How to survive the Paris metro

Nikki Lavoie, 16/04/2012

If you’re new to the Paris metro system, like I was nearly a year ago, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Hailing from the northeast region of the United States, I was really only familiar with Boston’s four-line system called ‘the T’.

Paris’s 245 stations, 4.5 million daily passengers and nearly 20 lines of underground transit seemed like a Goliath compared to what I was used to. So, to help any would-be explorers navigate the City of Light, I’ve compiled a list of tips on how to survive the subways of the French capital.

Ride by number (not by color)
With 14 lines servicing the regular metro, and five RER lines heading to suburbs and airports, trying to navigate the metro map is a bit like trying to decipher the drawing of a child who used every crayon in the box.

Nikki Lavoie, 16/04/2012A map of the Paris Metro

Even though each line is assigned its own color, with the number of lines the Paris system utilizes, you can imagine that there are several lines with nearly identical colors. Try asking someone where to get on the pink or blue or green lines, and you’ll either be met with a confused look (since Parisians talk about metro lines in terms of numbers), or a response of “which one?”.

In addition, though most stations use signage that indicates both the color and number of a metro line, several do not. The station at Châtelet, for example, which is one of the biggest and most frequented (servicing five lines), uses some signs that only indicate a number. Trying to find the pink line in this situation could prove to be challenging.

Nikki Lavoie, 16/04/2012Just one example of metro signage ‘sans couleur’

If at first you cannot purchase, try, try again
Another important piece of metro knowledge to memorize is the fact that most stations have several entrances, and not all entrances contain ticket counters or machines. So if you don’t already have a ticket, know that you may need to leave and find another entrance in order to acquire one.

Keep your ticket
Depending on the line you’re exiting or switching to, you may be required to re-enter your ticket in order to leave or change lines. You have to use your already validated ticket, so a new one won’t help you. I once had difficulty making a connection because I assumed I didn’t need my ticket anymore and had crumpled it into a ball in my pocket. Fortunately I was able to iron it out enough for the machine to read it, but it was an uncomfortable moment!

Be prepared – for stairs!
Whether you’re backpacking, couch-surfing, passing through or being a tourist, there’s a good chance you’ll have some stuff with you as you traverse the city. And much to many traveler’s dismay, most stations don’t have escalators or elevators. But hey, at least you’re exercising, right?

Know your destination
Very few lines announce the names of the stops, in either French or English, so if you’re not watching out for where you need to step off the train, no one is. One of the great things about the Paris metro, though, is that every car is equipped with multiple line maps so you can be sure you’re going in the right direction, and that you get off at the correct exit.

That’s it! Now you can ride the metro like a regular Parisian city-slicker.

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Nikki Lavoie

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