A Quick Guide to the London Underground for Americans

Written by: Olivia Wakamoto


The Tube (London’s subway system) is possibly the easiest way to get around the city, taking you just about anywhere in London! Given my experience with BART, the Bay Area’s public transit system, plus help from my roommate and the Tube Map app, the Underground wasn’t difficult to understand.

But getting around London is a little different than getting around California. Instead of sitting alone in my car, belting Ed Sheeran as loudly as I can to stay awake during traffic on the I-405, I’ve been standing silently on the Tube, bracing for dear life every time the train stops and starts. Here are some of the unspoken rules I’ve learned about taking the Tube to help avoid dirty looks and exasperated, passive-aggressive sighs.


1. Have your Oyster card ready to touch in

The Tube requires you to scan your Oyster card both when you enter and when you exit the Tube station. Make sure you have it readily accessible, so you’re not the person who’s digging through your purse or pockets and blocking the card scanner.

Yesterday, I paused for a fraction of a second to pull out my card and promptly received an irritated huff from the woman behind me, who didn’t hesitate to push her way past me as I walked toward the escalator. Yikes.

2. Stay to the right on the escalators

London’s a busy city, which means someone’s always in a rush. If you’re trying to get to your platform quickly, you can walk on the left side of the escalator. But if you’re in no particular hurry, stay to the right side and out of the way. I’ve found that even my messenger bag can get in people’s way, so I try to make sure I take up as little space as possible.

And if you’re walking up the escalator, make sure you’re actually willing to go the whole way. I found out how out of shape I was the other day when I tried to walk up the escalator, keeping pace with the person in front of me. It got embarrassing when I realized I was starting to sweat by the time I got to the top.


3. Be quiet

As a stereotypically noisy American, I usually take every opportunity to have a short conversation. But I’ve been informed through unhappy looks from other riders and belated British culture orientations that you’re not supposed to make much noise on the Tube. By the time I arrived at the orientation for my Global Internships program, I had already gone on the Tube a number of times. But when they mentioned that people usually like it quiet on the Tube, the frustrated glances I’d been getting while talking to my friends about our plans for after class made a lot more sense.

Instead of meeting someone new, I’d suggest carrying a good book. Just make sure you’re not so invested in the story that you miss your stop (I’ve almost done this too…)!

4. Mind the gap

In case you don’t hear the many automated reminders repeating throughout the station and inside the car–or you have no idea what “mind the gap” is supposed to mean–there’s usually a sizable gap between the train and the platform. Make sure you adjust your stride accordingly, otherwise you’re probably about to embarrass yourself by stumbling on or off.

I haven’t tripped yet (knock on wood), but I’ve already made a fool of myself trying to get on the Tube with two large suitcases. Turns out I can barely deadlift my entire wardrobe!

Armed with these tips, you’re ready to take on the Tube and adventure all over London! Cheers!

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