Zipping round town – how to use European underground train systems

Hi Frugalistas!

One of my key tips is to do lots of walking to get about town when traveling.  But, there are times when I do need to use some form of transportation.  Rather than expensive taxis, I save stacks by using the public transport system – especially the underground train systems.  Here’s how I do it and how you can too!  While the name of the transport system may change (Metro, Underground etc) and the language may change, using the train doesn’t actually vary that much from town to town, so my basic rules can be used anywhere.

1. Planning

A good guidebook will explain the local train system and give you some options on what tickets to buy and how to go about it.  Most systems offer you a choice of ticket types, so I always work out ahead of time what type of ticket I am going to use.  Choosing the right type of ticket can be both a cost and time saving so is well worth sorting out before you hand over your Euros.  Most systems will have a rechargeable card as well as single day passes and single trip tickets.  If you are planning on using a lot of public transport over a number of days a rechargeable card is often a good option, but not so if you are only passing through or are planning on walking.  Remember, in frugalfirstclasstravel we don’t do “just in case” – instead we plan, and do what best suits our individual needs.

Rechargeable smart cards like the London Oyster or Paris Carte Orange are perfect if you want to use a lot of public transport over a number of days

As part of your planning, check out whether you need cash to buy your ticket from a vending machine or whether you can buy by card.  If you need cash, make sure you’ve got it!

When you arrive in town, make sure your map includes a map of the underground train network.  In most cities it’s pretty easy to work out which train you need to catch – even in a big city with an extensive network, like London it’s pretty straight forward.  Study the train map and notice that each line has a different colour coding, and unique identifying number or letter.  In London the lines have names rather than letters and numbers.  Find the line where your local station is and the line where the station you want to end up at is.  Note the name of the last station on the line where you are getting on in the direction you need to travel – that is the train you get on.  If you need to change trains to a different line for your destination, note that.  Then note the final station of the line where your final destination station is.

Make sure you get access to a map of the train system so you can work out where you are going in advance

2.  Buying your ticket

In most places, you will have two options for buying your chosen ticket – at the ticket office or on the vending machines.  Personally, I like the machines.  Not all clerks behind the counter speak English, but in my experience, the vending machines do!  Touch the English flag icon on the front screen and follow the instructions for your desired ticket…..easy, peasy…….

I don’t speak Spanish, but buying a ticket in Barcelona was a cinch!

3.  Using the ticket

Most stations will have a network map and maps of the line or lines that pass through the station.  Put your ticket through the ticket machine to enter (don’t forget to pick up as you pass through).  Keep your ticket safe until you reach your end destination – if a guide comes to check you will face a stiff fine if you can’t produce it.  Plastic cards like the London Oyster card just need to be flashed against the reader to open the gate to enter the station.

4.  Inside the station

Inside most stations you will see that there is a map of the train line at the entrance to each platform.  Use these to check that you are entering the right platform.  When your train arrives check the destination on the front of the train, then board.

The line number, its destination and the route map all clearly marked and easy to follow

To change trains to another line follow the signs for your new line and destination.

5.  On the train

Many trains will have a map of the line you are traveling on, so try and sit or stand so you can follow along.  In Barcelona, the trains had a natty light system as to the stations we had passed which made keeping up easy.  In many cities there will also be an announcement of the next station, so even if you don’t understand, keep an ear out for your station’s name, then double check against the map.

6.  Leaving the station

Leaving the station is easy.  Follow the exit signs – there are often multiple exits which will have directions/locations marked, so keep an eye out for yours.  Then either put your ticket through the machine to open the gates to exit, or simply leave.

City trains are fantastically fast, cheap, convenient and easy to use.  On some lines it is important to watch your valuables (which you should be doing anyway), but otherwise plan, sit back and enjoy…….


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8 Comments on “Zipping round town – how to use European underground train systems”

  1. faz 17/11/2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Tip 2 – buying your ticket and having the right change. So important – we wasted so much time in Brussels because the machine wouldn’t take our card – it was a disaster see here:

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 17/11/2012 at 5:31 pm #

      Yes and because every city has different requirements you really need to do your homework.

      Thanks for sharing your experience – much appreciated!

  2. FoundTravel 17/11/2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I also love that you get to spend your time among the locals and WATCHING the locals! But definitely be aware that the ‘personal space’ of European countries can be… well.. different. It sometimes freaks Americans (especially those from the West Coast not used to public transport) how close other people are willing to stand to get a spot on the metro!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 18/11/2012 at 9:22 am #

      Yes, if it is crowded you can get very up close and personal with the locals whether you want to or not. Important to make sure you keep your valuables safe and be aware of your surroundings if it is crowded like that!

      Thanks for dropping by and contributing your wisdom!

  3. Holiday Addict 17/11/2012 at 11:07 pm #

    I always use public transport in Europe, but I do find it can be much cheaper and often more efficient in mainland Europe than it is in the UK, where I live. It’s a great way to really see the nuts and bolts of a city too, which I really like.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 18/11/2012 at 9:31 am #

      Having not been in London for many years I was a bit shocked at how much a ticket was on the tube. Pleased I was there long enough and was doing enough to warrant buying an Oyster card and saving a bit of money. I’m also back in London next April so can keep it and use it again before I cash my card in.

      This is why it is important to plan and work out your ticket options rather than just mindlessly buying single tickets.

      Thanks for dropping by and taking time to comment!

  4. warero 04/12/2012 at 6:15 am #

    Reblogged this on Javmode.


  1. Itinerary planning 101: Part 3 – the finishing touches to your travel plan | frugalfirstclasstravel - 02/03/2013

    […] How to use European underground trains […]

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