Public transportation for beginners
Updated: Apr 21
As someone who has lived out in the country most of my life, I'm just not real comfortable using public transit. 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 the mere mention of public transportation always strikes a tiny bit of fear in my heart.
what I learned at a young age:
The first years of my life were spent on a farm in Missouri. My very first experience with public transportation was when my dad joined the army and received orders for Germany. As a child, I watch my mom, who was only in her early 20's at the time, fumble and bumble her way, quite courageously, across Europe with two young children in tow. It taught me to face my fears and meet challenges head on.
Conclusion? there will be mistakes, but in the end, things work out, and that it beats the alternative of saying home!
Sometimes, it is just the best option.
In Europe, public transportation is affordable and efficient. Maybe your not comfortable driving in a foreign country, or just feel that renting a vehicle is cost prohibitive. Sometimes the transit system is the only, or best, option for getting from place to place.
I'm here to give you some confidence.
We've done a bit of traveling in Europe now and, in addition to renting vehicles, used the transit systems each time. I've found a few basic tools that helped smooth navigating around, and I wanted to share what I've learned. I'd like to note here that I do concentrate on Europe a lot, but these tips apply most anywhere.
Go straight to the source.
With the advent of the internet you can easily purchase tickets, and find pertinent information on the web. 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. You can purchase tickets, and find a full variety of "need to know" information. Oh, and they usually have a helpful map! This is a fantastic new resource. It wasn't too long ago that planning was a lot more complex. I could write a big long comprehensive guide here, but it just isn't necessary. Go to the site!
Wait, you don't speak German/Czech etc.? No problem!
1: auto translate
When using Google Chrome's search engine, most foreign websites are now automatically translated into English.
2: look for a flag
If it doesn't auto translate, look for what is most often a British, or maybe American, flag somewhere at the top of the page, as illustrated here:
3: right click translate
If you still aren't having any luck, put your cursor anywhere on the page you are viewing in Google Chrome, right click, and it will open a drop down menu with "translate to English" being one of your options. Here it is in action: (this example doesn't actually translate the page in this video, because my capture software seems to be laggy, but you'll get the idea.) Double click the video for a full screen version.
You'll find that Google Maps is your best friend when planning train or bus travel. 1-first search your location in Google Maps
2-then choose "directions"
3-and then enter your destination
Let's look at an example. Let's say I want to get from the Eiffel Tower in France to Versailles Palace. You'll notice here that I have plugged in both locations.
Notice the circled icons below. These are public transportation and walking options. In this instance, choose the public transit option. (unless you want to walk 😉)
view your options
After selecting "transit," you will then be given trip options. Notice that I have the "leave now" option selected. Other available options in the drop down menu are "depart at" "arrive by" "last available." There are two options presented here, or I could choose the "schedule explorer" in blue directly below those options. Choose this option for a list of options leaving at later points in time.
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.
Extra tip: want to reorder your destinations???
click and drag (it comes in handy when changing up your itinerary.
See it here: (Double click the video for a full screen version.)
Bus stops and train stations on the map
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.
walk your route with the street view
If you want to see what the walking portion of your trip looks like, you can use Google Maps street view. Here's how to do that. (double click on the video to enlarge it)
additional need to know information
just because no one is around, doesn't mean you get to travel for free
Hefty fines are often the penalty if you get caught riding without a valid ticket, and don't assume you can fly home and ignore the fine. Often times it is collected on the spot. Just don't do it. It's not worth it.
There may be an additional step you need to take to stay in good graces with the transit authorities:
validating 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. You will have no trouble doing this, since you should be able to access all sites in English...yay!
While on the subject of public transit, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least warn you about pick pockets.
I'll hand this one over to Rick Steves:
"While public transportation feels safe, savvy riders are constantly on guard. Per capita, there are more pickpockets on Europe's subway trains and buses than just about anywhere else. They 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
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. I have noticed that often, you enter the bus near the front and exit near the rear. Observe the locals.
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. Watch out for that! When it doubt, just ask.
My last piece of advice, get the Rick Steve's book.
He covers most everything you need to know about using public transport in, and around, your destination. Let him do the work for you. Rick's guides are comprehensive, but things may change from the time the book was printed. Always double check the transit website before you go.
and there you go! 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! Happy travels!
Bonus content: my own fumblings and bumblings
Confusion over our platform:
When taking the train from Cochem Germany, to Moselkern for the hike through the forest to Berg Eltz castle, I mistakenly thought the number on our ticket was our platform. It wasn't. So we were standing on the wrong platform when our train arrived and, in short order, departed without us. No worries, trains depart often throughout the day (which is why your platform number is NOT printed on your ticket.) We rushed over to that platform. Wrong again. The train arrived and, again, departed without us. We eventually figured out how to read the schedule, and got on a train.
Not just buying a round trip ticket, failure to figure out the card reader fast enough, not just waiting for the NEXT train 😂😂😂:
On the way back we were departing from an unmanned station, and having trouble with the card reader. The train was headed our way, and in a panic we got on the train without our tickets. There was no one to buy tickets from on the train either, so we did end up riding back for free. As I said before, don't do that! Someone remind me why we didn't buy the round trip ticket in the first place???
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.