I’ll just be real for a second: I’m the master of public transit. I’m honestly not sure where, when, or how I gained my ridiculous skills for navigating a transit system, since my hometown is far from a model city in that particular aspect. But regardless, I’ve always been very confident in my ability to get myself around on public transportation, even in countries where I don’t speak the language. This year alone I successfully directed myself and various friends around Rio de Janeiro, London (and outside), Paris, and eastern Germany, and only one of those systems was actually in a language I speak fluently.
So what are my secrets for successfully finding my way around foreign cities?
- Do your homework. Before you venture off into the unknown, take a little time to prepare. First, figure out the best way to get to the exact place you want to go, then backtrack to find each step of transportation. Look up the bus schedule online beforehand and note times, bus numbers, and directions. Download an app with an offline map of the subway system (here’s the one I used for the London tube system, and the comparable one for the Paris metro). Know which color line you’ll be taking. Figure out where you will need to transfer from a train to a bus or vice versa. And most importantly, write it all down if you don’t trust yourself to remember every step.
- Have the right type of currency. I don’t just mean the correct kind of money for whatever country you’re in––that’s a given. If the bus requires exact change, make sure you’re prepared for that. If there’s a chance that the ticket machines in the subway station only take cash, get some in advance. Being ready with the right payment method will help you blend in like a local.
- Understand the cardinal directions. Or at least know what major landmarks, stations, or cities are in the same direction as wherever you’re going. Your particular stop may be too small to show up on a train station marquee, but if you know which direction you should be traveling, it will save you a lot of headache.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes your common sense and preparation will fail, or you will need to buy a train ticket at a foreign airport right after you land, or your language skills will be shaky. It’s helpful to learn how to say phrases like, “I am learning [local language],” or “My [language] is not very good, do you speak English?” Those sentences have earned me a lot of sympathetic smiles from locals, followed by much more assistance than I would otherwise have gotten. There’s no shame in asking which platform your train is on or whether the bus makes a particular stop. It’s better to ask than to end up somewhere you didn’t want to go.
- Act like a local. If everyone walks fast, try to keep up with their pace. If people are standing on the right of an escalator and walking on the left, do the same. Pronounce places, stops, and stations with as correct of an accent as you can manage. Keep your eyes up and look confident, like you do this every day. The more you pretend you know exactly what you’re doing, the easier it will be.
By relying on these things, I’ve grown to be quite confident in my ability to find my way around unfamiliar cities and countries, even without ever having been to them before or speaking the language. Public transit is nothing to be afraid of, it just requires a little bit of advance effort. May your next travel adventure be that much less stressful because of it!