Tips for Making the Most of Public Transportation in Europe

in Trip Planning

It can safely be said that using public transportation (subway, buses, trains, etc.) is cheaper than taking a cab in any city in the world. See: Cab Fare Calculator

However, many frugal travelers become confused or intimidated by public transportation systems for a variety of reasons including navigation skills and language barriers or end up spending too much money on public transportation tickets because they are unaware of other more cost-effective options. Here are some tips for making the most out of your public transportation experience as you travel through European cities.

General safety tips:

While using public transportation in Europe,  remain aware of pickpockets and petty thieves. They tend to prey on confused tourists in bus/subway/train terminals or at taxi stops. Along these lines, avoid carrying a wallet in an easily accessible pocket and use a purse or bag that you can hold close to yourself both when waiting for public transportation and while riding on it. Make sure that your hands are free by carrying as little luggage as possible while using public transportation. Do your best not to allow yourself to be jostled by people in crowded stations.

paris metro photo

Paris' metro is inexpensive to use and easy to navigate once you get the hang of it.

Especially if you are traveling alone, never choose an empty car on a subway or train (this could make you especially vulnerable to pickpockets. On empty buses, sit in an aisle seat near the driver. Avoid using dim or empty entrances to subway stations or bus terminals at night. If possible, use only busy, illuminated stations.

Stand back from the curb while waiting for a bus and maintain a safe distance from the track when waiting for subways and trains. Most subways have a shrill siren or tone that sounds right before the subway car doors close. Be mindful of this, but also be aware that this usually sounds for at least 10 seconds.

General navigation tips:

There are paper maps of public transportation systems available at most tourist centers and public transportation systems. Most subway cars and buses have small maps on the walls as well as “line maps” that just show the line you are on (so that you can verify that you are going the right direction and see when your stop will come up.

Many of Europe’s subway systems are color-coded (each line is represented by a different color). Use these colors to guide you as you plan your trajectory (the colors will help when transferring lines at various stations). Numbers and names are also used to label lines. One the front of most subway cars and buses will be the name of the last stop. Use this to make sure you are going in the right direction.

In any metro system, there are several stations that are bigger than others and accommodate  transfers to several different lines. Typically, the lines and directions are well marked on the walls to help you navigate as you walk through the station.

General money-saving tips:

If you are only going to be in a city for one or a few days, consider buying a pack of one-way transportation tickets or a day pass if it is offered. Day passes allow for unlimited travel  (usually on both subways and buses) and can save you quite a bit of money if you plan on spending all day out and about.

If you are staying for longer than a week, consider buying a transportation card (in Paris this is called a Carte Orange, in Berlin it’s a Willkommen in Berlin Card). These cards will provide you with unlimited travel for the week you are there and, like the day pass, will allow you to save quite a bit of money.

Some words of caution: Quite a few European cities (like Paris) have multi-zone subway systems. Different types of tickets are needed for each zone. Make sure you know what zones you will be traveling in and make sure that you purchase the correct tickets.  Subway company employees will hop on the cars from time to time to verify passenger tickets. If you do not have the correct one, be prepared to pay a fine.

Throughout your travels, you’re sure to see locals who have figured out ways to avoid paying for their public transportation by stealing tickets or jumping the turn-styles. Though this may look like a good idea, I highly discourage it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen clumsy Americans try to clear a turn-style, only to fall flat on their faces and be caught by the fine-giving subway employees. Best to play it safe, especially when you’re far from home.

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