Welcome to London! Once you figure out the dollar-to-sterling exchange rate (currently hovering around 1.6 dollars to the British pound) and realize how expensive taxis are, you will soon become an ardent fan of the London Underground, often called the Tube, for getting around this sprawling capital city.
The Tube is not a subway
London’s subway system, the oldest in the world, celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2013. It’s technically called "the Underground," but it is not called "the subway." If you wander into something called a subway in Britain, you will find a pedestrian underpass for crossing a busy traffic circus (intersection). A subway does not lead to the Tube.
How to find the Tube
Underground entrances all look quite different from each other. Some are small old brick buildings; some are sleek modern designs with glass. Some are just a flight of stairs, others are inside train stations, and some are at corners and others are in the middle of the block. Just look for the classic round Underground logo.
Which line to take
If you are not near the line you need, you can enter the Underground at any station and connect. The 11 underground lines each have their own names and are indicated by different colors on the legendary Underground map. The map is easy to use, but it does not accurately represent distances between stops. Trains have their final destinations on their fronts, and announcements are made as trains approach the station. Some stations have a number of lines, so it is important to check the line and the direction of a train before boarding.
Know your zones
Your fare is based on how many zones (numbered 1-6) you travel through, as marked on the map. The tube map is distributed free at stations, so pick one up or queue up at the ticket window for information from an agent at any station. You can also get Tube information at most of the major airports surrounding London. Once you’re on the platform, there are maps there and inside each carriage of the trains.
Most people use automated ticket machines. Using cash or credit card, buy a single or return (round-trip) ticket or a weekly pass or top up an Oyster Card, a multi-use card that is cheaper, per trip, than an individual ticket. Cards can be purchased for £3 at the station's manned window. If possible, buy Off-Peak Travelcards, which allow you to travel more cheaply when commuters aren’t packing the trains, after 9:30 a.m. Both Oyster Cards and Travelcards can also be used on London buses.
Touch in, touch out
Have your Oyster Card or Travelcard scanned in the machines before you leave the station to avoid paying a maximum fare on exiting the Tube. There is no need to stop at a machine again, as long as you keep a balance on your card. The Oyster Card balance is displayed when you touch in and touch out at the station.
Stand on the right
The escalators are wide enough for two abreast. It looks odd to see everyone waiting to stand on the right when there is space on the left, but this is a London tradition. No one steps on to the left hand side unless they’re prepared to quickly climb or descend as the escalator moves. If you are in a group, stand in single file so others can pass. Signs will remind you — as will annoyed Londoners — that this protocol is important to respect.
Mind the gap
Be careful when stepping between train and platform, and stand behind the painted yellow lines at station platforms. Let people off the train first before you move into the carriage. It sounds obvious, but it is always worth remembering. Seniors, pregnant women and those traveling with children will thank you for offering your seat.
There is normally a uniformed member of the London Underground staff on hand to assist passengers. But it's important to note that the Tube does not operate 24/7, nor are windows manned at all times. Trains do not normally run between about midnight and 5 a.m., but these times vary according to the date and the line in question. Use the online journey planner to check your travel route and times for first and last trains.
Top: Underground and regular train services meet at many locales, including Kings Cross (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)
Right: Tube stations come in many forms, such as this traditional one near Westminster. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)
Left: Underground station entrances range from traditional to modern (like this one at Canary Wharf), but they always include the iconic round sign. (Photo by Pawel Libera/VisitBritain via Visit London)