourist attractions.

How to use the Travelcard?

While the Oyster Card is plastic and must be slid through the yellow reader on the turnstile to gain access, the Travelcard is cardboard and must be passed through the slots on the turnstile both at the entrance and exit.

5. Which card should I choose: the Oyster Card or the Travelcard?

People at the Metro Station| ©Joël de Vriend
People at the Metro Station| ©Joël de Vriend

The million dollar question! Choosing between an Oyster Card or Travelcard will depend on the length of your stay in London and how often you will be using the Underground.

For example, if you plan to ride the tube two to four times a day for short periods of time such as four days in London or five days in London or you want to travel to the outskirts of London, it is best to opt for an Oyster Card with balance ("Pay as you go"), as you can benefit from the "daily cap".

This is a system that works for a period of 24 hours for which there is a maximum spending limit per day depending on the zones. Every time you make a trip on the subway you will be deducted credit until you reach that limit and from that moment the trips will be free because no more credit will be deducted from the Oyster Card.

On the other hand, if you plan to spend a week or more in London and you are going to take the subway to move around the downtown area continuously, then the most cost-effective option is to choose a 7-day Travelcard.

Can I share an Oyster Card or Travelcard with another person on the same journey?

No, this is not possible. If you travel to London with another person, each of you must have your own Oyster Card or Travelcard but if you travel separately in the future you can lend or share them because in case of acquiring them in the subway stations none of these cards is associated with an identity document or a name.

6. Do children pay a ticket on the London Underground?

Waiting at the metro station| ©Christopher Burns
Waiting at the metro station| ©Christopher Burns

Children under 11 years old can travel for free on Transport for London as long as they are accompanied by an adult, who can enter with a maximum of 4 children.

Children between 11 and 15 years old can ride free on streetcars and buses and get discounts on all other transport such as the Underground, London Overground, TfL Rail and DLR if they have a Zip Oyster 11-15 card with photo.

As for 16 and 17 year olds, they can purchase a Zip Oyster +16 card with which they can travel for free or benefit from discounts on London transport. For example, a 50% discount on adult 'pay as you go' fares on the Underground, bus, TfL Rail, London Overground, DLR and most National Rail services in London.

7. What is the London Underground timetable?

People on the London Underground| ©Viktor Forgacs
People on the London Underground| ©Viktor Forgacs

The Underground opens its doors from 5 AM to 12 AM, when the first and last train of each line departs. This means, for example, that if a train leaves at 12 AM it will be running until it reaches the last stop on the line.

On weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) the London Underground schedule is extended on some lines (Piccadilly, Central, Jubilee or Northern) and are open 24 hours.

As a curiosity, London public transport closes on December 25. On Christmas Eve evening, the service starts to be reduced and there are no night buses. This recovers its operation on December 26 ("Boxing Day") but in a reduced way. Keep this in mind if you plan to spend Christmas in London.

What is the frequency of the London Underground?

Very high! The frequency of trains is 2 or 3 minutes and there are usually no delays in service, so the London Underground is one of the best ways to get around the city.

8. How many lines are there on the London Underground?

Entrance to the London Underground| ©Alessio Cesario
Entrance to the London Underground| ©Alessio Cesario

The London Underground consists of 11 lines and 274 stations covering more than 1,500 m2, almost the entire city.

In addition to the "official" lines there are two others: the DLR (driverless light rail trains that run in the east and southeast of the British capital) and the London Overground (a line that runs on the surface in the north and northwest of the city).

The London Underground lines are:

  • Bakerloo, brown line
  • Central, red line
  • Circle, yellow line
  • District, green line
  • Hammersmith & City, pink line
  • Jubilee, grey line
  • Metropolitan, purple line
  • Northern, black line
  • Piccadilly, dark blue line
  • Victoria, light blue line
  • Waterloo & City, blue-green line

9. Travelling on the London Underground with the Visitor Oyster Card

Visitor Oyster Card| ©Can Pac Swire
Visitor Oyster Card| ©Can Pac Swire

One thing to keep in mind if you will be using the London Underground frequently to get around the city during your vacation is that if you purchase a The London Pass + Travel package, the electronic Visitor Oyster Card will be loaded with the balance corresponding to the duration of your London Pass (from 1 to 10 days), London's tourist card so you can visit the most important tourist attractions in the city.

The Visitor Oyster Card is similar to the traditional Oyster Card but, unlike the Oyster Card, it has been designed specifically for tourists.

This package is a very interesting option to move around the city using public transport while allowing you access to more than 80 tourist attractions. You will get a lot out of it! You can get it from £ 84.

Taking into account the prices of London public transport. The London Pass + Travel package is the most economical way to move around the British capital because regardless of the area you pass through, no balance will be deducted from the card when you reach the daily limit.

10. Tips for traveling on the Underground

Entering the London Underground| ©Hernán Piñera
Entering the London Underground| ©Hernán Piñera
  • Have your ticket handy to get through the turnstiles quickly especially if you are taking the tube during rush hour (before 9:30 AM or around 6 PM) to ease the flow of commuters in and out of the station.
  • If you can, plan your off-peak transfers on the London Underground. It is usually crowded with commuters coming and going from all corners of the capital. This is especially true between 6:30 AM and 9:30 AM as well as between 5 PM and 7 PM. This way you will move through the subway with more peace of mind.
  • Check the London Underground app or website before you travel to see if there are any incidents on the lines you want to take or some stations are closed for maintenance work. It will provide you with updated service information and even provide you with alternative routes.
  • Move around the platform to find more space. When you get to the platform, don't crowd at the entrance. If you see that there are a lot of people on a section of the platform, keep walking to where there are fewer people. This way you may even find a free seat if you want to sit down.
  • Let yourself out of the car before entering. You will be able to enter more easily and without being pushed by other passengers.
  • Mind the gap! For safety, always stand behind the yellow strip on the floor when waiting on the platform and pay attention to the gap between the carriage and the platform when entering or leaving.
  • Keep an eye on your belongings in the subway. Beware of pickpockets as in any other city and be sure to keep your valuables safe during the ride.
  • If you miss a station or get on the wrong line, don't worry, trains run frequently so just get off at the next station and check the map carefully to find the right way.
  • London Underground trains run every 2-7 minutes, depending on the line, so just get off at the next stop and look for a tube map on the platform to guide you.
  • Stand on the right side of the escalators and leave the left side free for those who want to walk up the escalators more quickly.
  • If you are traveling with children or luggage you must use the appropriate access on the London Underground. In all stations there are turnstiles with a wider passage and whose doors take longer to close to facilitate access.
  • If you have any doubts, do not hesitate to ask for help to the London Underground staff or any other user, they will surely give you a hand if you need it!