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First Timer’s Guide to Public Transportation

how to use public transport when traveling

Taking public transportation on your travels is usually the best way to get from point A to point B and experience your destination like a local. Plus, it is generally way cheaper than a taxi!

But if you have a terrible sense of direction like I do, you might zone out and miss your stop or accidentally take an express train and end up on an unfamiliar New York City street at 1 am. There are a few ways to make sure that your trips on transit are a breeze.

Find yourself a map!

Basic, yet oh so important. Some major cities, namely London, Sydney, and New York, have smartphone apps for public transportation that help you plan routes and show timetables as well as maps.

Transit is an app that works in multiple destinations (over 100+ cities across the globe) for buses, trains, and other forms of transportation. If you’re using Google Maps or another program, make sure you have offline capabilities.

City Rail Map app provides maps for 56 cities around the world.

Of course, there’s also standard paper maps. Usually, you’ll find these at the airport visitor’s desk as well as posted throughout the transit station. If you’re worried about it, you can usually print one off the Internet before you go.

And if you’re taking public transportation from the airport into the city, map your route in advance to avoid extra stress. This is something we definitely recommend for first-time solo travelers.

guide to public transportation
Streetcars are a fun slice of public transportation history, like this one in New Orleans.

Nickname stops in foreign languages.

I first learned this trick while on a family vacation in Paris. Since we didn’t speak the language, we gave our stop and the ones we were using English nicknames. For example, “Jussieu” became “Jurassic Park.” (It was the 90s and we didn’t speak French!)

You might also use the color coding of the train lines to remember as well as the numbers like those in New York City. Landmarks are another easy way to remember. Did your station have something specific about it you can use as a memory tool?

And if all else fails, ask a driver or local. You’d be surprised how friendly people are. I try to find someone and say the name of my stop to see if they’ll tap me when it’s my stop. Worst case, you can point to the name (if you can’t actually say it, or read it in the local language) in your guidebook or on your phone.

guide to public transportation
Subway art can be interesting as well as a way to differentiate one station from another.

Figure out which ticket system is best for you.

Most cities have some sort of card that allows you to top up if you’ll be visiting for a few days and using transit regularly. Other times you may find that a tourist card is better suited to your needs. Do this research in advance.

I’ve bought reusable cards in just about every city because I never know when I’ll be back! In my wallet, you’ll find an Oyster card for London, a Breeze card for Atlanta, a Metro card for New York, and an Istanbulkart card from Istanbul. They don’t expire for a while, if at all, and you can usually swap it out for a new one when it does.

If you decide against a pass, carry small change. Some buses only take exact coins and bills.

Some cities require you to validate your ticket or stamp in and out, so find out in advance. Many have police officers who check for tickets. I’ve been asked for my ticket in Los Angeles, Berlin, and Sydney. And your ticket might only work for certain zones.

guide to public transportation
Some cities have ferries as part of their public transportation system, like Istanbul.

Stay safe.

Find out the hours of public transportation and late night options before you get stuck in an unfamiliar corner of the city in the middle of the night.

Crowded buses and trains are also a prime place to get pick-pocketed. Keep your valuables somewhere safe, not in your pockets. PacSafe bags have clips to keep your zippers from prying hands. If you’re worried about your personal safety, find a woman to stand with.

If you are concerned for your safety, it might be worth switching to taxi or a ridesharing opportunity.

>>Read our female guide to safely using rideshare apps.

Extra tips:

  • Remember to stay focused on your stop and don’t get distracted by books and music. It’s an easy way to miss your stop!
  • Some buses may require you to hit a button or pull a cord for it to actually pull over at the next stop.
  • Waving/flagging down a bus is often necessary. Don’t let that bus pass on by!
  • And, of course, it’s customary in many cultures to give up your seat for the elderly and expectant mothers.
how to use public transport while traveling

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Reader Interactions


  1. terra says

    These tips are awesome. I am a HUGE fan of using public transit in new cities, especially in foreign cities. For me, it just helps me grasp the culture and feel part of things so much quicker and while it’s definitely led to some unexpected adventures and mishaps, it’s also made for some pretty great experiences.

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