As a local London family, we’ve taken the Tube (London Underground) with our kids since they were born. Not only is it the fastest, cheapest, and most environmentally friendly way of travelling, but the kids also enjoy it.
At the same time, many parents are terrified of getting on London’s public transport system with their kids. And rightly so, if you attempt to take the Tube during rush hour on a weekday with young children, you could have a very stressful start to your day. In this post, we’ve put together some of our best tips for using the London Underground with kids.
The Tube with Kids: 15 Tips
1. Don’t travel during rush hour
You can expect the underground to be overcrowded on weekdays between 7:45 AM and 9:15 AM in the mornings and between 5:15 PM and 7:15 PM in the evening. During this time, hordes of commuters arrive via the biggest train stations in London and you’ll be standing like in a box of sardines – not the ideal place for a family with young kids.
This is how Transport for London (TfL) defines its peak hours Monday to Friday:
- Mornings between 06:30 and 09:30
- Afternoons between 16:00 and 19:00
We used data released by TfL to calculate the actual capacity of the Tube to check when you’re likely to get a seat. 100% capacity is defined as all seats being taken and with a standing density of 4 passengers per square metre. As you can see from the chart below, by 10 AM, less than 50% of capacity is utilized:
In the next chart, you can see when you’re likely to get a free seat. The red boxes in the spreadsheet showing “Y” indicate that all seats are taken, while green boxes show times with free seats. As you can see from the chart, you will need to wait until 11 AM to get a good chance of finding a free seat on most lines:
Based on our research and personal experience, we recommend the following.
What’s the best time for families to take the tube?
- During Weekends (anytime)
- On weekdays from 10:00 AM: To have more space standing
- On weekdays from 11:00 AM: If you want to have a good chance of finding a free seat
2. Don’t trust Google Maps
If you plot the route to your destination using the standard options on Google Maps you’ll be automatically given the fastest way to your destination. However, this will not necessarily be the fastest for families. It’s easy to forget that only half of the Tube stations have step-free access. If you’re travelling with a push-chair, you’ll risk having to carry it up a lot of stairs and/or queue up for several lifts before getting to the surface.
The easiest way to check for step-free stations is to look for the wheelchair symbol on the tube map:
There are two types of step-free signs:
Both types of stations above are well suited for pushchairs, just keep in mind that the type 2 stations above will have a vertical step or horizontal gap when you board.
The best way to plan a trip on the underground with kids
Tlf Journey Planner
The Tlf Journey Planner has the most advanced features and is the most up-to-date online planner making it easy to find a step-free route. You can access the planner through your browser or download the dedicated Tfl Go App.
Make sure to edit your preferences before searching for the destination:
Select the routes with the fewest changes (going up and down lifts take A LOT of time on the tube), and select step-free to platform only:
Under preferences, you can tick the types of transport you want to exclude from your search. If opting for the tube, we try to choose the route with the least changes and step-free access to the platform.
Google Maps require no further introductions. While Google Maps is not as advanced as the Tfl Journey Planner, you’ll be able to customize your trip by amending the route options. In example 1 below, the default best route between Canada Water station and Natural History Museum is the Jubilee line, with a change to the Piccadilly line at Green Park before ending up at South Kensington Tube Station. If you tick “Wheelchair accessible”, you will be routed on to bus #14 at Green Park since South Kensington is not a step-free station.
Example 1: Google’s default route
Example 2: Step-free route
By taking the bus instead of the tube on the last leg, you’ll be able to avoid stairs and several lifts. The 7 minutes time difference between the two options will in reality turn in favour of example 2, especially if you travel with a push-chair. In our experience, we save at least 10 minutes and a good deal of stress by taking the bus on the last leg instead of the Picadilly line.
3. Swop the Tube with the bus in central London
Even if you keep to step-free stations taking the Tube, you’ll have to consider the time it takes to use several lifts. You’ll often need to queue up for a long time while waiting for the lift, and you’ll usually need to take several lifts to reach street level.
Travelling by bus might seem much slower than the Tube, but in reality, taking the bus can often be a faster and more convenient alternative. By taking the bus, you avoid the Tube system’s stairs and/or lifts, and kids can enjoy London’s famous landmarks as you slowly make your way through London’s traffic.
While London buses are convenient for families with pushchairs, keep in mind the limited space on board buses. Wheelchair users have priority over the space as it is the only place they can travel safely. When a wheelchair user is not using the space, you can use it on a first come first served basis. Most buses will only have the capacity for two pushchairs, or one wheelchair and one puschair. If the space is fully occupied, the driver will let you know, and you’ll need to wait for the next bus. It also means that you might risk taking successive buses if you have a friend or partner with a pushchair.
Going with young kids and a pushchair on the tube, we usually double the standard estimated time provided by Google Maps. After all, it only takes an average of 2 minutes to travel from station to station, so a large chunk of your travel time will be spent going up and down the stations. Taking buses in central London is far more accessible than the Tube and provides an easy and cheap way to get around the city.
Check our recommended bus routes through central London in our post Cool things to do with Toddlers in London. Also, as explained in the example above both Google Maps and the Tfl Journey Planner will provide the best combination of bus and tube if you utilize the more advanced search functions.
4. The Overground and the DLR are great for families
Both the overground and DLR are great alternatives to the Tube. You’ll be mostly travelling above ground which means fewer stairs, and it’s a more entertaining ride for the kids. The train carriages are also wider and much more spacious if you travel as a big group and with a push-chair. There are frequent closures during weekends though, especially when it comes to the Overground. So to avoid disappointment when you reach the station, make sure to check for closures before deciding on your route. We’ve often had to change our destination for the day realizing that the Overground was closed.
Many of the Overground stations are not step-free, and quite a few old stations have very narrow platforms. Narrow platforms can be a risk for families travelling with young kids, so keep well to the side. Just like tube stations, look for the wheelchair symbol indicating step-free access. When it comes to the more modern DLR stations, all of them have step-free access from street to train.
Remember to tap in and out! There are no physical barriers when taking the Overground and DLR like with the Tube, so it’s easy to forget if you’re stressed and in a hurry. If you forget to touch in or out, TfL won’t be able to tell where you’ve travelled from or to, so you’ll be charged the maximum fare. The penalty charge will vary by station, but for Zones 1-9 (except Heathrow Express) is £8.90 for peak hours and £6 for off-peak.
5. Walking is often quicker than taking the tube
Did you know that many tube journeys are quicker to walk? Considering the extra time it takes with lifts or walking with kids through stairs, you’ll be surprised how much more convenient and quicker it is to walk the same distance. Tfl even created a special walking tube map, showing the minutes it takes to walk between stations. In central London, it usually takes less than 10 minutes to walk between stations and some as little as just 3 minutes.
6. The Underground with kids – discounts
Travelling on the London Underground is more expensive than in most other big cities. However, the child fares are generous. First of all, children under 11 travel completely free of charge. That’s good compared to most European cities such as Paris, where children only up to age 4 get a free fare. You don’t need a special ticket to get the free fare, except for ensuring the child is accompanied by a paying adult (maximum 4 children per adult).
11-15 Zip Oyster photocards
Children aged 11-15 get free travel on buses and trams and half-price on the tube compared to adult fares. For this group, it’s slightly more complicated, as you need to apply for a photocard which can take up to 28 days to be processed before collection. There’s also a £15 administration fee to be paid. The photocard is more meant for permanent residents, and if you’re visiting for holidays it makes more sense to get a so-called “Young Visitor discount”.
Young Visitor discount
You get a 50% discount by adding your child to a standard Oyster card or Visitor Oyster card by a staff member at any Tube or London Overground station.
Travelling after 09:30 AM on weekdays and any time during weekends will automatically give you a significant discount. The downside of waiting until after 09:30 AM is that you might not reach your destination early enough. Especially when it comes to London museums, it makes sense to get there early to beat the queues.
As long as you use the same bank card when touching in and out of stations, you’ll never pay more than the daily price cap. The price cap is typically a bit higher than the cost of two full-fare tickets, so you’re travelling for free for the rest of the day after your third full-fare journey.
If you know you will be bouncing around London between stations for a week, purchasing a weekly 7 days Travelcard will save you some.
Family & Friends Railcard
You can get a 1/3 discount on Off-Peak Travelcards (both adults and children) if you link it to an F&F Railcard. If you plan to take a few day trips to/from London by train, buying a railcard is recommended. Note that railcards won’t give you discounts on regular Oyster/contactless cards, only Off-Peak Travelcards.
Remember: Always touch in and out with the same bank card to ensure you benefit from the maximum daily price cap.
7. Consider a baby carrier
If you’re travelling alone, carrying the pushchair up all the stairs on the tube can be stressful. Especially when going to the older stations in central London, you’ll need to expect a lot of stairs. For shorter trips to the city centre travelling on your own, the best way to travel is definitely a baby carrier.
8. Learn basic tube etiquette
Explaining some basic rules to the kids before travelling on the tube for the first time makes sense to avoid stressful situations on the tube. Not only will everyone around you know you’re a tourist when breaking the unspoken tube rules, but they will also hate you for adding 15 seconds to their commute. Here are some basic tips to avoid making enemies taking the tube with kids:
- Stand on the right, and walk on the left of the escalator. Not the easiest thing when you need to hold on to your kids, but nevertheless – one of the most important unspoken rules of the Underground.
- Offer your seat to the elderly and pregnant. If you’re young and fit and are sitting down, please leave your seat if someone needs it more than you.
- Keep behind the yellow line when waiting. On most platforms, there is no barrier between the platform and the train, so hold your kids’ hands and put the break on the pushchair in a safe position against the wall. If the platform is narrow, look for a bench for the kids to sit down while waiting.
- Have your bank/oyster card ready. Going through the barriers and on the tube should be a smooth, seamless process. I don’t want to have to wait 10 minutes as you fumble through all of your pockets and wallets, searching for your Oyster Card.
- Allow people to get off. Line up to the side of the door while passengers get off the train. Same thing with the lifts. Stay to the side, make space for people coming out of the lift, and get inside quicker.
9. Keep the kids entertained
While it’s exciting for kids to take the tube for the first time, it also gets boring after a while travelling through endless dark tunnels. Depending on your child’s age, it makes sense to have something prepared for them to keep occupied. For older kids, a mobile phone with headphones is unbeatable. For younger kids, a book, a favourite toy or a drawing pad can work well.
Introducing the iconic London tube map will make the journey more interesting for kids. Teach the kids about the different types of trains (Tube, DLR, Overground, Elizabeth Line) and the colour codes of the tube lines, and let them take part in planning the journey from start to finish.
10. Black Cab is excellent for families with luggage
If you’re taking the train to the airport, going by tube can be a troublesome experience with kids, pushchairs and luggage. As a family of 5, Black Cabs win hands down compared to on-demand services like Uber and Bolt travelling through central London. Why? Because you can fit so much more.
We’ve been able to fit 2 adults, 3 children, two big suitcases, an unfolded pushchair and several pieces of hand luggage in a single black cab. If we had taken Uber, we would have needed to split up and take two taxis, even with a big car like a Ford Galaxy. Which would have meant higher costs and more stress. Just download the mobile app Gett, and you’ll be able to book a taxi within minutes and pay with a credit card the same way as Uber. We usually take a black cab to the train station before heading to the airport using an express train like Stansted Express or Heathrow Express.
11. Go Contactless
Here are 5 ways to pay on the tube:
1. Contactless bank cards
A contactless bank card is the preferred payment option for most travellers on the tube. Most banks offer contractless as a standard for new bank cards through Visa payWave, American Express Expresspay, and Mastercard Contactless. Make sure you always use the same card or device to touch in and out to pay the right fare (touch in only on buses and trams) and take advantage of the price cap.
2. Contactless mobile devices
You can also use mobile payments with devices such as phones, watches, key fobs, stickers or wristbands. Works the same way as contactless bank cards. Contactless Mobile means you can link your debit- or credit card to your phone and then use it to pay wherever you see the contactless symbol.
3. Contactless Oyster Cards
Oyster Cards are contactless smartcards that you can add credit to.
Regular Oyster Card: You can get a standard Oyster card in London if you don’t have a contactless card or device or a Visitor Oyster card. You pay £5 as a deposit and then add pay-as-you-go credit or a Travelcard to pay for your journeys.
Visitor Oyster Card: If you don’t want to use your bank card on the tube or are unsure if it will work in the UK, ordering a Visitor Oyster Card in advance might be a good option.
Visitor Oyster Card vs Regular Oyster Card: The advantage of a Visitor Oyster Card is that it can be mailed in advance, so you don’t need to queue up and get a card when arriving in London. The disadvantage is that it offers less flexibility than a regular Oyster Card since you can’t register the card and retrieve unspent credit.
Money saving tip: If you are travelling with an 11-15-year-old, ask a member of staff to set a Young Visitor discount on an Oyster or Visitor Oyster card. This allows them to get 50% off adult-rate pay-as-you-go fares for up to 14 days.
A Travelcard (in the zones it’s valid for) gives you unlimited travel on bus, Tube, Tram, DLR, London Overground, Elizabeth line and National Rail services in London. You can use it on all buses and if valid in zones 3, 4, 5 or 6 on all trams. Travelcards can start on any day. You can either order these in advance (in which case you will be given a paper Travelcard) or buy them upon arrival (in which case you will be using a plastic Oyster Card with the Travel Card loaded onto it).
Oyster Cards vs Travel Cards:
- The Visitor Oyster Card is a contactless smartcard that carries credit which you can use to pay for journeys on all public transport on the Transport for London (TfL) network. It is valid in all travel zones and automatically calculates the cheapest total fare for every journey you make in a single day.
- The Travelcard is a paper London travel pass which is valid for either a single day or seven days and is available for certain combinations of travel zones. It is also valid on all public transport on the TfL network.
- Whether you should get the Travelcard or Oyster card depends on how long you stay in London and how frequently you’ll be using public transport.
- If you are in London for a week and plan to use only the central London Travelcard zones daily, then a 7-day Travelcard might be the most cost-effective option. If you plan to stay in London for a shorter time or want to travel to the outskirts of the city, the pay-as-you-go Oyster card cost might be cheaper.
As a last resort you can still pay with cash on the tube by buying a paper ticket from a vending machine, but you’ll have to pay a significantly higher ticket price.
12. Families can’t use the same contactless card
You might be tempted to use the same contactless card for several family members. That’s not going to work when you’re travelling together. Each person must use a separate contactless card, except under 11s who travel free with a paying adult on Tube, DLR, London Overground
13. Use your Oyster card to/from the airport
You can also use the contactless/Oyster card beyond the borders of London and the tube network. You can use it on the Elizabeth line, Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express services between the airport and central London. Sometimes it can get confusing when trying to understand if you can use contactless or not when taking a train journey out of London, so speak to a staff member in doubt.
14. Get a Baby on Board Badge
Travelling on the Tube can be tricky for mums-to-be, but having a Baby on board badge makes it easier by letting other passengers know that you have a very good reason to need a seat. TfL supplies free of charge one Baby on board badge per person, and it can be ordered by filling out an online form.
15. How to find a toilet on the tube
We’ve been there several times. The kids dying for the loo but you’re stuck deep underground on the tube. Do you chance it and hold on until you reach your destination? Or abandon your journey and ascend into the daylight in pursuit of a Pret that’ll take pity on you and your feeble bladder? Although many stations don’t have toilets, and very few have baby-changing facilities you can check the Transport for London toilet map to find the nearest loo on the tube network.
Pros and cons of taking the Tube for families
The Tube is both the worst and the best way of getting around London. On the positive side, it’s often the quickest way of getting from A to B, although not necessarily when travelling with young kids. Here are a few aspects to consider:
- The experience: Most kids will love the old stations, the smell, the woosh and the sound.
- It goes everywhere: You can travel to a different station every day and discover something new.
- The efficiency: Once you’re on the tube, you’ll travel faster than any other transportation on the surface.
- Low cost: If you’re travelling off-peak in Zone 1 and 2 you’ll never pay more than £7.70 per day (per adult), and kids under 11 travel for free.
- 100% contactless: No need to fiddle with paper tickets. Just tap in and out using your preferred contactless card or device.
- The stress: Travel during the busiest peak hours can be stressful with young kids in tow.
- Disruptions: London’s Tube network is more than 150 years old, with frequent maintenance closures, especially during weekends.
- The stairs: Many Tube stations are NOT step-free, meaning you have to carry your child/pushchair through the stairs
- Waiting for lifts: As a rule of thumb, we calculate two times (2x!) the estimated time using Google Maps or TfL Journey Planner when travelling with kids and a pushchair.
The Underground Games and Quizzes
Playing a London Underground Quiz is a great way to get the kids excited about public transport in London before visiting the capital. Here are a few good options.
Check your knowledge of the London Underground by taking our popular Emoji Tube Riddle:
Or why not try our nerdy but fun London Tube Quiz?
Get to know the Underground by playing a classic board game: