Okay, I know some people who go to study in a large city like Paris are already used to navigating public transportation systems, but for the others who are like me and from a place like Albuquerque, where all we have is the city bus, and normally drive everywhere we go, the thought of using it can be a little overwhelming. It can also be very intimidating to ask someone for help in a foreign language, plus you don’t want to appear lost and vulnerable, twisting and turning your map trying to figure out where you are, making yourself an easy target to pickpockets. When you first look at the map below, it might look confusing and at first I had no idea how I would keep from getting lost, but the Paris metro system is actually extremely easy to understand, so if you read this before arriving in Paris, you’ll already know the ropes of how to get around by metro, (which I think is by far the best way to get around here).
First, you need to know a few things about the Paris public transportation system itself. As you should already know, Paris is classified into 20 arrondissements that spiral around from the city center. There is also a classification of five “zones” that encompass the entire Paris Metropolitan area. Zones 1 is central Paris, Versailles is in zone 4, Charles De Gaulle Airport and Disneyland Paris are in zone 5, etc. The farther you want to go, the more expensive the ticket, obviously. Many of the typical tickets you buy in Paris are for zones 1-2 or 1-3.
These tickets are good for the metro, the bus, the RER train, tramway and the Montmartre funicular, so you can take your pick of whatever you find to be the best way to get around. My preference is the metro, so I am going to talk mostly about that. You also have the RER which is a higher speed train with less stops, and it also travels to the outer Parisian suburbs. The bus takes much longer than the metro and in my opinion is much scarier because the drivers are crazy! I always end up carsick, scared to death, and it takes a bit longer, but in all honesty it is a good option for people who do not like the metro. The Noctilien night bus is a great option for anyone going out late at night needing to get home during the period between 1:15am(2:15 on weekends), and 5:30 am when the metros are closed. Also pretty safe in my experience.
So, for the metro, the first step is to buy your ticket. A single ticket costs 1,80€, and is good for one trip in the metro, with as many changes as needed to get to your destination, plus you can change to the RER in zone 1. You can buy these tickets are any metro station, but be aware you will need a card, or change, because the machines don’t take bills, but some of the stations have information desks where you can pay with cash. Once you scan your ticket, you won’t need it anymore, you can move freely through any station you end up at, and transfer as many times as you need to, but once you leave the metro station, your ticket is no good and you will need to buy another for the next time you take the metro somewhere.
You can also buy a pack of ten tickets for 14,10€, or 1-5 day passes which are good for unlimited use in that specific time period, in its specific zones. The prices range from 12,30€ for a one-day adult pass in zones 1-3, to 67,40€ for a five-day adult pass in zones 1-5, (reduced prices for children under 12 years old). If you are coming to visit for a vacation, I highly recommend buying the pass that fits your needs because it can be a real pain in the you-know-what to have to buy individual tickets each time you need to get somewhere.
As for anyone who is studying abroad, or coming for an extended period of time, the only way to go is with the Navigo pass. This pass gives you unlimited access to any of the above mentioned forms of transportation, within your specified zones. The prices vary and they can be purchased at most metro stations. I’m using the regular Navigo card, which I pay 70€ a month for. They do have a card for students and residents under the age of 26 for a cheaper price per month, but my understanding was that I would have to pay for the entire year instead of just the one semester that I am here. Since I do a lot of commuting, I am okay with the price per month of unlimited access, but if you are coming for the whole year, definitely look into the student card. They also have weekly passes, which I know some people buy when they know they will be doing a lot of traveling that month and might not need to use the metro the whole month.
If interested, check out http://www.navigo.fr/les-forfaits-navigo.html for more information.
Once you have your ticket, you are ready to ride. The individual tickets go into the slot in the front of the gates and they get spit out on the other side. If the ticket is good for a full day or more, make sure not to lose it because if you do you’re out of luck, you’ll have to buy another. Make sure you put it somewhere safe for the next use. If it was just good for this one ride, then you don’t need to be as careful to hold on to it, but I suggest keeping it until you’ve reached your destination in case anything weird comes up. Sometimes you might need it to exit the station or something like that, so best to keep it until you leave the station.
If you are a Navigo card holder, you just have to scan your card over the circular reader on the top.
Once you make it passed the entrance gates, the next step is to understand how to read the map, and figure out what direction you are going in. This is obviously the thing that seems the most tricky to people who aren’t used to this, but I assure you, it is very easy once you get the hang of it!
There are 16 lines to choose from, and each one is color coated, numbered, and is identified by the two end points. The end points are how you will tell what direction the metro is heading in. There are also five RER lines, A,B,C,D, and E. Every metro station will have at least one line, going in two directions, and some of them can have several, so it is important to know which one to take and it what direction. Be prepared for many long hallways and stairs, and look for the signs indicating which way to go.
Basically, the easiest way to go about this is to first know what metro station you need to get to, and then figure out how to get there from the station you are closest to. When looking into going to monuments, restaurants, museums etc., any website or pamphlet is sure to tell you what metro stops are nearby, and many maps show you all the metro stops in relation to famous monuments. As long as you know what metro station you are going to, in relation to where you are, there should be no reason for you to get lost.
For example, I take lines 11 and 2 to get to school. Line 11 is marked in brown, and the endpoints are Châtelet/Mairie des Lilas. Line 2 is marked in dark blue, and the two end points are Nation/Porte Dauphine. The metro stop for my school is Porte Dauphine, on the far left of the map, so if my nearest metro station is Place des Fêtes, I need to take the 11 in the direction of Châtelet, it’s endpoint, and get off at Belleville, where the 11 and the 2 meet. My school’s metro stop is Porte Dauphine, so I get on the 2 in the direction of Porte Dauphine and ride all the way to the end of the line. When I come home, I get back on the 2 going the direction of Nation, exit at Belleville, then get back on the 11 in the direction Mairie des Lilas.
If you do happen to forget what direction you need to go in, the stations will have signs like the ones below, pointing to the direction of the proper metro, and all the stops that come after the current one in each direction. Like I said, the only way you can really get lost is by forgetting which metro stop you are going to.
One thing to keep in mind is that it might not always be as easy to get to a destination as it is for me to get to school. There might be times when you have to change trains several times in order to get somewhere, but don’t worry, there is always a way! Just figure out where you are going in relation to where you are, and figure out where the lines meet up. Sometimes there is only one practical way to get to a specific place, but sometimes there might be several ways to get there, and in that case you just figure out which is easier. I start by checking if the line I need to get on to get to my destination meets with the 11, (or whatever line is nearest to me), and if it doesn’t, I look for other lines that meet with both.
There are also apps you can download which can plan out your rout for you, and have a map, in case you forget yours. (Don’t forget all the metro stations will have several maps to look at as well.) The app I use is the official RATP app, but there are many to choose from. These apps are a great resource for anyone, but as our phones might not always work abroad, it is important to know how to read an old fashion map.
If all else fails, there are usually information desks where you can ask for help, but make sure you speak a little French. Do not expect the workers to speak English, and don’t expect them to be very nice or helpful either. Just be as polite as possible, try to speak French, and get whatever you can out of them.
If it still seems confusing, just try it once and have faith in yourself, and you’ll see how easy it really is!
The last thing you need to know about the metro stations, is the exits. These are called “Sorties” and there will be blue signs indicating where they are. At each station, there are usually several exits onto different streets. They are usually numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. and they will list the street that they exit to. If you are headed to a major monument, the signs will usually tell you which exit to take to get there, but sometimes you just have to pick one and try to find your destination once you get back up to the surface. Most stations usually have a map of the immediate area so you can try to orient yourself that way as well.
If there is an escalator at the station, stay to the right, as people walk up and down them on the left. Go out the exit gates, and make your way out of the station at one of the sorties, and you’ve successfully taken the metro!
Different Types of Metro Trains:
Very quickly, I just want to introduce the different types of trains you will run into in Paris, as they are not all uniform.
First you have the older trains, which are mostly on the shorter, less busy lines. Each train car is closed off from the next, and they are usually a little older and more dirty than others. The nearest metro to where I live is the 11 and its trains are like this. The one important thing to know about these is that the doors do not open automatically at each stop, they are manual.
They will have levers that look like this on both the outside and inside and you have to push them upwards to get the door to open. If you are getting off and no one else is, you will need to push it to open the door, as well as when you get on. Obviously they won’t open while the metro is moving, so once it stops, (or is almost to a stop) start pushing it up and it will open. Sometimes it can take a little force to get it to push all the way up, so don’t worry if you have to use a little muscle. One last thing to note about these trains is that they do not announce the stop they are arriving to, so you must pay attention to get off in the right place.
The next time looks like this, and sometimes the doors open automatically, and sometimes there is a button to push to open the doors instead of the lever.
Next you have these trains, which are newer, cleaner and have automatic doors. Line 2, which takes me to school is on a train like this, and I prefer these. They announce which stop you’ve arrived at, the ride is smoother, they are roomier, and the seats are sturdier.
Finally, you have the ones like these, which have automatic doors, as well as glass doors between you and the metro, which only open as the metro doors open. These trains usually have announcements, as well as TV screens inside telling you where you are and the upcoming stops as well as estimated arrival times.
Some Basic Metro Tips:
It doesn’t take long to get used to the metro routine, but here are some of my basic tips to for getting started.
First, I think it is best to get used to the idea of having people in your personal space. The metros are normally extremely crowded, especially during the busy times of day, (i.e. morning and evening rush hour, as well as weekends), and if you are lucky enough to get a seat, you usually can have your own space, but often times you will have to stand and hold on to the bars given throughout, and when it is crowded, you are sure to have someone invading your space, or be invading someone’s space. Obviously there is a common understanding among everyone on board that this is unavoidable, but just be prepared for it. If you bump someone, all you need to say is “pardon” with a small smile, (and a French accent if possible), and that is enough.
In addition to that point, I think it is also important to prepare yourself for unpleasant smells. Typically, the trains are pretty clean, but the stations can sometimes be a little yucky. Châtelet, for example, is a station I hate because it’s not well kept, has homeless people living in it, and to me usually smells like either puke or piss. The more common odor you run into while taking the metro is a person’s natural body odor smell. I mean, I’ve never smelled as much B.O. as I have in Paris. I’m not sure if people have a thing against deodorant here, or what the deal is, but it’s everywhere, so try to get used to it. Also, try not to forget to put deodorant on yourself, so you aren’t that person making other people gag in a cramped space.
Secondly, try not to be alarmed at the sight of homeless people sleeping or sitting in the stations, or the people who go on the actual trains asking for money. Just try not to make eye contact with them, and try not to appear uncomfortable.. It feels a little heartless when a woman with a bruised face and a baby come up to you, but if you don’t want to give anything to them, don’t make eye contract. If you do have extra change, by all means give it to them, but it’s not always convenient, or smart to dig around your bag for your wallet to find change, so better to just leave it alone. Often, there are also people who come on the metro and sing, play music, etc, for money, and my philosophy is that if I actually enjoy or feel entertained by what they do, I’ll give them some spare change.
The no eye-contact thing also goes for the many weirdos you are sure to encounter on the metro. For anyone coming from a big city, you are probably used to seeing bizarre or mentally ill people on public transportation, but many people aren’t used to seeing that, even me coming from Albuquerque! As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not used to public transportation and usually drive everywhere I go back home, so you see homeless or strange people on the street, but it’s not an everyday thing. While Paris is a very classy and relatively safe place, there are over 2 million people living in Paris alone, and over 12 million in the metro area, so you are bound to run into some wackos on a metro system that carries millions of passengers per day. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that you will be made uncomfortable by certain people on the metro, and it’s best to ignore them and again try not to feel uncomfortable. If someone is genuinely scaring you or you are worried about your safety, push the emergency button, or get off at the next exit and push the button that says something like, “appeler le chef de la station” and stay in areas with plenty of people. The emergency phone number in Europe is 112, or you can dial 17 to reach the police. (If using a U.S. phone number, you might need to dial 011 33 17) I have also experienced many guys hitting on me, and it has almost always made me really uncomfortable, and we all have our own ways to deal with it, but if they are really bugging or scaring you, don’t be afraid to raise your voice, even if it is in English, to tell them to leave you alone, or ask someone for help.
Thirdly, and this is one of the most important tips: keep a close eye on your belongings. Keep your purse zipped up, put items like cell phones, wallets, etc. in zipped pockets, and try to wear a bag that you can put over your shoulder. In the station, and especially on the metro, you will be in close proximity to many people and apparently there are pickpockets everywhere. If you keep an eye on your stuff, you shouldn’t have a problem, and just take the extra precautions to keep your money and valuables safe. It might seem paranoid, but I check my stuff periodically to make sure everything is still there, and I always check my seat when I get up to make sure I haven’t dropped anything. It also helps to try to look like you know what you are doing, because these guys prey on tourists and people who look vulnerable or lost.
Next, some metro etiquette. If you see an empty seat when you get on the metro, snatch it up! However, it is basic metro manners to give up your seat if you see an elderly, handicapped, or pregnant person having to stand up. If you see someone who deserves a seat, just tap them or make eye contact and say, “Asseyez- vous madame/monsieur” (take my seat ma’am/sir) or “voulez-vous vous asseoir?” (would you like to sit down?). You don’t need to give up your seat for most other people, but if someone asks for your seat, it’s nice to give it to them.
Also, there are bars in the areas without seats for people to hold onto.. One of my biggest pet peeves on the metro is when people lean up against these bars, because it makes it so no one else can hold onto them with someone’s whole body pressed up against it. It’s really annoying, and when you have nothing to hold onto it is hard to keep your balance, so try not to be this person, even if you don’t mean to do it, it is really inconvenient for everyone else, especially when it is crowded.
The last tip I want to give is about the metro ride itself. Whether you are standing up, or sitting down, and whether it is calm or crowded, it is hard to know where to put your eyes on the metro. When it’s really crowded, no matter where you look you are staring at someone, and are bound to make some awkward eye contact. French people are also less likely to smile or ease the tension, and they look at you weirdly if you smile, so it can get a little awkward. Looking straight up or down feels weird, bouncing your eyes around looks weird, and normally you can’t even look out the window because you’re in a tunnel and its black out the window, so all you can see is the reflections of people you’re tying not to stare at. Luckily the 2, which I take to school is one of the two lines that run above ground, so there’s about four stops where I can look out the window (if I’m near one).
Many people play on their phones, read, or close their eyes, and I do those things too sometimes, but the method that I have adopted most on the metro is to just try to zone out completely. By that, I just mean I put my headphones in and try to get so into the music or think about stuff very deeply so that it looks like I’m a zoned out zombie, that way I can kind of look where ever I want and not look like I’m staring at someone. I don’t know who, but when you see someone who looks like they are totally zoning out, it doesn’t feel like they are looking at you even if their eyes are right on you.. If that makes any sense at all. Just a couple ideas for people who don’t like awkward situations, just try one of these methods, but most of all, just get used to staring at people, people staring at you, and staring at people’s butts, (for when you’re sitting and they are standing in front of you).
For now, that’s all the advice I can give on the metro and how to read the map, but if I think of anything else, or a better way to explain it, I’ll be sure to update or do a follow up post. Sorry for favoring the metro, I just think it’s the easiest and fastest way, so I’m not very good at navigating the bus, RER or tramway systems yet!