Thursday, May 15, 2008

Getting Around London: The Tube

This article continues my series on getting around London. If you missed the first two parts, check out previous posts for information on taxis and buses.

As a newcomer to England, I relied on the Underground (the official name, but you'll never hear a Londoner call it that) to get around. The buses seemed overwhelming and taxis just got too expensive, and The Tube was novel, fun, and easy to use.

The Tube is one of the most extensive subway systems in the world, with 11 different lines and over 270 stops at last count. Each line has its own colour coding and name, so it is easy to determine which line you will need to take to get to your stop, and whether any transfers will be necessary.

Tube stops are all over the city, usually no more than a ten minute walk away maximum, and are easily identified by the sign, which is a red and white circle with a blue Underground tag on it. Taking the Underground is fast and easy, but I think relying solely on the Tube is a big mistake that a lot of visitors to the city make. You miss seeing London as you ride, and sometimes it is much faster to take a bus than to take the Tube.

Both The Tube and the buses can get packed during commuting hours. There are a few other disadvantages to using the Tube as well. The first one, important for those of you with health issues, is that transfers usually involve steps, and walking.

The second disadvantage is that being in a crowded Tube car when the sun in shining is my idea of Hell. In the Summer, The Tube tends to take on the smell of one big stinkin' armpit. It's not pretty, but it had to be said. Oh, and be prepared for beggars and buskers (people singing, playing instruments for money).

Rolling with the Tube

If you don't already have a billion maps in your guidebooks or leaflets, pick up a map at a Tube station. The Underground system is divided into six fare zones, but most tourist destinations are in Zone 1. Tube stations are also very easy to use. You'll find maps and travel information all over each station.

If you need some assistance or reassurance, don't be afraid to ask one of the Underground staff or the staff at the ticket office. I've found them very helpful, not only with journey planning, but also with advice with which kind of ticket would be best suited for my plans.

Now you're ready to ride...hold on there! You have to have your ticket before you can get to the train. You can purchase your ticket from the ticket office, or from one of the automated ticket machines if you are certain of what you want. I'd recommend that first time users utilise the expertise of the ticket office to ensure you get the most from your money.

Ticket Prices

You may buy a single or return (both ways) ticket, which will be valid for only the day shown on the ticket. Zone 1 singles cost £1.50 for adults, and 60 pence for children. There are no discounts for buying a return ticket; it is simply the cost of two singles.

If you will be doing a lot of quick trips, or to save a bit of money, you may consider purchasing a Carnet. A Carnet is a booklet of ten single Underground tickets for Zone 1 which can be bought in advance and are good for up to 12 months from the time of issue. These tickets can be used by anyone in the family, and cost £11.00 for adults, and £5.00 for children.

If you are going to be doing a good number of trips in one day, you may want to purchase a Travelcard, or one of the other saver tickets. As these tickets were covered extensively in the article on buses, I'll ask those who missed that article to refer back to Part II in Issue 2 on the web site for more details.

Riding The Tube

Okay, so now you have your ticket and you know what line you need. Most stations, especially those in central London, have ticket gates, that you will need to pass through to get in and out of the stations.

To enter, insert your ticket face up into the slot on the front of the machine. Your ticket will pass through the machine and pop up at the top. Remember to take your ticket!!! Then simply walk through the gate. If your ticket is denied, see staff personnel for help. They have a walk through gate for those who are carrying a lot of luggage with them and won't fit easily through the normal gates.

Take the escalator to your appropriate line (many stations have more than one line), and choose your platform by direction. There are signs indicating which stops are serviced by which platform, so don't worry if you don't know north from south.

Trains arrive every 5-10 minutes for most central stops. Doors close automatically, so don't be an idiot like some Londoners and try and jump on the train while the doors are closing. Amuse yourself by reading the advertisements or buy some melty chocolate while you wait.

The Tube stops automatically at each stop, so there's no need to do anything to disembark. If you need to make a transfer, hop off at the transfer stop and follow the colour coded signs for your next line. Easy!

Remember that when you leave the Tube station, you must go through another set of gates. If your journey allowance is complete, the machine will retain your ticket. If it's a Travelcard, don't forget to take it with you! Tube stations sometimes have multiple exits, so study the local map before you head for an exit to be sure you're headed in the right direction.

The Tube runs from 5.30am to around midnight, depending on stations. I've never felt unsafe on the Tube, even at night when few people are around. Some busy stations do warn of pickpockets, however, so keep this in mind.

Top Tube Tips

* Be sure you get the right ticket for your destination before you ride, or you may get slapped with a £10.00 penalty fare.

* Print out a Tube map if you need a map from the London Travel Information web site:

* People will always want to get past you on the escalators (don't ask me why, they just do!). The rule is stand on the right, pass on the left.

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