City Transit Tips for Europe

Rick Steves in front of a Tube map, London, England
On your marks, get set...go see London!
By Rick Steves

Shrink and tame big European cities by mastering the subway and bus systems, hopping into the occasional taxi or Uber, and navigating smartly whether on foot or underground. By knowing where you're going and the best way to get there, you'll save time, money, and energy.

Europe's public-transportation systems are so good that many urban Europeans go through life never learning to drive. Their wheels are trains, subways, trams, buses — and the occasional taxi or Uber. If you embrace these forms of transportation when visiting cities, you'll travel smarter.

Nearly every European city has a fine public transportation network of subways. Subways and trains are speedy and never get stuck in traffic jams. Buses and trams can give you a tour of the town on the way to your destination. With the proper attitude, taking public transit can be a cultural experience, plunging you into the river of workaday life.

Even if you've never used public transit in your hometown, these tricks can help you quickly master your transportation options in Europe's cities. You'll have the city by the tail, without having to shell out much for taxis.

Use a transit app. Major mapping apps like Google Maps include transit-based directions that are up to par, at least in most of Europe, with their driving directions. But I use Citymapper to get me around by transit in the big cities it covers — I've found its transit directions to be even more accurate and easy to follow than the transit info of more general-use mapping apps. Many local-transit systems have their own apps, and these days, many of them actually work — and the best ones work offline. Many also let you buy tickets in the app — a great convenience that lets you skip the ticket machine. If you'll be in the same place for a few days, especially if it's a place Citymapper doesn't cover, it's worth downloading the local app — it can come in handy should your normal mapping app give you route advice that seems questionable.

Of course, travelers have long managed to zip around on unfamiliar subways and trams long before the mobile age — but if you'll be traveling with a connected device on your trip, use it to take full advantage of Europe's excellent public transit.

Stay oriented with a paper transit-system map. Pick up a schematic map at the tourist office or subway ticket window, ask for one at your hotel, or print one off a website. Many city maps, even free ones, include a basic transit map.

Learn what's covered by a ticket. In many cities, the same tickets are good on the subway, trams, and buses, and include transfers between the systems; in other places, you'll need to buy a new ticket each time you transfer. If a ticket seems expensive, ask what it covers — $4 may seem like a lot until you learn it's good for a round-trip, two hours, or several transfers.

Consider your ticket options. Some systems, like the London Underground, now offer contactless payment — either via a contactless credit card or by connecting a card to the virtual wallet on your smartphone or smartwatch. You'll "tap" your credit card to enter the subway, and tap again when you exit; fares are capped at a one-day rate no higher than the cost of a day pass.

Choices vary per city but generally include some mix of individual tickets, multiticket deals, passes, and reloadable cards. You'll generally pay less with a day pass, but individual tickets can be the way to go if you'll be taking only a few rides or prefer to get around mainly on foot. In some cities, paper tickets are being phased out.

If you're committed to using public transit, the following options will cut your per-ride costs and save you time (because you won't have to stand in a ticket line every time you travel):

  • Contactless or "tap-to-pay" options make taking transit a snap. No fussing with passes or special cards — just tap your credit card and you're on your way.
  • If paper tickets are still a thing, multiticket deals offer you a set number of tickets that you can use anytime and share with companions, even on the same ride (unlike passes and cards, which generally can be used by only one person at a time).
  • Passes allow unlimited travel on all public transport for a set number of hours or days; a 24-hour pass usually costs less than four single fares. Some passes cover sights as well or admission discounts. Before you buy, plan how you'll get the most use out of your pass during its period of validity.
  • Reloadable cards, such as London's Oyster Card, are prefunded with pay-as-you-go credit and can be topped off when the balance runs low (such cards may require a small initial fee).

You can buy tickets, passes, and cards at subway ticket machines or windows, and, depending on the city, on the bus (usually for exact change and at a slightly higher cost than the ticket-machine price), at newsstands, or in tourist offices. Ask about discounts if you're young, old, or traveling with children.

Don't try to travel for free. Many European subways, buses, and trams use the honor system. Ticket checkers (some in uniform, some incognito) patrol sporadically, and others check tickets as you exit the station — but all mean business. If you're caught without a valid ticket, even if you accidentally bought the wrong kind, you'll most likely have to pay a hefty fine, probably right on the spot.

If confused, ask for help. Europe's buses and subways are filled with people who are more than happy to help lost tourists locate themselves. Confirm with a local that you're at the right platform or bus stop before you board. If you tell the driver or nearby passengers where you're going, they will gladly tell you where to get off.

Expect pickpockets. While public transportation feels safe, savvy riders are constantly on guard. Per capita, there are more pickpockets on Europe's subway trains, trams, and buses than just about anywhere else. They congregate wherever there are crowds or bottlenecks: on escalators, at turnstiles, or at the doors of packed buses or subway cars as people get on and off. If there's a hubbub, assume it's a distraction for pickpockets — put a hand on your valuables. Be on the lookout, wear your money belt, and you'll do fine.