Introduction: How to Use the London Underground (aka the Tube)

Picture of How to Use the London Underground (aka the Tube)

Whether you're an overseas visitor in London on vacation, or a UK citizen visiting the capital for the first time, the London Underground is an efficient and economical way of getting around. However it can be confusing if you've never used it before.

This is intended to be a brief introduction to the tube, rather than an in-depth look.

This is totally unofficial, and unconnected to Transport for London. The skeleton of this instructable was written for the parents of a flatmate who were visiting London from the US, and were a bit nervous about using the tube. The London tube map and related images are property of TfL. Excerpts are being used for educational purposes, subject to fair use.

Step 1: Reading the Tube Map

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London is divided up into nine travel Zones. Central London is covered by Zone 1. As you move outwards, you pass through Zones 2-9.

The London Underground is divided into 11 different lines which are colour coded. Signs to each line will give both the line name, and it's colour, so they are easy to follow. If travelling with children, it's often easier to call a line by colour (e.g. “the yellow line” rather than using it's name i.e. the Circle Line).

Stations

When you look at a tube map (you can pick them up free at any station, or print one off the TfL website), you will see that stations are represented by one of two signs.

Regular underground stations are represented by a line. You can't change between different lines at these stations.

Interchange stations are represented by a white circle with a wide black outline. You can change between lines at these stations. The routes between lines will be signposted.

Stations that interchange with National Rail stations have a red symbol next to them.

Step 2: Buying Tickets

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There are multiple options when it comes to buying tickets for the Underground.

Paper tickets

Tickets can either be bought from the machines available at each Underground station, from ticket offices on the station (be aware, not all stations have ticket offices, and they're not open all the time), or in advance from the Visitor Shop (https://visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk/)

If you are making a journey to a specific station, and not stopping off anywhere else, you can get single or return fares to that destination.

If you are travelling to multiple locations (for example sightseeing or shopping), you can buy paper travelcards that allow unlimited travel on the Tube, trams, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), and London Overground services, as well as some National Rail services within the London travel zone. You can get them for 1 day or 7 days, from ticket offices on the stations, or online in advance via the Visitor Shop. To get through the barriers, feed your ticket into the slot at the front, and collect it from the slot at the top.

You cannot use paper tickets on London buses.


Oyster Cards

Oyster Cards are plastic smartcards that you can use instead of paper tickets. They come preloaded with some credit, plus you can add extra pay-as-you go credit at machines at every station.

Oyster Cards are by far the the cheapest way of travelling, as it automatically works out the cheapest rate for every journey you make. And there is a daily price cap – once you've spent up to that limit, you won't get charged any more.

What is more, the credit doesn't expire, so it'll still be available the next time you visit London (although you can apply for a refund of unused credit by writing to Transport for London's Customer Service Dept.).

You can use Oyster Cards on all buses, underground, overground and tram services. They will also give you discounts on some of the riverboat services, and on the Emirates cable car service to Greenwich.

You use your Oyster Card by swiping it (“touching in”) on the yellow reader at your start station (this will let you through the barriers), then again on the yellow reader at your destination station (“touching out”). As long as you remember to touch in and touch out, you'll only ever pay the cheapest rate for that journey. On buses and trams, you only need to touch in at the start of your journey.

If you transfer between types of travel (e.g. Underground to DLR for example), you might have to touch an interim yellow reader, but there will be signs that will tell you if you need to.

You can get Oyster Cards at every tube station, or via the online Visitor Shop. If you buy online in advance you can get a brightly coloured visitors one as opposed to the plain blue ones on the station (they make a nice souvenir) . If visiting London from overseas, I'd suggest buying one online in advance – but make sure you buy it a couple of weeks ahead of time.

You can top-up with extra credit at any tube station at top-up machines. Simply touch the card to the yellow reader, pay in the money you want, then touch the reader again to finish.


Other ways to pay

Contactless

If your credit or debit card has contactless facilities, you can use it the same way as an Oyster cars, touching in and touching out the same way on the yellow readers.

Mobile payments

If you use Apple Pay, Android Pay, Samsung Pay, or Barclaycard and Barclays Contact Mobile and Pay, you can use these on the Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, and River Bus services, as well as London buses and trams. On trains you need to touch in and touch out, as you would with an Oyster Card. With buses and trams, you just need to touch in at the start of your journey.

Be Aware! If you keep a contactless payment or Oyster card in your phone case, you should remove it before using your mobile to touch in and out. If you don't, both of them might get scanned, and you'll end up paying twice.

And this might seem like common sense, but make sure you have enough battery power on your phone. If your phone runs out of juice before the end of your journey, you won't be able to touch out, and you might fall foul of a ticket inspector as you won't be able to prove you've payed.

Step 3: Travelling With Children

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You will need 1 Oyster Card or ticket per adult. Up to 4 children under the age of 11 can travel for free with an adult who has an Oyster card or ticket for the tube. You simply need to ask a staff member at the station to let your children through the barrier when you go through.

11 – 15 year olds will need to get either an 11-15 year old's Travelcard, ticket or Oyster Card. This allows free travel on buses and trams, and child rate travel on Tube, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services in London.

Children 16 and over are counted as adults and have to pay adult fares.

If the train is busy, it's better to have your child on your lap, so that it's more difficult for you to get separated.

HINT: If travelling with youngsters, tell them which station you will be getting off at. That way, if you get separated, they know what their stop is. Tell them to wait on the platform for you. Why not get your child to plan your journey – you might end up going a long way round, but they do seem to enjoy it!

Travelling with a baby buggy

Most Tube trains have multipurpose areas suitable for buggies, except the Central, Waterloo & City and Bakerloo lines. Many also have wheelchair spaces. You may use them if they're available but if they are needed by a wheelchair user, you will need to give it up.

Many of the platforms, especially in central London are NOT step free. You may be able to ask station staff to assist you (although at busy times they might not be able to). You will probably be asked to carry your child and fold your buggy. You will often find though that other travellers will offer assistance.

Step 4: Navigating

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So, you've made it though the barriers – now what?

Take a look at your map. There will be a big one on the wall in the entrance of every station, and on the platforms as well. Alternatively carry a pocket one.

Take a bit of time to work out your route, including any changes you might need. To get to a specific location, you might need to get off a train earlier than your destination, and change to a different line at an interchange station.

Some stations only serve one line, so you can just follow the signs to that line. For interchange stations that serve multiple lines, follow the signs for the particular line you want. Don't forget that all of the signs will show the colour of the line as well as the name, so you can always just follow the colours!

If you are unsure, you can always ask a member of staff (or a local) to point you in the right direction

At most stations you will need to use the escalators to reach the platforms. When riding the escalators, you should stand on the right, so that people in a hurry can get past on the left. Some deeper stations will have lifts (elevators) instead.

Bear in mind that some of the oldest stations in central London were built in Victorian times (over 100 years ago), and aren't always easy to use if you have lots of luggage, children's buggies, or are reliant on a wheelchair. Stations with a wheelchair icon have step-free access to the platforms. There have been large scale projects in recent years to make more stations wheelchair friendly, but it is still worth planning ahead if you can. You can also ask for assistance from a member of London Underground staff. And don't forget that most Londoners are friendly people, who will often help out if asked.

When you reach the platforms, you'll normally have to decide which direction platform you need (e.g. northbound or southbound, eastbound or westbound). Again, don't worry. There are maps on the wall that will tell you where you are right now, and which stations that line will stop at. The stop you're at is the one that's highlighted.

At most stations, only one line will go through each platform. At some, multiple lines will go through the same platform, so you need to be careful to get on the right train (for example many Circle line and District line trains share a platform). All platforms have digital signs that display what the next train is, where it is going, and how long it will be until it arrives. It will also say on the front of the the train what line the train is running on. Increasingly they have announcements as well, but not always.

Some lines (such as the Northern (black) line) can also go to two or three destinations, so again, take time to check you've got the right one.

(If you do end up on the wrong train, don't panic! Get off at the next station, walk round to the opposite platform and retrace your steps).

Step 5: Catching a Train

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When you're on the platform, stand behind the yellow line. There's obvious reasons of this - you don't want to fall on to the lines! Some newer stations have barriers between the platform and the trains. The doors will open when a train is in the station.

If the platform is busy, move down the platform away from the entrance. People often bunch up there when there is really no need.

You'll often hear the announcement "Mind the Gap". Contrary to some urban legends, it's not a warning about Gappe bats (I didn't know this was a thing, but flatmate's mother was worried!). It's just a warning for London Underground passengers to be aware of the gap between the train door and the platform.

When getting on the train, stand to one side to let other passengers off first, rather than trying to battle your way through. Don't worry about missing the train, or not getting on – everyone else will be doing the same.

If the train doors are closing, please DO NOT try and stick your arm (or anything else) in the way to prevent it. This is really dangerous. Just wait for the next one - it'll only be a few minutes!

Once on the train, you'll find that sometimes it will be completely packed (for example, if you if you are travelling during the “rush hours” of 8-9:30am and 5-6:30pm), partially full so there is a good chance you will have a seat, or it will be completely empty (rare, but you sometimes get lucky). I'll be honest – if you can avoid travelling in rush hour, do so.

If you do find yourself having to stand, make sure you grab one of the poles or rails above you. You don't want to fall over if the train judders. If there are lots of people, don't lean on a pole (so that there's more spaces for hands!). And I would suggest not leaning on doors. I've seen people fall out of the train because they've opened at a platform and the person wasn't paying attention!

If it's busy, move right down inside the train, so that the area by the doors don't get too full (it also means that you have a better chance of grabbing a seat when other people get off!)

As the train moves off, an announcement will tell you the next station. If there are any places of interest at the next stop, it will tell you that as well (e.g. the museums, Buckingham Palace etc.).

The British as a nation tend to be a little reserved, and sometimes find it awkward to start conversations. This means that sometimes tube trains can resemble Cistercian monasteries – they're not being rude, just shy! But don't be afraid to aks someone if you have a question. Londoners are a friendly bunch and will be happy to help.

The easiest way to tell if you've reached your station is simply to look out the window! There are lots of signs along the platform. If you are continuing your journey, and are swapping beween lines, look for the signs directing you to your next Undergroound line. These may be in different locations from the exits. If you're leaving the station, follow the "Way Out" signs. In the station concourse you will need to pass through the barriers, by either inserting your paper ticket into the slot or by touching out with your Oyster Card, contactless card etc.

If you are continuing your journey by National Rail, look for the red National Rail symbols to direct you to the station.

Some large stations e.g. Piccadilly Circus, have multiple exits from the station. If you are going to a specific destination, such as a tourist attraction, the correct exit is normally signposted. There will also be maps on the wall showing the local area, so you can get an idea of your bearings. And don't forget, you can ask an Underground staff member who will be happy to point you in the right direction.

Step 6: In an Emergency

Hopefully you won't ever have problems on the tube, but just in case...

If you can, wait until the next station, and contact London Underground staff there. Platforms all have Help Points where you can get in touch with the control room (please – use for emergencies only, not because you want to know a train time!).

If you start feeling unwell on a train (and in the summer, the Underground can get very warm), if you can, wait and get off at the next station. During the summer, it's always worth having a bottle of water with you.

If all else fails, all carriages have emergency stop cords. Pull one to raise the alarm. If any part of the train is still in a station, it will stop straight away (hold on – it will be a sudden stop!), otherwise it will continue to the next station. Only pull the emergency cord as a last resort – you can be fined if it isn't an emergency.

In this day and age, obviously the threat of terrorism is in people's minds. But just remember this - millions of people make journeys on the underground every year in perfect safety. The odds of anything happening are very remote. So, to quote the British adage: Keep Calm and Carry On.

Step 7: Other Ways of Getting Around

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Buses

Buses can be a cheap and easy way to get around. They run from 5 in the morning until not long after midnight. Major routes may also have night bus services that run from midnight until 5.

Some bus routes are excellent for sightseeing (I suggest routes 9, 14, 15 or 22). There are also special open-top tour buses that go round the major sights (and often have a guide on board). You'll have to pay extra for the open-top buses.

You can get bus route maps online from the Transport for London website.

You cannot pay with cash on London buses – you will need to have an Oyster card, or pay with contactless or mobile methods

http://www.tfl.gov.uk/modes/buses/

Docklands Light Railway

This goes to certain destinations in East London, and can be used to visit Maritime Greenwich (for the Cutty Sark, and the National Maritime Museum), Canary Wharf, or Woolwich Arsenal, amongst other locations. It operates in a similar way to the Underground. If you swap between the Underground and the DLR, and you're using an Oyster Card, you will need to touch a reader in between.

London Overground

These are services that run out to the outer zones. They are more like regular trains. But paper tickets, Oyster cards etc still work on them. With Oyster cards, contactless, and mobile payments, you will need to touch a reader when you transfer between Underground and Overground services.

River Services

As the River Thames runs through the heart of London, it has used for transport for centuries. There are 2 types of river boat service – the River Buses which operate as an alternative to the Tube and buses, or the River Tours which are more leisurely but are an excellent way of seeing London

You can use your Oyster card on the River Buses, but not to pay for boat tours.

https://www.tfl.gov.uk/modes/river/

(Of course if you're feeling really adventurous, there are companies that run speedboat trips along the Thames...)

Shank's Pony (British slang for walking)

A lot of destinations are closer together than you might think. There are maps, and black and yellow street signs dotted all over the capital, giving directions around the local area. It's also a good way to discover bits of London you might not otherwise see.

If you've got a bit more time, there are some lovely routes that take in many of the major sites, including Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Southbank, St Paul's Cathedral, and the London Eye. Transport for London have a number of suggested routes: https://tfl.gov.uk/campaign/see-the-sights

Incidentally, if you are up for walking around London, there are a host of walks led by a guide – they range from ghost walks (London's really old – it has a lot of spooky secrets), or tours around the haunts of the infamous Jack The Ripper, to history, The Beatles, Harry Potter, the Great British Pub, or Gourmet walks for foodies! You can find further details online or from London tourist information.

Emirates Air Line (cable car)

This runs between the ExCeL Centre, London (nearest interchange is Royal Victoria on the DLR) and the Greenwich Peninsula (within walking distance of the O2 Arena).

It was originally built for the London 2012 Olympics. Single fares are more expensive than fares paid with an Oyster Card. There are also "frequent flyer" tickets that allow 10 journeys within 12 months, where the fares are even cheaper, but unless you know you're going to be using the Air Line a lot, this might not be the option for you.

It is a stunning way to see panoramic views of London. Okay it's a bit more expensive, but if, for example, you're going to a special once-in-a-lifetime concert at the O2 Arena, it's a memorable way of travelling there.

https://www.tfl.gov.uk/modes/emirates-air-line/

Trams

A tram system runs between Wimbledon, Croydon, and Beckenham/ Elmers End/ New Addington. As a rule the stations are unstaffed, but you can buy tickets from the automatic ticket machines. As will many other forms of transport in London, you can also use Oyster Cards, as well as contactless and mobile payment methods. You will just need to touch in on the yellow reader at the start of your journey. You don't need to touch out.

At Wimbledon station, the Tramlink stop is within the National Rail and London Underground station. To avoid being charged for an underground journey, you will need to touch in at the station entry barriers (to get into the station) then again on the yellow reader on the tram platform, so that the system knows that you're using the tram.

Black Cabs

These are an iconic modes of transport in London. They can be hailed on the street – just look for one with a lit yellow sign. The fare depends on your destination and the distance travelled, but there is no extra charge for extra passengers, service dogs, or luggage, so it there are a few of you going to the same place, why not share and split the cost?

You can pay for cabs by cash, or debit and credit cards.

Private Hire taxis

Mini-cabs must be booked in advance from a minicab office – ask at your hotel for a number, or ask at a tourist information office. DO NOT get into a vehicle where the driver approaches you in the street and says they are a minicab.

Bicycle

There are bicycles for hire all over London, that you can collect from any docking station and return to any other. All you need is a bank card to pay for the time you need.

BUT

London traffic can be rather busy – and not always friendly to cyclists (sadly). In the real centre of London I would be cautious about using this form of transport, but further out or in residential areas, where traffic is lower, it's a nice way to travel.

Car

Traffic in central London can get really bad. Combine with one-way systems that appear to have been designed in Hades, expensive parking and you'll see whilst driving into central London is not a great idea if you can help it. Further out of the centre things are easier – but sat-nav is still advisable.

Step 8: Accessibility

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This is not an exhaustive guide to accessing the Underground if you have a disability or impairment. I have tried to write an introduction. Lots more information is available at the Transport for London website: https://tfl.gov.uk/transport-accessibility/. Pressure group Transport For All also has some excellent resources: http://www.transportforall.org.uk/public/ug/


Underground

Unfortunately the age of some parts of the underground system (some stations are over 100 years old) means that many underground stations are not accessible to wheelchair and mobility scooter users. Only 70 out of 270 Tube stations have some degree of step-free access. Manual boarding ramps at certain stations and interchanges provide additional step free access. There have been large scale projects in recent years to make more stations wheelchair friendly, but the situation is still far from perfect, and a degree of forward planning is often required. You should also be aware that some platforms are accessible in one direction but not the other! London Underground staff receive training in assisting people, so don't be afraid to ask.A step free tube map, which also includes details on whether there is a step up or a gap between the train and the platform (and how high it is) is available from Transport for London: www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/step-free-tube-guide-map.pdf

If a lift is broken when you arrive at a step-free station, you should ask a member of staff to help you re-plan your journey. If there is a single accessible bus journey to the next step-free station, or your destination, this will normally be the journey that will be suggested. If there is not a convenient alternative, London Underground is obliged to order you a taxi at their expense (this also applies when the line is closed and the rail replacement bus service is not accessible or doesn't stop at an alternative accessible station)

If you have a visual impairment, all trains should have automatic voice announcements. These announce the next and current stations and the destination of the train. There will normally also be announcements on the platforms. Unfortunately the tunnels to the platforms can be a rabbit warren, making finding your way to the platform difficult. Most stations have staff who will be able to assist. They can also phone ahead to arrange for you be met at your destination. You don't need to pre-book this. Simply ask at the station. Platform and stations are being upgraded to have tactive surfaces at the top and bottom of steps, and at the edges of platforms. Not all of them have them at this point though. You can also obtain an Audio version of the tube map from TfL's website: https://tfl.gov.uk/maps

Assistance dogs are permitted everywhere on the network. However, due to safety rules, only dogs that have been trained to use escalators can use moving escalators. If your dog is not trained, staff will help you avoid escalators (for example by using lifts and stairs). If you can't avoid the escalator they will stop it so you can walk down it. This isn't always possible in busy periods, so staff might help you to choose an alterntive route.

For the hearing impaired, induction loops are fitted at many ticket offices, Help Points, and platforms, as well as in in some taxis and buses. Look out for the T-loop symbol. Most underground platforms that say what the next train is. Some underground lines, such as the Circle, District, and Hammersmith and City also have audio-visual displays that announce the next platform.

Transport for London have also released a Tube map that show the sections of the network that use tunnels. If you suffer from claustrophobia or anxiety, it's worth a look: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/tube-map-with-tunnels.pdf

Transport for London offers the tube map in a variety of formats, including large print, and black and white (for colour blind passengers) on their website:https://tfl.gov.uk/forms/12387.aspx


Buses

In central London, sometimes using a bus is easier than trying to use the tube.

All London buses have a designated wheelchair space. This will fit the average wheelchair or molility scooter. In theory (following a court ruling), if the designated space is being used by someone who doen't need it, the driver will will attempt to clear it for you. They will do this by making an automated announcement. If this doesn't work a second announcement will be made saying that people are required to move and the bus will not move off until they do. Unfortunately bus drivers don't have the power to force someone to move if they're determined to be selfish. And unfortunately you sometimes come across bus drivers won't even try to make people move (if that happens, complain to Transport for London, as they are under an obligation to try and open up wheelchair spaces).

Wheelchair users, mobility scooter users as well as visually impaired people using a guide dog, are entitled to free travel on London buses and do not need to show any ticket or pass.

All buses can be lowered to allow easier access. They also have ramps so that wheelchair users and mobility scooters can board. For most double decker buses, the ramp is accessed via the middle door. For single decker buses it is often at the front door. The driver will deploy the ramp if needed.

Assistance dogs are welcome on all buses and may travel upstairs or downstairs.

Overground

40 out of the 83 stations have step-free access. As with underground services, you can access assistance from staff members at each station. They will have access to ramps to allow access to trains if needed.

All Overground trains have audio-visual information advising passengers of the next station and the train’s final destination.

DLR

The Docklands Light Railway might be the most accessible section of the entire London transport network. All of the stations have lift or ramp access to platforms and relatively level access to trains, as well as audio-visual guides. However, you should be aware that many DLR stations are unstaffed and the trains have no drivers, meaning that getting assistance whilst travelling may be difficult.

Trams

All tram stops are completely step free at all stops and every stop has tactile paving along the entire length of the stop. Tram travel is free to all wheelchair users

Each tram has 2 wheelchair spaces, as well as priority spaces for people with moblity problems. As with other services, the next stop and destination are announced after every station.

River boats

Most piers are wheelchair accessible(as let's face it, they're basically ramps), but some of the smaller boats don't have a ramp to actually board the boat. The gradient of the ramp to the boat can depend on the tide, so check with the operator in advance if steep ramps are a problem.

Emirates Air Line cable car

The cable car is is step-free service from street to cabin and is suitable for wheelchairs (including electric wheelchairs) and scooters users. However be aware that there are weight restrictions on motorised wheelchairs, meaning that only single battery power source motorised wheelchairs up to a width of 80cm will be able travel. The Air Line provides facilities to slow down the cabin to allow easy access, and will also arrange for another staff members at the other end will be waiting for you, to slow down the cabin to allow you to get off easily as well. Simply ask when you arrive.

Taxis

All black cabs, and an increasing number of minicabs are wheelchair accessible. If you are booking a mini-cab by phone, you can ask in advance for one. Any black cab or minicab who refuses to take an assistance dog is breaking the law, and risks prosecution and the possible loss of their licence. Likewise they are not allowed to charge extra for an assistance dog. If you come across either, contact Transport for London, with the licence plate number of taxi license number of the driver.

Step 9: Other Useful Things to Know

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Most London visitor destinations are in zone 1. However there are some fascinating places further out. For example Hampton Court Palace or Kew Gardens, which are out in zone 3, whilst the Harry Potter Studio tours are all the way out in zone 9.

The British as a nation tend to be a little reserved, and sometimes find it awkward to start conversations. This means that sometimes tube trains can resemble Cistercian monasteries – they're not being rude, just shy! But don't be afraid to ask someone if you have a question. Londoners are a friendly bunch and will be happy to help.

It's considered customary to give up your seat to someone who's elderly, pregnant, or has mobility problems. Please don't be that person who doesn't.

This is really important – if you are in an underground section of the network, your mobile phone WILL NOT WORK. You'll have to wait until you either hit an overground section of the track, or you leave the station. Sorry about that. However Wi-Fi access is available at the majority of underground stations. If you're a customer of Virgin, EE, Vodafone, O2, or Three, you can access it via your provider. If you are with any other network, you will have to buy a pass. They are available as daily, weekly, or yearly passes.

Insider knowledge:

If you are at Euston Station, and you want to get to somewhere on the Circle (yellow), Metropolitan (pink), or Hammersmith and City lines (maroon), you have 2 choices. You can either get the Northern Line right into central London, then come all the way back out again, or you can save a load of time by taking a 2 minute walk down the road to Euston Square station (leave the station by the main entrance and follow the signs).

If you look on your tube map, Lancaster Gate is quite a distance from Paddington. To get from one to the other involves a change of trains and takes about 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can walk from one to the other overground in about 5 minutes. If you're on the Central (red) line and going to Paddington, this can save you a chunk of time.

If you're at Kings Cross tube station and you want to get to the main line railway station (either to catch a train or to visit Platform 9 ¾), you can either follow the signs that point to “trains”, which takes about 5 minutes through lots of tunnels; or you leave the station via the Euston Road exit (conveniently signposted “Way Out (Euston Road))”, pop outside for a tiny bit, to get to the same place in half the time. (Why doesn't the Underground just send people round this way? By sending people round the long way it helps prevent big, potentially dangerous crushes of people at busy times)

Covent Garden – at weekends, this station gets very congested. You may find that Transport for London has made it exit only. You can get the tube from Leicester Square which is a short walk away from Covent Garden stations

If you're going to a concert at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, it can get very busy at North Greenwich underground station at the end of the concert, as everyone will be trying to get into the station all at once. Don't forget that there is a riverboat service (to London Eye or London Bridge piers), and the Emirates Air Line cable car that also serves the O2 Arena.

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