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Riding The Subway : Tips and Advice on Traveling on a Subway

Riding the Subway Tips by Michele R. Lock

Visiting a large city can be exhilarating, but getting around can seem like an overwhelming task. Driving in heavy city traffic can be tricky, while taking a cab everywhere can become expensive. So, do like the locals do, try taking the subway to get around, whether you have free time during a business trip or are on vacation.

What I've learned visiting several large cities, both in the US and Europe, is that a traveler needs three things to successfully use a subway - a portable subway map, a small street map, and a compact compass. These, along with some pre-planning, will allow you to travel without undo mishaps.

Pre-planning your trip by subway has recently gotten easier, with several transit websites offering route finders. Simply type in your starting point and destination, and the route finder will tell you what train to take, where to go for a transfer, and what your final stop is. These give you a feel for how complicated a subway trip will be. If it seems too difficult to figure out on a computer, it won't be any easier in reality, so you may want to consider alternatives if traveling by yourself.

For up-to-date ticket information, consult the websites for each subway system, since this can change fairly rapidly. The websites will tell you how much a trip will cost, as well as what purchasing options are available.

Here are some tips that I've gathered from my travels in three big cities.

New York City Subway
This is the granddaddy of all American subway systems, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2004. And it's one of the more complicated ones, since it began as four separate lines before merging with the NYC Transit Authority. Some trains have numbers, some have letters, and all travel in two directions. You must check a subway map to find the train that can get you where you want to go, and the name of the desired stop. The website does not offer a route finder, but does have a detailed map to print out.

For traveling though out Manhattan, however, the subway can't be beat; it's fast, it goes nearly everywhere and trains run often. To start, you must know if you are going Uptown (north) or Downtown (south). As you enter a station, head for the direction that you need, and the platform for the number/letter of the train you want. When a train arrives, check out the number/letter on the front or side of the cars, since multiple trains use the same station.

Once on the train, you will be able to see from the car windows when you have arrived at your final stop, since the names are well displayed at each station. You may hear the conductor call out the station name, but this is often difficult to understand.

Washington, D.C. Metro
The Metro is a wonderful transit system that makes it a breeze to get around Washington. Here there are color-coded lines named for their first and last stops, that criss-cross the metropolitan area. There is a route finder on their website that tells you exactly what train to take and if any transfers are needed. The farther you travel on the system, the more you pay; you must run your travel ticket through the turnstile before and after each trip, so the proper amount is deducted from the ticket.

To determine your travel route, you will need to know the final stop on a line, as well as the stop you will exit at. These will be displayed on the train platforms when you enter a station, so you will know where to go to wait for the train. Only one train runs per line, so you can get on any that stop at each station. There are several major transfer stations, where multiple lines do cross each other. At these points, you must be more careful about locating the proper line.

The Paris Metro
Over a hundred years old, the Paris Metro has fourteen color-coded lines that travel all over Paris. Some of the lines seem ancient, like those that run to Notre Dame, while others are brand-spanking new. Nevertheless, the Metro offers a great way to travel around the city.

This subway system is similar to the Washington one; you must know the final stop (called 'direction' in French) for the train you want to take, as well as the name of the stop where you'll get off. Fortunately, the Metro offers a route finder in English on its website. It tells you which train, which initial station, which direction, where you should get off, and if you need a transfer (called a 'correspondence') for any trip.

One important thing - always keep your ticket on you during each trip on the Metro. It will be stamped as you pass through the turnstile at your first station, proving that you paid for your trip. A Metro inspector may ask to see your ticket; without one, you'll have to pay a fine. Don't throw the ticket away until you have reached street level again.

You've Arrived!
What to do when you get to your final stop? Look for the stairs/escalators that say 'Street', 'Exit' or 'Sortie' (in French). Once you get back up on the street, it can be momentarily confusing. To re-orient your self, use a compass to find which way is north, so you can easily use your street map again. A compass is also helpful when traveling underground; if you know you should be heading north, and your train is going south, you are on the wrong train. sells a clip-on model for around $5.

Some more pointers for a safe and uneventful trip: Wear comfortable shoes. You'll be walking for some distance to get to stations. The locals, especially during rush hour, will be walking fast inside the stations; you'll have to keep up with them. Plus, you'll be taking stairs or escalators, some quite steep, so need to be able to move quickly.

If a train is crowded, you may have to stand during your trip. Likewise, if you have to exit the car through a crowd, don't be afraid to elbow your way out. Simply say 'excuse me' or 'pardon' in a clear voice and people will move aside.

Be more careful if you have a lot of packages from a shopping trip. Hold them firmly on your lap if sitting down, firmly between your legs if standing. If you have many packages, you may want to take a cab to your hotel, particularly if it is rush hour or after dark.

And always keep your purse in front of you, in clear view, so that no pickpockets have access to it. If you carry a backpack, don't keep any valuables in it; instead keep them in a fanny pack or your purse.

Using these pointers, maps and a compass, I've had very few problems getting around large cities by subway on my own, making my visits to these places even more enjoyable.