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Tips for riding Europe's subways and buses

BY RICK STEVES Modified: October 2, 2012 at 11:14 am •  Published: October 2, 2012

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, and buses (plus the occasional taxi). By riding with the locals, you too can take advantage of Europe's convenient network of buses and rails.

Learning how to use the public transportation system while traveling is a great way to save time and money. Instead of sitting in a taxi in Paris' morning traffic, you can ride the Mètro to the Eiffel Tower, leaving all of that chaos overhead, and be among the first in line to climb to the top.

In Verona, Italy, I recently saved several euros by catching the bus to my hotel from the train station, rather than taking a cab. And it didn't even take much longer, since most cities coordinate their train and bus systems pretty efficiently.

In bigger European cities, the subway is often the quickest way to get around. Paris and London have the most extensive subway systems. In contrast, Rome, which has ancient ruins nearly everywhere you dig, has just two subway lines, and many areas are better served by bus.

But before you hop aboard, it helps to collect some information. Whenever you arrive in a new city, pick up a transit map. These are often available at the tourist office, subway ticket windows, your hotel, or on the Internet. To help you plot your travel, some transit systems (such as London's) offer online journey planners, and many sights list the nearest bus or subway stop on their websites and brochures.

It's also smart to find out what your ticket options are. Besides single tickets, many cities offer some sort of multi-ride or frequent rider ticket option. For instance, Paris' carnet includes 10 tickets that you can use anytime and share with companions — and tickets cost about half a euro less than they would if you bought them individually.

Some cities offer passes that allow unlimited travel on all public transport for a set number of hours or days. London's pay-as-you-go Oyster card, which works for the Tube, bus, and light rail, requires a refundable deposit for the card, but rides cost about half the price of individual tickets. When your balance gets low, simply "top up" at a ticket window or machine.

Buy tickets from automated ticket kiosks at stations, or get used to spending a lot of time in line. In some countries, such as Great Britain and France, American credit cards might not work at machines. But cash will, so bring along some coins and small bills, and you’ll be sailing through the system in no time.

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