London Underground : Tourist's guide to Tube etiquette, from ticket barriers to moving down inside the carriage

'Hell is other people,' as Jean-Paul Satre observed

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 17 August 2018 10:37 BST
Commuters queuing for Victoria line trains at Green Park Tube station
Commuters queuing for Victoria line trains at Green Park Tube station (Tolga Akmen/LNP/Rex)

Commuting in the British capital can be a living nightmare.

As we saw during the recent summer heatwave, when temperatures on the London Underground surpassed that at which it’s legal to transport cattle, the Tube can be a particularly gruelling experience.

Packed in and shoved up against your fellow passengers on busy rush hour trains, sweat gushing from your armpits as you stare down the barrel of another full working week in which your genius will once again go unappreciated by the philistines of middle-management, dreaming of escape to sunnier climes and a new life by the sea... Sorry, where was I?

The intensity of the situation can inspire a hatred of one’s fellow humans like few others.

The uncomfortable heat exacerbated by someone else's thoughtlessness, exasperating ticks or selfish lack of consideration for those around them can turn even the most mild-mannered nebbish into Genghis Khan.

But there’s plenty we can do to make conditions more bearable for one another. If everyone followed the handful of simple, common sense rules below, commuting on the Tube might be a great deal less toxic.

Ticket barriers

There are two major sources of annoyance at the barriers: the first is people arriving at the front of the queue and only then searching through their pockets or bag for their ticket, card or phone while those standing behind smoulder with rage. Folks, just pay attention and be prepared.

The other is people who stop dead in their tracks immediately after passing through to consult a map or check Twitter. Do. Not. Do. This. The seething will rain down upon you.


When riding down to platform level, remember to keep moving if you’re taking the left-hand lane.

As with the ticket barriers, tourists unfamiliar with the local customs can be partially excused for not knowing good form. But on the escalators, you can see clearly in front of you what the natives are doing so there’s really no excuse for not following suit.

You wouldn’t stick cautiously at 30mph on the M1, would you?


When your train arrives, the correct procedure is to stand aside and queue at either door to let exiting passengers off first, therein creating much-needed space.

Everyone should know this – public service announcements telling you precisely what to do resound at every single station - and yet there’s always someone who takes it as an invitation to violate the implicit social contract and shoulder-barge their way through the wall of would-be departees, causing havoc.

As Seinfeld’s George Costanza once screamed at a fellow traveller: “You know we’re living in a society!”

On board

Not moving down inside the carriage is probably the biggest frustration for Tube drivers, who are forced to repeat the request again and again over the tannoy at every station they approach. Come on people, what’s so bad about standing in the centre of the aisle and holding a handrail anyway? You often end up with more space.

But there are plenty of other habits commonly engaged in, often utterly obliviously, by members of the public that conjure deep-rooted primal fury.

Please, please avoid the following. We’re begging you.

  • No loud music hissing from headphones. Come on mate. Not everyone likes Coldplay.
  • No public displays of affection. Guys, please. Your love is grotesque.
  • Don’t talk to strangers. Nobody wants to be bothered on the Tube and your chat-up lines are definitely coming across 90 per cent creepier than you imagine. You’re not Jon Hamm.
  • No wheelie suitcases or bulky golf bags at rush hour if you can possibly help it. This might not always be possible to avoid but be realistic.
  • No obnoxious manspreading or taking up a second seat with the aforesaid unwieldy bag.
  • Food is just about acceptable, just, so long as it doesn’t have a powerful odour or drip sauce everywhere. Every right-thinking person adores a donner kebab, but please, control yourself.


This is perhaps the most contentious and complex of all issues posed by the London Underground: when to give up your seat, which is unquestionably a pleasure to be savoured when it's fair to do so.

Everyone fears disappearing into a spiral of shame and self-loathing if they look up to see fellow travellers glaring at them for not standing to make way for an expectant mother or frail senior. Equally, they don’t want to appear patronising and inadvertently cause offence as a result of misdirected gallantry.

For the answer, you can’t do better than turn to Debrett’s, whose motto on the subject is: “If in doubt, stand.”

“You may be reluctant to offer up your seat to someone who looks pregnant, elderly or infirm in case they prove to be none of those things. If you notice a walking stick or ‘Baby on Board’ badge, or anyone resembling your grandmother, make eye contact and move to free up your seat in case they want to use it,” the manners manual advises.

In summary, when travelling on the Tube, take a moment to consider your fellow passengers.

A little empathy, humility and compassion can go a long way.

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