Hey there! Before I start with this post, my first in a series of survival guides for life here in France, I thought I’d introduce myself. I’m Ariel, a junior marketing major studying at ESSEC, a business university in Cergy, a suburb about 40 minutes north of Paris.
That being said, I take public transport all the time. I use it to get to and from class, get down into Paris, and travel around France. I’ve used probably every form of transport available here, from buses to the RER to the Metro. I’ve also had the *lovely* opportunity to get to deal with maintenance being done on the train tracks, resulting in a partial shutdown of the RER, which is how I get home.
So yeah, I consider myself a bit of an expert on navigating Paris’s public transit system. Since Louisville doesn’t really have public transport, the system in Paris can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you don’t speak French. I thought I’d help clear up a few things. Here are my top 5 tips when riding Paris public transport.
1. Vianavigo is your BFF
Vianavigo is an app that helps you navigate the Paris public transit system. You put in your destination and the app uses your location to figure out the best route for you to get from Point A to Point B. There’s also a map of the entire train system and timetables, both of which have proved quite useful for me.
My favorite thing about it is that it lets you know if there’s any kind of issues with the transit you’re going to be taking. That’s how I found out about the work being done on the RER.
2. Follow the crowd
If you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, watch everybody else first. For example, when coming home from Paris one night, the train I was on suddenly stopped and everyone got off. I had no idea what was going on, but I followed the crowd to a group of buses that were apparently set up to get us to various train stops. I use the “monkey see, monkey do” rule a lot when I’m traveling, especially if I don’t speak the language of that country.
Note: you’ll see a lot of people jumping over turnstiles or sneaking in behind people. This is because they don’t have tickets. This is illegal and you will be punished if caught. Always have a valid ticket or Metro pass.
3. Know how to pronounce the name of your stop or have it written down
If you need help, go to the ticket window or look for someone wearing an SNCF uniform. However, they won’t be able to help you if you can’t tell them were you need to go. If you’re afraid of butchering the name, have it written down or pull up your handy Vianavigo app and show that to them. They’ll quickly be able to tell that you don’t speak French, so they’ll use hand gestures and, in some cases, a bit of English to get the point across.
4. There will be armed police/soldiers and baggage check points everywhere
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, the country has been in a state of emergency. This means that at major train stations and tourist attractions, there will be mandatory bag checks. Just have your bag open, don’t act suspicious, and you’ll be fine.
You’ll also see armed soldiers a lot, at train stations, tourist attractions, and even just in the street. I would freak out if I saw this at home, but here in Paris, it’s totally normal. I’ve even walked to the train station near my apartment and found soldiers randomly walking around. The only time I ever get bothered by the heightened security is when “suspicious bags” are found and the trains are halted until the police have checked it out. Aside from that, I’ve actually grown to like it. It makes me feel safe, especially when I’m walking by myself at night, after class or down in Paris.
5. Public transit is easy to use
When there’s not work being done on the rails and workers aren’t on strike, the public transit system here in Paris is very user-friendly. There’s maps in all the Metro stations, so you can easily find out what train you need (if you haven’t downloaded Vianavigo). There are plenty of signs. And to figure out if the train coming up to the platform is yours, just look at the helpful screens on the platform. You’ll either see the terminus station for your direction or, at some of the larger Metro stations, your stop will be lit up. Easy peasy.
There you have it. My top 5 tips for surviving the Paris public transit system. It might seem unfamiliar, but as long as you have a valid ticket, you observe the people around you, and you know how to read a sign, you’re good to go. Just don’t freak out when you see a bunch of armed soldiers strolling by.