A Beginner's Guide to Navigating Public Transit in Foreign Cities

Public transit is a fantastic way to navigate a new city — but it can also be complicated. Get our top tips and tricks.

A tram on the streets of Portugal

3min read

Published 21 September 2023


Public transit is a fantastic way to navigate a new city — but it can also be complicated. Get our top tips and tricks.

Whether you're a seasoned subway surfer or are new to the game of trams, ferries, buses and trains, navigating public transit while overseas can be daunting. That said, it’s also a great way to save time and money — and to live like the locals!

From commuter buses in Japan to intricate subway networks in New York, public transportation is a fantastic way to see the city. Beyond that, taking public transit is often a way more affordable way to get around town, making it the preferred option for anyone travelling on a budget.

As seasoned travellers that have mastered the art of taking public transportation while overseas, we're here to tell you that it’s worth the hassle. In fact, with a bit of research and pre-planning, you'll quickly realize that it’s no hassle at all.

So, grab your pen and get ready to learn! Here are seven tips for navigating foreign public transit systems.

The Arts et Métiers station in Paris
The Arts et Métiers station in Paris
The Arts et Métiers station in Paris

Do your research

We cannot stress this enough: if you're planning on using public transit while travelling abroad, research is key. Try getting answers to these questions:

  • What type of public transportation is available? Find out if the place you’re visiting operates buses, trains, ferries or a mixture of all those things.
  • What are the running times? Some cities make transit available 24/7, while others may stop running after midnight. This is especially important to understand if you’re planning on using public transit to get to the airport for an early flight.
  • How much does it cost? If you’re travelling on a strict budget, try to get an idea of how much you’ll be spending on fares.
  • How and where do you purchase tickets? It’s likely that tickets can be purchased upon boarding or at a station — but often there are options available online, too.
  • Are the public transit options accessible? This is important information for anyone with a disability or physical impairment.
  • Are stations located near your hotel? There’s no point planning your itinerary around public transit if you have to walk several kilometres to the closest bus or train station.
A group of friends waiting at a bus stop in Europe
A group of friends waiting at a bus stop in Europe
A group of friends waiting at a bus stop in Europe

Give yourself extra time

There’s nothing worse than getting flustered because you're running late. That’s why it’s worth giving yourself a little extra time while trying to navigate public transit in a foreign city. Not only will you feel less stressed if something does go wrong, but you'll also be able to enjoy the journey.

This tip is especially important if you're heading to the airport or something else that operates on a strict schedule. You'd give yourself extra time to drive your car in traffic, so do the same for the bus, train or subway.

Use Google Maps or Citymapper

Most major cities have integrated the public transportation system with Google Maps, meaning you can type in your destination and it will provide the easiest and fastest route in a matter of seconds. This makes catching public transit a breeze, as your phone will lay out a range of options (bus, car, rideshare, walking and cycling), as well as how long they will take and a price estimate.

Citymapper is another fantastic app that provides real-time updates on wheelchair-accessible routes for more than 100 cities across Europe, Asia and the USA. The app is simple to use and will help take the hassle out of public transit.

If, for whatever reason, a public transit system isn't represented, Google Maps and other similar apps are still a great way to navigate a foreign city without having to understand the local language.

A person scans their public transit ticket using a mobile device
A person scans their public transit ticket using a mobile device
A person scans their public transit ticket using a mobile device

Get your head around tickets

When it comes to tickets, there are a few things to consider:

  • Do you need to purchase tickets at the station, on board or online? 
  • Do you need cash or change on hand to purchase tickets in person?
  • Will a single day ticket do the trick, or is there a weekly pass that better suits your needs?
  • Are the public transit systems interconnected?
  • How many zones will you be travelling through, and will your ticket cover all of them?
  • Does your ticket need to be validated, tapped or scanned by anyone?
  • Can you just tap your Visa or Mastercard to get on and off?
  • Is it cheaper to travel in off-peak times?

A simple browse online should answer all these questions and more, helping you save money, time and stress.

Exercise caution

When you’re scurrying through the subway system, it's easy to become complacent and forget about your safety. With that in mind, here are some simple ways to look after yourself while catching public transit in a foreign destination:

  • Stay alert and pay attention. Noise cancelling earphones probably aren't the best accessory while you're trying to navigate a new transit map.
  • Watch out for pickpockets. Keep your bags close to your body and avoid putting valuables in your pockets.
  • Book and purchase transit from a legitimate source. Use reputable ticket offices or websites to avoid getting scammed.
  • Count your stops. Figure out how many stops there are until you need to get off — that way you don't have to rely on announcements or signs in foreign languages.
  • Trust your instincts. Don't hesitate to move or get off if you feel unsafe.
A person wearing headphones on a public bus
A person wearing headphones on a public bus
A person wearing headphones on a public bus

Wise up on etiquette

Public transit etiquette changes with each country and culture. Avoid offending locals or getting a fine by paying attention to cues and signs. For example:

  • In some countries it is considered rude to talk loudly or listen to loud music on public transit.
  • In most countries younger and non-disabled people should give up seats for the elderly or disabled.
  • It may be illegal to eat, drink, vape or smoke while on public transport.

Learn phrases like “excuse me” or “thank you” and watch for social cues to determine where to stand, how to disembark and other ways of navigating foreign public transit systems.

Make a backup plan

If in doubt, have a backup plan! Know the number for a taxi or download a rideshare app — there’s always a chance that public transportation can be delayed, rescheduled or cancelled completely without warning.

Bonus tip: Pee before you leave

No, seriously. Navigating public transport when you’re desperate to go to the washroom isn’t fun.


Ready to conquer the world of public transit? Check out our latest travel deals or chat with a consultant to start planning your next vacation.

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