Navigating Paris métro and public transport, in style
posted by Fisso
After helping yet another haggard-looking lost tourist in the Paris métro today (this Scandinavian gentleman nearly hugged me out of relief when I indicated which corridor he should follow!!), I feel I must post a few tips on the public transport in Paris.
Like many Parisians, I complain about the transport system, the smell of the métro, the crazy people, and huff and puff about métro-boulot-dodo (métro – work – sleep lifestyle) each time a métro takes more than 3 minutes to arrive. However I have to admit I find the Paris transport system, and in particular the métro, easy to get around, and convenient compared to other big cities where I have lived. But this might be a matter of culture and cultural "logic"!
To move around Paris, you can take the métro (underground train system or subway), the bus, the RER (Réseau Express Régional (Regional Express Network) which links the suburbs to Paris and has a few stops within Paris itself), and the trams (especially those that circle Paris just inside the Périphérique, the circular highway). Suburban trains departing from one of Paris' six railway stations also have a few stops within the city boundaries, or just outside.
Between midnight and 5:30 am, move around on the Noctilien (night buses). When there are strikes (it happens...), there usually is a minimal transport service (and a maxi human squash). Learn to recognize the word grève (strike) and cultivate patience...
Métro and RER
The Paris métro has 16 lines and the RER 5. The métro network is very dense, even more so in central Paris, where you barely need to walk a few hundred meters to find a métro station. Look out for the familiar big M (no, not the yellow and red fast food one...), or the Art Nouveau entrances by Hector Guimard. Parisians often will define a location by adding the name of the closest métro station(s). For a first time visitor, the Paris métro can seem intimidating, but it pretty much will get you anywhere in Paris, usually faster than by bus. And as long as you know your starting station, correspondance (change) stations and final station, with a few tips (from moi), the Paris métro is rather easy to navigate. Here's how. Plot your journey on the métro map before going through the gates (pocket map available at the counter, or check out the network map on the wall before the ticket gates). Find your starting point and your final point. If you have no idea where your final station is, you can ask over the counter, or use the journey planner on the wall map. It has the métro station names on buttons; you can press for your journey route to light up. It has a kind of retro charm to it! Note your correspondance station, if you have to switch lines. Now, the key to not getting lost : note, and especially, remember, the "directions" (destinations of the lines), as well as the number or colour of the lines. Now you are ready to be a Parisian! Zap your ticket and go to the platform indicating your "direction". At your correspondance station, get off, and on the same platform, look out for the overhead signs to your next "direction" and just keep following the corridors until your next platform.
Useful to know too : there are quartier (neighbourhood) maps on every platform, or close to the ticket counter. So, once you are at your final stop, you can check out how you get from the métro to your destination.
Paris métro and RER trains run from about 5:30 am to around 1 am. On Fridays, Saturdays and eves of public holidays you don't need to rush (as much!) to catch the last métro, the service ends at 2am. Even better, on certain days (eves of special public holidays such as New Year's eve, or during la Fête de la Musique, the annual Music Festival on June 21st), métros on lines 1, 2, 4, 6, 9 and 14 run the whole night, stopping only at major stations. Very handy to get you and your bande (buddies) from one party to the next without walking for hours (OK in June, but not in December!) or trying to find a taxi. After the métros, buses, RER, trams and trains end, the Noctilien, the night bus, takes over. The Noctilien runs two lines within Paris itself, and over forty between Paris and the suburbs, and within the suburbs. Hubs are at Saint-Lazare, Gare de l'Est, Châtelet, Gare de Lyon, and Montparnasse.
Buses and trams
Of course, Paris buses provide a more scenic journey than the métro (the métro can be a more scenic in a sociological way...). Although buses have their own lanes, traveling usually will take longer by bus, but hey, when you get to see the Seine, or the perspective of the Champs Elysées, it is worth the extra time! To enjoy your bus journey, make sure you know where you will be getting off. Stops have names, so it helps to know the exact one. If you are visiting a well-known monument, chances are the bus driver or a fellow passenger can tell you the name of the stop (it might be in rapid French though). If you prefer, you can find the names of the stops on the RATP route planner when you enter an address (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, which runs Paris buses and métros), and plot your move.
Useful : there is a Paris route map at every bus stop and in the bus itself, so you can see the name of the stop just before yours. Inside most buses there is an information signboard that updates the name of the next stop, and the estimated journey time until the last stop. Can come in handy when you don't think you can ask around. Just note : unlike the Paris métro which (most often) has both 'directions' at the same station, bus stops for opposite 'directions' are not always opposite each other on the same road... The map at one of the stops should help you figure out where the other stop is.
Buses and trams run with the same tickets as the Paris métro and RER. You can change buses once with the same ticket, but you can't take the métro AND the bus on the same trip using the same ticket...
For parents with kids, wheelchair users, folks who can't walk well: the first Paris métro lines date back to 1900, and most staircases are not doubled with escalators. There are escalators and lifts at certain stations that are very deep (Abbesses, Cité...), at most RER stations (this is good when you are coming from the airports with luggage!), and at stations on newer lines (line 14 is the only one which is entirely wheelchair friendly). Basically, if you are going to use the Paris métro with a pram or wheelchair, it's going to be tricky, and even more so during rush hour! Use this is a good excuse to take the bus or the tram! The entire Paris bus and tram network is wheelchair and pram friendly, with ramped access (for wheelchairs), allocated space and low stop buttons. Just remember to leave your baby in the pram and enter and exit from the middle of the bus, not where the driver is. Of course during rush hour, it is still a bit of a crush, but compared to the métro, it's a dream!
On to tickets and passes! Another headache for tourists!
We Parisians usually have our Pass Navigo, a magnetic card on which we charge weekly, monthly or annual transport passes for certain travel zones. Paris is zones 1 and 2. The Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport is in zone 5. For us, the Pass Navigo card itself is free (not the travel pass of course!) and this is what we zap with désinvolture at the gates. Visitors have a two options : buying tickets or getting a visitor Navigo pass (5 euros), which then allows you to buy a weekly or monthly travel transport pass.
Tickets : Single tickets are available 1 by 1, or carnet of 10 tickets. It's cheaper per ticket to buy a carnet. If you plan to travel a lot during one day, you can buy the Mobilis ticket. With Mobilis, you get unlimited travel during one day within the zones of your choice. There is a version for people under 26, called Ticket Jeune Week-end. It can be used for unlimited travel during a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday. There also is a tourist version of the Mobilis, called Forfait Paris Visite. It includes unlimited travel for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days (why not 4 still stumps me...) and discounts on a few tourist places (a few euros off certain museum entrances, 10-30% off certain monuments, tours and shopping at the Galleries Lafayette...). You have to calculate yourself to see what is cheaper for your Paris visiting programme.
Here are the RATP ticket prices for you to compare (April 2016):
1 Ticket – 1.80 euro
Carnet of 10 tickets – 14.10 euros
Paris Visite – 1 day – 11.15 euros
Paris Visite – 2 days – 18.15 euros
Paris Visite – 3 days – 24.80 euros
Paris Visite – 5 days – 35.70 euros
Mobilis – 1 day – Paris zones 1-2 – 7 euros
Ticket Jeune Week-end – 1 day – Paris zones 1-3 – 3.85 euros
Navigo Découverte pass – 5 euros
Add weekly travel pass – 21.25 euros
or monthly travel pass, – 70 euros
Note that the weekly travel pass is valid from Monday to Sunday. In the same way, the monthly pass is valid from the 1st to the last day of the month. So if you are in Paris from Wednesday to Wednesday, you will need two weekly passes...
Tickets and Visitor Pass Navigo can be bought at the counter. The machines only sell tickets (beware if paying cash, machines will take a limited number of coins, so I do not recommend trying to offload your smallest change!). You are expected (although nobody might tell you..) to write your name down on your Mobilis / Paris Visite / Ticket Jeune Week-end) and put a photo of yourself on the Pass Navigo.
Single tickets and carnet of 10 tickets can also be found at the Tabac (tobacco shops, look out for an orange carotte or diamond shape sign). Single tickets can also be bought on buses. They cost a bit more than at the métro station or tobacco shop. The driver carries small change.
The passes are valid from 5:30 am on the first day to 1:30 am (or 2:30 am if the métros are running later) on the day after the last day (no Cendrillon (Cinderrella) here! You can get home from your party after midnight!). If you are taking the night bus, the Noctilien, you can take it the whole night (yes you can ride around the entire Paris and the banlieue (suburb) until 5:30 am! Hurray!).
Commuting Parisian Style
Master the art of opening métro doors, and now you are ready to look like you have been taking Paris public transport your entire life! Don't rush onboard métro and RER trains like country bumpkins, do let people off first. Make sure you also look like you are pressé (in a hurry), but do still greet the bus driver and give your seat up to Mamie (Grandma).