How to Navigate the London Underground

At first glance, the London Underground looks a little daunting, but it becomes easy to navigate once you get familiar with it. Here, we’ll outline everything you need to know about the London Underground (also known as the London tube) to help you learn how to get around easily and safely.

What is the London tube?

The London tube is an underground railway system that services the London metropolitan area. The tube is run by Transport for London (TfL) who manage and maintain the operation of the tube system.

The tube is over 160 years old and dates back to 1863 when the world’s first underground railway - the Metropolitan Railway - opened between Paddington and Farringdon. Today, the London tube has 272 stations and 11 railway lines.

The tube is pivotal to public transport, and millions of commuters use it to get in and out of the city every day. For students in London, it’s also a quick and affordable way to get around.

What are the London tube zones?

London tube zones are designated geographical areas that TfL uses to determine the cost of your journey. The system consists of nine zones, with zone one being the most central and zone nine being the outermost zone.

There are a couple of stations that sit on the edge of two different London tube zones. In this case, the direction of your journey from the starting zone will determine how much you’re charged.

Familiarise yourself with the London tube routes

When getting to grips with the London tube, the best way to start is by familiarising yourself with the different routes. For each route, identify the start and end of the journey, including all the stations the tube stops at. The London tube consists of 11 railway lines: 

  1. Bakerloo
  2. Central
  3. Circle
  4. District
  5. Hammersmith & City
  6. Jubilee
  7. Metropolitan
  8. Northern
  9. Piccadilly
  10. Victoria
  11. Waterloo & City

You can also use the overground railway service, which includes the Elizabeth, Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and Overground lines.

Each line travels in a certain direction - North, East, South, or West - so you must know which direction to take to reach your designated station along the way. For example, you can travel on the Jubilee Westbound (towards Stanmore) or Eastbound (towards Stratford). 

Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, there’s a London tube map at every station, as well as a large route planner outside the station entrance showing which directions the tube goes, and what stations it stops at. Plus, there’s usually a TfL help desk or officer around the station to assist you.

Apps to navigate the London tube routes

Since the London tube is so popular (for locals and residents alike), several apps can help travellers navigate the tube. Give these a try:

You can also use the TfL website, which offers an effective route planner.

London tube cost and payment methods

Tube fares vary depending on the direction of travel, tube zones, time of day and day of the week. You can use the TfL single fare finder to see the cost of travelling between specific stations.

There are various pay-as-you-go caps on certain London tube fares. The cap limits how much you’ll pay for all your journeys in a day or week. Learn more about pay-as-you-go caps here.

Oyster card

An Oyster card is a smart card that you can add money to, allowing you to pay as you go. It’s valid for all London tube lines, buses, trams, the DLR, the Elizabeth line and Overground and can be a useful way to budget your spending on travel.

You can purchase an Oyster card online by creating an account. You can also buy them at Oyster Ticket Stops in newsagents, at all tube stations and at various visitor centres in London. It costs £7 to buy an Oyster card.

How do you load an Oyster card? You can top it up online, use the free Tfl Oyster and contactless app or even at ticket machines in London tube stations.

Contactless

If your bank card shows the contactless payment symbol, you can use it to tap in and out of the London tube stations. Many contactless cards issued overseas will work, including American Express (AMEX), MasterCard and Maestro, and Visa and V PAY.

Paper ticket

You can purchase a paper ticket at the London tube station or you can purchase one online and then collect it at the station. This is also an option if you need to keep the ticket for an expense refund. That said, using an Oyster or contactless card is cheaper than a paper ticket.

When using a ticket at the station, you’ll insert it in a slot found under the card reader. You’ll get the stamped ticket back before the turnstile opens.

London tube times

There is always a first and last tube. The times at which they run depend on the line, so check the TfL website for the specific times.

When it comes to tube peak hours in London, it’s good to know that they can actually impact your total fare amount. On the tube, DLR, Elizabeth line and Overground, the peak and off-peak times are as follows:

  • Peak fares - Monday to Friday (not on public holidays) between 6am and 9:30am and between 4pm and 7pm
  • Off-peak fares - at all other times from Monday to Friday, and if you travel from a station outside of zone one to a station in zone one between 4pm and 7pm

All tube and Elizabeth line journeys to and from Heathrow Airport are charged peak fares if they start, end or go through zone one.

London tube etiquette

Since so many people use the tube, it’s important to be conscious of your manners. It can get quite busy, so try to remain calm and patient.

Keep these etiquette points in mind when travelling on the London tube:

  • Stand clear of the doors when passengers are getting off
  • Move down inside the tube to make space for passengers to squeeze in
  • Offer your seat to expectant mothers and those less able to stand, such as the elderly, especially if you’re in a priority seat at the end of a row
  • Don’t listen to your music or podcast out loud for everyone to hear
  • Have your phone, card or ticket ready when you get to the turnstiles so you don’t hold up other commuters
  • Walk left in the corridor and stand right on the escalator

Tips for first-time travellers on the London tube

When you’re not a local, it can be intimidating travelling on the London tube. Here are some must-know tips for first-time travellers:

  • Use the same device or contactless card to touch in and out of the stations, otherwise you’ll be charged for an incomplete journey
  • There’s no signal underground so make sure your podcast or music playlist is ready for offline use
  • Mind the gap when getting on and off the tube
  • Make sure to use the designated larger turnstile if you’re travelling with large luggage
  • Carry water with you when travelling in warmer weather as the underground can get hot
  • Keep your belongings close by and safe and be wary of pickpockets

FAQs about the London tube

What time do the tubes close?

Only some London tube lines run through the night. Knowing when the first and last tubes are for specific lines can help you avoid missing your train. Alternatively, you can make use of the Night Tube.

Night Tubes run on Friday and Saturday nights on the Central, Jubilee, Northern, Piccadilly and Victoria lines. All Night Tube fares are off-peak. There is also an Overground Night Service which runs on weekends between Highbury & Islington and New Cross Gate. This service also charges off-peak fares.

What is the cheapest way to travel when using the London tube?

The cheapest way to travel on the London tube would be to only travel during off-peak times. However, this isn’t always possible when you have to be somewhere at a certain time.

Our best tip for getting the most bang for your buck on the London tube is to use a contactless payment method, and always tap in and out when travelling.

How many tube stations are in London?

There are 272 tube stations in London. Fun fact: these stations handle up to five million passenger journeys every single day.

 

Is finding accommodation in London more intimidating than using the tube? View our ready-to-move-in locations in London and see what’s available for next semester.