Navigating Foreign Public Transit Systems3 min read

There’s something incredibly satisfying about getting around by public transit in a foreign place. Taking the bus or subway may not sound so exciting. No one is thrilled about a long commute. But, when I’m travelling, figuring out a new public transit system is one of the most enjoyable things about arriving in a new city. 

While some tourists may choose taxis or sightseeing tours to take in the sights of the town, getting on a bus or subway can give you an immersive experience.

Getting Oriented in a Foreign Country

The first thing you’ll want to do is pick up some maps—a city map as well as a public transit map. 

You should find yourself on the map and orient the location of your accommodation to some nearby landmarks. Then, pull out the public transit map and take in which transit stops you’re near. Are busses, metro or light rail stops most accessible to your location? Where are the nearest major interchanges (places in the city where many different lines and types of transit intersect)? Get a feel for which lines and routes you’re on, and then find your familiar landmarks on the public transit map. 

Finding Your Way to a New Destination 

Now that you’re oriented, find the spot on the map you’d like to travel to. Locate the nearest transit stops to the location. Make a note of the bus and metro lines that go to those stops and see if any of those are the lines that you are on. If there is a direct route that lets you off a bit further away from your destination, are there any interesting landmarks to see on the way there? Plot your route from there, noting if there are any changes you may need to make. 

As you travel there, keep an eye and ear out for major interchanges and familiar landmarks that you pass. This will help you build your internal map of the city’s transit system, making each journey easier. 

Bus drivers or transit employees may not speak English, so it’s helpful to keep your map with you and know how to pronounce the name of the location you’re going to. Then, if you’re unsure or get lost, you can point to the map and say the name and they should be able to send you in the right direction.

Getting Tickets

Sometimes the most confusing part of the public transit system is buying the proper ticket. Especially in bigger cities, ticket prices may vary by the number of zones you’re travelling through. 

This is where your transit map comes in handy. The map will often show zones so you can see how many you plan on travelling through. You should try to get a rough idea of your zone coverage not only for a single journey but roughly which zones you’ll mostly be visiting during your entire stay.

Once you’ve got that figured out, it’s often cheaper and easier to buy a transit pass than a single ticket. These will vary from city to city. In Barcelona, 10 euros will get you ten rides, but a single ride is nearly 3 euros. In London, a weekly pass of 30-40 pounds will get you unlimited rides while a single trip is over three pounds. If the ticketing system is in a different language, ask about transit pass options at your accommodation before leaving, or post in a local Facebook or Couchsurfing group to see if anyone can help you out. Often, station staff will speak some English in the city centre so you can ask at the station as well.


While taking transit is often mundane, I’m always fascinated riding routes in foreign places. Overhearing bits of conversation (even when in another language), seeing what books people are reading, noticing if the norm on the subway is to be silent or if people are friendly and chatter, and seeing the etiquette of cramming too many people onto a car in rush hour, all give insight into a culture you can’t get from taking an Uber. 


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