Study maps and plan your routes before you go
We here at L&A are big fans of public transportation. Someone else takes you from where you are to where you want to go and you do not have to deal with the dangers of other drivers or the hassle of road construction or PARKING. In fact, you do not have to do anything; you can sit back and relax, read a book, write in your travel journal, listen to music on your iPhone, watch a movie on your iPad or all of the above. The downside is that public transportation is, well, public, so you will have to walk to and from your stop. Actually, this is not a downside, this is a plus. We all need to walk more, you included.
Whether it is a bus, tram, or metro, familiarize yourself with the system before you leave. Most systems are incredibly easy the second time you use them; it is the first that is a little dicey, so do your homework before you go so you can feel comfortable right away.
First up is selecting a form of transportation. Many cities have several different transit options, each serving a different area and function. If you arriving in a city by train, how do you get to your hotel? How about from the airport to the city center? All public transportation systems have maps and trip planners online so head there first. L&A loves metro systems with their Harry Beck inspired maps showing all the lines in different colors with interchange stations clearly marked. But metro systems may not be available in every city or area, so a bus may be in order. Buses are a little trickier because they have stops, not stations and only stop if you tell them to. You have to use your ticket onsite as opposed to a turnstile at the entrance and there is not an information kiosk to answer your questions. Trams are kind of combination metro and bus. They are above ground on the street and stop stops like a bus, but they have cars and travel on rails like like a metro. Using them is somewhat easier than a bus, but a little more difficult than a metro.
Once you have decided which form of transportation you will be using, use a trip planner or map to figure out your route, making note of any changes you need to make. Also, how often does the bus or train run, and — important for the night owls, when is that last train back to your hotel? Look at where your destination is in relation to your stop. In big cities with multiple lines, often a change can be saved by walking an extra block or two. Once you have figured out your route, remember to bring a map and compass along. You know the restaurant is 3 blocks north of the station, but the station has 4 exits and after being underground for 20 minutes, you are unsure which direction north is.
Finally, tickets. Guidebooks provide a nice walkthrough of using public transportation, taking you from ticket purchase and usage through getting on and off. These are great resources and will provide you with the basics you need for that first ride. To start, tickets are purchased at ticket counters, bus drivers and automated machines in train, bus and metro stations. The machines usually have English as a language option and will take some combination of cash, coins, chip and credit cards-some only one of the above. Especially frustrating to US bank card holders are the chip-only machines. The only way for us to buy a train ticket in from Centraal Station in Amsterdam is from the counter where we are subject to long lines and a 0.50 Euro surcharge. Sometimes single-ride tickets are sold in packs of 10 at a discount. Rides can be shared, so be nice to your travel companion or they will make you walk. Many places have gone to a rechargeable card for public transport like London’s magnificent Oyster card. These cards are merely swiped at entry and exit and the fare is automatically deducted. Adding money is easy at automatic machines or with polite ticket window staff.
Know Before You Go
Public transportation is easy once you get the hang of it. But the combination of foreign land and foreign language can get the best of you, so read the guidebooks and check the website. We ought to translate that to Latin and make that the official motto of L&A.
Despite what you may have heard, public transportation is not for jerks.