Subway, tube, underground, metro... What ever you call them, in well-developed cities, subways play an important role in moving thousands of people around the city efficiently and cheaply. Upon first looking at a subway map, you will probably become confused by the array of lines and colors going every which way. But after riding on the subway a few times, it will become easier (I promise). To see just how complex subway maps can appear, check out these amazing subway maps of London, Paris, or Tokyo (opens a new window).

Subway lines are color coded on maps to help travelers 'untangle' the mess of lines. Trains run back and forth on each line and never change color. Look at the map below, a small sample from London's subway:

London subway map

To change from one subway line to another, you must get off at a station that serves both lines. For example, if you were on the subway line indicated by the black line, and you wanted to get on the red line, you would have to get off at Tottenham Court Road station and walk to the platform for the red line within that station. Notice that there are only 2 lines that use this station. Some stations, like Green Park, offer 3 different lines at a station.

Here's a test - if you were on the black line, and wanted to get to Bond Street station, how would you get there? Looking at the map above, you have several options. Your job is to make it as easy as possible:

  1. easy - get off at Tottenham Court Road station and take the red line to Bond Street
  2. easy - get off at Charing Cross station and take the gray line to Bond Street
  3. difficult - switch to the dark-blue line at Leicester Square and then to the gray line at Green Park station which would then take you to Bond Street

Either way, you will get to your desired destination. Just try to figure out which way is easiest.

Of course, reading the subway map and actually riding the subway are two different things. You'll find that all subway stations have maps to help you find your way. While riding on the subway, you can observe the stations as they go by to see if you are going in the correct direction or not. You should have a map with you, but if you don't, most subway cars have maps pictured above the doors on the inside. Some travel guides also have full-color subway maps in them. If you do find that you are going in the wrong direction, it is really not a big deal. Just get off at the next station and cross over to the platform going the other way.

When using some subways, it is important to know which way is north, south, east and west (on your map, at least). If you were to ride the black line, from the example above, you need to know whether you want to go north or south. Subway lines are either named (randomly or by the final destination city) or numbered. Most subway trains are referred to by their color or name and in which direction they will be heading. They are also sometimes referred to by their final destination city. If you do get lost on the subway, don't hesitate to ask a local or other traveler for help.

Paying for the subway varies from city to city and from station to station. Busy stations usually require you to pay before you are allowed to proceed through a gate or turnstile. Less-busy stations are sometimes run by the honor system. That is, you should pay before getting on a train, but there are no gates stopping you from entering without a ticket. If you are caught without a ticket, you will probably be given a stiff fine by the transit police. In some cities, you can purchase a booklet of tickets for the subway (this will save you money per ticket) or you can buy a pass that allows you a certain number of rides. Both of these options are useful if you are staying in a city for a few days.

Subway Links

  • MetroPlanet - exceptionally detailed and complete guides to metro systems on each continent
  • The Subway Page - links to what must be every site and subway map on the internet