Surviving the Paris Metro
Whether you live or commute in any major metropolitan city, over time you develop a thick and strong armour that protects you from the daily gladiator battle that is public transportation. Battling through crowds, sweating, blistering feet, the smell of bodily fluids and you constantly resisting thoughts that jail might be a rewarding place as long as you can throw the next guy with a speaker on the tracks who sings “all night long” again terribly and then asks you for money. Where’s my money? I sing pretty terribly, does that mean I can ask everyone for one euro too?
Paris is no exception to this daily scene. Although, I honestly propose, this might be the worst I have ever dealt with. I lived and traveled through many international metropolitan undergrounds but never physically needed shoulders pads and a helmet to protect myself from a daily middle-class commuter. Growing up right outside Manhattan, we were used to the fast paced, tough New York subway. You are used to a chip on the shoulder as city goers run about their day. I actually used to envy it as a kid and knew one day I would be one of them. But as cool as these busy people are I truly believe Parisian’s are a separate breed. I don’t even think they are born with peripheral vision. It is as they are horses with blinders on the side and can only look straight ahead. Or maybe it is because 1 out of 3 metro travelers are reading a book while walking through the station and never look up. Though, those people never seem to bump into anyone, I am always in awe of this. Is reading a book while rushing through a crowd a natural-born talent or an evening class you take at a community college? Just asking.
The first really tough Parisian metro encounter was on a morning commute when my shoulder was hammered by a passing by commuter. As if I was a linebacker in a football game, I was there to just block them at all costs. However, I had to step back when I realized I was not in a game and stared at the person in pure shock when they kept moving without a, “pardon” or “excuse-moi”. Nothing. “I am very important person who has very important things to do”,obviously.
This may be my naive Colorado attitude coming into play that I would expect someone to say sorry. Living in Colorado as my last USA state might have crippled me a bit because people are SO nice there. It was taking some time to get the armour back on from my last overly friendly daily life.
After this encounter I thought, “ok, no sorry is normal but a full blow to the shoulder?” Nope, it started happening almost on a daily basis. I found myself at first pretty upset that my romance with the city was quickly dissipating as it’s inhabitants were not as “romantic” as I hoped, at least on the metro.
I thought maybe it was just me and asked my friends if they were experiencing the same thing and they could have not agreed more. They never dealt with it so extreme before. My favorite was when my roommate and I were bringing my suitcases to our new apartment and a lady with stroller ran over foot, ramming the suitcase with stroller like a freight train and then scurrying off. My roommate, literally stopped threw her hands up and yelled, ” are you freaking kidding me!” Sorry, very important person with very important baby duties to take care of.
Now, not everyone on the metro is like this. There are still people who say, excuse-moi”, there are still men who offer to help carry your suitcase up the stairs and people who offer their seats to the elderly woman who just came on board. It is not all bad but to the newly arriving visitor, it comes as a shocking surprise.
Yet, after you get your first tackles out of the way the Parisian metro is a well planned out way to get you anywhere around the city. If you are not in a rush and want to avoid all full contact sports, the bus is another great way to get around. I sometimes suggest this if you are only here for a few days because it is a really inexpensive way to get a full tour of the city.
So, when commuting around Paris for the first time, or ready for your returning adventure, here are some Parisian metro survival tools. Along with tips on purchasing tickets and important timelines.
1. Left is a passing lane only. Like on the highway, the left side of the escalators is a passing lane. Daily commuters and those rushing to the RER B for the airport will be breezing past you. Stay to the right if you are taking your time or you will see some angry people behind you.
2. Tickets hurt trees. I found that unless you are just stopping by in Paris for a day or two or only taking the metro at night, don’t waste your time with single tickets. It is 1,70 euro per ticket for a single ride and you are staying a few days options available. A book of 10 tickets is available for 13,70 but again, one ticket for a single ride and you burn through them faster than you think. Why? Say, you get lost, get off and leave the station. Then realize you have to return to the metro this time in the opposite direction, trust me this happens a lot to first time tourists. Stick to the unlimited day ticket, 6, 80 for zones 1-2 and 15,65 for zones 1-5. Zones 1-2 is inclusive of central Paris but if you want to add Versailles and the airport it is zones 1-5.
Tickets are also just a pain in the butt! 90% of the stations have half the gates reserved for passes only and every gate takes the pass. Every other week it seems the ticket gate is broken or when you do insert your ticket it doesn’t work. We had to learn this hard way when my Mom came to visit and every other machine must have been on holiday break because it never wanted to take her ticket.
3. Buy with coins and cash. Every station has an information both to help you with your directions but not buy tickets from a human being. Only the major station such as Chatelet, Saint Lazare, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’est have ticket agents. The rest is left up to purchases from the machines as in most major cities. The catch is, not all take American credit cards because the machines require a smartchip on the card. I had to find this out the hard way after several frustrating denies from the machine that kept telling me “we only take Visa, Mastercard, etc, etc”. I am using a Visa card!! It was only when I got my new French debit card with the chip that it finally started working.The easist way to purchase from the machines is with 1 and 2 euro coins since, another restriction, not every machine takes bills either! It is some time before you get used the French lifestyle which is not as “convenient” as we are used to in the USA.
4. Multi-Uses. Whether you purchase tickets or passes, all are valid for the bus, metro and the tram. Most visitors will not come across the tram unless you are at the edge of Paris or going to a special park or restaurant.
5. Navi-Go. If you are going to stay for a week or more, get a Navi-Go pass. It is 5 euro for the card but it is very easy to recharge and makes commuting much simpler. As I said, there are more gates designated to passes and I never have a problem entering with a pass. The only tricky part about passes is the schedule. Whether you arrive on Wednesday or Monday, you pay the same price for a week pass valid Monday to Sunday, that’s it. It is 35 euro for zones 1-5, which includes your ride to the airport as well as Versailles. For the monthly pass, if you are staying that long, it is the 1st to the 1st. You pay the full price for zones 1-5, should you have to, no matter what day you arrive on. Although, if you need a monthly pass and working here, your company must front 1/2 the cost of the pass. It is French law that the company has to pay half of your pass, pretty awesome.
6. Visitors Pass. The Carte Paris Visite is another option for those only staying a few days. The great part about this card is it has discounts on local attractions as well. May be worth the money for about 16 euro per day valid for zones 1-5.
7. If you get a ticket, don’t loss it! It is completely random which stations require you to have your ticket to exit the station. Station’s such as Port Royal, have you reenter your ticket or swipe your pass again to exit the gate. This is due obviously to catch more “ticket jumpers” who are looking for a free ride.
8. Free is expensive. You will see many teenagers, adults and even elderly people sneaking in through the gates behind someone or just jumping right over. Though it may seem tempting, especially after a few beers but it is an expensive risk. It’s a common occurrence here but the city is really cracking down on the “jumpers”. I have been behind several people who were caught but an undercover officer who quickly approached them to write a ticket. This fine is 45 euro a pop, which doesn’t seem quite worth it when you probably could have just walked there.
9. Use your legs. If you are visiting Paris for the first time, especially in spring or summer you can walk to many of the tourist attractions. Yes, the city is big but there are many attractions along the way. Not only can you save money but get some exercise and sun. Getting lost in Paris can be exciting as you discover many magnificent new things along the journey. New statues, cool restaurant or shops are all ready to be discovered.
10. Timing is everything. The metro during the day has trains available almost every 2 to 3 minutes. If you miss one, there will be another one very close behind it. However, if you go out for the evening, be careful when you finish your last drink. Though the trains opens at 5:30am, they close at 1:00am Monday-Thursday and 2:00am on Friday and Saturday. This means the last train is at 12:55 or 1:55am, depending on the line sometimes earlier. And if you miss it, finding a cab to get home in is like finding a mouse in a stampede of elephants, nearly impossible.
When searching for cabs head to the side streets because you have a better chance of beating the other bar goers.Whatever you do though, try not to call a cab. We had to find out the hard way that they start the meter when you make the phone call!! This is done because the cab now can not be used by anyone else, sorry never encountered that before. So, if you stay out late drinking either:
a.Wait on the street forever for a cab
b. Finish beers early and catch the metro
c. drink close to your hotel since there is a bar or restaurant every 5 feet in Paris
d. just stay up until 5:30am until the first morning metro comes(which we choose to do a lot) and keep partying. Like Vegas, there is always somewhere serving drinks, 24 hours a day.
11. Wear shoulder pads. I don’t expect you to come in full hockey gear to ride the metro but don’t get upset when someone slams your shoulder running for a weekday train. People still have to get to work so don’t get in their way.
12. Heading to the airport. There are several options for CDG ( Charles de Gaulle) and ORY (Paris-Orly). There is the RoissyBus which leaves from Opera to Charles de Gaulle every 15 minute to 20 minutes for only 10 euro. The ride is about 45 mins to an hour but you run the risk of traffic. The RER B goes to the airports and is an extra 9 euro if you don’t have an all day ticket. The down side about using the metro is you have to lug your suitcase down the stairs depending on which station it is. The main gares such as Saint Lazare, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’est all have elevators and escalators but if you are connecting from somewhere else, many do not have escalators. One thing I have realized is, this is not the most handicap accessable city in the world.
13. Avoid Chatelet-Les Halles. Chatelet is considered the largest underground station in the world and I see why. It is a major hub which connects 4 out of the 16 metro lines to the RER A, B, C, D, which travel outside Paris limits. Though the station’s size is overwhelming, it is more the time it takes to get from one line to the other which is the issue. You will more than likely have to change here to get to the airport, Disneyland or Versailles but be aware when using single tickets you have to use another ticket to transfer to the RER’s at this station.
14. Lastly, WATCH YOUR STUFF! Petty theft like other major cities is all but too common in Paris. It is otherwise a pretty safe city and unlike what I experienced in Central America last year, no one will hurt you for your belongings but they will get it before you can blink. I personally had several friends who had their Iphone stolen right out of their pocket. I find most Parisian’s keep their phones in their hands the entire time. Petty thieves will not take it right from your hand but wait till you are not looking.
So, keep your purse zipped, flat shoes on,shoulder pads packed ,maps and passes handy as you are now prepared to survive the Paris metro like a real Parisian!
For information on the Parisian metro system please visit their website at:http://www.ratp.fr/en/ratp/c_21879/visiting-paris/