It's 9am, I'm jet lagged, and at a Tokyo metro station surrounded by a million people running in every direction. The voice over the loudspeaker is squawking in high pitched Japanese. The ticket machines won't accept my credit card. A middle-aged Japanese woman is giving my uncombed ratty hair and torn jeans the look. A couple of years ago, this would have been my worst nightmare but not anymore. Public transportation is my thing. It's favorite way to get around a city and is usually dirt cheap. Plus in most cities, you'll get a free Michael Jackson concert or break dancing competition inside your car too (cue me bobbin my head away to PYT). Seriously, subways and metros are great. But they can also be pretty daunting if you are not prepared for the ride. Don't be scared to take a subway trip by yourself. It's way easier than you think. Here are some tricks I've learned along the way:
Memorize your beginning, transfer, and endpoint stations
Even if you cannot pronounce the name of the station nearest to your accommodations, write it down and stick it in your pocket. Try and remember how many stations are between your beginning and end point so, you don't have a mini panic attack when you can't see what station the train has stopped at.
Bring a paper map and cash
While I use my phone a lottttt while exploring, sometimes this crazy thing called, “My Phone Loves to Die When I’m Lost, Stressed Out, and in a City Where Few People Speak English” happens and when you’re alone, this can be downright scary. So, be prepared because your phone will die after a day spent taking 500 pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Make sure you have a paper map of the city AND a map of the city's transportation system. Also, don't forget to bring cash. There always seems to be some sort of issue with using a foreign credit card at most ticketing machines.
Download a transit app
Download an app that allows you to route yourself between two destinations. For example, between your hostel and the Eiffel Tower. CityMapper is my favorite transportation app and has an extensive list of cities it covers such as New York, Vancouver, Barcelona, Tokyo, Singapore, etc. CityMapper tells you exactly what line(s) to take, how long the trip will be, and when the next train will arrive.
Purchase a multi-use transit pass
Traveling alone means you have the freedom to wander around a city at your own pace which, probably means you will be jumping from one destination to another every hour. Save yourself stress and money by purchasing an all day pass for the subway and/or bus. In most cities, the price of the pass will equal around two round trip fares so, it's a worthwhile investment.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
I always thought asking for directions from locals on the train would blow my, “I swear I'm not one of those dumb American tourist” cover but surprisingly, it doesn’t. Lots of people get lost on any transportation system and lots of people are more than willing to help. If you're in a country where little English is spoken, there is usually someone at the information desk at a major station that can help you. If there is no information desk, grab a map (or stand near a map) and ask a stranger. It's a lot easier than you think, I swear.
Keep your bags close
It's pretty obvious that you shouldn't have your bag hanging open while traveling (or living) anywhere but, use extra caution while on transportation. Wear your backpack the front side of you (very stylish) and/or make sure the zipper side of your bag is facing towards you while riding on transit.
Have a plan B
Research multiple ways to get to your destination. There's always a chance that a subway line or bus is spontaneously running late or not in operation. Remember to carry cash with you in case you need to hail a taxi or hop on a bus/boat/rickshaw. Also, download Uber and/or a local ride share option on your phone. Even if you don't have international cell phone service, you can usually find wifi somewhere and use the apps on your phone. If all else fails, taxis still exist too.
//Berlin's colorful station artwork (pictured above) and ease of access make it one of my favorite subway systems. What's your favorite metro system?