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First Timer’s Guide to Public Transportation

First timer's guide to public transportation

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, Uber, or Lyft especially if there’s traffic congestion!

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 in an unfamiliar New York Neighborhood at 1 a.m. Not to mention that things can be confusing if you are a public transit beginner. 

If you are wondering how to use public transportation, here are a few ways to make sure that your trips on transit are a breeze.

Find yourself a map!

Basic, yet oh so important. This is the first step if you want to use public transportation like a pro. 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 60+ cities around the world.

Of course, there are 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 the stops 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 time for me to exit. 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.

Figure out which ticket system is best for you.

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

In some cases, you can get public transportation cards that work for all modes of travel, like the bus service, ferry, and rail line, but in other cases, you will need a separate card for each.

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 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 coins and bills/notes. Some buses only take exact change.

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.

Use a ferry when you travel
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 overnight buses and trains are also a prime place to get pick-pocketed. Keep your valuables somewhere safe, not in your pockets. PacSafe anti-theft travel bags have clips to keep your zippers from prying hands. If you’re worried about your personal safety, find a woman to stand with. It also might be worth switching to a taxi or a ridesharing opportunity.

How to Use Public Transportation: 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 seniors and expectant mothers.

One way to make public transport a nightmare is to travel with a lot of luggage. Not only will this take up a lot of room and be hard to load on and off, but you may end up with bags rolling all over the bus or train if you can’t keep hold of them all.

One of the easiest ways to make public transport easier and less stressful is to travel light. If you need some tips, check out the HPL Packing Method to help you pack confidently and light. 

How to Use Public Transportation: Etiquette

If it’s your first time using public transportation in a new city, there are some general etiquette rules you can follow to ensure you don’t upset any locals. 

Avoid any super loud noises

This is not to say that you can’t chat to your travel companions or ask a local a question but avoid shouting, listening to loud music, or talking loudly on the phone. For most people taking public transport is something they do every day and they would probably prefer to do it in a calm environment. 

In some countries, you will also find that there are silent train compartments where you should refrain from talking for the most part or whisper if you do need to say something. 

Only take up the space you need

Trains and buses can get crowded. Don’t sit in one seat and put your bag on the seat next to you if you can see things are getting crowded, and don’t leave it in the aisle for people to trip over. Rather put it on your lap, under your seat, or in the designated luggage section. 

If you’re standing and wearing a large backpack, you might want to put it by your feet to save room.

First timer's guide etiquette tips

Be prepared before you board

Don’t waste people’s time and hold up the line because you’re unprepared. Make sure you have your ticket, pass, or money ready to go. If you are fumbling around in your backpack, step out of the line and let others board while you get your things organized. 

Let people exit before you enter! There’s going to be a lot of confusion and chaos if you’re trying to squeeze onto a full bus while people are still trying to exit. Stand to one side and enter only after people have exited. 

Leave the smelly foods for later

While you might be able to drink a coffee and eat a croissant on the train, you might want to leave that egg sandwich for later. You’re in an enclosed space, don’t make things uncomfortable for those around you. 

If you’ve unwrapped any food items, don’t forget to take the packaging or the empty coffee cups with you, no one wants to sit next to someone else’s trash.

How to Use Public Transportation: FAQs

Is public transport safe?

In most cases public transport is safe. However, even in the safest cities, pickpockets are common. Make sure you don’t leave your valuables in easy-to-reach places or on the seat and stay aware while you’re traveling.

If you don’t feel safe using public transport late at night or by yourself, take a taxi instead. 

If you’re traveling by yourself and want to go out at night, it might be worth going with a group from your hostel rather than alone. 

What happens if I get stranded somewhere?

It always pays to have a backup route home if you know you are going somewhere where trains and buses may be infrequent or stop running in the evenings. Make sure you have enough cash on you for a taxi fare or have Uber or Lyft downloaded on your phone in case of emergencies. 

Make sure you know the name and address of the hostel or hotel you are staying at.

If you really can’t get home, you can always ask a local (look for a woman who is not in a rush) for help. They may be able to point you in the direction of a train station if you’re lost or help you find another route home. 

How do I pay for public transport?

This varies by country, city, and mode of transport. Always do your research before you go. You may need to purchase a metro card (you can usually do this at the airport or at a central station), download an app, or have exact change.

Do you have any stories from before you knew how to use the public transportation system in a new city?

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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