One of the things that made me most nervous about traveling by myself in Europe was having to figure out metro maps, bus schedules, airport commutes and all that jazz on my own. I am the most directionally challenged person I know, so this was a big anxiety factor for me. I searched for as many online tips as I could but I couldn’t find much specific advice. So, on this post I’ll give you the general tip first and then tell a personal anecdote to explain what happened to me during my trip that made me think I learned something worthy of sharing with you.
1- BUY IN ADVANCE: I booked most all of my tickets through goeuro.com (nothing in this is sponsored), while I was still back in the U.S. planning my trip. I found that buying tickets in advance is WAY cheaper than waiting to buy same day tickets.
Happened to me: I bought a ticket from Brussels to Amsterdam for €19 on goeuro.com about a month in advance and a same day ticket for the day I was traveling was €119 (I think because they were working on the tracks, so there was more demand then supply).
2- RESEARCH: Take some time to read or ask about the metro ticket options in each city. Is it better to get a week pass or put money on a card? Is it better to buy a 10-ticket booklet or go by single-use tickets? This will be different for everyone depending on how comfortable you are walking or how far your accommodations are from the places you want to visit.
Happened to me: I bought an unlimited 7-day Oyster metro card in England. That is what the metro agent recommended, but later I found out that it would have been better to put money on the card instead, because if you put too much and don’t use it they return up to €10 plus your €5 card deposit. And with the unlimited option you can’t even get the €5 back. The guy was like: “the Oyster cards never expire, so just use it on your next visit.” And I’m thinking: “sure, because England is so close to my city that I’m sure I’ll be back real soon.”
3- EXPLORE: Walk everywhere as much as you can. It’s the best way to see a new city. The metro is great for longer distances, but traveling underground doesn’t really allow you to see any of the cool city sights.
Happened to me: I was told I needed to at least catch a bus in Paris to travel above ground since the city is so big, but I would NOT recommend that. It was a huge ordeal trying to find the right bus stop and route, as bus stops do not have maps laying out their stop location as easily to understand as metro maps do.
4- FIND A GOOD MAP: You can get free maps of the city and their metro grid in most metro stations, but some maps are better than others. Look for the metro maps that have the metro stops as well as the touristy sights on the same map. You’d be surprised at home many maps give you only the metro stops, so you would actually have to know the city to know where to get off.
Happened to me: I only knew this best kind of map existed once I got lost in Paris and a metro employee gave me one. That poor map was completely worn out by the time my Paris trip ended. In Berlin it was pretty hard to find a map like that, so I just asked a lady at the information booth to highlight a few of the stops where I should get off to visit and she did. She didn’t specify any as she just spoke what each stop offered as she highlighted the map ( like I could memorize it or something), but even that helped a lot.
5- TRUST GOOGLE: If you buy a data package, trust the directions Google gives you. It knows when tracks are out of order, so it automatically re-routes and only shows you available options at your time of travel.
Happened to me: I didn’t have data, but my friend Carol did. When she visited me in Berlin she kept wanting to look things up on her map, but her internet was pretty slow and since I had already gotten used to paper maps, I told her to forget the phone and follow my lead. Plus, Google had told us to get on an intercity train when we clearly could just jump on a regular subway line, so I really thought I has one leg up over dumb Google. Well, it turn out that some major maintenance was going on at the train tracks that day and we walked to two metro stations only to find out that the trains we were looking for were not running. And sure enough, that was why Google was only showing intercity trains as options for our transit. If we had just listened to Google in the first place, that would have saved us some good time. But no worries, because walking is exploring so no time was actually “wasted.”
6- HOP-ON /HOP-OFF BUS: Buy these tickets if you only have a couple of days to visit a city or if it’s supposed to rain all day. You can hop aboard at any time and get off at any time. These buses have stops at ALL major attractions and most of them even offer audio guides with historic facts and information about each place the bus is driving by. The only bad thing is that these can be pretty expensive. They run mostly during business hours, and you have to buy a pass for each day, so in most cases you still have to end up buying metro passes as well to get you back to your hostel or to explore the city at night.
Happened to me: Buying tickets to the Hop-on/Hop-off is something I always wanted to do, but they just didn’t make sense for me value wise. They ran about €40 per day ( you can also buy bundles for more days, but it is still expensive) in comparison to about about €7 a day for an unlimited metro pass. On my first day in Berlin I considered buying one as it was toward the end of my trip and my brain was already tired of trying to learn how transportation worked in yet another city. It was kind of rainy too and I was only going to spend two whole days there, so I almost bought one. It made sense to buy a two-day pass as it was about €39 for one day and like €48 for two days. But my friend Carol was to arrive later that night and I didn’t want to force her to buy one just because I had already bought mine. I ended up just getting a 48-hour metro pass, but if i was there by myself I would have probably done the sightseeing tour in one of these buses.
7- ALLOW EXTRA TIME: Be early for your train. Tracks often need maintenance and you never know when a route will be down. So, give yourself time to re-route if needed.
Happened to me: This actually happened to me several times. Once in Paris for example, my metro just stopped and after a short announcement in French over the intercom everyone left the train sighing. I was left lost since I didn’t understand the announcement, but later someone translated it to me that since they were working on the tracks the train would not be going all the way to the last station. I had booked a Free Walking Tour and ended up being late to the tour, as I had to learn how to get there a different way.
8- HAVE CHANGE HANDY: Preferably, have coins with you, because some ticket machines will not take credit cards with chip.
Happened to me: Going from Brussels to Bruges I tried using my credit card in one of the self-service machines twice and it wouldn’t work. That is because most credit cards in Europe require you to input a pin number, so the self-service machine won’t accept it. Luckily I was traveling with my friend Carol and she just ended up paying with her card for me.
9- ASK LOCALS FOR HELP: Ask the people around you about promotions or best value tickets while you wait in line. I found that they are always willing to help even if they speak minimum English.
Happened to me: On the same trip from Brussels to Bruges, a random lady in line behind me tapped my shoulder to tell me that I could save money by buying a discounted weekend ticket if I was returning the same day. She was so nice because we would have never had figured that out on our own since we were doing it all through the machine. Out ticket ended up costing 50% less because we qualified for the weekend ticket. SCORE!
10- ASK OR OBSERVE HOW TICKETS WORK: Some tickets expire within a certain amount of time and some are single-use only. Also, make sure to learn how the ticket validations work in each city you visit. Some cities you must validate your ticket at the entrance and at the exit, so DON’T toss or lose your ticket. In some cities you validate it inside the bus, in some at the turnstiles, in some there are no turnstiles so you do it at the platform…. it varies a lot! In intercity trains, ALWAYS keep your ticket because a train agent can request to see it and punch it to validate it at anytime. Make a habit to put your tickets always in the same pocket, for example.
Happened to me: In Paris I kept inserting my ticket but the turnstile gate wouldn’t open. I then watched a guy validate his ticket and go right through. Turns out that the plastic gate doesn’t open automatically. You just have to push through it. Yep. I felt like an idiot. Also, in Paris I bought a bundle of 10-single use tickets (they’re a bit cheaper that way) and they all look the same even after you validate them through the machine. So it can be hard to know which ones you’ve used already or not. I had to ask a metro employee to read them a couple of times to figure out if they were used or new.
In Berlin I bought a 48-hour ticket pass, but it’s so weird because you only validate it on your first trip. Then you can ride anything (metro, intercity, bus..) for 48 hours. But I seriously felt like a fraud even though I had paid for it. When I took the bus I showed the driver my ticket, but no one else did it. It’s seriously an honor system in Berlin, because I never saw anyone checking for tickets on the trains and I barely saw anyone validating their ticket.
11- BE HONEST AND AWARE: When you are traveling within the city, in most cases there will not be anyone checking if you have a ticket or if you validated your ticket or not, so it can be tempting to not buy a ticket at all. But don’t be that ass. First, because it is morally wrong and if that system works for them, you shouldn’t be that annoying tourist trying to abuse the system. But also because you can get fined BIG TIME if you get caught. However, if you do get fined, be sure the person giving you the ticket is an actual employee. See below why I say that.
Happened to my friend: I never got fined, but my friend did TWICE on one of her other trips. Once because she lost her ticket, so when the guy came to check she didn’t have it with her and got fined. He gave her a receipt and all. Another time, when the agent asked for her tickets, he saw that the ticket had just expired 4 minutes before. It was one of those time-stamped tickets and he told her that the ticket has to be valid until you exit the station. Well, on this one she suspected the guy wasn’t even a train employee because she had never heard of that rule and he never even gave her a receipt after he escorted her to ATM to withdraw money and pay the ticket. Really sketchy. Also, she didn’t speak the language, so it can be hard to argue. That is why is good to know the rules for each ticket you buy.
12- ASK ABOUT ZONES: Metro lines have different tickets for different zones. That is because the further out you go, the more expensive your ticket will be. It’s hard to figure out the zones, because they’re usually not even lined up on the free maps, so if you are going somewhere that looks oddly far, make sure you know if your ticket is good for that zone.
Happened to me: In London I only bought a ticket for Zones 1 and 2 as those give you the freedom to visit most every tourist location. In Berlin I wanted to visit a palace I had read about, but I found out that it was actually in Potsdam, which was out of the Zone area my metro card allowed me to go. It was further, so I would have had to pay for it separately and spend a whole lot of time, so I ended up settling and visiting a palace in Berlin instead. (More about that later, because it was not a worthwhile sight in my opinion.)
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful trip in Europe!