there’s a moment during every backpacker’s trip when you stand out in a crowd, cause embarrassment to yourself and others, and generally irk the locals around you. Nowhere is this experience more commonplace, than on the London Underground, so in the spirit of protecting your pride, here are my top ten tips to fitting in on the Underground.
- Stand on the Right
there’s a reason why signs advise you to stand to the right on escalators when you’re not walking up them and that reason is the army of fast paced city dwellers who have absolutely no qualms about knocking you out of the way or abruptly vocalising: MOVE TO THE RIGHT. Don’t take it to heart ‐ these guys live in one of the most financially stressful cities in the world, so just keep to the right and keep out of their way.
- Map Reading
If you need to stop and study a map of the underground lines ‐ don’t do it on a cross over between lines. On the underground this is akin to swimming against a tide of massively motivated sharks, all intent on getting to a certain destination, regardless of whether you’re in the way or not. Avoid this faux pas by picking up a free pocket sized guide from the entrance of any station and then study it at your own pace, out of the way.
- Walk This Way
Whatever you do don’t fall into the habit of reading and walking, on a tube platform or anywhere else on the underground. I don’t care if it’s a guide book or one the many, many free newspapers and magazines that get doled out down there ‐ it’s dangerous and it will incur the wrath of your fellow, fast paced commuters. Many of the platforms are thin strips of concrete with tracks on each side, so keep your eye on where you’re going at all times.
- Cut Travel Fares in Half
Before you even step foot on the Tube, make sure you’ve purchased an Oyster travel card. These swipe entry transport passes come loaded with credit and they cut the price of travel on the underground, in half. In other words these badgers not only save you money but also time because you don’t have to faff about, queuing for the limited number of ticket eating turnstiles. Also if the worst happens and you lose said Oyster Card, it can be replaced for free (with your outstanding credit still loaded) as long as you register it beforehand.
- Think Twice
If you’re on the way into London from Heathrow with your big backpack or wheelie case in tow, don’t use a seat for your bag or block access to one with your luggage. As far as the underground etiquette goes, this is the same thing as punching someone in the face. It’s considered to be oh‐so‐rude and it has been known to attract a telling off from entire packs of commuters and conductors too!
- Break it Down
If you’re travelling on routes like the Northern Line or the airport connecting Piccadilly Line, then be aware that said routes split off into various branch lines, with several possible, final destinations. The west bound Piccadilly service for example might take you to West Ruislip, Heathrow Terminals 1,2 3 and 4 or Heathrow Terminals 1,2 3 and 5. To counter any such confusion, just look out for the final destination on the front of each train or study you handy pocket map.
If you’re travelling with a large group of world traversers don’t think that it’s OK to relax the moment you exit the turnstiles of a tube station. To be blunt ‐ it isn’t OK! This is the most cumbersome of places to block access to when it comes to the routes of your fellow commuters and the British Transport Police regularly move groups out of the people currents ‐ so be warned and be cool!
- Rush Hour Horror Stories
If you can avoid travelling during the rush hours (7am to 10am and 5pm to 7pm) then do so! It’s during these hours that the resident Londoners are at their most venomous and it’s during these hours when you won’t find a spare centimetre to breath on trains so jam packed with people, that they resemble sardine cans. Imagine trying to lug your backpack through a sea of angry and sweaty commuters and get off a train that only stops at a platform for 15 to 20 seconds, and you have a picture of just how stressful a rush hour commute is!
- The Locals
It’s a sad state of affairs but you must accept that no one on the London Underground makes eye contact and no one on the London Underground ever, ever smiles at another commuter. Tom Hall of Lonely Planet fame one told me once that this was because the daily commute is the only alone time that Londoners get to collect their thoughts and prepare themselves for work, or home. This may well be true but it also might be because of the trauma these commuters have suffered in the paths of uneducated tube travellers, so don’t take it to heart ‐ just accept it as just one of those things!
- Play Nice and Keep Cool
The following might sound like the most obvious of travel tips but sometimes it’s worth going back to basics. If you see someone who needs a seat more than you, whether they be pregnant, old or bandaged up, give up your space for them. It’s one of the few chivalrous traditions left in the British capital and it’s worth preserving at all costs! Furthermore and finally ‐ always take a bottle of chilled water with you when you head underground. None of the trains are air conditioned (yet) and in the summer the temperatures down there can exceed 40 degrees Celsius. I’ve seen many a tourist pass out mid commute so make sure you’re ready and don’t stand out from the crowd, by smacking your head on the floor!
‐ Rob Savage