How to Conquer Public Transport in a New City

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I was 20 years old before I took my first bus or train anywhere, and that was during the first week of my semester abroad in Perth, Western Australia!

Growing up in the suburbs 20 minutes outside the city of Baltimore, there wasn’t really any public transportation available to me.

When I realized I would have to learn to navigate a bus and train system in a foreign country, I was petrified! But I not only managed to do it in Perth, I somehow learned the systems in Melbourne and Sydney during my brief holidays there as well.

The experience may be intimidating at first, but you can and will conquer it eventually by using some of these strategies:

  • The best way to learn is to experiment

One of the most helpful things for me was a scavenger hunt that our study abroad advisors had set up as an orientation for us.

We were to follow the vague instructions of our guides and navigate TransPerth from landmark to landmark and get to our final destination: the beach. (It became a vital stop for many of us a couple times each week).

The “Race Around Perth” showed us the city center along with some of the touristy spots we would want to check out later.

You don’t need an advisor – your can set one up yourself!

Look up a list of some of the attractions or hot spots you may be traveling to most often – shopping areas, the bank, the main nightlife neighborhoods, etc. Take a day to just ride the bus and/or the train and find your way from one to the next.

And be sure to check them out at night too, especially for those nightclubs and restaurants! The first bus ride in the dark can be scary because the city looks so different lit by artificial lights, but you’ll get the hang of it after a couple of times.

  • Pay attention to the landmarks

During that “Race Around Perth,” I learned that when I saw the kangaroo statues just past the Perth Mint, I should hit the button for the next stop.

From there, I could access a main train station, cross the street to my favorite areas to shop in the city, and turn the corner for some delicious food.

Tweeddale Close

It may seem silly at first to think in your head, “Look for the giant kangaroos,” or “Press the button when you see the house on the corner with the yellow door,” but it could be a lifesaver.

These landmarks will allow you to zone out for some portions of the ride. You won’t have to count each stop or be able to read street signs. Choose something you’ll recognize easily and you’ll be golden.

  • Check the timetables online

Hopefully your city’s public transport system has a website where you can check timetables and routes. If so, bookmark it immediately.

Enter your starting station, your destination and what time you want to leave or arrive by and it should give you all the information you need to take a successful trip.

Be sure to note the last pickup times for each stop so you don’t get stranded.

Some cities’ transport systems may have different hours on weekends. Perth, for example, had very few buses after 5 p.m. on Sundays. Make sure you check those details and leave yourself enough time to catch your train or bus.

  • Keep a cheat sheet

Whether you make it yourself or pick up a pocket map of the routes and timetables, a cheat sheet is never a bad idea. For quick reference, you can whip it out to see which bus number you need to take or how many stops you have before you need to get off the train.

During my holiday in Melbourne, I wrote down the buses and stops my friend had shown me our first day so that when I ventured out on my own, I wouldn’t have a problem getting back to her place.

I was afraid at first, but I made it back from the city center to her university during rush hour with no problems whatsoever.

When trying out a new route, definitely write it down so you won’t forget whatever transfers you need to make that might deviate from your normal path.

  • Be friendly to the drivers

Of course, this applies far more to buses than to trains, but it really can pay off to be nice to the people who are paid to shuttle you around town.

Say hello to your bus driver with a genuine smile upon boarding and say thank you or give a little wave as you get off at your stop.

Concentration

Drivers are full of knowledge about the best route you need to take and which transfers you need to be sure to hit, and they’re more likely to help you if you are friendly.

If you sit near the front of the bus and tell the driver where you are going and that you’re not sure where to get off, they will frequently remind you of the appropriate stop.

But don’t let their helpfulness be an excuse to zone out. Pay attention to your surroundings and learn the route so next time you will be able to do it on your own.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you get lost, don’t be afraid to admit it! Everyone’s been there at some point and someone will be willing to help you.

Ask someone at the same stop as you, confirm with a fellow passenger whether you have missed your stop, or ask a shop owner if they know which side of the street you need to be on to catch the #36 bus.

I had more than my fair share of times when I got lost in Perth neighborhoods, but asking a bus driver, shop owner or passerby always got me back on the right track.

Quite often though, you’ll find that even when you think you’re lost, you were actually right all along. Those reassuring times will become more and more frequent as you get more familiar with the system.

The more time you spend on public transport in your new city, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. And if it’s just for a quick jaunt in a city on holiday, like my trips to Sydney or Melbourne… well, you may not be a pro by the time you leave, but you’ll still retain more of it than you think.

If you’re like me and you aren’t familiar with public transportation at all at your “home base,” I can almost promise you’ll miss it when you no longer have it available.

I miss my daily bus rides and train excursions every time I think about them, so enjoy it while you have it!

Do you have any tips or horror stories about conquering public transportation in a new city? Share, we’d love to hear!

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About Author

Lindsay spent the first 18 years of her life in Baltimore, then moved on to North Carolina for college. Spending a semester studying in Perth, Western Australia changed her life and gave her an incurable case of the travel bug. After a year and a half of cubicles and admin work, she decided it was time to go after her dreams. She is now working as a freelance writer and editor in Annapolis, Md. and taking whatever trips she can manage to fulfill that wanderlust and hopefully fuel her soon-to-be travel writing career.

28 Comments

  1. I love this! These are all great trips for traveling abroad or in a new city – I was 24 before I learned the public transportation system in the city I grew up in and now I wonder how I ever got along without it!

    • I wish I had better options for public transport where I am! Being smack dab between Baltimore and DC, but not really close enough to either one means I don’t get much of a chance to use it!

  2. Great article! I wonder though, any advice for using public transport in a city where you don’t speak/have a limited grasp of the local language? I’m fine in English speaking places, but for example if it’s in Turkish or Mandarin, a lil’ bit more tricky!

  3. You know, I really think that if you can master public transportation in one big city, you can master it anywhere. I learned the ropes in Buenos Aires and have no problem zippin around Bangkok!

  4. Excellent tips on public transport. In fact, every city has some sort of commuter card or day pass that saves you heaps of money if used correctly. Most of the time I would be walking around unless the place is really far.

    • Yes! That’s something else I was thinking about putting in here. Even just in Las Vegas, their monorail day pass was worth it on the days I wanted to get to the opposite end of the Strip. It was way better than buying individual tickets for each trip.

  5. Very good tips. I especially agree that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. I do it all the time and people have most always been helpful and kind. One thing I might add from personal experience is “don’t panic” if you find yourself heading in the wrong direction or on the wrong train or bus — just get off at the next (or next safest) stop and turn around.

    • I agree with the “don’t panic” tip, Cathy! It really just makes things worse when you do that because you get frazzled. Definitely something that is easily fixed!

  6. I really enjoyed this article a lot of good tips! I think I always get a little nervous when learning a public transportation in a new city. It’s almost always the cheapest way to get somewhere. Besides who wants to have to rent a car and drive in a city. I think my biggest worry is getting off by accident in the wrong part of town. Your right about asking questions if your not sure. Most people are friendly enough to help. Some people offer to help you in other ways like the 5 times I was asked to buy shrooms, crack and something else I didn’t recognize the name of on the bus system in san fran. LOL!

    • It’s definitely intimidating, but using the right resources makes it easier. And hey – sounds like those offers on that bus could’ve led to some great stories to tell! haha

  7. Great tips!
    I think another helpful tip is to always have enough money to get a taxi if things go horribly wrong, maybe hidden somewhere in your bag.
    I had to do this in Singapore, on a dark and incredibly wet morning. I just couldn’t recognise any landmarks and I missed my stop. When the bus turned a corner and went past the port I knew I was in big trouble.
    It cost me $7 to get from the strange bus stop to work. It would have been much much cheaper but I was stranded on the wrong side of a busy expressway and the taxi driver had to drive the wrong way for a while before finding a place to turn around.

    • Another valuable tip! I haven’t had that experience, but I know there are times I would have been out of luck had I gotten stranded because I wouldn’t have had cash! Good thinking.

  8. some good tips here. public transport can actually be fun!
    depends where you are, but being aware of the potential for pickpockets is a good idea. a friend standing next to me got done on a busy train in buenos aires. he didn’t have a clue until it came time to pay for a bus ticket. just be careful with your stuff!

    • I LOVE public transport and miss it so much now that it’s not in my life regularly anymore. There’s some great people watching that way haha

      Good call on looking out for pickpockets! You definitely need to be mindful of your surroundings, especially in a crowded bus or train.

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  11. good tips! think my top two you mention here that i couldn’t do without is being nice to drivers and not being afraid to ask for help. those two allow me to be spontaneous and hop on to anything, anytime and get where i want to go! but then those kind of rely on another thing i try to do- leave myself way more time than i need to to get where i want to go! 🙂

  12. I really love traveling to a new city for just this reason- seeing how the locals travel, getting lost or getting off at new stops, wandering back streets or taking a smelly bus only add to the unforgettable adventures.

  13. I always take public transportation when I go abroad, and even here in NYC. That idea of doing a scavenger hunt is the coolest one I’ve heard to get familiarized with the public system. Love it!

  14. I also grew up and live in a city that has horrible public transport, and I was quite scared the first time I traveled abroad and had to rely on it. Now I love it and take it as much as I can, particularly when traveling. It’s the best way to get to know a city and its people. Great tips for those wanting to use public transport more.

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