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How to Navigate Public Transport in Foreign Cities: A Beginner’s Guide

Whether you’re a seasoned subway surfer, or are new to the game of trams, ferries, buses and trains, navigating public transport while overseas can be daunting for anyone.

Catching public transport is a great way to save money, experience life like a local and save time when traveling abroad.

As seasoned travellers that have mastered the art of taking public transportation while overseas, we’re here to tell you that it is worth the hassle. And, with a bit of research and pre-planning, you’ll quickly realise that it is, in fact, no hassle at all.

So, grab your pen, fellow traveller, and get ready to learn. Here’s eight tips on how to navigate foreign public transportation like a local.

  1. Research before you go

We cannot stress this enough: if you’re planning on utilising public transport while traveling abroad, research is key. Important things to cover include:

What types of public transport are available?
Are you looking at buses, trains, ferries or a mixture of all?

What are the running times?
Some cities have 24/7 transport, while others may stop running after midnight. Make sure to find out.

How much is it?
If you’re travelling on a strict budget, it’s worth getting an idea of how much you’ll be spending each day on transport.

What is the accessibility like?
This is important for anyone with accessibility limitations but is also worth noting to assist with packing(if you are going city to city).

Are there any stations near your accommodation?
No point planning your itinerary around public transport if you have to walk 2kms to the closest bus or train station.

How and where do you purchase tickets?
Do tickets need to be purchased online or in person at a ticket booth or station? Often there may be more ticket options available online, so have a squizz and get an idea of what you need before you arrive.

  1. Give yourself plenty of time

There is nothing worse than getting flustered because you’re running late while trying to navigate a bus system in a foreign city.

Not only will you feel less stressed if something does go wrong, but you’ll have more time to enjoy the journey along the way.

This tip is especially important if you’re heading to the airport, or somewhere that is on a strict schedule.

  1. Use Google Maps or Citymapper

Most major cities have integrated the public transportation system with Google Maps, meaning you can type in your destination and it will provide the easiest and fastest route in a matter of seconds.

Citymapper is another fantastic app that provides real time updates on wheelchair accessible routes for more than 100 cities across Europe, Northern USA and Asia. The app is simple to use and will help take the hassle out of public transport.

If, for whatever reason, the public transport system you’re visiting isn’t represented on the apps, Google Maps or another similar app is still a great way to navigate a foreign city and stay safe without having to understand the local language.

A few extra tips if you are relying on your phones maps:

  • Download the Google Map to your phone, make sure you can access it offline.
  • Star your accommodation and any important landmarks for quick reference.
  • Consider carrying a hard copy of the public transit map and writing down your accommodation address in case your phone dies.

4. Get your head around tickets

When it comes to tickets, there are a few things to consider.

  1. How long will you be there? Will a single day ticket do the trick? Do they have tourist or weekly pass that suits you? Can you just tap your Visa or Mastercard to get on and off?
  2. Is the public transportation system interconnected, or do you require different tickets for different modes and trips? E.g., you may require a pass for metro and paper tickets for the bus.
  3. How many zones will you be travelling through? Will your ticket cover all of them?
  4. Does your ticket need to be validated, tapped or scanned by anyone?
  5. Do you need small change on hand to purchase tickets in person, or is card accepted?

A simple browse online should help answer all of these questions and more, helping you save money, time and stress at the ticket machine or stations.

5. Stay safe

When you’re in a new city scurrying through the subway system in a rush to get your train, it’s easy to become complacent and forget about your safety. With this in mind, here are some simple ways to look after your wellbeing and stay safe while catching public transit in a foreign destination:

Be vigilant, stay alert and pay attention. Noise cancelling earphones probably aren’t the best accessory while you’re trying to navigate a new transit map.

Count how many stops there are until you need to get off, that way you don’t have to rely on announcements or signs in foreign languages.

Above all else, use common sense and trust your instincts. Safety should always come first.

6. Wise up on etiquette

Public transport etiquette changes with each country and culture. Avoid offending locals or getting a fine by paying attention to etiquette cues and signs. For example:

  • Watch for social cues. What side of the escalators should you ride? Where should you stand?
  • In most countries younger/more able people should give up seats for the elderly or those living with a disability.
  • It may be illegal to eat, drink, vape or smoke while on public transport.

7. Have a backup plan

If in doubt, have a backup plan in case you get stuck, there is a schedule change, or the transport just doesn’t arrive. Know the number for a taxi or download a rideshare app like Uber.

8. Visit the bathroom before you leave

No, seriously. No one likes navigating public transport when you’re busting to go to the loo.