City Guide to Paris, Part 1: Public Transportation

City Guide to Paris, Part 1: Public Transportation

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There’s no reason to have a car in Paris. Just like most of the other cities we’ve visited, the public transportation is more than adequate, if not superior to driving. The last thing we want to do when we’re exploring a city is deal with the frustrations of driving and finding parking. Even if you’re used to driving in the US everywhere you go (we were!) and are extremely hesitant to take public transportation, trust us on this. At least give it a shot. Buses, metros, and trains are well maintained, clean and modern. If you’re used to public transportation in other major cities, then you’ll pick-up on Paris in no time.

Since Paris isn’t that big, you can walk to and from most of the common tourist attractions. However, while in Paris we supplemented our walking with use of the metro and buses. We found it to be a good combination. Walking allowed us to get a bit of healthy exercise, discover the city in a way you can’t by vehicle, and in some cases get to the next destination faster than waiting for a bus or train. On the other hand, taking public transportation usually gets you from place to place faster and it keeps you from having to walk, especially when you're utterly exhausted. 

Before arriving in Paris, we did research on the public transportation system. We like to be prepared and have a good sense of the system before arriving. Plus, it helps to know what’s available, so that we can get the best overall deal on public transportation tickets while we’re there. To make things a bit easier for you, here’s what we learned…

Public transportation is run primarily by RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens). RATP oversees the bus, metro, suburban tram lines and RER (Réseau Express Régional) lines A and B. Their visitors page is quite helpful. SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), the national rail, company runs RER lines C, D, and E, and serves the suburbs of Paris and beyond.

Types of Public Transportation

Walking

Walking is the cheapest and healthiest form of transportation, and it’s a practical and feasible way to get around Paris. Whether we were in the suburbs or in city center, we never had any issues with walking. We found Paris to be pedestrian friendly, with sidewalks in good condition everywhere we walked. There are crosswalks and signals, and drivers were generally aware and respectful of pedestrians.

Metro

The metro (underground or subway) will probably be the main mode of transport you take in the city. Trains run from 5:30 am to 12:40 am Monday through Thursday, and until 1:30 am on Friday and Saturday. Trains are color coded, numbered, and labeled with the last stop on the route. Metro stations are well labeled with route maps.

All images taken in metro stations. The last image on the right is inside a metro car.

Bus

Buses run throughout the day, from 6:30 am to 8:30 pm (some routes run until 12:30 am), Monday through Saturday. Service on Sunday and Holidays is limited. Night buses are indicated with an N in front of the route number and run hourly Monday through Thursday and on the half-hour on Friday. Buses don’t stop at all stops, so if you're waiting for a bus, be sure to signal to the driver as the bus approaches. If you’re on the bus, press the red ‘Stop’ button to indicate that you’d like to disembark at the next stop.

 

Clockwise (from the top): a Paris bus, on-board a bus, a bus stop for lines 22 and 30 - notice the digital sign displays the time until the next bus arrives, on the side of the bus stop we found a USB charging port.

 

Tram

There are seven tram lines and 187 tram stations throughout Paris. Trams connect the suburbs to metro and RER lines.

RER

There are five RER (Regional Express Train) lines, A, B, C, D and E. Trains run daily, the first one starts at 5:30 am and the last one ends at 1 am. Trains are color coded and labeled with the letter and the last stop on the route. When taking the RER, pay special attention to the overhead digital signs on the platform. Since there are multiple end-points and not all trains stop at every stop, you’ll want to make sure you get on the right train. The next train will be listed on the digital sign and each stop it makes will be lit with a small yellow square to the left of the name. In case this is unclear, reference the image below. 

If you stay within zones one and two on the RER, the fare is the same as a bus and metro ticket. However, once you go beyond zone two, fares become distance based. This also means that you need to validate your ticket when entering (starting your journey) and leaving (ending your journey) the platform, as the system uses this mechanism as a way to verify that you paid for the entirety of your trip.

Left to right: The RER logo - look for it when looking for stations, most of the RER trains we were on had an upper and a lower deck, the sign indicating which stops the next train will be making (the ones that have the square lit next to the stop are the ones the train will stop at), an RER train and station.

Zones

For public transportation purposes, Paris is divided into six zones. You’ll find that zones one and two cover city center and most of the popular tourist attractions. Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) is located in zone 5, and Orly and Versailles are in zone 4. We recommend that you download the PDF Zone map, which includes all metro, tram, bus, and RER lines and the corresponding zones.

Tickets

A nice thing about Paris is that one company, RATP, runs most of the public transportation. So, an RATP ticket will work on the bus, the metro, and RER. You can purchase tickets at metro stations and some tobacco shops in town. Single tickets can also be purchased on the bus from the driver.

Make sure to hang on to your ticket, as you’ll need it to enter all forms of public transportation, but also when exiting the RER.

  • Single ticket– It’s valid for a single journey, including all connections, for 90-minutes. It can’t be used for roundtrip journeys, but a single ticket is valid on all forms of transportation in the zones it was purchased for. However, on the metro, a single ticket for zones one and two, will work on the entire metro line, even the stops that are in zone three. A single ticket for zones one and two is €1.90.
  • Carnet – It's a pack of ten single tickets. If you’re traveling 9 or more single journeys, the Carnet is a better deal at only €16.
  • Paris Visite – Purchase a 1, 2, 3 or 5 day pass which is valid for unlimited travel throughout Paris. You can purchase them for zones 1-3 or 1-5. Validity starts at midnight on the first day and ends on midnight of the last day.

Additional ticket options are available, including monthly and annual passes. Check the Travel Passes and Fares page of the RATP site for more information. If necessary use the translate feature in Chrome to translate the page to English.

 

Left: The two tickets on top are single tickets and the tickets on the bottom are Paris Visite 3-day tickets for zones 1-3. Middle: This is the machine we purchased our tickets from. Notice that below the screen is a metal bar that you can roll back and forth. Use the bar to scroll through options on the screen. Right: Another ticket machine used to reload cards.

 

Public Transportation Tips

  • Metro exit signs are in blue. ‘Exit’ in French is ‘Sortie’.
  • Metro signs, entrances, and platforms don’t all look the same. Paris uses a variety of styles and designs. Some were very retro looking, others whimsical. We saw ones that looked like they came out of a scary movie and others that were very artistic. We enjoyed seeing so many different styles and designs as we walked around the city.

Top Left: Find the exit from the metro station by looking for the signs that say 'Sortie' (French for 'Exit'). The rest of the images are signs and entrances for metro stations across Paris.

 

  • During rush hour the trains get very full and there’s only standing room. Fold down seats shouldn’t be used during this time to allow for more standing space on the train.
  • As in every city, be careful with your belongings. Always keep them close and be aware of your surroundings. Often times the most vulnerable time is right before the doors on a train or bus are closing, as a thief will grab your belongings and run through the closing doors, leaving you unable to pursue.
  • Fares are free for children under four years of age. Fares are half-price for children between four and eleven years of age.
  • Download the RATP PDF Transport Guide
  • The RATP website has route maps for the metro, bus, RER, trams, and the Noctilien (night buses) in one convenient location.
  • Use the Journey Planner on the RATP website or use Google Transit directions to find the best route.
  • If you want to travel by water to some of the major attractions along the Seine, use BatoBus. Stops include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Purchase passes for 1 day for €17 or 2 days for €19. Set aside about an hour and forty minutes for the full route.
  • Some bus stops have USB ports for charging.
  • We didn’t travel through all metro stations, but of all the stations we were in, we had 3G or LTE data.
  • Free Wi-Fi is available in most metro stations. In fact, Paris has over 250 free Wi-Fi spots throughout the city.
 

Clockwise (from the top): Large stations have digital touch screens to help travelers navigate the station and routes, maps at the Varenne station, the turnstiles at an RER station (insert your ticket into the slot and it will be returned to you as the gates are opened), a digital touch screen in a station, route maps in a station that help determine which platform and train you need to take.

 
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