How to Navigate London’s Underground (even if public transportation scares you!)

I was in London this past week for four days. I went there completely solo but did meet up with a couple people on the third day I was there. However, most of my time I was there exploring alone and navigating the city alone as well.

My first day there, I walked close to 10 miles and I barely made it anywhere in the west side of London. I hadn’t walked that long in AGES so I actually overextended my knee and my flat feet made it worse. I could barely stand the next morning. I knew I would have to start riding the tube (local word for the subway) if I was going to see anything left on my London bucket list.

Before embarking on my first London Underground journey, I asked two girls who had used the system before for advice. Shoutout to a Kat and Kay for helping a girl out! I also found some useful info on Alyssa’s 48 hours in London post.

How to Navigate London's Underground subway system | even if you don't like or are scared of public transportation

After implementing their advice, and successfully navigating the tube without a hitch for three days straight, I think I’m pretty qualified to give you advice on how to do so as well. Especially since I almost had a panic attack thinking about taking the underground when I first got to London. And now it’s the thing I miss the most about the city.

Get an Oyster card

If you want to get around London without overextending your knee and without racking up an enormous transportation bill, you need to get an Oyster card. An Oyster card is basically just a card that you can buy at any Tube station and you add money to it as needed to ride the trains.

Using the pay as you go Oyster card is the cheapest option for getting around London. The card itself is £5 but get that back if you return it when you leave London. But you could also can get your refund my post or over the phone. You can also get all the money left on your card refunded as well!

If you’re using the Oyster card, trains are usually about £2-£4 each, and if not then it’s about double the cost! Like I lost my Oyster card on the morning I was leaving London and to get to the coach station I had to buy a one-way ticket on the Circle line and it cost me £4.90!! If I had my Oyster card it would have only been about £2.40 and I would have been using the money I already had preloaded on the card.

Plus, it’s just easier to just walk into the station, scan your card, and go straight to the platform rather than having to deal with buying tickets each time.

Also, I’m not just telling you pay as you go is the cheapest option. I heard many locals and Underground workers tell patrons the same thing. Getting day or weekend passes is actually insanely expensive. So use pay as you go!

Start small

For your first trip don’t take one that makes you change lines. Changing lines really isn’t that confusing since the train will announce you should exit here for a specific line, but it can seem overwhelming at first if you’ve never ridden on a subway.

I made sure my first ride on the Underground was only a few stops away. That way if I got off at the wrong place, I was still within somewhat walking distance of where I wanted to go and would still have a general idea of where I was in town.

Also, maybe don’t make your first journey during peak hours. Those would be weekday mornings, midday (lunchtime), and between 5-6pm when everyone is heading home from work.

google maps london underground system

Use google maps transit mode

Google maps is amazing, but especially so when don’t have any cell service. There is no signal on the trains and usually not in the stations either. There is WiFi but you need a big U.K. phone provider to log into it. But because Google maps can work offline, you can still pull up the underground map and see which lines go where and where all the stations are in the city. The different colors represent different lines and if you zoom in you can see the name of each station!

My first couple times I also planned out my movements with Google maps and took screenshots, but by the evening of the first day I was just looking at the map and saying, “Okay I need to take the Circle from Embankment to Paddington.”

If you have signal, or really want to plan out your movements, Google maps will also tell you exactly which lines to take and at what time, too. Which is great if you think you won’t be able to figure out which train to take yourself.

One last thing regarding “directions:” there are multiple entries and exits for each station so don’t freak if you leave the underground and are somewhere different than where you exited last time at the same station. Where you exit all depends on which line you took and from which direction you were coming.

Amazing signs and signals

The thing that scares me the most about public transportation is the fear of ending up in the wrong place. I have a very logical reason for this fear because I once ended up alone in downtown Newport at night and stuck on a bus for almost two hours when trying to get back to school in Kentucky because I got on the wrong bus. And those were situations in my home country and hometown. Having the same thing happen to me in a foreign country and city where no one can come save me if I’m stranded would be a nightmare.

Luckily, London’s Underground is labeled extremely well. There are huge maps of the whole line in every station before you go through the gates and at the platforms as well. On top of that, there are big text maps with the specific names of every station the train from that platform will be hitting as well. These maps are inside the trains up by the advertisements, too.

The train will also announce every upcoming stop and the stop. Each train is also labeled with the line they take on a monitor on the outside of the train and the platform monitor tells you how many minutes away each line is. Just be warned some of them just say a station name and not the line so if you’re at a platform that runs trains on multiple lines make sure you check out the map again and see which stations should be on the line you need to take.

Don’t be worried about getting on a train at a specific time either. Most trains run every couple minutes. The most I ever had to wait for a train was five minutes. So if you aren’t sure if the train at the platform is for you, don’t jump on just because you’re scared of “missing” the train. Another one will be there in a few minutes. I promise!

People will help you if you ask

I actually had a couple people ask me for help. Guess I just looked like I knew what I was doing or I just looked London. I wasn’t actually able to help the people that asked (I have no idea what trains run at night sorry) but it reminded me that asking for help isn’t wrong.

Londoners aren’t rude. Just ask if this train goes to the station you’re trying to reach or if this is a specific line and they’ll tell you no problem. Just maybe aim for someone who actually looks like they live there and know what they’re doing, so not a tourist. Try a business person or a student since they use the system the most.

Whatever you do, DO NOT get on a train if you’re not sure it’s the right one.

The most common lines I used were the Victoria, Central, and Bakerloo. If you’re wanting to see all the touristy things in London, chances are you’ll be taking these same lines. So I’d recommend checking these out and studying which stations are on them and where they lie in London.

london underground circle line tips for navigating the tube

Scared of personal space?

I have no issue being squeezed up against people. Well, unless you smell bad or are creepy, but other general people? Don’t mind it too much. However, I understand that some people find this stress or anxiety inducing so here are a couple tips for you!

You need to actually need to avoid busy times. Especially on the extremely popular Circle and Victoria lines.

Waiting at the very ends of the platform to get on the first or last train usually works to avoid crowds though. This is because people are too lazy to walk to the far left or right and just wait in the middle. I did find the front is always less crowded than the back though.

Some of the train’s carriages are all connected too, and if that’s the case like on the Circle line, standing in the connection space is uncommon so go there. Don’t worry, there are bars for you to hold onto in these places.

And those are all my tips for navigating London’s beloved Underground! I hope this post was super helpful to you reading this and that now you’re all ready to go and excited to see London. One less thing to worry about right?

How do you feel about subways?

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