One thing experienced globetrotters understand is that you don’t need to know the local language to take public transport when you travel. Most transit systems are built for use by the public—old, young, smart, stupid, or drunk—and therefore designed as simply and consistently as possible to make the service accessible to all. The trick is learning to focus on what’s important, and not getting overwhelmed by unfamiliar maps and words you can’t read. Here is the three-step process I take to understanding public transportation while traveling abroad.
Step 1: Locate The Stop You Need
How are you getting there? In Paris, you have the Paris Metro and the Paris RER, which are 2 separate train lines that use the same stations, tickets, and bright green ticketing machines. You can even buy a pass that allows you to use both lines on the same ticket (e.g. by taking the RER from Charles de Gaulle airport to a central hub, and switching to the Metro to get to your hotel), but you have to leave one system to get into the turnstile for the other.
Note: Some train systems (including the RER in Paris, and many in Asia) require you to have your ticket in order to leave the station, so never throw out any tickets you buy until your trip is over!
Learn the stop you need to get off at. You’ll need to recognize it on signs and maps, and even if you don’t know another word in French, you can stop anybody with a polite “pardon,” tell them your stop name (e.g. “Gare du Nord?“) and they should understand you are trying to get there and hopefully be willing to help!
Step 2: Figure Out The Route
What trains do you need to take where? In most places, this will be as easy as plugging in your starting point and destination into Google Maps, CityMapper, or something similar. In regions not covered by these apps, you will need to find a map. Focus on your objective. Begin at your starting point and try to find the most direct route to your destination. I often struggle with the need to find the “best” route but you have to realize it doesn’t always exist. Even apps designed to find them can be thwarted by a train delay! All that matters the first time you’re learning a new train system is that you get there. Luckily, most public transportation maps around the world follow a similar structure, even if design, delivery method, and other aesthetic qualities are different, because their objective is to make getting around as intuitively easy to understand as possible for everyone.
Pay special attention to what color-coding and different symbols mean. For example, in the New York City subway system, a train stop represented by a white dot means that all trains going on that line will stop there, while a black dot means only the trains going on the slower “local” route will.
Timing your trip is important if you plan to take public transportation. Don’t schedule a walking tour that leaves from your hostel at noon if you get out of the airport at 9 am. It’ll only add unnecessary stress. Same for traveling into a foreign country very early or late in the morning, when trains will be running slower and help desks at the stations may not be staffed.
If all else fails, you can ask an attendant at the train station when you get there. Even if they don’t speak any English, they can point out on a map what trains to take (which could be a color, number, name, or some combination of those) and point out the intersections where you need to make a transfer.
Step 2: Getting There
Find the right platform. I love taking trains because as long as you can recognize what train you need, you can look for those symbols in signs around the station. This is much more difficult for something like buses, where stops can be on any number of places or sides of a particular street.
Pro Tip: I once got lost coming out of a London train station to hop on a bus because it was at an intersection of multiple streets, with stops for several different lines clustered around. In this instance, the signs weren’t in a different language but I had to run around to read the signs at each stop to figure out the one I needed. (It doesn’t help that I am very near-sighted, so I can’t make out words that are more than 3 feet away!) You can also try asking someone standing at the stop if their bus stops where you need to get off, or waiting until you get on a bus (before you pay) to ask the bus driver.
What’s the next stop? Once you get on the train, make sure it’s going in the right direction. Take note of the next stop the train should stop at if it’s going towards your destination, and listen for it in the announcements, read ticker tape displays, or look for it in signs (sometimes they’re lit on screens like in the example below).
Confirm this again when the train actually gets to the next stop, but don’t rely on this method because you have no idea how long the ride will be to the next stop. You might find yourself stuck on the train for half hour, before you can get off and take the opposite train going back the same way!
STEP 3: When Issues Arise
Growing up in NYC, you become accustomed to problems with the subway because they will happen ALL. THE. TIME. No three words strike more fear in a New Yorker’s heart than “train traffic ahead” because you can be stuck underground for sometimes half an hour or more if the train schedule overlords can’t clear a bottleneck, like a track fire or sick passenger.
Nothing is worse for a traveler, especially one that doesn’t speak or read English, than when trains go “express” and skips a bunch of stops with no notice except a staticky loudspeaker announcement that nobody, not even New Yorkers, can understand.
To head that off, you should never rely on counting the number of stops to your destination, or only recognizing the name of where you get off because it leaves you in a pickle if the train’s schedule derails. I recommend familiarizing yourself with a few stops before and after as well. Focus on determining what the stop you got off at is, relative to where you are going.
Sometimes if signs are confusing, a little common sense goes a long way. For example, a train going back the way you came will usually be parallel to the platform you are on and going in the opposite direction. When language isn’t available to you, use every tool of logical deduction you have!
Over time, you should develop a kind of 6th sense for how trains and public transportation systems work. Once you get the hang of figuring them out, you should be able to travel confidently to different cities anywhere in the world. Public transit is also invariably cheaper than taking a cab, so learning how to use it will save you a bundle over time!
Need help getting to your destination after you get off the train? Try this guide to getting around a foreign city without internet access.
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