Does using public transportation intimidate you like it does me? Here at home, my commute is a nearly 100-mile per day drive through the country. I brave sleet, snow, torrential rains, and suicidal deer, among other things. Yet the mere mention of public transportation always strikes a tiny bit of fear in my heart.

My very first experiences with public transportation were when my dad enlisted with the US army and received orders for Germany. As a child, I watch my young mother, straight off of the farm, fumble and bumble her way, quite courageously, across Europe with two small children in tow. Through her example, I learned to face my fears and meet challenges head on.

Why should you consider public transportation when planning travel:

sometimes public transportation is simply your best option

In many parts of the world, public transportation is affordable and efficient. Maybe your not comfortable driving in a foreign country, or maybe renting a vehicle is cost prohibitive. Sometimes the transit system is the best option for getting from place to place when traveling.

I’ve found some great resources for easing the process of incorporating public transportation into my trips

We’ve done a bit of traveling in Europe now and, in addition to renting vehicles, used the transit systems on each of my trips. I’ve found a few basic tools that helped smooth navigating around, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

#1 Get public transportation information from the official website for your travel destination

With the advent of the internet you can easily purchase tickets, find transit maps and pertinent information on official websites. You can go straight to the Deutsch Bahn website, or the Czech Republic’s site, or the official site for wherever your little travel loving heart desires to go. Simply google search “train travel___” “public transportation in___” “bus schedule___” just to name a few searches that will take you to the official site. I could write a big long comprehensive guide here, but it just isn’t necessary. Check out the official site for up to date current information!

Important note on visiting these sites: If you are traveling to a non English speaking country these sites will, of course, not be in English. No problem! Let me show you two ways that you can navigate the site in English:

1-Look for a way to change the text to English through the website.

Look for some way, usually at the top of the website to change the website text to English. If they are using flags sometimes you will see an American flag but most often it will be a British flag. See the image below:

2-Use Google Chrome’s auto translate to translate the site for you with “right click.”

Often, when using Google Chrome’s search engine most foreign websites are now automatically translated into English. IF it does not automatically translate for you, you can use the “right click” option. Simply place your cursor anywhere on the page you are viewing in Google Chrome, right click, and it will open a drop down menu. Select “translate to English” and presto! English!

#2 How to use Google Maps to easily navigate public transportation

You’ll find that Google Maps is your best friend when planning train or bus travel.

If you want to get from one place to another with public transportation you can use Google Maps to easily find a mode and route that works best for you. Here is how it works:

1-First search your location in Google Maps,

2-then choose “directions”

3-and then enter your destination. Easy!

Example: Let’s say I want to get from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to Versailles Palace. You’ll notice here that I have plugged in both locations.

The transit icon in Google maps: Notice the circled icons below. There is an option for driving directions, which you are probably familiar with, as well as options for walking and public transportation. Select the public transit option.

Find all of the various public transportation options for your query: After selecting “transit,” you will then be presented with various options. Notice that I have the “leave now” option selected. If click on that little triangle next to “leave now” you will find more options: “depart at” “arrive by” “last available.” Also notice in the photo below they have given me two route options. If those don’t work for me I could choose the “schedule explorer” in blue directly below those options where I would find a list of options leaving at later points in time.

For this example I chose the first option. Step-by-step instructions will then be provided. Notice that the trip will take 54 minutes (21 of those spent walking) and that trains leave every 30 minutes.

You can send directions to your phone, print, or share via facebook, twitter, or link. After selecting your chosen trip time, you’ll even find a link to the site where you can purchase tickets at the end of the instructions.

 

You can easily reorder your destinations in google maps.

click and drag (it comes in handy when changing up your itinerary.)

Click here to see it in action.

How to locate bus stops and train stations on Google Maps

If you zoom in on the map, you’ll notice the tiny little bus and train icons in blue. If you hover your cursor over the icon, it will give you information on the bus numbers on that stop.

 

You can also visually walk your route with the street view before you even step foot at your destination!

If you want to see what the walking portion of your trip looks like, you can use Google Maps street view. I find this enormously helpful in some cases. It gives me an idea of what the area is like before I get there. 

click here to watch a video of it in action.

Additional information you may find helpful when using public transportation for the first time while abroad

No free rides please: don’t make the mistake of skipping the ticket line when using public transportation.

It is common to not see a sole in site when you enter a train at some places that I’ve traveled to. Do not make the mistake of taking that as license to ride for free. Hefty fines are often the penalty if you get caught riding without a valid ticket and you may be asked to pay for the ticket and an additional fine on the spot. Just don’t do it. It’s not worth it.

You may need to validate your ticket when using public transportation.

Another step you may need to take to stay in good graces with the transit authorities is to validate your ticket. Often, it’s not enough just to purchase your train or bus ticket. Sometimes the ticket must be validated before you can travel on it. Check the transit website for details on where and when to do this. Everywhere is different, so do your research, easy enough since you should be able to access all sites in English now!

Be aware of Pickpockets when using public transportation.

Buses, trains, and the like are prime arenas for pickpockets who eagerly await the opportunity to make you their next victim. Rick Steve’s advises that “savvy riders are constantly on guard….. (pickpockets) congregate wherever there are crowds or bottlenecks: on escalators, at turnstiles, or at the doors of packed buses or subway cars as people get on and off. If there’s a hubbub, assume it’s a distraction for pickpockets — put a hand on your valuables. Be on the lookout, wear your moneybelt, and you’ll do fine.”

Getting off at your stop when using public transportation.

On trains and buses, listen for announcements regarding upcoming stops. Often, there is a light up or video board that shows the next several stops. Some buses stop at every stop, some do not. If there is a button, or pull cord, use it when your stop approaches. Often, it is customary to enter the bus near the front and exit near the rear. Observe the locals.

When in doubt you may have to swallow your pride and ask questions.

We took a day trip from Edinburgh Scotland to York England. After seeing no sign of an outbound train to York listed on the monitors, I got a little panicked. We didn’t even know where our platform was yet. I went to the ticket office and asked. Our destination was York, but it must have been just a stop on another point-to-point service. Yikes!

My last piece of advice, get the Rick Steve’s book.

Rick covers most everything you need to know about using public transport in, and around, your destination. Use his book together with what you learned here and soon you’ll be a pro at getting around with trains, buses and the like!

I have made mistakes, confusion over what platform I’m supposed to be on, having trouble with the card reader because we were trying to use a debit card instead of a credit card etc. but in the end it all worked out.

I’ve given you a few basics, and hopefully a bit of confidence. Toss your “reservations” about public transit to the wind, and board that bus or train! Safe travels!

Here are a few shots of some of our train travels:

Photos of the train station in York England, and sites from the ride from York to Edinburgh Scotland

… and the train from Edinburgh Scotland to Stirling Scotland.

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