5 Rules for Tourists Using the London Underground

Whether you’re travelling to London for the first time or for the first time in a long while (and need a refresher), following these rules for using the London Underground will make your visit a more pleasant one (and make the approximate 3 million daily riders very happy!)

westminster underground sign

 

5 Rules for Using the London Underground

1. Be Quiet

If you’re travelling on the London Underground, please don’t talk or keep your conversation down to a dull roar if you can’t seem to help it (this rule also applies if travelling on an Overground train or by bus.) My first morning commute found myself in a carriage with 152 of my fellow Londoners. You could hear a pin drop in there. The silence was deafening. Eyes fixed to newspapers or books, ear buds plugged in, or the London stare conveying that sense of “I’m not really aware, so leave me alone”.  Thirty minutes on this funeral carriage and I found myself uncomfortable at the level of silence.

Trying to strike up a conversation with anyone over anything, confessing dark secrets to a stranger in some sort of cultural cathartic ritual, and speaking at a decibel level sure to be heard 100 yards away are counter to most everything that is English, and Londoners can’t bear those who break the rules of silence. When in London, please assimilate and be quiet.

All is quiet on the Underground. © timesofmalta.com

All is quiet on the Underground. © timesofmalta.com

 

2. Keep to yourself

In most of the US, and most of England itself, even a bit of eye contact and a polite nod is welcome in recognizing your fellow human being who is nearby. In London, the “London stare” is a practiced way of getting on with the drudgery of living in a sea of humanity and keeping to yourself.  I have stood next to close friends and have had to break their concentration of looking at nothing with a tap on the shoulder. This always surprises them as if I magically appeared. It’s a personal space defence mechanism that’s easily acquired.

If you insist on bringing that backpack or rucksack with you, please carry it at your side. When it’s on your back it takes up enough space for another person to stand behind you. You can’t see where it’s swinging (maybe in the face of someone shorter than you) and you shouldn’t be leaving it out there for a pickpocket to rifle through it either.

During rush hours, which also occur outside of work days, there’s really no such thing as personal space. But, please don’t touch your fellow passengers. Learn the nuanced art of gripping the pole about your head and keeping at least 2 mm (yes, that’s metric) from your hand and the hands to either side of yours. Don’t touch.

Allow riders to exit car before you try to enter.

Another rule: Allow riders to exit Tube car before you try to enter.

 

3. Stand on the right, walk on the left

This is the greatest rule of life on earth today. Tourists have this amazing cultural thing about an escalator: they get on them and stand, waiting for the magic metal beast to convey them up, or down, because they long ago forgot that they are moving staircases.

If you want to stand on the escalator in London, stand on the right or get ready to be told off with a “tut tut”, a big cough in the severest of tones, or a very condescending “SORRY!” that indicates “I’m sorry that you’re too stupid not to stand on the right side of the escalator.” We’re moving fast in London and walking down, or up, the left with no obstructions is a God-given right. Disregard this rule at your own peril.

I would like to add when exiting the escalator, please do not come to a dead stop to pop-up the handle on your roller bag or look at a Tube map. Please move to the right or left, out of the way of traffic before doing so. Remember, people are trying to exit the escalator behind you! – Melissa

Practice escalator etiquette.

Practice escalator etiquette.

 

 

4. Get an Oyster Card

So, you want to get on to the public transport so that you can cease conversation and keep to yourself? Get an Oyster card. This is not just a ticket, it’s about speed. Sure, you can put money on it and pay for your journeys, but it’s not about you – it’s about me and a need for speed.

The contactless near-field communication Oyster card is not about reducing ticket trash, it’s about speed through the barriers. Your inner Tube sensei is telling you to “Tap in, tap out”. “Tap in” and the barrier opens and you flow through it. “Tap out” and you’re off to the other side. As you approach the barrier, put the card in your hand and extend it towards the yellow touch pad and keep moving forward. Pull your arm and card from behind you as the barrier opens and you move effortlessly and smoothly forward. Learn this, and do it.

The need for speed - buy an Oyster card.

The need for speed – buy an Oyster card.

 

5. Get a map or an app

You’re lost? Use a map or an app to help you out or ask one of the public transport workers available, but don’t bother talking to me. I live here. I already have an app, or three, and need to shut up, keep my hands to myself, and keep moving forward.

Keep a London Underground map on hand.

Keep a London Underground map on hand.

 

Yes, I’ve only listed five here but if you’re visiting London for the first time and all you do is follow these rules, you’ll do well.

Do you have any rules you that would like to add to this list? If so, please leave a comment below.

Philip is an American, and European. He has adopted London, but must share it with 8 million residents and 16 million visitors each year. Philip lives in the Royal Borough of Greenwich ( Zone 3) with his wife and their child, the only one in the family actually born in London. Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, London is penance for having perfect weather most of his life. No one ever moves to London for the weather.

Comments

  1. Isis Glass says

    Having just returned from London all rhe rules you mentioned are still very fresh! I’ve visited London several times and your advise about navigating the Tubeis right on the money. On my last visit I was w/a friend who was very loud and insisted on a carrying a conversation w/me even when seated across from me…some of the looks she got were priceless! Londoners are wonderful people, I found them all to be warm, ftiendly, and curteous! Just don’t mess w/them when traveling on the Underground with them!

    • Londoner says

      If someone gave me the evils for talking I’d obviously ignore them – it’s not a library! Obviously people don’t converse greatly as invariably they are travelling on their own to/from work but speaking isn’t banned, the tutters are just miserable and I hope your friend, even if she was being a bit loud, just carried on. If you’ve ever been on a tube past a few hours of drinking after work and definitely post closing time at weekends you’ll know it’s far from quiet. I’ve been on trains in the past where the whole carriage bar a few party poopers were singing and yes about 90% were under the influence!

      • Melissa says

        Indeed, late night in a Tube car can be a completely different experience than at rush hour. Philip did say that you can speak but keep it to a dull roar.

  2. Steve Etter says

    I’m surprised to learn that the left-driving British nevertheless stand to the right on escalators as we do here in the Chicago “el.” It seems counter to what I would have expected from folks I would have thought were oriented to all things happening on the “wrong” side from my perspective. You learn something new everyday! The Oyster card equivalent has just been instituted here, too, and it does make for a smoother commute. It is also amazing how many folks stop dead after leaving a revolving door and then act annoyed when others pile up into them.

    • Penny says

      The up-stairs and the down-stairs are reversed, the standing to the right on an escalator refers to people who choose to “stand and ride” the escalator to the top/bottom in a single file as to allow escalators walkers to pass you. We Americans tend to stand in the middle or in a bunch if we’re in a group.
      I noticed that even thought we have been back in America for almost two years, that my children still board the escalator and stand single file to the right. It is a habit you learn quickly there.

      • Melissa says

        In every city I have visited in the U.S. and used their metro system, people stand on the right to ride the escalator. If they don’t want to wait to ride it up, they climb the stairs of the escalator on the left. The same for going down the escalator.

  3. MM in MN says

    Yes! The rule about not coming to a dead stop to pull up luggage handles!! Seriously, I say this every time I am somewhere busy. And even had to say this to my travelling partner. GET OUT OF THE WAY! There is a line of people coming behind you- and they can’t stop.

    Move off to the side. Against a wall, near a bench, on the opposite side of a garbage bin. There is always someplace to go within 5-10 steps to get out of the line of people. Adjust your things there. Button your coat, adjust your luggage handle, get out a map, tie your shoe. Whatever it is you are going to do- don’t do it directly in front of an escalator/ staircase/ elevator/ doorway.

    I really wish more people were aware of how their actions affected those around them.

    • Melissa says

      I would also add stopping to read a map while you’re walking on the pavement. I lost count of how many times I almost crashed into someone I was walking behind because they came to a full stop instead of moving off to the side of the pavement.

      • Kim Culvey says

        I have never traveled to London, but hearing how stuffy the regular working class is, I probably won’t visit, and will keep on loving the British people through social media. I understand that there are nuances to every culture, but rudeness doesn’t sound very appealing to someone that really want’s to visit.

        • Jem says

          Kim, don’t let it put you off, London is no different to any other large city!
          I have lived in a few cities and in my experience, people generally are in a rush when they are n the underground. I’m British and I talk if I choose, it’s not a problem…It would be a shame not to see the UK, once in your lifetime but my advice to you is don’t limit yourself to just London…You’ll be surprised how friendly the British can be and with the best self effacing humour!

          • Melissa says

            That’s exactly right. I’ve visited many cities in the U.S. and in Europe and in general people behave the same, including on their mass transit systems.

        • Hanna says

          I live in Toronto and I actually wish that people would adopt the “quiet” on the tube. Sometimes the tube is the only peaceful 20 minutes I get where I can read my paper or listen to my music, before the clatter of work starts once again. I would love for quiet. I might also add that I would love it more if everyone who took the tube in Toronto would SHOWER before they came onboard. If you’re standing 2mm from someone, they’d better be clean. And if you’re already stinky in the morning, what will you be like at day’s end? Yuck.
          I also agree about not coming to an abrupt halt at the top of an escalator. The number of times I’ve had to say ” move it along” are too many to count . What is it with people? It’s like they’ve never seen moving stairs or have no idea how they function. The other pet peeve is people who walk and text between stations and smack into everyone because they are not aware of their surroundings.
          All of these rules are not ‘rude’. They are common courtesy to our fellow humans.
          We are all on this planet together and there is a time and place for everything.
          ( Maybe I’m actually British :) )

          • Melissa says

            I think a lot of people walk around in their own little world frankly with little regard for other people. Cynical I know.

        • Maureen says

          I have visited London twice and each time used the Underground. At first a little intimidating but so worth the experience. You could tell the regular London commuters, they were reading , texting, earplugs in their ears. But not all Londoners are the same, we met a group of young 20-somethings that were having a roaring conversation and let us join in! As Americans, they wanted to know more about how we lived. I was not overcome by rude people, no more than in the states. People are people, no matter what country you are in.

        • says

          I’m from the U.S. and London is one of my favorite cities in the world! I’ve been there several times and no one has ever been rude. Don’t take one person’s personal thoughts on a blog as a reason not to visit a country.

  4. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says

    Good points all! But, Melissa, I appreciate your adding the bit about not coming to a dead stop when exiting the escalator. Seems like common sense to me, but one sees this all the time.

  5. says

    The no talking was one of the hardest things to get used to for me, especially after riding the subway in NYC many times over. I did get a chuckle though, on one of our trips to London, they had a landslide that closed down a large section of one of the Tube lines and everyone was confused on how to get around. I never heard so much talking, we found ourselves giving directions to a lot of people who weren’t sure how to get around it.

    • Melissa says

      As I said on Facebook, these things aren’t necessary isolated to London. Travel in any big cities metro system and I bet at least three out of five of these rules apply. Most people who commute on the train to work daily don’t want to be bothered with tourists or. Sorry, but it’s true.

      • Hanna says

        But, I have to add, that if I see tourists that appear lost in Toronto, I will go up to them and ask if I may be of assistance. Saying ” you look lost, may I help” has started some of the most fantastic conversations I’ve had. I even ended up going to a concert with a bunch of Brazilian students who were ever so happy to have someone ask them if they needed help! You’d be surprised at the cool things that can happen if you initiate the ‘niceness’. :) But I rarely stop anyone on the street in a strange city and ask for directions !

  6. Lilian says

    Don’t ask for a street or sight. Because they don’t now either where it is….And don’t laugh if you see a person with a goldfish in a bowl on the tube..(seen it!)

  7. Char says

    Am hoping to put these rules into practice very soon. Was also hoping to be able to interact with the people while there, but I guess not much.

  8. lpurring says

    Mind the gap. That’s the only announcement you will be able to hear clearly. The others you have to guess at and follow the crowd.

  9. says

    I would add to this – let people off the carriage before you try getting on. Seriously, this one drives me nuts! I *know* it’s busy. I know you want a seat or a space without someone sniffing your armpit but let those getting off (and therefore making space for you) get off before you take their place in the carriage. It’s stupid, and it’s extremely rude.

  10. Angel says

    All valid but you forgot:
    - Don’t run for the train. Running makes you look like a mad villain running away from the police. There is another train leaving in only a couple of minutes, perhaps even less.
    - Don’t block the doors or force them open to get on to a train about to leave the station. It looks particularly moronic if you’re trying to keep the doors open for other members of your group. It is dangerous, causes serious delays for the other passengers, and there is another train leaving in only a couple of minutes, perhaps even less.

  11. diane says

    Never stand directly in front of the train doors when it pulls up, people run out the doors when they open, you seriously can get injured. I wouldn’t agree on the talking part because I have taken many trips and people are always chatty on them, not just tourists either. I would say the better rule is just keep your conversation down so that you don’t disturb others around you. One of the things I absolutely hate is if you take the tube to/from hHeathrow please if you have big luggage stand in the areas that have the extra space for your bags, please do not have a seat and put your luggage in the walking aisle, seen it many times before and I am pretty sure someone might hurt you over it.

    • khaled el gammal says

      Dear Diane ,
      I totally agree with you If you want to chat with your friends keep your voice down and soft , because I hate the people who talk loudly I can’t concentrate
      in this situations in other hand I think we can’t force people to not speak
      with each other , Yes if the trains doors opens up You have to stand on left or right to allow riders exits

  12. DebF says

    Stand to the side of the doors to let EVERYONE off the train before you get on. Yes, YOU. Get out of the way. People getting off have right of way. If you try and get on while I’m getting off, ESPECIALLY if you try and push ahead of all the other people who are doing the right thing, I will walk into you until you get back and out of the way. I do NOT care if you fall into the gap. Grow some manners.

    Also, SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. Look it up people! It means that if you’re on your phone, you’re NOT walking down the platform or the street, you’re instead standing to the side, out of the way of the pedestrian flow. You KNOW that there are people behind/ next to/ in front of you, and you are aware that your actions will have a knock-on effect on them.

    • Melissa says

      Hear,hear! And I mentioned your first point in the caption of one of the images. It’s also lift (elevator) ettiquette – another pet peeve I have – people who won’t let you off the lift before they try to get on. What are they thinking? If everyone gets on and you don’t let others off, you’ll soon have a lift that can’t get any fuller! Same for a train car.

  13. Rosanna Bragoli says

    yes as I was born in London but live abroad I remember these rules
    it is common sense if there rules are there you must respect them
    becouse you are in their country

  14. says

    I spent several weeks in England, but I was only able to make it up to London for one day. I took the train up from Poole in the morning. There was a rowdy group of guys in the car with me heading up to London to celebrate the coming wedding of one of them. I spent a wonderful day wandering all over the city and making heavy use of the Underground to get around. After having dinner in the city, I took the train back to Poole. In the car with me was the same group I had traveled with in the morning. Despite being well lubricated, they remembered me and greeted me like an old friend. They even insisted I take one of their souvenir Theakston’s mugs to commemorate the day.

    Everyone I met in England was friendly, polite and a joy to be around. I would go back in a second. More than once I have considered moving there and might still do it one of these days. Until then I will just have to get my anglo fix watching British television.

  15. Londoner says

    Contrary to popular belief the mind the gap announcement only happens at a minority of stations on a minority of lines. Usually the ones with curved platforms and/or just massive gaps between platform and trains. I hated this when I was a kid and I hate it even more now especially when it’s dead busy. That doesn’t of course make it any more less iconic.

    Obviously I know where all these pieces of advice come from but none of it should ever put you off coming here – it’s really not as bad as it sounds in practice.

    As someone said above there is really no point asking most people ‘how to get to’ because it’s true, most of us don’t have a clue. Maps are your friend and if you really wanted you could get from A to B by reading the maps on practically every bus stop you walk past (that’s the hard way of course.)

    Buy an Oyster card, they might cost £5 in the first place but they last forever especially if you register it so if you break it/lose it you’ll get a replacement at no extra cost and won’t lose what money is on it. Main benefit is speed and cheaper fares on all methods of public transport. Contactless credit/debit cards can also be used in a similar way.

    I avoid the tube wherever possible and have done for years, I do buses. It might take longer but less of the sardine and you can see things of interest or sleep. Plus it’s much much cheaper.

    • Tony says

      What is all this about not talking? There is NO “rule” about not talking on the tube! How do I know? I am a Brit who has always lived here. I can’t speak for similar systems around the world but I have used the tube hundreds of times in my life. Yes, we keep ourselves to ourselves; squash into each other’s personal space on the tube; hang our armpits close to another’s face in the effort to not fall over in the acceleraing train and tend not to look at each other or talk but surely that is more to do with the amount of noise the tubecar makes as it rushes through the tunnels rather than a desire to stay silent? Most of us are more than happy to answer your questions – we are quite friendly really and seldom bite!

    • Sarah says

      London is a very crowded city on a small crowded island and we have evolved ways to behave so that we stay sane. Bear in mind that you might be on holiday but a lot of us on the tube are either going to or leaving work and we might not be in the mood for a chat. Or to hear yours.

      • Melissa says

        Thank you Sarah for your comment. I tried to make that point in response to some comments on Facebook. I don’t care what city you live in, if you have to travel on mass transit twice a day, deal with crowds and delays, the last thing you want is to be asked for directions on a daily basis by this or that tourist or to be bothered by small talk from a complete stranger. Most of the time you’ll want to be left alone, especially after an exhausting day at work. That’s not to say that you’re unkind or rude for feeling this way or that once in a while you aren’t perfectly happy to help a tourist, but I dare anyone to have to suffer those daily commutes and then say they would welcome such things on a daily basis.

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