Planning, Posted by Amy, Transportation

How to Use Public Transportation in any City

Copenhagen was the first place I visited outside of New York and San Francisco that had a train system, and I was determined to figure out how to use it. I poured over the maps every day to learn all the stations and directions and how to get to every place my coworkers and I wanted to go. We took a lot of trains in Copenhagen because it’s an efficient way to get around.

Udgang Exit Sign in Copenhagen
A sign pointing to a wondrous, magical place. Or the Exit.
It seemed like every train station we were at had a sign pointing to “Udgang,” and I spent the entire week thinking about Udgang and what a cool and special place it must be for there to be so many signs pointing travelers towards it. I made a mental note to look up what Udgang was so I could make sure to see it before I left. Imagine my disappointment when I found out on my last day in Denmark that Udgang means… Exit.

Getting Around with Public Transit

Many big cities in Europe and Asia 1 have great public transit infrastructure, including some kind of subway, train, light rail, or tram. Taking a train can feel daunting, especially if the stations are large with many entrances, hallways, and connecting trains. However, it’s actually very easy if you know how it works. And the great thing is, they all work the same way. There are also a number of easily accessible tools that can help you figure out where all the stations are and where you are going.

Being able to navigate a city on your own is a very satisfying accomplishment, and anyone can do it.

In order to demonstrate how easy it is, I’ve developed my own fictitious subway system. (Also, I had way too much fun drawing this and naming the stops.) Presenting: The Traveler City Metro System!

city subway map
A simplified subway map for a fictitious city

All Metro Lines have 2 important pieces of information:

  • The name of the line. This could be a number, color, or name that is a unique identifier
  • End points of the line. The end points are important because they help you figure out which direction you need to go.

In Traveler City, there are 2 Metro lines: The Cute Animals Line, which has endpoints of Monkeys and Puppies, and the Sports Line, which has endpoints Football and Curling.

Simple Example: A Trip on One Line

Lets say you are near the Unicorns station, and there’s a big tourist attraction at the Pygmy Goats station. Here’s what you would do:

  1. Enter the metro station and buy a ticket
  2. Note which line you are on. In this case, you are at a station on the Cute Animals line
  3. Look at the map and figure out which direction you are going based on the endpoints. Pygmy Goats is towards the Monkeys endpoint, so you want to go in the direction of Monkeys
  4. Signs will point you towards the right direction based on endpoints of the line.
  5. Look for the sign that points towards Monkeys
  6. Follow the signs until you are on the train platform. Board the train when it arrives.
  7. On the train, there is usually some sort of progress indicator that you can follow so you know which stop you are at and when to get off.
    A train arriving at a station in Copenhagen

    That’s it!

In some stations, there are trains going in both directions with the tracks in the middle and a platform on each side, whereas others have one platform in the middle and you access trains in both directions the same place. Either way, there will be signs.

Advanced Example: A Trip on Two Lines

In a more complicated example, let’s say you are once again near the Unicorns station and need to get to the Baseball station. The process is almost the same, but you do it twice, changing trains in the middle.

When you get to step 3, look at the map, you can see that you will need to take the Cute Animals line to the Plaza de City stop where the trains connect, and from there change to the Sports Line.

Leg 1: Follow the signs towards Monkeys like before, and get off at the Plaza de City Stop

Signs for multiple trains in the same station.
Leg 2: Now you will go in the direction of Curling, so follow the sign for the Sports Line in the direction of Curling until you reach the appropriate platform. Now you have more signs, but it’s still easy to follow the one you want.

This is a very simple map compared to some cities which have many lines that connect all over the place. The theory is exactly the same though.

Buying Tickets

Buying subway tickets is different in every location, so it’s best to do some research before you go. In most cases you can buy a ticket for 1 ride or multiple rides at a ticket machine (with an English option) in the station.

Some things you might encounter are:

  • Having to pay cash instead of using a credit card
  • Not being able to use an American credit card (Europeans have different credit card technology)
  • Having to buy a reloadable card before adding money at a machine

In some cases the stations have a window teller that can help you, and in other places you are on your own.


Even though the theory is the same for getting around, there are a lot of differences you might encounter.

For example, Copenhagen has two systems, the S-tog and the Metro, and they connect at various stations. Barcelona also has two different types of lines. It all still works the same, but you may have to go in and out of various ticket gates to change lines.

In Amsterdam and Zurich, you can get around the city on street level trams that are extremely easy to navigate.

Tram in Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, the Trams are street-level and very easy to get on and off.

In Seoul, each station has many entrances and exits (up to 10 or 11) and it pays to know ahead of time which exit you want to take. Meeting your friends at a particular station is a lot more complicated when that station has 10 exits it different locations. (I know this one from experience.)

Seoul Metro Station
A sign in the Seoul, South Korea Metro station shows how to get to line 2. Everything is in English as well as Korean.

The best thing to do is to research the transit system ahead of time so you are prepared for it. This website about the Paris train system, for example, is extremely detailed and was a huge help to me during my trip to Paris last year.

Using a Transit Map & Google Maps

Transit maps are very useful for figuring out how you are going to get to your destination. When I plan an itinerary ahead of time, I’ll consult the transit map to see what kind of route makes sense.

Google maps shows you where the stations are on an actual map, and in some cities if you hover over a station, it will show you the route for that particular line, which is pretty neat.

Using Google maps in conjunction with a transit route map is an easy way to plan your route.

Here’s an example in Copenhagen, Denmark. Let’s imagine a person wants to go from Vesterport Station to Christianshavn Station, and has figured this out by looking at Google maps and finding the closest stations to their start and end points.

In Copenhagen, starting at Vesterport station and going to Christianshavn station

Looking at a map of the Copenhagen trains, you can see that you can go from Vesterport to Norreport (which looks like the main station) and then from Norreport to Christianshavn on a different line. Looking at the legend and based on the colors of the ones, you can also see that the first leg is on the S-tog and the second is on the Metro.

The Copenhagen train map shows how to get from one station to another.

To go in the right direction from Norreport to Christianshavn, you’d take either the M1 line in the direction of Vestamager, or the M2 line in the direction of Kastrup. These 2 Metro trains use the same platform, so you can just get on whichever shows up first.

Boarding a Metro train in Copenhagen

If Google transit is available at your destination, it can also show you different routes and how long each will take.

Google maps shows transit directions in many cities.

Public Transit Phone Apps

A lot of cities have helpful apps that show you the route to take and which platform you need to be on. The app my friends and I used in Seoul was useful, so check out the app store to see if they have anything for your destination.

Boarding a train in a Seoul Metro station

What to Do When You Make a Mistake

When it doubt, ask someone who looks like a local if you’re in the right place. They will usually help you out. And if you make a mistake following the signs, it’s no big deal to go back the way you came and go to another platform.

My family made a mistake in Paris, when we were taking the train to Versailles. There are two trains that go to different places in Versailles – one near the Palace of Versailles, and one not near the Palace. We accidentally took the wrong one (my own mistake) and it turned out that there was no connection between the two stops. Luckily we were only about a mile away from where we planned to be, so we just walked. Mistakes happen, and usually it’s no big deal to recover from them.

Taking public transit is not as difficult as it might seem, so if you’ve never done it before or always let someone else take the lead, try doing it yourself on your next trip. It feels great to do it yourself!

  1. Cities in other parts of the world may very well have awesome subway systems, I just haven’t experienced any personally in other places.
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